The Spirit of Our Actions is What Counts
When we speak of responding to God in prayer, therefore, we do not mean an intellectual exercise of trying to discern our marching orders for the day (though he could direct us to specific actions, as we shall see). Our Father’s first order of business is not to assign tasks, but to transform hearts. He seeks a profound response, something we cannot manufacture by human ability. God is a Spirit and his kingdom a spiritual one. His interest lies in the attitude or spirit with which we carry out even the smallest task. Not what we do, but how we do it matters most. Jesus highlights this truth when he draws the disciples’ attention to a widow putting two small copper coins in the offering box (Luke 21:1-4). Her offering, though appearing paltry, dwarfed all the others because she gave with great love and self-sacrifice. The amount of money given was irrelevant. The only measurement that mattered was the size of her heart. On another occasion, Jesus conveys this principle to his disciples by telling them that something as inconsequential as the giving of a cup of cold water, when done with the right attitude, has eternal benefits (Mark 9:41).
God concerns himself with our spirit, something we cannot change on our own. He must work his grace into our lives through prayer. By looking to Jesus, not only do we understand that our response to God should be one of love, we are also empowered to carry it out. Just spending time listening to him automatically makes us more loving people in the same way one coal irradiates another. Frank Bartleman describes a prayer meeting during the great Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit in the early 1900s when Jesus manifested himself for several hours to Bartleman and a friend. He said, “my whole being seemed to flow down before him, like wax before the fire,” and, Jesus “ravished our spirits with his presence.” The story fascinates me primarily because of the effect Bartleman says the encounter had upon him. “For days that marvellous presence seemed to walk by my side. The Lord Jesus was so real. I could scarcely take up with human conversation again. It seemed so crude and empty. Human spirits seemed so harsh, earthly fellowship a torment. How far we are naturally from the gentle spirit of Christ!” When we spend time with Jesus we conduct ourselves with a kinder, gentler disposition. He sweetens our spirit and softens the hard edges of our personality.
Without a revelation of Christ’s love, we cannot respond adequately. God demands our all and we will not give it unless we know his love by experience. We cannot give ourselves to someone we do not fully trust and we can only trust if we believe the person has our best interest at heart. The revelation of divine love loosens our grip on self-will and allows us to surrender to God’s will.
Henri Nouwen writes, “For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful in the future, a movement from the moral to the mystical is required.” This is true of everyone, not just leaders. By moral he means the human attempt to do the right thing on one’s own. While such an effort may evoke our admiration, eventually it saps the joy of the one who trudges on in this solitary way.
On the other hand, by mystical Nouwen means the experience of intimacy with God such that we make our choices together in conversation with Him. Rather than the drudgery of mere moralism, we derive an energy from being connected to something larger and wiser than ourselves. When we touch the mystical, however, we find that, low and behold, it is moral. Goodness is divine. When the light penetrates, we may revel in love.
And the moral-mystical is all around us. For example, I often saw it when my five month old granddaughter, Molly, smiled at me. The pure goodness and innocence of her smile captivated me. There was something ancient about it. As I gazed at her, suddenly she would beam at me–as though she recognized me from long ago. As though we had some long lost primordial connection. An eternal flame gently burned in her smile or rather, her smile released its warmth from some inner depth–and it kindled the light of a smile in me.
Excerpt from WHISPERS THAT DELIGHT–Copyright © 2008 Andrew T. Hawkins
For God to communicate with us, we must sense him in some way and he normally chooses such commonplace means as thinking or feeling. Christians have long recognized that, just as the Evil One can put “fiery darts” in our minds (Eph. 6:16 NKJ), so God can put his thoughts in our minds. Jesus told his disciples, for example, that when the Holy Spirit came to them he would remind them of everything Jesus had said (John 14:26). In addition to thoughts, God can also speak to us through feelings or desires. . . .
Our default understanding–that everything which passes through our mind and emotions comes from us–kills the devotional life. Expectation of hearing him dies because we effectively negate the main way God speaks to us. If we believe Ignatius, we realize that the field where the treasure lies buried is the inner world, and the treasure itself is the thoughts, feelings, images, and desires that come from God. We will now pay close attention to these movements rather than see them as purely part of the unending stream of our own consciousness. We will finally be delivered from the world of psycho-babble that reduces the spiritual realm to nothing more than our own mind. We will be set free from the lie that neatly disposes of anything mysterious or supernatural as a product of our own subconscious, a catchall where apparently anything beyond our understanding can be dumped. When convinced that God speaks in us, we will sift through the flow of inward motions as a miner pans for gold. Feelings of increased love for God, sorrow for self-centeredness, thoughts of helping a neighbour in need, or desires to encourage others will be identified, at the least, as echoes of God’s voice.
Excerpt from WHISPERS THAT DELIGHT–Copyright © 2008 Andrew T. Hawkins
When we expect to hear God speaking to us about his love, the joy he bestows, the life of grace, the invitation to come to him boldly, we have tuned into the divine frequency. In other words, the goodness of God is an interpretive key for discerning his voice. Now, as we wait in the stillness and solitude, we may look for signs of encouragement welling up from inside. For many years our family lived beside the Niagara Escarpment, a long cliff several hundred feet high that stretches from Niagara Falls many miles north into Ontario before heading south into Wisconsin. Every year thousands of birds of prey are funnelled between Lakes Erie and Ontario up and over the Escarpment on their annual spring migration. Hundreds of people come to watch at strategic points where the birds use thermals to ascend easily over the Escarpment and onward on their journey north. In the listening portion of prayer, we wait like the big birds for the warm breathings of God’s Spirit to lift us up. For where we feel the swell of hope, there we will be justified in looking for God. But “those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31).
I am sometimes asked why I wrote Whispers that Delight. The subject of receiving communication from beyond this world has long fascinated me as it has many others. The television documentary, Chariots of the Gods, captivated my imagination in the early 1970’s. I ran out to buy the now famous book with the same title which claimed to document evidence for extra terrestrial beings. My hopes went sky high, but the fad only lasted a few years for me. The extra terrestrials were silent as the grave. My search to hear took me elsewhere.
After burning through various spiritualities, I eventually came to the Christianity I’d rejected as a teenager. What a surprise to discover that at the very heart of this faith is the claim that Christians, by definition, have heard and do hear communication from an invisible world. What an astounding assertion!
Yet in twenty-three years of being a pastor I have found many people frustrated or guilt-ridden about their inability to communicate with God (pray). We all know that prayer anchors our spirituality and yet having regular dynamic communion with God challenges us to the core. Prayer consists of a two-way conversation and what we have to say is not the most exciting part. Unless we contact God and sense him speaking to us, prayer bores us. What could be duller than closing your eyes and speaking out into the air? Our devotional life ends up on life-support.
And so I wrote the book to give people a well-worn track to run on, that is, one that has worked for centuries, but is just now being rediscovered by the Protestant church. I speak of encountering God through meditating on the Bible. Put simply, it works. Every time I have used this pattern with a small group or class, and very often as I use it in my individual prayer life, good things happen. People are heartened. God speaks.
I don’t know about you, but I hate sacrifice. I like comfort and convenience. Furthermore, I like getting my way. Therefore, I can only walk down the Christian path so far before I hit a wall. By the way, how far do I have to walk down this path anyway? How many sacrifices do I have to make? How much good do I have to do? Is my whole life supposed to be a denial of everything I want?
I’ve come to the conclusion that our attitude while doing good trumps all other considerations. Those who serve God must do so in spirit and truth. The spirit in which we help another or deny ourselves is everything. Done without the right attitude, self-sacrifice amounts to “wood, hay and stubble.” It has no value. You may as well as play a game or watch TV instead.
I take Paul’s counsel to the Corinthian church as instructive (2 Cor. 9). He says they should only give what they themselves have decided to give without any external pressure. Furthermore, the giving should be free from resentment because God values cheerfulness in giving i.e. the right spirit. Paul is, of course, talking about money here, but clearly this principle spreads out to other areas such as the giving of our time or attention to another.
The question then arises, “What if I can’t give with a good attitude, am I off the hook?” You sigh with wishful thinking. A voice may speak inside your head at this point telling you to just do the right thing. It’s a compelling voice because who can argue against doing what’s right? The problem is that we won’t obey it if we don’t want to, at least not for long. To carry on by mere exertions of the will, says Dallas Willard, is a condition to be dreaded and not something we can sustain over time.
We need grace and so we must quiet ourselves in an attitude of listening prayer. First of all, we do well to listen to the sound of this voice that bids us to “just do the right thing.” What is its tone? Is it harsh? Is it condemnatory? Or is it encouraging? Is it on our side? Is it the voice of a compassionate parent? Many voices vie for attention inside our heads. We need to exercise great care in deciding which ones to heed.
God gives us complete freedom to reject the harsh, intimidating voices. You don’t have to do anything under compulsion . . . anything! When it’s obeyed, that kind of voice only leads to bleak emptiness. Instead, the path we must take is that of seeking the Father’s voice, of opening our inner lives to the energizing power to do good that his Spirit gives. We must simply desire to be his child and to please him with our behaviour. In stillness before him, he will say he is for us and he will grant us the grace to do good. As we persevere in looking to him in love, we will feel the conviction rising from within, “Maybe I can do it after all.”