In this series we have been examining one of the most fundamental things that makes us human, the ability to step back into our own inner world and make decisions free from external pressures. This amazing power remains intact despite the most extreme circumstances as we see in the life of the Anabaptist, Mattheus Mair, who was martyred in Baden, Germany on July 27, 1592. After six days of imprisonment, during which the priests tried in vain to convert him, he was drowned. Three or four times the executioner pulled him out of the water to ask him whether he would recant, but he refused as long as he could speak.
Mattheus Mair’ ability to make his own choices in the face of unimaginable fear and suffering illustrates how no one can take this freedom from us. On the other hand we sometimes find ourselves feeling like we’re not free to make even very small decisions (Rom. 7:15-25). We decide not to gossip or eat another chocolate bar and then go right ahead and do it anyway. How can this be?
No one can take our God-given freedom from us, but we can give it away as we saw last time in the life of Samson. There must be some secret whereby we go from being a spiritual weakling to a Mattheus Mair superhero of faith. Scripture pictures the strong human self as an ancient city protected from enemies by impregnable walls. It says that if we relinquish control over ourselves, we become weak and vulnerable like a city without walls. It is God who gives spiritual strength, but clearly, we have a role to play. We must build the walls and we too decide to whom we open the gates.
God designs this inner city to have the kind of power we see in the life of Mattheus Mair if, and only if, there are two residents in it–ourselves and God. We see this throughout the New Testament, for example, in the concept of the indwelling Spirit, the One who lives inside us. And here too, we retain control. Jesus graciously waits for us to open the door and invite him in. William Holman Hunt made a famous painting to illustrate Jesus’ statement that he was standing at the door of our hearts knocking. Hunt was asked if he hadn’t made a mistake because there is no handle on the outside of the door. Hunt said, no, that was deliberate. Jesus waits for us to open to him from the inside.
And just as Jesus doesn’t break down the door to get in, neither does he dominate us once inside. He doesn’t drive. His voice is not harsh and insistent like that of the enemy. When we make room for God in this sacred space, there is room. There is time–to think, to reflect, to decide what we really want.
Furthermore, contrary to the view of some, God is NOT always there to tell us what to do. Some Christians instinctively resist opening up their inner real estate to God because they seem to have a master-puppet conception of our relationship with God. If we were ever to be truly in tune with God, they imagine, we would just be obeying one command after another. His unceasing demands would crowd out our inner space completely. There would be no room to reflect and make decisions. Life would be one long oppressive succession of duties. In other words, we somehow believe that if we make room for God, there will be no room at all!
Some Christian teaching has perpetuated this unappealing view of the human being with what has been dubbed worm theology– “I’m so bad God must just want me for a boot-licking lackey. I’m so useless all I can do is take orders.” You remember that was exactly what the Prodigal Son thought after he’d taken his father’s money and blown it living a wild life with prostitutes and other disreputable people. All he could conceive was that the father might want him back as a slave. However, his father would hear none of it and immediately restored him to sonship. The love of his father heart overwhelmed any feelings of disappointment. He “had to celebrate and rejoice” because his lost son was found.
It is this image of God as father that really allows things to become clear. No matter how good he may be, no one is drawn to an overbearing father who smothers them at every turn with his demands. God has created in us the powerful desire to make up our own minds, to be able to create, not just take orders. When God created the animals, he didn’t tell Adam what to name them. Rather God brought them to Adam to see what he would name them. When we invite Jesus in, rather than simply tell us what to do all the time, he comes alongside us and makes suggestions, “Wouldn’t the relationship with your wife go a lot better if you held your tongue in situations like this?” When we ask him what he thinks we should do, he might throw it back on us, “What do you think you should do?” He appeals to our higher self. He trusts us more than we trust ourselves.
In the previous post, I spoke of the Bible’s audacious claim that human beings are created in the image of God. Whatever progress I make in understanding that statement comes to a screeching halt the moment I take a good look at myself. When I consider God’s others-centered love, the contrast with my deep-rooted self-centeredness hits me like a brick wall. At the suggestion I be like Jesus, I become a small boy on a hike whose path leads straight to the foot of a 300 foot vertical cliff that somehow I must scale.
The first step in beginning the climb is understanding that this sense of utter helplessness comes about precisely because I am created in God’s image! I’m speaking of our ability to step back and think about our circumstances, in this instance to reflect on how far I am from God’s nature. Animals, whose instincts drive them on, can’t do this. We humans, on the other hand, have an amazing power to stop, consider our situation and decide on our course of action. Many men on the Titanic, for example, chose to reject the powerful instinct of self-preservation and allowed women and children to get into the lifeboats while they faced certain death.
The principle of being able to step back from reality and choose our destiny under-girds the entire Bible. Old Testament leaders such as Elijah and Joshua exhort the Israelites to “choose this day” whether they will serve God or not (1Kings 18:21;Jos. 24:15). The prophet, Joel, saw, “multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14). Billy Graham understood this truth with crystal clarity. Decision became the watchword of his ministry. He had a radio program called Hour of Decision, his magazine was simply called Decision Magazine and, of course, virtually every message he preached climaxed with a call for men and women to decide for Christ.
This incredible power of reflection, however, only reaches its full potential when we combine it with the reality of God’s presence. That is, we can step back from the current situation and reflect, but we can do it in two ways. We can think by ourselves or we can invite God to join us in our deliberations. We can go into abstraction or we can come into relationship. The difference is monumental. Alone, in the hollow halls of my own head, I eventually suffer an anguished emptiness. Reflecting with an upward glance to Jesus, I have better, higher quality ideas which lead to a sense of contented fullness.
The Bible specifically teaches us this principle when, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God says, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. (Jer 6:16). The crossroads, of course, is the place where we step back and choose which way we will go. The verse gives us two profound insights. Firstly, when we are faced with a decision, rather than merely think about it by ourselves, stop and pray. Ask God what we should do. Think about what he might want us do.
Secondly, ask for the good way. This is the secret for so many who feel they never hear from God. “The Lord’s goodness and mercy endure forever.” To hear God speak, we must understand his language and, simply put, it is love. “God is love.” So ask God, ask yourself, “Where do I see God’s goodness most clearly? What’s the most loving thing I can do in this terrible work situation? How can I show graciousness to this troublesome individual? What career will give me the best opportunity to do good?” It’s surprising then how often we’re inspired by better thoughts than our own.
So every time you’re discouraged by the wall of your own self-centeredness, realize that you’re at a divine place–the crossroads. You have the power to choose! Because you’re like God, you have an opportunity to mold your own destiny. It doesn’t matter how often you seemed to have come up short, “it’s never too late to make a right decision!” You can step back; you can give an upward glance; you can look for the good way and see what God will do!