Spiritual Formation

The Coronavirus and the Christian’s Vulnerability

Along with incalculable health and economic suffering, the coronavirus has also brought a reality check. We are not as secure as we imagined. Being well-fed and gadgeted to the max has lulled us into a dream-like state that hides an unpleasant truth–we will eventually lose everything. Beauty will fade, strength will diminish, our senses will grow dim, friends and family members will depart and finally life itself will slip away. Covid-19 slapped us in the face with our own mortality. This should especially sober the individual who has not thought much about what comes next. In this post, however, I want to talk to those of us who look forward to an eternity with Jesus. Have we considered that even after we become Christians the sense of vulnerability the coronavirus has reawakened is vital? Are we aware that without knowing our own weakness, we will not do well in God’s kingdom?

I don’t know about you, but everything in me recoils at the thought of being weak, poor in spirit or helpless. Furthermore, I feel that my Christian life is not going too badly. Oh I know I could do better, but, hey, “I’m only human.” All in all I’m doing the best I can and should be OK. But this laissez-faire attitude contrasts vividly with that of the apostle Paul as we see from his anguished cry in Rom. 7:14-25. “I do what I shouldn’t do and I don’t do what I should do. I’m helpless in the face of what’s going on inside. My body holds me a prisoner to its desires. Who will deliver me from the fate of this death?” Paul’s status quo disturbed him big time.ConversionStPaul

How can it be that I think I’m doing better than the man who established Christianity all over the ancient world and wrote about half the NT? The answer to that question is actually quite simple. I don’t fix my eyes on Jesus.  I do think of him quite often actually, but not enough to keep the essence of his kingdom–grace, nonviolence, peace, love–firmly set in my mind. From others I know, I take it I’m not alone.

We live with our own version of Christianity and if we set our standards low enough, the Christian life is a breeze. It’s like the story of the man driving in the country who noticed a barn with arrows stuck all over its side with each arrow dead center in the middle of its target. So impressed with what he saw, the man pulled into the driveway to meet such a talented archer. The farmer told him it was really nothing. The secret was to paint the target around the arrow after he’d shot it. In a similar fashion, we construe the goal of the Christian life as being roughly where we already are. O we know in the next life things will be different, but we’re getting through OK until that glorious time. However, that’s not aiming for the target. It’s not earnestly pursuing the kingdom where the Father’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Nowhere is the high nature of the Christian’s calling better displayed than in Jesus’  Sermon on the Mount. Take just a couple of examples: “Rather than hate your enemy like others have said, I say to you, love your enemies” (Mat. 5:43-48). So who is your enemy? a boss who belittles you? a spouse who betrayed you?  a supposed friend who gossips about you? Maybe the terrorists who blow innocent people up in an attempt to destroy our society? The latter would definitely qualify as enemies, but surely God doesn’t expect us to love suicide bombers? That seems to be exactly what Jesus meant. When he spoke about loving one’s enemies, every one of his hearers knew precisely who he was talking about, the Romans. They occupied their Jewish homeland. An enemy every bit as terrorizing as today’s suicide bombers, the Romans often sought to inflict as much pain as possible while executing a condemned individual. They sawed their victims in half, burned them alive and crucified them in a particularly slow, agonizing death. Love your enemies? I feel violated if I don’t immediately get my money back for an internet subscription I’ve cancelled! The kind of love Jesus requires is simply not humanly possible.

He doesn’t stop with talk of enemies, however. What he says about those much closer to us startles us just as much. Being angry with a brother or sister is akin to . . . murder (Mat. 5:21-22)! When we let Jesus’ words sink in, they become a sharp sword that pierces to our core (Heb. 4:12). They illuminate every trace of human anger, the source of so much evil including murder. The motions of my heart stand out in stark contrast to Jesus’ nonviolent kingdom. I get angry when “politically correct” people don’t believe what I believe. I get irritated when I’m interrupted. Anger manifests itself in countless human interactions–sarcastic humour at someone’s expense, gossip, competitiveness to the point of anger if we don’t win, envying such that we wish for another’s loss, excluding someone from our circle, blaming scapegoats for our own problems, trampling others because we’re not getting our way etc. 

We put up with hatred and anger because we’re used to them, but not so Paul. Rather than allowing such emotions to blend into the background of a spiritually sleepy life, he was wide awake and alert to their danger. So strong is their influence, Paul called it a law, that of  of sin in his members (Rom. 7:23).  “When I want to do good,” he laments, “evil is present with me” (Rom. 7:21). So why was Paul so aware of his shortcomings? Did he just have an oversensitive conscience, a melancholic personality? Was Paul a particularly bad person? Maybe he just needed to lighten up a bit? 

No, the reason he had such a crystal clear vision of his own shortcomings is that he also had a crystal clear vision of the love of Jesus. In fact, it had been poured into his heart through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Here’s the great paradox, the closer we get to the Light, the more our darkness shows up and the more potential there is to be bothered by it. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in anguish because his defects and weakness stand out so starkly in Jesus’ presence.

That’s Romans 7. The scene changes dramatically in the next chapter where everything is turned upside down. Despite how wrong things may be in our inner world, Jesus’ goodness is greater than our badness! God lavishes this goodness upon us in the gift of the Spirit of Jesus–that same Spirit we encountered in the Sermon on the Mount which enables us to love even our enemies. The secret Paul tells us repeatedly is to rigorously keep focused on it–to walk after the Spirit (Rom. 8:4), to set our minds on the Spirit (Rom. 8:5-6), to put to death sinful acts by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) and to be led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14).

In conclusion, if we don’t fix our eyes on Jesus and what he has to say, we won’t feel any great shortfall in our walk with God. We will be like the man James talks about who looks into “the perfect law of liberty” and by doing so understands his true nature and calling. However, like a man walking away from a mirror, he goes his way and immediately forgets his higher self (James 1:23-25).

As I’ve mentioned, seeing the higher means seeing the lower as well. There is of necessity anguish as we come close to God and his light shows up what’s inside, but we can take courage. We can admit our weakness, our sins, our vulnerability. This same love, kindness and goodness that we fall so short of is embodied in the Person with whom we have to do and he extends all this grace fully to us. Not only that, he promises to put it right inside!

Spiritual Formation

A Little Lower than God! Part 4: The Door to Your True Self

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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.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.Gal. 5:1

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Spiritual Formation

“A Little Lower than God” Part 1: Who Was I? Who Am I?

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Back in the late 60s you would often hear people speaking about the need to “find yourself.” An incident involving a friend of mine and a university professor highlighted my desperate need to do just exactly that. We were in the office of my friend’s former professor visiting. After they chatted for a few minutes, the professor turned to me and said, “And so Andrew, who are you?” The question threw me off. In a flippant manner I started to recount my biography, “I attended Riverside Public School in London. . . ,” but after only a few seconds I found a lump of fear in my stomach and I couldn’t speak. My friend and the professor stared at me wondering what was going on. The professor asked, “Do you not like me?” He was befuddled. We all were. “Who are you?” a simple question, but an obvious and painful revelation that I didn’t know.

You may not have an experience as dramatic (or fearful) as me, but have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and wondered who am I? “Where did I come from?” is a natural question for the simple reason that we didn’t make ourselves. More to the point, as a Christian, who do you conceive yourself to be? What do you feel yourself to be? Are you a glorious being created in the image of God or a sinner saved by grace?

The question is of the utmost practical importance for we will never grow beyond the vision we have of ourselves. Let me illustrate with a story. A Wisconsin farmer walking early in the season in his pumpkin patch sees a bottle lying on the ground. He carefully inserts one of the tiny, young pumpkins into the bottle so as to not damage the vine and puts it back on the ground. In the fall when he returns he finds the pumpkin is no bigger than the bottle which it has perfectly filled.

If all we conceive ourselves to be is a “sinner saved by grace,” that’s all we’ll ever be. Too often we focus on the negative side of our beings because we’re all too aware of our shortcomings, “the carnal self.” However, there is an older, original self that pulsates with the heartbeat of God. We were born in sin, that is, in some mysterious sense we were “in Adam” when he sinned. However, the whole truth is that we were also “in him” when he was created a glorious being! Your true self, at the core, is full of wonder, the very reflection of the divine!

The Gospel message proclaims that because of what Jesus has done, we can now consider the old self yesterday’s news (Rom. 6:11). The only thing that matters anymore is the new glorious self (Gal. 6:15) which is in fact God’s original!

May we keep in mind these powerful and beautiful words from Max Lucado, “Your life emerged from the greatest mind and kindest heart in the history of the universe.”

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Spiritual Formation

The Magnificent Mystery of Us

A couple of years ago I awoke in the middle of the  night and, for some inexplicable reason, found myself pondering the story of Cinderella. As I did, I felt a distinct impression, “That’s you.”

As when God speaks, it created delight in me.

The glass slipper speaks of a beautiful realm that Cinderella  was made for, a world that contrasted vividly with the shabby one of forced servitude that she had to inhabit . Each one of us is a prince or princess created to fit perfectly–fit into a world of royalty much more magnificent and mystical than what we have imagined.

In short, we are God-like–the wonderful mystery that Christians almost never take seriously. The church has been very efficient at pointing out how fallen we are, but tends to never get much past that. We have sinned, no question, but we are being made good again, “redeemed!” When we actually see what the Bible means by that term, we  thrill with the mystery of it!

Think about it, what does it mean to be “one spirit with” God (1Co 6:17) or to “partake of the divine nature (2Pe 1:4)? What does it mean to be created in the very image of God (Gen 1:27)?  Jesus didn’t shy away from this truth. Indeed, he astounded his hearers when he referenced a verse in the Psalms  which calls human beings ‘gods.’ Just to make sure they got the point, he reminded them that the scripture cannot be made void (Joh 10:35). Thus he expected his followers to live up to this high calling by being perfect–just like their Heavenly Father (Mat 5:44).

Can this really be true? How, in any meaningful sense, are we actually like God? It’s not in our intellect. As someone has noted, compared to God, we’re all developmentally delayed. It’s not in our power. We live in a frail body destined for the grave. The one area where we can enter into the divine is that of goodness. It’s by love, even for our enemies, that we show ourselves to be children of God. The littlest kindnesses, even simply greeting people we don’t know, demonstrate perfection like that of our Father in heaven. (Mat. 5:43-48).

It’s time we throw off the cloak of negativity and self-condemnation in order to embrace the whole truth. The good news is NOT that we’re selfish and sinful. Rather it is that we were created to be like God and that he has come down to restore his image in us once again through the Gospel. So great was God’s desire for us to fit into his royal kingdom, he didn’t just put outward garments on us like the fairy godmother did for Cinderella. No, he placed his very essence in our innermost being, the promised Holy Spirit, the Christ of God!  Now you can go out and do something good!