Archive for Spiritual Formation
Barna research has released a new set of findings aimed at identifying whether Christians are like Jesus in action and attitude or if they are living a faith driven by self-righteousness. While the numerical results from the findings may not be helpful, the core values they established to conduct the study serve as a worthy self inventory. Take two minutes and check out the article HERE.
Fasting has been a part of every world religion and belief system since the beginning of time. The practice of fasting is not uncommon or unknown in secular culture. But what makes fasting and abstinence a Christian practice? Should Christians consider giving up things for Lent? If so, what do we hope to gain from it?
Some people use fasting as a form of asceticism, “buffeting the body” with self denial in an attempt to gain mastery over the flesh and its appetites. But the apostle Paul warns us in Colossians 2:20-23 that outward practices of self denial do not automatically guarantee inward holiness.
Others use fasting as a talisman to obtain a reward or a goal. By demonstrating piety, these people fast in order to gain God’s attention in hopes of earning grace or obligating God to grant whatever request we desire.
Then there are those who use fasting as a response to a grievous moment, such as our sin or even death. We see this evidenced in the Old Testament in the lives of Job and David, to name two.
But what does the Scripture say about fasting and abstinence? What makes it unique to us as Christians? Check out what Jesus said.
One day the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked him, “Why don’t your disciples fastf like we do and the Pharisees do?” Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests mourn while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. “Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the old skins would burst from the pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine is stored in new wineskins so that both are preserved” (Matthew 9:14-17, NLT).
Christian fasting, at its root, expresses our longing for God. But this longing is only half of the story of Christian fasting. Half of Christian fasting is that our physical appetite is lost because our longing for God is so intense. The other half is that our longing for God is threatened because our appetites are so intense. In the first half, the appetite is lost. In the second half, the appetite is resisted. In the first, we yield to the higher hunger that is. In the second, we fight for the hunger that isn’t.
The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not the bitter but the sweet. It is not the banquet table of the wicked that dulls our appetite for God, but rather the endless nibbling at those things that become substitutes for God. The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not the poison of evil, but the simple pleasures of earth. For when those replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable. They become deadly substitutes, functional idols, if you will. Places and things we turn to in order to find comfort and help with the burdens and challenges of life.
Anything can stand in the way of true discipleship. Not just evil, and not just food. So it should not be surprising that the greatest competitors for our devotion and affection for God would be some of his most precious gifts. This is why fasting and abstinence of the good gifts of God is likely to be more beneficial than using the practice during the Lenten season to break some bad habit.
Christian fasting and abstinence is a test to see what desires control us. What are our bottom line passions? In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes, “More than any other spiritual discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what inside of us with food and other things.”
When our souls are stuffed with small things of life, there is little if any room for the great things of God. The pain and the emptiness we feel that is created by loss reveals how we have stuffed ourselves with substitutes. That pain or loss teaches us important lessons and invites us to draw near to the bread of life and the living water that quenches our thirst.
Like me, you started out riding a tricycle. Then the day came when you moved up to a two wheeled bike with training wheels. With a little confidence and achieving a bit of balance, the training wheels came off and you rode your bike without the training wheels. Finally, the day came when you received a driver’s license and began to drive a car.
Every break through is a break with. If you insist on holding on to tricycles you’ll never experience the joys of the bicycles and cars. And once you experience the joys of the break through, you’ll never look back. I think that principle is true of virtually every element of life, but especially true of faith.
Romans 12 begins with Paul’s statement on worship. In worship we present our bodies and have our minds renewed, enabling us to discern and agree with God’s will. This pattern works for the individual believer as well as the corporate body. As we agree with God’s will and put it into practice, humility is required because we are confronted with the immediate reality that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are individual members who belong to a unified body, working together for a common good. To accomplish this, Paul added, we have been given spiritual gifts.
In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well (Romans 12:6, NLT).
Spiritual gifts are supernatural enablement given to each Christian by the Holy Spirit for the discharge of his or her special responsibility in the Church. Over the years, I’ve found the following principles to be of general help in understanding spiritual gifts. Most of this is nothing new, but at least should serve as a helpful reminder.
1. The gifts come from the Holy Spirit as He wills.
2. The purpose of the gifts is to build up the body of Christ and equip us for mission beyond the walls.
3. The gift lists in the New Testament are not exhaustive, otherwise they would be uniform. The focus of each list is on the variety of gifts available to believers.
4. Though we don’t possess all of the gifts, we are to exercise the function of all of the gifts. In other words, just because a person does not have the gift of mercy does not mean that person is exempt from being merciful.
5. The gifts may have as much to do with how you serve as they do where you serve. I’m not sure that the gifts were intended to be hard categories for positions of service in the church. I think people are free to pursue opportunities, passions, and callings for a variety of service in the body. However, your gift is your gift and your gift will inflect how you serve where ever you serve.
6. The single best way to identify your gift is to serve. There are all kinds of spiritual gifts inventories that are available that can help a person identify their spiritual gift mix. But the best way to identify your gift is to serve.
7. One way for us to discern God’s will in our churches is to see who God is adding to our bodies. Each person that joins your church either exposes a deficiency in your church or informs your church of God’s direction for your church.
We’re two thirds of the way through training camp. Next week I’ll talk about how we put all of this into practice. Thanks for dropping in this week!
I have a lot of books on prayer. Many of them are good, even inspirational (i.e. they move me to action). Most of these books have definitions of prayer, patterns that outline how to pray, and of course, the “end game” or expected outcome of prayer.
Without question, one of today’s clearest voices on the subject of spiritual formation is Richard Foster. There isn’t a book he’s written that I haven’t immediately purchased and read. Foster’s latest book is titled Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey Into Meditative Prayer. According to Foster, meditative prayer is the prayer that seeks first to listen and respond to God’s voice. It is different in that it is strictly God ward in its goal.
As I mentioned above, there are a lot of books on prayer, and the better ones do include a section on the importance of listening to God. After all, everyone knows that communication is a two way street. But Foster’s book strikes me in a different way, because it dispenses with the whole business of the human voice and how to talk to God. Yes, there is a time and place for believers to speak to God in prayer…where the believer can praise God, confess their sins, request their daily bread, and intercede for others. But meditative prayer is intentional to the degree that its sole purpose is to quiet the soul and hear from God.
Foster offers a lot of helpful direction as to what meditative prayer looks like, but two concepts rose to the top. The first is that meditative prayer is developed through practice. If you’re like me, you know what its like to try to quiet your soul before God and to feel immediately overwhelmed with distractions. The discipline of meditating before the Lord and listening to His voice is like a muscle that must be developed. Which leads me to the second concept, that of patience.
Foster freely admits that there are times when meditative prayer yields no epiphany. Those times are still valued moments of time with the Lord. But there are also times when God speaks, and His unmistakable voice brings about life transformation.
If you’re not committed to regular, private prayer, Sanctuary of the Soul is probably not the book for you. At least not now. But if you are committed to regularly spending time with God in prayer you may find Foster’s book a helpful aide to sharpening your ability to listen for and to the voice of God.
This is an excellent interview with Dr. Kara Powell, co-author of Sticky Faith, on how to help kids maintain their faith during college.
This year I’ve become a huge fan of the work of James Bryan Smith. If you follow this blog, you’ll recall that I’ve already posted two reviews on Smith’s work from his previous two volumes. The Good and Beautiful series has been refreshing and has provided a needed boost to those who are either committed to mentoring believers or who just want to follow Christ more deeply.
The third book in the series is titled, The Good and Beautiful Community. Thankfully, Smith’s book on community is not another anemic “how to” on small group ministry. There are no strategies or processes about group life, so if you’re looking for that kind of help you’re going to need to keep on looking.
In this book, Smith deals with community as the relational value that believers find in their common membership of the Body of Christ. He has subtitled this book with the following description: following the Spirit, extending grace, and (sic) demonstrating love. In a nutshell, that’s his purpose for writing.
The author doesn’t deal with every single dimension of community. That indeed would have been a massive undertaking. But he does hit some important highlights, especially in the area of loving those who are difficult to love and how reconciliation works in broken relationships. His chapter on forgiveness is among the best you’ll read anywhere, as he describes a thoughtful, biblical approach to this very sensitive topic.
The other chapter that I felt was extraordinary contained his thoughtful insights on generosity. It can be a challenge to find someone who will tackle the subject of stewardship at face value, simply because many who write on this truth have an agenda in mind, namely the weekly collection. Smith is particularly strong in his appeal that believers develop a theology of “enough,” advocating simplicity which runs counter culture to our modern societies insatiable thirst for the “American dream.”
The book has many other valuable resources for the reader, but I’ll leave those for you to discover should you feel compelled to purchase a copy for personal study. Like his first two books, The Good and Beautiful Community is user friendly, formatted with the same suggested soul training exercises which makes this a valuable resource. I strongly recommend this book. If you haven’t invested in the series, your best bet is to begin with volume one and work forward. However, each book can stand alone on its own merit.
Jesus is certainly interested in fruit bearing. In the text He spoke of fruit, bearing fruit, bearing more fruit, and bearing much fruit. As I see it, fruit bearing is the by product of abiding and obeying. When a believer abides in Christ and obeys Him, that believer will become fruitful.
Ancient viticulture used two processes to ensure the harvest of fruit. The first process involved training the vines. Grapevines would be trained by running them along poles or trellises. The vines were lifted up from the ground to improve their fruit bearing potential.
In addition to training was pruning the vines. The ancients pruned twice a year. In the spring, they would remove the tips of rapidly growing shoots so that the vine would not become an end unto itself and to prevent it from breaking in high wind. Some of the flowers and early clusters would also be thinned to improve the quality of the fruit that was permitted to grow. The vines would be cleaned from the suckers that would grow up from the ground and become attached to the true vine and sap its strength. After the harvest in the fall and the vines were dormant, the gardener would remove unproductive vines and cut back the desired branches.
In our discipleship to Christ we too experience training and pruning. What is our training? I think our training is in our study of Scripture, for the Scripture is the trellis our lives run along. We also experience pruning as we cut away the stuff of life that clutters our discipleship and stunts our growth.
So what is this fruit we are to be producing? Scholars are divided along two generalizations. Some see fruitfulness as reproducing our faith in the lives of others through evangelism and missions. Others see it as the righteous living that is shared in service and ministry to the world. Or even some combination of the two. However you choose to come down on your understanding of fruitfulness, one thing is certain. Fruit is not to be appreciated, it is to be consumed. That’s the purpose of fruit.
A casual examination of the text would lead one to believe that the goal is fruit bearing. While this is important, it isn’t what Jesus is ultimately trying to accomplish. Jesus’ goal is not remaining, obeying, or even bearing fruit. The goal that Jesus has in mind is that we glorify God. Remaining, obeying, and bearing fruit are the ways we glorify God, and make His name greater and His Kingdom larger.
Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seent he Father.” Who do people see when they see you?
Jesus spoke the words recorded in John 15 to his disciples on the night he was betrayed. Last words are important words, much like the final briefing to a squadron prior to their departure for a mission. One of the first words in the text that leaps off the page is the word “remain” (or abide in many translations).
The word remain speaks of a relationship that is organically linked, where the life of Christ flows into our lives and His nature becomes our nature. An example of this type of relationship is the union we see among the Trinity. “God in three persons,” as the hymn says. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit, all dwell in perfect community among themselves, yet remain One. Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”
The relationship we enjoy in Christ is not one of mimicking Jesus or even imitating Jesus. We share in the gene pool of the divine. Our spiritual DNA identifies us as the same. Six times Jesus bids his listeners to “remain.” His desire is that we find our life source in Him.
The second element in this passage is obedience, though it is more implied than overtly stated. Obedience usually bears a negative connotation. The word makes us uncomfortable because we usually associate obedience with being forced to do things regardless of our personal will. In the spiritual realm, obedience is not the rote activity of dutiful behavior. Instead, obedience is the joyful delight that comes when we respond to the life of Christ that is flowing like a river within us. When we obey Christ, we are simply acting in a manner that is consistent with our nature. Like children, we begin to act “just like the Father,” and “take after” Him.
When God urges us to be obedient, He’s calling upon us to live up to our nature. That’s why 10,000 “Thou shalt nots” will not make you one iota like Jesus. It’s not rote behavior. We are to remain in Him, and flowing out of that relationship is activity that is consistent with our spiritual DNA.
Tomorrow I’ll post more about the by-product of remaining and obeying, which is bearing fruit, and I’ll get into the ultimate end game that God has for it all.
I began to regularly eat fruit when I started my weight loss journey about 50 pounds ago. Before then, my consumption of fruit was limited to Fruity Pebbles, Hostess Fruit Pies, and Fruit by the Foot. But I’ve learned to enjoy and even appreciate fruit. One of the obvious attributes of fruit is its beauty. When I look at a ripe piece of fruit I marvel at the color and shading. Maybe that’s why you’ll never see an oil painting of bacon in an art museum. Don’t get me wrong, I like bacon. Bacon is pretty good, but it isn’t pretty. Fruit is also appealing. When you see it, you desire it. Which was the problem Adam and Eve ran into. What if the serpent would have approached the innocent Edenic couple with lima beans? Would things have turned out different? Can will really think in terms of the “forbidden vegetable?” Not only is fruit beautiful and appealing, it also satisfies. It’s edible, tasty, and nutritious.
Fruit is an important metaphor throughout Scripture. The Psalms, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Isaiah all utilize the metaphor to describe the special relationship God desired to have with His people. Israel got the imagery. In fact, according to the ancient historian Josephus, above the main entrance of the Temple in Jerusalem there was a grapevine with a cluster of grapes as tall as a man overlaid in gold. Israel understood the image but ultimately failed to live out the purpose of the image. Isaiah 5:7 states God’s disappointment this way, “The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s armies. The people of Judah are his pleasant garden. He expected a crop of justice, but instead he found oppression. He expected to find righteousness, but instead he heard cries of violence” (NLT).
It was against this Old Testament background of Israel as the vine that failed to produce good fruit that Jesus said, “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father” (John 15:1-8, NLT)
Jesus spoke these words to his disciples on the night he was betrayed and I believe He continues to speak these words to his Church. What does this have to do with our discipleship to Christ? Tomorrow I’ll unpack the important concepts from Jesus’ teaching in this incredible text.