Last night my wife and I watched Lady In A Van, a mostly true story about an odd woman and an author – an indecisive man who has conversations with himself. These conversations were the genesis of his writing. Writing is how the author untangled the inner contradictions which kept him in perpetual neutral. His neighbors saw his introspection as his own crippling oddity. The film resonated with me.
This past week a caring friend told me (once again) that I was very hard on myself. I was puzzled by this comment since much of MwM is about how I have been becoming much less hard on myself. After further review of this conversation I have come to think that being-hard-on-myself was actually a comparative statement – code, in fact, for you are being-very-hard-on-me. (When will I ever learn to keep my inner contradictions to myself.) The last thing I want to do is be hard on others. I had thought I was making headway in this department as well.
What I would like to say to my caring friend is that there is no need to compare how you process truth with how I go about it. God simply made us differently. There are those who, by nature, have conversations with themselves. They see the gray and must ponder both the black and the white that comprise it. And there are those who do not. For them, all this supposed deeper thought is a colossal waste of time. While I get it, I can’t change it.
I recall the deep sigh of relief I had after finishing The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor. This book is a lifeline to reflective Christians – those believers who cannot help but see the absurdity and the glory in both the black and the white. They cannot avoid the inner contradictions so they must meditate and write (if it comes to that) to disentangle fact from fiction. Truth, as they understand it, insists on this inner dialogue.
Taylor’s book allowed that there was even a place for the reflective Christian within the Body of Christ. He suggested their role may be more indirect as they try and attract others out of their black and white dogma into the more mysterious gray tones, where they have personally been driven (or led) and have discovered the most truth.
My friend’s faith is untethered from complexity, eloquent in its simplicity and effectual in its application. I honor him in this and by no means wish to impose my introspections upon him as some standard of spirituality. I am simply doing the best I know how to pursue truth as an older (and slightly odd) man with many questions who is fortunately (or unfortunately) still on speaking terms with himself. While my process may look like a burden to others, it has been a path of life for me.
Father, I pray that we might learn to trust in You and do good; to dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Teach our hearts to delight in You. Teach us to commit our way to You and to trust that You will bring forth Your righteousness and judgment as the noonday light of our lives. Show us how to rest in You and wait patiently for You. Please give us this desire in our hearts. Amen. (a prayer born of Psalm 37:1-7)
When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6)
Jesus is always motivating us to live our short lives on earth in preparation for our long lives in eternity. In our passage, Jesus identifies giving and praying as preparatory activities for this brief phase of our long existence. And, as always, He is not just concerned about the outward expression; He is concerned about the inward motivation, which equips our hearts for the long haul. Jesus is not alone. The Holy Spirit is our counselor and teacher. For eternity’s sake, He is showing us the why’s behind the what of our activity. He knows how the calamity in Eden disabled our hearts. He knows we are, in fact, enabled with a genius, not just for doing wrong, but with a capacity to do right things for wrong reasons.
We departed Eden with rejection and insecurity deeply embedded into our persona. So much so, we are readily willing to sell our souls for affirmation and acclaim. In and around 2010, the Holy Spirit helped me see that throughout my life I had spent most of my energies garnering the approval of men and avoiding the pain of rejection. This motivation set me up for trouble in the church where gold stickers, presentation Bibles, and titles await the faithful yet insecure doer.
Doing, with the motivation, consciously or not, to receive approval is the flesh operating out of insecurity and pride. We can do much out of this motive, but Jesus is telling us straight up—this momentary approval will be the extent of our reward. He is saying there is much more for us in Christ, beyond the applause of men. The Holy Spirit, in his sovereign way, is always working in the arena of our why’s, helping us to avoid our vain and short-sighted what’s. How is this playing out in contemporary Christendom? Let’s explore.
An exodus from church is taking place, which is being documented by George Barna, Wayne Jacobsen, and others. This is a painful subject because myself and other dear friends are a part of this exodus. I began writing this blog to explore the backstory to this exit from institutions, which I believe has to do, in large part, with religion. The definition for religion, as I use the word, is: any system of thought or practice whereby the doing of it causes me to think I have gained the favor of God. I got caught with my hand in this cookie jar. Here is the Reader’s Digest version of how my salvation got worked out with no shortage of fear and trembling.
While receiving all the gold stickers the church could award, I slowly went spiritually bankrupt. This elder-teacher-worship leader had received his full reward. Was I an anomaly? Was I the only bundle of man-fearing insecurity? I suspected not and my imagination took off. I imagined a scenario where others, like myself, were also working for approval out of their own insecurity (in Jesus’ name of course). It didn’t seem like a far-fetched notion in light of the relational pain I saw behind the scenes inside my local church.
In that setting, I believed I was witnessing a kind of unholy transaction where both parties (pastors and parishioners) were being harmed in the exchange. The church, needy for labor, was gladly purchasing the doings of insecure people with their array of short-term motivators. Both the buyer and the seller were satisfied with the bargain, at least in the short term. What was happening though in the long term? What would become of a system where so many people are induced by internal and external forces to do good things for wrong reasons? Doesn’t this create a sort of co-op of codependency where everyone forfeits the greater reward the Father is aspiring to give? If my projection is accurate (and the verdict is still out), the church would be presenting something to the world far beneath the glory God intended for his Bride.
I’m not proud of the fact that I am not attending church. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to explore what I thought I was seeing. The pastor of our church said I was a “watchman” so I thought it was my obligation to try and communicate what I was seeing. (I now know watchman is code for one who sees things which might be terrifically unpopular if shared.)
Perhaps my efforts to describe what I was seeing left something to be desired, but I gave it my all and it resulted in censure. My all produced so much tension I decided it would be best if this watchman (whatever that is) simply walked—if not for God’s leading (which I believed I had) then for the sake of everyone’s sanity. The separation has been painful, but I’m certain the mental health of the parish and this former-parishioner are better off.
Heart note: There was a phase I went through in my local church flame-out where I was exceedingly frustrated with the local church and its leaders (and I was one of them). It would have been easy to walk away at that time. My reasons would have mirrored those who had already exited as well as those toying with the idea. However, had I left in a huff, which was SOP, I knew I would be forgoing the work God had slated for my heart.
My anger, which had nothing to do with the local church, would have escaped the cross. I would have walked out as a victim who was unwilling to take responsibility for his own heart. I would have blamed my burn out on the weakness of the local church and its leadership. Most damaging, I would have left with judgments in my heart toward others. The cost of that transaction would have been immense.
MwM is essentially what was bottled up inside me while I was inside the local church. And, it is what has been percolating since. It is my message in a bottle to those remaining in the institution—especially its leaders. I saw the exodus coming. I see it underway. I never aspired to encourage it. I was just trying to warn us of the religious undercurrent fueling it, hoping we could jointly identify and deal with the religious why’s behind this exodus what.
Lord, may Your Spirit liberate us from every unworthy temporal motivation. Expose us where we are spending our currency on that which is not bread. Persist until our motives are refined and we are resting from our works in the security of Your great love. Amen.
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, “You will become free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” (John 8:31-38)
Mankind lives under the strain of mystery; unanswered questions plague him at every level. Where did I come from? Who am I? What is my purpose? In his fallen lineage, he comes up with the wrong answers, perpetuating his misery through time. It really gets back to this, “Who’s your Daddy?”
For instance: “Where did I come from?” The origin of our species was not primordial matter. It was the mind of God. This wrong answer is toxic because it precludes Jesus (who preceded our beginning) from our beginning. The answer to our problem was removed from the dialogue about our problem. The father of lies has heard our questions and lied to us. This lie regarding our origin, now assumed to be hard science, enslaves billions. The only person by whom we might be saved is Jesus Christ, and He explains why: “I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”
Because Jesus has been with the Father, He knows precisely what has gone wrong. Darkness entered into mankind at the Fall, making him susceptible to lies. Satan has masterfully woven his lies into the fabric of society through the most sophisticated philosophies and the vainest of speculations. These are the things we have heard from our father in darkness. Our problems can be traced to our pedigree. Who is our father? Are we children of deception, or are we children of light?
“But,” we protest, “we are Christians! We have the Holy Spirit—The Counselor and Spirit of Truth; we can’t be deceived…can we?” Unfortunately we can. Keep in mind who Jesus is speaking to in our passage—Jews who had believed in Him. It is to believers Jesus speaks this hard word: My word has no place in you.
These young believers had lived their lives just as we have, conditioned by the lies woven seamlessly into culture in order to enslave us and steal from us. Jesus offers the remedy for their problem and ours: “and you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
This was offensive. “What do you mean! We have great pedigrees. We are the offspring of Abraham. We have never been enslaved!” Jesus corrects them, explaining that if you have practiced sin you have demonstrated your enslavement. Then he makes a peculiar statement: “And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever.”
If we abide (or remain) in his Word, the truth will deliver our enslaved minds and transform us into sons who abide in the Father’s presence. Slaves do not remain in the house forever. Over time, Truth sets us free. We are liberated into the freedom of God’s children. Freedom is our inheritance and our destiny.
(For those digging deeper: please check out the beautiful passage in Romans 8:18-25.)
The Jews believed their pedigree exempted them from deception. Christians also fall into this trap. The Jews were offended, and so are we when someone implies we’re not enlightened or free. As one who has dealt with post-conversion deception (PCD), I have a suggestion: pay attention to the things that offend you.
Recall the Jews reaction to the Truth; “What do you mean!” We Christians react the same way and then take our stand upon our pedigrees: “I am Christian. I am not deceived!” In my ongoing journey out of religious darkness, I am discovering that what offends me is an indicator of what enslaves me. As one who has always found himself innocent on all counts, I believe our protests often reveal specifics of our bondage.
Perhaps you are saying, “Thank God Almighty! I’m not offended with anyone. I’m free at last!” All I can say is, “Good luck with that.” I can’t speak with the authority of a professional counselor. However, with whatever authority personal experience brings, I can say—the most enslaving lies exist in the form of unchallenged assumptions we have about our reality. The father of lies is no amateur. He makes sure his lies get buried deep into our identities. They become the unedited tapes that drive our lives—perfected patterns of thinking, enabling us to abide in deception instead of Truth. Wherever we are in the process of our salvation, the Truth is the only thing that shall set us free… and it will likely offend us when we first hear it.
Father, glorify Your Name as You continue to lead us out of slavery into the glorious freedom you have purchased for us as sons and daughters. Truly, Lord, we slaves will not remain in the house forever, but we children shall. Amen..
Unfortunately, drought is not unfamiliar to those of us living on the prairie. We’ve seen dry ponds and the browned-out flaura. We know drought translates into massive economic loss. Yet, drought has its place. Drought accentuates the value of water and the promises of God.
For the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the Lord your God cares; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year. (from Deuteronomy 11:10-12)
Men pray, but when and in what form moisture comes is beyond prediction. However, the Lord is saying to the chosen that He has a place that is well-watered; it’s available and we must choose to possess it. Jehovah explains how we must proceed:
And it shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that I will give the rain in its season, the early and the late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 10:13-15)
The Lord continues regarding the importance of these commands …
You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. And you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
I sense an excitement among believers about the well-watered lands of spiritual possibility. Yet, when this moisture is predicated by an “if,” countenances often fall. They know they have not impressed God’s words upon their hearts. They feel their Bible deficit cuts them off from any would-be promised land. If this happens to be you, be strong and take courage: nothing separates you from the love of God. Mastery of scripture knowledge is fine but too often it becomes an end, in and of itself. Bible scholarship does not create abundant life. The Pharisees, both historic and modern, are the tragic living proof of this.
We should not be ashamed if we are not Bible scholars. There is no value in shame. Shame does not lead to any kind of Promised Land. Shame is a byproduct of the ultimate drought—religion. If we are deficient in the scriptures, let’s dismiss shame and simply set a new course.
Abandon the notion that I will never know the scriptures well enough. This is fatalistic and irresponsible. This attitude is incompatible with God’s Spirit within us. Let’s simply acknowledge that the scriptures are important and adopt a new attitude. Why not agree with them and say, “I am a new creation in Christ. I am well able to enter this land.” It is not reasonable that God would emphasize the importance of scripture then disable us in our ability to understand them. We simply need to take one obedient step after another. This is choosing life. Obeying what light we have will take us much further than the mastery of many texts.
The scriptures are a priceless treasure. Our new hearts are formatted to grasp the spirit of them. Find a translation that suits you and begin reading. All scripture is inspired, but for persons living under the new covenant, the gospels and the apostle’s letters are shining the most relevant light on our paths. The Old Testament reveals the nature and the heart of God as it was expressed to Israel. The Law was the centerpiece of this table. It was the essential segue and is the ongoing tutor in God’s self-revelation. The new covenant reveals our access point to the Promised Land, which is the grace of God in Christ. Jesus Christ Himself is the centerpiece of this table. Here He serves Living Water to the thirsty.
Living Water is a reference to the Holy Spirit—the One who personalizes God’s Word and reveals the Father to us. We are indeed favored to have scriptural revelation. At the same time, it is worth remembering, in the first three centuries, God turned the world upside down without the Bible, as we know it. The Holy Spirit is too often thought of as the past tense booster rocket of the church. Once the Spirit propelled it into orbit, the Church then had the Bible—the perfect had come, the partial had been done away with. When the church was a mere child, it spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child; when it had became mature, it did away with childish things.
Sadly, this is the tragic and drought-producing vision held in high esteem by much of evangelical Christianity. The Church desperately needs to acknowledge its need for the ongoing power of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus is our Bread of Life, the Holy Spirit was, and is, our Living Water. Together they are our essential nourishment. The table is set, and the Spirit and the Word make up the feast set before us in the presence of our enemy.
Unfortunately, we have quite a division at the family dining table. Much of the Church looks to the scripture as their sole source of revelation. Another leans on the Holy Spirit as their primary source of direction. I believe this is slated to change: “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23). We must personally come to Him and learn to drink from His Spirit and feed from His Word.
A related word about teaching. Just listening to the teachings of others each week is like trying to live on someone else’s nourishment. Pastor was not called to permanently chew, digest and regurgitate the meat for us. If we are mere listeners, we have become dependents in a spiritual welfare culture. Dependency upon another to feed and water us will produce its own kind of drought, stunting our growth for certain. The Father wants us to personally taste and see that He is good.
The best preaching creates hunger and thirst. The best teaching equips men to use the fork and cup. The inspired words and lives of true elders demonstrate that God is accessible through his Word and His Spirit. Scriptural revelation is available to all, not just academics and orators. Intimacy with Christ is available through the Spirit. True elders model how we can personally become those who worship Him in spirit and truth.
A better yardstick for Church growth would be how many saints have taken responsibility for their own spirit’s nourishment as opposed to how many attend the service to be fed, give (maybe) and leave.
Father, awaken our thirst and relieve our drought. May we see the latter rains overtaking our parched and thirsty hearts. May we see our hearts erupt and overflow with Living Water. May we eat and drink and see the desert bloom before us. Amen.
At last the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land. (Genesis 26:22)
This statement was made by Isaac, a man who had become rich yet who eventually became wealthy. There is a difference. While Isaac was materially secure, his “at last” indicated he was not yet complete.
His relief came when he found an uncontested well. It didn’t matter how wealthy Isaac was, without water he would die. Through deep subterranean channels that water had been flowing all along, but the Philistines had filled the wells up with earth. All Isaac had to do was invest his own energies in reestablishing the access point to this water. He had all the motivation necessary—his life depended on it… Mine did too.
I was aware, at least theoretically, there was a well of living water in me. It was supposed be bubbling up from within. The Bible, and an irritating song, told me so. The song went “I have joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart, forever and ever and seemingly forever more, Amen.” However, I could only mouth the words. Down in my heart, it was really more like, “I wish I had” joy, joy, joy…” My well had been filled with dirt.
Mouthing words of jubilation which come from someone else’s well creates a crisis of the spirit. Many cope by turning the page and mouthing the words to the next song. After the last amen they depart and do the same thing, with their lives—they just go through the motions.
My “at last” moment began shortly after I finally acknowledged I was dying of thirst. From within my depths, I heard a cry: “I cannot just go through the motions of Christianity! I know this is not the life Jesus died to give me!”
I knew there was living water down there. I had tasted it before but I had no clue who filled up the well or what it had been filled with. Well… that’s only partially true. I thought I knew who the Philistines responsible for my misery were, but the Lord was not at all pleased with my finger pointing. It became clear he was asking me to choose life and that meant I must spend the necessary time and energy to reestablish access.
This was by no means a solo project. God provided some people who were experienced in well restoration. They were not pastors (in the CEO/preacher sense); however, they were each pastoral in their relationship to me. These co-laborers were prophets, coaches, counselors, friends, and fathers. I was surprised to discover how much of the debris was religious. I was shocked that every self-serving, shame-laden shovel-full was contributed by one particular Philistine—me.
I will never forget. As we were nearing the bottom and I could once again taste this water. How perfectly delicious it was! My thoughts were “Oh Lord, You have been there all along!” This might sound crazy, but it was worth the thirst just to have it quenched. Now, my heart too was saying, “Ah, at last!”
As we are rehydrated with his Spirit, our gifts will emerge. They will make a place for us. Living water is attractive. Thirsty people are drawn to it. There will come a day, if we diligently watch over our springs, that living water will overflow into the lives of others. This, I am convinced, is normal Christianity.
The great danger is that we would learn to think of our going-through-the-motions life as normal. If you are restless, don’t ignore it! Your native thirst may be finding expression. Give voice to it! Take responsibility for your heart. Grab your shovel and start digging. Pray it out. Cry it out. Journal it out. Find help. Don’t point your finger at the perceived Philistines. They are not responsible for your spiritual condition. You are. Living water can make an oasis in the midst of any desert but it is up to us. We must choose life!
Father, awaken that spiritual thirst that says, “No! I will not just go through the motions! Yes, I will choose life!” Help us to see the spacious life you have purchased for us. Help us to say “Yes!” to our thirst and “No!” to our complicit and faint hearts. Help us to uncover and maintain our spring. May we, too, be fruitful in this land. Amen.
Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as man disciplines his own sons. (Deuteronomy 8:5)
This is what God told Israel just before they crossed the Jordan into their promised land. The notion of testing their hearts and humbling them (verse 2) seemed to travel with this idea of discipline. Heard any good sermons on discipline lately? They are rare. Perhaps the scarcity is because discipline is an Old Covenant construct, needed more by those perpetually errant Jews than we grafted-in gentiles. No. Discipline is clearly a feature of the New Covenant as well.
My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor feint when you are reproved by Him. For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives. (Hebrews 10:5-6)
OK, perhaps not many sermons. But what about testimonies of saints lauding God’s discipline in their lives? Testimonies are also scarce aren’t they? What’s up with this? Perhaps discipline is just a minor theme. Again, I don’t think so.
It is for discipline you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:7-8)
Illegitimate! This word should stop us in our tracks. In fact, this would be a good time to review our history with God and identify His legitimizing discipline in our lives. Perhaps like Israel, this is the word He speaks to us just before we enter our promised land. The author of Hebrews has just been warming up…
Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness. (Hebrews 12:9-10)
Holiness is another word that has fallen on hard times. Could a preacher concoct a more off putting message than one connecting discipline and holiness? The spirit of the age is doing its best to scrub these concepts from our culture; they put too much onus on man and raise the bar too high for his character. And, it is damaging to man’s self image to suggest that there are things in his heart that need to be tested for the sake of humility and transformation. (sarcasm intended)
I heard of a radio music program recently whose hook was; “Everything; Right now; All the time.” These six words may be the best description of the spirit of this age I have heard. It is not hard to imagine the life long process of discipline being anathema in this setting. But we are in error if we share this attitude.
All discipline, for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:11-13)
I have watched the cause-effect idea of discipline to holiness become a burden so heavy, it had to be jettisoned. In light of the traditional definitions and understandings of these terms I think this was essential. Many of us were reared in spiritual communities where man, in our ultra – hardened depravity, required a steady treatment of painful consequences to keep us on the holy straight and narrow. Knowing our burden was to be light only added weight to our loads. As we trudged up the steep grade toward holiness, we simply collapsed, by God’s grace.
Unfortunately, portions of the church have reacted to this old wineskin and adopt doctrines that get them to their (self-conceived) promised lands by various means which typically excluded God’s discipline. I pray I am not doing violence to the ideas of discipline and holiness, pandering to the spirit of this age, but I would like to share my current understanding of these terms. Like all of the Middle With Mystery installments, my thoughts are being Father-filtered.
I am one who jettisoned the I-am-just-a-sinner-in-the-hands-of-a-holy-and-angry-God outlook. As a spiritually exhausted saint, I had to say enough. I was making no strides in holiness with my white-knuckled commitments. I was not resting in God’s love in my hamster wheel activities. Discipline, to me, has been the pressures that came to bear (by God’s design and permission) that led me to this revelation. It had a very authentic feel; in the moment, it did not seem joyful.
Discipline is simply the tests God has ordained or allowed (I rarely know which) that redirect my heart toward Him. They are the interventions that reveal God’s ways as far higher than mine. These loving intrusions on my status quo have humbled me and led to the measure of joy I know today as His son. While I receive little confirmation in sermon or testimony, I contend it is by God’s discipline that He leads our hearts into our true promised land, where we realize Jesus is our inheritance. He is our sufficiency; our all in all. When we cross over our Jordan’s we will find an interior life of abundance. It is along this pathway of discipline that He is transforming us into the image of His Son. I suspect this is as close to holiness and righteousness as I will get.
Father, Thank you for Your discipline. Open our heart’s understanding to this aspect of Your transformational love. Help us to sift through the garbage thoughts we have had of you and ourselves. Lead us to that place where we can see and celebrate the redemption you conceal within discipline. Help us to endure that we too might know the peaceful fruit of righteousness.