Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Responsibility of Making the Right Choice

One of the most powerful tools we have in spiritual formation is choosing. We are a product of our choices.

Our choices are powerful because they are the way we respond to the world and the circumstances of our lives. We don't have control over the things that happen in the world, but we do have control over how we respond. These are the choices that form our character.

This is the reason why I believe it is essential for us who are parents and church leaders to have high expectations for the younger generation. Right now they are making choices that are going to determine the direction of their lives.

We can’t expect young people to spend their lives watching Netflix, playing video games, interacting with social media, and going into debt with credit cards to one day, in their mid-twenties, to become mature responsible adults. 

When we allow our children to make the easy choice, to constantly choose what is fun, and to avoid doing hard things, then they will become people who are selfish, petty, shallow, and irresponsible. That type of life will not prepare them for the real demands of life.

I want you to think about something Greg Boyd wrote:
“Moral culpability is not just about people acting certain ways when they could have and should have acted differently.  It’s more about people becoming certain kinds of people when they could have and should have become different kinds of people” (Satan and the Problem of Evil; p. 122).
This is why it is important to remember that spiritual formation is always happening. Time, circumstances, and choices all play a part in forming the person we are. Christian spiritual formation is the intentional effort in making the process about becoming more like Jesus.

As a pastor I am concerned about how the church assists in this process of becoming more like Jesus.

How do we help people become more like Jesus?

I think it begins by telling people that to be more like Jesus requires being different.

We live differently because we are people who have our minds set on heavenly things rather than earthly things (Colossians 3:1-4), because we are people who walk by the Spirit rather than by the flesh (Galatians 5:16-26), and because we are people live humbly putting others ahead of ourselves (Philippians 2:1-11).

To do each one of these things we first need to make a choice to do it. Without that intentional act we will not be different.

How do we encourage the people we influence to make the choice to be different?

The first step we should take is to emphasize the fact that God, because of His great love for us, opened up way of redemption for us (Romans 5:6-11). This should be the foundation for our decision making. In other words, our choices become our response to God's love.

The second step we should take is to pray for our children, students, and friends.  This is the example that the apostle Paul gave in Colossians 1:9-12.  The reason Paul prayed for the Colossians was to empower them to be the type of people who honor Jesus.  We need to pray for people to be filled with a knowledge of God’s will and with spiritual wisdom and knowledge so they can become people who honor Jesus with their lives.

The third step we should take is to give people tools, methods, and disciplines to help them train in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). If we are honest we would admit that our process of discipleship isn’t working.  Our church families are not filled with people becoming more and more like Jesus. In fact, I would wager many of us have given up on the belief that true transformation will take place. Sadly, we are content with a little behavior modification here and there.  We need to help people understand that they are responsible for their spiritual growth and that spiritual disciplines such as meditation, prayer, worship, service, fasting, solitude, and celebration are ways in which we can train our bodies to ignore the pull of the flesh and to follow the Spirit.

Each one of us is in the process of becoming.  We are either becoming more human and thus fit for God’s Kingdom or we are becoming less human and thus fit for the kingdom of darkness.

Our choices play an essential part in our Christian spiritual formation.

Not only are are called to pay attention to the choices that we make, but we are to help those around us to make good choices. This is why Christian community is a vital part of Christian spiritual formation.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Be Disturbed

We live in a world full of good. It has exceptional beauty, delicious food, amazing fun, and wonderful relationships.

In spite of the good we experience in the world, we know it is not entirely good. Our experience of life tells us that the world is a combination of good and evil.

According to the Bible, the world was created good by God, but has been corrupted by the sin of angels and humans. We live in a fallen world.

One of the ways we see this corruption at work is the selfishness that exists in people. The worst selfishness that we are exposed to is the selfishness that exists in our own hearts.

Many of the problems that we face throughout life, both big and small, can be traced back to selfishness.

This reality is understandable when we remember that we spend our entire lives with ourselves. Our entire perspective on life centers around our experience of the world. It is logical to expect that our comfort, cares, and desires would be at the forefront of what we are most concerned about.

Christian spiritual formation is important because it calls us to lay aside our cares and concerns and adopt the cause of Jesus. For this to happen we have to intentionally lay aside our rights and desires. It is through those process we are able to understand the injustices and indignities inflicted and the rest of humanity.

Dallas Willard wrote:
“Apprentices of Jesus will be deeply disturbed about many things, but they will be largely indifferent to the fulfillment of their own desires as such. Merely getting their own way has no significance for them, does not disturb them.” 
Renovation of the Heart, p. 72
Pause for a moment and ponder: What disturbs you?

When I think about what disturbs me on a regular basis I am saddened. I am saddened because I get the most disturbed by the inconveniences and interruptions to my agenda.

God has shown me this reality through my children. I dearly love my three kids, but they have the ability of frustrating me like no one else does. Why is that?

I get frustrated, I get disturbed, because they have minds of their own and they don't always do what I ask them to do. They disrupt my plan and that bothers me.

What is the cure for that? The cure is to become like Jesus.

The apostle Paul wrote:
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. (Philippians 2:3-5; NLT)
Here we discover the goal of Christian spiritual formation: to develop the attitude of Jesus.

Key to this attitude is humility. It is having that ability to look past our own agenda and see the needs of other people. We are to take an interest in the lives of those around us.

One of my favorite passages for the Gospels is Matthew 9:36:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (NLT)
Jesus was disturbed by the needs of the people around him. He didn't blame them for their condition or lecture them about the inconvenience they were causing him, but he had compassion on them. They needed help and he took time to help them.

One of the prayers we need to pray in our pursuit of Christian formation is to see the world through the eyes of Jesus. We need to see the things that disturb Jesus so we can learn what should be disturbing us as well.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Start the Process

Life is much easier when we go with the flow. The reason it is easier is because it requires little effort since we are moved along by the currents of the culture around us. 

Yet, this is also the reason it is a problem. When we simply go along with the flow we allow our lives to be at the mercy of the culture. We go where the culture takes us. 

I believe this is one of the key reasons why American Christians lack spiritual maturity. We haven't put intentional effort into following Jesus. Rather, we simply went with the flow of our culture.

Thankfully, God in His mercy, has still brought healing to our hearts and transformation to our lives. It is not like we haven't experienced any transformation, but the growth we have experienced has been stunted.

The fact that we have experienced spiritual formation should cause us to pause and thank God for the work He has done in our lives. At the same time it should move us to confess that we have not lived up to our side of the transformation.

It is crucial for us to understand that there is a part that we play in Christian spiritual formation. All through the New Testament we find expectations for the way we are to live. There are lists of things we need to stop doing and lists for things we need to start doing. Faith requires action and obedience is an act of faith.

With that in mind think about what Dallas Willard wrote in Renovation of the Heart:

"Spiritual formation in Christ is an orderly process.  Although God can triumph in disorder, that is not his choice.  And instead of focusing upon what God can do, we must humble ourselves to accept the ways he has chosen to work with us.  These are clearly laid out in the Bible, and especially in the words of and person of Jesus."  p. 10

Since Christian spiritual formation is an orderly process, then it is a process that we must choose to begin. I already wrote about The First Step of Christian spiritual formation.

How do we take that first step? What does it meant to surrender to Jesus?

I think we find the answer in Matthew 4:17;  From then on Jesus began to preach, "Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near." (NLT)

Repentance is the intentional action we take to surrender to Jesus.

Repentance isn't just feeling sorry for and confessing our sins. Those are important elements of repentance, but I think repentance means much more.

Real repentance is about changing our loyalties.  

Remember, sin is rebellion against God and His Kingdom. That means, through sin, we have pledged our allegiance to Satan and his kingdom.  Repentance is the undoing of that reality. By repenting we declare our loyalties are changed and now we loyal citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

This intentional change of loyalty is absolutely crucial to spiritual formation.

There are other steps that we must do through this process. We have to do things like pray, study, give, be baptized, forgive, and serve. For these acts to truly have a transformational affect on our lives, we must first repent. 

Repentance, at is core, is an act of faith. It is an act of faith because through repentance we declare our belief, trust, and commitment to God. This is what it looks like to surrender to Jesus.

Christian spiritual formation is an intentional process. It is a process that begins with our choice to repent. Make that choice.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Choose The Right Way

Freedom is a beautiful thing.

We love being able to make the choices that determine the course of our lives. We don't want other people making those decisions for us.

As wonderful as freedom is, it also is a very dangerous thing. It is dangerous because our freedom can lead to our enslavement.

There are certain choices that we can make that will either help us live a life of freedom, or will take freedom from us.

Here is an extreme example. If you decide to murder someone, that decision will rob you of freedom. Even if you were never caught and didn't spend a day in jail, the guilt of the deed and the constant fear of being caught would hamper your ability to enjoy life.

Here is a more common example.  Your choice to use credit to furnish a lifestyle way above your income will mean that you are enslaved to creditors. They are entitled to the money you already spent. That means part of the time you are working, you are working to pay them. Not only that, because credit comes with the attachment of interest, you will be paying back more than what you borrowed in the first place, giving you less money to use for necessary things. Often this leads to using a credit card and going deeper in debt.

Your freedom is affected by the choices you make.

The choices we make will either bring us greater levels of freedom or restrict the freedom we already enjoy.

There are many choices that we freely make that end up taking away our freedom. Our freedom and our choices are eternally connected.

Erwin McManus wrote:
“Not all free acts lead to freedom. The choices you freely make may cost you a life of genuine freedom. This is why the Bible talks about the human experience in terms of being slaves to sin. Sin creates the illusion of freedom; it fools us into seeking freedom from God rather than finding freedom in God. 
“Whatever else Jesus came to do, one thing is clear—He came to set you free. God is not a warden; He is a deliverer. And so earnest is He about your freedom that He was willing to be taken captive and crucified on your behalf just so you can run free.” (Stand Against the Wind; p. 14)

If we are going to be free we have to make choices that enhance our freedom.

For us to make those choices requires that we look towards the future and not just live in the moment. We need to remember that our choices often have lasting consequences far past the time that we made them. A small choice that you made in the heat of the moment can alter the entire course of your life.

This is why we need a guide. When we choose to follow Jesus we will discover freedom. 

This is what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. 
 I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.. (Romans 6:15-20; NLT)
The follower of Jesus is free because he has given himself over to the true way to live life.

Think about this analogy.

A person who is righteous is like a jazz improviser. She has learned the chords and studied the music to the extent that she understands where the music is going. When she goes off on her own she stays true to the music. The jazz improviser has freedom to improvise because she has been a slave to the music.

The person who is a slave of righteousness is able to live with freedom because he has come to understand what life is truly about and where life is ultimately heading. With those things in mind a great many options in life opens up for him. But, those things are only possible because first he choose to do what was right.

Use your freedom to choose to do what is right.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Work of Prayer

I am in the process of doing an in-depth look at the book of Colossians. For the past week I have read
through the entire book each day.

There are a number of passages that have stood out to me as I have done this, but there is one in particular that keeps grabbing my attention.

It is one of those passages that is easy to miss because it is at the end of the book in the section of greetings that we tend to just skim rather than read.

The passage I am refering to is Colossians 4:12-13. This is what Paul wrote:
 "Epaphras, a member of your own fellowship and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings. He always prays earnestly for you, asking God to make you strong and perfect, fully confident that you are following the whole will of God. I can assure you that he prays hard for you and also for the believers in Laodicea and Hierapolis" (NLT).
Here is the question that I have pondered because of this passage: How hard do I pray for people?

I can pray desperately for myself and the circumstances that I am facing. I can pray for my family and the circumstances of their lives. Yet, when it comes to other people, I fear I am rather indifferent to the needs of their lives.

As I think about discipleship and spiritual formation, I have to wonder if one of the obstacles that I face (and I have to believe others face as well) is a lack of praying hard. Is it possible that our church families are not maturing and are not growing because we have not committed to praying for growth?  Perhaps the reason the people in our lives struggle with broken hearts, depression, and addictions is because we are not praying for them?

Now, I don't want to make it sound that all we have to do pray and then magically everything will be better. Through the Bible God calls us to get off the couch and love our neighbors.Yet, the effort has to be grounded in prayer.

I confess that the reason this passage has been running through my mind is because God is calling me to do this work of prayer. It is something I keep putting off because I have other things to do: sermons to write, a church family to lead, and children to raise. Yet, aren't these the very reasons I should be spending more time in the work of prayer?

One of the realities about prayer is that it sounds very easy to do, but it is extremely difficult. Satan and his demonic horde will do everything in their power to keep us from praying effectively. No wonder Paul wrote that Epaphras prayed hard for the Colossians. It wasn't easy! It may not have been easy, but Epraphras committed himself to pray for the people of his hometown church.

I urge you to commit yourself to being a person of prayer. We all have people in our lives who desperately need our prayers, and if we don't pray for them who will? 

Join me in making a commitment that when a person pops into our minds, that we will stop what you are doing and pray for them. By doing this we are not not only inviting God to be part of the situation, but we are also doing our Christian duty of loving one another.

I think that we need recapture the idea of the work of prayer. Through prayer we can work for the Kingdom of God in this world. It won't be the easiest thing we have ever done, but it has the potential of being one of the best.

The Spiritually Mature Life: Having the Fruit

On Sunday, April 7, 2024, I started a new sermon series at Bethlehem Church called A Spiritually Mature Life. This sermon series is focused ...