Place God Between Us and Our Circumstances

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It is narrated of Diogenes, that when Alexander the Great asked him to request a favour, the only thing that poor man wished of the conqueror of the world was, not to stand between him and the sun, whose genial light and warmth he was enjoying. If Diogenes stands for the Christian, Alexander for the world, and the sun for Him who is the light and joy of His people, we may look upon this story as an allegory: all that the Christian really wishes is, that the world should not obstruct and intercept the rays of happiness which come to him from the heavenly sanctuary.

If we are anxious always look first to God, and to place Him between us and our circumstances, and the people we have to deal with, then we shall be able to exercise love and patience, and to be calm and peaceful at all times. We have to deal with God on the one hand, and with our fellow-men and circumstances on the other. Now the great point is, how we place ourselves. If we allow people and circumstances to become between us and God, then the smallest provocation, disappointment, and difficulty obstruct to us the light of heaven, and intercept the supply of grace and strength. But if we place between us and the men we have to deal with, and the work we have to do, we shall walk in light and in love; for God is light and love, a translucent and strengthening medium. Look first at Him, and then at men and things. Have you met trial? Do not look first at the trial, and then at God, with the question: Does God, who allows this sorrow, love me? Look first at God, and with the renewed assurance of God’s love, look at the trial, and say, God chastens whom He loves.

Adolph Saphir, The Hidden Life: Thoughts on Communion with God

1 John 1:5-7 says, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

Place yourself in the light. Allow no darkness to obscure your vision of God. Walk in the light. Draw your strength from Christ, for in him there is no darkness at all.

Only a Weight

Remember that man’s life does not consist in what he has, but in what he is. Serve Jesus and the Church. Oh, let not the best years of your life be years in which you have little communion with God, and in which you do little for Christ! “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Let not your biography be summed up: “He turned to God in his youth, he then became lukewarm, being engrossed in the cares and the business and the social demands of the world, and a short time before his death he saw his mistake, and felt that one thing be needful. For years his spiritual life was barely sustained by the prayers of friends and the weekly services of the sanctuary. He might have been a pillar for the Church, but he was only a weight.” This be far from you. Oh, serve the Lord with gladness, be strong, quit yourselves like men, and abound in the work of the Lord!

Adolph Saphir, The Hidden Life: Thoughts on Communion with God

Adolph Saphir lived from 1831-1891. He was a Hungarian Jew who converted to Christianity and became a Presbyterian minister. If the quote above feels antiquated, those feelings are warranted. The book containing it was published in 1877.

My views on the spiritual life lead me to push back against Saphir, or to at least ask for further nuance, on certain aspects of the above. But my disagreements do not keep me from laughing at what I’ve highlighted in bold, or from cheering when he exhorts, “This be far from you.” It is far better to be a blessing than a burden, especially when you consider the blessings we have received in and through Christ. If you serve the Lord with gladness, do not do so because you desire a more favorable biographical summary. Do so because you have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and that as a result you desire nothing more than to live a life pleasing in God’s sight.

Good Days and Bad Days

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We have good days and bad days.

But one bad day might not capture the bigger story. Growth and progress is seldom linear.

There are good reasons to zoom in and examine a bad day. Maybe there are lessons to learn. In the Christian journey, there are sins of which to repent, confession to offer, behavior to change, justice to seek, mending and reconciliation that needs to be done.

And some days, life goes sideways and there is not much we can do other than to endure it and press on, to turn the page and start the next day fresh.

That one is over. On to the next one.

After a miss in basketball, I say to myself, “The next one is going in.” After a loss, I tell myself, “Back to work.”

There are also good reasons to zoom out and consider where you are today in comparison to where you were a month ago, six months ago, a year ago, a decade ago. You might discover you are further along than you thought.

The graph above could be misleading, since the measure of progress is “up and to the right.” Maybe all you need is plot points between A and B. One line. A is where you begin. B is where you want to be. There may be ups and downs. There might even be reversals: one step forward and two steps back. But are you closer today to B than the day you began? Can you see it? Or can trusted friends see it? Are you grateful for the change? Do you celebrate the growth you have seen? Do you live in the joy of renewal? Or do you get bogged down, zooming in on the bad days, bad moments, and become discouraged? Are you spiraling in the wrong direction? Do you need a reset?

When you have one bad moment, don’t allow it to become two. When you have one bad day, don’t allow it to become two. Instead, return to formational habits, reorient yourself toward the goal (however far on the horizon), and do the daily, small things leading to success. Be disciplined. Keep going.

In Colossians 1:28, Paul writes:

He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.

The principles above apply to anyone with a goal, anyone desiring growth and working toward it. Paul had a goal in mind: to lead others to maturity in Christ. Growth is part of the Christian life. If you want to become “fully mature in Christ,” conformity to Jesus is the target. Romans 13:14 exhorts us to “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

How do we do it? By keeping a constellation of commitments while moving toward our true North Star. Prayer is a key commitment, as is worship, fellowship, study. There are other disciplines, too, any virtues to be sought, developed, and instilled, including faith, hope, and love.

Whatever the means and whatever the virtues, above them all, we seek Jesus. He will supply what we need at the time we need it. We say, “I want to know you.” We say, “I want to learn from you.” We say, “My life is in your hands. Teach me.” We say, “Open my ears, my eyes, my heart.” We say, “Whatever is wrong in me, point it out, and heal me.” We say, “Whatever it takes for me to become like you, I trust you to lead me.”

His nail-scarred hand is extended to you. You take it. You grip it tight. You say, “I will not let you go.” You go where he goes and where he sends. In his earthly ministry, he worked alongside his disciples, but he also sent them out and remained at a distance, allowing them to experience a few things. You trust he is true to the promise to always be with those who are his. Just because he may not feel near does not mean that he is not with. Growth and progress in the Christian life is relational, communal, and personal. It occurs “with God.”

Change is possible. Growth is possible. Progress can be made. The process isn’t easy, nor is it always “up and to the right.” It is seldom quick and it takes work to sustain.

Get clear on the vision. Make your commitments. And then take up the actions and assume the attitudes that move you toward the goal, not away from it. There may be bad days. I’ll go a step further. There will be bad days. But keep the bigger picture in view. Take on a broader perspective. Keep moving in the right direction.

Jump Start Your Day with a Dose of Reverence

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We should always hold fast to the fear of God. It is the root of all spiritual knowledge and all right action. When the fear of God rules in the soul everything goes well both within and without. Try to kindle this sense of fear in your heart every morning before you do anything else. Then it will go on working by itself as a kind of pendulum.

Theophan the Recluse, “The Fruits of Prayer” in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology

Sounds good, Theophan. But what would this look like?

  • Consider the first thing you do each day. Where do you walk as soon as you are out of bed? What is the first action you take? Do you pick up your phone? Check your iPad? Turn on a computer? Brush your teeth? Start the coffee maker?
  • Put a sign in the place you go first or on top of the first item you look upon or pick up saying, “First, God.”
  • Think about God. Don’t ask God for anything. Don’t lay out your agenda for the day. Think about God. Then keep your thoughts there. If your thoughts try to lead you elsewhere, let those thoughts run on their merry way and bring yourself back to God and thoughts of God. Tell those other thoughts, “I’m staying right here.”
  • If it helps you to remain with the thought of God, create a list for reference. Write down what you know to be true of God. This could be: good, just, merciful, kind, long-suffering, patience, steadfast, wise, joyful, righteous, concerned for widows and orphans, excellent, praiseworthy, holy, Redeemer, Savior, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, counselor, advocate, friend, etc. No need to read the entire list each day. Dwell on one, or two, or three. Whatever you choose, think about how that thought represents the person of God.
  • After a few moments or minutes of thinking about who God is, say to yourself, “If God is really like this, and if I live in relationship to this God, and if this is a person I desire to honor, how will I live today?”
  • Carry that answer with you. Keep God before you. Seek God in all you do.

That might generate a few sparks.

Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” When we keep God before us, as God truly is, much good follows.

Dimitri of Rostov on Unceasing Prayer

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But someone may ask: “Why did the Apostle say in the Epistle to the Thessalonians, ‘Pray without ceasing?'” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Usually in the Holy Scriptures, the word “always” is used in the sense of “often,” for instance, “The priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service for God” (Hebrews 9:6): this means that the priests went into the first tabernacle at certain fixed hours, not that they went there unceasingly by day and by night; they went often, but not uninterruptedly. Even if the priests were all the time in church, keeping alight the fire which came from heaven, and adding fuel to it so that it should not go out, they were not doing this all at the same time, but by turns, as we see from St. Zacharias: “He executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course” (Luke 1:8). One should think in the same way about prayer, which the Apostle ordains to be done unceasingly, for it is impossible for man to remain in prayer day and night without interruption. After all, time is also needed for other things, for necessary cares in the administration of one’s house; we need time for working, time for talking, time for eating and drinking, time for rest and sleep. How is it possible to pray unceasingly except by praying often? But oft-repeated prayer may be considered unceasing prayer.

St. Dimitri of Rostov in “The Inner Closet of the Heart,” from The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, p. 49

Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing” has given me something to ponder. I’ve done my best to make sense of it, reasoning that if this is possible, prayer must mean something other than what I’ve experienced or thought thus far.

Above, Dimitri of Rostov reasons from Scripture that “always” does not always mean “always.” As a result, Paul must be exaggerating to make a point. Praying “often” must be what he meant. And besides, we have other things to do. Praying must cease so other activity can be done.

But this is not the only answer on offer in church history. Theophan the Recluse, another Christian in the Orthodox tradition, differentiates between spoken prayer, prayer in the mind, and prayer in the heart. When our words align with our thoughts, and our thoughts align with our inmost being, fully attentive and present to God, this is “inner spiritual prayer.” Theophan writes, “[U]nceasing prayer is only possible by praying with the mind in the heart.” He thought it was possible.

I agree with Theophan. Prayer without ceasing is possible. Christians believe they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who intercedes for us by searching out the human spirit and lifting our deepest needs to God “with groanings that cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). This truth, combined with other biblical passages that describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit, lead me to believe that prayer is not only a practice that involves speaking and thinking, but is a posture of the heart. When we pray, we do not pray on our own, but in, through, by, and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. We have a Helper. Even if we are not actively praying as it is commonly understood, the Holy Spirit is actively advocating, praying on our behalf.

This does not negate our responsibility to seek God during appointed times of prayer, or to pray aloud, or to think carefully about the words we form as we praise or petition God. But it does encourage us in faith, helping us to know that while we may conclude a time of speaking and thinking our prayers to God, a fire is kept within our hearts by the Holy Spirit within us, and we remain in communion with God.

Theophan writes, “The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” With God’s help, it is possible.

Theophan the Recluse’s Three Types of Prayer

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You have probably heard such words as: oral prayer, mental prayer, prayer of the heart; you may also have heard discussions about each of them separately. What is the cause of this division of prayer into parts? Because it happens that sometimes through our negligence the tongue recites the holy words of prayer, but the mind wanders elsewhere: or the mind understands the words of the prayer, but the heart does not respond to them by feeling. In the first case prayer is only oral, and is not prayer at all, in the second, mental prayer joins the oral, but this prayer is still perfect and incomplete. Complete and real prayer of word and thought is joined by prayer of feeling.

Spiritual or inner prayer comes when he who prays, after gathering his mind within his heart, from there directs his prayer to God in words no longer oral but silent: glorifying Him and giving thanks, confessing his sins with contrition before God, asking from Him the spiritual and physical blessings that he needs. You must pray not only with words but with the mind, and not only with the mind but with the heart, so that the mind understands and sees clearly what is said in words, and the heart feels what the mind is thinking. All these combined together constitute real prayer, and if any of them are absent your prayer is either not perfect, or is not prayer at all.

Theophan the Recluse in The Art of Prayer, p. 66-67

The divisions are helpful, as they enable us to be more attentive to our inner dispositions as we pray. Are we speaking empty words? Do we understand what we say? Is our heart aligned with both thoughts and words? Are we humble before God in our inmost being, and does the Spirit intercede with our spirit in identifying and requesting divine help for our deepest needs?

Our goal is to come before God as complete selves, and, as Theophan says, unite body to mind and heart, thus entering “real prayer.”

Tree Growth and Spiritual Formation: An Illustration

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An acquaintance and former associate of mine, Matt Johnson, helpfully made a connection for me between spiritual growth and the life cycle of trees. And here is Mandy Brown, deepening that connection:

In the spring, when the weather is (hopefully) warm and wet, a tree will grow rapidly, forming large, porous cells known as “earlywood.” Later, as the weather cools, it will grow in smaller, more tightly packed cells known as “latewood.” You can spot the difference when looking at a tree’s rings: earlywood appears as light-colored, usually thick, bands, while latewood shows up thinner and darker. What doesn’t show up in the rings is the dormant period—the winter season, when the tree doesn’t grow at all, but waits patiently for spring.

I think this is a useful metaphor for thinking about how we grow, too. There are times and seasons when the conditions are right for earlywood—for big, galloping growth, where you learn a lot in short order. This is often the case when you first step into a new role, or take on a new and challenging project, or start at a new organization. But those periods of rapid growth are often (and ideally) followed by periods when the growth is slower, more focused, moving in short and careful steps instead of giant leaps. These latewood periods are when the novelty of a new situation has worn off, and the time for reflection and deep-skill building arrives.

In the Christian spiritual life, growth doesn’t happen all at once, nor does it take place at a steady, constant pace. There are times when it seems like nothing is happening at all, but that isn’t necessarily true. Rest, or patient waiting, is preparatory for the growth ahead, big leaps and the small steps. Smith is again helpful: “[W]e must remind ourselves that growth occurs in intervals: there are times of growth, and there are times of non-growth. The latter isn’t a failure so much as a necessary period of rest. Dormancy isn’t stagnant; it’s potentiating. It’s patient.”

If you’re growing, great! Celebrate. If you’re steadying and solidifying, great! Stand firm. If you’re “potentiating,” wait! Be still, and know that God is God.

Unstopped Ears

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When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Luke 2:15, New International Version

I offer a weekly devotional to a small group of fellow staff members, and this Monday we turned our attention to the passage quoted above, Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. And while I have more often placed the stress on the shepherds’ exhortation to one another to “go” and “see” the sign of the baby born and laid in a manger announced to them as “the Messiah, the Lord,” I have less often contemplated the assertion that it was the Lord who had told “this thing” to them, directly. Luke tells us that the messenger is “an angel of the Lord,” and that “a great company of the heavenly host” appeared with and alongside the angel. But they considered these angelic messengers as acting at God’s behest. They claim divine revelation.

There is a distinction between having ears and hearing with understanding, as Isaiah 6:9 makes plain. Not every person who hears news about Jesus and his birth receives that message with a sense that it is the Lord who has told them, directly. But I am among those who, over time, have come to that conviction, that God communicates with us through the Word, people, and the heart-stirrings of the Holy Spirit.

To claim that one has received communication from God is a sign of the movement of God’s grace. Anyone who shares in understanding that Jesus is the Messiah can make this claim. That is worth marveling at. After seeing the child, the shepherds returned to their sheepfolds “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

For any who have seen Jesus, who have truly beheld him and contemplated what his birth, life, death, and reign meant and mean, they can do the same.

It’s the Little Things

We think it is the big things.

It is far more often the little things.

In the Christian spiritual life, think about the disciplines and practices that are foremost in your tradition. Prayer. Attending worship. Serving others. Reading or studying a Scripture portion. Fasting. Generosity and giving.

Don’t think about what doing these things might render in a day, or a week. Consider what might happen if you did these things routinely over years, even decades.

Choose a few seemingly small commitments. Keep them.

You won’t know where keeping those commitments will take you, what it will render.

But years from now, you may be very glad to have found out.