Keeping God Before Us

Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

Last week I relayed a thought from Dallas Willard (1935-2013) explaining that to think of God rightly, in a manner leading to worship, “is the single most powerful force in completing and sustaining the spiritual formation of the whole person.”

Here is Henry Scougal (1650-1678) suggesting much the same thing:

The awareness and remembrance of the divine presence is the most ready and effectual means both to discover what is unlawful and to restrain us from it. There are some things a person could attempt to mitigate or defend, and yet he would not dare to look almighty God in the face and then set out to do them. If we look to him, we shall be enlightened. If we set him always before us, he will guide us by his eye and instruct us in the way wherein we ought to walk (Psalm 32:8).

The Life of God in the Soul of Man, p. 133

Scougal observed that many believe Christianity, or the true nature of religion and spirituality, to be a matter of orthodox belief or doctrine, outward behavior or ethics, and/or emotion or ecstatic experience. But religious faith in the Christian tradition, while it may involve such things, is none of these in and of themselves. Rather, Scougal writes, true religion “is union of the soul with God. It is a participation in the divine nature. It is the very image of God drawn upon the soul. In the apostle’s words, it is Christ formed within us” (p. 29). Scougal refers to this as “a divine life.”

Biblical and theological knowledge helps us to know God as God has been revealed to humankind, and a careful study of the history of the Christian movement and the conclusions reached concerning sound and reliable teaching by God’s grace and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit are helpful for our own journey. So, too, is the adoption of patterns of life and protocols for decision making that result in godly action. Furthermore, there are feelings and emotions evoked by the contemplation of a transcendent truth, the observation of the nature’s wonders, or the participation in a healthy, vibrant community that can encourage us and inspire us along life’s long and difficult way.

But there is no substitute for a personal relationship with God stemming from an open and wholehearted response to God’s invitation to fellowship, made possible to us not through a doctrine, or an ethic, or a feeling, but through a person: Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:1-3 puts it this way:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

The invitation is open to all, to know and to be in relationship with the “life” who has appeared, who through faith imparts to us the gift of fellowship with God, and through fellowship establishes within us “the divine life.”

The Most Powerful Force in the Spiritual Formation of the Human Person

Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash

As disciples engage in the practice of placing Jesus Christ at center stage in every branch of human knowledge, they are simultaneously being encouraged to train their thoughts ever upon God. In this way they enter not only a life of study, but also a life of worship.

To think of God rightly, as God is, one cannot help but lapse into worship; and worship is the single most powerful force in completing and sustaining the spiritual formation of the whole person. Worship naturally arises from thinking rightly of God on the basis of revealed truth confirmed in experience. We say flatly: worship is at once the overall character of the renovated though life and the only safe place for any human being to stand.

Dallas Willard, “Transformation of the Mind” in Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews, and Talks [affiliate link]

Lessons Learned on Foot

Photo by Artur Tumasjan on Unsplash

When we haphazardly encounter people we know, we realize that we are part of a communal fabric that is large, complex, and fluid: it helps us to connect specific streets, parks, and buildings with ideas of commitment, accountability, and care. The street grid and the relational networks we depend on become layered, part of each other in an inextricable fashion. And this is the sort of process, I would argue, that builds our deeper love for a place. As long as our networks of community and built environment remain separate, we grow a more detached admiration. We will likely appreciate the place where we live, but we may not feel part of it in the same way we do when we realize, “Around that corner, or the next, I meet see someone I know.” For me, at least, the process of serendipitous encounter shapes a strikingly different experience of the city. It changes the way I perceive a place, as well as the way I explore it.

For our children, walking has been both their favorite thing, and the most annoying chore we asked of them. They love walking to the nearby woods and exploring, strolling along the Thames, or venturing up to the Ashmolean museum or the Natural Science museum. On these trips, we’ve always had either a stroller or a baby carrier, and have given our 4-year-old shoulder rides as needed. Our 6-year-old has had to finish these walks, since she’s too big to carry, and has thus learned to think about how far she wants to go with this knowledge in mind. She’s grown stronger and more resilient, both mentally and physically, as a result. The mental endurance is important to emphasize here, I think, because (as long as you aren’t asking them to go too far) walking is not difficult for a child. It’s the mental hurdle of embracing the tedium of walking, the slow process of getting from point A to point B, that is often harder. Walking teaches a child patience. Let’s be honest—it teaches adults patience! We’ve all grown accustomed to instant gratification when it comes to transportation.

Gracy Olmstead, “Our Year Without a Car (With Kids)

Olmstead’s essay is worth reading in full, and her newsletter is quite good.

My community was not built with walkers in mind. We’re dependent on cars. My work is a twenty minute commute. Only a handful of our regular commitments are within a ten minute radius. My shortest drives are to the elementary school, the grocery store, and my weekly pick-up basketball game, which takes place at a nearby church gym.

But I do walk my neighborhood, early in the morning, or in the evenings. When I go without earbuds, I can hear the birds, reminding me of my creatureliness, or the distant traffic, which reminds me of my smallness. I see others, walking dogs, or strolling with children, or a group of older men, who routinely walk and talk together. There are vistas. Our neighborhood is located on a hillside, and over the edges of a few lots on the highest hillsides you can see the lower basin that holds Lake Waco, surrounded by a large expanse of Central Texas farmland, scrub, and plains. The sunsets to the west can be glorious, and people pay for those views.

My favorite thing about walking isn’t the serendipity, but the slowing. The pace feels much more human, more well-suited to our nature, and physically reminiscent of the fact that while we are capable of running at great speed or soaring to great heights, we are made to walk with God.

Praying Against the Grain

Photo by Joshua Hanks on Unsplash

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, “A Christian Litany of Humility

I had read portions of this prayer before, I had encountered it before, but it strangely compelled and stuck with me when seeing it referenced by Clarence Thomas in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son [affiliate link].

Cardinal Merry del Val lived from 1865 to 1930 and served under Pope Pius X as Cardinal Secretary of State, an office described as “prime minister” of the papacy.

Merry del Val’s prayer brought to mind another, by John Wesley:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Such prayers run against the grain of human nature, as it is in our post-fall reality. We are glory seeking creatures. When that desire for glory is misdirected toward the self, as it is in our state of disorder, this pursuit gives way to destruction of ourselves and anyone who stands in our way.

The other-directed orientation expressed in both these prayers–in the latter portion of Merry del Val’s prayer toward the neighbor and in Wesley’s prayer directed toward God–is exactly the dual reorientation we need.

This can be done by yielding ourselves and placing ourselves fully at God’s mercy. We can do so with confidence, and in hope, because God put aside self in Jesus Christ, in order that we might receive back from him our true selves. Having redeemed us, the glory is no longer ours to pursue, but his to bestow, and then ours to display.

Living into the fullness of our redeemed humanity restores us and fits us for life as a servant, first to God, and second to those we encounter. It is a life reflecting and revealing the person and work of Jesus Christ, the one who was humiliated but who is now exalted, and before whom, if we are brought low, will find ourselves likewise lifted up.

Trained Hopefulness

Photo by Azzedine Rouichi on Unsplash

When life feels like it’s spinning out of control, or like the task you have in front of you is insurmountable, it’s easy to default to hopelessness. To “What’s the point?” That’s natural. Your body evolved to conserve energy. We need to train for hopefulness. To clear the path to continue. It doesn’t take big heroic efforts to train hope. Small signals that you are in control, that you can have an impact, will be enough to turn our prefrontal cortex back on. If too many emails are causing you consternation, define a specific hour each day in which you’ll answer them. If grief has destroyed your motivation, give yourself permission to feel the strong emotions, binge on Netflix, but also to let go. You don’t need to be “back to normal” the day after a major loss, but you can take small steps toward normalcy to flex your control muscle: going for a walk instead of a full-blown workout, meeting friends for coffee, spending an hour a day diving back into your work project. Too often, we get stuck in the rut of apathy, because we haven’t flexed our hopeful muscle. Small actions that remind you that you have a choice go a long way to training the ability to put your brain back online.

Steve Magness, Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness [affiliate link]

“Hope” is a learned behavior. As expressed by Steve Magness, hope can be trained, like a muscle. Exercising agency, or the human ability to choose, activates and invigorates us. Small, positive choices snowball and build momentum. When we recall that we do have some control over our choices, even if that range is limited, we are able to keep going, to persist.

Magness’ assertion above is based in cognitive science, in research on the prefrontal cortex and its power to control our emotions while under stress. When times get tough, our default is to feel helpless. We can be overwhelmed by our circumstances and tempted to shut down, cowered, and quit. But we’re never totally helpless. So long as we exercise agency, even if it is over our attitude and inward disposition, we can continue moving forward.

How does this connect to toughness? We develop toughness when we learn that we always have a choice, that there is always something over which we can exercise control in any and all circumstances, no matter how challenging. Magness prescribes moving from small choices to large choices, “giving yourself a choice,” turning a negative into a positive (he calls it “flip the script”), and adopting a ritual, or focusing on what you can rather than what you can’t control (such as a batter’s routine before stepping into the batters’ box, or a basketball player’s pre-shot rhythm at the free throw line) when entering a high pressure environment.

For people of faith, the development of “trained hopefulness” has a twofold dimension. First, we remember that our first choice, in every circumstance, is to trust in God. Our second is to remember that our agency is exercised before God, and that if we seek the kingdom and answer our call, all that we do unto the Lord is not in vain. We’re not helpless. Nothing is impossible with God. In our most challenging circumstances, God is with us.

One Idea to Digest that Day

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. But now make sure that reading many authors and every kind of book-roll does not represent a kind of unsettled drifting. You should linger over and feed yourself upon a few chosen intellects if you want to take in anything that will stay faithfully in your mind. The man who is everywhere is nowhere. When men spend their life in traveling around, they have many hosts but no real friendships. The same thing must happen to those who do not devote themselves intimately to any one intellect but take in everything at speed and in haste. Food that is evacuated as soon as it is consumed gives no benefit and does not add strength to the body. Nothing delays healing as much as a constant change of remedies. A wound on which medications are tied out does not knit into a scar. A seedling that is constantly transplanted does not build up strength. Indeed, nothing is so beneficial that it can do good on the run; hence a great number of books slackens the mind. So, since you cannot read as much as you possess, it is enough to have the amount you can read. . .When you have surveyed many writing, choose one idea to digest that day.

Seneca, Letter 2 (Book I.2), in Selected Letters [affiliate link]

Seneca lived from 1 BC to 65 AD, a Stoic philosopher who lived during the Roman Imperial Period. Born in Spain and educated in Rome, this man was highly involved in politics. He served as a tutor to an adolescent Nero and later became a close advisor when Nero ascended the throne. Prior to service in Nero’s court, Seneca was exiled after being accused of adultery with the Emperor Caligula’s sister. His life ended in forced suicide, after he was found complicit in a plot to assassinate Nero.

The quote above, found in one of his philosophical letters, made me think of the oft cited self-description of John Wesley, who called himself “a man of one book.” Wesley referred to the Scriptures. He was a student of the Bible, first and foremost.

But Wesley read other books. This is evident through his sermons, journals, and other works. But Wesley read these other books through the lens of the Scriptures. He read widely, but routinely returned to Scripture. His interaction with other minds was done in consult with his familiarity with the mind of God, as it has been revealed through the canon of the Bible.

Seneca’s advice also made me think of Cal Newport, who’s commendation of the deep life and slow productivity aligns well with Seneca’s prescribed benefits of association with select intellects, key writings, and the contemplation of “one idea to digest that day.”

The Hidden Path

Photo by ActionVance on Unsplash

A child was filled with a question, which like an itch demanded to be scratched.

“Jacob, what I don’t understand is how you are to decide whether to follow what you feel is right or what you think is right?”

Jacob touched his own chest and said, “My heart know what my mind only thinks it knows.”

The answer pushed the boy to another question.

“What if neither my heart nor mind can help me find the way?”

And Jacob answered, “Prayer is a path where there is none.”

Noah benShea, Jacob the Baker: Gentle Wisdom for a Complicated World, p. 36

I’m of the opinion that discernment involves thinking and feeling prayerfully as one seeks to determine their way. Thus, prayer isn’t a last resort, but a first.

Nevertheless, “prayer is a path where there is none” suggests that the wise person understands that when they are at the end of both their emotional and intellectual capacities, help comes from outside the self, and is found ultimately in God. Prayer can show us a way where there is no way, because it focuses our attention on the One who can raises up valleys and levels mountains, who makes alive the dead, who makes possible the impossible.

Meditation and Prayer: Kindle the Fire

Image by HeungSoon from Pixabay

Do we not miss very much of the sweetness and efficacy of prayer by a want of careful meditation before it, and of hopeful expectation after it? . . . We too often rush into the presence of God without forethought or humility. We are like people who present themselves before a king without a petition, and what wonder is it that we often miss the end of prayer? We should be careful to keep the stream of meditation always running, for this is the water to drive the mill of prayer. It is idle to put up the floodgates of a dry brook and then hope to see the wheel revolve. Prayer without fervency is like hunting with a dead dog, and prayer without preparation is like hawking with a blind falcon. Prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit, but He works by means. . . The Holy Ghost is the author of prayer, but He employs the thoughts of a fervent soul as the gold with which to fashion the vessel. Let our prayers and praises be not the flashes of a hot and hasty brain but the steady burning of a well-kindled fire.

Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon and the Psalms, Commenting on Psalm 5

When teaching the Christian spiritual disciplines I have encountered a surprising amount of resistance when introducing meditation. Most students think of meditation as only emptying the mind, and not, as is prescribed in the Scriptures, of filling the mind with the things and thoughts of God.

Here is Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, comparing meditation to water that powers a mill, a hunt, hawking, gold, and fire. He says the meditating person is a person prepared to petition and praise God. Why? Because a person who thinks on the things and thoughts of God supplies the Holy Spirit with material from which to draw and choose for the occasion, the moment, of address.

Meditation invites God to refashion, reform, and renew our minds, not only so that we might think more clearly in relationship to God and God’s kingdom, so that we might converse more plainly, accurately, and cogently with the God who has called us into fellowship.

Think on the things and thoughts of God.

Peace in Battle

Photo by Stillness InMotion on Unsplash

Last Thursday I read J. C. Ryle’s tract Fighting for Holiness and came across the following:

We may take comfort about our souls if we know anything of an inward fight and conflict. It is the invariable companion of genuine Christian holiness. It is not everything, I am well aware, but it is something. Do we find in our heart of hearts a spiritual struggle? Do we feel anything of the flesh lusting against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, so that we cannot do the things we would (Gal. 5:17)? Are we conscious of two principles within us, contending for the mastery? Do we feel anything of war in our inward man? Well, let us thank God for it! It is a good sign. It is strongly probable evidence of the great work of sanctification. All true saints are soldiers. Anything is better than apathy, stagnation, deadness, and indifference. We are in a better state than many. The most of so-0ccalled Christians have no feeling at all. We are evidently no friends of Satan. Like the kings of this world, he wars not against his own subjects. The very fact that he assaults us should fill our minds with hope. I say again, let us take comfort. The child of God has two great marks about him, and of these two we have one: He may be known by his inward warfare, as well as by his inward peace.

J. C. Ryle, Fighting for Holiness [affiliate link]

The things you read while sitting in a quiet corner of a coffee shop.

I shared with friends that Ryle was addressing a movement in his own time, which continue to be present today, that we should simply rest in God, to “not wrestle, only nestle,” or, more popularly now, “let go and let God.” Ryle was writing in the latter half of the 1800s. Pendulums swing.

Resting and contending, both, are found in the witness of Scripture. More than one thing can be true at the same time. Our present struggles, though unpleasant, can be used by God for our good, and as Ryle says, they may be “evidence of the great work of sanctification” and a sign that we are spiritually alive. Ryle’s statement that Satan “wars not against his own subject” should stiffen our spines when we do experience the “inward warfare.” If we weren’t a threat, we would not be assailed by the powers of hell.

Whatever your trials, troubles, are temptations, stand firm. God is at work, drawing us into a deeper, fuller life. Don’t grow weary. Continue the pursuit; keep up the fight.

Calling: Adjusting the Dials

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

We think that a correct theology of calling can and will apply to all Christians, but not so the all-too-popular individualized understanding. Or better yet, we contend that a more faithful theology of calling will help direct the shape of a believer’s life no matter what their current circumstances. Put still another way, we contend that a theology of calling that is truly faithful to Scripture and not just pious language must apply to all Christians at all times and in all places. An overly individualized and specific view of calling as popularly presented just does not work. It ends up limiting more than it liberates.

William W. Klein and Daniel J. Steiner, What is My Calling? A Biblical and Theological Exploration of Christian Identity

This summer three new titles on vocation and calling landed on my desk for review, and the first of those titles I have picked up to read has been published by Baker Academic: William W. Klein and Daniel J. Steiner’s What is My Calling?

Klein and Steiner contend that current Christian discourse on calling, or the words we use and how they shape culture, distort, mislead, and malform Christians more than they clarify, direct, and aid in faithfulness. In a survey of the literature, the authors find that the vast majority of the current writing on calling focuses more on the individual and unique circumstances than it does the universal call to follow Jesus as his disciple.

Furthermore, by equating job-as-vocation with the idea of calling, the authors observe that the stress is frequently misplaced. Christians downgrade a variety of jobs and fields as possibilities because of a subjective feeling that it is not right for them. Christians can also identify job satisfaction or fulfillment (“living your passion”) as the key signifier they are living according God’s will. A great deal of modern discourse on calling puts the individual at the center of inquiry, and not God. That’s a mistake.

This way of approaching calling introduces a variety of problems. These criteria may work for some, but not all. Klein and Steiner ask us to consider the biblical witness and the ways Christians in other eras have approached calling in an effort to free us from our current individualized approach.

As I’m reading this book, I think that project is worthwhile. But I also suspect that Klein and Steiner have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.

In an effort to standardize our discourse on calling and avoid the pitfalls of subjective assessments Christians attach to their testimony about calling, they draw our attention back to the universals, such as the calling all people have to live as disciples of Jesus.

But in doing so, they minimize the biblical witness concerning the leading of the Holy Spirit, the responsibility of the believer to discern God’s will, and the active and near presence of Christ as advocate, counselor, teacher, and guide. In an effort to clean up the messes created by our commonly used words about calling, they sterilize the environment in which callings are clarified and worked out–the chaos and disorder of our everyday lives.

I’m still thinking about these ideas. When I speak with brothers and sisters in Christ, I do make distinctions in our understanding of calling.

First, I emphasize the calling of all Christians, which is to take up the cross and to follow Jesus, to become his apprentice, to learn his way, to declare allegiance to him, and to demonstrate complete trust and confidence in him. This dimension of our calling to Christ is universal and shared.

Secondly, I invite everyone to consider everyday faithfulness and the specific, particular outworking of that first and primary calling. This dimension of calling is individual and unique.

Klein and Steiner’s point, however, is well taken.

If anything, I think the dial on universal calling needs to be turned way up, while the dial concerning individual calling needs to be turned way down.

Everyone wants to know and do God’s will but no one wants to follow Jesus and become like him.

We want to know what to study in college, where we’re supposed to work, who we’re supposed to marry, where we’re supposed to live, etc. And if we follow Jesus and become like him, that’s a bonus.

But if we inverted our pursuits, if we contented ourselves with following Jesus and allowing him to remake us according to his image and way, knowing and doing God’s will is assured. Those other identity pursuits have been satisfied; the associated idols have been long cast aside. We will have found our calling, because we have entrusted ourselves fully to the Caller.