God’s objective is for you to live an outward-looking life – that is, not worried about yourself, but focused on the needs of others and how you can respond to those needs. When you embrace that mind-set, you are on the precipice of influence and success because that’s a perspective that God will bless. As soon as you start thinking about the needs and burdens of others, and what you can do to alleviate them, or how you can bless and build up others, you begin to establish a new identity for yourself – your true identity.
It doesn’t take a person with unusual training or ability to change the world. All it takes is a heart that cares, a mind that’s determined, a spirit that’s willing, a cause that matters, and a person to help.
Keep watch over your heart, for therein lie the wellsprings of life
The question that often comes as one reflects on these words of wisdom is simply this: How am I to go about keeping watch over my heart?”
Throughout the history of the faith, one of the primary ways that sincere followers of the Master have gone about keeping watch over the heart, the deepest part of ourselves, is through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Meditation, prayer, sacred study, self-examination, confession, service, worship – all of this classical spiritual traditions have a role to play in helping us become more aware of ourselves and our behavior and, as a result, have withstood the test of time as quality ways in which we can deepen our walk of faith.
As Christians, scripture tells us that we are to increasingly grow into the character of Christ – in other words – become more Christ-like. Left to our own devices, this would be an impossible demand. Tainted by sin and mostly dominated by our lower nature, who among us could generate even a sliver of hope of emulating Jesus in thought, word, and deed?
Fortunately, scripture tells us that we have an omnipotent ally in this process of spiritual formation. The Holy Spirit walks along side of us, giving us strength to offset our weakness, wisdom to overcome our ignorance, and divine love to gradually eradicate our extreme self-centeredness. It is this promise of the Holy Spirit that gives us a reason to proceed down the road of spiritual formation and further, provides us with a legitimate assurance of success.
Still, we cannot fold our arms, lean back, and wait for the Holy Spirit to magically turn us into exact replicas of Christ. Over the centuries countless numbers of Christians have tried this approach with predictable results. Scripture is clear in stating that we have a part to play in the attainment of what we here at LifeBrook call “Sacred Character.” Sacred Character is based on the character and integrity exhibited by Christ during his mission here on earth. By studying the character of Christ, we can gain valuable insight into what it means to live our own lives from the sure foundation of Sacred Character.
As Jesus walked this earth, he revealed the character of God. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” said Christ and in this statement he revealed a profound truth. Christ was so intimate with the Father that his character and his behavior were perfect reflections of his heavenly parent. Our goal, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is to live in the same intimacy with Christ as he lived with the Father. If you want to gain a deep and abiding perspective on this kind of intimate relationship, I suggest that you prayerfully read through the 17th Chapter of the Gospel of John.
In order to grow into this type of intimacy with Christ and increasingly manifest Sacred Character in our daily lives, we must engage in certain activities that foster spiritual development in a positive and proven direction. These activities have a long and valuable history in the Christian tradition. Here I am speaking of the classic Christian spiritual disciplines.
In some quarters, sincere believers become edgy just at the mention of spiritual disciplines. Steeped in the theology of God’s unmerited and unlimited grace, these well-meaning Christians believe that pursuing the practice of the classical spiritual disciplines is somehow “salvation through works.” This kind of thinking is both incorrect and unfortunate. It is incorrect in the sense that the spiritual disciplines are not related to salvation or the final destination of one’s soul. Pursuing spiritual disciplines is more concerned with placing ourselves in a position of receptivity to the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is about allowing the Holy Spirit to form us into the image of Christ. Although this spiritual formation is ultimately a work of the Spirit, we are told to do all that we can to assist in the process. As the great Quaker writer Rufus Jones once said,
“The grace of God is like the wind blowing across the Sea of Galilee; if you want to get to the other side, you have to raise your sail.”
The notion that practicing the disciplines is “works” is also highly unfortunate in that this misguided belief has prevented countless Christians from availing themselves of the very thing they need in order to foster the deeper, more effective walk of faith. I am of the belief that the great “faith/works” controversy of the 16th Century, although beneficial in many ways, gave birth to a trend in Protestant Christianity that resulted in pews filled with believers that were both powerless and confused. This tragic trend continues even today.
As the Body of Christ moves forward in this challenging age, establishing ministries focusing on vibrant, dynamic discipleship is of paramount importance. Unless the church develops consistent ways to grow its members deeper in the faith, it runs the danger of becoming, at best, irrelevant to the contemporary culture, or at worst, dead.
To begin, I think it is critical that we come to understand just what a disciple is. From all evidence, it would seem the church at large has lost touch with a crucial element of its mission – disciple-making. Just prior to his ascension, Christ did not tell his inner circle to “go and make converts.” No, he told them to go and make disciples. It is obvious that constructing a workable definition of a disciple is a high priority. Margaret Campbell gives us a great jump-start:
A disciple of Jesus is a person who has decided to live in attentiveness to Jesus. We live in attentiveness in order to become like Jesus on the inside and, thereby, able to do what Jesus would do on the outside. As maturing disciples we progressively learn to live in attentiveness, adoration, surrender, obedience, and thankfulness to God, and all of this, without ceasing. Through the hidden work of transformation, God writes his good way on our minds and hearts and this is very good. By his grace, our hearts are divinely changed. We are progressively conformed to be like Jesus in mind and will and soul and word and deed. What we say and what we do more consistently reflect the glory and goodness of God.
If that isn’t clear enough, let’s listen to George Barna:
True discipleship is about a lifestyle, not simply about stored up Bible knowledge. Often, churches assume that if people are reading the Bible and attending a small group, then real discipleship is happening. Unfortunately, we found that’s often not the case. Discipleship is about being and reproducing zealots for Christ. Discipleship, in other words, is about passionately pursuing the lifestyle and mission of Jesus Christ.
From these two definitions it should be clear that real discipleship, the kind of Jesus-following that makes a difference in a person’s life and the life of others, involves more than wearing a “What would Jesus Do?” bracelet.
It is apparent, however, that the church lost its focus on the practice of spiritual disciplines over the years. As mentioned in Part One, I think this is one of the unfortunate side effects of the historical “faith/works” controversy. The result has been a general sense of confusion on the part of the Christian community in terms of the spiritual technology available to those who desire a deeper walk of faith.
One of the primary reason today’s church is becoming less of a force in society and even in the lives of those professing to be Christian is the fact that for many years the Body of Christ as a whole had lost the real meaning of the word “disciple.” Dallas Willard speaks directly to this tragedy:
For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not madediscipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship. Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Christ in his example, spirit, and teachings as a condition of membership – either of entering into or continuing in fellowship of a denomination or local church. I would be glad to learn of any exception to this claim, but it would only serve to highlight its general validity and make the general rule more glaring. So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned,discipleship is clearly optional.
This lack of emphasis on discipleship in the contemporary church has led to many unfortunate circumstances, not the least of which is that so many Christians are walking around feeling as wounded, depressed, and hopeless as those outside the faith. That this is so, however, should not be surprising. Christ did not call us to a “country club” religion. In fact, he didn’t call us to religion at all. He called us to relationship and mission. To participate in this life-giving relationship and to fulfill our mission as Christ-followers, we must indeed become just that – Christ-followers. Tragically, few realize that this involves far more than belief in a few arcane doctrines, tossing off an occasional prayer, and being a tithing member of a local congregation. And perhaps nothing is more essential in this challenging age than having an army of true Christ-followers. Willard understands this necessity:
Nothing less than life in the steps of Christ is adequate to the human soul or the needs of our world. Any other offer fails to do justice to the drama of human redemption, deprives the hearer of life’s greatest opportunity, and abandons this present life to the evil powers of this age. The correct perspective is to see following Christ not only as the necessity it is, but as the fulfillment of the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane.
The notion that deep discipleship was optional was not a part of the early church. Willard continues:
…there is absolutely nothing in what Jesus himself or his early followers taught that suggest that you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with him.
to be continued…….
(c) L.D. Turner 2008/2009/2013/All Rights Reserved
We must start where Jesus started, with muddied, wretched-feeling people. Jesus didn’t start with the mud, but the hope of this “good news” about a God of grace who offers damaged people a relationship to become the people they were intended to be (we all need that). . . . . . . . . .Think about it: Jesus didn’t confront Zacchaeus about his thieving practices, he offered relationship, and that changed Zach! Jesus didn’t make sure the woman at the well understood that sex outside of marriage is wrong (though he taught that it was at other times), he offered her living water that made the muddy water distasteful. Jesus didn’t remind the woman caught in adultery that she broke the Ten Commandments – he didn’t have to – he set her free from condemnation so that she could “go and sin no more” (John 8:11 NLT). He offered a chance to live a new life! Relationship was Jesus’ solution to sin. Can we offer restorative relationship to very muddied people? That’s what it takes to be like Jesus.
Any thoughtful, observant Christian should be aware by now that the Western church is in crisis. Don’t be deceived by the growth of the so-called “mega-churches” and the various and sundry “evangelistic explosions” that we see taking place. The fact is, people are leaving the faith in droves and fewer new faces are coming through the doors. Moreover, these dwindling numbers, along with our culture’s increasing negative view of Christianity, have relegated the church to a position of peripheral social influence.
Once the bedrock upon which our culture’s value system was built, the church is now little more than marginal voice in the constantly shifting tides of post-modern America. Identified by most Americans as joined at the hip with Right-Wing Conservatism, the church is viewed with increasing disdain and animosity. Traditional attempts at evangelism and apologetics only seem to make the situation worse. Evangelism is seen as an attempt by elitist Christians to ram their faith down people’s throats and apologetics is viewed as an archaic attempt to make the unreasonable make sense.
If the church is to survive, drastic changes must take place. It should be obvious by now that the old ways of “doing church,” especially evangelism, is doomed to failure.
Personally, I have come to believe that the most effective form of Christianity involves being faithful to our calling to incarnate Christ to a hurting world. This is the essence of what is often called “Kingdom living.” It is a lifestyle which, if carried out with compassion and commitment, will in and of itself draw people to the faith. It involves a simple paradigm: find a pressing social need and address it.
Put simply, it means giving flesh to grace. This is what Christ did and we are called to no less.
When people of faith express the love of God through acts of service and kindness, people take notice. These simple acts of grace accomplish far more than reasoned arguments, stadium rallies, popular seminars, and best-selling books. These simple acts of grace, especially given the church’s increasingly negative image in our culture, are the most effective forms of evangelistic activity we can engage in. It was not so different in the early church, which can serve as a model for what we should be doing.
In the middle of the Third Century a terrible plague devastated the Mediterranean world, dealing death to large swaths of the population. Many of those stricken with the disease were sent out of the cities, destined to die agonizing deaths alone and terrified. The Christian faithful, however, responded in a much different fashion. Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, describes the acts of grace this way:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting t heir pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.
Many people were drawn to the fledgling church by the acts of service and sacrifice that so typified the early Christians. I am of the belief that it is here that the modern church can find its methodology of renewal. Crafting theological arguments is not the answer in today’s post-modern culture; nor is allying the church with a political party or ideology. Withdrawing into our own “Christian culture” is equally misguided. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves into the hurts of this world and find creative ways to bring God’s healing light to those hurts. Anything else misses the point.
Paul stressed that in order to be effective witnesses for the gospel, we must become “living epistles.” We must become open letters that anyone can read and by reading, come to a deeper understanding of just who this radical Galilean was and is. It is a high calling, indeed and not one to be taken lightly. If we take Jesus’ words about the final judgment as recorded in the 26th Chapter of Matthew as true, then it should be obvious to even the most dense among us that the litmus test for defining a Christian is not belief in Christ, but in embodying Christ.
Michael Frost, in his excellent book Exiles, points out that this incarnational living is incumbent upon all who would claim Jesus as Master and Teacher:
Practicing the presence of Christ means being a living example of the life of Jesus. This raises the stakes enormously. It means that our lives need to become increasingly aligned with the example of Jesus. It doesn’t require sinless obedience – as if that’s possible anyway. It means, though, increasingly becoming people of justice, kindness, mercy, strength, hope, grace, generosity, and hospitality.
Yes, this divine calling is an invitation to a life of fulfillment and reward beyond our imagining, if we will only yield ourselves to it with complete abandon. Yet for many of us, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Still, it is necessary to move forward as best we can, relying on the promises of God and the empowerment of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For many of us, we get better in spite of ourselves. I know that is often true in my case.
This call to emulate Christ is a call to give flesh to grace. The whole story-line of God’s Great Saga is one of proactive grace. God saw that we needed grace and gave us Christ and Christ saw that the world needed grace and gave the world us. Just pause and chew on that one for a minute. What a great honor and what a great responsibility.
As “living epistles” we have the opportunity to meet God in the divine moment, what Erwin Raphael McManus calls the “epicenter of God’s activity.” When we consistently engage in these acts of Christian kindness, we in essence become what Gary Thomas accurately calls “God Oases.” Thomas explains:
A holy man or woman is a spiritual force, a “God oasis,” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the ways they listen and use their eyes to love instead of lust, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy men and women are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation threatens to tear this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out, and they will have something to say.
I find this description of godly men and women highly inspirational, not to mention vivifying. Thomas’ words encourage us to sensitize ourselves more and more to God’s activity in this world and further, to take compassionate action in emulating Christ’s acts of grace and healing. In ways both great and small, we can locate that epicenter of God’s activity and get to work.
It is nothing less than our calling, our responsibility, and our honor. And in so doing, it is my earnest prayer that more and more of us can become living epistles – God oases – and give incarnation to the godly image described in Isaiah 32:2:
I believe that we have reduced the gospel from a dynamic and beautiful symphony of God’s love for and in the world to a bare and strident monotone. We have taken this amazing good news from God, originally presented in high definition and Dolby stereo, and reduced it to a grainy, black-and-white, silent movie. In doing so, we have also stripped it of much of its power to change not only the human heart but the world. This is especially reflected in our limited view of evangelism. Jesus commanded His followers to take the good news of reconciliation and forgiveness to the ends of the earth. The dictate is the same today.
Christianity is a faith that was meant to spread – but not through coercion. God’s love was intended to be demonstrated, not dictated. Our job is not to manipulate or induce others to agree with us or to leave their religion and embrace Christianity. Our change is to both proclaim and embody the gospel so that others can see, hear, and feel God’s love in tangible ways. When we are living out our faith with integrity and compassion in the world, God can use us to give others a glimpse of His love and character. It is God – not us – who works in the hearts of men and women to forgive and redeem. Coercion is not necessary or even particularly helpful. God is responsible for the harvest – but we must plant, water, and cultivate the seeds.
Jesus came first and foremost preaching the kingdom. Even the most superficial skimming of the New Testament will readily reveal this fact. Inaugurating the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) and laying the groundwork for its ongoing establishment on earth was his central mission and, although other things were important, everything took a back seat to this. Dr. Myles Munroe explains most cogently:
“Everywhere He went, Jesus preached the Kingdom. That was His assignment. Jesus primary message was not the born-again message that dominates gospel preaching. In His entire recorded ministry, Jesus spoke only once about being born again, and that was in the middle of the night to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus privately. Being born again is the way into the Kingdom – it is the necessary first step. But the gospel of the Kingdom involves much more……….Not only did Jesus rarely speak about being born again, neither did He make these other themes the focus of His preaching: prosperity, healing, baptism in the Holy Spirit, or many of the other things we preach so much about today. Jesus taught about those things, and He demonstrated them in His day-by-day ministry, but He didn’t preach them. There is a big difference. Jesus had only one message: the Kingdom of God. That was His assignment, and He passed it on to us. His assignment is our assignment.”
Indeed, healing, prosperity, evangelism, service to others, salvation, born again themes – all of these are foundational aspects of the gospel message, but they all pale in comparison to what I like to call “God’s Great Story.” This story is the underlying theme of the entire Bible and it is ultimately the story of how God is going about setting up his kingdom here on earth. Jesus had a unique role to play in this great cosmic drama and, because of who and what he was and is, it was a role only he could play. And just as Dr. Munroe so passionately explained, Christ’s assignment was to bring the message of the kingdom to this planet and just before he went back to his celestial home after ascending higher than the highest heaven (Ephesians 4:10), he had one more surprise: he charged us with continuing his assignment here on earth.
What this means is that just as Jesus had a unique role to play in the establishment of the kingdom, so does each of us. The problem is many of us are confused about what that role entails in both general and individually specific aspects. To make matters even more perplexing is the fact that the church, either by choice or by ignorance, seems to have abandoned its kingdom mission.
In order to rectify this situation we have to engage is serious study so as to discern exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. As we undertake such a project we also need to realize that the whole kingdom agenda is a multi-faceted phenomenon and does not necessarily lend itself to simplistic analysis.
I am convinced that although such a study can be carried out within the parameters of a group setting, ultimately, each of us must arrive at our own understanding of what the basic themes of the “kingdom message” of Jesus were. Perhaps the benefit of a study group would especially come in when participants came together to discuss what they had each discovered.
As to methodology for an undertaking like this, again, I think that whatever best suits the individual will be the most effective, provided of course, that it covers the territory in sufficient detail. For example, whenever I undertake this sort of study project I typically fall back on my Methodist background and John Wesley’s four-part system of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I have never failed to find this methodology sufficient for any research task of the nature we are discussing.
The Kingdom Agenda is at the foundation of all acts of Christian service. As followers of Christ, called to give flesh to grace and make disciples in all the world, we must constantly be about our kingdom calling in ways great and small. I like the way N.T. Wright puts this into proper perspective:
“……….what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about tobe dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God.”
As Wright so eloquently reminds us, the Kingdom agenda is permeated through and through with proactive compassion. It is not enough to sit back and identify and discuss social problems from a comfortable distance. Jesus was not afraid to get his hands dirty and he certainly does not call us to detached, sterile service. Kingdom work is often unpleasant and frequently places us in circumstances that are far out of our comfort zones.
As followers of Christ in this challenging age of change it is imperative that we reorient our efforts, making certain that we are in alignment with the mission the Master has given us. The specifics of each mission will be different for each of us, but each will share a common denominator. Our particular calling, whether great or small, is grounded in love, kindness, and compassion. Each personal mission will seek to establish a just and equitable way of being in the world, solidly based on kingdom principles and deep concern for the well-being of others.
*** This article first appeared in Wellsprings and Wineskins in early 2011, and was also featured here on Lifebrook a bit later. Its message about poverty and the importance of prayer is as vital today as it ever was.
Crippling poverty has been a daily reality for far too many people for as long as history has been recorded. In spite of the great advances in agriculture and other life sciences, for countless people around the globe each day is a struggle for survival, a never-ending search for food and clean drinking water. It is estimated that 25,000 children die each day from starvation and illness directly related to poverty. If we lay claim to the mantle of Christian, we cannot ignore these realities.
Many of us feel there is nothing that we can do to make a dent in the problem of global poverty. We cite lack of money, lack of time, and countless others “lacks” when called upon to take positive steps of Christian love to address chronic poverty, even in our own neighborhoods and cities. I have little doubt that tears flow in the heavenly realms each time we hide behind our “lacks.”
There is one thing that we all can do, however: We can pray. If we truly believe in the effectiveness of prayer, and as followers of Jesus we have plenty of reason to believe, then we surely understand that by praying for those in poverty we can accomplish great things. Further, we can all find the time to offer up intentional intercession on behalf of those in dire need. In his book A Hole in Our Gospel, World Vision director Richard Stearns shares these words, penned by his colleague John Robb:
Wherever in the world there is significant development – people coming to Christ, health improvements, economic opportunities, adoption of kingdom values – it is the direct result of Christians praying.
I strongly believe what Robb is saying. During the years I spent working with AIDS patients, veterans, and the homeless in Dade County, Florida, I personally witnessed the miracles that can be brought about through prayer. The same is true for the five years of front line service in China. Without a strong foundation of prayer, little could have been accomplished.
Intentional intercessory prayer on behalf of those mired in poverty can be done in your private devotion time, or it can be done as a group project. Another way to make this kind of prayer a part of your daily living is to follow the seven steps suggested by Richard Stearns:
When you take your morning shower, pray for families in poor countries who do not have access to clean water, forcing mothers to spend hours collecting inadequate water and causing children suffer and even die from water-related diseases.
When you pack your lunch, or your child’s lunch, pray for the one billion people who are chronically hungry in the world today.
As you commute to your job, pray for the adults around the world who can’t find consistent work to feed their families, or pray for the millions of children forced into harmful or exploitative labor.
When you drop your child off at school, pray for children around the world who cannot get an education because of poverty or discrimination.
As you take a vitamin, pray for the families without adequate health care, leaving them and especially their children vulnerable to preventable diseases.
When you arrive home after work, pray for the children and families who are homeless due to poverty, conflict, or natural disasters.
As you tuck your children into bed, guide them to pray for the millions of children who have lost their parents around the world – especially the fifteen million AIDS orphans around the world, many of whom must survive without guardians.
Stearns suggestions are just that, suggestions. However, if you make a committed and diligent effort to make these prayers a part of your daily round for the next thirty days or so, you may very well have a significant impact on someone in need. Never discount or minimize the power of committed prayer. Time and time again it has been shown to work wonders.
I would also suggest that you pick up a copy of Stearns’ book, The Hole in Our Gospel. Spend quality time with this book, slowly imbibing the practical wisdom contained in its pages and the inspiration gleaned from the author’s candid revelations regarding his own journey from corporate president to a front line, leadership role with World Vision. It will be time well spent.