WALK IN THE SPIRIT: What Does Freedom From Sin Mean?

“Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16.

From time to time people ask questions that remind me how deep the discouragement and how hard the battle with sinful impulses can be. One of those came from a friend last week who asked: “What is freedom from the chains of sin?  Freedom to never sin?  Freedom from the worst consequences of sin?  I’ve been pouring over Romans 6 (don’t have to sin), 7 (it’s not me that sins but sin in my flesh), 8 (there is no condemnation),” but he had reached no conclusions.

He is right, of course, about Romans 6, 7, and 8. We are free from slavery to sin and free from the eternal consequences of it, but as long as we live in these fallen bodies we will continue to struggle with the impulse to sin which is why the ministry of the Holy Spirit is so crucial.

Maybe a Star Wars illustration will help us think about it.

At the end of act one in the first movie, Luke, Han, and Leah are trying to regain the Millennium Falcon, fighting their way through. On the opposite side of the hangar, Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi are in a duel to the death.

Darth Vader is overpowering and gloating. “Now I am the Master!”

“Only a master of evil,” says the old Jedi.

Then Obi Wan says: “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

That scene illustrates two metaphors for the Christian life: First, it is about power, but not the kind of power most people imagine, and second, the power we seek comes to us in a counter-intuitive way; to live, to have real power, we must die.

Our lives before the Spirit comes are full of darkness (Titus 3:4-7). A dark life is a life that tries to get its own way all the time; to have its own power. It follows dark impulses. Paul defines that darkness in Galatians 5:19-21.

Hear it in Eugene Peterson’s brilliant paraphrase from THE MESSAGE:

“… repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.”

It is the worst of human behavior. And Paul is talking about Christians! When we live according to our ‘old man’ or ‘flesh’ or ‘sinful nature’ as it is variously translated we are capable of all such things. We look no different than the world.

But don’t get discouraged. Paul chooses his words very carefully. The original tense of the verb translated “those who live like this” (v.21) means “habitually practice”.

If your life is marked by this kind of behavior, day after day, week after week, year after year, you are kidding yourself about your salvation. The Spirit doesn’t reside in you.

But a life lived in the power of the Spirit is not like that at all.  It’s a life where the light grows stronger and stronger each day.  It’s outlined in Galatians 5: 22-23.

Here it is again in Peterson’s paraphrase.

“He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

How does all this come about?

God wants our lives to be full of His light, full of his power.  But it doesn’t happen automatically.  Like a Jedi Knight we have a part to play, we must learn how to, “Walk in the Spirit so that we won’t fulfill the desires of the flesh.” Otherwise we will fall back into the habits of darkness.

To walk in the Spirit, we must learn the difference between Spirit and Flesh, how the two operate in us. I’m doing some ministry traveling for the next two weeks and won’t be sure of my internet connection, but if I’m able I’ll write more about the differences between the two and how to walk in the Spirit next week.

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

I was approaching agoraphobia—the inability to be in a crowd—and didn’t know it, but then, I didn’t know much of anything about anxiety disorders in 1980. All I knew was that I had trouble sleeping, I was constantly worried, I felt terribly alone, incessantly churning down inside. I had been a confident, risk-taking teen, but by age twenty all that was gone. I was so uncertain of myself that I stayed in my car between classes at the junior college and drove straight home after lunch to spend the rest of the day alone and miserable. The only way I could describe it was that it felt like I was free-falling, with no bottom in sight and no rope to stop me.

If any of that sounds familiar, then you may be among the thirty-odd percent of Americans who, according to the National Institutes of Health, have an anxiety disorder. It’s even worse among college students, 62% of whom reported “overwhelming anxiety” in 2016 according to The New York Times.[1]

The search for peace is driving unprecedented sales of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, over 15.2 billion dollars and rising in 2015.[2] The medications have helped many people. And the more we learn about the brain the better. But finding peace is about more than balanced brain chemistry. It’s about inner harmony. Bottom-line: if our souls are out of balance the medications will only mask problems, problems that, if resolved, might preclude the need for medications.

It behooves us to ask then, what exactly is peace?

Peace means wholeness. Shalom—fullness of life—is the old Hebrew word. Harmony, which comes from the Greek Ireinei (pronounced I-Ray-nye), “at one again,” is another. When I have inner peace I am at one, I am whole. My mind and heart are in harmony and every part of me is in agreement. Inner peace has little to do with external circumstances and everything to do with how my mind and heart respond to those circumstances. One thing is certain: I cannot have peace with others if I do not have peace within.

We chase peace in many ways.

Fame is one, the search for which is exacerbated by social media. Teens especially are vulnerable. When we are well-known (translation: many “friends” and “followers”) and well liked, the center of attention, we have peace. But the peace of fame is fleeting. It leaves us empty and anxious when the spotlight turns, as it inevitably will, to someone else.

Perfection is another. Pursuing perfection makes us feel an inch taller than everyone else. Ben Franklin had thirteen rules of virtue but found he could never keep them all at once. Eventually we hit the wall, the end of our ability to achieve whatever goal we set be it athletic, musical, moral or financial. When that happens, peace is replaced by frustration, another word for anxiety.

Finally, some pursue peace through conformity to a sub-culture: We’re Goths or Gays, Progressives or MAGA’s, Baptists or Brethren. Conformity is sturdy, reliable. The boundaries are clear and so are the “ins” and the “outs.” But conformity offers peace only to insiders. It erects barriers to outsiders. In the end, conformity is the peace of prison. Life stops at the gates.

The Bible explains where our anxiety comes from. We are fragmented, incomplete creatures, created whole in the image of God but broken at the fall. We are jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, un-synchronized and incomplete without relationship with Him who made us.

The Bible also offers the path to peace: Jesus. “For he himself is our peace,” wrote Paul, “who made the two one.” Jesus is our peace because of two things: His personal wholeness, he is shalom personified, and his work of redemption. He restored our broken relationship with God.

Jesus is the only unfragmented person who ever lived. He is complete, lacking nothing. “In him the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.”[3]

Jesus restored, synchronized and harmonized, our relationship with God. “We have peace with God through” him.[4] He filled up what was lacking in us by “making us complete” in himself.[5] He unifies our minds in peace, overcoming our mental fragmentation by the control of his Spirit.[6]

In March of 1980 I gave my life to Christ, asking him to take control, and experienced the “peace that passes understanding.” The falling stopped, and my feet were finally on solid ground. I have had many ups and downs since then, but the rock beneath my feet has never moved. Aren’t you ready to do the same?

[1] https://www.eab.com/daily-briefing/2017/10/18/why-extreme-anxiety-is-at-an-all-time-high-among-american-students

[2] https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/anxiety-disorders-and-depression-treatment-market

[3] Colossians 2:9

[4] Romans 5:1

[5] Colossians 2:10

[6] Romans 8:6 & 9.

CORN-HOLE VICTORIES AND PARTYING WITH GOD

CORN-HOLE VICTORIES AND PARTYING WITH GOD

Thunk! “YES!” I fist pumped. Thunk! “Just one more!” I said to my partner, did my wind up, and tossed. Thunk! “We won! We won!” I shouted, threw my hands up and did a victory dance. It was a classic come from behind victory. I could hear Jim Nance intoning, “It was a cornhole tournament unlike any other.”

Everybody at the church picnic turned and looked at their nutty pastor and smiled.

Hey, don’t laugh. At my age, sporting victories are few and far between. I celebrate them whenever I get the chance. In fact, I celebrate—a word with roots deep in worship of God—any time I can think of an excuse to do so, and so should you.

“Joy is the serious business of heaven,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Joy is what heaven is about. It is the driving energy of life. Without it we wither. Partying with God is essential to a happy life.

Have you considered how much joy there is in the Bible? The New Testament begins with it and is filled with it. Do a concordance search on “joy” or “rejoicing” and you’ll be amazed. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Jesus said, “Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Children do joy automatically.

G. K. Chesterton explained, “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”[1]

God has an immense capacity for simple joy that we have lost and need to regain. The ability to party with God, the spiritual discipline of celebration, is a crucial step in reclaiming our joy. It is crucial because joyless Christians help no one.

Put yourself in the position of someone looking for answers in life. You’re looking around at the people you know, the people you see in the hair salon, the other moms at the baseball field. You’re watching them because you know they go to a church that says there is more to this life. Yet you don’t see any joy. You see crabbiness. You see selfishness. You see someone who can find the fly in every ice cream cone of life. Are you going to be interested in her spirituality?

Somebody out there in the spiritual world wants you to find all the faults in others and all the sadness you can swallow, but it isn’t Jesus Christ. Francis de Sales wrote, “The evil one is pleased with sadness and melancholy because he himself is sad and melancholy and will be so for all eternity. Hence he desires that everyone should be like himself.”[2] Misery loves company.

Joy is an absolute necessity for healthy spiritual life. Without it we shrivel and become vulnerable, more vulnerable to temptation than ever. Fulfillment, contentment, and dare I say it, pleasure, are essential elements for a strong soul. When we fail to find these good things God wants us to have, and then celebrate the goodness, sin seems better than what He has to offer. Temptation’s power is multiplied in an unhappy soul.

So, I urge you, learn the spiritual discipline of celebration. Learn to take each good thing out of each good day, even the corn-hole victories of life, and revel in the goodness of God.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, quoted by John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, p. 61

[2] Francis de Sales. Quoted by Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted. P. 64.

 

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

In an interview one morning with Shankar Vedantam, Steve Innskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition, offered a fascinating peak behind the façade of American religiosity. Innskeep reported the findings of a study that surveyed our actual church attendance versus our professed church attendance. The bottom line: 79% of Americans report themselves as associated with an organized faith group. Nearly half, 45%, of all Americans report that they attend weekly religious services versus only 20% of Europeans. But the actual attendance is about equal: 20 % of Christian Europeans attend religious services each week versus 24% of Americans. Why the discrepancy? According to Vedantam, Americans want to see themselves, and want to be seen, as the kind of people that attend church. But when the clock strikes nine on Sunday morning we’d rather stay in our PJ’s watching Meet the Press than slip on our shoes and shuffle off to Sunday School.

It’s like when the dentist asks if you’ve been flossing. Everyone wants to be seen as someone who flosses. But our teeth tell a different tale. [1]

In the same way, Americans want very much to be spiritually deep people. We want the power that comes from a real, intimate, experience of the living God. But we either don’t know how or else we are confused and disillusioned by what we see in the professing Christians around us. The Church, it seems, looks little different from the world. And in some cases, it looks worse. Our spirituality, measured by positive transformation into healthy, happy, and honorable people, is one thousand miles wide and one inch deep.

Pastor and author John Ortberg summarized our angst well in an interview with Dallas Willard, “I went through this long era of intense dissatisfaction and confusion about spiritual life… It’s the cry of the heart,” he said, “God! I don’t know what to do. I know I need you. I know I want you. But I don’t know what to do. Then I picked up this book (referring to Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines) and opened to the preface and read, “authentic transformation really is possible if we are willing to do one thing and that is to rearrange our lives around the things that Jesus practiced in order to receive life and power from the Father.”

Church attendance isn’t always a good measure of spiritual depth. But that is only one of the spiritual disciplines, and one of the most passive. We can no more expect to experience the transforming power of life in the Spirit via one hour a week of sermonic spiritual dentistry, than we can expect to become professional baseball players by watching the World Series. We have to get in the game. If we want to experience the presence and power of God in our lives, we must put into practice the habits and attitudes that Jesus modeled, the Scripture encourages, and that serious believers have practiced for centuries. (See for example 2nd Peter 1:3-9; Colossians 3:1-4; etc.)

These habits, known as the spiritual disciplines, include: confession, devotion, Bible study, celebration, sabbath, serving, stewardship of time and energy, solitude, self-denial, secrecy, listening, and the many forms of prayer.

Perhaps that is what many of us are saying when we fib to the surveyors about our religious lives: We really want to know God. We just don’t know how.

Want to know more? Three sermons on listening to God from the series The Spiritual Disciplines, are on fccsobo.org. Click the “podcast” tab and then click “Topical Sermons.”

For further reading: The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard; The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg (John calls this “Dallas for Dummies.”); The Transforming Friendship, by James Houston; Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, by Gordon MacDonald; Finding God on the A Train, by Rick Hamlin; Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. You may view the seven minute interview with Dallas Willard and John Ortberg, along with at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj5UaLzIiDA.

 

[1] See NPR.org /  Religion / What We Say About Our Religion, And What We Do

Shankar Vedantam and Steve Inskeep

 

 

A RADIO FOR SPEAKING TO GOD

A RADIO FOR SPEAKING TO GOD

Maybe you remember one of my favorite scenes from the first Indiana Jones movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark. The villain, French archaeologist Beloche’, leans in to the drunk, grieving hero who believes he’s just lost his girlfriend, “Jones!” he insists, “the Ark is a radio for speaking to God!”

“You wanna talk to God?” the angry Jones slurs as he reaches for his pistol and begins to stand, “Let’s go see him together. I got nothing better to do!”

But before Beloche’s thugs can gun him down, friend Sala’s children rush in shouting, “Uncle Indy, come quick!” and haul him away to safety.

Everybody wants to communicate with God, but fewer and fewer seem to know how. That’s become apparent in many pastoral conversations I’ve had recently.

“How can I tell if this is what God wants us to do?”

“How can I have a more fulfilling spiritual life?”

“Why are there so many different kinds of churches and what distinguishes one from the other?”

These questions and others like them come up more and more often and, even though the questions are quite different, I find my answers keep circling back to the same theme: what the Bible is and what it does in our lives.

The Bible is the Word of God and therefore speaks with absolute authority on every theme it addresses. But don’t take my word for it.

Jesus, whom the Apostle John called “the Word,”–another way of saying God incarnate—also called the Old Testament, “the word of God.”[1] The Apostle Peter explained that the prophets “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit.” He also designated Paul’s writings as equal in authority to “the rest of the Scriptures.”[2] And, most notably, Paul explained that all Scripture is “God breathed,” in other words, inspired by God and therefore completely authoritative.

Without the Bible we cannot know how to become a Christian, how to live as a Christian, or how to grow up into full spiritual maturity. Our response to the Bible is first to seek to understand it, then trust it, then obey it. When we do these things we are understanding, trusting, and obeying God.[3]

More than anything else, what distinguishes one church from another is how they think about Scripture. Is it the only authority for all matters? Or is it one among many? It doesn’t matter very much which label a church wears, what matters is its commitment to Scripture as the Word of God.

Those are the basics about the Bible, but something much more powerful, much more transformative and fulfilling awaits when we commit ourselves to reading, understanding, trusting and obeying it. It’s best captured in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” [4]

This book is alive. The Spirit of God breathed it into the lives of its authors and breathes through its pages still, as they are read, studied, and preached, accomplishing several things in our souls that only it can do.

It awakens within us the knowledge of God’s holiness, our sin and separation from him, his love for us in Christ, and the salvation available only through him.[5] It reveals to us our true selves before the one true God who is full of holy love, speaking tender words of illumination, conviction, encouragement, and power for his children.[6] It gives us God’s wisdom for living healthy, joyful, meaningful lives.[7]

The list goes on and on, but I’m running out of space.

Want your questions answered? A spiritually fulfilling life? A radio for speaking to God? Read the Bible, trust it, learn how to properly interpret and apply it, and above all obey it. You will be speaking to God, and more importantly, he will be speaking to you.

[1] John 10:35

[2] 2 Peter 1:21 & 2 Peter 3:16.

[3] Wayne A. Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, p. 17

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Heb 4:12). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[5] Acts 2:22-41; Romans 10:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-15

[6] Hebrews 4:12; 2nd Peter 1:3-4;

[7] 1Cor. 2:6-13; James 3:1; Proverbs 2:1-15.

CALLED TO SOMETHING MORE: Os Guinness on finding life’s purpose

CALLED TO SOMETHING MORE: Os Guinness on finding life’s purpose

Are you a doctor, a lawyer, a mom or a dad? Are you an engineer or sales rep, a husband or wife or any of a list of a hundred other things? Or are you something more? Have you found and fulfilled the central purpose of your life?

The great mistake so many of us make is to imagine that only preachers and missionaries have a “calling” from God. Some of us go as far as entertaining the thought that maybe doctors and nurses and others in the health professions have it too. But mechanics and plumbers? Engineers and inventors? CEO’s and wait-staff? Calling? From God? You’re kidding right? Our jobs aren’t callings. We just pray, pay and play. We make it possible for others to pursue callings.

Not so says Os Guinness in his 2003 book, THE CALL: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.

Calling is the truth, writes Guinness, “that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.” Calling is the ultimate “why” for human living. “Follow Me!” was not just a command for Peter, James, and John. It’s for all of us.

The book is arranged in twenty-six short chapters, each addressing an aspect of calling from finding our purpose in the way we are made—the talents, passions, and aptitudes inherent in our DNA—to determining our ethics and discovering our passion by living before an audience of One. But they aren’t dry and academic. Every chapter connects to real life by beginning with an interesting story—from Thermopylae to Studs Terkel—and ending with a devotional challenge to apply what’s been learned. It also includes a study guide at the end for group discussion.

Unlike some very popular books on purpose, THE CALL is not a rehash of worn out motivational ideas that flatter in order to deceive and fail to deliver over the long haul. Guinness covers the pitfalls of calling as well as the potential and reminds us that we are not the center of the story, Christ is. And calling is not something we achieve on our own. The timing and opportunities are of God’s making. He calls us to be what he alone knows we can be.

As book reviews go, I realize I’m behind the curve by reporting on a book released 15 years ago. But, if you are like me and find the world is a more challenging place than a simple page or two of soft devotional thoughts will cover each morning, pick it up. It moved me, so I think it will move you.

With that in mind I’ll leave you with one of Guinness’s chapter ending devotional challenges:

Do you have a reason for being, a focused sense of purpose in your life? Or is your life the product of shifting resolutions and the myriad pulls of forces outside yourself? Do you want to go beyond success to significance? Have you come to realize that self-reliance always falls short and that world-denying solutions provide no answer in the end? Listen to Jesus of Nazareth; answer his call.

GROWING UP IN GOD’S UNIVERSITY

The interview was disturbing. The young woman I was counseling was in deep-dish trouble. Her relationships were dysfunctional, she was up to her armpits in debt, and most of her decisions were based on a daily reading of her horoscope.

But the most troubling thing is that she had grown up attending church. She was supposed to know how to manage life. But she didn’t. Her spiritual journey included a lot of lessons to help her feel good, but very few to help her live as a true follower of Christ. I should not have been surprised.

In 2005, University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith and colleague Melinda Lundquist Denton published The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, revealing that most teens adhered to a pseudo-religion Smith dubbed MTD, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Its tenets:

  • There is a God who created everything and watches over us.
  • That God wants people to be good as defined by most world religions.
  • The goal of life is happiness and feeling good about oneself.
  • We only need God when we have a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

In other words, the moral part is superseded by the therapeutic. Purity of heart, Christlike sacrifice for others, repentance, forgiveness and the pursuit of righteousness and the rule of God in life[1] aren’t in the picture. Feeling good trumps everything.

Smith’s follow-up research published in 2011 showed nothing had improved. Though 40 percent of young believers said their moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or other religious feeling, it is unlikely that those beliefs were biblically consistent. And 61 percent “had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism.”[2]

Those teens are grown up now and most of America follows MTD.

That isn’t the way Church is supposed to be. The Church should be God’s university on planet earth, a learning center for Biblical life lessons, a place where each member is constantly growing up into maturity in Christ.[3]

Healthy Churches equip believers to discern between wisdom and the world’s empty values.

Consider some examples: What do you think about climate change?  How about a nuclear-armed Iran? What about health care? College debt? How about the Virginia Tax Code? And what about education? Helping the poor? Sex-ed in schools?

Simple answers elude us. How should a serious Christian respond? Can the Bible help?

The Bible doesn’t always teach us what to think. But it can teach us how to think. That’s what it means to develop a Biblical Worldview. Christians truly educated in God’s university know how to ‘think Biblically’ on issues from Abortion to Zoning laws. In that sense, a healthy church produces better parents, better students, better leaders, better workers and better citizens because it produces better thinkers.