Monday, February 22, 2010

What It Means to Live By Faith in Christ

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20

The last four posts emphasized that satisfaction in God requires fighting our old ways of thinking and learning to find our pleasure in God. How we do that is summed up very well in this explanation from John Piper on how we live a new life by faith in God. Our hope of overcoming the old ways of living which led us to disappointment is grounded in the fact that Christian life is not just trying to make ourselves live with different habits and new rules – it is a change of heart that God works within us, creating a new person and putting to death the old one.

The aim of the death of Christ was to take our "old self" with him into the grave and put an end to it. "We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing" (Romans 6:6). If we trust Christ, we are united to him, and God counts our old self as dying with Christ. The purpose was the raising of a new self.

So who is the new self? What's different about these two selves? Am I still me? The verse at the beginning of this chapter
[Galatians 2:20, above] describes the new self in two ways: One way is almost unimaginable; the other is plain. First, it says that the new self is Christ living in me: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." I take this to mean that the new self is defined by Christ's presence and help at all times. He is always imparting life to me. He is always strengthening me for what he calls me to do. That's why the Bible says, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). "I toil . . . with all his energy that he powerfully works within me" (Colossians 1:29). So when all is said and done the new self says, "I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me" (Romans 15:18).

That's the first way Galatians 2:20 speaks of the new self: a Christ-inhabited, Christ-sustained, Christ-strengthened me. That's what Christ died to bring about. That's what a Christian is. The other way it speaks of the new self is this: It lives by trusting Christ moment by moment. "The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

Without this second description of the new self, we might wonder what our part is in experiencing Christ's daily help. Now we have the answer: faith. From the divine side, Christ is living in us and enabling us to live the way he teaches us to live. It's his work. But from our side, it's experienced by trusting him moment by moment to be with us and to help us. The proof that he will be with us and will help us do this is the fact that he suffered and died to make it happen.

(The Passion of Jesus Christ, John Piper, pp. 86-87 (Crossway, 2004) (also titled Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die)) - available free online as a PDF here.

So take heart and be encouraged! Christ dwells within us, and He Himself is supplying the grace, strength, and endurance we need to live our lives as Christians. Our part is to believe in Him and in the promises God has made to us. When pain or doubt overwhelm us, or when we are so tempted to sin that we just want to give in, we don't look to ourselves for strength to deal with it. We put our hope in Christ and pray for Him to overcome it by His strength. Living by faith means that we put our trust in Christ to do what we can't do ourselves.

Monday, February 15, 2010

How Do Christians Live the Life of Faith?

What inspired me to put my previous thoughts on the blog today about whether the Christian life is hard or easy was a great post by Adrian Warnock, an excellent blogger to follow, that is full of insight on this. Adrian quotes D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and adds some good thoughts of his own on why the Christian life isn't "automatic". We really do need to practice certain things and focus our attention on knowing God in order to get somewhere. Becoming a Christian doesn't mean that everything good in the Christian life necessarily follows without any attention on our part.

Those who experience Christianity but don't learn to practice spiritual disciplines like reading the Word and prayer will most likely be disappointed. They may think they found that Christianity was lacking, but in truth they never really lived it.

As I said in the last post, the hard part is overcoming our tendency to keep doing things the old way instead of doing them in the Spirit of God. We have every reason to be encouraged in this, though, because it isn't something we have to overcome by ourselves. Our stubborn tendency to live life by our old habits - what Paul calls the life of "the flesh" - is something God will conquer in us if we trust Him to do it. Jesus talked about the difficulty of leaving the ways of worldly life behind: "With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God." (Mark 10:27b). And John promises: "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith." (1 John 5:4).

To sum it up: "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." (Romans 8:5-6). So set your mind on Jesus Christ and study Him, seek Him, read His word, and meet Him in prayer. That is how to live the life of faith and bear His easy yoke.

Is Christian Life Hard or Easy?

I was thinking about Jesus' words the other day that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matt. 11:28-30), and comparing that with the thoughts I've been sharing about what transformed my spiritual life. It seems like work, doesn't it? Reading your Bible every day, learning to place God above your other desires and enthusiasms, fighting temptations that try to lure you to sin... that sounds hard to just about all of us. We may be inclined to think that doesn't sound like an easy yoke at all. Then the thought struck me that the Christian life is not difficult to live. What is difficult is making the change from living the old life - focused on the physical, the material, the immediate - to living a new life in Christ that is reliant on the Spirit and focused on the joy of heaven.

In all my experience, some of the easiest times in my life have been when I felt filled up with peace from reading the Word of God and from prayer. In those times, I was not burdened with anxiety, troubles seemed to be smaller, hope was strong, and I saw how small most of our problems really are in comparison with the greatness of the things God does in our lives. Instead of being frustrated and discouraged by difficulties, I could look back with gratitude on all the good things that had been worked out through God's grace, and look forward with encouragement to all the things He was working out now.

But we don't stay there unless we are persistent in the disciplines of Christian life. If I let my Bible reading slip for a few days, if I don't spend time humbly experiencing God in prayer, if I neglect the other means of grace He puts in my life, then I am right back to living my life the old way. I'm back to getting frustrated when things don't go the way I expect, to being anxious over all the things I have to do and uncertainties about the future, to feeling discouraged, or to being tempted to think that I would be more satisfied with sin than with being close to God. Those are the things that make life hard. The less we practice Christian living, the harder it is for us to get back into that peaceful frame of mind where we rest in the Spirit of God. It's like trying to start a bicycle again after having stopped. It's always easier to pedal if you are already moving.

When we actually concentrate on Christ and live our daily life by trusting Him for all we need, then we find that His yoke is easy and His burden is light - He's bearing it from within us. He really does give us rest from things that wear us out, like anxiety, guilt, temptation, and discouragement. It is far easier to live life that way than to try to do it in any other way. But the hard part is shedding our old habits and trusting God that this will work best if we do things His way. The hard part is overcoming our stubborn tendency to still do it the way we are used to. This should be a huge incentive to us to keep up with our spiritual disciplines once we've started. Keep the momentum up, and we won't have to pedal as hard to get going again.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Two of the Most Important Thoughts on Pleasure

Since I've been talking about letting go of our desires in order to find our deepest desire satisfied in God, this seems like the time to share these. Following are two of the most important quotes I have ever read outside the Bible on what pleasure is and why we get into so much trouble trying to find it in the wrong places. I hope they inspire you the same way they have me.

"The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."
("The Weight of Glory" from The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis, p. 25)

Now read Lewis's insight on how God can be in favor of pleasure, yet give us so many rules that seem to place limits on things we find pleasurable. We make ourselves miserable by pursuing pleasure clumsily instead of the way it was meant to be enjoyed (Note: Lewis wrote the following as the words a supervising demon might use in explaining the art of deceiving humans to a novice demon, hence the speaker refers to God as "the Enemy").

[Screwtape's advice on temptation:] "Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy's ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He had forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula."
(The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis, p. 44-45)

An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure - doesn't that grab you as a perfect description of how we stubbornly go about chasing after sins? It sure convicted me.

Our Fear of Letting Go of Our Pleasures

To sum up the last post, you were designed and created to find your satisfaction in God, because that is the only place a living being can experience real satisfaction. As long as you find something more desirable than knowing Him and experiencing Him - as long as you hold something back as more dear to you than God - you will never be content.

This is the part that most people get discouraged at. We are used to relying on lots of things in the world (romance, sex, money, vacations, friends, family, food, books, television, etc.) for comfort and pleasure. The idea that we must set all these aside and desire God more than any of them, and further that we are supposed to be satisfied entirely by God Himself, feels threatening. We aren't yet used to enjoying God and being satisfied with Him alone, and so we are anxious that this idea of desiring God above all things will mean that the desires we are used to will go unfulfilled and will be a disappointment to us. This is where we have to act in faith. "Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart." says Psalm 37:4. And God has promised us that "whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever." John 4:14. If we want that deep longing in our hearts that none of these other things have ever fully satisfied to be finally fulfilled, we must trust God that He means what He says. We must seek Him first and most deeply.

One of the great delights we will find is that when we are most satisfied with God, we can enjoy the other good things He has given us too. Some past things we must give up entirely, because they actually come between us and loving God - those are sin. But many things we can safely keep as long as we never let them become more dear to us than our experience of God. Not one of the things I listed at the beginning of the second paragraph is bad in itself. It is only bad when taken in a way that puts it before God or disobeys His teaching. The safest thing you can do if you want to keep enjoying a thing is to always make sure it is never more important to you than God. For if you have begun to desire it more than you desire God, then what can God do in His love for you but remove the thing that is distracting you from fulfillment?

On the other hand, when we make God the center of all our desire and affection, the other worthwhile things we enjoy are not robbed of their pleasure. They are actually made more enjoyable. The most mature Christians you see are not people that never have any fun. They find enjoyment and delight in many things - but they enjoy the Lord more. The things they love, they love for the Lord, with the Lord, and because of the Lord. They don't enjoy anything without enjoying it together with God. That is the way to be content in life.

Don't Settle for Half-Hearted Religion

Ray Ortlund shared a very short, powerful insight from his father at The Gospel Coalition blog that is right on point with the problem I addressed in my introduction to this blog. It's a good reminder that doing things only halfway usually keeps us from experiencing the pleasure and joy involved in whatever it is we're doing. That applies equally - or even more so - to living the Christian life.

There are really only two options in life for satisfaction and fulfillment: either go after God with all your heart, or be unfulfilled. Any illusion that there is a third way - some way that we can find contentment by doing some things God's way but other things our way - is a false hope. God's command is not that we abandon everything in this world that we enjoy. His command is simply that we learn to treasure Him more than anything else that we also enjoy. If we don't seek Him as the central source of our satisfaction, we won't find it in anything else. C.S. Lewis said it brilliantly: "It is not simply that God has arbitrarily made us such that He is our only good. Rather God is the only good of all creatures... If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows-the only food that any possible universe ever can grow-then we must starve eternally." (The Problem of Pain, p. 47).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Little Bible Reading Can Go a Long Way

Don't get discouraged about Bible reading by thinking there's a quota you have to meet. You don't have to get through the whole Bible in a year and you don't have to read from several different sections in the same day. Even a short reading each day can have significant impact. Tom Elliff has a good example of this at his blog. He has made a practice for about 28 years of reading one chapter of Proverbs each day, regardless of whatever else he is reading in the Bible. His post gives some great insights into how putting the words of Proverbs before your mind every day can produce some valuable results. Having started my own daily Bible reading in Proverbs several years ago, I agree heartily with what he has to say about the benefits.

Tom's post identifies one of the key benefits of Bible reading: by spending time each day focusing on what God is teaching, you gradually learn to change your mindset and you begin to recognize bad or self-defeating attitudes in yourself. Reading your Bible is a regular reminder of what healthy thoughts are, and the more you listen to what you read and consciously try to incorporate it into how you think each day and how you make decisions, the more you will benefit from it.

The end goal of Bible reading is not just to learn some things about God. It is also to elevate your own thinking and improve your own choices so that you will be in harmony with God. The more you draw close to God and live and act in harmony with Him, the more you get to enjoy the way God designed you and what He has planned for your joy. God has a beautiful plan for you, but you won't get to appreciate or experience it unless you follow His instructions for it. Make no mistake: learning to listen to God and follow His instructions is a duty we all owe to Him because He is God Almighty and Lord over all. But God has not designed it to be simply a duty or obligation. He has planned it to be the pathway to our deepest satisfaction and joy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why You Feel So Thirsty and Empty

Once you believe in Christ as Lord and Savior, reading your Bible every day is the gateway to satisfaction in God. I am not saying that missing a day here or there means you won't find joy. What I am saying is that if you only read your Bible once a week, or only when someone preaches to you, you're missing out on what keeps faith and joy alive. It's like trying to keep a plant alive without watering it.

I am convinced of this because that is exactly what my experience has been. More importantly, though, this is exactly what Jesus said about how much we need our Bibles. He told us that God's words are the food by which we will live: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Matthew 4:4 (Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 8:3); see also Luke 4:4). What He was saying is that we need God's Word the way we need food – to survive! And we need it as often as we need food – daily. He was teaching that God's Word will nourish, refresh, and sustain us just the way food does.

He also taught us that if we want eternal life, we must abide in Him, and that if we want Him to hear our prayers His words must abide in us. (John 15:1-11). That means they have to remain in us, and in order for that to happen we have to keep them close and keep them in our minds. "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." (Romans 10:17). In fact, it's so crucial to the Christian life that Jesus Himself is referred to as "the Word". (John 1:1).

This is a message God gives us again and again in the Bible. I wasted nearly ten years of my Christian life feeling empty and discouraged because I didn't listen to it. But I know now from experience that God simply means what He says: "Blessed is the man… [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither." (Psalm 1:1a; 2-3).

If you're feeling withered, God has given you the answer.