Friday, January 15, 2016

Get Started on Experiencing Your Greatest Joy Forever

I'm addicted to sugar. I eat or drink way too much sugar every day. This is not a good thing, but my appetite still craves it. When I'm tired, or just want to take a break to relax, or when I'm looking at the menu, my body is telling me that sugar is an essential element for being satisfied.
What does this have to do with the image at the right? It's a bit of a testimony. Although my mind and body are convinced that sugar is necessary for me to enjoy my day, they're deceived. It's just not true. What's more, the things that really would make my body feel better and more energetic don't usually appeal to my appetite. My body isn't just mistaken about sugar; it's got the whole order of what's good for it and not so good flipped backwards.
I still remember the point in life where I discovered I was doing the same thing with my relationship with God. I had been worshiping God and learning the Bible and a lot about Christian faith and doctrine for years, but there was a point where I realized I was trying to be Christian but still find my satisfaction in the typical things most people think make for a good life: having a good marriage, enjoying time with friends, doing productive things, and hoping that the coming days of your life will be more and more successful and filled with fulfilling achievements as they go along. And like most people, I often felt empty and unsatisfied, and I would gravitate to things that promised immediate satisfaction. All of this got turned upside down when I read through John Piper's book Desiring God. For the first time, the central truth that being Christian meant treasuring God Himself as your greatest joy and pleasure was demonstrated for me.
Piper convinced me from the Bible and from quoting the experiences of dozens of Christians over the centuries like C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, Blaise Pascal, Augustine, George Muller, Charles Spurgeon, Hudson Taylor, and dozens of other missionaries, teachers, authors, and philosophers that the point of Christianity is to enjoy God and treasure Him above everything else. Just as important, he convinced me that this works. That may sound silly, but I know it is all too common for people to hear and be persuaded that we are supposed to love and enjoy God, but to have no idea how to do it and to find the effort disappointing. It isn't enough to be told you need to be satisfied by the experience of God Himself. We have to be shown that this really will satisfy us, so that we don't get discouraged and quit before we experience it. We also have to discover what it is about God that brings us joy.
This is primarily because, just like my sugar cravings, we are very used to finding comfort and satisfaction in small things that provide some immediate pleasure. We become dependent on that habit and cycle, so dependent that changing our habits to seek our satisfaction in something else at first feels like self-denial and a loss of pleasure. It has taken me a long time to find satisfaction in eating real fruit instead of sugary foods and drinks. I had to stick with it in order to change my tastes and appetite and to convince my body that this really was more satisfying. In the same way, it took time and patience in sitting and reading the Word of God alone and praying for God to make my soul delight in Him before I really began to experience it. I had to establish a new diet, and I had to feed myself by reading the Scriptures just for enjoyment and closeness to God, as well as praying just in order to be near God more often than praying to get needs met. The more I practiced this and consistently sought God Himself rather than turning to something lesser to get comfort, the more I received satisfaction and comfort from God. 
"One of our obstacles to enjoying God is that we don't really have a good idea of what that means."
I have shared much more about this journey on this blog under the tag Finding Joy. You can find a lot more detail there if you're interested. The main purpose of this post today is to illustrate that one of our obstacles to enjoying God is that we don't really have a good idea of what that means. This is where the book shown above may be a blessing. The Scriptures tell us over and over that what we will enjoy for all eternity is God's glory. Glory is often referred to as the reward in heaven, both beholding the glory of God and receiving glory ourselves. Yet we tend to have a very vague idea of what that means, and so we don't have a real vision of how that will satisfy us. We understand it must be good, but it is hard to have your appetite whetted for something you haven't tasted. God's Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life (David VanDrunen) is a book that promises to give us not just a taste, but a feast of glory. If you want to truly enjoy God, learn as much about His glory as you can. The more you train yourself to desire and look forward to that which will bring you your greatest possible joy, the more you will enjoy it now. I hope this book helps many Christians discover the depth and potency of being satisfied in God.
There is an excellent and detailed review of the book up at The Gospel Coalition. It sounds like some people may find more immediate application in the book if they start with the second section first. Read on and see for yourself! "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!" Psalm 34:8

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Chesterton on Achieving Balance So Good Things Can Run Wild

Another observation by G.K. Chesterton that relates to the theme of the last two posts on freedom and self-control is his conclusion that the only way to give any good thing its full strength is to put it in tension with other good things that balance out or, more precisely, oppose its excesses. Let any one good thing have its full head of steam without any other virtues to hold it in tension, and it will turn into a monster. But if you put all the virtues to work counter-balancing each other, they can all run free together. Here is a very concise set of quotes from his spiritual autobiography Orthodoxy to show what he means. I posted a more lengthy excerpt a few years ago at this link. (n.b. for links to book titles (in italics), I've started using the Goodreads quotes pages for each title because you get the book information and you often also get a great selection of the best quoted passages.)

"Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously.

"And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

"This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.

"it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. ...if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness." Orthodoxy, pp. 99-107 (Ignatius Press edition; 1995).
For practical guidance in how to handle the good things of life without letting them get out of control and derail each other, the most groundbreaking and helpful recent work is Joe Rigney's The Things of Earth. You can listen to the lectures “The Whole Earth Is Full of His Glory” on which the book is based or download them for free at his faculty page here at Bethlehem College & Seminary.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Limitations and Discipline Are Not the Enemy of Freedom: They Make It Possible

On Sunday I shared Chesterton's reflection on why a world with no limits is not romantic or wonderful, but formless and dull. People commonly think that to realize their ideal satisfaction, they need to be free of all limits. Tim Keller has observed with concern that the only heroic narrative we have left in our culture today is the theme of the individual breaking free from all traditions and external constraints in order to find his or her true identity. (Video here with Keller and Russell Moore analyzing the modern sense of identity.) Is that freedom? Only if you use the word in its most generic sense. Having no limitations placed on you means you are "free" from limitations being placed on you. But are you free to be yourself?

The truth is that in order to become anything, you need something to shape and define you. Freedom from all limitations means freedom from all definition. It's formlessness. Being completely spontaneous and unbound from moment to moment in any direction the mind desires may seem liberating, but it actually limits you in an entirely different way: it keeps you from becoming anything more than a formless creature following one instinct after another. The freedom we actually want is better understood as fully experiencing the fulfillment of a worthy desire. You could use the word “free” to describe both states, but in the one you are free to be nothing, without purpose or definition, and in the other you are free to experience something transcendent. That word is exactly what we are aiming for in our real desire for freedom: we don’t actually want to erase all limits, and be formless; we want to transcend limitations that hold us back from experiencing the extraordinary.

Here’s an example: Anyone who has tried to be a painter or a writer and given up on it has typically quit for the same reason: once that first burst of enthusiastic liberation at getting the thoughts down on the page or the colors and forms dashed onto the canvas has run its course, they discovered that the rest was real work. Starting to write is liberating. Trying to finish any writing so that it is actually clear, compelling, and concise is agony. Refining and editing and revising and reworking your words takes far longer than the rush of creativity. But only a very rare genius ever writes anything of great importance without seeing that process through. There is no getting around the fact that doing something really meaningful and powerful requires tremendous discipline and a relentless focus on one thing to the exclusion of other emotions and desires. If you jot down some thoughts one day, and then tomorrow you are preoccupied by others, and the next day you want to follow an entirely new train of thought, you might have some good blog posts. But you will never write a book or even an acceptable article for a magazine or journal.

Yet, if you read biographies or interviews of really significant artists or writers, you consistently see that they felt absolutely bound and constrained by the vision of what they were trying to create until they finally achieved it. The only way they found freedom and satisfaction was to limit and discipline themselves carefully enough to go all the way to the goal. Genuine freedom comes from focusing your life diligently on what is really valuable and worthy. Simply being “free” to follow your emotions and ideas wherever they lead you at any given moment may feel liberating, but it leaves you with even greater limitations. The person who refuses to restrain and discipline his or her desires ends up building nothing of significance, and is therefore limited by being mediocre and unformed. Only the person who restrains himself or herself with disciplined focus on a goal will know the freedom of running at top speed without gasping for breath, or flying an airplane, or scuba diving through a reef.
We often have the illusion that great athletes or artists are driven to their goals by tremendous passion, as if passion alone filled their sails and carried them surging forward to the prize. In reality, it is passion for a goal that drives them to dedicate themselves to incredible discipline. Many days they wake up and have no desire at all to do the day’s work toward that goal. Their passion motivates them to persevere, but it’s the disciplined perseverance that achieves their desire. We see the moments of glory when they perform and they look liberating, as if the person we’re watching has transcended limitations and boundaries. But if you watch the whole process from beginning to end you would see very careful limitations and boundaries maintained every day for months and years in order to have those moments of liberating freedom.

The application of this is that we should only want to be free of the wrong limits. The idea that we should reject all limits, including all religious and traditional norms and standards, results only in formlessness and mediocrity. It is a foolish attempt at self-expression that results ultimately in the self being vague and chaotic. In order to truly be yourself, you have to discover what is most worthy for you to become, and accept and maintain all the limits and boundaries that will help you achieve that. For the Christian, it is clear that the greatest glory and joy possible is to be formed into the image of Christ and to enter into the joy of God's presence forever. (Phil. 1:21-23; Romans 8:16-25; Psalm 16:11). Anything less is a shallow goal. So Paul says: "Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come." (1 Timothy 4:7-8).

But to receive the rewards of pursuing God, you have to accept the limits that keep you from slipping in the opposite direction. You can't go both ways at the same time. "Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? ... For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification." (Romans 6:16, 19). Each leads you in a different direction. To experience the extraordinary, you must be mastered by the desire to know God. If you pursue anything else, you become a slave to that instead.  "They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved." (2 Peter 2:19).

If you try to find freedom in sin, sin will enslave you. (Romans 6:12; John 8:34). Sin never becomes the servant of your desires. It always grips hold of you and tries to become the master. Accept the limits that bring you eternal freedom, instead of the illusion of freedom that only enslaves you to mediocre passions.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Freedom Is Impossible Without Limitations (Chesterton)

You can check the tag Sunday Salt for a compilation of reflections and wisdom posted to this blog from significant Christians of past centuries.

G.K. Chesterton was unquestionably one of the most brilliant men of the 20th century, a fact even his ideological opponents like George Bernard Shaw insisted upon. One of the most precious things about his mind was his ability to see paradox (two things that appear to contradict each other, but actually don't) as a window onto truth. He was able to reveal how our understanding of reality and truth is often hindered by simplistic assumptions. And he often demonstrated how the objections of even the most sophisticated and educated people to Christianity were a result of such simplistic assumptions. This is one example of how he demonstrates that true freedom actually requires some limitations - some definition - in order to be able to go along freely.

Moderns ... imagine that romance would exist most perfectly in a complete state of what they call liberty. They think that if a man makes a gesture it would be a startling and romantic matter that the sun should fall from the sky.

But the startling and romantic thing about the sun is that it does not fall from the sky. They are seeking under every shape and form a world where there are no limitations -- that is, a world where there are no outlines; that is, a world where there are no shapes. There is nothing baser than that infinity. They say they wish to be as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves. Chesterton, Heretics (1905).

Take just one example from real life. Many people imagine that the idea of romance necessarily suggests the complete liberty to follow your emotions for another person wherever they lead, and never to restrain them. But it is surely true that the more romantic thing is for love to last, to stay true to another person and to be constant and unbreakable through every test and trial. The most romantic love is one that does not permit itself to change. The least romantic thing of all is for a person's professions of love for you to simply vanish tomorrow or the next day because a new feeling has swept them away in a different direction. Being unstable and constantly carried along by every impulse is not the same thing as being free.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Lecrae Calls It Like It Is - Christians Need to Ride the Storm

I value Christian rapper Lecrae for many things, but most of all for his sincerity and realism. He just speaks plainly about failures, weaknesses, struggles, and the real suffering and pressure of life. He doesn't project the image that because he's a "celebrity" as a Christian and a rapper, he's got it all together. And he doesn't try to present the image that Christians have it all under control either.

When you're successful as a Christian in the public eye, there is a huge temptation to want to portray Christianity as being the ideal life where everything works out. It's tempting to try to use your own success as a proof of Christianity's truth. The problem is, it isn't a real image. Christianity doesn't solve all your problems in this life; it solves them all for eternity. Christians suffer almost all the same troubles as everyone else on earth; but only Jesus Christ can back up a promise that those troubles end up serving you by building you up for eternal joy. Everyone gets tossed by the waves, but in Christ the waves carry your vessel home instead of setting it adrift. What matters is not whether you suffer a little more or a little less, but that the suffering itself isn't meaningless. If I can profit by my suffering, then it's not a cause for despair.

This meditation from Lecrae captures it beautifully:
Note: If this link didn't work for you last night, it's fixed now. His Facebook homepage is linked at the end just in case.


Soap box moment...

 I know people are encouraged by quick social media quotes but as I've gotten older trials have been more complicated. More friends divorce, die, lose family members. Systemic oppression around the world, division amongst cultures, ethnicities, religions, and social classes, depression, anxiety, addiction.
I used to wander aimlessly looking for existential solutions for my inner pains. Sex, substances, entertainment, and other distractions made me a type of floating raft in the ocean of life. Tossed by every wind and wave.
The next season was embracing my faith and most of my faith journey was a speed boat. Gathering, doing, serving, racing, learning, and sharing, but I found that's the quickest way to run outta gas.
There's just not always an answer to life's woes in a nice neat Facebook quote. It doesn't make you less spiritual it just makes you real.
I'm learning now to be a sailboat. It's not always go go go. It's calculated, it's strategic for sure, but the work goes into putting up the sail and learning how to steer as the waves of life start rocking.
I can't control the waves of hardship. But it doesn't mean I just carelessly float and let them carry me wherever. I can't motorboat thru my pains either. There's not always a quick solution, quote or sermon to get me thru the ugliness of life.
But I can cast my sail up and trust God as my navigator. I can trust that He's ultimately in control of the wind and waves and that if I continue adjusting my rudder and sail, eventually I'll make it to the island of paradise.
The storms WILL come, the waves will toss and turn but keep holding on. Learn how to sail, and trust the Divine may be a long journey.

(Lecrae on Facebook)

Friday, January 1, 2016

Why Christians Need Heroes to Imitate

The point of the Christian life is to become like Jesus. Paul said that the "work of ministry" is "for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ ... we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ[.]" (Ephesians 4:12-15). God's plan from eternity was to prepare for every Christian "to be conformed to the image of his Son[.]” (Romans 8:29).

So as far as who we should admire and imitate, the obvious answer is Jesus Himself. Why should we imitate anyone else? Our goal according to God's Word is to follow Jesus step for step. “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:6). There is no one more important to imitate than Jesus Christ. But then no less a preacher than Paul the Apostle himself told his flock: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." (1 Cor. 11:1). Why not simply say imitate Christ? In the same letter he said:

For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (1 Cor. 4:15-17)
This is so important to Paul that he sent Timothy to them just for that reason, so that they would be reminded of Paul's ways in Christ and imitate them - not simply to remember and imitate Christ. Paul isn't alone. The author of Hebrews says the same about other leaders of the church. "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith." (Heb. 13:7).
The Scriptures actually urge us to observe faithful Christian leaders and imitate the pattern of their behavior and faith. We are supposed to find heroes to admire. John Piper, a man who certainly goes to great pains to focus on exalting God and drawing our attention to Jesus, still suggests that if more of us picked heroes to follow, we may be more bold and serious about our faith: "I think one reason we settle for such ordinary 'soap opera' lives is because we have no heroes. Nobody’s picture is pinned on our wall to spur us on to greatness. The Bible teaches us to have heroes." (Every Hero Gets Hiccups). Piper has invested in this by researching and preaching biographical messages of 27 great Christians you can watch or listen to here for free. This is one way I discovered some of my heroes of the faith.
We often don't see Jesus clearly, even when we set our hearts to follow Him. We have difficulty relating to His perfection across the canyon of our imperfections. Finding someone who has seen Jesus more clearly than you do is a way to connect to Jesus. We do this all the time with pastors, following where they have gone ahead in the Scriptures or their faith. The same encouragement comes from seeing how other imperfect people gained confidence in God and discovered intimate communion with Him. Experiencing how they grew into the stature of Christ in spite of fears, doubts, mistakes, sins, and confusion gives us courage and hope. It helps show us the way ahead.
I have been massively supported and strengthened in my faith by how C.S. Lewis wrestled with the perplexities and pain of life and made sense of them in Christ. I have seen more glorious and beautiful truths about the sheer logic and common sense of Christianity because of the brilliance and wit of G.K. Chesterton than I could have ever understood on my own. Our eyes should always be fixed ahead, looking intently for Jesus Himself, but our own Hebrews 11 hall of heroes spurs us on and guards us against getting lost.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:1-3)