“Many pray for the power of God. More every year. Those prayers sound powerful, sincere, godly, and without ulterior motive. Hidden under such prayer and fervor, however, are ambition, a craving for fame, the desire to be considered a spiritual giant. The person who prays such a prayer may not even know it, but dark motives and desires are in his heart…in your heart.

Even as people pray these prayers, they are hollow inside. There is little internal spiritual growth. Prayer for power is the quick and short way, circumnavigating internal growth. There is a vast difference between the outward clothing of the Spirit’s power and the inward filling of the Spirit’s life. In the first, despite the power, the hidden man of the heart may remain unchanged. In the latter, that monster is dealt with.

(Edwards, Gene. A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness. 1980. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale. 1992. 40-41.)

Inward Power vs Outward Power

Lookout Points

One door closes and another opens. The way is always forward not backward even if it seems like I moved to the side. That being said, there are moments when the way provides lookout points to assess where I’ve been and where I’m headed. I have come to view these lookout moments as pauses or breaks in the action. The hustle and bustle of life has a way of swallowing them up. When the way provides breaks in the action, wisdom demands that I respond in kind. It’s so very important to recognize where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. Someone once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly.

I’m not suggesting that introspection is the ticket. Maybe I’m splitting hairs a bit, but my gut tells me that there’s a difference between introspection and reflection. The former requires that I look inward for the answer while the latter searches outward. The tagline to The X-Files show has some basis in reality: “the truth is out there.” When I scan the horizon at this current lookout point, what do I see? One thing I realize is that my view seems partially obstructed by my finite condition. Some of the path is perceptible, but some of it isn’t. When I glance behind me, the view is clear. I see the dark and shadowy patches as well as the lush ones and those moments that were somewhere in the middle.

Now, the way forward seems more or less visible to the naked eye; however, I can’t help noticing that I’m looking for higher ground in order to get a better view. From where I stand, I see what I am able to see. I want to see more, to know more. Way off in the distance, I see the final destination. It’s a glorious sight, and my heart yearns for it. There’s still much more of the journey that remains. I know that as I keep moving forward, the moments between here and there become clearer. Each step requires faith in my Lord because this fuels hope and perseverance during the rough and tumble moments. Faith is also the sight needed for perceiving people, places, and things along the way. Without it, I’m a blind man ambling along the way oblivious to moments of blessing and danger.

Not only does faith in Jesus give me sight, but his word lights up the way that I walk (Psalm 119:105). What I find ironic about this is that the journey is real and takes place on this physical earth; however, the only way that I can truly navigate it requires that I have spiritual or unseen things in my possession like faith in him and the indwelling presence of his Spirit. Both of these grant me the ability to make sense of his word in order to apply it to my life. If I don’t have faith in Christ and the indwelling presence of his Spirit, I’m a blind man on the way. It doesn’t matter how clear the path is, or how bright and sunny the weather is, a blind man is blind. It was a wonderfully, gracious and merciful act on the Lord’s part to enable me to see. The journey demands it.

Little Faith

During Jesus’ ministry on earth, he used the phrase little faith to describe the nature of his hearers’ unbelief.  In the gospel of Matthew, this phrase occurs five times while it occurs once in the gospel of Luke.  There is potentially a seventh reference in the latter gospel within the seventeenth chapter; however, Jesus does not use the phrase “little faith.”  I would argue that our Lord alludes to it, so file this one away as an indirect reference.  Here is the point.  Little faith was a common phrase used by Jesus to characterize the unbelief of the crowds and his disciples.  For example, here is a passage where our Lord rebukes his disciples by using the phrase little faith:

19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ 20 He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you'” (Matthew 17:19-20, ESV). 

Let me set the context of this passage in its proper place.  At the beginning of Matthew, chapter seventeen, Peter, James, and John witnessed their Lord’s transfiguration, and they saw Moses and Elijah speaking with him (Matt. 17:1-3, ESV).  The Father’s voice boomed from heaven by stating that Jesus is his beloved son, which meant listening to him (Matt. 17:5-6, ESV).  Three out of the twelve apostles witnessed the fullness of the glory of the Son of Man, who is the Messiah.  Where were the other nine?  The text does not indicate with any specificity, but most likely the other apostles remained in the town.  This harmonizes well with the parallel accounts in the gospels of Mark and Luke; although, the latter, gospel writer includes the bit that Jesus returned to town the next day with the three apostles (Luke 9:37, ESV).  What is going on here?

There is not enough space or time to perform a thorough harmonization between the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  I offer up the bone regarding Luke’s narrative mentioning Jesus’ return the next day to illustrate a point.  On the surface, Luke appears to contradict the accounts in Matthew and Mark.  The latter two seem to suggest that Jesus and the three return the same day.  This is the sort of thing that renders some folks unwilling to trust the scriptures as the word of God.  My exhortation to those reading this post would be to wrestle with the three gospel narratives regarding this section.  Sit with these passages in the presence of the Holy Spirit and with trusted followers of the Good Shepherd.  Give the Spirit of God an opportunity to illuminate the spiritual principles in these passages while providing interpretive insight into how they fit together like pieces to a puzzle.  Alright, the detour has come to an end, and it is time to get back on track.

During the absence of Jesus and the inner three (Peter, James, and John), one of the men who lived in the town had approached his disciples about his demon-possessed son.  Apparently, the disciples who stayed in town were unable to cast out the demon, which afflicted the boy.  When Jesus and the three returned to the town, the father knelt before the Lord and pleaded with him to set his boy free of the evil spirit (Matt. 17:14-15, ESV).  He had asked his disciples to perform this task, but they failed at it (Matt. 17:16, ESV).  In his customary, non-cuddly way, Jesus issued a harsh rebuke by characterizing this situation as evidence of a faithless and twisted generation (Matt. 17:17, ESV).  Clearly, the disciples are in view, but also the father and the surrounding townspeople, too.  Once again, Jesus demonstrates his authority and power over the kingdom of darkness by casting out the demon (Matt. 17:18, ESV).

Right at this point, someone might raise an objection in defense of the disciples, the father, and the townspeople.  It might sound a little bit like this: “Jesus drove out the demon because he’s the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  The disciples, the father, and the townspeople are merely weak, human beings.  What power over the enemy and his minions could they possibly have in and of themselves?”  That my friends is a sturdy rebuttal and not without some warrant; however, it is an attitude of the heart that Jesus came against throughout his entire ministry.  Because of this unbelieving attitude or spirit, Jesus rebuked this generation as faithless and twisted.  Does anyone want the Lord to call him or her faithless and twisted?

There is another problem that the objection creates for the objector.  It indicates on some level that the one bringing the objection does recognize his deficiency or powerlessness in light of that which is greater: in this case, the evil spirit.  This begs the question…whom are we to fear: the Lord or the enemy and his minions?  Everyone in this town knew about Jesus and the power and authority displayed in his ministry.  Somehow this knowledge failed to produce belief within their hearts.  The passage in Matthew seventeen does not spell out that the disciples, the father, or the townspeople feared the evil spirit for afflicting the boy.  I might not want to press the text too much in that direction, but such a notion is not outside the realm of possibility.  In the parallel account in Mark’s gospel, Jesus called out the father’s unbelief, who confessed it and asked the Lord to help him overcome it (Mark 9:21-24, ESV).

After Jesus freed the boy and everyone gawked in amazement, the disciples asked the Lord the reason for their inability to cast out the evil spirit.  Our Lord answered that it was due to their being of little faith, which I take to mean as unbelief.  Why do I conclude this way?  Jesus used the metaphor of having faith the size of a mustard seed, which is the mother of all ironies as this seed was the smallest of garden seeds in their day.  The Lord is not saying that the disciples faith had been too small or puny.  If that was his rebuke, then the metaphor of the mustard seed loses all significance.  What Jesus drives at with this metaphor is the object of believing faith.  Christ is the object of my faith, and the foundation upon which it rests.  It is a gift God and not a work.  My faith has power and authority because my Lord has all power and authority.

In our culture today, there is an attraction toward that which is bigger and grander.  It has to be powerful…just look at its imposing size.  This is not how followers of Jesus are to determine the might of their faith.  Do we muster up faith, or stir things up in order to make our faith bigger, grander, and more powerful?  All the music and emotional hooplah means nothing to the enemy or to the Lord if our faith is not grounded in Christ.  I find this passage in Matthew seventeen to be liberating and unsettling.  It does not allow for middle-of-the-road engagement.  If I claim that Jesus is my Lord, if I say that I have overcome bondage to sin, yet I demonstrate little faith or unbelief, then I am a liar and a hypocrite.  There is nothing worse than to make a false profession of faith in Jesus.

 

“The first and foremost trouble under this heading is to be concerned about the person, rather than with the person himself. The trouble with the people who were not orthodox was that they were wrong in their doctrines about God and about the Lord Jesus Christ and about the Holy Spirit. But now I am indicating that there is a terrible danger of our putting the doctrines, the true doctrines, about the persons into the place of the persons. And that is absolutely fatal. But it is a very similar snare, which traps evangelical people, and orthodox people. You can be orthodox but dead. Why? Well, because you are stopping at the doctrines, you are stopping at the definitions, and failing to realize that the whole purpose of doctrine is not to be an end in itself, but to lead us to a knowledge of the person and to an understanding of the person, and to a fellowship with the person.

“The New Testament itself deals with this at great length in many places. And the history of the Church certainly brings it out very clearly. There are, indeed, churches today, and denominations that are perfectly orthodox, yet are quite dead. They do not seem to be  used at all in the salvation of souls, nor really in giving their people assurance of salvation. Why? It is because they remain only on the level of doctrine–this intellectual concern and this intellectual correctness. It is a terrible thing to substitute even doctrines for the living realization of the person.  And this applies also to preaching. Of course a preaching which is non-doctrinal is in the end quite useless. Yes; but let us remember there is a difference between preaching about doctrines and preaching doctrinally.

“By that I mean that you can preach doctrines in a purely intellectual and mechanical manner. You start with your doctrine, you expound it, and you end with it, and you have preached about the doctrine. That is not the business of preaching. The business of preaching is to preach doctrinally about God, about the Lord Jesus Christ, and about the Holy Spirit and their work for us in our salvation. You see, there are constantly snares in this Christian life. We have that powerful adversary, the Devil, who is ever trying to ruin everything that God does, and to rule over us, so we have to be careful. We must not spend our time merely with the definitions and the statements, and stop at them, thus failing to arrive at a knowledge of the persons, and failing truly to receive and to live the full Christian life. Dead orthodoxy, in practice, is as bad as heterodoxy, because it is quite useless.”

-D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, Revival (Wheaton: Crossway, 1987), 58-59

Dead Religion

Think Before You Speak

One of the joys of the world wide web is its boundless access to information. The word joy might come off heavy-handed, but the internet makes searching for quotes quite fun. For example, the title of today’s post, “think before you speak,” bubbled up to the surface of my mind. I wondered if it came from a larger quote within a literary or philosophical context. After searching for “think before you speak” via Google, I found a variation of it on http://www.brainyquote.com. Here’s the full quote attributed to Napoleon Hill: “Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” Those are wise words from the late Mr. Hill, who knows a thing or two about success. To be blunt, this post has nothing to do whatsoever about success or failure. This automatically raises the question about the point of this quote.

The initial clause of Mr. Hill’s quote states, “think twice before you speak.” There are an infinite number of contexts where speaking without thinking proves disastrous to all concerned. One stereotypical example is the black sheep of one’s family giving a speech at a wedding while drunk. Another example, more pointed and personal, has to do with responding to one’s significant other with hurtful words in the heat of the moment. For the speaker, regret usually ensues due to the aftermath of such an interaction. For the receiver of the speaker’s hurtful words, the experience jolts his or her trust in the person. Before this heated exchange, a bridge existed upon which both parties could cross without hesitation. After the encounter, said bridge has collapsed with both parties on it. This image of the collapsed bridge seems extreme, but the speaker must work to rebuild it.

The whole concept of thinking before speaking is a common refrain for all areas of life. I mean, I have heard this ever since I could crawl. My parents heard it from their parents, who heard it from their parents and on and on it goes. Throw teachers and athletic coaches into the mix, and thinking before speaking becomes a crucial lesson to learn and practice. Lives will be affected in the wake of our words. There is something else that lurks beneath the concept of thinking before speaking. I am not referring to patience, which is important, nor am I hinting at anger. Underlying the concept of thinking before speaking is self-control, which brings to mind the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians chapter five. If I am speaking out of turn, or expressing myself in the heat of battle, the larger and more core issue is a dire lack of self-control.

When the anger and impatience flow out of my mouth in rash words, this means that I have allowed my flesh to govern me rather than the Spirit. Any hope of remaining wise or prudent has been cast aside for foolishness. In fact, it is more than foolishness. In the heat of the moment, I have become a fool. If this sounds harsh, then digest these words from Solomon: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18, ESV). The whole verse is powerful, but especially these two ideas: 1.) the receiver of rash words experiences them like a sword thrust; and 2.) The one who speaks the rash words is a fool. Rash words leave everyone bloody and wounded, which is evidence of fleshly living rather than Spirit-filled living. Lord, have mercy on me for the rash words that I have spoken in the recent past.

Live Life to the Fullest

“Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:8-10, ESV).

What thoughts or emotions come to mind when hearing the words, “live life to the fullest?” Here are some possibilities: guilt, shame, despair, joy, panic, happiness, thrilling, spontaneous, adventurous, and ambivalent or decision paralysis (I made up that one). There are many more to add, but I think you get the point. All of those words represent honest responses to hearing the words, “live life to the fullest.” In my own life, I remember rejecting those words out of unbelief because of the consequences of others’ actions and my own. This faith journey with Christ requires that I face who I am in the light of his word and his Spirit.

On some level, I don’t know always recognize what hinders me from living life to the fullest. There are thinking and behavioral patterns, which spring up over time until they appear normal. There is no life apart from those set patterns. The radical call of the gospel is to surrender these established patterns of being and doing for Christ’s ways. Our Lord’s words in Matthew 11:29-30 ring true at this moment, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” When I come to Christ, I give him my burdens, whatever they may be, in exchange for his easy yoke and light burden. This results in my soul resting in Christ, which enables me to live life to the fullest.

Now, those words in Matthew 11 tie in nicely with God’s words to Solomon in the very first sentence to the above quoted passage: “Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head” (Ecclesiastes 9:8, ESV). Christ’s words in Matthew 11 demonstrate that he wants to take my all of my burdens. There’s no need to run around like a chicken with my head cut off in striving to earn my keep before him. This exchange sanctifies me. I’m becoming more like him. When Solomon writes, “let your garments be always white. let not oil be lacking on your head,” he’s alluding to sanctification in the believer’s life. Solomon didn’t exactly use the word sanctification, but the concept is clear.

Sanctification is a technical term, which speaks to the process of the believer growing in holiness. The only reason that sanctification even occurs in me is because of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Back to God’s words through Solomon, the white garments speak to the purification of the believer’s daily actions. The oil on the head refers to the believer’s anointing in the Holy Spirit, who performs the sanctifying work. Put these words in Ecclesiastes together with Jesus’s words in Matthew 11:29-30, and it becomes clear that I have a tiny role to play in this process. The Spirit and the word show me the patterns of being and doing that turn my garments from white to gray or brown or black or any color other than white. Once the Spirit reveals these sinful patterns of being and doing, then I have a choice to exchange them for his easy yoke.

After I make this exchange, then rest comes to my soul. There is deep peace, and I’m able to live life to the fullest. Christ lightens my burden in order to run faster, longer, and freer for him. It’s easier to climb trees, to swim, or simply to do anything without carrying a heavy load all the time. This is why Solomon writes for husbands to love their wives with everything in them (Ecclesiastes 9:9, ESV). Don’t hold back. If something does hold me back, then deal with it. Life is short, and one day it will end. This is also Solomon’s reason for exhorting his audience to pursue endeavors with everything they’ve got (Ecclesiastes 9:10, ESV). The word is Go for it. Do you have a desire to write fiction? Go for it. Do you want to build a home with someone? Go for it, give it all you have in Christ. To use a sports metaphor, leave it all on the field. Live life to the fullest in Christ by the power of the Spirit.