: Christian Living

A Brief, Biblical Response to the Stoicism of Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss seems like a very likable guy; the kind of guy who, if you met him and didn’t know he was famous, you’d still want to get to know. He is very personable in his podcasts. I enjoy listening to him.

Who Is Tim Ferriss?

I have profited from several things in Tim’s books, most notably his first book, The 4-Hour Workweek. This #1 New York Times bestseller catapulted Ferriss to fame in 2007. He followed this with three other books (each of which also became a #1 New York Times bestseller), including his most recent, Tools of Titans: the Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers

In addition to his writing and associated public speaking, Tim has enjoyed wide influence as an investor (especially to start-ups), an advisor to companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Evernote, and as a philanthropist.

But Ferriss may be best known through his weekly podcast, The Tim Ferris Show. With more than 150 million downloads, the podcast was chosen as “iTunes Best of 2014,” and again in 2015 and 2016, as measured by “most downloaded.” The success of his books and podcast is truly remarkable.

I’ve listened to dozens of his podcast interviews, and have benefited from many of these conversations. Almost every guest proves to be fascinating, and in no small part to Tim’s excellent interviewing skills.

The Conversation I’d Love to Have with Tim

In fact, when hearing his podcasts, I have sometimes prayed that I would find myself seated on a plane next to Tim (after I received a complimentary first-class upgrade, of course). This is probably the only way I would ever be able to get to chat with him.

If I were privileged to have a conversation with Tim, there’s so much I’d like to ask him. Most importantly, I’d like to find out if he’s ever heard a clear presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My guess is, that like most Americans, he has not. Also like many Americans, Tim may believe he has heard the biblical Gospel. But my hunch is that, as I believe to be true even among a large percentage of American churchgoers, he would struggle to clearly articulate the essence of the Gospel. What a privilege it would be to share the good news of this message with Tim.

After all, I would think that even a person who is skeptical about the message of Christianity (as they currently understand it) but who loves to learn would be interested to know the essential message of the most famous person in the history of the world. (And by the way, it isn’t something like, “Live a good life and you’ll go to Heaven when you die.”) My experience is that even most who don’t consider themselves religious believe it benefits their understanding of the world to hear a concise presentation of the main message of the largest religion on the planet. Tim is a voracious learner, and I think he would willingly listen to a three-minute, conversational summary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tim and Stoicism

In the last few years, Tim has become a devotee of Stoicism. His April, 2017, TED talk on the subject garnered well over two million viewers in the first three months. By this, as well through his podcast and other means, Tim makes clear that he has found—as have a rapidly increasing number of others—a lot of intellectual satisfaction in Stoicism.

I really appreciate the fact that although Tim lives on the cutting edge of technology and culture, he seeks wisdom from old paths. In the long run, however, I believe Stoicism will greatly disappoint him. I’d love to tell Tim that there is another ancient path that welcomes those who, like Tim, search for truth. It’s footing is much more sure, and it leads to a destination infinitely more glorious than that of Stoicism.

After watching his TED talk, I’ve become concerned enough for Tim (and those he has influenced) to write a brief, biblical response to his Stoicism. Although I am an academic*, this isn’t an academic response. Rather this is more of a pastoral response**, which is what I think would best serve most readers of this blog.

What is Stoicism?

Stoic philosophy originated in Greece around 300 B.C. The name was taken from the Greek term for “painted porch” because the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, famously taught his wisdom from the painted porch of his home. Eventually the center of Stoic thought shifted from the Greeks to the Romans. From about the time of Christ onward, the most influential teachers of Stoicism were Roman thinkers, particularly Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. – A.D. 65), Epictetus (ca. 55 – 155), and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180), whose Meditations is surely the most famous book on Stoicism ever written.

Stoicism is built on a worldview that thinks of God not in reference to a personal being, but rather as of the totality of all things and often referred to as Nature. It is sometimes presented as monistic, meaning that “all is one,” and that the collective whole is a living, reasoning (despite not being a person), material, entity. At other times Stoicism is also considered pantheistic in the sense that the divinity attributed to the totality of all things is also present in every interconnected part of the whole.

Stoicism operates on the belief that everything is material, even thoughts and emotions, since they are produced by and have effects on the body and thus must be of the same substance. By extension, Stoics usually conclude that there can be no existence after the death of the body, thus they conclude there is no heaven or hell, only annhiliation. Seneca described the state after death as “non-existence.”

In view of these things, the Stoic maintains that the wisest course is not found in a wholesale abandonment to pleasure, to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Rather the happiest (“eudaimonic”) life is found in a rigorous self-mastery that minimizes pain. A great deal of pain, sorrow, and misery are unavoidable, so on balance it is better to reduce the impact of uncontrollable events upon one’s emotions than to attempt to increase happiness by the pursuit of pleasure. As the Stoic uses logic and reason to strengthen virtue and minimize the vicissitudes of the emotions (especially destructive ones such as anger), he or she increasingly experiences a tranquility that softens the force of suffering.

It is impossible, of course, in the scope of this article to thoroughly present the philosophy of Stoicism. If you want to know more, a simple Google search for the term can take you to many sites, both academic and popular, devoted to that purpose. For book-length introductions to Stoicism see this academic volume or this one, or this more popular one. But in brief, Stoicism is a monistic/pantheistic philosophy designed to make one a better, more peaceful person and to improve one’s life in this world, but in this world only.

Biblical Christianity and Stoicism

The main differences between biblical Christianity and Stoicism can be summarized in the three most important events in the life of Jesus Christ, events reflected in the three best-known and most widely celebrated Christian holidays, namely Jesus’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

1. The Incarnation of Jesus. Stoicism maintains that everything is a part of God. Christianity teaches that while God is present everywhere (that is, “omnipresent”), He is personal and distinct from His creation. A Stoic believes he or she is part of God; Christians believe that they are united with Christ by faith and that they are indwelled by the Spirit of God, but not that they are God or contribute a part of the totality that is God.

Stoics also believe that the tree in the yard is part of God. Christians believe that while God is present around and through the tree, He is separate from the tree and the tree is not part of God. As the apostle Paul said when speaking to Stoic philosophers, God, the Divine Being, “made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24), including the tree. At the very least this implies that God existed before and is not the same as the tree.

On that same occasion Paul declared of God, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), nevertheless we “should seek God” (verse 24). That’s because living in God’s omnipresence is not the same as being a part of God. So while we live as surrounded by the presence of God as much as a fish is surrounded by the ocean, we are not God any more than a fish is the ocean.

Further, Christianity teaches that God is Spirit (John 4:24), but also that He added humanity to His divinity. The second Person of the Trinity (that is, one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), enfleshed Himself and, while remaining fully God, became fully man. As God, He entered the world supernaturally through a virgin birth by a human woman. His name was Jesus. He was tempted in all ways as we are, and endured great suffering, but never sinned in word, deed, thought, or motive.

The incarnation means that God didn’t simply send a message to help us cope with life, He became one of us. He didn’t merely inspire wise men with a philosophy to help us, He took on flesh to rescue us. God didn’t just send principles of wisdom, he sent “Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). And Jesus Himself did not point the way to God, rather He declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

In short, Stoicism is a philosophy, a way of wisdom. Christianity is about a person, Jesus Christ. Yes, He was an example and a teacher of wisdom, but much more than that He is God Himself in a body; the personification of wisdom, doing for us what we could never do for ourselves. He lived the only life ever that earned the approval of God the Father; a perfect, sinless life that deserved acceptance into Heaven.

2. The Crucifixion of Jesus. Christianity declares that our greatest need is not merely principles of wisdom to cope with life, but the forgiveness of our sins against God. Regardless of how earthly wise we may be or how good a person we become (through Stoicism or anything else), the problem is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The Bible says that each of us “will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). After the final judgment, many will “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). What does it matter if we cope with life but stand condemned by God at the end?

What’s the solution? It isn’t found in ourselves. No matter how wise or good we become, no amount of wisdom or goodness can offset our sins. The solution is found in what God has done for us in Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to be merely an example or a great teacher, rather He came to offer His sinless life to God as a substitute for the lives of sinners. That substitution culminated in His taking the place of sinners on a Roman cross. There He received the wrath of God that we deserved so that we might receive the eternal life with God that Jesus deserved.

There’s no greater coping mechanism for this life than the inner peace and freedom that comes from knowing that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), and that eternal life and joy with God await after death. What a difference between the porch and the cross!

In a nutshell, Stoics believe that our greatest problem is outside of us (the world) and that the solution lies within us (logic and reason). Christianity maintains that our greatest problem is within us (our sin) and that the solution lies outside of us—in the life and death of Jesus Christ. As the apostle Paul summarized the contrast, “Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).

3. The Resurrection of Jesus. The declaration of the bodily resurrection of Jesus was the biggest stumbling block to the Stoics addressed by the apostle Paul in Athens (Acts 17:32). They recognized that the resurrection changes everything.

The literal, physical resurrection of Jesus after three days in a tomb moves the entire issue from a discussion of which philosophy is superior to a matter of proof. The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate proof substantiating all His claims. The various miracles of Jesus demonstrated His claim to be God, for He did what only God could do. He dispelled storms with a word (Mark 4:35-41)***, banished evil spirits (Luke 4:31-37 and here), restored limbs (Matthew 12:9-14), healed every disease (Matthew 8:16, 12:15; Luke 6:19), and raised the dead (Mark 5:21-43; Luke 7:11-17; and especially John 11:1-44). These were designed to display His divinity and validate His teaching.

But the ultimate confirmation of all that Jesus said and did was to rise from the dead. What greater proof of any claim could anyone offer than this? And although some have tried to refute it, returning to life after three days of complete death is the supreme testimony of Jesus’ authority.

Christianity stands or falls on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. If it’s true, then it is the most important event in history. Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius are dead. But Jesus is alive. And He promises to return (Matthew 24:44; Acts 1:11; Revelation 1:7), after which all will stand before Him at the Last Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15).

In closing . . .

If a person rejects the love of God offered through Christ, then Stoicism may be his or her best option. For my part, I’d rather have a neighbor who seriously pursued Stoicism than one who wasn’t as intent on becoming a better person. And doubtless the principles of Stoicism can produce a measure of equanimity and wholeness that many a sincere practitioner did not experience before. But even if evaluated from a this-world-only perspective, the supernatural joy and peace and forgiveness produced by the Holy Spirit in this life for those who know God through Christ surpasses anything generated by a mere philosophy, no matter how profound.

Much more importantly though, Stoicism does nothing for a person in the next life. Indeed, Stoicism denies the existence of a life beyond this world. But God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We don’t want this life to be all there is, and intuitively we sense that we were meant for something more than eventual meaninglessness and imminent annihilation.

The Bible teaches that once created, every person will live forever, either in Heaven with God or in Hell without Him. Some will know immeasurable joy, unbounded love, inextinguishable peace, and blessings beyond number and description in the experience of God Himself; but some will suffer in darkness and unending misery.

How good of God who, without obligation to do so, warns us of the danger ahead before its too late, and opens His arms to welcome all who will come to Him through Jesus. Why embrace what can never fully satisfy and will only fail you in the end?

God made your heart, and your heart will be restless until you find the only thing that can satisfy your heart—God Himself. He is findable. He is knowable. The way is through Jesus. He is worthy of all your trust. Even now.

This invitation from Jesus is for all who read these words: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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” (Matthew 11:29-30).

 

 

*I have a Ph.D. in theology and teach in a theological seminary.

**I have also pastored for more than two decades (mostly before my academic career), including fifteen years at one church.

***To read any of these biblical references online, go to www.esv.org and type the reference (such as “Mark 4:35-41”) into the search box in the upper right corner. This is the website for the English Standard Version of the Bible, a translation I highly recommend for both readability and accuracy to the original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible.

Photo credit: guides.co

How I Started Reading the Bible Every Day: Encouragement for Parents & Children

I literally don’t remember not reading the Bible every day. Here’s how it happened.

I’m told I started reading fairly early, reading Dick and Jane books sometime before my fifth birthday. But while I remember reading the books, I have no recollection of starting to read them.

I do remember learning words and phrases by watching TV commercials that consisted of nothing more than an announcer reading exactly what was on the black-and-white screen. In particular I recall a long-running commercial for a Memphis-area car dealer. It was just black words on a white background, like broadcasting a 60-second video of a poster, advertising a Volkswagen Beetle. Eventually I realized that the voice-over corresponded exactly to what I was seeing, and I learned to read along. On small-market stations—such as the four channels we could receive from Memphis television in the late 1950s—local advertising was a very low-budget enterprise.

So by sometime early in elementary school—though I don’t remember exactly when—I was able to start reading the narrative passages of Scripture.

The Influence of the Home

I didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the greatest blessings in my life was not just learning to read at an early age, but being trained at that age to read the Bible every day. My dad modeled daily Bible reading, and lovingly encouraged me in the practice. My mother made sure I had adequate lighting above my bed, the place where I did most of my childhood reading.

The Influence of the Church

We attended a church where my Sunday School teachers asked every week if each of us boys had read the Bible every day. In fact, this was a churchwide practice. Each Sunday School class, from the school-age children on up, kept records of how many in each class brought a Bible that morning, had read it every day the previous week, had read the printed Sunday School lesson, were staying for the worship service, and more. Each class reported its results to the church Sunday School superintendent who compiled them as a weekly snapshot of some measurable aspects of the church’s discipleship. In those days, this was done in virtually all of the thousands of churches in the denomination.

For most of my boyhood and teenage years, two men—first one, then later the other—taught my Sunday School class. Both were deacons in the church, and I respected them. I never thought of either of them as particularly holy men, at least not in the sense that I did of a couple of the elderly men in the church. Yet Sunday after Sunday, at the beginning of class my teacher would ask each boy in the class who had read his Bible every day that week to raise his hand. There was no pressure or shame. It’s just what we did. Everyone who came to church was expected as a normal part of life to read his or her Bible every day. It was in the air we breathed.

The Influence of a Plan

But this was more than a mere expectation, for the church provided practical, if simple, help for daily Bible reading. Every person who attended Sunday School was given an age-graded publication called a “quarterly.” This was a booklet of about fifty pages which contained the “lesson” for each Sunday in a quarter of a year, thus the term “quarterly.” This was published by the denomination, purchased by the church, and distributed with the hope that each person who attended Sunday School would read the week’s lesson before it was discussed in class on Sunday morning,

But the quarterly also served another purpose. Inside the back cover was a list of the suggested Bible readings for each day in the quarter. I don’t recall the scheme of the schedule used in my childhood. I seem to remember that most of the time the readings were not sequential in terms of reading through complete books of the Bible. But eventually, I think that at least for older readers, the plan was modified to one that took you through the entire Bible in a three-year cycle.

Legalism?

Legalistic? Well, any sort of structure in the Christian life can contribute to legalism if one is inclined that way. And any who thought (and I’m sure some did) that reading the Bible every day (or doing any other good deed) would earn them a ticket to Heaven were gravely mistaken. In my church, Ephesians 2:8-9 (we’re saved by grace through faith, and not by works) was a constant theme.

But I was a child, and we all—but especially children—need some structure when beginning to learn something as big and important as the Bible. Without guidance and a plan, children will flounder when trying to read and understand the Bible on their own.

So I was encouraged at home and at church to read the Bible every day, and I was given a simple plan for doing so. And it worked. It served me well. It helped me begin a practice that became second nature and has continued for a lifetime. Every day, for almost sixty years, I’ve not had to stop and think about whether I’m going to read the Bible, at least not think about it any more than I’ve had to decide whether to put on clothes or to eat that day. And by grace, the Word of God has done it’s work in my soul. My earthly and eternal life are immeasurably different because of the simple practice of reading the Bible every day and what has resulted from it.

Well, that’s my story. I believe the same simple factors, that is, Godly influences and reading plan, with the specifics adjusted for your own context, can work for you and your family, too.

P.S. I was prompted to write this story as a result of being asked to consider writing an endorsement for a forthcoming Crossway book by David Murray called Exploring the Bible: A Bible Reading Plan for Kids (Crossway, 2017). Writing the endorsement reminded me of the beginnings of my own Bible reading. That expanded the endorsement into a foreword for the book. The foreword expanded into this blog post.

Simple resources like David Murray’s book are so important. I don’t even want to imagine what my Christian life and my ministry would have been without the encouragement and structure for daily Bible reading I received as a child. But if I’d had something like Exploring the Bible: A Bible Reading Plan for Kids. I think my scriptural foundations would have been even stronger. Blessed beyond their knowing is the boy or girl who receives a workbook like Murray’s and the loving help to complete it.

P.P.S — A few years ago, Justin Taylor did the church a great service when he complied a long list of links to various Bible reading plans.

 

Photo from Inquisitr.

The Christian Life Isn’t Meant to Be Effortless, part 2

Read part one of this post here.

When God saves people, He doesn’t make them less human, but more fully human. And He intends for us to use all that He created us with—our minds, our bodies, our will, and all that’s part of being human—to live for His glory.

Who is to do the obeying?

Some teachers, however, deny this when they say that if you abide in Christ as you should (Jn. 15:1-11), then you won’t have to exert effort to be Christlike, any more than a branch of a grapevine exerts effort to produce grapes.

This kind of teaching ignores the fact that in Scripture repeatedly God commands us to accept the responsibility of obeying Him. In Col. 3:2, when you are told, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” who is to do that, you or God?

When God says in Eph. 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives,” that means husband, you’d better actively love your wife. Do you think God intends for you to tell your wife, “I’m not going to try to love you any more, I’m just going to let go and let God”? Try telling her that. She knows how much love she’d get out of that deal!

When the Lord says in 1 Cor. 6:18, “Flee from sexual immorality,” what He means is for you to use your feet and get away.

Even in Romans 6 when it says, “Consider yourselves dead to sin,” who is to do the considering? You are!

There is no elimination of any part of our humanity in Christian living.

Work toward what only the Holy Spirit can produce

The Bible commands us to work toward things that only the Holy Spirit can give. For example, notice 2 Pet. 1:5-7, especially at the beginning when it reads, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” Only the Holy Spirit can truly develop those Christlike qualities, nevertheless we are told to cultivate them.

Think about what Paul says in Phil. 2:12“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” You’ve probably heard the explanation of that. You are to work out the salvation that God has worked in. The verse 13 adds, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” God’s grace gives you both the desire and ability to work out what He has worked in. But you must be about it.

Justification is monergistic, sanctification is synergistic

It’s important not to confuse at this point how one becomes a Christian with how one grows as a Christian.

When a person becomes a Christian, only one Person is at work—God. Theologians apply to this process the word  “monergism,” which means “one person working.” God comes to the person who is dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-7) and “regenerates” them, that is, He does all the work to make the person alive. The corpse contributes nothing to the process. But once alive, the first thing he or she immediately wants to do is come to Christ in repentance and faith.

This is much like when Jesus took the initiative to come to Lazarus who was dead and entombed. Jesus, by Himself, raised Lazarus to life, and the first thing he freely wanted to do was to come to Jesus (Jn. 11:1-44, esp. vv. 38-44).

Once God has made us alive spiritually, we work together with God to grow in the faith. We can’t do anything without God’s grace (Jn. 15:5), but His grace doesn’t eliminate what we gives us to do by His grace.

Notice what the Apostle Paul writes in Phil. 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” What did Paul say he could do? He could do all things God wanted him to do. But He could only do it as Christ strengthened him. Still, Paul had to do what Christ gave him the strength to do in obedience to the Father.

Compare that with what we’re told in the many popular books like Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, (which has sold more than 10 million copies). She says, “Let me entreat you, then, to give up all your efforts after growing, and simply to let yourselves grow” (p. 127). As spiritual as it sounds, it doesn’t sound like the New Testament any more, does it?

What has Christ been calling you to do? Then by His grace and empowered by His Spirit, do it!

 

Read part one of this post here.

In 1987 I made notes while reading a Banner of Truth booklet, Living the Christian Life. I recently reflected upon those notes, modified them, and expanded upon them for this piece.

The Christian Life Isn’t Meant to Be Effortless

When we’re born again from above by the Spirit of God, the Lord makes a “new creation” of us (2 Cor. 5:17). But when He accomplishes that radical, regenerating transformation of us, He does not eliminate our minds, our bodies, our emotions, our will or anything that’s a part of what makes us human. God’s grace doesn’t eliminate any of those things, instead He gives dramatically new purposes to them.

He calls us to live the Christian life with the full—though God-centered—use of our minds and judgment and everything else that is a part of our humanity.

Let go and let God?

However, many people will tell you that your spiritual problems stem from the fact that you are trying to live the Christian life, but that God never intended you to do so. They say that just as God never intended for you to save yourself so He does not expect you to live the Christian life. They will tell you to “let go and let God; let go and let the Lord Jesus live His life through you.”

You’ve probably heard it put this way: “Have you ever seen an apple tree struggling and working and trying to produce apples? No! The branches just let the sap from the trunk produce the fruit. As long as they remain in the trunk the fruit will come. And in the same way, Christians produce spiritual fruit. All you have to do is abide in the vine, abide in Christ, and He will produce spiritual fruit through you. You don’t have to do anything; He does it all.”

It’s true that the Holy Spirit produces the fruit (that is, Christlikeness) through us and not we ourselves who produce it. But to say that we don’t do anything but remain passive takes the analogy of fruit-bearing too far.

Why does sin tempt me if I’m dead?

Here’s another analogy related to the Christian life that people take too far. Once again, in the process of trying to illustrate a biblical truth they teach that part of our humanity is eliminated in true Christian living. These well-meaning believers will remind us how Romans 6 teaches that we are identified with Christ in His Cross and Resurrection and therefore should consider ourselves as dead to sin. Then they will say something like: “Suppose an immodestly-dressed woman walks past the corpse of a man; will that man notice? Of course not, he’s dead! And that’s the way it’s to be with you if you are identified with Christ; sin will have no real appeal to you.”

But that’s taking the analogy beyond the bounds of Scripture. Romans 6:11 doesn’t say we are dead to sin, but rather “consider yourselves dead to sin.” The Apostle Paul exhorts us to this because believers are united with Christ by faith and Christ has died to sin on the Cross. In other words, sin will still appeal to us as long as we live in these bodies that have been corrupted by sin. However, we should no longer let any sin master us because we are united with Christ. As people united with the sinless, risen Christ, we’re to consider ourselves as dead to sin as He is.

Christlikeness requires effort

Note that to obey the command to “consider yourselves” requires intentionality and effort. It’s a faith-initiated, Christ-focused effort, to be sure, but it is human effort nonetheless. The Holy Spirit motivates and empowers you to do that, but He doesn’t do it for you.

When God saves people, He doesn’t make them less human, but more fully human. And He intends for us to use all that He created us with—our minds, our bodies, our will and all that’s part of being human—to live for His glory.

 

Read part two of this article in the next post.

In 1987 I made notes while reading a Banner of Truth booklet, Living the Christian Life. I recently reflected upon those notes, modified them, and expanded upon them for this piece.

 

Remember, Every Spiritual Discipline Is About Jesus

Why pray when it appears that your prayers go unanswered? Why keep on reading the Bible when it seems like you’re getting little from it? Why continue worshiping God privately when you feel no spiritual refreshment? Why persist in keeping a journal when writing your entries bores you? Why engage in fasting, silence and solitude, serving, and other spiritual disciplines when you sense meager benefits from doing so?

It’s easy to forget the real purpose of anything that’s as habitual as the activities of the spiritual life. And purposeless spiritual practices soon become dry routines that shrivel our souls.

The apostle Paul wrote of his concern that something like this would happen to the Christians at Corinth: “But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3, nasb). Notice that the direction of devotion is to be “to Christ.” Spirituality is not an end in itself; it’s about Jesus.

When we realize just who this God-Man—this Jesus who is called the Christ—is, we understand why the spiritual life is about Him: “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Colossians 1:18). So, “in everything,” including our spirituality, Jesus should “be preeminent.”

That’s why God inspired Paul to tell us, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” [that is, Christlikeness] (1 Timothy 4:7, nasb). All our spiritual disciplines should be practiced in pursuit of Christlikeness.

We pursue outward conformity to Christlikeness as we practice the same disciplines Christ practiced. More importantly, we pursue intimacy with Jesus and the inner transformation to Christlikeness when we look to Him through the spiritual disciplines.

So when we engage in the disciplines of Bible intake, we should look primarily for what it tells us about Jesus, for what Jesus says to us in it, for how we are to respond to Jesus, for what we are to do for Jesus, and so forth.

And when we discipline ourselves to pray, we want to pray in Jesus’ name (see John 14:13-14); that is, we should come in the righteousness of Jesus (and not our own), and to pray what we believe Jesus would pray in our circumstances.

Our perennial purpose for practicing any and all of the spiritual disciplines should be a Christ-centered purpose. Authentic Christ-ian spirituality is about Jesus Christ.

 

This post is available as a bulletin insert here.

 

Taken from Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), pages 27-28.

 

 

Do All to the Glory of God

The unifying principle for all of life, including our spirituality, is found in 1 Corinthians 10:31—“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” This is the sun around which every spiritual practice, every decision, every prayer, and everything else—including our efforts at simplifying—should revolve.

Concern for the glory of God in all things was the heartbeat of God’s Son, Jesus. When only one of ten lepers (and he a Samaritan) whom Jesus had cleansed returned to thank Him, Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return to give praise [i.e., glory] to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18). Jesus wasn’t indignant because He received so little thanks for healing these men. He wasn’t thinking of Himself; rather He was jealous over the lack of glory God received for this wonderful miracle.

According to John 12:27-28, Jesus had realized that the time for His arrest and crucifixion is at hand. Knowing He will soon die under the wrath of God, listen to His primary concern: “Now is My soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify Your name” (emphasis added, here and below).

A short time later, just hours before He was taken into custody, Jesus taught us to ask in His name when we pray. Notice the reason why He promises such prayers will be answered: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son”(John 14:13). The passion that propelled the entire life and ministry of Jesus Christ was His zeal for the glory of God.

From matters as crucial as the death of Jesus, to those as mundane as eating and drinking, the Bible presents the glory of God as the ultimate priority and the definitive criterion by which we should evaluate everything.

So when faced with choices about your spiritual life, ask first, “Which choice(s) will bring the most glory to God?” Choose and live in such a way “that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever” (1 Peter 4:11).

 

Taken from Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), pages 45-46.

Salvation Doesn’t Remove Any of our Humanity from Living the Christian Life.

When we’re born again from above by the Spirit of God, the Lord makes us “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Indeed, “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (v. 18). But in doing so He does not eliminate our minds, our bodies, our emotions, our will or anything that’s a part of what makes us human. God’s grace doesn’t remove any of those aspects of our humanity; instead it dramatically gives new purposes and perspectives to them.

Followers of Jesus are called to live the Christian life with the fully Christ-centered use of their minds and judgment and everything else that is essentially human.

Yet some will tell you that your problem is that you are trying to live the Christian life. They say that just as God never intended for you to save yourself so He does not expect you to live the Christian life.

“Let go and let God,” they say. “Let go and let the Lord Jesus live His life through you.”

They may frame it this way:

Have you ever seen an apple tree struggling and trying to produce apples? No! The branches just let the sap from the trunk produce the fruit. As long as they remain in the trunk the fruit will come. In the same way, as a Christian all you have to do is abide in the vine—abide in Christ—and He will produce spiritual fruit through you. You don’t have to do anything, He does it all.

It is true that the Holy Spirit produces spiritual fruit through us and not we ourselves, but it takes the fruit-bearing analogy too far to say that we don’t do anything.

Here’s another Scriptural analogy that some take too far and in the process teach that part of our humanity is eliminated in living the Christian life. They’ll remind us how Romans 6 teaches that we are identified with Christ in His Cross and Resurrection and that we should consider ourselves dead to sin. Then they will say something like: “Suppose a scantily-clad woman walks past the corpse of a man, will that man notice? Of course not, he’s dead. And that’s the way it’s to be with you if you are identified with Christ, sin will have no real appeal to you.”

But Romans 6:11 doesn’t say we are dead to sin, rather it exhorts us to “consider yourselves dead to sin,” because we are in Christ and Christ has died to sin on the Cross. In other words, sin will still appeal to us because of our flesh, but we are not to let it master us any longer because we are identified with Christ. We’re to consider ourselves dead to it.

Such teaching ignores the fact that in Scripture God commands us to accept the responsibility of obeying Him. For instance, in Col. 3:2, when you are told, “Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on the earth,” who is to do that, you or God?

When God says, “Husbands, love your wives” (Eph. 5:25), that means husband, actively love your wife. Do you think God intends for you to tell your wife, “I’m not going to try to love you any more, I’m just going to let go and let God”?

When the Lord says in 1 Cor. 6:18, “Flee from sexual immorality,” what He means is for you to remove yourself from the temptation, not for you to passively wait for Him to transport you to a new location.

Even in Romans 6:11 when it says, “So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin,” who is to do the considering? Should you let go and let God do the considering? No, you are the one God wants to consider yourself dead to sin.

Salvation doesn’t remove any of our humanity in living the Christian life.

The Bible commands us to pursue things that only the Holy Spirit can give. For example, 2 Peter 1:5-7 begins by saying, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, etc.” Only the Holy Spirit can truly develop those things, nevertheless we are told to cultivate them.

Think about what Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” God’s grace gives you both the desire and ability to work out what He has worked in. But once He does this, He doesn’t want you to just “let go,” rather He calls you to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” We can’t do any of this without God’s grace, but His grace doesn’t eliminate what we have to do by His grace.

Listen to Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” What did Paul say he could do? He could do all things God wanted him to do, but only as Christ strengthened him. Still, Paul had to do what Christ gave him the strength to do in obedience to the Father.

Let go and let God? As spiritual as it sounds, it doesn’t sound like the New Testament any more, does it?

Through His Word, what is Christ calling you to do? Then by His grace do it! Obey Him!

 

In 1987 I made notes while reading a Banner of Truth booklet, Living the Christian Life. I recently reflected upon those notes, modified them, and expanded upon them for this piece.

 

No secret key to living the Christian life

Ever read a book or heard a sermon about the key to living the Christian life?

Typically, as the story goes, the author/preacher struggled for years in living for Christ. He or she was an earnest, devoted follower of Jesus, but never seemed to make much progress in Christlikeness.

Then one day, someone gives them a book. Or perhaps they hear a particular sermon at a conference or a message delivered by a guest preacher at their church. And in a moment, everything is different.

Perhaps the “secret” is surrender to the Lordship of Christ, or abiding in Christ, or being filled with the Spirit, or another great biblical truth. Suddenly, the beauty and glory of this truth shines in their soul and from that instant they are changed. This becomes the key that unlocks everything that had prevented their spiritual progress.

After that experience their growth in grace and their Christian influence accelerates dramatically. They manifest more spiritual fruit in the next few months than they’ve heretofore seen in their entire life.

And now, they eagerly offer the secret key for Christian living to you. Follow the steps they took, pursue the same experience, and you, too, can enjoy unparalleled new freedom as a disciple of Jesus.

Without denying that these folks had a powerful experience, the reality is this: no one truth is the secret to living the Christian life.

Think about it–if there were one supreme key to Christian living, don’t you think it would have been put so plainly that we couldn’t miss it? In all his letters, wouldn’t Paul have identified “the secret” as clearly as a full moon on a cloudless night? When he wrote to the Corinthians about all their problems, why didn’t he just say, “Here’s the answer! Just experience this one truth and it will solve everything”? But he didn’t. And that’s because there is no such secret to daily Christian living.

I heard someone say that God has not given us one key, but a key ring. On that key ring are many keys. That key ring is the Bible and the keys are its many verses and principles.

If there is anything like a Master Key it is Master Himself, Jesus Christ. He has told us that, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4, quoting Deut. 8:3.) In other words, to live the Christian life we need every word of God—the whole Bible—not just one key or secret.

The Apostle Paul put it this way: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). God has inspired all Scripture and it has a variety of uses, but no individual truth is the secret or key to everything in the Christian walk.

We need the whole Bible in order to live the Christian life. Without question some passages and some truths are more important than others, but none of them is the key. Of course, we do need to continually submit to the Lordship of Christ, experience what it means to abide in Christ, and always seek to be filled with the Spirit, etc. And although there is much overlap in the experience of these truths, they are not identical in meaning, and none of them is ever held forth as the key to Christian living.

Therefore it should be our aim to master as much of the Bible as we can. We should read it all the way through, study it, memorize it, meditate on it, an apply it to our lives so that we may live the Christian life as God desires and become more like Jesus Himself. That’s what God wants us to be—like Jesus—and there’s no one secret key to doing that.

 

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In 1987 I made notes while reading a Banner of Truth booklet, Living the Christian Life. I recently reflected upon  those notes, modified them, and expanded upon them for this piece.

 

 

Sing the Table Blessing

When I was a child my Christian parents assigned to me the mealtime responsibility of thanking the Lord for our food and to ask His blessing upon it. They never required me to vary the few words I prayed, so before long the thrice-daily habit devolved into mechanical repetition.

One time I went through the ritual so mindlessly that instead of starting by saying, “Dear Heavenly Father,” I crossed wires with my phone answering routine and began my prayer with, “Hello?”

The traditional Christian practice of thanking God for food dates to biblical times. Jesus “gave thanks” to the Father for the loaves and fishes before He miraculously multiplied the food to feed thousands (Matthew 15:36). It was after “He had given thanks” that He distributed the bread at the last supper with His disciples (1 Corinthians 11:24). The book of Acts (27:35) records that the apostle Paul “took bread and gave thanks to God,” and in 1 Timothy 4:3-5 he taught us to do likewise.

No one wants to bore or be bored when giving thanks to God in prayer. But when we thank Him for the same thing (our food) every few hours more than a thousand times a year, year after year, it’s easy to find ourselves praying on autopilot (a practice Jesus condemns as “vain repetitions” in Matthew 6:7). Singing the table blessing can refresh the routine.

Where to begin? In one brief search I found several Internet pages devoted to this subject. (For example, here and here.) Each posted lyrics and suggested familiar tunes. With very little effort you could bring one to the table with you on occasion.

But you may prefer to create your own, perhaps adapting one or more verses of Scripture. A child taking music lessons might enjoy composing a short tune for musical thanks that’s unique to your family. Or during a mealtime or two you could develop a table blessing as a family project.

Like any other method, a table blessing that’s sung can also become a mindless routine if it’s repeated without variety. Used wisely, however, singing your thanks to the Lord at mealtime can adorn the commonplace with a touch of simple beauty.

 

Related post: “No, I Won’t Bless the Food.”

Taken from Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), pages 180-81.

“No, I Won’t Bless the Food.”

In my travels, at the start of a meal with Christian brothers and sisters, I’m often asked, “Will you bless the food?”

“No.”

My hosts sit there in stunned silence for a moment. Then, with everyone staring at me with awkward, “What do we do now?” looks, I’ll add, “But I’ll be happy to ask the Lord to bless the food.”

Maybe it reflects the limits of my own experience, but it’s been my observation that nowadays fewer followers of Jesus pause like this at the beginning of a meal to give thanks for what they are about to eat.

This seems to be true for individuals and for families, at home and in public.

Why the decline? As with all Christian practices and disciplines, unless each successive generation is taught the reason for something, it soon devolves into mere a routine, then an empty tradition, and then disuse.

Biblical origins of mealtime prayers

Have you ever been taught the biblical reasons for the Christian tradition of praying before a meal?

• Before miraculously multiplying the loaves and fishes and providing a meal for His followers, Jesus asked the Father’s blessing upon the food:

“And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41).

• As He instituted the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gave thanks before distributing the cup to His disciples and also before giving them the bread:

“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:17-19).

• After His resurrection, Jesus blessed the bread at the beginning of the meal at the home of the couple from Emmaus:

“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30).

• The Apostle Paul, publicly and in the presence of many presumed unbelievers, thanked God for his food before eating.

“He took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat” (Acts 27:35).

• Paul taught that believers should receive their food with thanksgiving when he spoke of:

“. . . foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4:3).

For such reasons Christians have historically paused before (and sometimes after) meals to acknowledge in prayer (or a song, like the Doxology) that our God, in His goodness and providence, is the ultimate source of the food before us.

Empty ritual?

Can a mealtime prayer become a meaningless ritual? Of course it can, especially since it’s something we experience two or three times per day, seven days per week. In addition to its frequency, the table blessing—or any other prayer—is even more likely to diminish in meaning if we carelessly mouth the same words each time.

No Christian practice or spiritual discipline remains significant to the soul if one experiences it mindlessly and mechanically. Even activities as precious as personal daily prayer, singing praises to God with His people, or taking the Lord’s Supper can become hollow if we engage in them thoughtlessly. All prayer, including the brief prayer of thanks before a meal, requires the engagement of both mind and heart.

Benefits

A mealtime prayer also acknowledges that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). In a culture of plenty, it’s easy to forget that our food is in answer to Jesus’s command to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).

Besides the benefits it has for ourselves, openly testifying in prayer that the meal before us is God’s provision also speaks to our children of our devotion to Christ and teaches them that what we eat is ultimately from the Lord, not the grocery store or our paycheck.

All of life should be lived with an awareness of the presence and blessing of God. Even in something as mundane and repetitive as eating, Scripture exhorts us, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Taking a moment to pray before a meal can help us to do that mindfully.

 

This post is available as a bulletin insert here.

 

(See the article/bulletin insert “Sing the Table Blessing” from the book Simplify Your Spiritual Life, 180-81.)

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