Tag Archives: spiritual maturity

A Hymn for Meditation

Jesus, the very Thought of Thee
By Bernard of Clairvaux
Lyrics from http://www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh175.sht

Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills the breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.

O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
to those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!

Jesus, our only joy be thou,
as thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be thou our glory now,
and through eternity.

  • While thinking about Jesus is a sublime experience, what is a greater joy?
  • The hymnwriter rejoices in the hope Jesus gives to a contrite heart. What is a contrite heart?
  • How does Jesus treat people who fail? How should we treat people who fail?
  • What is the greatest prize a person can aspire to receive? How long will this prize last?

How is God Like a Refiner’s Fire?

You have probably heard someone say of a leader who jarred a complacent organization into efficient productivity, “He really put their feet to the fire.” That statement indicates that the leader imposed some pain on the group, pain that motivated change. The first acts and thoughts of the group may have been pain avoidance, but in the end, the group matured in purpose and productivity because the leader created some pain.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:2-4 ESV)

This text speaks of a time when God causes pain. Ever since the time of Job people have asked why God lets bad things happen to good people. It is very common for people to say things such as, “a good God should not let bad things happen.” The very fact that bad things happen, that people do suffer, that pain and sickness and death exist, is used to argue against the existence of God, or, if God is seen to be allowing evil to conquer, then that fact is used to argue against worship of God.

Malachi says that there are absolutely times when God causes pain.

God doesn’t cause evil. Evil is the work of Satan in opposition to God’s purpose. God doesn’t cause evil, but he does apply fire to a dirty, ugly rock in order to get the gold out. When God applies his refining fire to the ore of a corrupt human life, it hurts. Yet, like human leaders who must put someone’s feet to the fire, God must sometimes inflict pain in our lives in order to help us shed the dross that pollutes the gold of God’s creative work in us.

As a consequence, there come times when we feel pain, and we say that bad things are happening to us. We may even wonder how God could let such a thing happen. Yet in the end, we may discover that the things we perceive as bad are actually God’s work, and they actually are not evil.

Job knew how it felt. God stood back and let Satan take everything from Job but his very life. His own wife thought things were so bad that she told him to curse God so he could go ahead and die.

9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” (Job 2:9 ESV)

Job would have appeared to be justified in the eyes of the world if he had, indeed, cursed God and died. The world constantly curses God. The latest reproach is to say that because God declares homosexual behavior to be sinful, God is a homophobe and should apologize to the world. Job’s wife had that same attitude. Like today’s social activists, Job’s wife thought she had a right to judge God, and she wanted Job to do the same thing.

It is obvious where Job’s wife and today’s social commentators acquired their ideas. When Satan and God were discussing Job, Satan asked, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” implying that God’s gracious care for Job was the only reason Job served God. After Satan had ravaged Job without touching his body, God confronted Satan again, and Satan said, “Skin for skin! … Strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” Satan encourages and promotes the idea that God owes people something in return for their worship. Satan wants people to believe that if trouble comes their way, God is behaving badly.

One lesson from Job’s story is that God does not exist to make us feel good. Satan wanted to prove the point that God only matters if he is making things easy for human beings. Satan rejected God’s sovereignty, and Milton vividly portrays the battle between Satan and God that resulted in Satan’s ejection from heaven. Job’s story points out how Satan never stops fighting against God’s sovereignty. He chose Job as the fulcrum of his argument that God has no right to assert his sovereignty. Job could not see the forces arrayed in battle around his life, and he suffered terribly as the battle raged. Until Jesus hangs on the cross, the Bible has no other image of a person so desperately alone and abandoned as Job. Even the friends who kept Job company were no friends to him, because they kept probing to find out what Job had done to deserve such punishment. They could allow that God would do such things, but the only reason they understood was to make God vindictive. They did not understand how God was putting Job’s feet to his refining fire, even as God showed Satan his place in the universe. In Job’s life, God demonstrated that he does not exist to make anyone feel good, but rather to accomplish his divine purpose in creation. Secular thinkers search for truth, and when they find something that makes them feel good, they say, “This is truth.” Job’s story shows that good vibes are not the measure of truth.

Job is rightly honored for his faithfulness under fire. Christians who find themselves in Satan’s crosshairs can learn a lot from Job, but they would be well-advised to read the whole story. They should not stop with pithy quotations such as “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21 ESV) or even “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (Job 2:10 NIV84) They need to go all the way to Job’s cry “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! …Let the Almighty answer me.” (Job 31:35 NIV) and then they need to read the answer God gave to Job.

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:1-4)

At Job’s darkest hour, the Lord did not come to Job, give him a hug and make him feel good. God put Job’s feet to the refining fire, because he wanted Job to be something grander than good ore. When miners find good ore, ore that has gold in it, they don’t bag up the ore and sell it in jewelry stores and banks; they crush it and cook it and apply the refiner’s fire to it. It is the gold within that they treasure, and that is what God treasured in Job and in you and in me. God wants the gold that he has put in each of us to stand out and be visible in our lives. That is why he must apply the refiner’s fire.

Was Job proud of himself for standing up to God and calling him to account? Job’s final words in this conversation were:

“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6 NIV)

After going through God’s refining fire, Job stopped holding on to the common rock and dirt in his life. Much of the book of Job is his justification of his own righteousness before God, but after the fire, he lets go of his sense that he can justify himself. The gold can finally be seen when he “repent[s] in dust and ashes.” The refining fire is not evil; it is God’s power to purge out evil and purify the good and make you what you always wished you were, even if you didn’t know what that is. God doesn’t let bad things happen to good people. Job discovered that even though he could make a strong case for his own goodness as the world defines it, he was not “good people” before God’s righteousness. Each person must discover that same truth in order to let go of the dross and impurity in his life. Each person must “repent in dust and ashes.” Every person created by God is good ore. Every person is polluted by his own desire to justify himself before God; in other words, every person would rather be his own god. Only when God’s refining fire burns away all the “stuff” that isn’t gold can anyone’s gold shine through. That is the purpose of God’s painful, disintegrating, miserable, blistering refiner’s fire.

Come on — Grow Up!

What we learn from 2 Peter 1:1-11

There are as many versions of Christianity as there are people to explain them. One of the more deceptive versions was thrown my way during a vigorous online conversation about the desire of homosexuals to appropriate the word marriage to describe their unions. I was accused of discrimination when I refused to use the term marriage as if its definition included same-sex unions. My accuser asked how I could claim to be a Christian, since Christianity is supposedly all about love. I was accused of being unloving because of my rejection of the campaign for marriage equality.

To some people, the word love is their definition of Christianity. Their definition of love is an amorphous refusal to hurt anyone’s feelings, because of perceptions that Jesus would not do that.

The word love is one of the essential characteristics of Christianity, but its definition would not please those who simply want Christians not to hurt the feelings of same-sex couples who want to say that they are married. You can find the Christian definition of love in 2 Peter 1:1-11, where Peter writes about the way Christians mature. Love is at the pinnacle, not the root of a Christian’s maturity, and the love which grows in a maturing Christian is not defined by the avoidance of hurting other people’s feelings. In polite society, respect for people’s feelings is part of common courtesy, but even polite society does not call for anyone to be bludgeoned into a betrayal of conscience over the prospect of hurt feelings. Polite society actually expects all participants to be mature and principled individuals who would not attempt to compel anyone to betray his conscience.

The text listed above is a letter from Peter to a church, and it begins with a greeting:

Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
2 Peter 1:1-2 ESV 

The next few verses reference Jesus our Lord repeatedly. It is important to keep that in mind as you read: 

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
2 Peter 1:3-5 ESV 

It is the divine power of Jesus our Lord that has provided everything we need for life and godliness. To recognize the thrust of these verses is critical. Jesus our Lord is central to everything Peter is saying. In fact, Peter is introducing here the concept that he will subsequently develop, namely that mature Christians partake of the divine nature. In short, the goal of our maturity is to become more Christ-like, and Peter says that if we use the things Jesus our Lord has given to us, we will actually achieve that goal. He proceeds immediately to tell us how that can happen:

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.
2 Peter 1:5-7 ESV  

How can we become more Christ-like? We make an effort. I have a little sticky note on my desktop that says, No one expects to attain to the height of learning, or arts, or power, or wealth, or military glory, without vigorous resolution, strenuous diligence, and steady perseverance. Yet we expect to be Christians without labour, study, or inquiry.” This statement is attributed to William Wilberforce, the one-man bulldozer who succeed in his tremendous effort to end the slave trade in the British Empire. He would completely scorn the idea that a Christian can legitimately claim the name of Christ without making an effort to mature in the faith. A recent Barna study said that less than 10% of the people who self-identify as Christians believe the most foundational principles of Christian faith. They don’t believe that the Bible is the Christian’s guide for faith and life. They don’t believe that Christ lived a sinless life. They don’t believe that Christ’s death was necessary. They don’t believe that salvation is through Christ alone. Most of the people who claim to be Christians have not made the slightest attempt to mature in that faith. In this passage, Peter assertively refutes any notion that touchy-feely love for everybody is Christ-like love. 

Peter says that if we want to be like Christ, we need to grow up. We need to get past the idea that simply being nice is being like Christ. It will take work, effort, energy. It begins with faith, the foundation. “By grace you have been saved through faith.” (Ephesians 2:8 ESV) After that, we need to work to mature in virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, and brotherly affection. None of these facets of a mature Christian are easily developed. If we want to be healthy, we must learn a lot about food and a lot about exercise. A healthy body is not easily developed, either, but that objective pales by comparison with the effort required to become more like Christ.  

What do we need to work on?

  • Virtue, called goodness in other translations. Some writers call it “excellence of moral character.” In this context, a virtuous person is a person who studies and emulates Christ’s standards for behavior. Remember how he said it was right to do good on the Sabbath? Remember how he called the prostitute to repentance after shaming her accusers. This virtue is not self-centered judgment of the rest of the world, but it is an uncompromising commitment to God’s standards.
  • Knowledge This term makes sense to everyone. Nobody attains knowledge by sitting in the same room with a pile of books. Learning anything takes work. Reading, thinking, listening to people who know more than we do. It is experience, mature emotions, strong personal relationships, and intellectual understanding.
  • Self-control Everybody knows what this is, and nobody has any right to claim to have mastered it. It is the wisdom to know when to speak and when to be silent. It is the will to eat what is needful and to reject the temptation to devour everything in sight. It is the personal discipline to take time for God, even when friends or business opportunities tempt us to skip prayer time “just for today.” It is the ability to choose what is right rather than what is appealing.
  • Steadfastness This word is not used frequently in current discourse. Other translations use the words endurance and perseverance (my personal favorite). Endurance is probably the best contemporary term for the underlying Greek word. This quality is the ability to keep going when it is hard and to persist despite pain or deep weariness. It is the word that powers Christ’s promises in the book of Revelation to “the one who conquers.” (Revelation 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:26, 3:5, 3:12, 3:21, 21:7) Christians can expect that the world will push back against them, and they need to be able to keep the faith anyway. Jesus says, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.” John 15:18
  • Godliness This word explains itself. Being like God. Piety. Faithful devotion. This quality includes fervent devotion to prayer, the lifeblood of faith. Many people say, “Pray for me,” but most of them are shocked when we actually pray. I try to make a habit of sending a prayer back by email when someone asks, and most are happily surprised at such immediacy. A godly person is a faithful worshiper, but the godly person also loves people deeply. My grandfather’s piety and godliness showed in his ever-loving, ever-giving behavior toward everyone he met.
  • Brotherly affection Some translations use the word “mutual affection” or may use “brotherly kindness.” These terms avoid confusion about the word love. The Greek word is philadelphia, a word that became the name of the Pennsylvania city affectionately called “The City of Brotherly Love.” Brotherly affection or mutual affection is the kind of love that glues a congregation together. It is the basis of helping one another with kindness and respect and concern for one another’s needs. 

Here are six qualities the can only be nurtured by great effort. What may truly shock the reader however is this: The word love, the love of Christ, the love Christ manifests in our lives as his faithful and obedient servants, is at the pinnacle of all this growth. We start with faith. We work very hard on qualities of a disciple, and in the end, we learn how to love like Christ. Christ’s love, the love that is the foundation of our salvation and the power of Christ’s sacrifice, is not some nebulous, feel-good emotion that might equate with the love of peanut butter cookies. The love we grow into is love that is so powerful and consuming that we are able to look sin in the eye, identify the sin, and still love the person enslaved by it.  

LGBT advocates say that it is ugly discrimination when Christians say that homosexuality is sin. That accusation could not be further from the truth. It is deep love for people, all people, including those enslaved by homosexuality, that allows Christians to recognize sin and call it what it is. It is love for Christ, love for all people, and the self-respect that grows out of gratefulness for the gift of salvation that allows Christians to reject sin and refuse to participate in it, even at great cost. It is love for people and a commitment to share the rescue plan God has given through Christ for Satan’s slaves that leads Christians to recognize the sin and share the hope Christ gives with those enslaved by Satan. 

For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:1-11 ESV)

The key statement in this closing section is the statement “if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” It just makes sense. Mature people in any discipline have better judgment. Those who mature in Christ not only improve their judgment, but they also develop a stronger, richer relationship with Christ. They can count on Christ to guide them past any deficits in their judgment. 

Some people think that Christians are the members of a religion, and they define all religions the same way: beliefs, worship practices and sacred texts. No religion is really that narrow, but Christianity cannot be limited in any sense to such a definition. Christianity is a way of living. Christians live in relationship with the living Christ. They don’t engage in manipulative rituals that supposedly guarantee wealth or fertility or rain. That is not what Christianity is about. The message of Christianity is life with Christ, for time and space and for eternity. It is a way of living, not a set of rules. Peter explains the structure of that way of life in this passage. Those who take his teaching to heart will grow and mature both in the qualities he names and in their relationship with Christ.  

You could sum up his message in a few words: Grow up! It is a life’s work.  

Which if these qualities will be first in your plan for growing in Christ?




Why Don’t You Have Time to Read the Bible?

A lot of my friends accuse me of inappropriate pressure when I suggest that they should take time for Bible study and prayer. They say that I am retired, and of course I have time for such extras as Bible study and prayer. You may feel the same way. Maybe your life seems very hectic and maybe you think you already have enough demands on your time. You don’t need another thing on your daily schedule.

It is true that I am retired today, but I haven’t always been retired. I worked at some very hectic jobs along the way. I reared two children. I attended meetings, took night classes, failed to keep my laundry or housecleaning done to my mother’s standards, and yearned to read the latest breakout novel. I know what it is to think there is no more time.

Yet I observe that everyone makes time for the things that seem important. Just as people find money for the important things. If parents believe that a child has musical talent, they will find money for piano lessons and make time to drive the child back and forth. They will listen to practice sessions while making supper and they won’t complain that the recital falls on the very same Sunday afternoon as a playoff game. People make room for the things that rise to the top of the priorities in their lives.

When I was working, I had one job in which I traveled 100%. I got up at 4:00 AM on Monday mornings, even if it was raining or even if it was only 15 degrees Fahrenheit, because I had to be at the airport by 5:30AM in order to get through security and catch the first plane out. I got up even earlier if my plane left at 6:15AM. That was the way things were. I worked long days on that job, often 12 hours or more. I worked every business day of the week, and sometimes on the weekends. I was expected to put in not less than 40 hours on the projects to which I was assigned, and I was expected to be active in continuing education and personal professional development on top of those project hours. It was a challenging life.

Yet all those years, I rarely failed to start my day with Bible study and prayer. I won’t try to sound like someone who never failed in my personal devotional discipline. I am an imperfect human. I am not a machine. Sometimes I fail. But the failures were intermittent. My daily routine started with coffee, Bible study and prayer. Sometimes I had an hour for those purposes, and sometimes it was less, but always there was some time. I had time, because I made time.

My work in the area of technical support was a 24-hour responsibility. I was subject to be called or even scheduled to work at 2AM just as surely as I might be scheduled for a project meeting at 2PM, and those two responsibilities might both come on the same day. I had to make my time for work and protect my life and health without failing in my responsibilities. Yet every day, there was time for prayer and Bible study.

I am not an exceptional person. I simply have a priority. I think Bible study and prayer are important. I think I can’t live successfully without making time for these personal disciplines. In blogs yet to come I will explain myself, but today I simply want to say that you have time for whatever is important to you. When you look at yourself, you will see immediately that you make time when you need time. You may feel guilty about your priorities and you may try to keep a low profile about the way you use discretionary time. You probably feel that this issue is none of my business, and you are right.

How you use your time is completely your business. You are not accountable to me or to anyone else’s judgment of your priorities. However, I hear people express regrets that they do not know God well, or that they don’t have any peace or that they wish they had time for prayer and Bible study. I hear the regrets, but when I suggest that it is worthwhile to make time for Bible study and prayer, I am almost always accused of not understanding how busy everyone is.

Everybody is busy, and one of the biggest problems most people want to solve is how to do the important things and not feel burdened by all the other undone things. People need to feel that they are doing the right things and living the right way and acting with honor and integrity. There is a way to feel that way about life, and it starts with Bible study and prayer.

There were years in which I got up at 4AM every day, whether I had a plane to catch or not, because that was the only way for me to have time for Bible study and prayer. That discipline was hard. Sometimes it seemed quite unpleasant, and I bribed myself to stick with it by making sure I got the coffee going right away. But the most important result was a reassuring peace and a sense of the presence of God in every day that only grew more beautiful and more reassuring over the years. Today I am retired and my days are my own, more or less, but it is just as easy for a retiree to let the discipline slip as it is for anyone else. I still need to be committed to that time or it does not happen. I must make the time, or I don’t have the time. I do it, not because I am retired and it is easy, but rather I do it, because it is worth doing.