January 2013


Gushing WaterYou and I have human will, the divine-ish ability to originate, plan, choose, and act. We inherit this from our heavenly Father, just as we inherit eye color or other characteristics from earthly fathers.

Now, no one takes the phrase, “You have your father’s eyes” to mean that Dad lost his eyeballs when you were born. Everyone understands that your eyes are your own. Similarly, your will (also called heart) is always your own.

Of all God’s gifts to mere mortals, this is the one that most makes us in His image. While we don’t always use our will for good the way God uses His, it’s nevertheless precious to Him and He won’t override it.

For example, I can maim and murder if I choose. I can harbor ill will in my heart and God will give me over to a depraved mind if I insist. When God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart, He didn’t strip Pharaoh of his will and thus prevent him from cooperating with Moses. Rather, God augmented Pharaoh’s will and Pharaoh dug his own grave.

Why would God allow such a thing? (more…)

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Henry unicorn and butterfly

Henry unicorn and butterfly (Photo credit: bochalla)

Many people live by the philosophy, “Love is a commitment [or action], not an emotion.” These no-nonsense types pride themselves on their ability to repress feelings. The Christian versions often say that God isn’t interested in a feel-good gospel; He’s interested in how He can use you. So your problems are trivial.

Then there are those who believe that love is a gushy, be-all-end-all emotion. These hippie types pride themselves on their ability to turn everything into unicorns and butterflies. Like the tough guys, the Christian versions tend to trivialize problems. “Just give it to God” when you’ve lost your job, house, health, or best friend.

I think both views turn an incomplete picture into the whole story. Biblically speaking, love is definitely an emotion, but not necessarily gushy affection. Love is the steady desire for the loved one’s good, whether or not you like the person. It relieves you of having to somehow drum up or fake affection. It is a commitment since commitment comes from passion. And it’s definitely an action, or God wouldn’t have commanded us to love one another.

Obviously, no one can summon or banish emotions, good or bad, on demand. But we can develop positive feelings and undermine negative ones by practicing in our thought-life. If we so readily understand and accept, “The more I think about it, the madder I get,” why would we assume it doesn’t work the other way around—“The more I think about it, the calmer I get”? Or happier, more patient, generous, and Christ-like?

The secret to better self-control is to better understand God’s design of human emotion. The more we prepare in advance, the more we fill with positive feelings that’ll be there when we need them for intelligent, loving behavior instead of bashing one another. (more…)

'Mind and Heart', bronze sculpture by Frank Sh...The point of all this mental exercise I’ve been writing about is to feed the mind with good images, thoughts, and information to develop a mind like Christ. Genuine and consistent Christ-like behavior comes from the mind of the Spirit—God’s thoughts in you.

By that I don’t mean a spiritual lobotomy where your thinking is no longer your own, but where your own thinking is the same as His. From there, you can form intentions that match His will. Destructive images and false information will gradually be replaced with good thoughts, words, and deeds.

A Powerful Link Between Ideas and Feelings

Thoughts create and shape feelings that we subsequently act on. Take the revived uproar in this country over gun control as one example. (For an interesting look at theological implications, you might like this article, Deliver Us from Evil (in a Hail of Bullets).)  The issue has degenerated beyond respectful conversation because people on both sides are ruled by their feelings on the matter.

What they’re acting on is fear. One side holds a deep, abiding fear of losing rights and would gladly give up life to save those rights. The other holds a deep, abiding fear of losing life and would gladly give up rights to save it. Concepts like freedom, safety, and life evoke powerful images and emotions.

Mentally unstable shooters on a killing spree are acting on their own images and information, however warped it all may be. When they can no longer resist the ensuing feelings, they “snap.” (The same goes for “normal” people who suddenly have an affair or embezzle from their bosses.)

So both sides of the debate are deadlocked in contemptuous rants and name-calling spewed at opponents—morons and dumbasses—which is its own kind of murder rather than love or respect for enemies. Normally sane people become verbal hit-men with high-capacity magazines loaded with words, firing indiscriminately at any threat to their respective ideals.

This is what it looks like when people, individually and collectively, are owned by feelings rather than mastering and owning them. Emotions become gods that must be satisfied and served. And the ruined human being that blindly follows feelings is, effectively, a spiritual chump pulled around by the nose. (more…)

"The Thinker" statue at the Rodin MuseumIn addition to our freedom to choose, the human ability to think is a marvelous gift from God. Using our minds is not a sin or curse. Thinking always affects choices and the will (heart, spirit), yet we can also use the will to choose what we mentally dwell on.

One of the most misused verses among Christians is Proverbs 3:5, “Lean not on your own understanding,” which is often code for, “Don’t think.” Yet thinking is precisely where, with God’s help, we take charge and gain self-control over sinful behavior that once seemed beyond control.

We’re often trained from youth to put on our “best behavior” and we carry that training right into adulthood. So anyone can change short-term behavior—like New Year’s resolutions, for example.

But long-term transformation out of ruin into Christ-like wellness begins in the mental arena of ideas, information, images, and knowledge. People perish and are “destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (Hos. 4:6) Spiritual renewal requires thinking. A people without understanding comes to ruin (Hos. 4:14), but we’re transformed by the renewing of the mind (Rom.12:2).

So if I want to change my behavior into something more compassionate or patient or generous, I don’t do it the hard way by trying to change bad behavior. Instead, I start by changing my thoughts. (more…)

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

Jesus teaching the crowds . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been blogging about how Christian disciples move from brokenness and ruin to wholeness and well-being.

The goal is to see value in transformation and become people substantially like Christ, able to love God, self, and neighbor even in the most challenging situations. The purpose is to restore our sense of place with God so we can be trusted to rule and serve with Him.

To clarify a common misconception, a disciple is simply anyone who employs disciplines to develop a certain set of skills. For example, the kindergartner learning ABCs is a disciple. The teenager with a learner’s permit is a disciple. The fighter pilot training in flight school is a disciple. A disciple is a student of a master teacher, with a certain child-like, beginner quality.

So, Christian disciples aren’t a race of superheroes; they’re simply students of Jesus, learning from him how to live. “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom belongs to such as these.” (Mat. 19:14, Mrk. 10:14, Luk. 18:16)

To aid their seeking and finding a transformed new life in God’s kingdom, God has provided disciples with several means. In general terms, we have the prime model of Jesus, God’s other people, and His Word to show the way. In specific terms, we have Christian spiritual disciplines.

In a crazy world where it can seem that life just happens and there’s nothing you can do about it, these help us shift into the solid sense of peace and self-control talked about all through Scripture—much like passing through churning walls of water on dry ground.

Doable Disciplines

The discipline of Scripture study is one means of learning the ideal way of life for human beings. God has not been silent or left us helpless, and He delights in teaching those who are eager to obey.

The discipline of prayer lets me interact with God. I can invite His power to augment my own; I can welcome His movements (grace) in my life. I can also pray for the guy who cuts me off in traffic or the gossip who tells lies behind my back. This helps carry me away from a spirit of anger or payback that imprisons me in every little offense.

The discipline of meditation or reflection is another resource. I can meditate upon Christ, how he thinks and feels, what sort of person he is, and why he behaves the way he does. I can reflect particularly on his teaching about eternal realities, inner goodness, and sound living, and compare that to conventional human wisdom with its often less-than-ideal results.

With watchfulness, I can observe how other Christ-followers have lived their lives, the freedoms they experienced, the insights they gained, and the joys (and pains) they expressed. (Dietrich Bonheoffer and C.S. Lewis are two examples of twentieth-century disciples.) In addition to biblical men and women, I can find real-life inspiration in an ordinary grandparent, sports coach, pastor, or other neighbor who lives with a Godly spirit.

I can train ahead of time to prepare for more challenging encounters with neighbors. I don’t wait until I’m upset, frightened, or at the mercy of my own offended pride. Instead, I practice while I’m not on the spot and my thinking is clearer. If I pay attention to Jesus’ instruction, I can prepare and build reliable, loving reactions that will be there when my guard is down.

I can plan and organize small steps that will steadily re-shape my thinking and behavior. I can intend to learn, change, and practice taking on Christ’s vision, understanding, spirit, character, habits, and choices. I can repent.

Here and there, I can give up an argument, a demand, or having the last word. The discipline of fasting uses food to practice letting go of all sorts of ideas I thought were important, but actually enslave me. “Man does not live by bread alone.” (Mat. 4:4, Luk. 4:4)

Or I can occasionally loan something without expecting it back, visit a shut-in, or bring a meal to a lonely neighbor (discipline of service). I can greet a stranger (hospitality), give up bragging rights (humility), donate an anonymous gift (secrecy), or keep my opinion to myself when no one asks for it (silence). All these (and more) are simple, specific means to help form Christ within me.

Beginnings

I need not and should not turn these into laws, chores, or obligations. That duplicates the Pharisees’ constant burden and defeats the whole purpose of doing them happily and willingly. After all, children sing the alphabet; teenagers celebrate every driving errand; and fighter pilots dance the skies in laughter-silvered wings. These, too, are disciplines, but a legalistic approach wipes them out in certain death.

I also need not learn and engage them all at once. In fact, I can’t. I’m a beginner, not a spiritual hotshot. I don’t do them for show or to make a point, and I’m not in competition with other disciples. God works with me individually at my pace, according to my abilities and circumstances. What others think of me is none of my business. (This alone brings enormous freedom and self-control!)

We’ve all heard stories of extraordinary acts of heroic goodness, but the hero usually shrugs it off with, “My training took over.” Learning to love ourselves and neighbors spontaneously and routinely is no different because, for better or worse, people are very much the products of their beliefs, training, and experience.

Ignore the widespread rumor that human nature is frozen stuck like some immovable mountain. The most reliable Word says it can be re-born, and every ordinary encounter is an opportunity to re-train and practice something. That’s why God gives us trials, which I think of as try-als. Mistakes, of course, are part of seeking and walking, but God is patient and good-natured. Just watch how often the original twelve disciples fumbled and stumbled at first.

To our great relief, the point isn’t to become flawless; it’s to become perfect (whole, mature, complete). “It is enough for the student to be like his teacher.” (Mat. 10:25) Yet the journey must begin somewhere, so we start with less demanding situations and neighbors, and grow into the obnoxious ones with increasing Christ-like skill.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart…my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mat. 11:29-30)