Being a Christian
Yesterday I used this as the basis for a sermon I gave in our local church. There was too much here to finish with so I had to cut it short but I decided to go ahead and publish it here for the record for anyone interested.
Let this mind be in you... (Philippians 2:5-9)
What does it mean to be a Christian?
Am I willing to let go of all my preconceived opinions of what that means and allow God to define and reveal His truth to me?
It may be helpful to note some of our preconceptions. However, it is also very hazardous sometimes because it is so easy to slip into a defensive mode and begin to argue in favor of our traditions and beliefs rather than seeking to listen for whatever God may be wanting to show our hearts.
Do we have a problem hearing the voice of God personally?
I talk with people who say that God just doesn't seem to talk to them. They want to know God and obey Him, yet it seems that He is intermittent at best in answering their prayers. And as far as actually hearing anything that they feel reasonably sure is communication from God, well, they wonder if maybe God is holding a grudge against them or something. I know exactly how that feels for I spent most of my life mulling over questions like that myself.
God has given us a book designed to be the primary source of communication to anyone interested and willing to engage with Him, for those who want to come to know Him personally. Unfortunately far too many have either ignored this book or have turned it into more of a reference library to find reinforcement for what they already have decided to believe. Neither of these options will bring us into wisdom as God intends for each one of us to experience. But even though many people do not relate to the Bible in a way that brings them into a saving relationship with God, it still contains the potential to radically transform everyone who decides to take it seriously and who challenge God to meet them in His Word.
All of the fundamental answers we need in life will be found in the Bible. But we are unlikely to find them if we just jump in and start reading from the beginning while thinking we can figure it out for ourselves and find what we are looking for there. That's not how the Bible was intended to change our lives. The Word of God is only useful and life-changing when it is studied under the direct supervision and instruction of the Author of that Book. To try to figure out life or religion by using the Bible in some other way will only tend to reinforce our prejudices, reinforce our misconceptions and confirm us in deeper darkness and ignorance about the true nature of God.
I want to go back to this issue of struggling to hear God's voice to us personally. This is a vital point where many struggle to make any headway in their attempts to be a Christian. Many like what they see in Christianity and they like what they see in Jesus' life, yet when it comes to imitating Jesus and His attitudes they find it impossible to replicate His perfection in their own lives. As a result many end up settling for a watered-down version of Christianity, one that is practiced by nearly all who take the name. Yet this diluted version of godliness is a counterfeit and is powerless to transform the soul back into the image of God and in the long run it is a fatal choice.
Do we imagine that because we attend what we insist to be the true church and subscribe to its set of beliefs that we are somehow immune or exempt from this problem? If we are willing to take seriously any lessons from the past it would be clear to us that the Jews did exactly this very thing themselves. Knowing all the right answers and having the right Scriptures did not prevent them from being in direct opposition to the very one from heaven who came to reveal God in a radical new light. Knowing all the right doctrines had little effect on restraining them from opposing all that Jesus came to reveal about how heaven sees reality or what it really means to live in harmony with God. The very people who were the most certain they had the truth demonstrated the most resistance and resentment toward the very person who was the personification of truth. Don't think for a moment we may not be just as deceived ourselves.
So, why is it that we have such a difficult time hearing God's voice to us personally? Is He ignoring us or holding out until we get our act together before He will listen to our pleadings for communication?
Truly, the Lord's hand has not become short, so that he is unable to give salvation; and his ear is not shut from hearing: But your sins have come between you and your God, and by your evil doings his face has been veiled from you, so that he will give you no answer. (Isa 59:1-2 BBE)
As many of you know, I have spent a number of years now seeking to gain a better understanding of the real meaning of religious terms, words and phrases. The preconceptions that I acquired from religion I have found to be very inadequate when it comes to finding a personal relationship with Jesus. Of course all those religious concepts and traditions were not actually meant to promote a personal relationship but to enhance a centralized religion based on church authorized beliefs. The idea that it is necessary to personally engage with God apart from what I learned from church or school came as quite a shock to me and challenged me to go back and reconsider everything I had been taught.
My growing conviction has been that living as a good church Christian is not enough and in heaven's eyes is often a lame substitute for personal accountability to God. While religion as commonly known uses language of personal relationship it too often fails to actually encourage it sufficiently. As a result it is easy to come to believe we are Christians when in reality we are just keeping up good appearances and living in the blissful ignorance of Laodacian poverty.
Write this to the angel of the church in Laodicea: Here is a message from the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of all that God has made. I know what you do. You are not hot or cold. I wish that you were hot or cold! But you are only warm--not hot, not cold. So I am ready to spit you out of my mouth. You say you are rich. You think you have become wealthy and don't need anything. But you don't know that you are really miserable, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. (Rev 3:14-17 ERV)
Some of us have heard this message for many years and know that it applies to ourselves. Yet we just might believe that because we know it, acknowledge it and repeat it that that somehow makes us right. But if there is no real action, no intentional heart response to this message then we are choosing to live in self-deception and are satisfied to live in blindness when we could be walking in light. If we do not take this personally and seek God with deep heart-felt desire to know what He wants of us personally, we are in serious danger of losing our own souls while assuming that someday we will be in heaven.
What does God say we must do to change this desperate state we find ourselves in?
I advise you: Buy gold purified in fire from me so that you may be rich. Buy white clothes from me. Wear them so that you may keep your shameful, naked body from showing. Buy ointment to put on your eyes so that you may see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. Take this seriously, and change the way you think and act. Look, I'm standing at the door and knocking. If anyone listens to my voice and opens the door, I'll come in and we'll eat together. I will allow everyone who wins the victory to sit with me on my throne, as I have won the victory and have sat down with my Father on his throne. Let the person who has ears listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. (Rev 3:18-22 GW)
If I relate to this simply as another doctrine I am supposed to believe to be part of this church then I have missed the most important point of my life. On the other hand, if I truly want to come into the experience of salvation as God longs to have me experience it, I must be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to take these words and apply them persistently, continuously and effectively to my heart more and more intensely. I will choose to be willing to ask God to open my eyes to my own true condition, to beg God to show me my true miserableness, my real poverty and my shameful nakedness. If I just treat this as religious jargon instead of allowing it to cause me to squirm at the deepest level, then I am not really ready to be a Christian as the Bible describes Christianity.
I am keenly aware that the situation we find ourselves in right now, our surroundings, our formality, our comfortable circumstances and our profession of having the truth as opposed to those 'others' outside who don't believe the same doctrines we do – living and talking inside this atmosphere makes it extremely difficult to quit thinking about distractions like, “I know someone who should hear this!”, or “When is this guy going to quit talking so we can eat?”
Listen, it is not my job to bring conviction to anyone else's heart. There is no vacancy in the godhead as someone wisely pointed out, and I have no business seeking to lay a guilt trip on anyone to make them change. Conviction is solely the responsibility of the Holy Spirit who knows how to relate to each person at the deepest level. But if you do not feel personally convicted by these thoughts it may not be because they only apply to someone else or they come from a poor communicator but because you may not yet be ripe to receive them right now.
Please be advised that you are not my problem to fix. In no way do I want anyone to think that it is my job or anyone else's job to make you feel guilty enough to want to change your life and improve your relationship with God. That decision is entirely up to you to make for yourself and no one has any business interfering unduly with that sacred part of your life.
However, if you are feeling conviction right now I would strongly urge you to quickly shut out every distraction the enemy is bound to throw at you and do whatever it takes to let His voice sink in much deeper into your soul. If you have to get up and go to a solitary place and wrestle with God like Jacob until you get real about life, then by all means do that.
If you feel a need to connect with someone who has an obvious connection with God and God is leading you to receive ministry from them, then do that right away and don't procrastinate. Remember the seeds that fell on the pathway in Jesus' parable. If they do not quickly find shelter in prepared ground to begin to take root then dark birds snatch up that seed and it may do you no good.
What does it really mean to be a Christian? I strongly urge all of us individually to never stop seriously asking that question both of ourselves and of God while we keep looking for answers. And if the answers sound too much like platitudes you have heard in the past, then be ready to question them, challenge them, rethink them and keep looking for better ones that make more sense. And if we are not desperate for God it is likely we will not have much desire to break out of the darkness that keeps so many of us ignorant of our true condition.
Think about this. Is it possible that a person might be ignorant of their own nakedness, that they are out of money and have bad eyesight because there is just not enough light around to see their own naked body, their empty pocketbook or they have no mirror that might show them what a mess their eyes are in? It is much easier to feel safe and content to run around naked when it is very dark, for you assume that others can't see you and cause you to feel ashamed. Jesus explicitly says that this is our condition whether we think we have enough light to see it for ourselves or not. The real question is whether we will believe Him enough to ask Him for more light to come into our situation or whether we will trust our naive sensations that we are good enough or assume we can deal with it later.
This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (John 3:19-20)
Let me be very clear about one thing here. In no way do I want to promote a feeling of fear and dread to compel someone to want to be a Christian. Most religions rely on fear to motivate people and that method is certainly familiar to most of us. But fear is an unreliable foundation to build upon and though it may initially seem useful to motivate us to begin moving toward a better relationship with God it is nowhere near sufficient to support us as an effective basis for a healthy, thriving relationship with Him.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. The knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Pro 9:10 GW)
While fear may help move us in the right direction, I like the way another translation renders this verse.
To be wise you must first have reverence for the LORD. If you know the Holy One, you have understanding. (Pro 9:10 GNB)
In searching for better definitions to religious terms I have been learning that to reverence something or someone does not mean you have to be very quiet and still like we have often interpreted this word. Reverence actually means to have a high sense of value and appreciation and respect for someone. It involves honoring them in whatever ways may enhance their reputation. This is a far cry from the fearful, intimidating notions of reverence we have often gathered from religion.
To become and live as a Christian is to live in the process of coming to personally know God better and better. That process will inevitably involve letting go of our fears while embracing greater and deeper insights about His incredible character of love, compassion, faithfulness, mercy, kindness and all the other things that He reveals to us about Himself. These are not just abstract terms to memorize but are realities we must experience for ourselves. Without a personal, experimental, spiritual, ongoing encounter with the person of Jesus Christ I cannot assume I am really a Christian. To call myself a Christian without personally knowing the one from which that name comes is hypocritical and deceptive. It matters now how many millions are doing that very thing, if I want to enter into a truly life-changing experience of salvation for myself I have to immerse myself in the Word of God individually, get honest before God in earnest prayer and confession and let the mind of Christ become a reality and take deep root inside my own head.
How can this be done in practical terms? Let me offer a few suggestions that have helped me in my own growing experience.
When you become really hungry for God then you will determine to rearrange priorities in your life to make time to eat spiritual food regularly just as you do for physical nourishment. If you lack motivation for this then ask God to make you very hungry. He is faithful about that, but keep asking Him even after you start feeling hungry for Him. Learn to appreciate the dissatisfaction you begin to feel with other sources you have depended on up to this point and keep turning you attention toward God to satisfy every desire. Remember, repeated choices produce habits and habits form character.
But just sitting down and reading through the Bible from the beginning or some other religious book may not initially feed your soul enough to keep you alive. Like trying to swallow food without chewing it can create problems in your body, you have to learn how to chew spiritual food, mixing it with the saliva of your own experience and learning to choose foods that can provide for specific needs you have in your current health. Just gravitating toward foods that taste sweet all the time may not necessarily bring good health. On the other hand only selecting spiritual food that you don't like can also hinder you from entering into the joy of an abundant life as God wants us to experience.
Choose to be serious enough to give God exclusive time in your life, preferable very early in your day before other things have a chance to shape your attitude for the whole day. Sit down in quietness and calm yourself before God by meditating first on the positive attributes of who He really is. I find it better not to jump right into reading the Word if my mental attitude is too much out of sync with Him.
Singing spiritual songs can be a powerful way to bring your spirit more into alignment with heaven but be careful not to let them become the main focus if you want to really grow. Establishing a positive atmosphere in the heart as much as possible is the best way to prep yourself to perceive His voice more readily.
Be sure to always invite the Holy Spirit to come and teach you personally as you expose yourself to the Word that He has inspired. Remember that He is the author of this book and that He has the authority to apply it in any way He wants to be meaningful for your life. Try to lay aside as much as possible all preconceptions about what you are about to read even if you are sure they are correct. Seek to open your mind and free yourself of all prejudices so that there will be room for new insights, new perspectives and fresh revelations you have never considered before. You can trust God to lead you to truth in this atmosphere. You do not need to be afraid that you might be deceived when something may come to your attention that does not agree with what you have always thought or even what a church teaches. If God cannot be trusted to lead each person to the same destination without interference or control by church authorities or religious teachers then He is not worthy of the name God and we are not really trusting Him very much.
I highly recommend that you ask God to show you where to meditate in the Bible, initially a place that is easier to hear His words to your heart more clearly. I wouldn't recommend starting with prophecies or even necessarily in the Old Testament unless you might get into the stories. The best place I know to get started is in the gospels and especially in the gospel of John. For a person serious about pursuing the heart of God for themselves there is no better place to start than by immersing yourself in the life and teachings of Jesus who came to do that very thing.
Let me take the verse we started with at the beginning as an example of how one might learn to eat spiritual food more effectively and to get more nourishment from it to improve your health.
Carefully read the whole passage in context several times allowing it to begin to sink in deeper. Don't hurry or feel you have to cover so much material in a certain length of time. You are not studying to learn information like you do in school. Rather you are using Scriptures as a means of listening to the voice of God. There is a vast difference between these two methods of reading. Allow every question that comes up from your heart to be expressed; do not repress them. Don't feel afraid to challenge God with tough questions. Learn to be honest with your own soul. This is the most important attitude we must develop if we are to begin to experience the presence of God effectively in our lives.
Practice listening at least as much as you talk to God. At first this is often going to be very difficult for some of us because of our paradigms, fears or religious assumptions. But true meditation in the presence of God and in the context of immersing ourselves in His Word is one of the most effective ways of training our spirit to focus and to sharpen our ability to hear more clearly the voice of God to our soul. It may also be helpful to meet with others at times who share your desire to hear God more clearly and to experiment with this kind of encounter with Him. We can learn a great deal from those who have trained themselves to listen more acutely to the voice of the Father in their hearts. This will also serve to draw us closer to each other and encourage each other in our pursuit of knowing God.
Be aware that Satan is going to assault you in many ways to distract you, to minimize your time with God and seek to get you to elevate other things on your priority list to suck you back into the status quo. Fiercely guard the boundaries of your quiet times with God. These are sacred minutes and are vital for your spiritual survival, even your physical survival. Yet don't become harsh and dogmatic about it.
Don't allow your worship routine to become what you worship but always seek to make God be the central focus of your attention. Allow His gentle Spirit to soften your own attitudes and thoughts.
So, how do you go about hearing the voice of God in your soul through these kinds of activities? Will you hear an audible voice instructing you and telling you what to believe? Highly unlikely. However, if you believe that God exists to start with and you choose to believe that He will meet you in this time where you have invited Him to join you, God is faithful and will in one way or another make this a time of transformation for your life. The more intently you pursue knowing Him intimately and deeply with your own heart the more He is going to open up new thoughts, new feelings, new concepts and perspectives you have never imagined before. This growing trust is what the Bible calls faith.
Without faith no one can please God. Whoever comes to God must believe that he is real and that he rewards those who sincerely try to find him. (Heb 11:6 ERV)
Learn to dialog with God when you come to meet with Him. This means giving ample time for both sides of the conversation. You will never get to know another human being very well if you never allow them to speak for themselves because you have done all the talking. So too with God, you must give Him times of your quiet reflection where you push aside all distracting thoughts from your head and learn to listen with your spirit rather than with your ears. At first this can be very frustrating because this part of our makeup is so under-exercised and sometimes we don't even know we have these capacities. But if you are serious about coming into a saving relationship with God He will honor your persistence and will reveal Himself to you.
The counterfeit thinking of religion has led us to assume that being a Christian means managing our outward behaviors to keep up a good appearance of what we assume a Christian should look like. This is increasingly massaged and manipulated by popular opinions that swirl around us about what a Christian is, depending on what version of religion we happen to subscribe to. But whether we are conservative or liberal or whatever, our perceptions of what it means to be a Christian have all been seriously distorted by our culture, our church and the world. I am convinced that none of us really grasp yet what a real Christian is like and we are in desperate need of a fresh new revelation of God that will expose all the deceptions that currently keep us so much in the dark. Until we are willing to admit we don't really know God very well we will never give Him room to introduce Himself to us for who He really is.
Christian culture, music – whether conservative or contemporary – traditions and denominations all have a great effect on shaping our assumptions about being a Christian. But I am learning that true, saving Christianity is only found in a personal, ongoing encounter with Him, in intimate knowledge of discovering who He really is in contrast to all the teachings and professions of those claiming to represent Him in this world. Depending on our church to teach us the truth about God is never to take the place of personal pursuit of the truth about God in His Word ourselves. If we remain satisfied to leave our salvation in the hands of someone else we are in grave danger of never experiencing it in our own hearts.
Salvation is the really the process of recovering our souls from the ruination that sin has caused in our lives. But here is a most important point we must not miss. We do not have our lives changed from the outside in but always from the inside out. If we try to reverse this direction (which is too often the case in typical religion) we will live a life of frustration and hypocrisy. We will become obsessed with performance or learning the right formula or saying the right words while inside our heart will still be missing what it craves the most – a thriving relationship with another heart that brings life, hope, joy and courage to the deepest places inside where we hurt.
When we choose to put our energies and efforts towards any and all activities that promote an intimate relationship with Jesus rather than just maintaining a 'Christian' exterior, we will find to our amazement that over time our externals will begin to be transformed naturally and spontaneously rather than relying on force, fear and shame.
Jesus touched on this issue when His disciples came to Him one day asking for more faith. Without going into detail about this passage (which I would dearly love to do) I would invite you to take some time, maybe over several days or weeks, to meditate on this passage, listening for what God might show you personally about the real answer to their question. This passage is found in the first part of Luke 17. But be careful not to stop too soon or you will miss the main part of Jesus' response to them. When I listened to what God showed me in this passage I became very excited because I too want more faith. But the answer Jesus gave was radically different than what anyone else had ever told me about how to get faith. But the answer Jesus gave is the true answer and is really the only way to have saving faith.
As a hint, what Jesus said to His disciples was that if they wanted more faith they first would need to alter some of their opinions and adjust their relationship with God. Their confused notions about God was blocking their ability to have greater faith and we have the very same problem. I have been discovering that the greatest hindrance to me coming into a trusting relationship with God are the lies about Him that have lurked deep inside, most of the hidden from me all my life. As I now allow Him to expose these lies and I choose to replace them in my heart with fresh truths about how He feels about me, I find faith spontaneously growing stronger in my own heart. And as my faith increased so too does my peace and assurance and my love for Him.