Indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.1 John 1:3
God is relational. He is Trinity. He has existed in love-sharing relationship with himself from eternity past, but at creation, love overflowed. He invited us in to the fellowship. In Genesis 3:8, “God walked in the cool of the Garden.” It was sin that caused humanity to hide themselves from the presence of God. It was sin that caused the relational break between God and humanity. But God, through Christ, has invited us into relationship once again. We can again walk with him, but for the time being this walk is experienced through particular provisions. God has given us ways by which we can draw near in faith. We call these pathways spiritual disciplines. The question is whether we see the spiritual disciplines as gifts of matchless grace for communing with a glorious God or whether we wrongfully understand them to be a list of do’s and don’ts that somehow serve to keep God’s wrath at bay.
Though God has provided means for communing with him, I have seen in my own heart how I can take for granted these means of intimacy. We so easily strip spiritual disciplines of their spiritual fervor. The Bible can become merely a tool for teaching. Prayer becomes a program. People become projects. Faithfulness is redefined by our own definition of productivity. For the Pastor, and for every Christian, life with God can turn into life for God or life about God, but in the end is very much Godless. I am fearful that though God may have become the name that is attached to all our toiling, the absence of his relational presence could easily go unnoticed. Life as God has breathed it into us was designed to be life lived both for God and with God in daily relationship. What follows are reflections on three primary spiritual disciplines that I hope my precious church family devotes themselves to in the coming year.
Life with God’s Word
Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16). The Bible is a bridge between God’s infinitude and our finiteness. He makes himself known and experienced in words on a page. Eugene Peterson writes about the embarrassing position of being a church where we believe ardently in the authority of the Bible but, instead of submitting to it, we use it for our own purposes.[ii] The pastor is in great danger of wielding the word like a church growth wand, all the while missing its true power as the place where he may meet with God. In recent days, I have been convicted afresh to read, study, and speak the Bible with appropriate emphasis. Having only been a pastor for just shy of five years, I can already feel the enemy twisting the good gift of familiarity with the Scriptures into a curse of monotony. I often feel myself reading the Bible without the wonder of discovery I once relished. Rather than savoring the Bible like a dog with his bone chewing and enjoying every sliver of divine flavor, I find myself taking in the Bible like I take a daily vitamin. I know it is good for me in the long run, but I quickly swallow it down with no delight in its taste. In my younger years, I fought the fight against distraction and lack of discipline that made my Bible intake inconsistent. Now, I fight for delight that my Bible intake will not be like that of the Pharisees and Scribes who read the law daily but missed the glory of God in the face of Jesus altogether.
As a reader and preacher I pray that I would embody the convictions of John Owen. He determined,
I hold myself bound in conscience and in honor, not even to imagine that I have attained a proper knowledge of any one article of truth, much less to publish it, unless through the Holy Spirit I have had such a taste of it, in its spiritual sense, that I may be able, from the heart, to say with the psalmist, I have believed, and therefore have I spoke.”[iii]– John Owen
I want to taste and see that the Lord is good (1 Pt. 2:3), and I want to invite my precious congregation to the feast I have been enjoying. The Bible when cherished as the very word of God is no longer viewed as an instruction manual utilized or discarded dependent upon one’s perceived need, rather it is both the decree of the divine King and a letter from our dear Father from whom we have our very being. Daily life with God is daily life immersed in the Bible.
Life with God’s Ear
Reading is feasting, but we will have no taste for the food of God’s word lest we have our spiritual pallets readjusted. We cannot do this according to the power of our wills. We cannot force ourselves to desire the right things no more than I can make myself enjoy the taste of brussels sprouts. Give me all the statistics for why brussels sprouts are good for my digestive system, yet when I put them in my mouth they will still taste bad. We cannot force ourselves to love genuinely or to rejoice whole heartedly. But the Bible is full of commands that call for affections. How then do we change our tastes? We must pray that God give us what he demands of us. Much like I must trust the Lord Jesus to give me righteousness I could never attain on my own, I must take this same spirit of surrendered faith into the war of sanctification. I must turn to God as the one who distributes God-honoring desire. He alone can change the pallets of our sin savoring souls; therefore, I turn to him in prayer. The Psalms are our guide for such praying. The Psalmists spend considerable time praying that their feelings would catch up to the facts of their faith.
Athanasius caught the genius of the Psalms when he said, “Most Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us.”[iv] Bonhoeffer spoke similarly, “The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God… The Psalms have been given to us precisely so that we can learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ.”[v] The Psalmist prays as we should, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight” (Ps. 119:13-14). “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). Though we may not be able to make our hearts desire the right things or enjoy God’s word, we can make our stubborn selves get on our knees before God from whom every good and perfect gift flows (Js 1:17). He blesses prayer and especially prayers for good things that he has commanded us to pursue. We can be sure that we are praying the kind of prayers that God is pleased to answer when we pray the kind of prayers that God inspired the biblical authors to pray. This concept has radically adjusted my prayer life. Rather than praying for thirty-seven seconds and thus exhausting my prayer material and feeling the deficit of my own attention span, the Psalms become for me a clear path of prayer into the throne room of God. In praying them, I have God’s ear.
Life with God’s People
In the Bible we hear God’s voice. In prayer we have God’s ear, but in the congregation of God’s people we feel God’s embrace. In grasping for language to describe God’s new covenant people, Paul often describes the church as a body (Rom 12:4-5). As we are joined to Jesus our head, we are joined to one another as members. We exercise unique spiritual gifts acting as the hands and feet of Jesus in relationship to one another. The church becomes a place where Jesus is not only learned about, but he is experienced. We love with the love we have received in Christ. We forgive with forgiveness we have received in Christ. We embrace humility that Christ modeled perfectly. In the words of Mark Dever, “The church is the gospel made visible.”[vi] If you want to live life with God more deeply this year, go deeper in relationship with others in Christian community.
There is no secret to deeper relationship with God. He has revealed the simple ways by which we can speak with him, hear from him, and fellowship with him. There is no microwavable recipe for spiritual growth, rather these spiritual disciplines are pursued little by little, day by day, and year by year. Will you deepen your relationship with the Lord this year? Walk with God through your Bible, prayer, and fellowship with God people.
(For a great book on spiritual disciplines as habits of grace that help us enjoy Jesus check out Habits of Grace by David Mathis)
[i] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 88.
[ii] Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Colorado Springs, CO: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006), chap. 5, para. 3, Kindle.
[iii] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 193.
[iv] Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. chap. 7, “Oratio,” para. 5, Kindle.
[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer et al., Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works; v. 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 157.
[vi] Mark. Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, 9Marks (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2012).