Monday, September 13, 2010

Where Life and Lips Join

"Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become “unity” conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified. The Body becomes stronger as its members become healthier. The whole church of God gains when themembers that compose it begin to seek a better and higher life."
-A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God

Do we understand what A.W. Tozer is saying? Christian ‘community,’ as described in Scripture, cannot exist outside the context of our own personal relationship with God. Christian gatherings cannot be a substitute for our own individual time spent with the Father. In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless we are willing to commit earnestly to spending significant time (in quality, not necessarily quantity) in Bible study, reflection and prayer every day, then we are not going to be much use to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and Christian community isn’t going to be much use to us. Our ability to love and walk with each other in true Christian fellowship hinges upon the degree to which we have learned to love and trust God. At the end of the same chapter of the book quoted above, Tozer sates, “When the habit of inwardly gazing Godward becomes fixed within us, we shall be ushered onto a new spiritual level of spiritual life more in keeping with the promises of God and the mood of the New Testament.

Let’s explore a little more of what I call Tozer’s ‘corporate worship theology,’ “It is true that order in nature depends upon right relationships; to achieve harmony each thing must be in its proper position relative to each other thing. In human life it is not otherwise...the cause of all our human miseries is a radical moral dislocation, an upset in our relationship to God and to each other. For whatever else the Fall may have been, it was certainly a sharp change in man’s relation to his Creator. He adopted toward God an altered attitude, and by so doing destroyed the proper Creator-creature relation in which, unknown to him, his true happiness lay.” (A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God) In this statement, the reason we need to be completely fixed upon the Father is clear: only when we are in right relationship with Him can we be in right relationship with each other and ourselves. Let’s not be naïve. Our adversary, Satan, knows and understands this all too well. It is the reason why he puts all of his effort into making us self-focused, or self-centered. Frankly, he knows that he cannot win with a frontal attack in most cases, because to the child of God, these are far too obvious. So he studies us carefully to determine which “back-door” approach might work best. His resources are not unlimited, nor is his power. He is neither omnipresent nor omniscient (everywhere all the time, all-powerful). In fact, he was stripped of his authority on this planet in the wake of Christ’s resurrection. Because of this, he wages war carefully, and assigns his ‘troops’ (demonic entities, fallen angelic beings like himself) strategically.

A body of believers that is wrapped up in itself for the sake of simply ‘doing church’ is of little threat to Satan. A body of believers, however, that is striving to live, each person as a true disciple of Jesus Christ, is His biggest fear. It is upon these types of congregations upon which he deftly, strategically wages war. In all our 'doing,' let’s remember Satan’s primary strategy: to keep us focused on ourselves - our wants, our desires, our opinions, our preferences. When we allow ourselves to become distracted by these things, we lose ground quickly, and are in danger of discrediting the Name of the Lord and losing credibility in the sight of those around us!

“All the graces that are produced in a Christian grow out of the death of self. Unlimited patience is necessary to bear not only with yourself, but with others whose personalities and moods are not compatible with your own. Bear these offenses in silence and submit them to the spirit of grace. As you seek to honor the true cross (the affliction that God allows for us), remember that all the disagreeable situations that fall in your daily path are part of that true acceptance of the cross. Do not insult the work of the cross in your life by complaining about your problems. All things, including things that appear evil, are great blessings when they unite us to the One who is our All in All.” (Madam Jeanne Guyon , Intimacy With Christ) Psalm 16:8 states, “I have set the LORD always before me. Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” The Church serves as the vehicle through which the Redeemed are brought into close proximity with one another. This ‘closeness’ is the stuff of the cross. Our human weakness and selfish nature drives the ‘nails’ of suffering into ourselves and others. Many times we bear the ‘cross’ of own selfishness as it’s mixed with relationship or Koinonia (fellowship in the Spirit). In this sense, “organizations” become irrelevant, “missions statements” and “purpose statements” become irrelevant, “success” and “failure” (measured by human standards) becomes irrelevant. Only our identification with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is relevant. All else is superficial.

In the well-known devotional book My Utmost For His Highest Oswald Chambers states, “Always measure your life solely by the standards of Jesus. Submit yourself to His yoke alone; and always be careful to never place a yoke on others that is not of Jesus Christ. It takes God a long time to get us to stop thinking that unless everyone sees things exactly as we do, they must be wrong. That is never God’s view. There is only one true liberty—the liberty of Jesus at work in our conscience to do what is right. Jesus said, ‘go...and make disciples…’ (Matthew 28:19), not ‘make converts to your own thoughts and opinions.’ ” Jesus commands us to love each other. (John 15:17) This means we ‘bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things’ (I Corinthians 13:7). If we, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, are faithful to ‘bear, believe, hope and endure,’ then we cannot fail! However, we must remember that God will bring us into difficult circumstances that are designed to test the measure of our surrender and faith. Discipleship cannot be proven by words or even actions. Discipleship is the process through which our hearts are refined, many times through suffering, to display the character and attributes of Jesus Christ. The ‘nails’ hurt, but eventually become some of our most cherished possessions. Remember His nail-scarred hands!

“No man is fit to enjoy heaven unless he has resigned himself to suffer hardship for Christ. Nothing is more acceptable to God, nothing more helpful for you on this earth than to suffer willingly for Christ. If you had to make a choice, you ought to wish rather to suffer for Christ than to enjoy many consolations, for thus you would be more like Christ and more like all the saints. Our merit and progress consist not in many pleasures and comforts but rather in enduring great afflictions and sufferings.” “If, indeed, there were anything better or more useful for man's salvation than suffering, Christ would have shown it by word and example. But He clearly exhorts the disciples who follow Him and all who wish to follow Him to carry the cross, saying: "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Thomas á Kempis; The Imitation of Christ) “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Luke 14:27, John 13:35) Exactly what is the nature of our relationship with God? Do we treat Him like some kind of cosmic “blessing bank”, thinking that if we hit upon just the right combination of actions and attitudes, He will perform for us the way we want Him to? Do we fail to see the way we think about, and treat our Heavenly Father is usually the way we think about, and treat those around us? The answer to these questions lies, believe it or not, in the way we view suffering!

In "The Problem of Pain," C.S. Lewis writes, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” Let’s ‘unpack’ this statement. Free-will (the right to be a free moral agent and choose between right and wrong) is what separates us from all other created things. The very nature and essence of God’s unconditional love demands that the object of His love—you and I— be free to choose whether or not to love Him in return. This freedom was exploited by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when they chose to disobey the one directive from the Father that was to prove their faithfulness (they ate fruit from the tree of knowledge). This disobedience created a dilemma: God’s unconditional love collided with His uncompromising justice. Man’s disobedience required justice to be satisfied. Yet man, as the object of God’s unconditional love, wanted redemption and forgiveness. This ‘collision’ between love and justice could only end in one way: suffering.

Man’s selfishness reduced God’s original perfect plan for His creation to a nightmare existence filled with
violence, disgrace, and corruption. Something had to be done, so God’s solution was to send the Son (the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the very Word of Life made flesh) to walk on the soil He himself created, among those He so infinitely loved. From the beginning God knew that this journey was going to be full of suffering and pain. Ultimately, the price Justice would exact required God to reject the Son (Matthew 27:46). The Son, being sinless and perfect, could rightfully take upon himself the punishment for Adam’s disobedience (remember Jesus, born of a virgin, was outside of Adam’s lineage) for all who choose to believe and accept His sacrifice. For this reason the Apostle Paul writes in II Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

For the disciple of Jesus Christ, there is no loftier goal—and no greater source of suffering—than dying to selfish desires. And our discipleship is proven in how we treat others. This is where community begins, in understanding that when we truly set ourselves to be Christ’s disciples, we will join with others in community, in relationship—living the way Jesus lived, by His commands and precepts, the foremost of which is “love each other [unconditionally].” We MUST accept that no conditions may be attached to our love for others. This is how our unconditional love for God is demonstrated! And it’s here that the Church gets sidetracked into becoming nothing more than a ‘religious organization’ (by the way, these angered Jesus). In his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard states, “For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of becoming a Christian. [In Western churches] one is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress towards discipleship. Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Christ in His example, spirit and teachings as a condition of membership...most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Jesus.”

This indictment is not new. We have seen the same unfaithfulness characterize God’s people since the children of Israel were delivered from the hands of the Egyptians. Yet God, in His passionate, endless, unconditional love for us continues to pursue us relentlessly. He desires for us to be healed from our spiritual blindness. His wish is for us to step out of darkness into His light. As you give serious consideration to your relationship with the Father, be reminded that we cannot enter into any kind of relationship with Him on our own terms. We cannot claim to love God and be Jesus’ disciples while holding grudges against each other (conditional love). We cannot claim to follow Christ and be driven by our own selfish desires and ambitions. Dallas Willard states, “...one cannot be a disciple of Christ without forfeiting things normally sought in human life. And if we intend to become like Christ, that will be obvious to every thoughtful person around us, as well as to ourselves...discipleship can be made concrete by loving our enemies, blessing those who curse us, walking the second mile with an oppressor—in general, living out the gracious inward transformation of faith, hope, and love. Such acts—carried out by the disciplined person with manifest grace, peace and joy—make discipleship no less tangible and shocking today than...long ago. Anyone who will enter The Way can verify this, and he or she will prove that discipleship is far from dreadful.” (The Spirit of the Disciplines).

Let’s take a look at one more of A.W. Tozer’s thoughts. “Much of our difficulty as seeking Christians stems from our unwillingness to take God as He is and adjust our lives accordingly. We insist upon trying to modify Him and to bring Him nearer to our own image. The flesh [our human nature] whimpers against the rigor of God’s inexorable sentence and begs like Agag [see 1 Samuel 15] for a little mercy, a little indulgence of its carnal ways It is no use. We can get a right start only by accepting God as He is and learning to love Him for what He is.” (The Pursuit of God) This is huge! Remember what I restated earlier: our ability to love and walk with each other in true Christian fellowship hinges upon the degree to which we have learned to love and trust God! When we begin to truly take God as He is, and submit ourselves to Him, only then will we be able to love each other for who we are and submit to one another, as the Apostle Paul commands us to in Ephesians 5. When we get to the point where we are so focused on Him that we trust Him completely no matter what life’s circumstances might bring our way, only then will we begin to live in a manner that draws us nearer to Him and to each other.

It is important for us to get a hold of this truth. It is my hope that the Church will engage in a new way in corporate worship and Community Groups. But we must guard ourselves against coming to our times together with the typical worldly attitude of “what am I going to get out of this.” Instead we must challenge ourselves to ask our Lord the question, “What can I bring to the gathering of believers, no matter what it might cost me?” You see, dear friend, this is the essence of Christian fellowship. Decades ago, one of our presidents spoke of this principle of truth accurately when he said, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”* If the world recognizes this principle of selflessness, then how much more should we, the Church?

I encourage you if you have not already done so, to not let one day go by that you do not spend personal, alone, intentional time with the Father. Understand right away that this will be the hardest thing that you will ever strive to undertake, because we have an adversary who, as we have said, is cunning, brilliant, and understands our weaknesses all too well. The last thing he wants us to do is be in a position where we are exposed to the truth of God’s Word and the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives!

*President John F. Kennedy’s entire speech can be found at: http://www.famousquotes.me.uk/speeches/John_F_Kennedy/5.htm

2 comments:

Beacon2Light said...

Very well written and thought out. Actually, to be honest, at this late hour, I haven't yet finished it. I will have to revisit this post and do just that.

Thank you for the time expended to put these thoughts down. May God bless your efforts to share His truth.

Mark said...

Thanks so much! I appreciate your encouragement.