YA Reflections

The Why of Spiritual Disciplines - Part Three - "To Be Transformed"

“The greatest need you and I have - the greatest need of collective humanity - is renovation of our heart. That spiritual place from which outlook, choices, and actions come has been formed by a world away from God. Now it must be transformed.” - Dallas Willard

After a brief hiatus due to Christmas and New Years, we now return to our off week studying of the spiritual disciplines. We’ve laid out a working definition of how we will define it and it goes like this: We practice the disciplines to abide, to be transformed, and to show Jesus to the world. So far in this endeavor to study this ever important facet of the Christian life we covered an overview, or introduction if you will, and then we worked through the first part of why we practice - “to abide”. If you have yet to read those I’d encourage you to do so as each is a building block in the direction we’re going.

That being said, for this week’s study we are going to focus on the “to be transformed” aspect of the disciplines. Before we go any further, I’d like to acknowledge one thing. Transformation is a direct byproduct of abiding. Jesus says “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me (John 15:4).” Christian fruit cannot be born unless we are abiding in Christ. So fruit, or transformation for our definition, cannot happen unless we are connected to the Vine - that is Christ. To put it a different way - where there is no remaining in Christ, no abiding, no connection to the Vine, there will be no transformation, no growth, and no fruit. YIKES. 

On the flip side, and on a brighter note, where there is abiding, there will be fruit and transformation! This is great news! Allow me to pause here. Notice, your responsibility yet again is just to show up. If you abide in Christ - He will transform you. He will bring healing and restoration. The hard part is, that usually is never an immediate change but rather something you realize over long periods of time where you’ve sought to be faithful. Food for thought!

So, why do we even need to be transformed? To draw from that Dallas Willard quote atop the page, it is in fact our greatest need! But why? Simple answer: we are broken and in need of healing. Proverbs 4:23 tells us that from the heart flow the springs of life. Translation - everything you and I do flows directly from our hearts. So if everything we do flows directly from our hearts we need to ask the question - what are our hearts like? The prophet Jeremiah tells us that the heart is deceitfully wicked above all else (Jeremiah 17:9). Moses tells us that when God looked on the heart of man before the flood, He saw that our hearts were “only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). To put it in the words of the prophet Michael Scott who told Stanley Hudson that his heart was not great (PG translation), our hearts are also not great.

This is why we need transformation. We need it because everything we do we do from our hearts, from the inner woman or man. And that place in every single one of us is deeply flawed, deeply broken, and deeply sinful. That is why, the greatest need we have is to be transformed! One of the ways transformation has been promised to us is by beholding God (2 Cor 3:18), and one of the best ways we can behold God is through the spiritual disciplines.

So, what does this mean for our daily disciplines? What does it mean for your half-hearted, barely able to articulate prayers that feel like they hit the ceiling and God doesn’t hear or act on them? What does it mean for your distracted Bible reading? What does it mean for my inability to stick to a reading plan? What does it mean for our lack of Sabbath, for our hopelessness that God even cares, or for our nodding off in church (a discipline)? What does it mean? It means that if you’re putting forth the effort, if you are doing your part in seeking to abide, if you continue to position yourself in a place to behold God - He will work in you. Even when you can’t focus, when your kids are screaming, when you haven’t had a full night of sleep, and when you can’t really pray - He is at work. Keep fighting the good fight (1 Tim 6:12), y’all! Keep training for righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), expecting that there will be hard points, but over time they will pay off. As with any growth that comes, whether athletic, academic, personal, emotional - whatever it may be - it comes with growing pains. It comes with difficulty. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and three steps back. Yet, the reality is, if we keep going, hope is on the horizon because what God has promised God will do. And He has promised big things, and specifically to this conversation, He has promised to complete the work He began in you. 

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6

The Why of the Spiritual Disciplines - Part Two 12/16

We continue to dive into the “why” of spiritual disciplines. Why even spend time practicing the disciplines? What is the point? I am so glad you asked that question so I can say this: We practice the disciplines to abide, to be transformed, and to show Jesus to the world. That is the framework we are working with here. This week, we turn our attention to the first part of that statement: “to abide”.

Jesus says “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me (John 15:4).” This passage and this verse are well known, and for great reason! So much depth, so much richness, and much to meditate on. 

I want to focus this reflection mainly on what it means “to abide”, why it is so important, and how we do it. In other translations this passage reads, “to remain” in Jesus. Remain in Him, in His love, in His presence. Some scholars have interpreted it to mean “make your home in Jesus”. That is because “abide” is the verb form of “abode”, which means home. Now that we established what it means, why is it so important?

There is a lot at stake when it comes to our abiding in Jesus. On the one hand, if we do this, we will bear much fruit! We will grow, will be transformed, and will become more like Jesus. On the other hand, if we don’t do this, we will not bear fruit, we will not be transformed, and will not become like Jesus. It is the route to transformation because we can do nothing apart from Jesus (John 15:5). 

Think about Jesus’ imagery of the branch and the vine. What happens to a branch if it becomes separated from its tree? I know, trick question, right? Answer: it withers and dies. And not to be morbid, but that is what happens to our souls when we are not remaining in Jesus, abiding in Jesus, staying connected to him, keeping God before our minds, remaining aware of His presence in and around us, staying in His presence - however you want to say it. This is the work we’ve been given to do in our relationship with God - abide. Make your home in Him, remain in Him! Now, how do we do that?

I’m glad you asked. Best answer I know: the spiritual disciplines. Reading Scripture, praying, fasting, sabbath, etc. These are the means by which we remain in Jesus. Dallas Willard once called the disciplines “habitations of the Spirit”. He understood them as places where God has promised to meet with us, mainly because they are places that God has met with His people throughout history, and also the places Jesus went to to be with His Father.

So, as you go about your spiritual disciplines this week, keep this before your mind: You do them to abide. That is the reason. And you know what? Jesus told us to abide, and He does the rest. Meaning: we just have to show up, and He meets us where we are. In your prayers that you can barely articulate, in your time in the Word that is not as fruitful as you’d hoped, in your efforts to fast, Sabbath, or be alone in the quiet with God - remember that He is always at work deep below the surface sustaining His children, just as a tree sustains a branch. The branch is given life just by being attached to the tree. The same goes for us. Remain in Him, friends.

The Why of Spiritual Disciplines - Part One (11/17)

During the month of July we met every week and worked through some content regarding spiritual disciplines/practices. Honestly, we barely scratched the surface of a well that runs deep and wide. The why of spiritual disciplines, the what of spiritual disciplines, and the how of spiritual disciplines are each individually topics that you and I could spend so much time studying and learning about. Which is why, for the foreseeable future, these will be the topics at hand in these reflections/devotions (whatever you want to call them, really). Not only is there much to learn, but I also believe it is very important that we’re understanding them well. We will lean into God, Scripture, other brothers and sisters in Christ who’ve gone before us, and honestly, our own souls to gain a greater understanding of what it means to practice the disciplines.

So, to begin this week, let’s start the conversation on the “why of spiritual practices”. We begin with the “why” because if we don’t understand and know the “why” we are at risk of merely doing more “religious” things. If we don’t keep the why before our hearts and minds they can begin to feel like an aimless wandering about a forest we know we should be in but really have no idea what’s going on.

Simply put - We practice the disciplines to abide, to be transformed, and to show Jesus to the world. I’d encourage you to pause briefly and just let that roll through your mind. That will be our working definition as we go on. This framework for understanding is one that all flows together. Do you see the flow of this? We practice the disciplines to abide in Christ (John 15), and through abiding in Christ we are transformed (2 Cor 3:18), and we are transformed so that we can show Christ to the world (Ephesians 5:1). This is really key for us to understand and we will dive deeper into this framework in the weeks to come.

To end this week’s reflection, I want to lead us into a time of reflection (ha, the irony). Whenever we jump into something like this, it’s really important to take inventory of where we are already at. So I’d encourage you, if you’re able, to set aside some time and space (maybe even write in a journal) to be with God and thoughtfully reflect on the questions at the bottom. You may have to get creative and even if you can only swing 5 minutes, I believe wholeheartedly it would be beneficial for you.

Here are the reflection questions:

  • What comes into your mind when you think about the spiritual disciplines?
  • What role do the spiritual disciplines currently play in your relationship with God?
  • What are some specific ways that you can grow in your understanding and practice of the spiritual disciplines? 
Wisdom From Above 5/18

James 3:17 says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” A statement like this does not summarize the way our culture, at large, voices its knowledge and opinions. Like when I think of my social media feed amidst the last year when it came to discussion about political, social, or Coronavirus issues, for what its worth, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of James 3:17. And if I’m being honest, I don’t post much on social media or engage often in said conversations, but the script that runs through my mind and heart of what I think, want to say, and feel, also does not line up with this “wisdom from above”. So this is one of those passages, if you’re like me, you read and you’re like, “that’s great, but how do I get this wisdom/become like this type of person?”

This was indeed the direction our conversation headed the last time we met as a group. We worked through the passage. We made comments about what we’ve observed in the last year, or engaged in ourselves when it came to dialogue that wasn’t “pure, peaceable, open to reason, gentle, etc.” And then we came to a point where we asked the question, “How do we become like this?” Or to put another way, “how do we get this wisdom?” It is a really important question to ask because of what is at stake, namely, our witness in the world for Jesus. Can you imagine if believers were known for being “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere”? The interesting thing about the way James describes this is that it is not just knowledge/facts that we know, but how we share those knowledge and facts. That is wisdom. Wisdom is how you apply what you know to be true, how you live, speak, act. Peacefully. Gently. Open to reason. Mercifully. Impartial. Sincere. They are the goal. So just how do we get this wisdom from above?

The main way is to go to the source of such wisdom. Clearly this source is not in and of ourselves (sorry guys, see James 3:1-12). James says it, that it is wisdom “from above” (3:17). So, in order to get this wisdom, we need to go to God. And when there, I believe these two things will be helpful. Both are simple: seek and ask.

The first one is to spend time with God. Seek His face. This came up in our conversation!. Spend time with the source of said wisdom. Set your gaze upon the Lord and don’t move for a while. Jesus Himself was/is full of this wisdom from above. When I think about these words James says in 3:17, I think of Jesus. I’d challenge you to read through some of the Gospel stories with James 3:17 in mind and see how full of this wisdom Jesus is. Let’s spend time with Him, reading His Word, at His feet. Before moving on from this, I just want to ask, how has your time with God been? The reality is that your life is the product of what you give your time/attention to. It really is for all of us, for better or for worse. How much of your time/attention is devoted to God and what He is doing in the world? Jesus Himself was full of “wisdom from above” and if we spend time with Him, over time we will have more and more of that wisdom, as He makes us more and more like Himself.

Secondly, James says to ask for wisdom (1:5). This comes in the context of enduring suffering in trials, but is no less applicable here because again God is the source and He wants us to ask for this wisdom. James says, “if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God. I think we all can acknowledge that we do lack this wisdom, wisdom from above. The beauty of our God is that He offers it to us, we only need to ask. And when we ask, His Word says that He will give it generously, and without reproach. I challenge you this week to ask God for this wisdom, and trust that He will give it!

So, in attempting to answer, “how do we get this wisdom?”, we’ve said two things. Seek. Ask. Sounds a lot like what Jesus said in His “Sermon on the Mount”. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find…” Let’s do this together, prayerfully, as we continue to seek to grow in our Christlikeness and our pursuit of this wisdom.

Tame Your Tongue/Keep Your Heart 5/5

The last time we were together, we worked our way through the first twelve verses of James 3. It was within these verses that James pulled no punches in regard to humanity’s collective inability to control the tongue. If humanity could do so, James said they would be perfect (3:2). But, the tongue is a small member and boasts of great things (3:5). He also refers to it as a fire, a world of unrighteousness. And, to take matters a little further just so we know exactly what this tongue of ours is capable of, James says that it is a restless evil, and full of deadly poison (3:8). 

And we all said, “thanks James.”

Its true, though. As we all observed in our conversation, we’ve all “set the woods on fire” with words that we knew we shouldn’t have said before we said them, and then felt guilty after we said them. The bottom line is: our tongue can hurt people, really badly.

To take it one more step, Jesus in Luke 6:45 says, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” So, these words, this deadly poison, this tiny spark that sets a forest on fire - all of that - flows out of our hearts. Meaning, we can’t escape responsibility for anything we say. We have to acknowledge where that word/thought/action originated, and that is from within. 

James says the tongue can’t be tamed. But there is indeed hope for growth, and I think the first step towards growth (not perfection) is to keep watch of your heart.

Proverbs 4:23 says this, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life (ESV).” The point I want to make with this here is that one part to keeping your heart (that rhymed), is that you have to know what may cause you to fall into sin. To put it differently, and more in context with taming the tongue, we must be aware of what may cause us to lash out with our tongues. We have to grow in knowledge of what it is that might cause us to “set a forest ablaze”. Part of keeping your heart is staying away from those things that may lead you to lash out and you can’t stay away from those things unless you know what they are.

For example, I said last week that some of my worst moments are when I’m in a hurry. When I feel rushed, when I feel like there is too much to do, or when I’m running late, I have a tendency in those moments to be short with those I’m around. So, in order to keep my heart, knowing that about myself, I intentionally make an effort to slow down. Like I literally try to walk slower. I also make an effort to not be rushed or running late, but in those moments I try to remind myself of what really matters and if I’m running late for something - I don’t need to take it out on my wife, and I don’t need to take it out on the person in front of me who just won’t seem to drive over the speed limit so I can get where I’m going, faster (Lol). I am far from perfect, but I try to do those things as a means to counteract what I can be like when I am rushed, in a hurry, etc.

Maybe for you, it is when you’re tired (me too). Maybe it is when you don’t get your way (yup, same). Maybe it is when someone shares something on Facebook and you want to comment back and give them 15 reasons why they are wrong (don’t point a finger, we’ve all done it). Maybe it is when you’re stressed.... 

Whatever it may be that causes us to be short - the common denominator is simple - us. It flows from our hearts. When Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” He did not add a clause that said “except when…” We can’t escape responsibility for our words, they all flow from within. What we can do is identify what it is that may cause us to be short. Once you’ve identified what those things may be, keep your heart. Watch it. If you feel rushed, slow down, it’s better to be late to something than to hurt those closest to you. If it’s when you’re tired, maybe take a nap, try to get more sleep at night, or if you can’t do that, grab some coffee and remember to laugh (and if you succeed at that, just think how well you’ll be able to tame your tongue when you’re rested again). If it is when you see something you disagree with on social media, maybe consider fasting from social media. If it is when you’re stressed, do your best to find outlets for that stress.

Let’s do this, together, friends. Hold each other accountable. Pray for each other, and keep watch of our hearts.

Reflection/Devotional Thoughts 4/21

In our most recent time and discussion together we covered James 2:18-26. James further comments within these verses on the discussion of faith and works. He uses two Old Testament stories, that of Abraham and Rahab, to illustrate that we are justified by works and not by faith alone. I really hope that our time together was as encouraging to you as it was to me. We ended up covering a lot, and so for this week’s reflection, I simply just want to highlight what I saw as the key takeaways from our time together.

Firstly, and very important to remember for the Book of James, especially chapter two, James is comparing two faiths when he discusses faith and works. He is comparing faith with works, and faith without works. And he is saying that one of them is salvific (has the power to save) and one does not. The faith that has the power to save is the faith accompanied by works. The other faith, which is merely belief and no practice, no external outworking, is not a faith that saves. James illustrates this point further by saying, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder!” It is possible to “believe” in God and not be saved. Many people believe in God or a god, but if that God is not the God of the Bible and the God revealed in Jesus Christ, then that belief is not salvific. As we’ve said, genuine faith in Jesus leads to transformation (i.e. “works). As the great Reformers said, “Faith alone justifies, but a faith that justifies is never alone.”

Secondly, we turn our attention to Abraham. We covered the grueling story of him having to lead his son up the mountain for a sacrifice. Did you feel the tension in this story? Isaac asked his dad, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering? (Genesis 22:7)” Abraham, knowing what God has asked him to do responds and says, “God will provide the lamb.(Genesis 22:8)” Can you imagine the pain Abraham felt in his soul when his son asked this question? He still walked in obedience, by no means was that easy. Remember, he waited 25 years for Isaac to be born. That. Is. A. Long. Time. A time that is hard for us to comprehend, because most of us are that age, or a bit younger. God was asking Abraham this question, “Do you love the promise more than you love me?” And Abraham, in his waiting, walked in obedience all the way until the knife was at his son’s throat, and then at that very moment, God spoke and intervened (Genesis 22:12). At the very last moment. Abraham waited on God, and it was in his waiting that he had to exercise his faith, and he was willing to obey. This faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness (James 2:23).

Thirdly, and finally, we turn our attention to Rahab. She took in the spies or “messengers” in James’ wording and sent them out a different way. She covered for them because of who their God was, because she believed in their God. The point here is - she risked her life. Rahab was brave and bold in her belief in the God of Israel, so much so that she risked her life in a manifestation of her faith in the God of Israel. And this, James says, was Rahab's “justification by works” (James 2:25).

Reflection/Devotional Thoughts 4/7

Debating Two Faiths

The book of James has been one of the most controversial/debated books throughout church history. This is not because it is not inspired by the Holy Spirit (forgive me for the double negative). It is not because James is a false teacher. And it is not because some of the statements he makes contradict other teachings in the Scriptures.

The reason that this book has been highly debated is a direct result of some of the statements James makes that seem contradictory, but really are not. These are statements like:

  • “faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)
  • “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)
  • “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2:26)

The reason that these seem contradictory is because of some other passages in Scripture that seem to communicate that we are saved by faith alone. Specifically with the Apostle Paul’s writings, here are some examples:

  • “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
  • “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no man may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Do you see the potential for contradiction? Or even a fun debate between James and Paul…

Paul: We are justified by faith, and not by works of the law!

James (tongue in cheek): Yeah, but if faith is by itself without works, it’s dead.

Paul: Your salvation is not your own doing though, not a result of your works! It is by grace, through faith.

James: What good is it though, if you say you have faith, but have no works. Can that faith save you?

I digress...and retire from my short career of writing plays.

Do you see this tension here, though? James emphasizes works. Paul emphasizes faith.

So what is the answer to this tension? Here is my answer:

James and Paul are not in contradiction with one another, and so, in my opinion, wouldn’t have this debate. We actually create the tension as we read it. 

James is not elevating works over faith. I think that at times this is how Christians have tended to read it, and thus creates the tension. You see, James and Paul were both writing to different audiences who needed correction on different things. If I have learned one thing about interpreting Scripture it is this principle:

The passage cannot mean for us what it did not mean for them.

“Them” meaning the intended original audience.

So, we can say with confidence that Paul is not saying that works are useless. He is rather emphasizing that faith is ultimately what saves us. We can’t say that because of his emphasis there that he doesn’t care about our conduct/works. After all, he is the one who wrote about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Works/external result of true faith matter to Paul, but he is trying to communicate that they don’t secure salvation, and that faith does that.

On the other hand, James is not communicating to his audience that faith doesn’t matter, but rather that true saving faith in Jesus will manifest itself in works. If faith does not have works, it might not be true saving faith in Jesus.

The point is this: James is comparing two different faiths. He is comparing a faith that has works with a faith that does not have works. He is not drawing a line between faith and works and their power to save in and of themselves.

So now that I’m done being a nerd, here is the thing, friends. If we truly have saving faith in Jesus, we will be propelled towards good works. Or to be corny and make a play on words, “a faith that does not have works, doesn’t work.” Genuineness of faith will inevitably result in good works because we cannot encounter God’s love and remain the same. We either move farther away from Him, or closer to Him.

Reflection/Devotional Thoughts 3/24/21

James, the Proverbs of the New Testament

We’ve been studying the book of James for almost 7 months now (woah). We’ve been moving at a really slow pace working our way through each verse, trying to gain an understanding of the book both in its original context, and what it means for us as Christians in 2021 (I accidentally wrote 2020 at first, lol).

As we continue to work our way through this book, I wanted to remind us of a few of the broader points of the book itself. Sometimes in our deeper study it is easy to forget that this book was a letter, meant to be read and heard by its original audience. Reminding ourselves of its overall themes can be a helpful tool, and encouraging along the way of deeper study.

Firstly, as with the title at the top, the book of James is often referred to as “the Proverbs of the New Testament”. The reason for this is that the content found in the book of James is content that practically and faithfully reminds Christians how to live. The book of Proverbs contains much on how to live wisely in this world before God. This, too, is the broad, overarching, and unifying theme of James. He is instructing this Jewish audience in how to live out their faith in Christ, and we can glean some insight for that for our lives. 

Secondly, there is an underlying theme of a hatred for hypocrisy. Hypocrisy can be understood as you claiming to have moral beliefs/values to your life does not line up with. James goes right at this many times throughout this book, most recently (in our studying) in James 2:14-17. He began the conversation of faith/works. James here compares faith that has works with faith that does not have works. He doesn’t outright call this hypocrisy, but it is pretty clear that those who have faith but not works are indeed hypocrites. And James’ hatred for such hypocrisy can be found in his tone that he communicates with.

Lastly, there is also an underlying theme of the warning against being double minded. This is especially prevalent in James 1:2-8 where he directly calls it out. It is also prevalent throughout the book. Most recently, again, in James 2:14-17. Having faith without works, for James, is being double minded - it doesn’t make sense! It is an unstable path, and ultimately one that leads to destruction. 

So, in closing, let’s continue to press forward in our study of James with these themes in mind. Ultimately, with the intention in mind of how to live faithfully as Christians in this world, in 2021. The Bible may be thousands of years old, but is still the inspired Word of God that speaks to all times, all peoples, in all contexts. That being said, let’s continue to seek to be both hearers and doers of His Word, allowing it to enter and form every aspect of our lives, by the power of the Holy Spirit.