Trembling, Spread Thin, and the Need for Discipline

As a brief preface before getting into the entry, I just wanted to let you know that this blog post will hit on a number of different topics–most specifically the idea of thinking through a Gospel-lens, how suffering/trials are used for our good, and how we must discipline ourselves to remember this and work towards various goals.

I suppose I could publish them in multiple different posts, but I feel like they are coherent enough to lead into each other, and that seen as a whole they provide a synthesized context to think over and work to implement.

This is something I’ve been mulling around in my head for quite some time and I pray that you will find it useful.

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“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” ~ Isaiah 66:2

Not the religious guy who thinks he’s got his life together.

Not the legalist who worships a checklist Christianity (which, let’s be honest, is no Christianity at all).

But he who is humble. He who understands his depravity and unworthiness and yet can rejoice in his worth in Christ!

The one who trembles at the word of God because he understands that it has the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21) and is living and active (and therefore applicable, meaningful, and piercing)(see Hebrews 4:12).

This is humbling to me because if I’m not careful and intentional to remember this truth I will drift into the first category. It’s like the old hymn says: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.”

A.W. Tozer has a very telling quote on this topic. He says, “You can know the truth and quote it verbatim, but you’re spiritually cross-eyed until it changes how you live.” We must know from the outset that this Gospel deeply affects every part of us. Furthermore, the Gospel provides a proper lens on our lives and circumstances–a sort of proper view of things as they ought to be seen.

Left to myself it is easy for me to become overwhelmed with what’s going on in and around me: jobless and struggling to get hired somewhere, relationship-less (in the context of a girlfriend/future spouse/etc.), prone to constant idolatry and slipping into pointless sins that I know will not satisfy, enslaved to the need to be approved and liked by others, insecurities and deficiencies ever on my mind–likely because I’m comparing myself to others instead of to Jesus.

Not only does the Gospel expose all of these in me, but it also reinforces my identity because of the Gospel. I am not “sinner” but “saint”; not unwanted but adopted; not defeated but victorious. In addition to these truths the Gospel also provides examples I can draw on to instill hope.

In a sense, when things are going poorly in some area (or many areas) of my life I have a tendency to amplify it/them like it’s the most painful and hopeless thing to ever happen.

Enter Paul:

imprisoned, beaten, lashed, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, lost at sea, constantly pursued to be killed, hungry/thirsty frequently (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28) and yet he is the one who proclaims that all these things are happening for a purpose (and even more so, are happening for a good purpose)!

He says “I am afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; constantly reminded of the death of Jesus.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Why?

That His life (that is, Jesus’ life) might also be declared and made known as great in us (2 Corinthians 4:10)! And “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Now I come to terms with a very sobering question I have to ask myself: If God is intentionally at work in these difficulties, who am I to believe that He is absent and inactive in my own? It is for this purpose that we ought to be more wrapped up in the treasures of the Gospel than the pressures in and around us. This is how Paul is able to proclaim in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that we “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

The following quotes really set the tone for where I am going next:

“The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.” ~ Thomas Chalmers

 

“[Christians are] a people conquered by a Superior Affection.” ~ David Platt

This is where we must necessarily shift gears for a bit. I touched on it a little bit earlier but I see it absolutely necessary to flesh this out in a little more detail.

Herein lies the concept of discipline.

I mentioned before that if unchecked I will drift into a self-centered mentality and it would be easy to become overwhelmed by my circumstances and slip into a “woe is me” mentality, and with that in mind we must be disciplined and urgent/intentional in our approach to this.

The idea of disciplining ourselves is anything but natural. I mean just be honest.. what went through your mind when I brought up the idea of discipline? Likely not “Yes! I really hoped I would get called out to do things I didn’t really want to do!”

Think about the various examples in our everyday lives (excerpted from a Desiring God blogpost by Jon Bloom found here: http://ow.ly/ngCB0 ):

–Healthy, nutritious food often requires discipline to prepare and eat while junk food is convenient, tasty, and addictive.

–Keeping the body healthy and strong requires frequent deliberate discomfort while it only takes constant comfort (laziness, no change in routine, etc.) to [head in the opposite direction].

–You have to make yourself pick up that nourishing but intellectually challenging book while popping in a DVD is as easy and inviting as coasting downhill.

–You frequently have to force yourself to get to devotions and prayer while sleeping in or catching up on sports or checking Facebook is almost effortless.

–Learning to skillfully play beautiful music requires thousands of hours of tedious practice.

–Excelling in sports requires monotonous drills ad nauseum

–Learning to write well requires writing, writing, writing, and rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And usually requires voluminous reading.

–It takes years of schooling just to make certain vocational opportunities possible.

You get the idea. The pattern is this: the greater joys are obtained through struggle, difficulty, and pain, while brief, unsatisfying, and often destructive “joys” are right at our fingertips.

Why is this?

Because God, in His great mercy, is showing us everywhere, in things that are just shadows of heavenly realities, that there is great reward for those who struggle through and persevere (Hebrews 10:32-35). He is reminding us almost everywhere to walk by faith in a promised future and not by sight of immediate gratification (2 Corinthians 5:7)

Paul speaks further into this issue by using the analogy of an athlete. 1 Corinthians 9:25-27 says that “every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Paul is saying many things in this passage, but for our sake he is saying that he “exercises self-control.. not aimlessly” (so there’s a purpose and objective to it!) and that he does it for an “imperishable (reward).” This athlete analogy helps us envision someone who has a clear goal in mind and trains and disciplines himself (or herself!) to obtain that goal.

Now that we’ve fleshed out this idea conceptually, let’s make it a little more practical, shall we?

Personally, I tend to say things like “I want to know more about what the Bible says than what John Piper (or Mark Driscoll, or [insert your favorite pastor’s/author’s name here]) says.” … You know what that requires of me? To actually stop reading that blog/book and pick up my Bible.

I say “I want to have wisdom and a breadth of knowledge like Tim Keller has” and yet I neglect to pursue the breadth of sources Keller does (and still I expect somehow to absorb information and perspectives that I’m not even encountering!)

I so often expect (progressive) results from my inactivity and a differing set of affections from implementing no change at all into my routine and time spent.

How foolish!

Now pay attention to this next part because I think this really gets at the heart of this issue.

I believe wholeheartedly that much of this struggle comes because our attention and affections are spread so thin in so many directions.

I think as a generation (speaking as a Millennial, at least, I can’t speak on this issue for everyone else) we are content with being OK at a lot of different things, and not exceptional at a few things. We want to know a lot of different technologies, facts, songs, play a bunch of different things (sports, video games) or be a part of a hundred different university clubs, but we don’t often identify those two or three things we truly want to flourish in.

I would challenge you in this: Identify those things for you personally.

I believe everyone has those deep desires and longings and I would encourage you to spend some time (undistracted! imagine that!) identifying what those are for you; then discipline yourself to make progress on them.

Once you have narrowed your focus, I think it’s incredibly important to remember one key principle: it is a process. Usain Bolt didn’t just wake up one morning, walk into a sprinting competition, and break world records or win olympic gold. Tim Keller didn’t walk out of a nursery quoting Sociologists and providing ministry-shaping ideas on urban contextualization. They identifies what they wanted to pursue and they worked towards it (incrementally).

One man I know has memorized entire books of the Bible. I took some time to ask him how he did it and what the process was like and you know what he said?

“I started with a verse.”

Take the time to really think hard about what thing (or few things) you want to flourish and excel in–perhaps what you want to be defined by–and take the first step.

You cannot expect to be a master theologian overnight.

You cannot expect to climb half-dome or Everest if you haven’t even taken a hike in the hills in your city.

Figure out where you want to be, what it’ll take to get there, and just start taking a step, then a second, then a third, and sooner or later you’ll be amazed at the progress that is being made. But it takes that intentionality and discipline to follow through to even work towards that progress.

You don’t get there overnight, but you can ask yourself “what can I do today to enable me to be able to do tomorrow what I wasn’t able to do yesterday?”

Even with this perspective change in mind, there will still be barriers to this discipline. For me, I know I often come into contact with the fear of not doing well at something. I find it hard to pick up running again because my asthma acts up–because I’m not in cardio-shape, and therefore my asthma picks up; see the dilemma? Or I find it hard to get back into rock climbing because I know how good I used to be, and it’s a blow to my pride to not be as good as I know I used to be, and therefore have to appear like a beginner again.

Essentially, I have a fear of failing and a fear of not living up to expectations (even when the expectations being placed on me are my own).

The Gospel helps remind me that because of Christ’s death on the cross and victory over the grave I know that my failures and struggles will ultimately help shape my future successes and that though I may stumble and fall, I am not defeated, and that I can continue with strength that comes from the Lord (see Philippians 4:13).

So I feel like I’m a little scattered with all this, but I hope you see the concepts really merging together. There’s a lot I wanted to say, and I’m sure a lot of it didn’t come together as ideally as I intended, but I hope that in each area something stuck out at you and stuck with you.

My hope is that this post in some way triggers some thoughts and actions for you to begin assessing and implementing to work towards this concept of “disciplining yourself” as Paul said above.

And ultimately you MUST remember this: there is grace.

We can rejoice and operate in freedom because these strivings and our ability to attain goals do not define us. Christ has accomplished it all for us because He knew we would fall short. He knew we’d mess up, get distracted, and run to other things we know do not ultimately satisfy. And guess what? He STILL chose to die for you.

Christ STILL calls you “brother” and “sister” and accomplished for you adoption into the family of God. This should free us to strive all the more–not to earn what we cannot earn, but because our place is secure in Him and this instills in us a new set of hopes and desires to love and follow Jesus and make much of God with our lives!

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Jesus, Risks, and the Hobbit

[[WHILE THIS POST IS A COMPILATION OF IDEAS, IT IS A LITTLE SCATTERED AT TIMES. PERHAPS I WILL COMPILE AND BETTER ORGANIZE MY THOUGHTS IN THE NEAR-FUTURE, BUT FOR THE TIME BEING I JUST NEED TO GET THE CONTENT onto paper AND I PRAY THAT IT IS COHESIVE ENOUGH TO GET MY POINT ACROSS.]]

 

As I was watching The Hobbit tonight, I had a few key things come to mind (don’t worry, I won’t give any spoilers).

I think it’s pretty clear that we all love epic tales. We love stories of mass adventures and journeys into the unknown. Lord of the Rings, Narnia, the Bourne movies, the list goes on and on.

I started to think about why that is, and at the end of the day, I think it’s because we all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

We flock to theatres, buy novels, plaster our walls (both physically and electronically) with posters and visual content, and much more to express our interaction with these themes; but for me, this exposed in me (and surely in others) a dangerous reality.

We long for the interaction and involvement in grander themes, something “bigger” than us, having a greater purpose, and yet we leave it to the movies we watch, the pages we turn, and the stories we read. We long to play a part and yet settle for living vicariously through a character while we are a passive observer.

Why?

I think it’s because we know that it will cost us.

We know that with these sorts of involvement, there is risk. We want the benefits without the costs, we want the enjoyment of being significant without the dangers of being disliked by some.

Allow me to hone in on this a little bit. I do not want this to be some generic, conceptual argument with vague intentions which significant, tangible realities are swirling around this.

There is a higher calling for our lives than observing adventures happen on a television screen. Jesus calls us to follow Him. We are being called upon to be agents of reconciliation and proclaim His Gospel to the world (2 Cor 5:18-19). We are being called to advance His Kingdom and live in such a way that the world will see that we value something more than anything else this world can offer us.

We are being called by God to make much of HIM, not ourselves.

The truth is.. it will cost us, but His promise is sure.

Jesus says we may lose everything (see the book of Job), but He is enough.

The Bible says that you may be rejected by men (John 15:18), but He alone will sustain you and never leave you (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Without fragmenting this too much, I look at how I’m living and look at the scriptures and see a great imbalance. I read stories in the Bible and desire the interactions and communing with God that these men and women had, and yet I often seek to do as little as possible to receive it. Perhaps it’s my Westernized, American mentality or perhaps we’ve just used that as an excuse for far too long. All I know it that there’s an imbalance, and I don’t wish for it to be a defining factor for me any more.

At the end of the day, we must risk. We must venture into the unknown, but in doing so, we can hold firm to the fact that our God will remain with us, and that He is ever-victorious; that either in our life or our death, He will be made much of and magnified.

Joel Houston (lead singer of Hillsong United) says, “all too often we look at injustice and say to ourselves ‘that’s not right; that’s not fair’ and then chance the channel or get on with supper.”

We identify with it, but that’s often times all we do, because for us to ever do something about it will actually cost us something.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the generation that can hold doctrinally-sound beliefs and do absolutely nothing about it other than debate people.

I desire to be a part of a generation that acts on those beliefs. A generation that lives them out. I want us as Christians to be known for our intentionality and urgency in what we believe–while being characterized by love. I want to live in such a way that even if my friends don’t believe the same things I do, they know I believe it, and it shapes the way I live.

Are we believing in God to move in impossible situations? Are we even asking Him to? Or are we writing Him off before we even give Him the chance to do something?

The Bible says that God is able to do abundantly more than we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20), and so even the most far-fetched, impossible-seeming, most ridiculous aspiration you have in reaching someone or doing something for the sake of the Gospel, God can do even more.

God desires to make His name great and for our lives to be consumed with bringing Him glory. May we stop settling for adventures and epic tales on a movie screen when we have one laying right in front of us.

May we live with a Gospel urgency and intentionality, knowing that not just what we think about Jesus, but how we live for (and proclaim!) Him is necessary in making Him known in our specific contexts.

May we live out this Gospel, depend on Jesus, and love God passionately as we seek for His Kingdom to advance.

Praying for this.

9 Lessons from God Concerning Sickness

Sickness is meant…

1. To make us think—to remind us that we have a soul as well as a body—an immortal soul—a soul that will live forever in happiness or in misery—and that if this soul is not saved we had better never have been born.

2. To teach us that there is a world beyond the grave—and that the world we now live in is only a training-place for another dwelling, where there will be no decay, no sorrow, no tears, no misery, and no sin.

3. To make us look at our past lives honestly, fairly, and conscientiously. Am I ready for my great change if I should not get better? Do I repent truly of my sins? Are my sins forgiven and washed away in Christ’s blood? Am I prepared to meet God?

4. To make us see the emptiness of the world and its utter inability to satisfy the highest and deepest needs of the soul.

5. To send us to our Bibles. That blessed Book, in the days of health, is too often left on the shelf, becomes the safest place in which to put a bank-note, and is never opened from January to December. But sickness often brings it down from the shelf and throws new light on its pages.

6. To make us pray. Too many, I fear, never pray at all, or they only rattle over a few hurried words morning and evening without thinking what they do. But prayer often becomes a reality when the valley of the shadow of death is in sight.

7. To make us repent and break off our sins. If we will not hear the voice of mercies, God sometimes makes us “hear the rod.”

8. To draw us to Christ. Naturally we do not see the full value of that blessed Savior. We secretly imagine that our prayers, good deeds, and sacrament-receiving will save our souls. But when flesh begins to fail, the absolute necessity of a Redeemer, a Mediator, and an Advocate with the Father, stands out before men’s eyes like fire, and makes them understand those words, “Simply to Your cross I cling,” as they never did before. Sickness has done this for many—they have found Christ in the sick room.

9. To make us feeling and sympathizing towards others. By nature we are all far below our blessed Master’s example, who had not only a hand to help all, but a heart to feel for all. None, I suspect, are so unable to sympathize as those who have never had trouble themselves—and none are so able to feel as those who have drunk most deeply the cup of pain and sorrow.

Summary: Beware of fretting, murmuring, complaining, and giving way to an impatient spirit. Regard your sickness as a blessing in disguise – a good and not an evil – a friend and not an enemy. No doubt we should all prefer to learn spiritual lessons in the school of ease and not under the rod. But rest assured that God knows better than we do how to teach us. The light of the last day will show you that there was a meaning and a “need be” in all your bodily ailments. The lessons that we learn on a sick-bed, when we are shut out from the world, are often lessons which we should never learn elsewhere.

~ J.C. Ryle (Tract: Christ in the Sick Room)

Suffering Well

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Dear Self,

God does not promise to rid your life of affliction and difficulty, but he does offer to give you the grace needed to suffer well, and through grace to discover the riches and beauty of the gospel. It isn’t wrong to ask God to relieve you of your pain, but it is more important that in the midst of the pain that you rely on the promise of God to work such experiences for his glory and your good—to use these times as a means of perfecting your faith, strengthening your spirit, and transforming your life in such a way that you are becoming more like Jesus.

I know you want relief, but often relief comes, not in the form of the removal of the affliction, but in the strengthening of your faith. And that is what these trials are designed to do—test, prove, and strengthen your faith. In times of ease you have sometimes wondered just how real and robust is your faith. In times of your own weakness you have asked God to sanctify you, grow you, and strengthen you. Well, here is your answer. God accomplishes much of that through your “fiery trial” when you suffer well. To suffer well doesn’t mean you put on a stoic face and muscle through the situation without a word. It means that through your suffering you trust God, bless him, look to him, and point others to him.

When the world strips away your comfort and confidence in things temporal, when friends become enemies and attack you, when in the providence of God suffering enters your life like a flash flood, you are given an opportunity to see very clearly where your ultimate dependence lies and where you find your identity. And it’s not just something that reveals truth about yourself; it is also something God uses to sanctify you.

Do you want to be confident in God’s good purposes for your life? Then you must discover them in times of ease as well as times of difficulty. Do you want to become more like Christ? Then you must suffer, and suffer well.

From Joe Thorn’s Note to Self, Ch. 44 (emphasis added)