You’re Not Doing Better

A good read. This one’s from Orthodox Church blogger, Fr Stephen Freeman …

Our Christian lives are not a moral project.

The moral improvement (or progress) of our lives is not the goal of the Christian life. It is not even on the same page. We imagine that if we manage to tell fewer lies, or lust fewer times, or fast a little more carefully, and swallow our angry words more completely, we are somehow the better for it and have “made progress.” But this is not so.

St. Gregory of Nyssa once stated, “Man is mud whom God has commanded to become a god.” This is not the story of progress. We are not mud that is somehow improving itself towards divinity. There is nothing mud can do to become divine. And if we were honest with ourselves, we don’t even become better mud …

… What is happening in our spiritual lives is not the perfecting of a better “me.” It is like a comparison between mud and light. Really great, truly outstanding mud, can only ever be mud. It never becomes more “light-like.”

… The spiritual life is not an improvement of the moral self, it is the finding and the living into the true self (the New Man), birthed in us through Christ. We lose the moral self in order to find the true self. We confess our moral weakness and there we find the true strength of the New Man. We empty the moral self and understand that even its best effort and performance is but “hay, wood and straw” (1 Cor. 3:12) …

… Even our righteousness, our best and most successful moral performances are like unmentionably filthy rags! If we understood this rightly, we would acknowledge that the very things we have in mind when we say, “I’m improving…” are as empty and useless as the things of which we feel ashamed.

And it is that very shame that would open to us the gate of paradise. Only a saint could face the complete emptiness of that point, but all of us can bear “a little shame” (in the words of Archimandrite Zacharias). For it is in the weakness and failure of our life that we become “poor in Spirit.”

This same emptiness and weakness is also the place where we find that we become generous and courageous …

… St. John Chrysostom offers these golden words:

O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficient that You should enter under my roof into the habitation of my soul, for it is all deserted and in ruins, and You do not have a fitting place in me to lay Your head. But as from the heights of Your glory You humbled Yourself, so now bear me in my humility; as You deigned to lie in a manger in a cave, so deign now also to come into the manger of my mute soul and corrupt body. As You did not refrain from entering into the house of Simon the leper, or shrink from eating there with sinners, so also enter the house of my poor soul, all leprous and full of sin. You did not reject the sinful woman who ventured to draw near to touch You, so also have pity on me, a sinner, as I approach. And grant that I may partake of Your All-holy Body and Precious Blood…

Indeed.

Read the full post here.

C. H. Spurgeon – Morning Meditation, December 14th

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

This Morning’s Meditation

C. H. Spurgeon

“They go from strength to strength.”—Psalm 84:7.

They go from strength to strength. There are various renderings of these words, but all of them contain the idea of progress. Our own good translation of the authorized version is enough for us this morning. “They go from strength to strength.” That is, they grow stronger and stronger. Usually, if we are walking, we go from strength to weakness; we start fresh and in good order for our journey, but by-and-by the road is rough, and the sun is hot, we sit down by the wayside, and then again painfully pursue our weary way. But the Christian pilgrim having obtained fresh supplies of grace, is as vigorous after years of toilsome travel and struggle as when he first set out. He may not be quite so elate and buoyant, nor perhaps quite so hot and hasty in his zeal as he once was, but he is much stronger in all that constitutes real power, and travels, if more slowly, far more surely. Some gray-haired veterans have been as firm in their grasp of truth, and as zealous in diffusing it, as they were in their younger days; but, alas, it must be confessed it is often otherwise, for the love of many waxes cold and iniquity abounds, but this is their own sin and not the fault of the promise which still holds good: “The youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint.” Fretful spirits sit down and trouble themselves about the future. “Alas!” say they, “we go from affliction to affliction.” Very true, O thou of little faith, but then thou goest from strength to strength also. Thou shalt never find a bundle of affliction which has not bound up in the midst of it sufficient grace. God will give the strength of ripe manhood with the burden allotted to full-grown shoulders.

How true! When we feel cold toward our God: “… this is [our] own sin and not the fault of the promise which still holds good.” What a gracious God, that his gospel promises hold true regardless of how hot or cold our hearts are toward him.

“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength”  What does it mean to wait upon the Lord? Is this not simply to believe on Christ whom he has sent, and to receive him as our true High Priest, our true Sacrificial offering, our true Temple, our true Righteousness, and our true Friend? Will this truth not begin to warm even the coldest of Christian hearts?

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10.


C. H. Spurgeon – Morning Meditation, November 8th

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

This Morning’s Meditation

C. H. Spurgeon

    “As ye have received Christ Jesus the Lord.”—Colossians 2:6.

The life of faith is represented as receiving—an act which implies the very opposite of anything like merit. It is simply the acceptance of a gift. As the earth drinks in the rain, as the sea receives the streams, as night accepts light from the stars, so we, giving nothing, partake freely of the grace of God. The saints are not, by nature, wells, or streams, they are but cisterns into which the living water flows; they are empty vessels into which God pours His salvation. The idea of receiving implies a sense of realization, making the matter a reality. One cannot very well receive a shadow; we receive that which is substantial: so is it in the life of faith, Christ becomes real to us. While we are without faith, Jesus is a mere name to us—a person who lived a long while ago, so long ago that His life is only a history to us now! By an act of faith Jesus becomes a real person in the consciousness of our heart. But receiving also means grasping or getting possession of. The thing which I receive becomes my own: I appropriate to myself that which is given. When I receive Jesus, He becomes my Saviour, so mine that neither life nor death shall be able to rob me of Him. All this is to receive Christ—to take Him as God’s free gift; to realize Him in my heart, and to appropriate Him as mine.

Salvation may be described as the blind receiving sight, the deaf receiving hearing, the dead receiving life; but we have not only received these blessings, we have received CHRIST JESUS Himself. It is true that He gave us life from the dead. He gave us pardon of sin; He gave us imputed righteousness. These are all precious things, but we are not content with them; we have received Christ Himself. The Son of God has been poured into us, and we have received Him, and appropriated Him. What a heartful Jesus must be, for heaven itself cannot contain Him!

A quest for holiness?

So I’m saved. I’ve put my trust in Christ. I’ve repented and asked him into my life. I’m a Christian. But even as a Christian sin is still a problem in my life. It harms, it hurts, and it has consequences. It is poison.

I’m not the man I should be. I’m not on fire for God as I might be. I’m sick and tired of failing to be who God wants me to be. I feel distant from God and unworthy of him. And I do want this to change.

What is the answer?

The preacher tells me that now I’m saved my life should be a quest for holiness.

I’ve got to choose once and for all to pursue holiness and to leave my sin behind. I’ve got to identify the sin and root it out piece by piece. I’ve got to “man up” and ask myself “how serious a Christian am I?” “What is my spiritual temperature, really?”

I’m going to call this “the quest for holiness approach”. The quest for holiness approach often centres on themes such as discipline, will power, and moral character, which of course are all good and desirable. But is the quest for each of these things the answer to the problem of indwelling sin?

I’m not so sure.

I wonder if the answer to our problems might actually lie in changing the goal of our quest?

A lot of teaching, when you boil it down (when you really boil it down) points us to characteristics, qualities, disciplines, as means to obtain and maintain favour with God. This teaching often doesn’t mean to do this. But when you boil it down it does.

Could the real solution to the problem of sin in my life, and the most effective means by which I become more holy, be a Person?

In Numbers 21 the Israelites have snake poison in their veins and are facing death. But at God’s command Moses lifts up the bronze snake and those Israelites who look on the snake are healed and live.

8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

This is a clear picture of Jesus being lifted up on the cross that we might look on him, crucified for us, and be saved. It might seem like a stretch to say that this is a picture of the cross in the Old Testament if it were not for the fact that Jesus himself tells us that’s what it is.

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

One thing I note in Numbers 21 is that Moses does not simply tell the Israelites that they have poison in their bodies, that poison is dangerous, and that it shouldn’t be there.

Another thing Moses does not do is make the bronze snake and then turn to the Israelites with a command to do likewise. He does not say “this is the example, now follow it as best you can — make your own snake, look upon it, and be saved”.

No, the snake that Moses has already made and that has already been lifted up is the answer for each and every snake-bitten, and dying Israelite. The Israelites are commanded to look primarily upon what has been done. They are not called primarily to do themselves.

The Israelites looked outward and away from themselves — to the bronze serpent — to be healed. They did not look at themselves to suck the poison out, or to search for other remedies, though such courses of action might have seemed far more “practical” and would have been much more intuitive.

So this was not a call for the Israelites to do something to deal with the poison that ran deep in their veins. It was a proclamation of good news. “Look, here is your salvation.” It was gospel (which, of course, literally means “good news” in Greek).

The gospel we have been given is the “good news” of what God has done through Christ, and what God is doing through Christ.

The gospel (of course preached against the backdrop of my awful sin and ugliness before God) directs me to the Person of Jesus Christ, and what he has done on the cross. The gospel also points me to what Christ is currently doing in my life — the gospel reminds me that it is God who is the author and perfecter of my faith. It reminds me that

“it is God who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

The gospel is not the terrible burdensome news that God sees everything that’s wrong with me, that he commands me to fix it all, that I am consistently failing to fix it, and that as a result he wants me to look in at myself and work on “x”, “y”, or “z” this week.

It seems to me that a lot of “quest for holiness” preaching does this. It seeks to bring an awareness of sin so we can become more holy. But what lies behind such teaching is the belief that merely being aware of our sin will naturally lead to it being dealt with.

As a Christian I’m generally aware of the characteristics I should be exhibiting, and the flaws I should be shedding, but pushing those characteristics and those flaws in my face every Sunday won’t help me one iota. Showing me my inadequacy and the ugliness of my sin will never be enough to effect real heart change. I’m simply not able to change, no matter how guilty or heavy I feel. Preaching that succeeds only in turning me in on myself is dead-end preaching.

Many pastors recognize this, and so they couple their calls for us to exhibit godly characteristics with a few brief comments like this: “of course we can’t do this on our own — we know we need God’s help.”

This reminds me of high school when one kid would say “I’m not being rude but Greg is a total idiot”. The words “I’m not being rude” do not keep the statement that follows them from being rude. In the same way the well-intentioned words “of course we we can’t do this on our own — we know we need God’s help” don’t stop the pastor’s essential message being “go out and do this in your own strength”.

The preacher is still sending the Christian out to try to change himself (again) — he is just adding instructions for the Christian to ask God to give him the will-power, the discipline, the character, to change himself.

If this isn’t the answer what is?

What about the cross? What does the cross really mean for the Christian who is struggling against sin?

What goes unsaid in too many churches is that God has already given us all of the characteristics we prize so highly in His Son (and much, much more).

God does not separate the Church from her Bridegroom, Jesus. God the Father does not say “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased, but what about you? What measure of holiness can you offer me?” No! We are one with Christ. That’s what it is to be a Christian. What does this mean? There is a marriage bond. “They are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” We cannot be separated from him and what is his is ours.

I think one of the biggest challenges of the Christian life is remembering who I already am in Christ. That’s the job of the preacher. To help me know what is already true of me because of Christ. To say “Believer, are you in Christ? Then you are righteous; you are holy; you are pure; God the Father loves you as his own son and is well pleased with you.”

I think it must be with that knowledge in place that the Christian must press on to live the Christian life. The more the Holy Spirit convinces me of God’s love for me in Christ; of Christ’s worthiness; of my union with Him; of who I already am in Him, the more my heart will be conformed to His.

Since I am in Christ, sin in my life is a totally alien presence. It has nothing to do with who I now am — a new creation. The more the gospel drops from my head down into my heart, the more I will get that — and the more my mind and heart will fall into line. Sin will become increasingly ugly and foreign. Yes, I will struggle with it until I die or Jesus returns, but I will do so from a position of absolute security, knowing that I’m clothed in the righteousness of Christ, not my own threadbare garments. Whenever I fail, I will endeavour to look to, and revel in, the Person of Christ and what he has done. Whenever I succeed I will endeavour to look to and revel in the Person of Christ.

This way Christ is the goal of my quest, not holiness, or humility, or purity, or anything else. He is the Living Vine into whom I am grafted. Fruit will surely come.

Heart change/victory over sin/the works of love we’re called to all flow from prior belovedness. And the good news/the gospel is that we are already beloved.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Let’s continue to remind each other of the truth of the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Let’s pray Paul’s prayer for ourselves; for each other; for the Church.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

How do we guard our own hearts against ungodly desires?

Solomon’s fall and what it teaches us about our own walk with Christ… (excerpts are from Ron Frost’s post “Guarding Against Heart Attacks“.)

In reading 1 Kings I’m appalled by Solomon’s fall. In chapter 8 we find Solomon’s epic recital of God’s greatness at the dedication of the new temple. Again, in chapter 9, God appeared to him a second time and promised: “I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time.” But by chapter 11 we find a grim new report: “and the LORD was angry with Solomon because his heart turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.” What happened?

There are times when failure comes. When we do not walk in the light. When we turn our backs on our Lord and our God. When we sin “through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault” (Book of Common Prayer).

Though deep down it repulses us, it is a fact that before our flesh has been perfectly restored so that we are like Christ, we will sin. But how do we guard our hearts against moral “heart attacks” — the ungodly desires and distractions encountered by Solomon?

The traditional answer offered by the stoic strain of Christianity relies on the mind and the will: first we learn which choices are proper, then we make those choices. And, at some level, it seems like a sound response. A child, for instance, is told to stop doing something they “want” to do—speaking of that behavior as an expressed desire—or else they will face some consequence. The question, of course, is whether the consequences are great enough to make them “want” to change.

We need to notice … that “desires” and “wants” are one and the same: the affective orientation of the heart. We always do what we “want” to do, and only when a competing desire overcomes a lesser desire does our “want” change. So a person may choose to take a painful course in college that seems like a stoic decision because they “know” it’s the right choice. But in reality they do it because they “want” the degree that the course will help bring about.

Our naïve failure to grasp that connection—that our desires shape everything we do—is what makes us vulnerable to moral heart attacks. The traditional troika of evil—the world, the flesh, and the devil—are only as effective as their affective powers are in drawing us away from God. Solomon certainly loved God at some level, but God was no match for the attractive women offered to him as “treaty brides” by the regional kings who wanted to shape what Solomon wanted. He might have asked God for advice about what would please him, as his father David normally did. But even David failed to ask God what would most please him in the case of Bathsheba. There David wanted another man’s wife more than he wanted God’s delight. Like father, like son.

How, then, do we guard our own hearts against ungodly desires—including the socially acceptable desires for self-advancing wisdom, power, wealth (in Jeremiah 9) and glory (John 5)? The only answer is for us to set the eyes of our hearts towards Christ as the one who is ultimately attractive once we truly see him. For us to remain secure we should desire more of Christ; to set our minds on him by responding to his Spirit’s captivating presence as he discloses Christ’s own heart to us.

Read Ron Frost’s full post here…