The Disciplines of Abundance - Part 2

The Disciplines of Relationship
In my last post (The Disciplines of Abundance - Part 1), I suggested that there are two categories of disciplines that are the essence of abiding in Christ. The first of those categories is the disciplines of relationship. To abide in Christ is to have a relationship with him. And that relationship is of first importance.

We evangelicals often talk about a personal relationship with Christ. But what does that mean? How do you have a relationship with a person that is, in a very real way, quite different than any other? 

There is a way in which all personal relationships are the same. All personal relationships are made up of three disciplines: spending time together, speaking, and listening. These disciplines are the fiber of any personal relationship. They're what holds things together. Without these three disciplines a relationship simply does not exist. Of course we have to allow for a sufficiently broad understanding of what it means to spend time together, speak, and listen. It's possible to spend time together on the phone and to speak and listen in texts; let's not start a debate on the merits of fancy new ways to communicate or the legitimacy of corresponding relationships. Don't miss the point. However it's done, there are three ingredients in all personal relationships: spending time together, speaking, and listening.

So, if we want to abide in Jesus Christ -- if we want to have a personal relationship with him -- then we must do these three things. Of course, here is where the similarities between our relationship with Christ and all of our other relationships stop. The way we spend time with, speak to, and listen to Jesus is different than the way we do the same things with Nick or Jess.

There have been pleanty of books written on the subject (try Foster's Celebrating the Disciplines, Willard's The Spirit of the Disciplines or Whitney's Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life) so I won't belabor the point. But, if you want to have a relationship with Christ, three disciplines are vital. First, we spend time with God by putting down our distractions and recognizing that wherever we are, there God is present with us. In a manner of speaking, this recognition creates the environment for you and God to have a conversation. Second, we speak to God in prayer. And, to be clear, prayer happens when we commune with God in our minds just as much as it does with hands folded, eyes closed, and words said out loud. Third, while God certainly speaks to his people by his Spirit, God speaks to us first and foremost by his word, the Bible. Spend time, speak, and listen. These are the disciplines of relationship. And as Christians, we should practice them every day.

Perhaps you were hoping for something a bit more novel. Another suggestion to read your Bible and pray may seem like a lackluster crescendo. But I hope this framework will help you see that nothing could be further from the truth. Reading the Bible and praying aren't vain duties. These disciplines aren't arbitrary religious busywork. If we abide in Christ, we will bear fruit. If we abide in Christ, we will live abundantly. These disciplines are the fiber of our relationship with Christ. They're what we must do to live abundantly.

And that bottom line is the good news. If we abide in Jesus Christ, we will bear fruit. Guaranteed. It's a slow and life-long process, no doubt. But the result of our relationships with Christ is that our very natures change. That's what sanctification is: God changing who we are. Our participation in the process is certainly required, but in sanctification God does for us yet again what we cannot do for ourselves. You and I may make some progress changing our behavior, but God alone is capable of this sort of identity overhaul. In sanctification, by God's grace we become the sort of people who are naturally less angry and more peaceful; who are more content in any and every circumstance.

I began by suggesting that our relationship with Christ is of first importance. That's because this sort of nature change is of first importance. Before we can significantly change what we do, God has to significantly change who we are. Before we can live differently, we have to be different. So, we must abide in him. But we haven't finished when we do. Foundational as these disciplines are, there's more to Christianity than reading your Bible and praying. After all, Christ himself said that if we loved him, we would do what he commanded (John 14:15). So it's to that issue we'll turn in the final post of this series.

Grace be with you.


The Disciplines of Abundance - Part 1

I've told you that the gospel isn't just about going to heaven when you die, it's about living abundantly right now (On the Gospel of Abundant Life). I've told you that living abundantly isn't passive. If you want to live abundantly, it's up to you to do something (What Must I Do to Live Abundantly?). In today's installment-- the first of a three part series-- I'd like to begin to tell you what that something is.

How does Christianity work out in the big bad world? What relevance does salvation have to another Thursday afternoon in the office? How does the beautiful abundance of God's grace make it into our mundane routines?

I've only begun to cover the subject on this here blog, but salvation is both a better and more complicated deal than our passing conceptions of it. We tend to think of salvation in past and future terms, "I was twelve when I was saved and that means someday I'll go to heaven." That's true, but incomplete. I won't rehearse all the details of The Gospel of Abundant Life here, but I raise the subject to point out the truth of three statements: Christians have been saved; Christians are being saved; and Christians will be saved. It's the second of these statements where I don't think enough rubber has hit the road. Our conception of the way in which we are in the process of being saved is more than a bit hazy. And that haze contributes to some significantly-less-than-abundant living.

The ongoing process of salvation is called sanctification. Christians who are being sanctified are Christians who live more and more abundantly. Like the other facets of salvation, sanctification happens by the power of God's grace. But that doesn't mean you and I are entirely passive. Jesus said, "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. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing," (John 15:4-5, ESV).

You and I have the responsibility to abide in Jesus Christ. That's on us. If we abide, we will bear fruit. If we don't, we can do nothing. Simple.

But if you want to live abundantly, you have to understand that abiding in Jesus Christ is just as much an opportunity as it is a responsibility. There is no more abundant way to live than to naturally bear Jesus' fruit. Imagine a life in which you are content regardless of your circumstances (Phil. 4:10-13). Imagine being more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, gentle, and self-controlled (Gal. 5:22-23). And imagine bearing this fruit on an otherwise mundane Thursday afternoon, even when that Thursday isn't a particularly good day. That's living abundantly.

So what does it mean to abide? What must I do to be sanctified? The time has come for the rubber to hit the road. In my next two posts we'll examine the two categories of disciplines that are the essence of abiding: the disciplines of relationship and the disciplines of obedience. Stay Tuned.

Grace be with you.


What Must I Do to Live Abundantly?

We protestants have a complicated relationship with "doing". We're the by-grace-alone-through-faith-alone-in-Christ-alone people. And lest you be confused that faith could possibly have anything to do with doing, we're sure to routinely renounce legalism and works righteousness. Christianity is not about what I do for God, it's about what God's done for me. You've probably seen the memes.

We tiptoe very carefully around any suggestion that there might be something we have to do to receive God's grace. We lay the caveats on thick whenever we talk about our growth: "not that it had anything to do with me," we say, "it was all God."

Don't get me wrong, I think a lot of that's right; legalism and works righteousness are bad. But again and again these nagging questions keep coming back to my mind:

Does all that mean Christians aren't supposed to "do" anything? Are we really, truly, completely, 100% passive? Do we not have anything at all to do with our growth? Is there no role for us to play in the abundant life Christ died for us to have?


On the Gospel of Abundant Life

At some point, you've probably heard the gospel presented like this:

1. You're a sinner (so am I and so is everyone else)
2. The wages of sin is death (death is "code" for hell)
3. But (good news!) the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (eternal life is "code" for heaven).
-- SO --
4. By God's grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone you can go to heaven instead of hell when you die.

That is most certainly great news. That is most certainly true. But, it's also most certainly only part of the story.

I don't mean to nitpick, but "death" isn't just code for hell; "eternal life" isn't just code for heaven. The bible says that, as long as we are apart from Christ and still in our sin, we are "dead" right now (Eph. 2:1-2; Col. 2:13, for example). The bible also says that, by grace through faith in Christ, we are "alive" right now (Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13, for example). Death and life are as much metaphysical as they are physical. Everyone who's ever lived knows there's a difference between physically being alive and really living. What the gospel offers is abundant life now and perfect life in eternity. The good news of the gospel is that you don't have to wait until heaven to start really living.

When we make Christianity about heaven and hell, just heaven and hell, Christianity becomes somewhat irrelevant to the here and now. If Christianity is about going to heaven, and I'm going to heaven no matter what I do once I'm saved, then why go to church? Why read the bible? Why even try to do the things Jesus commanded in the sermon on the mount? It's hard, it's no fun, and it certainly isn't living. Maybe I'll smile more, dress nicer, and do enough religious stuff to keep God happy -- I owe him one -- but beyond that, what's the point? For now, I just... wait.


On Expecting the Predictable

In the 10th century B.C., Israel - then a united kingdom - essentially had it all. While we know that God's work was far from over, the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai seemed to reach a powerful climax when Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem. After hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, a generation of wandering in the desert, no shortage of bloodshed while taking possesion of the promised land, and a few missteps while establishing a united kingdom, everything finally seemed... right. 2 Chron. 5-7 paints a powerful picture of celebration, triumph, and great anticipation at the inauguration of what should have been a long era of spiritual health and national peace. The glory of the Lord filled the temple. God dwelt in the midst of his people and they enjoyed the opportunity for fellowship with and forgiveness from him like never before. There was relative peace within the kingdom and with it's neighbors. Israel propsered.

Just over 200 years later, Israel - now the northern portion of a divided kingdom - was utterly defeated by the Assyrians and carried off into exile. Judah - the southren kingdom - would soon suffer a similar fate. (2 Kings 17:6-41, 25:1-21)

What happened? It may seem obvious with the benefit of 2,736 years of hindsight. But you can imagine the Israelites' questions as they were being led away, "Why is this happening to us? I thought we were God's chosen people! Where is he? Why has he abandonded us? How can a good God let this happen?"