This summer on our vacation, we travelled through southern Saskatchewan on our way to Banff. Instead of driving down the Trans-Canada, we drove on Hwy. 13 at the south of the province. As we travelled further west, it got drier and drier. The area south of Swift Current and west from there was a barren, brown land. Hardly a tree, just miles and miles of brown grass and rolling hills. To make it feel even more dead, the temperature was between 35 and 37 degrees.
We had planned to stop at Cyprus Hills and camp there, but as we looked around, we said to each other, “if it looks anything like this, we are travelling right on to Medicine Hat.” When we saw the sign for Cyprus Hills, we were still doubtful, but as we drove up the hill to the park, everything changed. Suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, we were surrounded by tall evergreen trees. There was a lake and it was a beautiful place, a pleasant contrast to the dryness of the surrounding land. As we set up camp, went for a walk and as I had a chance to kayak on the lake, our spirits revived from our afternoon of hot, dry barrenness.
How would you describe your spiritual life? Would it be best described by the barrenness of southern Saskatchewan or the refreshing aliveness of Cyprus Hills? Jesus promised us abundant life, but many of us find our spiritual lives anything but abundant. This morning, and in the next two messages, I would like to talk to you about the spiritual disciplines which help us find spiritual refreshment and live the abundant life God intended. I Timothy 4:8 points our thinking in this direction when it says, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” We will discover that although life comes from God, our training in godliness is a key factor to allow that life to make itself known in us.
Of all that God has created, we as human beings are very unique. The heavenly beings are created solely to be spiritual beings, to know God and worship God. The creatures of earth - the trees, the animals and birds and so on are purely that - creatures. They are of the earth, of the dust of the earth. As human beings, however, we stand between. Although we are made of dust, just like all the other animals, we are also made in the image of God. Genesis 1:26 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’”
Although we share in dust with the animals, we also share in the image of God. Being in the image of God, as the text says, we are involved in ruling over the earth. We are the ones who have dominion over all other of the creatures made of dust. Someday I would like to talk about why that means that we need to be concerned about the environment and why we should recycle and care for the air and the water, but that is for another day. Being made in the image of God means that of all creatures on earth, we are the only ones who have the possibility of a relationship with the Creator. We are able to know God, to relate to God. We are able to live in a knowing relationship with the one who made all the things we see. Psalm 8:5 indicates the powerful relationship that is ours. The Psalmist says, “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” We are god-like creatures and can live at a level far above the dust of the earth.
Yet we do not live in that relationship. We do not see God in the world. We do not walk with God. We do not experience the life that God has intended for us. We are much more like all the creatures of the earth than we are like the creatures of heaven. Why do we not live at the level for which we were created? Of course we know that it is because of sin. We have sinned against our Creator and because sin has entered our world, the image of God is broken in us. Sin has stolen what we were created for. We are made of dust and seem to live at the level of dust even though we were created to aspire to the heavens.
Of course, we know that Jesus’ death on the cross has covered our sin and that in Christ we are born again. The life of God has been placed in us by the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 2:5 assures us that God, “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions…” I John 5:12 also indicates, “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” So the heavenly life that we were created for, which was spoiled by sin, has been restored in Christ. That is the reality of who we are, but do we live in that reality? We say we are dead to sins, but we still live so much in them. We say that God’s Spirit lives in us, but we are influenced much more by the spirit which is in this world. Why is this so?
We have been waiting for the birth of our first grand-child. What we are looking forward to, however, is not so much the birth, but the presence, the life of our grandchild. Part of the problem is that for some Evangelical Christians, we have emphasized the spiritual rebirth so much that we have forgotten that it isn’t only the birth that is important, but the life that arises from the birth. As Christians we sometimes think that a Christian is born to be born, not to live. Much of what I am sharing with you today comes from a book called “The Spirit of the Disciplines” by Dallas Willard. He asks, “Why is it that we look upon our salvation as a moment that began our religious life instead of the daily life we receive from God?”
Yet there is a longing. God has created us for life and He has re-created us for life and promised us life. How can we live?
Last week I talked about the current situation in Canada and the redefinition of marriage which our government is considering. When I thought about how many evangelical Christians there are in Canada, how many Catholics and other Christians who are deeply concerned about this, I mused that perhaps with the significant numbers, we ought to be able to have an influence on our society. Yet, I wonder if we will?
In Matthew 5:13 Jesus calls us the “salt of the earth.” Dallas Willard considers that in the United States where about 25% of Americans claim to be born again, they ought to have a profound influence. Twenty-five percent salt would have a significant influence on 75% of meat. But we don’t have that kind of an influence. Jesus suggests the reason - the salt has lost its saltiness. Why is that? Is it perhaps that we are not being transformed into Christlikeness? Is it perhaps that somehow the influence of the Spirit is not allowed to make himself known in us because we are still so much of the dust of the earth?
We were created in the image of God, born in Christ to live a life in Christlikeness and as such influence the entire world. But we don’t. We live at the level of dust, like the creatures. We fall far short of the abundant life God intends us to live and we do not influence the world. Yet I think that we are not satisfied with this situation. We want the life of God. Willard says, “For serious churchgoing Christians, the hindrance to true spiritual growth is not unwillingness.”
Where is the problem? Since we don’t understand the problem, we draw some conclusions. We conclude that God’s power is not adequate, but we know that isn’t true. We conclude that the life we were meant for is for a future life, not for now. But there is too much in the Bible, like the promise of abundant life, which tells us that that also is not true. We are encouraged by II Corinthians 3:18 which promises that we “are being transformed.” We hope in God and recognize that He is at work, but we wonder if there is more. Willard asks, “What is missing in our deformed condition? I think that Jesus put his finger on it when he told the disciples in the garden, in Matthew 26:41, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Can this be changed?
When we came back from vacation, our lawn was quite brown. It had been very hot and dry and only the quack grass was still flourishing. Today, our lawn looks much better than it did. What made the difference? Well, it rained. Contact with the life giving waters from heaven refreshed and renewed the grass and made it grow again. Willard says, “In the same way, people are transformed by contact with God.” “A person is a ‘spiritual person’ to the degree that his or her life is correctly integrated into and dominated by God’s spiritual Kingdom.”
But how can we be “dominated by God’s spiritual Kingdom”? The problem is that by long habit, we have become practiced in living by the life of this earth instead of by the life of heaven. Although God’s Spirit lives in us, we are not influenced by His Spirit. We do not recognize the voice of His Spirit. We are not in tune with the way of God because we are so thoroughly influenced by earth. How can we change that? How can we learn to hear the voice of the indwelling Spirit? How can we learn to respond to God’s activity in our lives? How can we live the abundant life?
The answer is that we need to develop spiritual disciplines which teach and train us to listen to God. Willard says, “The disciplines are activities of mind and body purposefully undertaken, to bring our personality and total being into effective cooperation with the divine order.” P. 68 “They enable us more and more to live in a power that is, strictly speaking, beyond us.” “Full participation in the life of God’s Kingdom and in the vivid companionship of Christ comes to us only through appropriate exercise in the disciplines for life in the spirit.”
As soon as we hear this, red flags go up in our mind. All kinds of objections arise. If spiritual life is up to us, why do we need the Holy Spirit? Won’t such disciplines shift the burden of change onto us and isn’t that dangerously close to earning our salvation? If we have to do something for God to renew us, is it God renewing us or can we then claim some credit? If we are rigorous in exercising spiritual disciplines, doesn’t that open us up to a new kind of legalism? These are good questions and we need to examine them.
First of all, spiritual disciplines are not a way of earning our salvation. Salvation comes from God and comes first. Exercising spiritual disciplines will not bring us salvation. The life of God must first of all be put into us before we can live it. The disciplines help us live what God has put in us by His grace.
Furthermore, spiritual renewal is and always has been a mysterious combination of what God does and what we do. The simple phrase in Ephesians 5:18 which says, “be filled with the Spirit,” helps us understand the reality of that mystery. It speaks of the power of the indwelling Spirit, but the language of the verse, “be filled,” also indicates that we have something to do about being thus filled. Willard says, “Once the individual has through divine initiative become alive to God and his kingdom, the extent of integration of his or her total being into that Kingdom order significantly depends upon the individual’s initiative.” “The harmonization of our total self with God will not be done for us. We must act.”
Of course, we must be careful that the disciplines do not become another form of legalism. There is a fine line between disciplined exercise and legalistic duty, but there is a difference. The difference has to do with our motive. In a moment we will look at the value of spiritual disciplines and why we should engage in them. If we engage in activities because we see that value then it is not legalism. If we think that rote and duty will save us, then we are engaged in legalism. To avoid legalism, we must constantly remind ourselves of why we are engaging in the spiritual disciplines.
When we were at camp, I was enjoying Jordan’s drum playing. I wished that I could go up there and make the appropriate rhythms which he did so effortlessly, but I could not. Why not? Because I have never practiced. What seemed effortless to him was the result of hours of practice - which is tedious and annoying to parents.
Young people who are involved in sports sometimes have heroes. They like to emulate those heroes and would like to play like they do. So they watch that player. They observe a certain move that player makes and in the next game that they play in, they try to make that same move, but the effect is not the same. They think that in the moment of the game a certain move of a great player will help them be like that great player, but they forget that that hero of theirs did not consciously make that move because he thought of it just that moment. Years of disciplined practice made that move almost automatic. The ability to perform comes from disciplined practice.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from Travis Loewen with a bunch of golf jokes. One of them was “Never try to keep more than 300 separate thoughts in your mind during your swing.” I play a little golf and I understand that saying. It is very difficult to have a straight, long drive consistently. If you have ever taken lessons, you know that the teacher will tell you dozens of little things to do in order to make that drive. When you stand over your ball, one or two of those things are in your mind, but you can’t remember all of them. The players who consistently do well have committed many of those things to unconscious memory by regular practice.
The spiritual disciplines have a similar value. By daily practice in godliness, we learn to do certain things sub-consciously. In the moment of crisis, when wisdom or purity or courage are called for, they surface because we have trained ourselves in godliness. But lest we think that such exercise is a way of improving ourselves, let us remind ourselves once again that God is in the business of changing us. What the disciplines do is create a space for God to work. By disciplined exercise in godliness, God is given a place in which we listen to Him and allow Him the time and the space to transform us. God is at work transforming us. But “there is no ‘quick fix’ for the human condition.” Spiritual disciplines are necessary in order for us to learn to live.
When we look at the life of Jesus, which he lived in the body, we see a life that was perfectly lived. He never sinned, he had tremendous wisdom to always answer wisely and He demonstrated the power of God in an amazing way. Sometimes we are cynical about His ability, pointing out that He was, after all, God in the flesh. But we forget that He was in the flesh. He was not just Spirit, He was also human and so we can’t only dismiss this ability by saying He was God.
When we look at the life of Jesus, we also see that He provides a pattern for us in how to live in the life which God intends for us to live. The life of Jesus was a life of spiritual disciplines and it was, at least in part, in the exercise of those spiritual disciplines that He was enabled to live the life He did. If we want to live our life in the power of the Spirit, what makes us think that we can avoid doing what Jesus considered important in his life?
Jesus constantly and frequently exercised spiritual disciplines. Hebrews 5:8 says, “he learned obedience from the things which he suffered.” As a young man, there was seems to have been deliberate intention in his growth. As a 12 year old, he already knew the Scripture well enough to debate it with the religious leaders. Luke 2:52 says that he “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” As He began his ministry we read in Luke 4:1,2 that he spent 40 days in the desert. While there, he exercised the spiritual discipline of fasting. Then throughout his life he often engaged in the discipline of solitude and listening. In Luke 4:42 we read that, “At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place.” Luke 5:16, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places…” And you can also check out Luke 6:12, 9:18 and 11:1. Then at the end of his life, in the garden of Gethsemane, at a time of great crisis, as he had done many times before, he engaged in the discipline of prayer.
In Hebrews we read that Jesus “learned obedience…” If Jesus thought it important, what makes us think that learning obedience through spiritual disciplines is something that we can avoid?
I heard that there are robots which work in factories. They are battery driven and those batteries have to be recharged from time to time. What is interesting is that they have a built in sensor which tells them when their battery is running low and when that indicator alerts them, they actually go by themselves to the appropriate receptacle in order to recharge their batteries.
We don’t have such an indicator, but we need to be renewed regularly. The only way we will be renewed and will have the ability to live the abundant life and live as the salt of the earth is if we create a space in our life through spiritual discipline for God to work.
Next Sunday we have a guest speaker, but in the two weeks following, I want to talk about which spiritual disciplines we can engage in and why they are so important.
We will look at 12 disciplines: Solitude & Silence; Listening & Guidance; Prayer & Intercession; Study & Meditation; Repentance and Confession; Yielding & Submission; Fasting; Worship; Fellowship; Simplicity; Service and Witness.