This blog post is based on a sermon that you can listen to HERE.
The Gospels tell two stories of private interactions between Jesus and his disciples that provide a glimpse into the ambitions of Jesus’ closest disciples.
- The Twelve argue among themselves over who is the greatest. (Mark 9:34)
- James and John request the seats either side of Jesus’ throne in his kingdom. (Mark 10:35-37)
In most discussions of these texts that I’ve heard, people generally criticise the disciples for using Jesus to obtain personal gain. This seems valid criticism. The disciples’ motives seem selfish and unholy.
When we arrive at this conclusion, it appears that we now understand the text as a warning against pride and selfishness and we can move on to the next passage. However, I believe that we can glean more from this text before moving on.
We could easily observe the disciples’ behaviour and conclude that the desire to succeed or achieve as a Jesus follower is an improper desire. Instead, we should endeavour to make our goals and ambitions consistent with God’s will.
Greatness is a worthy goal. How we define greatness is vital. Jesus provides a definition in Mark 9:35 “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last,and servant of all.” Importantly, Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t aspire to greatness.” Rather he describes a holy path to greatness.
James and John made the mistake of seeking something that wasn’t theirs to seek, or even Jesus’ to give. I wonder, if they had asked Jesus to give them the ministry of primary apostolic healers if Jesus wouldn’t have honoured that request.
So how about us?
The idea of spiritual ambitions seems dangerous to most Christians I know. Yes, Paul tells Timothy to identify men that desire the role of shepherd in the church. But if someone starts wanting that role too much, we get nervous. This creates the problem of discerning the difference between ‘ambition’ and ‘excessive ambition’. So more often than not we frown upon ambition as pride and therefore an ungodly attitude.
Fear of ambitious Christians results in churches filled with people who have few goals and dreams for where their faith could take them. Without goals how can a person determine the next step in their faith walk?
This is a long introduction to what I hope will prove to be a helpful list of concrete ambitions Christians can choose. While I recognise the danger of trying to put the Holy Spirit in a box or define his job, I also realise that I don’t function well in the abstract. Simply telling me to, “walk by faith” doesn’t help me very much, I need more definite instructions. So, here are some ideas, and I’d love for you to add some of yours in the comments section below!
Possible Goals for Spiritual Growth
- Read the Bible all the way through.
- Lead a ministry at church.
- Start an NPO to make a difference in the lives of your community.
- Become a small group leader.
- Go on a 24hr silent retreat.
- Baptize someone.
- Go on a mission trip.
- Teach a children’s Bible class
- Increase your giving. (Aim at a specific percentage.)
- Memorize Scripture.
- Read the Bible daily. (Find all sorts of reading plans HERE.)
- Attend a Bible or ministry conference/workshop.
- Raise a godly family.
- Host a small group in your home.
- Take Bible courses from a college. (So many are offered online now.)
- Intentionally encourage someone every day. (Be able to name that person at the end of the day.)
- Make a friend of someone from a different faith background.
- Strive to live in such a way that others will describe you as generous.
- Reach a point where you can honestly say that you love your enemies. In the meantime, pray good things for them and their families.
- Spiritually mentor someone.
- Tell a nonbeliever why you’re a Christian.
- Regularly practice fasting.
- Visit the Holy Land.
- Create a work of art (painting, sculpting, song, poem, whatever) that explores an aspect of your faith.
- Share a meal with all your neighbors (one at a time).
- Identify an organization you can volunteer at regularly.
- Lead a ministry at your church.
- Become a foreign missionary.
- Regularly read the Bible and have spiritual conversations with your grand/children.
- Cook a meal for someone else each month/week. Maybe they eat it with you. Maybe you just deliver it.
- Pray with another person (not always the same person) each week.
- Give money to a mission work, or new church plant in the U.S..
- Make a new friend with someone from a different ethnic background.
- Adopt a college student.
- Read a religious book other than the Bible each year/6 months.
- Become a full-time minister.
- Commit to being an ethical voice in your workplace.
- Raise money for worthy causes.
- Attend every church work day.
- Prioritise Sunday worship with the body of Christ.
- Intentionally express gratitude to someone every day.
- Love your spouse, so that they know it.
Most of these goals take more than a moment to fulfill. They’re something to work towards, to aspire to complete. Because spiritual growth is a process.
I dream of the day when I might ask each member of my congregation, “Which aspect of your walk with God are you working on at the moment?” and they’d have a response that was ambitious rather than guilt-ridden.
This list results from random brainstorming rather than profound meditation. I hope it provides a spark for you set some spiritual goals that you might pursue spiritual greatness by becoming the servant of all.
I was in the cemetery at my grandmother’s resting place. This particular memorial park was an exclusively flat-stone only grounds, and each stone had a metal vase that you twisted out of the middle of the stone and turned over to display flowers. My aunt had tried to pull it out for Mother’s Day, but it was stuck. I was down on my hands and knees using a pocketknife trying to pry the vase free, it wasn’t budging! I look over and my daughter is on her knees with her hands folded. I asked what she is doing and she responded, “I’m praying that God will help you get the vase unstuck.” Frustrated and very sweaty, I was baffled because I was sure the good Lord had more important things on his plate than helping me turn a vase over…I mean, God doesn’t really work that way does he? When I returned to my car, I was blown away that at the very moment I was working, prying, and feeling defeated by a gravestone, my seven year old was praying.
Sometimes the things we perceive as strengths can become the most restrictive shackles to our faith. I think the ancient story of Adam and Eve still plays out in us…you see, I was reminded in that moment and many others that I have chosen to feast on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moreover, I have studied the Bible and with that understanding comes the “shackle” of trusting myself to define not only if something is good or evil, but if God is likely to act or not act in a given situation. I think there are too many times where my familiarity with God through the Bible allows me to arrogantly move without an element of trust—to serve before prayer, as if God already affirms what I have decided to do.
As I reflect on this type of “faith,” I think it is why I tend to accomplish only the things I am naturally good at doing, never venturing into the unknown, uncomfortable, or uncontrollable. Those ministry opportunities or missions are just too sizable for my skills…it would take more than what I have. I believe that true faith gives LIFE (like the other tree in the garden) and often moves beyond our knowledge, skills, and experience.
Products of a fallen and broken world, I think that all of us come to God with a shackled faith of some sort. And I must admit that I like my shackles because they provide me with a way of understanding faith and they allow me to know that I am growing in faith.
Whenever I ask the question, “Does God really work that way?” I am beginning to see that question as a growth question because it is a direct attack on my knowledge and experience. When I reread the scriptures asking the question, “What does the Bible really say about this?” I see this question as a challenge to my study and the past interpretations. And when I finally take an opportunity to trust God and lean on God, when I find myself on a plane to Africa, having dinner with a stranger, opening up a Bible study, or praying that God would intervene in our heroin crisis…I realize that God is in the process of breaking my shackles and setting me free to trust him more.
We all have shackles, and God calls us anyway. As I think about what it means to live an unshackled faith, I think about the New Creation described at the end of Revelation. I think about all of the brokenness we have, all of the obstacles that make us cry to God to increase our faith, relieve our doubts, and give us greater perseverance. But there is great day coming when our faith will become sight. John says that God will, “…dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
Today we battle our shackles, but we learn to trust God, to believe God, and one day our hope is to be unshackled, face to face with God Almighty, Creator of the unbroken world!
Prayer: Creator God, call us to greater works and allow us the opportunity to trust in You more and more as that great day gets closer and closer. Our desire is to be set free from the shackles that hold us back. I pray that you reveal to me the limits of my faith so that I can identify my shackles and receive healing and wholeness from You. Come Lord Jesus, so that our faith can become sight and our brokenness can be fully restored. Lord God make all things new and that includes me, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Jonathan Woodall serves the GracePointe Church of Christ in Elizabethtown, PA. He is married to Hayley and they have two children. Jonathan spent ten years in campus ministry at Soma Memphis serving the University of Memphis and served as a worship minister at the White Station Church of Christ. Jonathan has a desire to see the church reach the next generation and is particularly drawn to the communication of God’s story through preaching and teaching, especially as it pertains to our contemporary context. Jonathan’s blog can be found at www.jonathanfwoodall.com and the church website is www.gracepointechurchofchrist.org (PS – if you are coming to Hershey, PA for a vacation or whatever, come worship with us!)
One of my favorite stories in the Bible revolves around the largely unknown disciple of Jesus: Cleopas. (You can read his story in Luke 24.)
Cleopas was a disciple of Jesus who had traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover. While in Jerusalem he witnessed the crucifixion of his hero. His dreams of joining the Messiah in restoring Israel to glory lay shattered at the foot of the cross.
He stayed in Jerusalem a few days. He gathered with the other disciples and no doubt they exchanged laments at the death of their Messiah.
He listened with amazement when the women returned from the tomb and said they’d found it empty. He pondered the message of the angels who told the women that Jesus was alive. But after John and Peter went to the tomb and came back empty handed, Cleopas gave up.
Confused. Disoriented. Stunned…
Cleopas left his dream. He left the other disciples. He left Jerusalem and returned to the ordinary routines of daily life.
“He had hoped that Jesus was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Had hoped. But not any more. Now he knew better. As Cleopas trudged the 7 miles back to Emmaus he was wiser for the experience. Everyone knows dead people don’t come alive again. Not prophets. And definitely not Messiah’s. In fact, the Messiah wasn’t even supposed to die!
Whatever those angels were talking about, he didn’t know, but he had work to do. He’d spent enough time following a whisp of a dream, now he needed to make up for all those wasted days he’d spent following Jesus around the countryside.
Subsequent events, such as meeting the resurrected Jesus and sharing a meal with him, proved Cleopas’ despondency misplaced.
As we consider the disparity between Cleopas’ perspective of recent events and the reality of those events we notice how his reaction was largely determined by his initial expectations. Cleopas held a rigid, brittle understanding of how God would work through the Messiah. When events didn’t roll out the way he expected, he gave up. He didn’t even wait around to consider the significance of the empty tomb or the angel’s message. He knew how God would work, and it wasn’t like this.
It’s easy to criticise Cleopas for placing God in a box of his own construction. Yet, we all have boxes of various shapes and sizes in which we place God. Usually, it’s easier to see other people’s boxes, so we often don’t notice our own.
Anytime we speak on behalf of God describing what He can’t, won’t, doesn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, will, or must do, we add another plank to our own God Box. I’m not suggesting that we simply invent statements about God. We usually have Scripture and good reasons to see God as we do. But Cleopas had Scriptures and and good reasons for his view of the Messiah… He was wrong, and sometimes we are also.
I’m not necessarily using the term “God Box” in a negative way. My goal is simply for us to recognise that everyone constructs a unique view of God. This recognition should cultivate a spirit of humility when we make absolute statements that reflect our own God Box.
Let me provide some examples of planks in a God Box:
- God doesn’t hear the prayers of unbelievers.
- God won’t save someone from the consequences of their own stupidity.
- God doesn’t care about human politics.
- God can’t get me out of this mess.
- The Holy Spirit can’t inhabit an unbaptized body.
- God doesn’t perform miracles today.
- God wouldn’t send a dream to someone today.
- God won’t condemn you for that.
These restrictive statements may be true (or not), but even if they are, they create a framework for God to fit inside. But God is always bigger than any box we create. And Scripture frequently describes God creating exceptions to principles we regard as rules. It’s not that God is capricious, but he sees a bigger picture than we can hope to see.
Perhaps more surprising is that we can also build our God Box out of permissive statements:
- God will answer your prayer.
- God will heal you.
- God has defeated death.
- God wants what’s best for you.
- God understands our weaknesses.
- God wants everyone to be saved.
- God cares more about the heart than rigid obedience.
- God’s grace always wins out over justice.
These lists could go on and on.
When we make statements like these about God we begin to define Him. They represent our efforts to fit a limitless God inside our very limited minds.
Thus we need humility in (at least) two places:
- We need humility to allow God to act outside our understanding of Him. God has the freedom and authority to create his own exceptions to our rules.
- We need humility to accept that others’ God Boxes may be correct in places ours aren’t.
To Cleopas’ credit, when the risen Messiah revealed himself Cleopas didn’t argue. He didn’t hang his head in shame. He excitedly ran back to Jerusalem to celebrate his errors (God’s good news) with his friends. May we have the humility to acknowledge our errors when we discover them. And may the construction material of our God Box more closely resemble rubber than cast iron, giving it the flexibility to stretch and adjust as our view of God matures throughout life.
The next blog on our Summer Blog Tour is written by Jennifer Rundlett. Jennifer does a fantastic job of using her knowledge and experience in the world of fine arts to draw us into the story of Jesus in a way that I never could. If you appreciate this article as much as I do, please check out her blog: http://jrundlett.wordpress.com.
How do you most frequently see Jesus in your mind’s eye? When you pray, do you think of a well-worn prayer card that someone gave you as a child? Perhaps you might think of a beautifully carved crucifix that adorns the altarpiece of your church sanctuary?
Still others of us might think of the images evoked by a favorite hymn or quote a particular passage of inspiration that holds personal meaning. We all have personal and private ways of calling Jesus to mind and so to generalize might seem intrusive.
However, unpacking these thoughts and impressions can open our hearts to a new flowering of growth in our imitation of Christ. To live as Christian who fully love one another we must be willing to keep developing our picture of Jesus.
Since God has spoken “to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-3), picturing Jesus then is how we are meant to hear and understand the message of God’s voice in our lives. He is our life force and our connection to our powerful creator and by his presence in our lives we are fitted with his likeness so that we may become divine.
Knowing this we will pause then and cleanse our hearts by lingering over the painting of Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) and using it as a launch pad for our greater reflections.
Madox Brown was a British artist famous for his association with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood who by their use of vibrant colors and finely detailed realism these artists were “committed to the idea of art’s potential to change society”[i] says art historian Alison Smith “by picking themes that told stories that challenged prevailing attitudes.”
Madox Brown has composed this painting in such away that it tells the story in a new and refreshing way. If we learn to look closely it can work as a starting point to stimulate the mind into greater thought. Just as we can use a word study as the center of our bible devotion, paintings such as this can provide rich spiritual food as they lead us deeper into the scene allowing it to work as the fulcrum turning our thoughts.
A lifetime of knowing this story and yet I had not taken the time to linger with their different perspectives. As I fully considered each disciple’s reaction to Jesus’ simple yet profound action, it carried me away from the painting and allowed me to tap into various personal memories that then lead me into a deeper connection with the painting and in turn the story and ultimately — Jesus.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We pause and rest now… fully breathing in the details of your last supper with your disciples. Help us to realize more deeply the profound meaning of this exchange between you and our brother Peter. Because we are separated by time and space, we struggle with our understanding of this tradition. Be with each of us, guiding our hearts so that we may hear this story, through the use of this painting. Help us to personally experience the power of your forgiveness so that it will purify our hearts.
“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things you will be blessed if you do them.”
(John 13: 12-17, NIV).
Begin by noticing how Madox Brown paints Jesus from a unique camera angle. From this lower perspective we must mentally kneel to properly consider each disciples reaction as it is played out in a very intimate compressed space.
Viewing this then becomes mysteriously “iconic” as it simultaneously sears our mind with a vision of humility while filling our heart with admiration for a new kind of King—one who is tenderly serving us. With this act, Jesus becomes our “host” and we begin to understand the partaking of this meal as sharing in a new kind of hospitality from God. As we look on with the disciples, we can place ourselves among them… preparing ourselves for the meal…. and for God’s mind-shattering display of love with Christ’s death on the cross.
Rest your eyes now on how Madox Brown has portrayed Peter in this painting. Surprisingly, Peter is cast as an older man here and this causes me to think about how he must have remembered this as a sacred moment over the years. The act of Jesus washing his feet must have been a memory that kept returning like a reoccurring theme coloring the backdrop of his life. I can sympathize with his look of discomfort as it suggests he might be just humoring Jesus in letting him wash his feet. In this way, he gently reminds me of the arch of Peter’s journey and the thought of how often he was broken to begin again, touches me.
Observing the honest way Madox Brown portrays Peter’s relationship with Jesus helps me to know this brokenness is part of the process that unfolds over a lifetime. I can see pieces of myself in Peter’s reaction to Jesus here and I can hear my voice say, “ No, you will never wash my feet!” Viewing this painting helps me to realize that as much as I love and adore Jesus, I can still resist his control in my life. And I can feel a type of brotherly love for Peter as I look once again to the painting.
While I am still thinking about all this, I allow myself to consider the feelings of the entire group as they lean in and look on, some are awe struck and others are horrified and I think about Jesus question: Do you understand what I have done?
This time, as I look again to the painting, I see the disciple on the left who is leaning in and untying his sandal. He is eagerly anticipating the moment when Jesus will wash his feet. While the others are still unsure this one is coming forward without hesitation.
As I fully appreciate this disciple, I begin to think about being personally cleansed by Jesus. The idea of allowing myself to be renewed by his touch of grace so that his forgiveness will transform my life begins to powerfully move my heart towards Jesus.
I can see with new eyes that we must first allow him to cleanse our hearts from our misconceptions before we can humbly serve others. We can desire to serve others because we have confessed our sins and allowed Jesus to heal our wounds. Knowing and experiencing his grace causes us to feel a greater compassion and brotherhood with those around us.
I begin to feel myself in motion, no longer resisting Jesus’ call and as I am turning, I begin to hear deep down in my soul the call of the song Down to the River to Pray. The repetitive nature of the words become meditative and so they begin to fill my mind now with a vision of a slowly increasing crowd gathering at the river to be cleansed and renewed in their baptism.
Armed with the vision of this beautiful hymn, I return to the painting yet again. Now I can see and hear Jesus say to me “Do you understand what I have done for you?” And I stand in silence…then with tears in my eyes I shake my head and say, “No, Jesus, I really don’t understand the fullness of your love.”
Feeling my brokenness, I look at all the faces in the room and consider how the road to the cross will personally challenge each of these men. One of them will betray Jesus…another will deny him and all but one will abandon him and my heart melts at the sight of Jesus, kneeling there and reverently washing Peter’s feet.
When I allowed myself to gaze deeply into the story through this painting, I realized that I have a Lord and King who has washed me, though I don’t fully understand it. He is willing to kneel at my feet and this thought opens and humbles me. …and I am refreshed to begin again.
[i] Were the Pre-Raphaelites Britain’s First Modern Artists? Alison Smith, August 23 2012, Tate Gallery Channel Blog, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs/were-pre-raphaelites-britains-first-modern-artists
Jennifer Rundlett, M.M. from Peabody Conservatory/ Johns Hopkins University and Post Graduate diploma from The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester England, is the author of My Dancing Day: Reflections of the Incarnation in Art and Music. Her ministry of connecting with God thru the Arts is a new kind of reflective experience that leads you through a gallery of masterful art and music into the beauty and joy of a life in Jesus.
Jennifer currently lives in Frederick, Maryland and has been an active musician in the Mid Atlantic region for over 15 years. She has been the pre-concert lecturer for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Choral Arts Society of Frederick and has also been a speaker at the Pepperdine University Bible Lectures, Tulsa Bible Workshop, Lipscomb University’s “Summer Celebration” and Rochester College’s “Streaming.”
As Jesus watches Judas walk out the door to betray him and start the dominoes falling that will lead to his death, he gives his disciples a new command, “Love one another.” In saying this Jesus implicitly also tells us, “Let the church love you.” Which of those commands do you find easier?
At Lawson Road we emphasise three “love commands” as part of a theme we call LR-cubed.
- The Great Command – Love the Lord your God. (Matthew 22:37-38)
- The Second Command – Love your neighbour as yourself. (Matthew 22:39)
- A New Command – Love one another. (John 13:34-35)
In this post I’m talking about the new command – Love one another.
I want to come at this command from a different perspective. We rightly think of this command as an attitude for us to integrate into our lives. It’s all about transforming the natural self focus into an other focus, beginning with those closest to us: our spiritual family.
Often overlooked in this command is the assumption that we want to be loved. And that we’ll let people love us.
In our culture there’s a tremendous honor with being a self-made man or woman. We generally value rugged individualism more highly than great collaboration skills. A business launched from a garage gains more acclaim than one that results from years of study and education. This emphasis upon individual achievement encourages our society to hide our weaknesses. Vulnerabilities can only prevent us from achieving our goals.
So allowing ourselves to be loved actually pushes against some deeply ingrained cultural values.
In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul wrote about God “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
God’s strength isn’t made perfect in our self-sufficiency, or our inner strength, or our ability to resist temptation, or desire to “soldier on”. God’s strength becomes evident when we willingly share our limitations and weaknesses, and the areas of our lives where we need God to pick us up.
Is this Faith Development?
Here’s a process I often see. People start coming to church because we’ve got stuff going on in our lives that prompt us to question our bigger picture. The church loves us and helps us work through those issues. We discover our need of God and commit our lives to following Him, accepting Jesus’ sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins.
Then, once we’ve moved past those initial questions and problems we start to feel like God’s in our life and we should have our stuff together. God’s supposed to have “fixed” me, right? So we begin to keep our problems and struggles to ourselves. We begin to create distinctions between what’s for the church, and what’s personal. Even though deep personal issues may have brought us to this loving church in the first place, we develop a list of private topics that are off limits to others.
As this pattern evolves we paint ourselves into a corner to where we look up one day and say, “I don’t know if I really want the love of the church.” Deep inside we do, but we now realize it’s going to cost us something. And we’ve grown comfortable over here.
We brought in the La-Z-Boy.
We’ve hung a couple of pictures.
I’ve got a flat screen on that wall, book shelf under it.
The coffee pot sits on the bookshelf.
Occasionally, we let people into our corner where we can have a polite conversation, perhaps about the problems a friend’s experiencing, or a book we’ve read recently. Very civil.
We long to share our pain and receive comfort, healing and renewal. In the deep places we long to break out of our corner, but to do so requires some words that we’re not ready to utter:
- Boasting about weakness;
- Confession (James 5:20);
- Submission (Ephesians 5:21);
- Openness; and
Sadly, it’s often more comfortable to be eaten by a La-Z-Boy than to step out of the corner and share our hearts. But the church can never “love each other” if we never acknowledge and share our need for love.
How’s your heart? Will you let the church love you?
In my previous post I linked the problems Paul confronted in 1 Corinthians 1-4 with excessive adoration of Christian authors and teachers on today’s landscape. However, I feel that it’s irresponsible of me to describe a problem without giving some ideas for avoiding it. So here are 4 methods Paul gives us in those same chapters to help us keep our focus on Christ.
1. Remember Your Roots (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
Christians need to stay humble. This virtue remains as relevant today as 2000 years ago in Corinth. It’s so easy to gloat in our “superior” knowledge.
- “I can’t believe those atheists really think God doesn’t exist! Why don’t we all just pursue anarchy if we’re not following God? What’s the point?”
- “I can’t believe all those scientists really think God didn’t create the universe. Where’d we come from if He didn’t initiate life?”
Then we start picking on each other:
- “Did you hear what Mark Driscoll said the other week? Crazy!!”
- “I don’t understand how Calvinists live. It must be awful going through life feeling like a puppet.”
- “I don’t know why people are so enamored with ‘free will’. It’s much more comforting to trust my future to God.”
- “How crazy is it that Baptists don’t think baptism is very important?”
I hope you get my point. PRIDE!
We need Paul to remind each of us that our “knowledge” looks like foolishness to the world. It’s faith, not logic. It’s spiritual, not rational. We use words like “believe” and “hope”, not “prove” and “know”.
The entire basis of our faith is that we’re incapable of helping ourselves. We depend upon Jesus and his grace to restore relationship between God and ourselves. There’s nothing in those two sentences that should give us cause for pride or a spirit of superiority. Our own knowledge, skills, and abilities lead to us being buried in sin and death. We only have relationship restored with God because He wants it restored.
2. Seek the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 2:15-16)
Given point #1 above, and recognising our human limitations, following Christ requires us to depend upon his wisdom and teaching. When we depend upon our own wisdom and knowledge we’ve stopped following Christ.
Seeking the wisdom of God according to verses 11-13 requires listening to the Holy Spirit. We do this by practicing spiritual disciplines. In my experience within Churches of Christ spiritual disciplines are for the “super-Christians”. I’ve been part of 5 churches of Christ in the United States. I don’t recall one of them every having a Day of Prayer, or promoting a Prayer Retreat. Fasting tends to be something we joke about rather than practice. We’re much more likely to have a class on the subject of prayer than to spend 45 minutes praying together. When Randy Harris went on a silent retreat it was so revolutionary that he wrote a book about the experience.
Following Jesus requires us to listen to the Holy Spirit.
3. Despise Division (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
We live in a society of choices. I cannot list the numerous choices that confront us when we go to a diner and order eggs. “How do you want them cooked?” The same applies to churches. We each have a gazillion choices about where to attend church.
Somewhere along the road Christians have come to accept division within the church. We prioritize doctrine, decorations, worship styles, personalities and umpteen other things above the unity of the church.
If you want to follow Jesus, love His church. “If anyone destroys God’s temple [the church] God will destroy that person.” Ouch! Persevere with the church. Seek the betterment of the church. Spend more energy contributing to solutions than identifying problems. Love God’s people in the church.
4. Glorify God for our Differences (1 Corinthians 4:6-7)
In the Corinthian church the members wanted everyone else to agree that their favourite preacher was THE best one. As a result the church divided into several factions aligned with different leaders (not that the leaders wanted this).
First, we should see our distinctives as gifts that strengthen the church. Paul talks further about this in chapter 12. If four preachers connect with four different groups within the church that’s a great blessing that one of those groups isn’t left out in the cold. Diversity is a gift.
Second, since our gifts and talents come from God, let’s not take credit for them. Let’s use them to encourage others and strengthen God’s kingdom. “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
I’d love to get some feedback on this post. Obviously it’s not the answer to everything related to following Jesus, but I believe it’s a significant step. Does one of the points above strike you as more urgent for the church today than the others? (It’s okay if we disagree. 🙂 )
The Corinthian church was a mess. Located in a major sea port numerous big name preachers had visited the church over the years: Paul, Peter, Apollos, and probably others. God gave each of these preachers different gifts and different mission emphases. Naturally, some members of the church in Corinth connected better with one of those teachers over the others.
Having a broad exposure to different teachers should strengthen the church as the hear different perspectives on the Gospel. Different speakers will make different applications and share different experiences. The stories one teacher shares regarding his struggles with addiction might motivate a portion of the church with similar struggles, while another raised within the cocoon of orthodoxy might stimulate the faith of others.
However, the Corinthians fell into the trap insisting that their favorite teacher was THE only teacher the church should follow. On top of that, as the church segmented behind their favourite teacher the spirit of pride crept in. Christians took pride that they were following the most eloquent speaker, or the most handsome speaker, or the smartest teacher, or the most practical speaker, and because they had made the best choice of who to follow, they were better than the other Christians in the church.
As one of the leaders people were arguing over, Paul immediately responds to this competition in his letter.
My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Cor 1:11-12)
I believe that Paul’s being sarcastic when he writes “another says, ‘I follow Christ.” Would anyone in the church say they follow Paul or Peter or Apollos rather than follow Christ? Probably not. As he continues in v13 he points out the ridiculousness of following anyone other than Jesus.
How does this apply to the church today?
In an era of mega churches many preachers and teachers have become very popular authors and TV personalities. It’s very easy to say “I love everything that person writes.” It’s quite possible at that point we’ve begun following the the teacher rather than Jesus. No teacher has a claim to absolute truth, only Jesus. All teachers make mistakes and each person is responsible for our own faith.
Here’s an exercise: Consider this list of popular authors and ask yourself if you would accept the teaching of one over the other just because of your opinion of the author rather than what it is they actually teach.
- Max Lucado
- CS Lewis
- John Ortberg
- Craig Groeschel
- Bill Hybels
- Mark Driscoll
- Philip Yancey
- Andy Stanley
- Charles Stanley
- Chuck Colson
- James Dobson
- Timothy Keller
- John Piper
- NT Wright
- Rick Warren
- TD Jakes
- Brian McLaren
- John MacArthur
- Joel Olsteen
Obviously that list could be much longer. But some of those names you probably respect, while others you won’t touch.
While there’s nothing wrong with having favorites, when we start seeing Jesus through lens of a teacher, rather than the teacher through the lens of Jesus, we have a problem.
When our loyalty to a single teacher or small group of teachers prompts us to reflexively reject all other voices, we have a problem.
When everything one person says or writes is always the right thing, we have a problem.
When we feel superior because we’ve identified “the best” author or teacher and take pity on the rest of the world that is missing out, we have a problem.
No matter how inspiring, motivating, thought provoking, challenging, or relevant a preacher, teacher, or author might be, NEVER FORGET that they are only a tool to help you as you follow Christ. Listen to preachers, learn from teachers, love them even, but never as much as you listen to, learn from, and love Jesus himself.
Since it is okay to have favorites….
- Please share with all the readers, Who is your favorite Christian author?
Jesus’ Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12) really summarises the message of Mark’s Gospel. In the story the farm hands recognise Jesus as the son of the landowner. Their response is to kill him. How do we identify Jesus, and how do we respond?
Mark opens his writing with the statement “The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From his opening the other three accounts of Jesus’ life took their title. They were not histories, or biographies, they were Good News written to persuade people to believe and trust the person of Jesus.
As Mark introduces Jesus to the world, he elects to use the title, “Son of God” to describe Him. We find this title not only in 1:1, but also at other key events in the book. Jesus is described as the Son of God at his baptism (1:11),at the transfiguration (9:7), and at the cross the centurion after observing his death observes, “surely this man was the Son of God.” (15:39)
The Gospel of Mark pivots on 8:29. Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and the apostle Peter replies, “You are the Messiah.” Finally, someone accepted Jesus’ message about who he is in relationship with God. In a sense, it’s mission accomplished, but Jesus immediately changes the mission. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things… and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (8:31)
Having established his claim to the title of Israel’s promised Messiah, Jesus immediately emphasises humility, service, and death. It’s fascinating to see the apostles response move in the exact opposite direction. Three times Jesus predicts his death and the apostles respond by arguing about who is the greatest among them.
|Mark 8:31-34||“He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…”||Peter arrogantly rebukes Jesus and tells him that he’s wrong.|
|Mark 9:31-35||“The Son of Man… will be killed.”||“…on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.”|
|Mark 10:32-41||“The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests… they will condemn him to death…”||James and John ask to sit at the left and right hands of Jesus’ throne in glory. This upset the rest of the disciples.|
The apostles slowly learned that it’s one thing to intellectually recognise the Lordship of Jesus, but another challenge altogether to submit to Him. Finally, in 10:45 Jesus laid it out for them in very plain language, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Mark is very concerned that people acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, as Messiah, as Lord. The first step is to learn and believe this truth. The second step is to allow that truth to transform our lives. Knowing the truth of the majesty of Jesus makes us servants, not superiors.
So I don’t want this article to just be an interesting intellectual blog post. Let me close by posing three questions:
- Who is Jesus to you? (Go ahead, write it down. It’s harder than just thinking it.)
- Who in your life could you serve in a meaningful way in the next two days?
- Will you?
On an academic note, here’s a brief note of caution by NT Wright on how to understand the title “Son of God”. It’s part of a much longer essay available here.
‘Messiah’, or ‘Christ’, does not mean ‘the/a divine one’. It is very misleading to use the words as shorthands for the divine name or being of Jesus. It is comparatively easy to argue that Jesus (like several other first-century Jews) believed he was the Messiah (see JVG, ch. 11). It is much harder, and a very different thing, to argue that he thought he was in some sense identified with Israel’s God. In this context, the phrase ‘son of God’ is systematically misleading because in pre- and non-Christian Judaism its primary referent is either Israel or the Messiah, and it retains these meanings in early  Christianity (e.g. Rom. 1:3-4) while also picking up the overtones of Paul’s early, high Christology. It seems to me, in fact, that the title was perceived very early on in Christianity—within the first decade or so at least—as an ideal one for Jesus because it enabled one to say both ‘Messiah’ and ‘the incarnate one’. However, its subsequent use simply for the latter meaning, coupled with its too-ready identification with the virginal conception story, make it in my view difficult to use without constant qualification in contemporary in systematic discussions.
There’s another short and helpful summary of Wright’s understanding of the title “Son of God” here.
In my previous post I listed 7 signs of pride in our lives. But there’s little benefit in pointing out problems without providing solutions. So here are some antidotes to the attack of pride.
In his excellent book Humilitas Australian minister and academic John Dickson proposes several means of cultivating humility in our lives. I’ll share a couple of those and then throw in a few suggestions of my own.
- We are shaped by what we love.
If we find ourselves struggling with pride, we probably don’t value/love humility. So combating pride requires learning to value humility. Notice humble people and imitate them. Study what makes them humble and make appropriate adjustments in your own life.
- Pay attention to others.
Pride involves an obsession or love of self. If we deliberately move the focus of our lives away from self we reduce pride. Jesus taught us this process in Matthew 22:35-37 when he gave the Greatest Command, “Love God” and the Second Command, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If we can genuinely rank God first in our lives and others equal with self we will find ourselves closer to humility than pride.
- Practice obedience.
Bonhoeffer in Cost of Discipleship describes obedience as the most fundamental step of discipleship to Christ. Obedience requires submission to a higher authority. Jesus himself gives an example according to Philippians 2:8 “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death…” For an interesting perspective on this topic, you can check out this blog post by ACU professor Richard Beck that also discusses obedience and humility in light of Benedictine monasticism.
- Focus your thoughts on the gifts God has given you.
Scripture regularly reminds us that God gives us salvation as a gracious gift. (Romans 6:23) We’re also told several times that our talents and abilities that distinguish us from each other are actually gracious gifts from God. In Romans 12:3-8 Paul begins by warning Christians “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…” then goes on to list the gifts God gives his people. When we accept this reality we will have less reason to take pride in any of our accomplishments.
- Develop a habit of gratitude.
Gratitude naturally promotes humility. As we cultivate an attitude of thankfulness we will increasingly appreciate the contributions God and others make to our successes.
- Learn to forgive.
The connection between forgiveness and humility may not jump off the screen at you. Think of it this way. The opposite of forgiveness is judgement. Judgement often involves an air of superiority. “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Or maybe, “I’m wrong, but you’re wrong-er”. Forgiveness means letting go of the right to be right. It allows others to sin without thinking less of them. We don’t keep count of their sins, because we know the length of our own shortcomings. Consider the parable of The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). Imagine how different the story would read if the Pharisee had wondered over to the tax collector and said, “You’ve hurt people I care about, but I’m glad you’re here today and I for one forgive you.” No pride, just forgiveness and humility.
- Forget about being humble.
If we attempt to increase our humility we still focus on ourselves. The more we invest in the lives of others, serve others, and love others humility will naturally follow us. But if we make humility a focus of our lives how are we going to measure our progress without again becoming proud in the process?
It’s much better to serve others because we love them than because we want to reduce our pride.
What other traits have you observed in humble people that you know?
Pride and selfishness are the deadly duo of spiritual heart disease. They are the greatest stumbling block to an intimate relationship with God. But God gives us the tools to defeat them.
Don’t love the world or anything that belongs to the world. If you love the world, you cannot love the Father. Our foolish pride comes from this world, and so do our selfish desires and our desire to have everything we see. None of this comes from the Father. (1 John 2:15-16 CEV)
Just as “the world” opposes the kingdom of God, so pride and selfishness oppose God. As followers of Christ we should centre our lives upon God and His will. Any time that our lives become self-centred we inevitably push God to the margins. These verses from 1 John 2 provide a very clear reminder of this truth.
Pride is so sneaky it has a built in mechanism to prevent us detecting its presence in our own lives. The reduced presence or absence of humility in our lives prevents us from admitting our flaws. For this reason we need honest, trusted relationships in our lives to keep us accountable, God-focused, and humble. Sometimes we also mislabel it: confidence, self-assured, skilled, successful. These labels may be good and appropriate at times, but when they mask pride they become our enemy.
So here are 7 signs of pride that might prompt us to make important changes in our lives.
- We find ourselves taking credit for things beyond our control.
James has this attitude in mind when he warns about making plans for the future in 4:13-17. We should live our lives looking forward and backward with the attitude that we only accomplish anything because it is “the Lord’s will”. A farmer who takes credit for the perfect amount of sun and rain to produce a bumper crop would be another example.
- We find ourselves not noticing the needs of others.
When “me, myself and I” become our most used words, there’s a chance pride’s nibbling at our soul. Solomon provides a good example of this danger. Read his words here in Ecclesiastes 2:4-10. In just 7 verses the words “I, me and my” occur 19 times. However Solomon seemed oblivious to the burdens his accomplishments placed upon his citizens. When Solomon died the leaders of Israel immediately approached his successor and asked for their burden to be lessened. His refusal to listen resulted in ten of the twelve tribes seceding from his kingdom. (1 Kings 12:1-24)
- We begin thinking that we’re irreplaceable.
When Jesus came to earth the Jews seem to have developed an attitude of divine superiority. They were God’s people. Everyone else was a Gentile. They were blessed by God by virtue of their birthright. According to Luke 3:7-9 a major element of John’s ministry involved calling on the Jews to actually live as God’s people, not just claim the title. He also warned them that God had an axe that could cut them off and replace them. The ministry of Jesus demonstrates that God did indeed expand his definition of His people to include Gentiles. If Israel could be replaced after thousands of years we’re certainly not irreplaceable.
- We complete a task and immediately wonder what others will think of us.
It’s for this reason that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns his followers to practice their spiritual disciplines privately. (Matthew 6:1-18) When our motivation, or part of our motivation, to give, pray or fast is to be seen by others, Jesus reflects, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” We might receive the praise of our peers, but that’s all the praise we’ll get. Eugene Peterson provides an excellent translation in The Message,”Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.“
- When asked to list 5 weaknesses we struggle to identify 3.
Have you ever been asked in a job interview what your weaknesses are? I hate that question. I’m trying to get a job, not talk myself out of it. So of course I come up with an answer that’s socially acceptable and not too serious. But in moments of quiet reflection can you list areas of life that require growth, or are you drawing a blank? 2 Peter 1:5-9 calls us to a life of adding various virtues to our faith. Verse 9 provides this summary, “But if you don’t grow, you are like someone who is nearsighted or blind, and you have forgotten that your past sins are forgiven.” (CEV) Remembering where we’ve come from and where we still need to grow will keep us humble.
- When you’ve mastered the art of humility.
Numbers 12:3 makes a very curious statement, “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Do you know who wrote the book of Numbers? Moses! It doesn’t give a lot of credibility to the statement does it? I’m really hoping this commentary was added by a later editor.
- We stop praying.
The very act of prayer acknowledges that we are not the Supreme being in our universe. A prayer of thanks acknowledges that God gives us blessings. A prayer of petition recognises our dependence upon God for our physical and emotional needs. A prayer of praise demonstrates humility by placing God in His rightful position above us. A prayer of confession admits our imperfections and reliance upon God’s grace for forgiveness and eternal life. A life without prayer reveals the belief that we can get through each day relying on our own strength.
I hope you don’t identify yourself in this list, but if you do I’ll post some spiritual remedies later this week as Part 2 of this discussion.
In the meantime, please feel free to leave a comment. Do you have an additional Pride Indicator? Perhaps a better example from Scripture than those I’ve provided?