What Matters Most:

Christian Life in a Modern World


Introduction. 3

I. Why Am I Here? To What End; For What Purpose. 6

1. Making Sense Of Our Lives. 6

2. The Worth and Dignity of an Individual 9

3. What Pulls Our Lives Forward with Hope?. 12

4. Living in the Light of the Eternal: Death and Beyond. 14

5. Metaphors For Living. 16

6. Moving Toward the Glory of God. 21

II. Considering the Center of our Lives: A Life-style of Living in the Presence of God. 24

7. The Care God Shows to All 24

8. Pleasing God. 25

9. True Worship and the Center of our Lives. 27

10. Becoming Best Friends with God. 30

11. Worship That Pleases God. 34

12. Our Quarrel with God. 36

III. Considering Community: A Life-style with Others Who Share Christian Ends. 39

13. The Importance of Christian Community. 39

14. What Matters Most 42

15. A Place to Belong. 45

16. Life Together 47

17. Restoring Relationships. 51

18. Protecting the Unity of the Church. 56

19. Re-presenting Christ in a Modern World. 61

IV. Considering Character: A Life-style of Sanctification of Life. 63

20. The Goal of Spiritual Formation: Become Like Christ 63

21. Growth in Spiritual Formation. 69

22. Spiritual Formation and Christian Discipleship  through Engaging Truth. 72

23. Spiritual Formation and Christian Discipleship through Difficulty. 75

24. Spiritual Formation and Christian Discipleship through Engaging the Battle. 78

25. Spiritual Formation and Christian Discipleship takes time. 84

V. Considering Our Influence: A Life-style of Developing the Heart of a Servant 90

26. Accepting Our Task - Living What Matters. 90

27. Becoming Servants. 92

28. Offering to Others What God Gave to Us. 98

29. A Heart like a Servant 100

30. Thinking Like a Servant 101

31. God's Power Shown through Our Weakness. 103

VI. Considering the World: A Life Style of Re-presenting Christ to the World. 106

32. Human Life with a Mission. 106

33. Sharing Our Life Message with Others. 108

34. Sharing Our Life Message in Modern Society. 109

35. Becoming Fully Alive Christians. 114

36. Balancing Our Lives. 115

37. Living the Life that Matters. 118


          I have received great help in my life as I have learned to re-direct my life from things that are trivial and urgent and moved my attention toward things that matter. Discerning the difference is important for human life. Of the almost eighty years many modern people will live, we spend precious little of those days learning what matters. In fact, it amazes me how many people appear to dismiss such matters with ease. What I have found is that we lose ourselves in “small stuff” because we have lost sight of what matters. The purpose of this book is to help the reader consider what matters in their lives.

          Christian life in a modern context is not as clear as one might like. Some of us have grown up with certainties that the ambiguities of adolescence and adulthood took away. Our God became too small for the real world we encountered. Questions keep arising that puzzles the Christian as to how to live the Christian life in a modern world. The God we worship is not the true God if our God fails to help us in this modern world. Religion will focus upon memorizing what Christians believe and demand adherence. Religion will focus upon the maintenance of the structure and its ritual. Whether religion depends upon baptism and Eucharist, upon speaking in tongues or an emotional reaction, religion depends upon adherence to form. Christian life is about bringing spirit and form together in an authentic whole. The examples of Job, Ecclesiastes, and many Psalms ought to remind us that genuine spirituality is about asking questions of self, others, human communities, and God. Authentic spiritual life may well begin by asking good questions.

          Spiritual life can be a trap. It can be an excursion into unreality. The delusion of perfect peace haunts us. We feed the illusion on prayer, ritual, and contemplation that removes us from the stress and strains of the world around us. Too often, we do not pray in order to have the strength to deal with life as it is. Too often, we pray in order to ignore life as it is. We do everything we can to deny the frustrating character of a faithfully lived Christian life.

          This text cannot remove the two chief impediments to Christian belief and life. One is that I cannot prove from the standpoint of scientific or mathematical certainty that the God of Christianity is real. As with many matters of human life and community, it requires a degree of faith and trust. Only the future unfolding of history will reveal to us the truth or falsity of what we now believe. Two is the presence of suffering. Nature causes human suffering. Human beings inflict suffering on each other. Human beings engage in self-destructive behavior. For many persons, such suffering is enough to cause them to deny the possibility that God is the source of this life and is involved in this life. Now, although this text does not address these matters directly, it does suggest at various points ways in which one can lead a Christian life while living with the ambiguity of a human life that such questions suggest.

          Two texts have stimulated this book. One is by Stephen Covey, as he has worked through his understanding of habits of highly effective people. The other is Rick Warren, as he has worked through his view of living a life with purpose as a Christian.

          My concern in this text is to offer some reflections upon what matters most in seeking to live as a Christian in the modern world. The modern world is a human good. I mean by this that it is imperfect and open to continual reform. However, its basic structures show themselves to provide the best possible context for people to achieve the best in human life. This world is different from living in a Communist world provided by the government of China, the Buddhist world provided in Southeast Asia, the Hindu world provided in India, the Muslim world provided in Indonesia and the Middle East, the Roman Catholic world provided in Latin America, and the tribal culture of Africa. Christian witness in these cultures will take on a different character than in a modern world. What concerns me here is Christian witness in a modern world.

          The distinguishing features of modern society are these. Modern society values individuality to the point where individual choice has broad impact. This choice includes choosing how one will earn a living and what products and services one will purchase. Modern society recognizes that inequality of economic status is the price a society pays for economic creativity. Individuals have a role in determining who will be in the political class through their votes. Individuals will determine the moral and religious principles by which they will live. Modern society places a high value upon domestic life, and in particular recognizing the importance of parents in training children to enter modern society. Modern society recognizes the importance of property rights and individual rights as the foundation for the personal freedoms that people living in a modern society have come to assume is natural. In reality, the recognition of these rights is relatively new in human history. They have represented a new challenge for the church and for Christians.

          What I offer is an opportunity to reflect upon what we value. This suggests matters of considering the end or purpose for which humanity is here. It suggests a text that wants to contribute to consideration of the moral and religious values by which people will live. Sadly, few of us devote the time and energy to reflect upon what matters in order us to lead a well-lived life.

          Each of us are unique, with an important contribution to make to the persons our lives touch. We need to consider why we are here. We can approach that question by considering what the organizing principle of our lives will be. As a Christian, I am going to suggest the worship of God, as we know God through Jesus Christ is the proper center of our lives. In order to maintain that center, we need to be part of a community of people who share the desire to have God in Christ as the center of their lives and community. Such a community will help us maintain our focus. It will also help us shape who we are, forming us into Christ-like persons. We shape character in community. We then have a better context in which to consider what God wants us to do with our lives and the unique witness God wants us to have in the world.

          The turn of the century brought many “top 100” lists. I came across a list of the top 100 songs of the 1900’s. With most such lists, unless they are purely statistical, one could ask, “Who says?” Yet, something in us wants to know the best. We discuss with each other who the best ball players were. We discuss who the best philosophers and theologians were. We wonder about the best plays, the best novels, the best movies, the best paintings, and the best poetry. Several lifetime reading plans exist, in which individuals or groups have determined the 100-300 books that one should read at some point in their lives. We want to know about the best that human beings can produce.

          This text is an invitation to consider the best human life. As such, it bears a similarity with other evaluations of what is best in the aesthetic arena. We will have differences of opinion. We will discuss those differences in order to move toward a better understanding of the criteria for the best human life. However, this text has a significant difference with such aesthetic interests. I invite you to consider what matters most in your life. I ask you to consider how you will live your life. The artist can create a work of art, and the work of art remains external to the artist. What we consider in this text may challenge the way we think, the way we view life, and the way we live our lives.

          I invite you to spend a few moments of prayerful and meditative reflection on living the best human life we can lead. I designed this text so that one can read a section one day, put it down, and reflect upon what the text says. One could even do so in a weekly study group, where members could read each of the larger sections each week. The point is that the text has a structure for reflection. One can also simply read it like any other book. However, I invite you to make the text your own. Interact with it. Write in the margin. Argue with it. Expand upon it with your experience. I hope that this text will feed the need I sense with so many people. We need to take some time to reflect on why we are here, what will provide the organizing center of our lives, the role of human community in our lives, the form our character takes, and what we will do with our lives. God has a reason for each of us to be here. My hope is that this text will aid in our reflection upon that simple statement. We need to discover the unique reason each of us is here.

I. Why Am I Here? To What End; For What Purpose

1. Making Sense Of Our Lives

          Life is not about us. My life is not about me. Your life is not about you. We are part of a web of relationships that shape us in ways that we often find difficult to analyze. The shaping influence of family, neighborhood, friends, and culture is profound. Tradition already shapes the way we live our lives. These relationships become part of us. They embed themselves in the way we reason, the things about which we become emotional, the beliefs we hold, and the values by which we live. Truly, if we view ourselves as solitary and isolated individuals, possibly fulfilling nothing other than a biological function, I grant that such questions do not arise. However, is it not self-evident that we are interdependent and interconnected?

          Further, we are part of whole web of relationships with people whom we know intimately and with people whom we do not know. Using a computer will involve parts developed in Japan and Korea, shipped to the United States, assembled in this country, placed on trains or trucks, and eventually to stores and to home. Each individual depends upon others having an interest in doing what they do, taking responsibility for it, and doing their roles reasonably well. When others do not fulfill their roles, as when defective products cause death or when some choose stealing, lying, and murder, we have awareness of the slender threads that hold community together.

          Yet, as much as such forces provide the context of our lives, they do not determine our lives. The interconnections of relationships are not a prison. Rather, they provide the context within which we reason about our lives: its goals, purposes, ambitions, and dreams. Here is a clue to one of the most profound of human predicaments: fulfilling a task in our families or communities, even to the best that any human being has ever done, does not leave us with a sense of fulfillment. We still want to know, in the context of the various struggles, obstacles, sufferings, and evils that occur in a human life, if our lives make sense. A word makes no sense apart from a sentence. A sentence makes no sense apart from a paragraph. A paragraph makes no sense apart from the total work. A word makes no sense without the language of which it is a part. We make sense of our lives by constructing stories about them that have a point. Our individual stories occur in the context of a web of relationships of others telling stories with their lives. How our lives fit into the web of relationships that result from past and present, as well as how our lives affects the future, is a question of ultimate ends. We want to be good spouses, good parents, contribute to work that we find meaningful, and even serve in our communities. Yet, the meaning of our lives is a question dealing with a sense of wholeness and completeness of our lives. As much as our lives may feel fragmented and compartmentalized, we sense frustration with that. Although this human problem is perennial, life in a modern society tends to encourage us to live compartmentalized lives. We separate values and beliefs from business and friendships. We lead secret lives. We isolate the various fragments of our lives quite intentionally. Yet, that is our frustration. Something in us rebels against such lack of authentic living. Something in us longs for integrity and wholeness that holds together the various dimensions of our lives. We want our lives to tell a story. We want the story of our lives to be part of a story larger than we are. We want to know that our lives contribute to something larger than we are. We are aware that our lives are part of a whole that will continue beyond death. We want our lives to contribute to the wholeness of the human quest.

          Therefore, although our lives are not about us, the question of how our lives fit in to this larger whole of which we are only vaguely aware is an important one to us. We discover the uniqueness of the gift we have to offer in life in the context of our relationships with others. This set of genes has never existed before and will never exist again. We value this life for the uniqueness it is, for the treasure it represents, and for the responsibility we have to discover the gift and offer it. We rightly make goals for this year, for this decade, and even for our lives. We rightly reason about such goals and the steps it takes to fulfill them. Success in setting and achieving goals at various stages of life is important for the building of self-esteem and self-confidence. Yet, these goals are of such a nature that, once reached, we simply devise new goals that we sense will bring us greater fulfillment and happiness. Success encourages us to move on to the next level of achievement. Healthy individuals do not find success a resting place, but an encouragement toward setting other worthy goals.

          The question I want to propose is this: To what end and for what purpose. I doubt if any question is more simple and complex, basic and highest order, than such a question. Such a question helps us to focus our lives upon what matters most. I consider the following dimensions of our lives especially important as we reflect upon such a question.

          First, such questions are the realm of religion. At its best, religion gives substance, fullness, and richness to life. It enables us to find meaning and purpose. It sets us toward home. It requires us to be more than we ever thought we could become. It raises our sights beyond self. It establishes ideals that make us stretch from where we are to where we might be.

          We need to consider the place God has in our lives if we are to consider such questions. I realize the complexity of this area of life in a pluralistic and global religious community. However, I think we have good reasons to consider that if religious experience in human history has any validity, then God has sought to communicate who God is to humanity. Religion is not about itself, but about God. Further, if God has sought to communicate with humanity, it makes sense that God would have to choose some form of communication involving language, at a particular time and place. Human beings continually evaluate what believers say the realm of the divine is like. We have access to many such beliefs only in museums. Many gods have died. They did not prove themselves in the minds and hearts of believers. Believers do not direct their attention to themselves or to their form of worship, but to the God in whom they believe. For Christians, God communicates to the people of Israel through Torah and prophets, and finally in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son, the Word of God, who communicates in his person what God intends for humanity. The history of world religion is not one in which one can assume that the realm of the divine has a favorable disposition toward humanity. Many religions have gods who would just as soon frustrate human endeavors as assist them. In Jesus Christ, Christians believe that God has turned toward humanity in love, grace, forgiveness, and judgment. God loves the world enough to send his Son. On that basis, Christians believe the standard of judgment is to turn toward the world the same love that God has for it.

          Second, such questions arise out of the basic human condition. We have certain biological functions that drive and condition behavior. Yet, our brains have the capacity to interact with the world in a way that helps us to move toward reasonably happy, fulfilled, peaceful, and just lives. We can make this world increasingly like a home through the capacity we have for language. Our ability to communicate with each other now, and across generations, is a capacity that creates a space of experience more like the divine than the animal. As much a part of nature as we are, language itself creates experiences that no other part of nature has the capacity to share. We learn from each other. We learn from the past. We look forward to anticipated and improved life together. In the process, we learn our limits in our finite and temporal life. God is God; we are not. An authentic experience of God helps us approach the world with a degree of humility that we need. It saves others from experiencing our tendency toward superiority and arrogance.

          Third, such questions require some awareness of the past. As much as modern life assumes that the present is all that matters, modernity has rich resources in its past from which to draw. Tradition is living in that it influences beliefs and values today. We need to learn from the past. The present has its blind spots that the past can illuminate. Tradition can constrict and bind the present from making needed changes. Yet, the present exists because of that tradition. People of the present need wise and discerning reading of the tradition within which they live. Religious tradition becomes a map to a place no human being has gone. The path we take is our spiritual path.

          Fourth, such questions take place in the context of a culture. We have the capacity to reflect upon the culture that also shapes us. We have the capacity to imagine a better culture in the future. The culture in which an individual lives intersects with the culture in which other individuals live. Cultures are not monolithic, and therefore do not impose one system upon all its members. The various groups and communities of a culture, whether as families, businesses, religions, educational institutions, have their beliefs and values somewhat distinct from the general culture. The diversity of human culture and community does not mean that all human cultures are equal. Rather, it reminds us that we have the capacity to reflect upon such diversity and learn from it. We have the capacity to see areas of needed improvement and growth. Because of the advances in technology, the matter of a global community has become increasingly important for humanity to envision.

          I cannot pose the question, to what end and for what purpose is human life as if I have all the answers. I cannot pose the question as if some book has all the answers. I cannot prove anything to you. I can suggest that we reason together. I can only offer what I consider good reasons for moving down the path I suggest. Language grants us the capacity to think with others, as well as to think against others. I invite you to do both as we consider one of the most important questions any human being can consider.

2. The Worth and Dignity of an Individual

          This world is our home. The more scientists study the universe and the human body, the more aware we are that the human body truly belongs here.

          The significance of this is that we often sense our separation and alienation from each other and from nature. Although we have good reason to sense this as well, we need to grasp the significance of the fact that this world is our home.

          The origin of the universe as consisting of an immense explosion of energy appears to dominate scientific speculation today. From the explosion 20 billion years ago came galaxies, solar systems, stars, and planets. This immense universe makes humanity feel itself as rather insignificant. Science then tells us that the human body and brain evolved through a long process of "natural selection" in nature. Simply put, this means that life on earth has its origin in a successful combination of atoms and cells that occurred at random in nature. Success in this case meant that the combination survived and reproduced itself. The first life on the planet consisted of single cell organisms. Another successful mutation occurred, and cells began combining and gaining a specialty. Over the process of millions of years of genes and cells reproducing and mutating, with a few mutations becoming successful, evolution produced a being with a brain that functioned through electrical pulses. This brain allows interaction with other human beings in ways that allow human beings to learn from others, learn through making mistakes, learn from past generations, and imagine a better future.

          The scientific explanation of the evolution of the universe gives some basis for human confidence for our place in the universe. Given how evolution works, human beings have every right to assume that their brains evolved the way they did precisely because they enable human beings to become increasingly at home on this planet and in this universe. Much of science speculates that this random process of gene selection gave us human beings. Far from anyone planning with a purpose, science often suggests that human beings exist because of a random mutation that proved successful biologically. All that seems to matter biologically is that genes seek reproduction. As science looks ahead, it speculates that the earth will fall into the sun in about two billion years, and in one theory the universe will wind down in another trillion years.

          One reason that scientists find it difficult to sell such ideas to the public is that the human drive to make sense out of our lives is so strong. Some scientists have concluded that the scientific reality that human life occurs from a random process and heads toward the meaningless end of the universe ought to cause us to band together in the light of such meaninglessness. However, the view science often presents does not take this drive seriously. Human beings want to know that the whole process is one that has meaning and purpose. To what end and for what purpose does this universe exist? If it simply dies out, as one strand of thought scientific thought suggests, nothing human beings do seems to matter to anyone.

          Although scientists do not often go in the direction I am going to suggest, I want to suggest that meaning and purpose are questions that lead human beings beyond themselves. Human beings are part of a wholeness of which we are aware but can never define analytically. Religious experience suggests that human beings individually and corporately have a responsibility to the divine. The divine realm provides whatever meaning and purpose humanity will experience.

          I want to begin with the concept of patience. Let us assume that God exists. Let us also assume that this God wanted the world to exist, and chose the evolutionary process to do so. Imagine the immense patience God has to see life emerge and evolve the way it did. God patiently nudges and pulls the universe toward life. Our view of divine sovereignty and power, often called omnipotence and providence, often suggests God as one dictates and directs, much as we imagine we would do if we were in charge. Yet, evolution suggests that God patiently cares for and treasures each level of this universe.

          Frankly, this view of God makes more sense to me than the view that God dictated and planned everything that ever happened. The idea that everything in the universe acts out what God dictates brings little encouragement or comfort to me. When I think of the tragic character of human history, as well as of the tragic character of human life, it brings little comfort that God dictated these things to happen.

          Further, some dimension of good and bad fortune is part of a human life. Although human effort and setting of goals are important elements of a well-lived life, few people are bold enough to suggest that everything that happens in their lives is solely the result of their efforts. The best of human efforts sometimes fail, and the weakest of human efforts sometimes end in success. Although we can play our hand in cards the best we can, the result in the game depends on how others in the system play their hand. Human life is a chancy matter. Good fortune and bad fortune influence our lives in sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle ways. Some of the risks we take are risks we take. Many risks come into our lives unbidden and unwelcome. Even if we grant providence moving the world toward the end that God intends, we can also admit some unpredictability in matters close to us.

          I suggest here a God that loves each part of the universe enough to grant genuine independence. This means some genuine unpredictability in terms of the future. This independence achieved its greatest extent in human beings, who have the capacity to deny the God who made them and continues to sustain their lives. At this point, we have no idea what humanity will achieve in the future. Given enough time, what we consider science fiction today becomes reality tomorrow.

          Further, this scientific description suggests that the way human life emerged is a process of nature. Human life is not an imposition upon nature, but rather is a product of nature. The most significant aspect of this process is the development of language. Everything suggests that our brains are wired for language. The symbolization required for language is complex, but it arose out of natural processes. Language arose because it assisted human beings to survive and thrive on this planet. We are at home here. The only home this body will ever have is here.

          Yet, we justly recognize our apartness from the rest of nature. Language has opened up for us a space of experience that no other creature can have. Human beings do not simply live out of instinct. Language is the capacity to reflect upon why we did what we did, how we can change toward something better, and imagine a better future for self and for others. Language is the capacity to engage others in the journey of life. Language is the capacity to connect with people from the past, to learn from them, and move beyond them. Language is the capacity to connect with a possible future, one that begins in our imagination of it today. Every other living organism, no matter on what continent, no matter what generation, acts the way it does out of instinct. A dog is a dog, no matter in what country, or if it is alive today or 2000 years ago. Language opens up possibility beyond pure instinct for genetic survival. Even the most primitive of human beings paint pictures and design objects, moving beyond simple utility and toward the aesthetic. Even the most primitive person is aware of the moral nature of the encounter with another human being. Language opens up possibilities for choice and responsibility for those choices that human beings cannot attribute to other living beings. We recognize that we are agents in history. We have some responsibility for our future as individuals. We have a responsibility to past generations. We have a responsibility to future generations.

          Thus, although I cannot scientifically prove what I am about to say, I would like to suggest that language creates such a difference with the rest of nature that it actually makes us closer to God than to the most developed primate. Human life is not about getting God into human life. Rather, human life is about growing in the God who already embraces us. The bible says that God made human beings in the image and likeness of God. The New Testament says that God wants to shape us into the image and likeness of Christ. This is why we experience difference and even alienation from the rest of nature. We know we are different, even if we are not aliens to this planet. Therefore, we have a responsibility to God. We make an important step in this direction when we accept that every part of our lives belongs to us. The patience of God in working through the evolutionary process helps me to see God as caring for every part of nature, and therefore for me. We are co-creators with God in making a future that we can only imagine now. We have some responsibility in determining the shape of our future. We have no idea today what future human beings will have the capacity to do. We have the responsibility to do the best we can with the life we have today. Each generation has its own unique responsibility to improve life on this planet. That improvement includes learning better ways of governing our social world, living economically, treating each other well, raising children, and building strong communities.

          God has loved the world enough to send his Son. We need to love the world enough to make it our home. The moral and religious question we answer with the way we live our lives and build our cultures is this: What kind of home will we make for ourselves and for others?

3. What Pulls Our Lives Forward with Hope?

                Something drives each of our lives.

          From a biological perspective, what drives us is the need for individual genes to reproduce themselves. Yet, genes must also cooperate with other genes in order to reproduce, in that must survive in the same chromosome and cooperate for the survival of this unique body. For this reason, we have a drive to preserve ourselves, while at the same time recognize that our survival depends upon our ability to cooperate with other people. We have a drive to select sexual partners that will provide a good home for our genes in the lives of children. Women have a drive toward males who invest in the care of their children. Males will have a drive to spread their genes as widely as possible. Since these two drives conflict, deception often occurs, and consequently people develop caution in order to detect the genuine from the deceptive. We have a drive to assist family for the same reason. The closeness of feeling within family is a result of this biological drive. We have a drive to relate to others in our social world in a manner that assumes social status and rank. We have a biological drive to move up in social status. Of course, the content of what a culture considers status differs from one culture to another, but the existence of status seems to be biologically driven. Some scientists suggest that genes drive us in deceiving others, detecting the deception of others, extending forgiveness, being nice to others, all under the rubric of the drive toward reciprocal altruism.

          From the perspective of psychology, that which drives us arises out of early childhood experiences. It controls, directs, and guides our thinking and behavior. Although we modify this drive in adolescent and adult life, we fall back to this drive when we are under stress or pressure.

          The need to be in control drives some people. This drive leads people to focus upon who has power, who does not have power, and how they can acquire more power over their lives and the lives of others.

          The need not to be in conflict drives some people. This drive leads people to have peace at almost any cost, and thus becomes quite passive in relationships with others.

          The need to get things right in their personal and organizational life drives some people. Such persons experience resentment and anger, for they can never get life quite right. While such persons perpetuate the past through resentment, the persons who hurt them have already gone on with their lives.

          The need to be helpful to those around them, often leading to wanting others to become dependent upon them, drives some people. Pride is often at the root of this drive.

          The need to be successful drives some people, even if it means putting on an act in the presence of others. This need for approval often leads to losing a sense of one's true self by being lost in the crowd.

          Envy drives some people, always longing for a love they can never possess. In fact, this drive leads one to cling to individual things, as if one can get meaning and fulfillment by doing so. Acquiring more becomes the goal of their lives.

          Intellectual knowledge, often acquired in isolation and achieving a position where one can look down upon others, drives some people. Such persons often keep this knowledge to themselves, almost as if they horde this knowledge and refuse to share it with others.

          Fear drives some people, as they seek solidarity with a group in which they think they can trust. Such persons often miss great opportunities in their fear to venture out and take risks. They identify with the status quo of the group, playing it safe when taking a risk may be the reasonable response. Their fear becomes a prison against which they must move with faith.

          Pleasure drives some people, as they avoid pain at all costs.

          Behind such drives exists a core experience of alienation from the gift God intends us to be and from the people in our lives. We experience this alienation as we lose ourselves in being average, melding into the crowd. The crowd becomes a prison from which our true self seeks to liberate itself. We experience this alienation in a core anxiety. A basic trust in the processes of life encourages openness to possible futures. However, core anxiety closes us off from such potential. Guilt is another way the past keeps its hold over the present and blocks us off from a potential future. The transgression of perceived norms for behavior becomes the occasion for guilt.

          Now, the drives that I have mentioned may take self-destructive shapes. We must not forget that our core drive helped us move through childhood and adolescence. Our problem becomes when we live out of drives that are inappropriate as adults in new situations. The good news is that we are not prisoners to our drives. Unlike other living things, we do not have to live our lives simply out of what drives us. We can live our lives out of the future, as we consider the pull of a hope toward a possible future. We want to be faithful to our future self, a self that does not yet exist, but toward which we move.

          We will move toward the best human life that we can lead if we consider this: To what end and for what purpose do we live? We consider that hope by which we will live our lives. Even if we have only a vague awareness of a better future, that which we anticipate becomes a powerful pull toward something of which we are not entirely clear. Such a hope gives meaning to our lives. We want our lives to have some sense of wholeness and integration. We want our lives to make sense. We want even the unpredictable events of our lives to contribute toward some positive end. Once we consider to what end and for what purpose, we gain confidence to make decisions that simplify our lives toward that end. It helps us define what we do and what we will not do. When we have confidence in the end toward which we move, we have a basis for making decisions, allocating time, and using resources. Knowing the end toward which we move focuses our lives by concentrating our effort and energy on what is important. We no longer live lives of aimless distraction. We cannot do everything. We can stop dabbling in many things, and focus our lives on the unique gift God has given us to share in this life. Focusing on sharing this unique gift gives us passion for living. It powerfully motivates our lives.

          Lastly, knowing the end toward which our lives move prepares us for eternity. Most of us have a sense that our temporal lives are carved out of eternity. Our lives are a story we tell to ourselves and to others. As we engage others, we become part of their story, and they become part of our story. We are responsible to each other for the story we tell. However, God is the one to whom we are accountable for our story. We need to discern the unique gift God has given us, share that gift with others, and weave our lives into the story God is telling in the world. Our lives as lived on this earth will not achieve their fullness. The lives we touched continue to tell the story long after we die and long after people forget our names. Eternity is the realm where the fullness and meaning of our lives becomes clear.

          Only two questions remain. Have we aligned ourselves with what God is doing in the world? What have we done with the unique gift that we are?

4. Living in the Light of the Eternal: Death and Beyond

                This life is not all there is.

          I want to be quite clear. God values this life. The process of evolution is long. It took a great deal of time to reach this moment of history. In terms of our individual lives, this biological entity has never existed before and will never exist again. Even if they could exist again, that biological entity would have a different set of experiences that would set it apart. This world is our home. We have a treasure, a unique gift, to share with others. If we follow God's plan, we will love this world in the way that God loves it; we will invest our lives in it the way God has invested in it.

          Yet, we do not grasp or cling to this home as if it alone is our home. Our temporality suggests the eternal, out of which we have carved a brief period in which we live. We need to live our lives in light of eternity. In that way, we learn to value this life properly. We embrace people and life; we live passionately, lovingly, and justly. Yet, we do not cling to relationships, things, or countries, as if our happiness depends upon them ultimately.

          Living from the perspective of eternity changes our values. We learn to use time and material resources wisely. We place a higher premium on relationships and character instead of fame, wealth, success, power, or pleasure. We have a discerning read of the present, refusing to have the pull of what is popular today dictate our lives.

          Reflecting upon suffering and death helps us to consider the limits of a human life. Our hopes and dreams have limits. Sometimes, things beyond our control, such as disease or accidents, bring an end to our plans and goals. We have no option here. Suffering and death constitute a human life. Some people, sadly, have suffering as their lot in life.

          We view our lives as a good. Consequently, we often fear death, even though we do not know what lies beyond. Fear of death may even come from a fear of having wasted the brief time we have here. We want to live longer and healthier, for we think that, given more time, we might use that time better than we did in the time we have had. We regret lost opportunities. We have guilt over what we have failed to accomplish with the time we have had. In fact, one wonders how deeply the fear of death may influence our thought and behavior throughout life, especially if we suppress thinking about death because it is too depressing.

          Yet, reflection upon the end of our lives can cause us to reflect upon eternity, and therefore to reflect upon God. In that sense, any fear of death we have is a holy fear, for it helps us to imagine this world without our presence. What influence will we have had upon those whom we meet who will continue after our bodily life is finished?

          Some people view death as simply part of the biological flow of life. They say it is no big deal.

          I have seen people die well. Death was like a completion of a life well lived.

          We honor the courageous because they willingly face the possibility of death. The police officer, fire fighter, and soldier, know they face the possibility of death in a conscious and intentional way that people in their everyday lives do not. Sacrifice is what the courageous willingly do. They face a fear most of us keep in the background of our lives.

          Suffering and death reminds us of the broken and fragmented character of a human life. Yet, it also motivates much of our behavior. The vision of the suffering and death of others motivates many persons to relieve suffering and discover the causes of what we consider pre-mature death. When others are in danger, the instinct is there to help, if we possibly can. Suffering and death call out of us qualities like that of compassion and generosity toward others.

          Socrates once said that philosophy is the art of learning how to die. Life itself is preparation for the moment of death. We will die. The only question before us is whether we will die well, or dying with regret, guilt, remorse, or resentment.

5. Metaphors For Living

                We have the ability to shape our lives.

          The way we use imagination to envision a possible future influences our future. It influences how we invest time, spend money, use talents, and value relationships.

          Such images are life metaphors. Life is a puzzle; life is a journey; life is a minefield; life is a party; life is a game; life is a battle; life is a race.

          One helpful exercise of the imagination is to reflect upon one's life, consider the pattern one has weaved with one's life, and consider what obvious subtle metaphors have already shaped one's life. We often have family metaphors that shape our lives in tacit ways. We move toward taking responsibility for our lives as we choose the metaphors by which we will live.

          I will suggest three metaphors that I hope prove helpful.

          First, a human life is a test. This metaphor suggests that each person is responsible for his or her life. It also suggests that we are responsible to someone. It suggests that we are agents of history, and not simply shaped by history. The bible often uses words like trials, temptations, refining, and testing. It also tells stories that involve the metaphor of testing. The story of the Garden of Eden contains many metaphors. One is whether Adam and Eve would trust God or trust the serpent. When Abraham began a journey with Isaac that almost ended in the sacrifice of his only son, the text says it was a test of whether Abraham would obey God. Joseph lived in Egypt and experienced a moral test through the wife of Pharaoh. King David failed his test several times. He failed a moral test with Bathsheba and a criminal test with her husband, as he arranged for his death. He failed the test of raising a family, most dramatically with Absalom. Jesus had a test after his baptism that tested the character of his public ministry.

          Jesus made it clear that death can overtake us at any moment.


Luke 17:26 (NRSV)

26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man.

Mark 13:32 (NRSV)

32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Mark 13:34-36 (NRSV)

34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake-for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

Luke 12:35-38 (NRSV)

35 "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

Luke 17:28-30 (NRSV)

28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them 30 -it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.

Luke 13:6-9 (NRSV)

6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' 8 He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.' "


Therefore, we need to lead lives in which we are ready. No matter when the end comes for us, we want to die well. We will pass, in that sense, the various tests of life.

          We reveal our character in the various tests we have in life. Often, such tests are not of our choosing. Few of us like tests. Some tests in school we have had great anxiety in taking. Life thrusts such tests upon us. We will rise to the occasion and pass the test, or we will discover that we could not pass the test. In some cases, failing a test may help us to redirect our lives. Because life tests us, we must not fear to test life. Every human decision has an open-ended character to it. We can revisit every decision and impulse.

          One of the gifts human beings have is to learn from others. This means that, whether we are aware of it or not, we are evaluating the lives of others all the time. Others are evaluating us all the time. Of course, we hope others will listen to our lives and judge generously. We can also hope that we will extend to others the same courtesy. People see how we relate to others, how we do our jobs, what we do in speaking in public, how we raise our children, how we treat our spouses, how we have fun, how we respond in problems, conflicts, and illness, and so on. Such tests often become ways in which life tests our faith, our hope, and our love.

          Our temptation is to think of tests coming in the large decisions we make in life: whom we shall marry, what career to which we commit ourselves, the development of basic beliefs and values, the decision to move to different parts of the country, and so on. These are important tests of character, beliefs, and values. However, life tests us in the routine of each day. How we treat spouse, children, and pets on a daily basis are hints of the kind of person we are and want to become. How we treat others who serve us throughout the day are important tests. How we treat police officers, soldiers, and firefighters suggests the ways in which we value the interconnection of the community and nation. The question is whether we treat others with generosity and kindness.

          The apostle Paul said it quite well.


Romans 14:7-12 (NRSV)

7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written,

"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,

and every tongue shall give praise to God."

12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.


          Second, a human life is a journey with a beginning. The nature of the beginning of life is such that a helpful metaphor is that life is a gift. We spend too little time reflecting upon the life metaphor derived from our physical birth. We do not produce our bodies. We are the product of two persons who came together physically and hopefully with love for each other and for the child to come. The biological base for our lives is in the genetic structure that resulted from the union of others. Genetic structure shapes many aspects of our lives. We need a basic trust that as the processes of life unfold, we will have the resources we need. Our time, energy, intelligence, opportunities, relationships, and resources are all gifts. We are stewards of these gifts. Human ownership is always temporary. A saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas suggests this same theme: "Become passersby." Jesus told a parable illustrating this dimension of life. We often refer to it as the parable of the talents.


Matthew 25:14-27 (NRSV)

14 "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.


Such a story reminds us of the importance of investing what gifts we have. Further, hoarding such gifts does not lead to fullness of life. Each of us is a gift. The question life poses is whether we will offer the gift that we are to others. If we commit ourselves to do this, we will discover a meaningful and full life. However, if we do not share the gift we are, we selfishly hold it within. We do not give others the benefit of the gift that we are. We deny to others a gift that may benefit their lives and assist them in their journey of life.

          The business side of the parable is quite appropriate. How we manage our money is an apt sign of how we manage our lives. The priorities we have with the use of financial resources suggest the core beliefs and values that guide our lives. For many of us, the greatest test we face in life is how use our financial resources.

          Third, a human life is a journey with an end. Life is temporary, brief, and transient. Jesus told a parable that relates to this metaphor.


Luke 12:16-21 (NRSV)

16 "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' 18 Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' 20 But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."


Among the most important decisions any of us will make is how attached we become to this world. When we realize how brief the journey is, we can treat this life with the seriousness it deserves, realizing that the only home this body will have is here. God loves this world. To live with God in this world is to love this world with the same love that God has for this world. We will not receive another chance. Yet, we also realize that we need to hold this world somewhat lightly in our minds and hearts. Realizing the temporary nature of human life helps us not to cling to this life.

          The fullness of the meaning of our lives is beyond this world. The full significance of our lives will unfold long after we die. This is what religion calls eternity. In that sense, our eternal home is beyond the home we have on this earth. This awareness opens us to freedom, creativity, and risk. This world can become a prison or trap, as we bind ourselves to the wealth, power, fame, and prestige that it values. We become a prisoner to the opinions and evaluations of the culture in which we live. A vision of eternity helps us to place our culture in perspective. We practice the capacity we have to reflect upon ourselves, as well as the family system, community, and culture that shaped us. We do not know the nature of that eternal home. What we do know is that if we become too attached to this world, we will adopt the values of this world. We will want to receive the fame, power, wealth and status that this world offers. Such dedication will often lead us down a path that we eventually discover is self-destructive. We discover that, no matter what we achieve, we never achieve enough. No matter how many people love us, it is never enough. We have longing, desire, and hope that no degree of fulfillment in this world will satisfy. Satisfaction with what we do, think, and feel here does not satisfy us because human life is oriented beyond this life. In fact, this is why people will sacrifice this life. Some of our fellow citizens will rush into burning buildings, move toward criminals, and fight as soldiers for the freedoms we enjoy, because they value something more than longevity on this earth.

          Paul said in I Corinthians 13: 8, "Love never ends." Most cemeteries have many persons long since dead. They may go back three, four or five generations. They loved. Others loved them. In most cases, no one alive today remembers them or their love. In that sense, love has ended. Yet, the love they shared continues in subtle, unknown ways in the lives of the people they touched, and then the lives that group of people touched, and so on. What Paul said is true if we consider eternity. That means God is the one who preserves love long after we die.

          Frankly, it takes faith, hope, and love to live on earth. Such qualities open us to a possible future. Without such qualities, we close ourselves from imagining a possible future, and simply collapse into the present. Moving forward in life with anticipation opens us to undiscovered potential in ourselves, in others, in the community, in the nation, and in the world. The stories we tell with our lives continue well beyond death.

6. Moving Toward the Glory of God

          Everything reflects the glory of God at some level. Everything bears the image of God. A trace of the divine is present in the world, including nature and human civilization.

          Yet, everything is also moving toward completion of what God intended. This means the fullness of creation, and the fullness of human life, lies ahead of us. We cannot look backward to some perfect time humanity fell from or an ideal to recover. We look forward to the new world toward which God leads us.

          God has seen some value in this process. God has made creation in such a way that it does not have its completion in the past or present, but in a future or destiny of which we can only gain hints and clues today. We are not sure of the end. Faith, hope, and love move us toward that end. The patience of God to work with independent creation and independent human beings to move toward an end that God desires demonstrates the importance of each individual in the web of relationships to move the universe toward that end. God honors each individual and the choices he or she makes. Among the many tragedies of human history is that human beings have not honored individuals as much as God has done.

          Christians have come to see in Jesus Christ the glory of God. Human beings do not have to guess what God is like. We look to Jesus, whom Christians view as the Son, the Logos, and the Wisdom of God. Paul and John make this Christian understanding of Jesus clear.


Colossians 1:15-20 (NRSV)

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.


John 1:1-5, 10-14, 16-18 (NRSV)

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.


Although the church did not officially develop its teaching on the Trinity until after the New Testament, the core of that teaching is here. For Christians, an essential or ontological difference does not exist between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The New Testament struggles to express a new vision of who God is. God never existed in isolation. God never had the experience of loneliness. The oneness and unity of God consists in the fellowship of the Trinity. The Father created through the Son and gives life through the Spirit. This granting of independent existence and life is an invitation on the part of God for others to join in this divine fellowship. This divine fellowship honors the difference between Father, Son, and Spirit, while also honoring their divine unity. In the same way, human community recognizes the bond that unites human beings with each other and with the rest of creation, while at the same time honors the individuality of creation and of each human being.

          St. Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." This suggests that bringing glory and honor to God involves a human life lived fully, abundantly, and meaningfully. Living one's life toward the best human life we can lead is what brings honor and glory to God.

          I now want to become a bit more specific. In what does a full human life consist?

          First, worship brings us closer to a full life. Worship involves finding enjoyment beyond self and others and finding it in God. It involves loving God fully. It involves investing our lives in the intention God has for us.

          Second, fellowship with other Christians brings us closer to a full life. Human beings need a sense of belonging. We need to learn how to love others, and a good place to do that is the church. Frankly, Christians can be difficult to love. The church is a good place to test our ability to love difficult people. We also learn to work with a community of persons, some with whom we disagree.

          Third, becoming increasingly like Christ brings us closer to a full life. We learn how to think, feel, and act throughout life. To learn to do so in a way that reflects what God is doing in the world, we need to give ourselves time to become like Christ. This does not automatically occur. God demonstrated patience with creation by allowing it develop through 15-20 billion years of evolution. In the same way, the grace of God starts forming us at birth and carries us through to the end of the journey.

          Fourth, sharing the gift that we are with others brings us closer to a full life. The unique set of talents, gifts, skills, and abilities that we are God intends for us to share along the journey of life. The giftedness that we are is a story that we open ourselves to others and tell. In the same way, others share their unique story with us.

          Fifth, sharing our life and love with others directs others to the God we worship and serve. Our lives are not about directing others to us, but to God.

          To what end and for what purpose? Why will we live our lives? I will present the response of one Christian to these questions. Few questions are more important for us to take time to ask and to answer. You may not come to the same conclusion to which I have come. However, I invite you to take this journey with me. Even if in the end you disagree, maybe something I say along the way can nourish you along this part of your journey.


II. Considering the Center of our Lives: A Life-style of Living in the Presence of God

7. The Care God Shows to All

          God has great care for each individual.

          We only need to look at the amount of time it has taken for us to exist to appreciate what it means for us to exist in this time and place. If the reader is a Christian, then the conversion of an intricate web of persons and occasions came together to bring you to Christian life. When we fully appreciate this, we never need to have a problem with feeling insignificant. It shows our worth. We are that important to God. We are so valuable that God wants to spend eternity with us.

          Further, God wants us to enjoy life, not just endure it. As persons made in the image of God, our capacity to experience joy and happiness reflects whom God is.

          Divine life in the bible includes feelings: joy, grief, anger, love, jealousy, and regret. God is deeply involved and can receive wounds. God actually suffers because of the prior decision God made to love. God is open to the world and shares in its suffering because of love. The metaphor of the relation between God and Israel in this view is that of the family. It is the relationship between parent and child, husband and wife. Human emotions reflect the inner experience of God. Hosea saw that the anguish his troubled marriage brought him was a mirror of the divine sorrow. The sorrow of Hosea found an echo in the sorrow of God. God is involved in and stirred by the conduct and fate of human beings. The parable of the prodigal son is another case in point. Although the father pardons the son, the point is that the father receives him back into the family with the full rights of sonship. The father forgives his sins. However, most prominent is the embrace of the father. Although the son does not receive punishment, the point is that he receives a warm welcome from a loving parent. Although he no longer has charges hanging over his head, the point is that he becomes part of a loving family again. God becomes a passionate lover of humanity.

          Human beings have a tendency to invest themselves in something they view as larger than themselves. The core religious experience is awareness that the infinite and eternal embraces the temporal and spatial limits that consist of our lives. This vague awareness of "something" frustrates the scientist, who wants to pin everything down to identifiable quantities. It sounds mystical and mythical. Yet, without this awareness in human experience, religion would not exist.

          Unfortunately, human beings have great confusion about the nature of the divine and what the divine asks of us. In pre-modern societies, people worshipped the divine realm by sacrificing their children, killing the enemy in the name of the gods, postulated the existence of many gods, and used magic to gain access to the realm of the divine. In modern societies, individuals often simply invest themselves in trying to possess enough things, receive enough fame, grab for enough power, or simply meld into the crowd. We may invest ourselves in the political and economic life of the community or nation. Sadly, we try to gain eternal and infinite happiness through the finite and temporal. We cling to that which passes away, instead of investing ourselves into what is eternal. Yet, we will not find satisfaction until we start holding lightly this world and appreciate it in the context of the eternal. I would like to call this turn toward God worship.

8. Pleasing God

          Pleasing God is the reason why we are here.

          Writing like this makes me somewhat uncomfortable. My discomfort is that some of us have had teachers and parents whom we could never please. Consequently, writing as I intend to do about pleasing God may create unnecessary anxiety. Yet, God is not waiting for us to mature in order to love us. God already loves us fully and completely. God loves the human life we lead, and thus with our weaknesses and sins as well as our strengths and goodness. God loves each stage of life through which we move toward death and eternity. We lead a human life, and God loves it all. One image from Kierkegaard may help. He thought of worship as a time when the congregation and preacher were on stage, and God was in the audience. We worship to an audience of one, who looks upon the heart. The things that bring us pleasure are important. Even pleasing others can be important. Yet, of even greater importance are the things that bring God pleasure. Do our lives bring pleasure God?

          In the matter of Christian worship today, we often engage each other in debate about the style of worship that honors God. Christian worship is not about style. Our style of worship says more about who we are than who God is. It may say more about our personal histories and personalities than what pleases God. That is why the style of worship becomes so important to us. When we worship in ways that are meaningful to us, we grow attached to them. We invest ourselves in them. Yet, God is far larger than any style of worship. Worship is a form of life, directing attention away from oneself and toward Christ. Christian worship is nothing more than doing everything we do for Jesus. In that sense, we can clean the house, care for children, work for a boss during the day, become involved in the community, as acts of worship. As Martin Luther put it, "A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God." Anything we do can become an act of worship if we do it with an awareness of the presence of Christ. We might think of worship as falling in love with Jesus, and then living our lives in love with Jesus.

          Worship is not about us. Musical notes are not Christian or non-Christian. Although all music can bring glory to God, specifically Christian music that conveys the Christian message is one that has words. The lyrics are what provide specifically Christian content to the music. The Hebrew people often adopted tunes from Canaanite worship, and then turned them into psalms for worship, as testified by the musical direction, "to the tune of" in Psalms. Many bible scholars will refer to hymns quoted in the New Testament. The words determine whether the song is specifically Christian. Any tune will do.

          What we want our form of life to do is bring joy, happiness, and pleasure to God. This does not mean that we earn a relationship with God. It does mean that the emotional response of God to the way we live becomes important to us.

          To what end and for what purpose is the question. The simplest answer is: to please God. I would like to suggest a few ways that Christians approach the matter of how we lead a form of life that pleases God.

          First, we please God by loving God. A scribe asked Jesus about the two greatest commandments. His response was:


Mark 12:29-30 (NRSV)

29 Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'


God wants fellowship with each of us. God already values each of us. God cares for each part of creation. That caring means God cares for you as a reader of this text and for me as a writer. God already loves us fully. God wants us to return that love.  

          Second, we please God when we trust God with our lives. A core anxiety threatens many of our lives. We rarely open up to other people or to God because we have lost the ability to believe, to trust, that life has what we need to survive and thrive. Trust means recognizing that God wants for us what we want for ourselves, namely, the best human life we can lead. Trust means that no matter what the circumstances, God will help us with the problems we face and the barriers we must overcome.

          Third, we please God when we obey. The bible provides some broad guidelines about the kinds of persons we are to be: the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the list of virtues and vices are worth meditation and embedding in our lives. They will help us to lead lives that please God. Yet, many areas are quite complex in terms of how we apply such principles to a modern society. Such a form of life requires wise and discerning reading of the biblical text as well as a read of modern times. I like the way Paul phrased it:


Romans 12:1-2 (NRSV)

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.


Such texts remind us of how careful we need to be when discerning the will and purpose of God. We have minds that need daily renewal, so that we can discern the will of God. God seems to respect our individuality enough that God engages us in this daily transformation. This is the way we grow and learn what God wants of us. We might consider that the process many believers go through of arguing with God is part of the process we go through as human beings to reach a place where we are confident in what God may ask of us. In particular, we may sense that God wants us to do or say something that is out of our zone of comfort. We may argue with God for a while before we have confidence that this is what God wants. Further, we must always be careful that what we think is genuinely what God wants, and not simply what we want, with an exclamation mark after it.

          Fourth, we please God when we give thanks. Each of us has received many gifts. The fact that we are present in this world means that we are not here of our own accord. We had help in getting to the place we are in life. If we have no inclination to give thanks for what we have and who we are, we still live under the delusion that life is all about us. A reporter asked one actor if he resented the character with whom the public identified him. The man replied that he was grateful for the character, for the character opened many doors in his life that would never have opened were it nor for the character. Another actor simply said he did not want others to know him as that character for the rest of his life. Which actor had a grateful heart?

          Fifth, we please God when we use our abilities. Every human activity can give praise to God and can please God. We can wash dishes, repair a machine, sell a product, write a computer program, grow a crop, and raise a family, for the glory of God. God has given each individual many gifts to share. Like the parable of the talents, we dare not hide our gifts. God has given us such gifts to share with others. In fact, we are the gift that others need. If we are not that gift authentically, if we withhold who we are, others do not receive the benefit of the gift that that we are and that God intended. We discover such gifts as we pay attention to the things that bring joy to us. We have eyes to enjoy beauty, ears to enjoy sounds, a nose to enjoy smells, a tongue to enjoy taste, and nerves to enjoy touch. This aesthetic dimension to our lives reminds us of the richness of human experience. We discover our gifts as we discover the places of full and genuine enjoyment.

9. True Worship and the Center of our Lives

          The form of life centered in worship is one of submission.

          Submission is not a popular word. We might infer unpleasant images of admitting defeat in battle, forfeiting a game, or yielding to a stronger opponent. Human beings are so competitive anyway. The way of submission is hardly a natural way for us to choose. Yet, if we are to have a life centered in worship, our response is one of submission. We give our lives to God out of an awareness of the grace and love of God for us and out of our love for God. I like the way Paul puts it:


Romans 12:1-2 (NRSV)

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.


True, genuine, and authentic worship is making ourselves an offering to God. This offering is an act of submission. Various Christian traditions have had names for this form of life: sanctification, consecrated, and being filled with the Spirit come to mind. The experience behind such terms suggests the need for human beings to open themselves fully to God.

          One of the puzzling dimensions of human experience is that we often see things quite clearly in one area of our lives, and can be quite blind or weak in another area of our lives. I might suggest the image of various compartments of our lives. One of the realities of leading a human life is that we cannot deal with every compartment in a single moment. We do not practice equally and across the board all that we know to be right and true. This inconsistency is part of what maturing in life is all about. In addition, this is why we need human community. Some things that are inconsistent in our lives we do not see, but others see quite well. If we have honest fellowship with them, they will help us see the inconsistency, and we will listen and learn. Some inconsistent areas of our lives only we know. Maturity involves meditation and reflection in such a way as to bring such areas of our lives into harmony with the person we desire to be. Yet, other dimensions of our lives are not in focus to others or us. We remain mysteries to ourselves. Some compartments of our lives we lack the maturity to notice they are there. Yet, they continue to influence our lives in subtle and surprising ways. Maturing in Christian living involves allowing God to influence every compartment of our lives.

          Yet, I might suggest three rather common reasons we might have for not practicing a life of submission to God.

          One is our fear. Submission to God involves an unknown future. We often have the suspicion that God will ask us to do something that we do not want to do. Of course, many testimonies in Christian history suggest that people do sense God leading them in ways they would not naturally have gone. Yet, God is not a slave driver or bully. God seeks to win us to what God wants, more like a lover seeking the one loved. God is a lover and a liberator. The paradox of life with God is that we find our true freedom in submitting to what God wants. Living out of the true self God intended us to be, offering the unique gift that we are, is where we find the authentic life God wants us to lead. We find such freedom in submission. The more we let God influence every part of our lives, the more we become our true self. In a rather strange way, when we turn our attention away from ourselves and toward Christ, we become more of the true self God intended. We might consider this as self-development by indirection. Rather than focusing upon self, we focus upon others and upon Christ, and in the process become the unique and gifted self that God made.

          Two is pride, or our failure to admit our limitations. Too often, we construct the illusion that we are in charge. Much of the stress in modern life we can trace back to this desire to be in control. Instead of having some contentment with a human life, we anxiously manipulate life to come around to the way we want it. Our irritation, anger, and resentment are often the result of a failure to trust our lives to God. Not knowing the future, we try to manipulate it in the present. Yet, many aspects of our lives are beyond our control, for other persons have their will, dreams, and goals. We depend upon the cooperation of others to accomplish our hopes and dreams. Failing to recognize such a limit brings us to the place of arrogance and pride. We want to have it all. When we notice that other persons have qualities we need, instead of reaching out to them for help, we respond with envy, jealousy, and self-pity.

          Three is confusion over what a life of submission means. Most importantly, we do not give up our thinking when we submit our lives to God. Some translations put Romans 12:1 that offering ourselves to God is our "reasonable service." If we want to lead the best human life we can lead, we need to be at a point of submission to what God wants. In fact, we enrich and enliven our thinking when we orient our lives toward God. We begin to see things that need changing in our lives, in our communities, and in our world. We begin to consider prayerfully ways in which we can use our gifts to help bring such changes. Abraham needed to make a change in his life. The text in Genesis 12 says that God told him to go to a land that God would show to him. Such trust involves embarking upon a journey in which we do not know the precise destination. This story is a good parable of a human life. We make goals and plans, we have a vision, and yet, they need to have an open quality to them. Fulfillment of our plans often means some flexibility in the details. Further, we may need to have the vision continually refined by life experience. This form of trust leads away from manipulation and toward trust in what God is doing in the lives of others as well as one's own life.

          The prayer of submission as recorded by Mark is a wonderful example of what submission can mean in our lives.


          Mark 14:35-36 (NRSV)

35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want."


We learn here that even a cross can accomplish a purpose of God that we may not understand in the present. Our temptation is to make this a special case, because of the theology of the cross developed by Paul. Yet, as a human experience, we discover that suffering, problems, pain, and sickness, are part of the plan of God to change the world. They had better be, for there is so much of it in human life. I would suggest that although God does not will or plan it, suffering is part of a human life, and God is able to use all suffering to bring to humanity the wholeness and healing that God wants to bring.

          A form of life we center in worship, and therefore in submission to God, is one that brings peace and power into our lives.  We recover a basic sense of trust that life already provides to us the resources to survive and thrive in it. We do not need to manipulate behind the scenes to get what we want. Frankly, what we want may not be very great, for ourselves, for the church, for the organization in which we work, for our community, or for our nation. We need to engage others, and have openness to them, for they may have the better idea. The greatest hindrance to leading the best human life we can lead does not lie outside of us. Rather, it lays within our patterns of thinking and relating to others. We have responsibility for our lives.

          We discover new levels and dimensions of our lives that have not come under the influence of Christ. We keep discovering places in our lives that need the healing and strengthening presence of Christ. Such a life may call us to do things inconvenient, unpopular, costly, or seemingly impossible. Yet, such are the challenges of a life lived in harmony with what God wants.

10. Becoming Best Friends with God

          God wants to be our best friend.

          Theologically, God as creator, preserver, and consummator of creation and human history are powerful themes. Philosophically, notions such as omnipotence and omniscience are important. Yet, when it comes to nurturing our individual relationship with God, we need to come to terms with how profoundly God values each of us. One of the best ways to experience this truth is to understand that God wants to be our best friend. We catch a glimpse into this truth in Genesis 3:8, where Adam and Eve "heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze." The intention God had was to have this intimate communion and fellowship with us. The fact that Adam and Eve hid themselves from God is the problem humanity faces. In hiding from God, we hide from our true self. We hide from authentic relationships with others. Yet, God wants us to embark upon the journey of our lives with God as our best friend. We find this in the observation contained in Proverbs 3:32b, where the upright are in the confidence or friendship of the Lord. We also have the assurance in James 4:8 that if draw close to God, God will draw close to us. We need to learn how to develop such a relationship. We find a rather powerful image of this relationship in John's approach to the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples.


John 15:12-15 (NRSV)

12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.


The church is a community of people who desire to be friends of God. Creator and creature, master and slave, father and child, are familiar metaphors for the human relationship to God. However, we need to explore what it might mean if we would take Jesus seriously here and become friends with God.

          First, becoming a friend of God involves conversation. We share our lives with God. We do this in times of private devotion and study. We can also view the rest of the day as part of our on-going conversation with God. Everything we do is spending time with God, for God is wherever we are. The most menial tasks of the day become part of our conversation with God. Given the scheduled nature of modern life, we may feel as if we need to get away from the daily routine in order to worship God. Yet, a life style of worship recognizes that God is in the daily routine as well as in times of focused meditation and reflection. Far from suggesting that we make a choice between them, I suggest that we need a balance of these perspectives. Further, prayer does not need to be long discourses that we make to God. Our prayer may be quite short and focused. Brother Lawrence, in Practicing the Presence of God, advised:


I do not advise you to use a great multiplicity of words in prayer, since long discourses are often the occasions for wandering.


Even short sentence prayers may help us to focus mind and heart. The point of such prayer is not a feeling, but openness to what God wills and intends. Prayer transforms us to the mind of God. We learn to see the world as God sees it. Sadly, people often use prayer as a way to escape from the world. Genuinely Christian prayer draws us into the world. It plunges us into life. It forms a new hear. It gives us new eyes. We become in this world expressions of the love God has for this world. We become the hands of the God we have discovered.

          Second, becoming a friend of God involves meditation. One way to think of meditation is as a form of focused thinking. It involves taking one's time of study or devotion and making it a matter of focused thinking and reflection. In a negative sense, we do this when we worry. We will take a problem and become obsessed about it to the point of distraction. We do this when we harbor resentment. We take a hurt that someone has brought to us, and we have focused thinking upon it. We meditate in a negative sense more than we know. Yet, we can turn this tendency of focused thinking toward God. That is the purpose of meditation. Luke has a wonderful image of this experience. After rehearsing several incidents that occurred in the youth of Jesus, he says in Luke 2:51, "His mother treasured all these things in her heart." We need to be alert to all the ways that God speaks to us: in services of worship, in reading good books, in conversation with others throughout the day, in reading the bible, and so on. We then need to treasure those words. We do not develop sermons to God for our time of prayer. We need to care enough to listen and reflect. Such a meditation is an occasion for renewing the mind day by day.

          Third, becoming friends with God involves authenticity. This means sharing hopes and fears, successes and failures. Jesus is a friend of sinners, as Matthew 11:19 suggests. Many figures in the bible complain, second-guess accuse, and argue with God. God does not seem bothered by this. Abraham questioned and challenged God over the destruction of the city of Sodom. He pestered God over what it would take to spare the city, negotiating God down from fifty righteous people to only ten. One wonders what would have happened if he had argued God down to one righteous man, namely, Lot. Many Psalms accused God of unfairness, betrayal, and abandonment. Jeremiah said God had tricked him. Job vented his bitterness during his ordeal. In the end, God defended Job and rebuked the friends of Job for their accusations against God. God told Moses he would destroy Israel because of its disobedience in the wilderness, and make a new nation out of Moses. However, Moses complained about all the work that had gone into bringing the people this far, and wonders if God will continue to travel with them. Authenticity is important, even when we challenge God. In fact, precisely at the point of our deepest questions is where our greatest spiritual growth may come. We need to share with God what we think and feel, not what we think we ought to feel or say. We may need to share with God some hidden anger and resentment for certain areas of our lives where we have felt cheated or disappointed. We can harbor resentment toward God over our physical appearance, background, unanswered prayers, past hurts, and other things we would like to change. People often blame God for hurts caused by others. This hidden separation from God is a basic barrier to our spiritual growth. It leads to bitterness, the greatest barrier to friendship with God. Why would I want to be friends with God when God allows the suffering and evil in the world that God allows? Why would I want to be friends with God when the presence of God seems so hidden in this world? Several of the books of the bible are helpful in this regard. One is Psalms, in which people pour out the full range of human emotion. Another is Job, in which the rage expressed at suffering and evil is a challenge. Ecclesiastes expresses the meaningless character of human life when the presence of God is not so obvious in daily life. Doubt and anger are just as important as faith and peace in our friendship with God.

          Fourth, becoming friends with God involves trust and obedience. Taking steps of faith, trusting the wisdom of the biblical text in shaping our lives and helping us becoming the persons God wants, are important elements of our friendship with God. Taking such steps of faith does not mean relinquishing our intelligence or rationality. In developing relationships, trust is an important ingredient. We extend ourselves toward others in order to develop friendships, even when we do not yet know if the relationship will work. Such steps of faith are important with God as well. The biblical text is important because, if we are not careful, we will have only an internal dialogue. Rather, the apostolic witness engages us in a relationship with one genuinely other than us. We enter into relationship with Christ through the apostolic witness because we love him. We know that God through Christ wants the best for us. I grant that some Christians may obey out of fear of the punishment of Hell. Yet, most Christians mature to a point where they obey and trust out of love. The freedom Christ brings, and sense of belonging to the family of God, are sufficient for maturing this love. Of course, the Gospel of John suggests that Jesus has come to do the will of his Father. In doing so, he becomes the model for all Christian living. The biblical text offers many challenging and comforting actions that reflect Christian living. One could refer to the Sermon on the Mount and beatitudes in Matthew 5-7. One could also refer to I Corinthians 13, Romans 12-15, and Ephesians 4-6. Other passages offer lists of virtues and vices. The point is that living a life of faith and obedience is trust in this biblical wisdom for living.

          Fifth, becoming friends with God involves adopting the values God values. We learn to value what God wants in our individual lives and what God wants in the world. We learn to care about what God cares about, weep about what God weeps about, and rejoice over what brings joy to God. God wants lost people to be found. God wants the healing work of the Spirit to work its way through humanity. God wants the reconciling work of Christ to have its effect in all human community. As friends of God, we become involved in the things about which God cares. We share in the love God has for the world.

          Sixth, becoming friends with God involves desiring that friendship above everything else. The devotional tradition calls this longing, yearning, thirsting, and hungering. It suggests that meaning and purpose of human life embeds itself firmly in us. We cannot escape this hunger. It constitutes who we are. We will not be happy or fulfilled unless we find our true self through this friendship. Such a friendship is not an accident. It involves intentionality. We may have times when Christianity feels more like a duty or habit. Well, duty and habit are important. Our struggles with God and with the Christian community may well be the stimulus we need to develop our relationship with God. The problems we face will either erect the barrier with God or become occasions of growing deeper in our relationship with God. We need to persevere even in such situations. The objective is not living with warm feelings all the time. The objective is a life transformed by friendship with God.

          Among the most difficult aspects of friendship with God is that God is not a separate object in the world to which we relate. We develop our relationship throughout the various dimensions and relationship we already have. Friendship with God orients us toward proper ends for which God has designed us. We work out this friendship through maturing in all the relationships we have. The question is whether we will make friendship with God the ordering principle or center of our lives.

11. Worship That Pleases God

          The shema of Israel may well have guided the ministry of Jesus in ways we may not immediately recognize.


Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NRSV)

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.


Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (NRSV)

13 If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; 15 and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. 16 Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, 17 for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.

18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.


Numbers 15:37-41 (NRSV)

37 The Lord said to Moses: 38 Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. 39 You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. 40 So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. 41 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.


What would it mean if we loved God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength? What would it mean if God had all of us?

          Our worship needs to be true. The Samaritan woman in John 4 had to admit that the Samaritans did not worship truly when they worshipped at Mt. Gerizim. The Jewish people worshipped truly in Jerusalem. This means that we do not worship simply anyone or anything we want. We live in a multi-religious context. We need to examine the truth claims of the various religions that we encounter. Our greatest danger is that we will worship a god we create, instead of the God who has turned toward us and shown us what God is like. Christians believe God has made this turn toward humanity in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we discover what God is like.

          Our worship needs to be authentic. Worship needs to express who we are before God, and what we desire to be. We do not allow others to determine our response in worship, but rather respond to God. We get our minds off our interests and worries, as well as what others think of us, and move us toward God. In the bible, worship involves confession, singing, shouting, standing, kneeling, dancing, making noise, testifying, musical instruments, and raising hands.  Many worship styles reflect personality more than theology. In the history of the church, people have worshipped in many ways. Naturalists receive inspiration in nature, intellectuals receive inspiration through study and reading, enthusiasts receive inspiration through singing and enjoying fellowship, traditionalists receive inspiration through ritual, ascetics receive inspiration through solitude, sensates receive inspiration through dancing and creating art, caregivers receive inspiration through serving others, activists receive inspiration through confronting evil, and contemplatives love God through meditation and adoration. Further, submission to styles of worship that we may not like may be the stimulation we need to grow in other areas of our lives. Diversity in worship style is a trait of this generation. Yet, if we are not careful, being in a worship style we like all the time may become a barrier to our spiritual growth. Openness to styles with which we are uncomfortable shows some spiritual maturity. However, we also need to be careful to not try to become something we are not.

          Our worship needs to be thoughtful. Worship needs to engage the mind. Worship can become little more than cliché. We can experiment with other words. We can be specific in the things for which we praise God today. The different names of God can become clues to differing characteristics of God for which we need to offer praise. Corporate worship needs to stimulate thought. Our worship also needs to be understandable to the person enquiring or seeking, as well as to the mature in faith.

          Our worship needs to be practical. Paul encourages us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices in Romans 12:1. The human world is an embodied one. We can do nothing without the body. In the same way, we cannot worship God without the body. We cannot exalt God and self at the same time. Worship directs our attention toward God. The focus is off self. If God is to receive all of us, it takes effort and energy. It is not always convenient or comfortable. We do not always feel like it.

12. Our Quarrel with God

          Feeling does not determine the nature of our relationship with God. One of the characteristics of feeling and emotion is their changeable nature according to circumstances. Feeling is not a reliable guide for any relationship. However, feeling is an indicator or clue to which we need to listen.

          One of the maturing dimensions of any relationship is what happens when the relationship becomes a struggle. Often, this occurs when the relationship faces a challenge, and the two friends must face the challenge of working together to solve it. In such times, the relationship will strengthen or weaken. I have seen the faith of some people destroyed by trial and suffering. I have seen the faith of others matured and deepened through suffering.

          We often have false expectations of what a friendship with God will bring into our lives. Life is not easy for anyone. In fact, living in friendship with God may drive a wedge in some of our relationships. Life can become more difficult as one matures in friendship with God.

          One does not feel connected to God or properly centered all the time. Worship can be quite difficult when Christian living seems little more than habit, ritual, and going through the motions. Times of dryness, doubt, and separation are hardly welcome experiences. When God seems distant, we need to pay attention to what the experience means for us at this stage in our journey through life and with God.

          The Psalms of lament often address this sense of the absence of God. Although I could choose many, here is one lament.


Psalm 22:1-2 (NRSV)

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

and by night, but find no rest.


Job has a similar experience of the absence of God.


Job 23:8-12 (NRSV)

8 "If I go forward, he is not there;

or backward, I cannot perceive him;

9 on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;

I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.

10 But he knows the way that I take;

when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.

11 My foot has held fast to his steps;

I have kept his way and have not turned aside.

12 I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;

I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.


God does not leave. In fact, we often speak in spatial terms when such terms are hardly adequate. Theologically, God is always present everywhere. Theologians call this omnipresence. God may appear as missing in action to us. In reality, God is present, even if in a hidden way, and certainly not in the way we expect or desire. We often seek a particular experience of God. When that experience does not occur, we often seek another church or community that might generate that experience for us. We may also turn inward and wonder what is wrong with us.

          Our frustration with God often occurs because we want God to step into this human life and deliver us or protect us from the actions of other human beings. The supreme example is the holocaust that gave rise to WWII. Many people who study this event come away wondering whether we can legitimately speak of the presence of God in this world when God did not stop such a terrible event from occurring. Our expectation is that we want God to deliver us from ourselves.

          Such frustration occurs on a personal level as well. We may face disease, loss of job, the deterioration of marriage, the rebellion of children, and feel as if God should step in and resolve our problems.

          Such frustration occurs as we reflect upon life together as well. The failure of the Christian community to be what God intends may cause us to wonder about the presence of God. Concerns for the nation may cause us to wonder as well.

          During times of frustration with the way God acts in the world, the challenge is whether we will allow such experiences to draw us into a maturing friendship with God, or whether the experience will alienate us from God, and often from life. Our immaturity demands certain feelings and emotions. Our maturity leads us to connecting with life and with God at levels beyond clinging to certain feelings. Such situations will lead to abandoning faith or growing in faith.

          Growing in faith will require honesty with self and with God about our frustration with God. God can handle our anger, doubt, fear, grief, confusion, and questions. One of the interesting things about the laments in the Psalms is that the authors sense their distance from God and bring that sense to God in prayer. They ask God not to be absent or distant and to come help them in their time of trouble. They allowed the sense of distance to be an occasion for prayer.

          Growing in faith will require remembering who God is. One such statement that reflects the dominant theme in the Old Testament is from Exodus 34:6-7. It refers to God as merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, and forgiving sin. Walter Bruegemann suggests that the core testimony of Israel is that God creates, makes promises, delivers and redeems, commands, and leads. In the New Testament, we have the simple statement that God is love. In times of our struggle with God, we need to remember such truths.

          Growing in faith requires trusting in God when we do not know the next step to take. Our changing circumstances do not change the character of God. As we continue to meditate upon biblical texts, read, study, attend public worship, participate in bible studies, we will find God working and acting in ways we did not expect.

          Growing in faith means remembering what God has already done in extending love, grace, and forgiveness, in the gift of the Son. The narratives of the passion in the four gospels are reminders that life was not easy for Jesus. The suffering experienced in abandonment by friends, torture from government, the ridicule of religious leaders, and ultimately awaiting the shameful death upon the cross, is not something most modern people will experience. The ways of God in the world mystify us. Why does God not act to deliver Jesus from the cross? Why does God not deliver you from terrible circumstances? I have no answers. I suspect that if God were to keep acting and delivering in the way we want, this human world would no longer exist. I can only conclude that God loves this human world enough to work in it in such a way that it remains a human world. Yet, this human world has traces of divine influence. God has not left this human world alone. What God seems to want is for human beings to become friends of God, to work with God, and to join God in the plan God has for the world and in the plan God has for our lives. The way is not easy. The way is one of healing, reconciliation, and wholeness. For me, that is enough.


III. Considering Community: A Life-style with Others Who Share Christian Ends

13. The Importance of Christian Community

          We are social creatures. We need a family to nurture and train us. The family and local community have important roles in shaping us as persons who relate to society. In American society, this means appreciating the rights of citizenship, the need to find work that brings a degree of satisfaction as well as financial stability, involvement in improving communal life, and raising a family. Our involvement in voting, civic and religious organizations, schools, forming a family, and finding an occupation, constitute our tacit approval of American society. Through such interactions we form moral character and personality. Our communal interactions have a profound influence upon the kind of persons we become. We derive sense of self through our interactions in human community.

          God wants us in a Christian community, so that the person we become is increasingly like Christ. The New Testament states clearly that God is love. This suggests that God treasures relationships. The Christian view of God is relational. The Trinity is the Christian way of talking about the oneness of God as relational - Father, Son, and Spirit. God has never been lonely. God has never needed to create something other than God in order to love and enjoy community. God has always been the loving relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. God chose or willed to create.

          As Father, God is the universal source of all living things, and in particular, of humanity. In that sense, every human being is a child of God. The potential exists within every human being to fulfill the purpose for which God has designed him or her. Therefore, every person we meet has a connection to us, in that we share the same Father and are part of the same family. This is an important dimension of the respect we owe to every human being. Every human being has worth and dignity because we are part of the same family.

          Yet, we need to become part of the family of God in a second way, a second birth, if you will. This invitation is universal. For the Christian, we recognize in Jesus the reflection of God and the reflection of what God intends for humanity. We see in Jesus, in a provisional or proleptic way, both who God is and the future toward which God moves humanity. We will not truly discover this plan of God for humanity, and for our individual lives, until we open ourselves in trust to God as shown in Jesus Christ. Faith is always a risk. Yet, some truths in life do not reveal themselves to us until we make a commitment to them. For example, we may never discover a warm and lasting friendship until we open ourselves in trust, and until that person becomes open as well. The pastor of church will never know if this church will be a fulfilling place of ministry without taking risks. Leaders of the church will need to embrace the new pastor with some trust in the direction the pastor seeks to lead. One will never know love in marriage without taking the risk of opening one's life to another. Personal trust is also important for our relationship with God. Until we open ourselves to God, as God has disclosed to us who God is through Jesus, we will never know the plan God has for us. God is not just a reflection of what we want. In fact, if the God we worship simply confirms beliefs and values we already possess, we have an idol, rather than the true God. The challenge is to lay our lives beside the biblical text, and especially the New Testament, and allow the text to speak an alien word, a challenging word, to us.

          When we are part of the family of God in this second sense, we are part of a global and diverse family. It moves across gender, race, ethnic group, wealth, fame, status, nationality, and politics. Parts of the family of God have long traditions and rituals. Other parts are quite recent movements of the Spirit in this generation. Even though such groups may look upon each other with suspicion, they are part of the family of God in this second sense. Whenever we feel unloved, unimportant, or insecure, we need to remember to whom we belong.

          Two special acts are signs of being part of the family of God in this second sense.

          One is baptism.

          Baptism involves the common physical element of water surrounded by the words of the ritual, especially invoking the blessing of the Trinity. All Christians submit to the water of baptism, ignoring the boundaries established by people: race, gender, or economic class. The water of baptism becomes a meeting place for individuals, Christian community, and God. Every time the church baptizes a person, we are saying that person is part of the plan God has to change the world into what God intends. In that sense, baptism is a prophetic act. Baptism is our "Yes" to God and our "No" to that part of the world that rebels against what God wants. The church does not intend anything magical. The sacrament declares the intention of the participant to orient life toward Christ. Parents make a decision to orient their family life toward Christ when they bring their children forward for infant baptism.

          During the baptism ritual, the congregation re-affirms its commitment to orient its life toward Christ. Believers grow in their fellowship with Christ throughout their lives. Confirmation and other reaffirmations of the Christian faith help believers recognize that this transformation continues throughout life. Christians as individuals and the church as a community define themselves by their fellowship with Christ. This connection with Christ symbolized in baptism reminds us of the moral transformation needed in Christian life, a transformation that continues throughout life. Therefore, along with the external rite of baptism, the church understands the importance of faith to receive the gift of grace offered in baptism. Baptism, far from being a ceremony, reminds the church of its core beliefs and values in a world that would often distract it from its central purpose of fellowship with Christ.

          Baptism symbolizes spiritual rebirth, the gate through which one passes into the body of Christ. Here is the sign of our unity as Christians, and not just membership in a particular church.  Though baptism is an individual experience, it also identifies the individual with the Christian community. We need the support of other people to correct us, support us, and tell us the story of the Christian faith.

          Baptism is participation in the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-11), symbolizing breaking the power of sin and becoming a new and liberated people. Major changes in life rarely occur without the pain of suffering, of changing and growing, of letting go and trusting God. We transfer ownership of our lives from self to God. We re-direct faith from self to God.

          Baptism means conversion, pardon, cleansing, forgiveness of sins, and a new ethical orientation through the work of the Holy Spirit. The fact of baptism does not make the goal of the Christian life actual in the one baptized. Time matters in the development of Christian life. Baptism is a reminder that believers still have much upon which to work in orienting one's life to Christ.

          Baptism means receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Just as the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, the Holy Spirit raises to new life the person baptized. God pours out the Holy Spirit on the baptized person as the first installment of the life to come, nurturing the life of faith in the heart. Confirmation refers to growing in grace and strengthening in faith. If we use oil and the sign of the cross upon the forehead, it urges recipients to profess their faith in Christ to others.

          Baptism means the kingdom of God has broken into this world.  Baptism is a sign that the person baptized has become part of a new reality that looks forward to the victory that Christ will have in this world. The church acknowledges its hope for a world transformed into what God intends, as God has shown humanity in Christ.

          This is an act of initiation into the family, recognizing as part of the family of God. Baptism publicly identifies us with Christ. The focus is not us. The focus is not our decision. The focus is Christ and our identification with Christ.

          Two is the Lord's Supper. God is free to show us grace in surprising ways. Yet, the church recognizes the Lord's Supper (also called communion or Eucharist) as a special means of grace.

          Christians kneel at the same altar, regardless of race, economic class, or gender.

          The Lord's Supper has its foundation in the table fellowship Jesus had with his disciples, the meals of the risen Lord with the disciples, and the centrality of the Supper in the apostolic churches.  This meal anticipates the heavenly banquet of the church with Christ. Everyone who participates in this Supper enters into a fellowship with Jesus and with others who partake of the meal. The meal anticipates the fellowship God wants with humanity. The Supper becomes a meeting place for individuals, Christian community, and God.

          John Wesley said that he invited to the table of the Lord all whom he invited to Christ. Denominational affiliation is not a consideration.  The Eucharist exemplifies the oneness and unity of the people of God.  The Lord's Table becomes an anticipation of the unity of all Christians and churches that we already have in Christ. 

          We receive healing of spirit, thought, emotion, mind, and body. As those on the path of transformation, we seek to bring healing to a broken world. 

The matter of whether children receive communion is one best left to the beliefs and values of parents. The Lord who embraced children in his earthly life would not turn children away.  Communion becomes a teaching moment between parent and child as to what the church means in receiving bread and cup.

          The Supper is our "Yes" to what God wants in the world and our "No" to that part of the world that rebels against what God wants. The sacrament declares the intention of the participants to orient life toward Christ.  We make this clear when we announce that the bread is the body of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ.  The Lord's Supper is about Christ; it is not about us.  We identify with Christ. We express our desire to have Christ live in us.

          The supper of the Lord is a thanksgiving to the Father, a memorial of the crucified and risen Christ, an invocation of the Holy Spirit, a community of the faithful, and a meal of the kingdom of God. 

          These two signs of the family of God direct attention away from self. They direct our attention toward Christ, and toward the community to which we relate. We recognize our unity with Christ and with each other in these acts.

14. What Matters Most

          Life is about learning to love. God is love. The most important lesson we learn in life is how to love. In loving others, we become more like who God is. Loving others moves against our natural desire to care for self. At one level, this natural desire to care for self is something we need to take seriously. God has placed us in this unique time and place to accomplish the plan God has for us. If we honor God properly, we will care for self enough to be sure that our lives line up with what God intends for us, both in terms of character and in terms of our specific passion and calling in life. However, we often distort this legitimate care for self so that it becomes negating the legitimate aspirations of others. We have a lifetime to learn love. One of the most important places we learn to love is within the Christian community.

          The people who love us do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. They release the best in us. They shoulder us through the rough times in life. They stretch us beyond the confines of our own experiences to wider visions, to truer vistas. They show us the face of our creating, caring God on earth. Love is important to the world. It calls us out of self. It is a sign of the love of God for the world. Love glues the world back together when it breaks itself apart. Only love enables us to forgive.

          God wants the Christian community known for its love.


John 13:34-35 (NRSV)

34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


God trains us in love by giving us family responsibilities. The greatest responsibility in being part of the family of God is to love. God wants us in regular, close fellowship with each other so that we can develop the habit of living. We cannot love in isolation. By being around people, who are often irritating, imperfect, and frustrating, we learn to love in a mature way.

          The Christian community can teach us three important truths about love.

          First, the best use of our lives is to learn to love. I like the way The Message puts I Corinthians 14:1a, "Go after a life of love as if your life depended upon it - because it does." The classic statement of the value of a life lived without love is from Paul. Here is how he put it.


1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NRSV)

 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.


We speak as if we squeeze relationships into what is really important, the accomplishment of a task or job. We find time for children or spouse. The fact that God is love suggests that relationships are what life is about, and we ought to find time for tasks and jobs in the midst of the overriding purpose God has, namely, developing loving people. The Ten Commandments are about our relationship with God in the first four and our relationships with people in the other six. The greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It appears that achievements, acquisition of things, fame, and power, are not what God considers the primary reason for us to be here. Yet, our stress in modern life often comes because relationships become secondary. We do not give our prime time and energy to the relationships that matter most. We lose a sense of what is important to us, and surrender to what is urgent. Our failure to keep what is important before us often leads to surrendering our lives to the trivial.

          Further, only love will last. Paul says it so well in I Corinthians 13. Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love. Yet, even love lasts only because God preserves it. A trip to a cemetery reminds us of how, from a human perspective, love does end. We do not know the names of the persons. If the dates go back long enough, no one may remember any more. Yet, they lived and loved. Others cared about them. From a human perspective, their love is gone. Yet, God is love. God is the one who preserves love into eternity. Love is the secret of a lasting heritage. We might show love in the family, a love that will last into succeeding generations. Pastors might show love to a congregation that will last well beyond his or her death. People remember the love shown and the subtle influence it has upon the world. If we have the time at our death-bed, we will not want to surround ourselves with diplomas and awards. We will want to surround ourselves with the people we have loved, and the people who have loved us.

          In fact, God seems to evaluate our spiritual maturity on how well we have learned to love. People who live this way reflect what God is doing in the world, and the end toward which God moves humanity. Even if we want to know the basis for divine judgment upon human life, here it is. Some who loudly proclaim they are Christians may find they do not reflect this work of God. Many who have never heard of Jesus may reflect this work of God in the world.


Matthew 25:34-46 (NRSV)

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."


God will preserve the essence of who we are into eternity. We dare not waste another day without love as the primary aim of the day.

          The best measure of love is time. We have a finite amount of time. We need to consider seriously the way we live the time we have. We show others the importance of other people in our lives through the quantity of time we spend with them. We also show their importance through the focused attention we give or fail to give in the time we are with them. Love does not consist in what we think about others, do for others, or provide for others. Love consists in the gift of self that we give to others. We do not show love by giving others the instruments of the world that we use, such as homes, car, computers, and so on. We show love through giving self. We show love through focused attention upon the other. Focused attention involves forgetfulness of self and focus upon the other. We can develop a loving look at the real. Analyzing involves taking the other apart. Focused attention involves receiving the gift of the whole person. In this sense, love involves sacrifice. One yields one's preferences, comforts, goals, security, money, energy, and time for the benefit of another.

          The finite nature of our time with others creates some urgency in our use of time. Circumstances change. People die. Children grow up. Tomorrow is not a guarantee for any of us. If we want to express love, now is the best time for us to do it.

15. A Place to Belong

          God calls us to a place to which we belong. Genesis 2:18 offers the wisdom that God recognized that a male should not be alone, but rather needed a helper. After bringing many animals into existence, and having the male name them, God brought a woman from the side of the male to be a partner in the journey of life. God made us for community, fellowship, and family. We cannot fulfill the best human life, or the life that God intends, apart from community. Solitary saints or spiritual hermits would be a contradiction to spiritual maturity. We are not on our own. A personal dimension in our relationship with God is important to develop. A private relationship is not worth pursuing. Christians have a connection with every other believer. We belong to each other for eternity.

          Following Christ includes belonging, becoming part of the body of Christ. Paul used this analogy. At one level, the metaphor emphasizes togetherness as the body of Christ re-presents Christ to the world in its word and deed. At another level, the metaphor emphasizes the uniqueness, worth, and dignity of each part of the body of Christ. This awareness of individuality and community is significant as we consider the role of the place to which we belong in our lives. Each Christian has a significant role to play in the body of Christ. We discover the role we play as we engage in Christian community. A part of the physical body cannot continue to live if severed from the body. Our spiritual maturity depends upon Christian community. Community is the lifeblood of spiritual growth. Often, the first symptom of spiritual decay is inconsistent fellowship in the Christian community. If we love God as shown to us in Christ, we will love the Christian community, as it is the body of Christ. We cannot drive a wedge between allegiance to Christ and fellowship in a Christian community, for Christ has chosen to identify himself with the imperfect community called church. Christians often dismiss, demean, or complain about the church. Yet, God wants us to love the church as much as Jesus does. Too many Christians use the church rather than love the church.

          The local church in the New Testament probably met in homes, caves, or beside lakes and rivers. It consisted of 10-30 people. The local church was a small group that met for singing, bible reading, teaching, the Lord's Supper, and a fellowship meal. A Christian without a church home is an unnatural state. The emphasis our culture places upon individuality is an important one. The respect for individual worth and dignity means many areas of choice open before us. One of those areas is the religious community to which we relate. Unfortunately, the danger is moving from one community to the next. Inevitably, we will discover imperfections of community that could lead us to leave it. Recognizing that we develop our identity, accountability, and commitment in Christian community, spiritual maturity requires faithful commitment to a local community.

          Here are a few benefits from uniting to a local church.

          A church family identifies us as genuine believers. The diversity of the Christian community in backgrounds, social status, race, political beliefs, and so on, is a powerful witness in the world to what Christ can do.

          A church family moves us out of self-centered living and toward other-centered living. The local church is a school in which we learn to relate to others within the family of God. We learn values that help us in family, work, and community. We can practice unselfish, sympathetic love. We learn to care for others and share in the experiences of others. The imperfections of our lives unite with the imperfections of the lives of others. This sense of community involves commitment to each other as the body of Christ, just as we commit ourselves to Christ.

          A church family helps us develop spiritual strength. Involvement in a local church is not passive attendance, but participation in the full life of the church. We do this through love, prayer, encouraging, teaching, honoring, accepting, forgiving, and bearing with each other. These are family responsibilities we owe to each other. Christian living may seem easier in isolation. However, we will never confront our tendency to deceive ourselves if we do not participate in Christian community. We will never find healing from our disease of sin unless we engage in life together.

          The body of Christ needs the unique gifts and passions that we are. God has a unique role for us to play in life and in the church. This ministry is the assignment God has given to us. The local church is the place God has designed for us to discover, develop, and use these gifts.

          We will share in the mission Christ has in the world. We can see signs of the work of God in the world outside of the church. We can also see signs of the failure of the church to be what God intended it to be. Yet, the Christian community is the primary place in which we hear about the good news in Christ and seek the transformation of human life into what God intends. Christ works through us in the world. If the world is to see Christ, it will be because the church re-presents Christ to this world, to this culture, in this time and this place.

          A church family will help us remain faithful to the mission of Christ. Temptation to lead a life that does not reflect the purpose of God in the world is always present. The local church and its relationships help us to remain faithful through teaching and accountability. We become involved in the lives of others, and they become involved in our lives. We have responsibility for each other. When we are weak, others are strong and can help us. When we are strong, we can help others who are weak. Isolated, unaccountable people are always open to temptation.

          Becoming part of a healthy church is important to leading a healthy Christian life. A Christian community meets the deepest human need for a reason to live, a community to which to belong, values to live by, a mission to live out, and a power to live on. Our commitment to Christ, our reception of baptism and the Lord's Supper, make us part of a global church that has existed through centuries. We ought to appreciate the privilege of being part of this global family. Yet, commitment to a specific, local body of believers moves us closer toward being the persons God wants us to be. In America, many persons attend a church like spectators or consumers. If we are concerned for spiritual well-being, we need to participate fully in the life of the local church and contribute to this local body of believers. Involvement in a local church suggests commitment to real people, rather than just a theory. God wants us to love real people, not ideal people. In many lifetimes, we could not find a perfect church. God loves sinners. We need to have the same love for sinners like us and those with whom we associate that God has. Let us hear these words from the early church:


Acts 2:42 (NRSV)

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.


The Christian life is more than commitment to Christ. The Christian life is also commitment to other Christians. The fact is, we became Christians because the church has remained faithful to Christ through the centuries. We became Christians because someone who was part of the body of Christ shared with us what Christ meant to them. By participating in a local church, we continue the journey of the church through the centuries and through various cultures. We help others join with us in what Christ is doing in the world.

16. Life Together

          God intends that we share our lives with others. The New Testament view of fellowship includes sharing life together, rather than socializing. It includes unselfish loving, honest sharing, practical serving, sacrificial giving, sympathetic comforting, and so on. Such sharing of life together occurs naturally in small groups, usually no larger than ten. The disciples were a small group in fellowship with Jesus. The first century church largely consisted of small groups meeting in homes. When the New Testament referred to the church meeting in a city, the church met in small communities throughout the city. The church is a collection of many small cells. If we are to grow in our Christian life, we need this connection in small groups. Today, groups meeting in homes, Sunday school classes, Bible studies, music groups, and ministry groups, can all be the small group fellowship we need. The assurance of the presence of Jesus, even where only two or three gather (Matthew 18:20) must have given confidence to the struggling church of the first century. It should also give confidence to us. Yet, too often small groups in the church remain at a superficial level.

          I would now like to offer some characteristics of healthy fellowship, appreciating the insights of Rick Warren along the way.

          First, genuine fellowship encourages authenticity. Sharing from the center of one life to another moves us beneath the surface. This authenticity occurs when people share their hopes, dreams, fears, temptations, and struggles. They share hurts, feelings, failures, doubts, fears, weaknesses, and ask for help and prayer. Too many Christian communities pretend, play a role, reduce themselves to politics, engage in superficial politeness, and stay with shallow conversation. People where masks to cover up their true self. Openness and trust are essential for authentic fellowship. This form of authentic fellowship requires courage and humility. We face our fear of exposure, rejection, and being hurt again. We need to take such risks if we are to grow spiritually and to gain emotional maturity. We grow in relationships with God and with each other as we take steps of faith.

          Second, genuine fellowship encourages mutuality. Mutuality is the art of giving and receiving. It encourages interdependence. It encourages reciprocal relationships, sharing responsibilities, and helping each other. We gain consistency in our Christian life when other people share that life with us and encourage us. We gain accountability, encouragement, serving, and honoring with each other. We are not responsible for all persons in the local church, but we are accountable to them.

          Third, genuine fellowship encourages sympathy or empathy. Sympathy is entering in and sharing the pain of others. It meets the need to have another human beings have regard for us, acknowledge our presence, and consider us worthy of their attention. It meets the need to have our feelings validated. Such recognition of each other builds fellowship. The problem is that we are often in such a hurry, engaged in our activities, and preoccupied with our hurts, that we do not pause and focus our attention upon another human being. We might engage in fellowship in differing ways, all valid and important. We may share life together, we may study together, we may serve together, and we may suffer together. In the latter case, Christians suffer for their faith in ways alien to most Christians in America. Such persecution, ridicule, and martyrdom, are thankfully not generally part of the American church experience, but remains part of global Christianity. American Christians need to develop a special caring for Christians in such situations. In our times of crisis, grief, and doubt, we need each other the most. When circumstances overwhelm us, the strength of others can pull us through. We need a small group of friends to have faith in God for us. When God seems distant to us, other people can come close carry Christ to us in unexpected ways. This is what Job meant when he suggests that he friends should simply listen to him in his suffering, rather than pass judgment (Job 6:14, 13:5, 21:2).

          Fourth, genuine fellowship encourages mercy. Fellowship is a place of grace. Those in fellowship do not rub in mistakes, but rub them out. Fellowship happens when mercy wins over justice. All of us need mercy, for we all stumble and fall. We require help to get on the right track. We grow when we offer mercy to another. We grow when we receive mercy. Forgiveness is essential for fellowship. Bitterness and resentment destroy fellowship. We hurt each other out of our imperfection and sinfulness. When done intentionally or unintentionally, hurting each other requires mercy and grace to maintain fellowship.

          The grace and mercy of God shown in Christ is the motivation for our mercy toward each other. When another person hurts us, we have the choice of moving down the path of resentment or resolution. We can forgive people for what they have done to us, whether they ask for it or not. This forgiveness frees us from resentment and bitterness. However, trust is a matter of openness to the future that one needs to build a relationship. One builds trust over time. If a hurt occurs, we will need to rebuild trust. Forgiveness of someone who has a record of hurting us is important. However, we do not have to continue trusting the person.

          Among the challenges the church has in building community is that so many of us come from unhealthy homes. We learned unhealthy skills in relating to others. We need to unlearn those skills, and learn new skills. People need genuine, authentic fellowship, but often do not have the relational skills they need to become part of such a fellowship and contribute to such a fellowship in a positive way. The author of Ephesians stresses the concentration, energy, and effort it takes.


Ephesians 4:1-6 (NRSV)

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.


          Fifth, genuine community takes truthfulness. We need to learn to lovingly speak the truth (Ephesians 4:15), even when we would rather ignore an issue. I have seen pastors and others speak what they consider truth in an unloving manner. We need to check self first. We may be the one who fails to love the community sufficiently to earn the right to speak in love. I have also seen people pretend or deny that problems exist. Many local and national fellowships have the fear of truth. People often do not have the courage to speak truth. The fear of conflict will lead to superficial relationships. Living with the frustration of unresolved problems leads to unhealthy communities. It creates a sick environment of secrets where gossip thrives. Truthful relationships in a marriage, a family, a friendship, or a local church, need to face the tensions within the relationship. Facing conflict can lead the way to genuine community. We need to care enough to confront and resolve the underlying barriers to fellowship and friendship. Among the fears we may have is separation. If we face the conflict, we may split or separate the fellowship. Generally, such separation will not happen. If handled with respect to all parties, it need not occur. However, if separation does happen, it may be the best for all. Although God desires reconciliation in human relationships, we live in a human world. Such reconciliation may not always be possible. In that case, we can at least seek separation in as Christian a way as possible.

          Sixth, genuine community takes humility. I like the way I Peter puts it.


          I Peter 5:5b NRSV

And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for

"God opposes the proud,

but gives grace to the humble."


Humility builds bridges. It soothes relationships. Pride builds walls. Overly estimating one's own importance, smugness, and stubbornness, will destroy genuine fellowship. Pride blocks the grace of God, while humility opens up the doors of the fellowship for grace to flow through. We need this grace to grow, change, heal, and help others. We receive grace by admitting we need it.

          When we admit weaknesses, when we are patient with the weaknesses of others, when we are open to correction, when we honor and praise others, we practice humility. Humility is not a quality that puts oneself down. Rather, humility means less focus upon self and more focus upon others.

          Seventh, genuine community takes courtesy. Courtesy is respect for our differences, being considerate of the feelings of each other, and being patient with people who irritate us. This virtue suggests caring for another person to understand them better. It means caring enough to share the doubts and fears of others without being judged. We are all difficult at times. However, some people are uniquely qualified to belong to that class of persons known in Christian communities as "difficult to get along with." They often have emotional needs, insecurities, irritating mannerisms, and poor relational skills. Such difficult persons test fellowship. When a Christian community bends its life and purpose to satisfying such persons, it makes for an unhealthy community. A healthy community can tolerate such difficult people, with the hope that its health will open possibility for change in the difficult person.

          Eighth, genuine community takes confidentiality. People need a safe place in order to open up and share their deepest hurts, needs, and mistakes. This virtue for healthy community means that gossip is always a sign of lack of health. Gossip causes hurt and division. Church leaders need to confront it. The person who gossip may leave the fellowship, but the unity and health of the church is more important than one individual.

          Ninth, genuine community takes frequency. We need to develop the habit of meeting together. We need to spend time together in order to build relationships. We need community for our spiritual health. When we realize that, we will make Christian fellowship a higher priority for our lives.

17. Restoring Relationships

          Relationships are worth restoring. This is the primary objective God has in working in this world. We find this in Paul.


2 Corinthians 5:17-20 (NRSV)

17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.


Life is about learning how to love. God wants us to value relationships and make the effort to maintain them instead of discarding them whenever hurt, offense, or conflict occurs. As Paul makes clear, this work of reconciling people is the primary work of God in this world, and therefore the primary work of the church. In John, Jesus says love is the primary mark of being in fellowship with Christ.


John 13:35 (NRSV)

35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


          For these reasons, broken fellowship hinders Christian witness in the world. Leadership within the church is difficult, in part because church people can be difficult, and in part, because leadership in the name of Jesus is difficult. The model of leadership for Jesus was a basin and a towel. His highpoint in ministry was stooping down and washing the feet of his followers. Uncritically borrowing from the images of the culture concerning leadership can be the death of specifically Christian leaders. Paul spends much of his time in his letters and personal visits to the church in Corinth trying to guide them toward unity. The work of God is to learn to make peace. Matthew 5:9, one of the beatitudes, says that peacemakers are children of God. This activity on behalf of peace is rare. We often find it easier to ignore the division and the reason for it. We often avoid conflict. We run from problems. We pretend they do not exist. We lack the courage to talk to each other about the matters that divide us. The value of peace is not an absolute in this world. Sometimes, Jesus provoked conflict and brought offense. We need wisdom and divine guidance as to when is the appropriate time to seek reconciliation of opposing parties, and when to introduce conflict. Working for peace does not mean appeasement. Giving in and acting like a doormat is not what Jesus had in mind. Jesus refused to back down on many issues. The fact of the cross reminds us how firmly Jesus stood his ground, and how firmly his opponents stood their ground. The cross is a witness to the fact that in this world, some conflicts will never find resolution and reconciliation.

          What I have to share in this segment and the following segment is relies upon some material from Hugh Halverstadt and some from Rick Warren.

          The combination of independent human beings and the mutuality of human community are the prerequisite for conflict. Without this mutuality, our differences are simply differences; we would coexist with differences rather than have conflicts over differences. Conflict is evidence of mutuality, meaningful relationships, and interdependence of some kind.

          We need to learn the distinction between wholesome assertions of the unique person we are, and our self-centered assertion in which we seek to displace other people and God. Assertion offers the unique gift we are to others and to God and is a mark of wholeness. Aggression is always destructive and sinful, a movement toward alienation, and a failure of participating in the reconciling work of God in the world.

          The church is a community of persons who seek to speak the truth in love as the standard of dealing with interpersonal, inter-group, or larger social differences. The church can increase its sense of mutuality through assertiveness. Aggression will lead to inauthentic conformity or divisiveness.

          In recognizing the presence of conflict in the church, we re-affirm that the reconciling activity of God in the church and in the world will not have its fulfillment in human history. As redeemed and reconciling people, we live in a world where no one has completely appropriated the reconciling activity of God. Human aggression abounds.

          The Christian task is to engage each other fairly in conflicts. We do not give up or give in, but give to and give with others. Such fair engagement in conflict yields life-giving outcomes, such as healed or deepening relationships, growing trust of God and others, self-enlargement by the gifts we receive in connecting with others, and collaborative achievements with others for justice or productivity. Paul called this “speaking the truth in love.” When we engage each other in conflict in an unfair way, we speak deceitfully and without caring for the other, yielding death-giving outcomes like abuse, violence, oppression, manipulation, injustice, and fear.

          Managing conflict usually means using a deescalating strategy to stop the unfair engagement of conflict that has already started. Unless one has reached a high level of sanctity, we normally react defensively toward ourselves and aggressively toward others. We fight for “me,” not for “us.” Further, our egoism and fears blind us to being aware of acting assertively for mutual good rather than aggressively to conquer all opposition. The first step in engaging conflict fairly is to secure among the parties an agreement by which to deal with each other fairly, even to the point of developing a contract.

          God has called Christians to fight for life, not death. We honor our integrity and uniqueness. We respect the worth and dignity of the other. In doing so, we reject passive-aggressive behavior or the destruction of the other. What we seek is mutual life in Christ, rather than the elimination of one’s self or the other. The Christian rule is to fight for us, whether this involves cutting the costs of destructive exchanges or reaping the benefits of constructive exchanges. To love the neighbor as we love ourselves in conflict situations is to fight for us rather than for “me” or “you.”

          Some strategies deescalate the conflict, thereby reducing destructive costs of the conflict. Such strategies do not resolve conflictive issues. They only reduce the destructive costs of unresolved issues. One such strategy is that of preventing destructive exchanges. It consists in building barriers to prevent or reduce destructive exchanges. Another such strategy is reorienting personal intentions. This strategy focuses on helping people change their attitudes, feelings, mentality, and understanding from destructive to constructive intentions relating to a conflict.

          Some strategies escalate conflict in order to increase their constructive benefits. These strategies resolve issues constructively, generating collaborative behavior or deepen intimate relationships. One such strategy is to negotiate substantive issues, the most commonly used strategy. Another such strategy is confronting interpersonal relationships. It consists of managing the emotional dynamics of interpersonal reconciliation.

          I would now like to offer some suggestions as to how one might work toward restoring relationships.

          First, we need to move our attention away from what we want and discern what God wants. In prayer and meditation, we can become in touch with our role in the conflict. Most conflict has its root in unmet needs. People often seek satisfaction in life through things that cannot give it to them. Only God can meet some needs. Yet, people often hope that another individual, a pastor, a church, a small group, might meet a need that only God can fill. Further, many people have unhealthy spirituality, in that they expect God to fill some needs directly, whereas God often addresses our needs through other people. We often try to have happiness in this life through clinging to finite relationships with people, groups, and things. When they do not give us what we want, we become angry, selfish, and demanding. I have seen people clinging to a church, angry that the church is not exactly what they want, trying to turn it into what they want, when it will never become so. It would not be helpful spirituality for the church to bend its vision and mission to them. It is a sign of lack of spiritual health.

          Second, we need to take the initiative. We need not wait for the other party to act. Here was some advice Jesus gave.


Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV)

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.


We need to initiate a peace conference with divided parties. Waiting will only deepen spiritual damage to those involved. Waiting blocks fellowship with God, hinders prayer, and makes life miserable. The right time and place are important.

          Three, sympathize with their feelings. Listen carefully to what the other person has to say. In particular, listening with a "third ear" to the heart and feeling tone of the other person is so important. This form of focused, meditative, and prayerful listening can allow wisdom to arise in us. Often, intuition and insight arise out of such focused attention to the other. We can understand the other person without agreeing with them. If the other person has experienced some hurt, and harbors resentment, he or she will not act at their best. One bit of wisdom from the bible is this:


Proverbs 19:11 (NRSV)

11 Those with good sense are slow to anger,

and it is their glory to overlook an offense.


Patience comes from wisdom. Wisdom comes from forgetting oneself for a moment and offering focused attention to the other person. Listening suggests that the other person is valuable to you and that the relationship matters to you. Some clichés are true: people do not care what we know until they know we care. Absorbing the anger of the other person patiently is a challenge. None of us does this perfectly. Yet, it is an important step toward reconciliation.

          Four, admit our part in the conflict. All of us have blind spots. We may need a third party to help us evaluate our actions and motives. Prayerful reflection upon our participation in this relationship that now needs healing is an important step. It takes courage to admit our fault in being unrealistic, insensitive, or too sensitive. Humbly admitting our mistakes and imperfections can help disarm the anger of the other person. A defensive reaction is often a sign of unwillingness to acknowledge the role one has played in the deterioration of the relationship. Making excuses and shifting blame is not the path toward authentic living. Accepting responsibility and asking forgiveness is often the path to restoring relationships.

          Five, focus on the problem rather than the person. We will never deal with the problem if our focus is fixing blame. A soft answer is usually better than a sarcastic one. The bible has some wisdom at this point.


Proverbs 15:1 (NRSV)

 A soft answer turns away wrath,

but a harsh word stirs up anger.


How we say something is as important as what we say. If we attack, the other defends. We have many destructive words in our arsenal if we choose them: condemnation, belittling, comparing, labeling, insulting, condescending, and sarcasm. We would find all our relationships improve if we simply refuse to use them. I like the way the writer of Ephesians puts it.


Ephesians 4:29 (NRSV)

29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.


          Six, cooperate as much as possible. Paul had some appropriate words to say on this point.


Romans 12:18 (NRSV)

18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.


We need to surrender willingly our desire to have our way in the relationship. Such a desire is self-centeredness and arrogance. The assumption we often have is that for the relationship to be healthy, it needs to be the way I want it. Of course, the only way for this to happen is for the other party in the conflict to surrender. If we think about it reasonably, the surrender of the other party is not what we want. What we want is a freely given, loving, and respectful relationship. We need to focus upon the desires and needs of the other person. We may even need to adjust our lives and behavior in order for the relationship to be all that it can be. Such adjustments acknowledge that we do not have all the answers to the riddles of life. We genuinely open ourselves to the influence and involvement of others in the pattern we weave with our lives.

          Seven, emphasize reconciliation rather than resolution. Some differences are so profound that resolution in this life is not possible. We need to admit that we will not find common ground. Sometimes, a serious character flaw in the other person prohibits them from having a healthy relationship with any human being. We need to hesitate to make such judgments. After all, rationality is a trait that humanity develops quite naturally. We look for good reasons for behavior, motives, and beliefs. We recognize that relationships engage in such learning from each other. Yet, some persons have such a twisted approach to life that the possibility of a healthy relationship does not exist. The Christian community cannot bend its will to such persons. On a personal basis, one needs to distance oneself from such persons. This can be hard if it is family member, co-worker, or neighbor. We need to acknowledge that some persons and some relationships are so broken that reconciliation will not occur in this life.

          Christians often have legitimate disagreements and differing opinions. We do not have to be mean to each other. Recognizing Christ as the one who unites us is not the same as achieving uniformity of belief and behavior. Discussion and debate is often part of the process. We can do so vigorously, without consigning the other party to Hell. Solving the problem or finding resolution to the conflict may not be a human possibility. Differing denominations will likely continue to exist. At one level, these divisions harm Christian witness. Christ cannot even bring Christians together, let alone the world. At another level, when differing denominations engage in Christian witness together, when denominations show respect to each other, we have another way in which we acknowledge Christ as the one who unites us and forms our life. We become witnesses of the peace Christ can bring to our lives and relationships.

18. Protecting the Unity of the Church

          Each member of the local church has a responsibility to protect the unity of the church. The purpose God has is that we experience harmony and oneness with each other. The image of the church as the body of Christ suggests the importance of unity to the clarity of the witness of the church. The model for this unity is the Christian view of God as Trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit have distinctive roles, while at the same time experience unity of purpose and fellowship. God already experiences this community and diversity, and God desires that humanity experience the same. John 17 is an example of how seriously the early church took the unity of the church. Paul spent much of his time trying to keep fledgling congregations together. God values the church. God wants us to protect it from the damage caused by division, conflict, and disharmony. As members of the church, each of us has a responsibility to protect the unity of the fellowship to which we belong. How can we do this?

          Conflict management is exactly what its name implies.  It is managing conflict, not removing it.  Conflict is a part of people organizing and working together.  However, incivility and abuse are not.

          Our image of the ideal church does not include conflict. The denial of the reality of conflict in the church is an important part of the reaction in the church when conflict occurs. We have difficulty seeing what we have already denied is present. However, conflict among church members has become so obvious that it is difficult to deny any longer. Emotional and spiritual abuse of traumatic proportions has become prevalent. Such abuse exhausts pastors and drains the energy and resources of congregations and denominational programs. The people of God are once again killing the prophets (I say this metaphorically, of course.) The church loses its soul as it becomes comfortable with abusing its pastors. Pastors are the target of a small but growing number of persons in the pew. Anyone who openly expresses support for the pastor can also become a target. The costs to the church are enormous. High pastoral stress is normal. Lost clergy, increased health costs for pastors and families, divided congregations, loss of energy for mission, disgust by members who leave, and some malfeasance by pastors, we can trace in large numbers to the incivility and abuse now common in congregations.

          One of the causes of the downturn in mainline Protestant denominations is the wounded pastor. When a pastor bleeds and tries to survive, he or she will have little energy available for the creative leader that church growth requires. Most people will not realize the abuse has persisted, as the pastor continues to provide the traditional services. Hardly anyone goes to the pastor with the kind of understanding, strength, and support needed under such circumstances. The pastor loses energy and functions, and few wonder why.

          Much of the conflict in congregations today is the result of ill health and evil. Normal conflict is the result of the individuality and diversity that come with any human community. Personality differences, disagreements, frustrated parishioners who are bored, floundering, underused or under-recognized, are part of the normal conflicts that churches face. They respond well to rational, competent, and caring management methods. In this type of conflict, establishing ground rules, clarifying grievances and needs, speaking, listening and giving feedback, affirming areas of agreement, brainstorming creative options, negotiating a resolution, and evaluating are successful methods.

          Conflicts are power struggles. People use all kinds of power: coercive power is muscle and guns. Subtler and frequently used forms of power in social conflicts are money, information, human relations skills, political connections, constituencies, organizational rank and social status. Given the nature of conflict as a power struggle, the more balanced the power assets of parties are in conflict, the better the chances for a constructive resolution. In destructive conflict, people use power to overpower the opposition. Awareness and analysis of the power factors in the conflict is important for all persons involved.

          Personal power assets are of four types. First are physical traits, such as sex, age, race, subculture, physical size or appeal, health, gifts, abilities. Second are personal styles, such as social status, economic class, personality strengths (Myers-Briggs, etc.), family name or background, occupation. Third are personal skills, such as articulation, persuasion, data processing, recall powers, problem solving or planning processes, group process, political organization, budgeting, or some specialized expertise. Fourth are personal resources, such as credentials, money, information, experience, knowledge, longevity. Role power assets are of two types. One is job rights and responsibilities that give access to organizational funds, technologies, information, expertise, lines of accountability or authority, places of decision-making or policy making, and so on. Two is role-sets, such as group memberships, inter-group relationships, sub-system constituencies, multiple roles or positions in the same system, and so on. Contextual power assets are of three types. One is social status in the community, the region, of race, of class, of culture, or of nationality, and so on. Two is economic status in relation to the distribution and acquisition of wealth, occupational prestige, and so on. Three is political status in inclusion or exclusion from political influence, relationships to political elites, and so on.

          If we move toward constructive resolution of conflict, we will need the following elements.

          First, focus on what we have in common rather than those areas in which we differ. We share one Lord, one body of Christ, one purpose, one Father, one Spirit, one hope, one faith, one baptism, one Eucharist, and one love. We share the same salvation, life, and future. The churches have more upon which they agree than which they disagree. Unity and uniformity is not the same thing. Conflict is a sign that the focus has shifted to less important matters. When we focus on personalities, preferences, interpretations, styles, or methods, division always happens. However, if we concentrate on loving each other and fulfilling the purpose of God, harmony is the result.

          Second, be realistic in our expectations. We spend too much time discouraged by the gap between the ideal and the real in the church. Our disappointment is a gift. Yet, we must passionately love the church in its imperfections. When we long for the ideal, while criticizing the real, we have evidence of immaturity. On the other hand, settling for the real without striving for the ideal is complacency. Maturity is living with the tension. Others will disappoint us and let us down. Yet, Paul recommends that we be patient with each other, bearing the faults of each other (Ephesians 4:2). The church is a place of conflict, hurt, hypocrisy, neglect, pettiness, legalism, and other sins. We need to remember our sinfulness, that finds reflection in the life of the church. Our sinfulness reaches out to others and hurts others. When this happens, we need to stay and work it out. Reconciliation is the path of stronger character and deeper fellowship. Divorce may be necessary. However, divorcing a fellowship at the first sign of difference is a sign of immaturity. The perfect church does not exist. Every church has its set of weaknesses and problems. We will soon find disappointment again. The church does not exist to satisfy every belief or form of life that we find valuable.

          Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, suggests that our disillusionment with the church is a good thing. It removes our false expectations of perfection in a human community. The sooner we give up the illusion that a church must be our vision of perfection in order to love it, the sooner we can move on to the reception and giving of grace as the foundation of Christian fellowship. We all need more grace than we know in order for friendship and relationships to continue and mature.

          Frankly, perfect people do not need the church. People who are sinners, in need of grace and forgiveness, in need of growth, are the ones for whom the church can be a wonderful place. Bonhoeffer suggested that those who love the dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of Christian community. We hinder God from working in our fellowship when we no longer give thanks for the community to which we belong. We do not have to have great experiences or discoverable riches. We might experience the church in its weakness, small faith, and difficulty. If we complain that everything in the church is paltry and petty, we close ourselves from the blessing God wants to give to us, even through what we consider weakness.

          Three, choose to encourage rather than criticize. One can easily stand on the sidelines, taking shots at those who put forth their gifts and graces for ministry. One can criticize far easier than being involved and contribute. We are not to criticize, compare or judge each other. Other people may do what they do in faith and sincere conviction. If we criticize them, we criticize what God is doing in their lives. They belong to God and not to us. This judgment of other believers causes us to lose fellowship with God, exposes our pride and insecurity, set ourselves up for God to judge us, and causes harm to the fellowship of the church. A critical spirit is a costly vice. Revelation 12:10 calls Satan the accuser of members of the church. The devil blames, complains, and criticizes members of the family of God. Anytime we engage in this behavior, we do the work of the devil. Other Christians are not the enemy. The time we spend comparing and criticizing we could have spent building the unity of our fellowship.

          Four, refuse to listen to gossip. Gossip is passing on information when we are neither part of the problem nor part of the solution. Listening to gossip is every bit as wrong as spreading it. We need to simply stop the person from sharing it, and then ask if the person has talked the parties involved. People who talk about others to us will also talk to others about us. They cannot be trusted. Sadly, the greatest wounds inflicted upon Christians comes from other Christians. Others in the fellowship need to have the courage to go to those who gossip, lovingly confront them, and invite them to stop it.

          Five, seek reconciliation. Go to the person first. If you do not find reconciliation, bring another person to assist in the relationship. In limited cases, it might need to go before a body in the church. Complaining to a third party rarely helps. All we accomplish is creating a triangle, in which we involve someone in a problem over which they can do nothing.

          Six, support the pastor and its leaders. Leaders are not perfect. Another sign of maturity is the support we give to imperfect people as they assume leadership roles in the church. Here is the way the writer to the Hebrews put it:


Hebrews 13:17 (NRSV)

17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing-for that would be harmful to you.


Pastors and other leaders are accountable to God. People who are not pastors are also accountable to God for how they treat pastors. Pastors have the responsibility to avoid arguing, gently teach those who oppose leadership, warn those who are argumentative, plead for harmony and unity, challenge those disrespectful of leadership, and remove divisive people from leadership roles. We protect the fellowship of the church when we honor those who serve the church by leading. Pastors and other leaders need prayer, encouragement, appreciation, and love. Here is the way Paul put it:


1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 (NRSV)

12 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.


          One wonders if the modern pastor can unite traditional authority with being a servant. The inner call through the Holy Spirit finds confirmation as the church sets aside the pastor for this authoritative ministry. Yet, the pastor often guides by patience and humility. The need for spiritual guidance has not diminished in the modern and secular age. Pastors become spiritual directors and confessors. They identify themselves with the sufferings and trials of their people. They intercede daily in prayer. They preach through their word and example. They seek to please God rather than the congregation. They share authority with other gifted laypersons. Adjusting to culture will not become the focus, but rather faithfulness to Christ. They must find ways of being both shepherd and fellow seekers. They inspire others to be priests, intercessors, and witnesses to Christ at home and at work. They will welcome reproof from laity, when they give it in love and based upon the apostolic witness.

          The life of prayer and spirituality to which God has called clergy depends on the awareness that clergy have of themselves and on the pressures of being pastor, reclaiming the vocation to which God has called clergy. The evil that threatens every congregation engulfs the clergy because many clergy have lost the ability to discern the spirits. Clergy need to learn the destructive forces within them. Clergy often live out of envy, most likely of the gifts and graces of other pastors. Clergy often want to communicate to others that they have their life all together. Regular times in prayer, something clergy often resist, would give them the ability to help the people they serve with simple, practical advice. They could tell the people what they have found helpful in their lives, show them how to do it and when to do it.

          Christ established the pastoral office for the edification and guidance of the church. God has designed ordered Christian ministry. Jesus intended that his teaching ministry continue through subsequent generations. Although laity has a general ministry of reconciliation, God has appointed some to special ministry within the body of Christ. Ordained ministry is living proof that the grace of God works through considerable human imperfections. The authority of the office arises out of fidelity, caring, mutuality, and the expectation of empathic understanding.

          To dislike and criticize a pastor is common and understandable. Abusing pastors mentally, spiritually, and physically is an all too common experience that pastors have. Such abuse reflects the mental and spiritual sickness of the church, for how the church treats its leaders reveals even more about the church than about the leaders. Only a sick or dying church batters its pastors.

          Pastors have become vulnerable, parishioners have become confused and less courageous, denominational offices more political, and our society more numb to abuse. Pastors continue their naïve approach regarding the impact of disorders on congregational life. Theological confusion no longer admits the possibility of conflict between good and evil within the life of the church.

          We need to protect the unity of the church. Our effort needs to be there. It will not always be easy. We may find that we have to set aside what we want and learn unselfishness. In community, we learn the meaning of "we" and "our" instead of "me" and "mine." Everyone needs and wants others to love them. When people find a church that genuinely love and care for each other, they will respond with participation and contributing to its life. The health of relationships in this way is the best way to ensure the long-term health and growth of the church.

19. Re-presenting Christ in a Modern World

          Every culture needs the influence of people who find in Christ the source of their lives. The first Christians lived in an imperfect world of Roman domination. Yet, they freely referred to images provided by their culture to express their faith. Evil does not dominate a culture so completely that the church should retreat from it. A culture is not so perfect that the church should baptize it as Christian. A culture has traces of the divine with which the church can legitimately interact. The culture in which I have particular concern for the witness of the church is what many people call a modern one.

          An important aspect of modern society is respect for the worth and dignity of individuals. This respect calls governments to respect individual rights for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This means the sphere of morality, religion, family, and economics have vast freedom to pursue what individuals who participate in them believe is best.

          The freedom offered in a modern society is a given. It brings diversity, tolerance and pluralism in the public sphere, as people differ with each other in the content of their judgments, while respecting the right of people to make personal decisions. Modern society recognizes that it is not a final product. Because of these various freedoms, the future is always open to new directions and correction. Regardless of the legitimate concerns Christians have with how people invest their freedom, the fact is that through participation in modern society, the church and Christians demonstrate through their behavior their tacit approval of the fundamental structures of modern society. Christians reap the benefits of science and technology, and tacitly through their use of them affirm the role they play in modern society. In the context of pluralism, diversity, and tolerance, the church has the mission of re-presenting Christ.

          The church shares with other citizens the desire to improve the quality of this life. While the church does not make a direct contribution to economic life, it does contribute to the consideration of ends that human beings need in order to lead meaningful and whole lives. The church invites people to consider “to what end and for what purpose.” Science, economics, and political power do not have all the answers. The question the church asks to people who value freedom regards the responsibility people have for each other. What do we owe each other?

          In the presence of a culture that says "Yes" to almost everything, many people long to hear someone tell them "No." “No” in this context means, “do not cross this boundary.” A church that says “Yes” to everything a free society accepts is hardly worth they effort. The church needs to have the courage to stand for a form of life that reflects Christ, while at the same time respecting diverse styles of life with genuine love. The church needs to maintain high ideals while at the same time being as gracious as Jesus was toward "sinners and tax collectors."

          The rest of this text will help us complete the picture of Christian life in a modern society. As modern persons, I hope we can hear both the love and grace of the message of the church, as well as the judgment of the Christian message, the “No” that God would say to us.


IV. Considering Character: A Life-style of Sanctification of Life

20. The Goal of Spiritual Formation: Become Like Christ

          Romans 8:29 (NRSV)

29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.


          This statement by Paul is a key to understanding the apostolic vision of human life. The reference to foreknowledge and predestination refer to the purpose of God to form humanity into the image of Jesus Christ. If we want to know the form of life God wants for humanity, we need to look to Jesus Christ. If we want to know what God is like, we look to Jesus Christ. This apostolic vision continues to form the mission of the church and the purpose God has for each person.

          God wants us to become like Christ.

          We might remind ourselves of Genesis 1, where God forms humanity in the image and likeness of God. God acts with will, intentionality, and intelligence. In this sense, human beings reflect the image of God. When human beings act, they do so by willing, intending, and rationality. Since we have responsibility for what we do with our lives, our actions are not the result only or even primarily out of biological instinct. We pause, reflecting upon the choices of thought and behavior that lay before us. In that moment, we are aware at a tacit level of our freedom to choose from various courses of action. We think through the choices so that we have in our minds good reasons for the choice. Among the most significant choices we make relates to our character. We relate to others, making choices concerning how we will relate to them. We make choices concerning life plans relating to what we will do and accomplish with our lives. The responsibility we have for our lives is clear at this point.

          In the apostolic vision of human life, sin distorts the purpose God has for humanity. This distortion is not total. Humanity has an orientation toward God and reflects what God wants. We find this reflection of God in humanity in the human struggle toward the good life, truth, peace, and justice. Yet, sin has so distorted the struggle that we often deceive ourselves as to what is good, true, peaceful, and just. For this reason, God sent Jesus on a mission to restore the purpose of God for humanity that God determined in creation.

          One way to think of the apostolic vision for Christian life is to suggest that as members of the family of God, we develop certain family resemblances. God wants us to be like the Son. The point of our lives is far more like the development of character than it is accomplishing a specific task. We continue to value the unique and gifted place we have in the plan God has for humanity. God values our individuality, worth, and dignity. God has no interest in destroying it. Yet, we become our best self through turning our gaze toward Christ.

          Several key places in the New Testament are good texts for prayerful and focused reflection. I want to share a few of them.

          One text is the beatitudes as recorded by Matthew.


Matthew 5:3-12 (NRSV)

3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


          A second text is from Paul, as he describes the fruit of the Spirit.


Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSV)

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.


          A third text is the great hymn to love Paul constructed.


1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV)

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


          A fourth text is from Peter.


2 Peter 1:5-8 (NRSV)

5 For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7 and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 8 For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.


          When we forget that development of character is the primary purpose God has for us in this life, circumstances will increasingly frustrate us. This life, a life of growth and struggle, is the life we have. Our continual complaint against the difficulty of living is not helpful in developing us into the person God wants us to be. God seems to love growth. We do not come out of the womb as grown adults. We will have to grow into the person we will become. An important part of that growth is overcoming obstacles. This life is not one of perfect health, a comfortable lifestyle, constant happiness, full realization of dreams, and instant relief from problems. Human life is not easy. Commitment to Christ may make one's life harder in certain settings. God is not a genie who exists to serve our pursuit of personal fulfillment. God is not our servant. Life is difficult. We need to strip away the illusion that God intends life to be easy. Our lives serve the purpose God has for it. Life does not serve us.

          The kind of process of which I write here is what the New Testament and Christian tradition calls sanctification. Sanctification is the third consideration of what matters most in Christian life. 

          The work of the Holy Spirit is the work of sanctification, and therefore of forming us into the image of Christ. Some Christian circles think of the Holy Spirit as miraculous demonstrations and intense emotions. However, the Holy Spirit works in quiet, unassuming ways, often in ways of which we are aware only later. The Spirit often works with a gentle whisper. We allow Christ to work through us. Our focus outward toward Christ means that the Christian life is not simply the result of our effort and struggle to do or be something. We allow Christ to change us into what God wants. We allow Christ to influence the choices we make in life. This requires cooperation with the Holy Spirit. This is why images like that of seeds, building, growing, and maturing, are so important in the New Testament. Seeds need planting and cultivation, buildings needs to be built, and children need exercise and growth.

          The first step in this growth is to leave behind an old way of life. Paul offers several lists of vices. Paul describes the way of life people are to leave behind. These behaviors reflect the illusion that sin creates. People may think that they will have happiness through these behaviors. They may not be aware they do them. Here is one alphabetical listing of these vices. As we reflect upon such behavior, the intent is to do some searching of self. Do we exhibit these behaviors? If we do, we need to work with the Holy Spirit to remove them.


Abusive language














False witness



God haters










Inventors of evil




Male prostitutes (malakoi)






Rebellious toward parents





Silly talk


Sodomites arsenokoitai




Vulgar talk



          The second step in this growth is to change the way we think. Paul gives a memorable statement of this change.


Romans 12:1-2 (NRSV)

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.


As Paul goes on to show what this transformation will look like, he writes about spiritual gifts, the law of love, obedience to political authorities, and concern for the health and unity of the Christian community. Transformation of the way we think about life is another key component in becoming like Christ.

          The third step is to put on Christ, as if an article of clothing. This image suggests the importance of developing habits of life that reflect Christ. Our character consists in the way we regularly, continually, and habitually act.

          One way to think about the development of Christian character is this. The apostolic testimony reflected in the New Testament provides the basic truth we need to grow in our reflection of Christ. The Christian community provides the connection, support, encouragement, and accountability we need to grow. The circumstances we face in life provide the environment we need to practice Christian life. God works through people. If God intervened directly in our lives through miracle on a regular basis, we would no longer live in a human world. We live on earth and in a human world. We do not live in heaven, a place where the will of God is done perfectly. Too often, religion seems to value the saint who isolates himself or herself from people and becomes devoted to prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Although such persons may provide powerful insights into these practices, we need to remember that much of the growth we experience in life is through our interaction with other people. We can have a prayerful and meditative approach in our relationships, as well as alone in prayer. We do not become more holy by isolating ourselves form other people. Becoming mature Christians is not an individual or solitary pursuit. The pattern is the life of Jesus. Maturity as Christians is a matter of learning to love as Jesus loved. We might summarize sanctification, becoming like Christ, and Christian maturity, as a matter of learning to love. We learn to love God with increasing fullness, and we learn to love others.

          God must love growth. If science is correct about the growth of the universe, even the universe did not simply appear full and complete. It grew from an initial "bang" that grew to become the universe we now experience. The same is true of life on this planet. Life has emerged with increasing complexity of organization. God is more like a gardener, nurturing life to its fullness and completeness, than like a watchmaker who makes it, winds it up, and lets it run. Becoming like Christ is a process. It does not occur over night. Each of us is works in progress. Our transformation will take the rest of our lives. Eternity will complete the process.

          Much confusion in understanding our reason for being here enters when we forget the importance of character development. As important as individual decisions are, God is not as concerned with them as with the kind of person these decisions help you become. Good citizens in a modern society struggle with political and economic policies and exercise their vote to bring their ideas to fruition. We struggle with the choice of a marriage partner and the choice of how to raise a family. We struggle with career choices. We struggle with leading a life that will lead to happiness. The point is that as we consider such decisions, we need to consider prayerfully the extent to which they will help us become more like the person God wants us to be. God has more interest in who we are than in what we do. A career will pass away. Who we are continues into eternity.

          Becoming like Christ often means adopting a form of life different from culture. Co-workers, friends, neighbors, and parents may not like the decision to be like Christ. Becoming like Christ is not the same as personal fulfillment and emotional stability. To say it again, becoming like Christ shifts focus away from self and orients life toward Christ. The way of Christ is the way of the cross, not the way of comfort. In a modern society, we can be grateful for the freedom we have to worship, pursue Christian life, and share our faith. We do not experience the form of persecution that leads to death. Yet, the context of freedom presents its own challenge to living the Christian life. What I suggest is that much of the work of the church is to help people discern the difference between how many people use their freedom and how Christians use their freedom.

21. Growth in Spiritual Formation

          God seems to enjoy growth. Biology is the study of how living things grow into mature living things. Although some single cell living things begin and end at the same place, living things tend to have a beginning that is small and maturity that is complex. God loves growth.

          God wants Christians to grow to maturity. The criterion for that maturity is Jesus Christ. Yet, many Christians never grow up. They become stuck in infancy. The general reason is that they never viewed Christian life as something in which they needed to mature. They did not view their Christianity as something that needed intentional effort in order to grow. Since training in Christianity is training in the best human life we can live, we need to understand that growth in living this form of life is not automatic or accidental. It requires commitment. We must want to grow, decide to grow, make an effort to grow, and persevere in growing.

          Jesus called disciples to follow him. Through the ministries of the church, Christ still calls us to follow. The first disciples did not understand the implications of what following Jesus would mean. They responded to the invitation. The first thing we need to do is decide to follow Jesus. Many experiences in our lives shape us in subtle ways. Yet, we make various commitments in our lives that both reflect whom we are and shape who we are. Our commitments will eventually define us. When we change commitments, we change the person we will become. Commitments need re-affirmation on a daily basis, for human decisions are never forever. Commitment involves seeing a good thing through to the end, even when it goes bad in places.

          I want to be quite careful here. People living in a modern, pluralistic, and tolerant society often find it difficult to make commitments. We have many options spread before us. The criteria for such a decision about our lives are not precise, as in math and science. Rather, the criteria is more like what we think makes for a good novel, piece of music, painting, and so on. What distinguishes a poorly lived human life from a good or excellent human life is often subtle. Yet, the analogy breaks down even here. The artist makes a decision that affects only the work of art. The human being seeking the best human life makes a decision that affects the course one takes in life. Subtle changes and commitments influence the outcome of our lives. Because the stakes are so high, many people settle for drifting through life and making half-hearted commitments to competing values. Other people make full commitments to values that will not satisfy our longing for a meaningful, significant, well-lived human life. We invest ourselves in finite and temporal things, while expecting them to meet our need for the Eternal and Infinite. Wealth, social status, fame, and power, are things we do not need in terms of Eternity. We will never get enough of things we do not need, because no matter how much we have, it will not satisfy.

          Our commitments will have an inconsistent influence upon our lives. We may be quite committed and fully grasp the significance of the commitment in one area of our lives, and yet lack such insight in another area. For this reason, we need to be serious about the basic commitments we make, while recognizing that their influence upon us will take a lifetime to work out. Thus, our commitment to becoming like Christ will lead to our acting in new ways. We will let go of former habits and routines and develop new ones. We can intentionally change the way we think. I like the way Paul puts it.


Philippians 2:12-13 (NRSV)

12 Therefore, my beloved, … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


Paul suggests here that maturing in Christ is a matter of our daily decision to become like Christ and a matter of God coming into us and working in us. God does this through the Holy Spirit. Our relationship with God is a gift we receive, through the grace of God and our reception of that gift through faith. A new field of possibility opens before us. We need to cultivate that field, allowing the transforming work of God to move into our lives. In particular, human life is always an imperfect and sinful life. We need the healing that the light and life from God can bring into our lives. We need to take this process of maturing in Christ seriously. God takes it seriously, for God wants the human life we lead to reach its best potential.

          In order to make genuine changes in our form of life, we need to change both the way we think and our habits, for they influence each other. If we change the way we think in a way that never changes behavior, we can doubt whether we have actually changed the way we think. If we change behavior without changing the way we think, the changes are cosmetic. What we want in Christian maturity is to become the person God intended us to become. That will require changes of thought and behavior.

          I might illustrate the problem with fundamental changes in a human life in this way. We seem to have various modules or compartments of stored memory and experiences that exist in us. They open to each other and influence each other in various and unpredictable ways. Thus, we may make decision to change our eating and exercise habits. Yet, some parts of our mind and body will not get the message, and a craving develops. Even a fundamental commitment to Christ may change dramatically one area one of life, but will take years to change another area of our lives. What God is after is to change our form of life or view of the world. Again, Paul has some powerful ways of expressing this change.


Ephesians 4:23 (NRSV)

23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,

Philippians 2:5 (NRSV)

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

1 Corinthians 14:20 (NRSV)

20 Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.

Romans 8:5 (NRSV)

5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 13:11 (NRSV)

11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.


          What all of this means is that we need to change the way we think, feel, and act. The bible calls this repentance, cleansing, becoming a new person in Christ, putting off the old and putting on the new, sanctification, and holiness. Sometimes, we will need to work hard on the way we think about certain areas of our lives. Sometimes, we will need to work hard to change the way we behave, expecting that changes in feeling and thinking will soon come. In either case, feeling is an indicator of thought. If we feel repulsed, but are not immediately conscious of why, a thought is present, and we need to explore until we discover with greater clarity the thought that gave rise to that feeling. If we feel fear, a thought is present. If we feel joy and attraction to a person, community, or thought, a thought is present. Feeling is a form of thinking that we need to bring to greater clarity through focused and prayerful reflection and meditation. Note how thinking, feeling, and acting work together. They open themselves to each other. They are not necessarily on the same page at the same time. Therefore, to suggest that we if we change the way we think, we will change the way we feel and act suggests a rigid logic to human experience that I have not found to be true in my life.

          Genuine spiritual maturity is not a matter of biblical information and Christian doctrine. As helpful as such studies are they do not form us into persons living like Christ. Creeds are important. The way we think is important. Much of Christian preaching and teaching has the purpose of helping us to think in a Christian way about the world and our lives. Yet, Christian living is a matter of changing the way we think, feel, and act. What we say we believe needs to follow through in our lives, as we become increasingly like Christ. Among the gifts Christianity has been in its history is that it does not present a full cultural, political, or economic program. It does not present a specific philosophy of life. For this reason, it has moved into various cultures with some ease. It has not wedded itself to any system. Christianity has sought in various cultural and intellectual systems to bring out the importance of moving our minds off ourselves and toward what God has shown in Christ. What Christians throughout history have discovered is the love of God for humanity, and the love for others to which God calls us. Thinking of others, behaving toward others in loving ways, is the best single indicator of Christian maturity. Such a way of life is unnatural, rare, and difficult, for we have a natural tendency to think that the world revolves around us. Fortunately, such a change of life is not simply a matter of our effort. God is also at work in us, in the Christian community, and in the world, to bring about such changes of life. We are not alone.

22. Spiritual Formation and Christian Discipleship  through Engaging Truth

          Truth will transform us.

          Truth is also difficult for us to see. In a human life, truth is the result of reasoning, feeling, and being in dialogue with others. Truth in the area of math and science is quite different. One can put their truth in mathematical theorems. Such truth is a slice of reality. Yet, it assumes a flat, smooth space in which to work. It assumes clear, definite, and precise ideas. In daily life, in order for technology to work the way it does, we can be glad that we can reduce some aspects of reality to this precision. Such is not the truth we need to live a human life. Human life is thick, rich and multidimensional. When we make decisions about our basic values, the process toward truth is far from flat, clear, definite, and precise. The terrain of a human life that reflects upon  the meaning and purpose of our lives, in what our career will consist, whom we will marry, relationship with children, or the political and economic life of a nation, has many twists, turns, mountains, and valleys.

          We read the bible in a multi-denominational, multi-religious and secular context. To suggest that the bible has a special place in what God says to humanity is not to suggest that God has not spoken in other ways and places. It does suggest that when we read the bible with an open mind and heart, we will discover what we need to enable us to discover the purpose of our lives. The bible becomes spiritual milk, bread, and food. We hear these words by Jesus in the story of the temptation:


Matthew 4:4 (NRSV)

"It is written,

'One does not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' "


We also hear these words from Peter:


1 Peter 2:2 (NRSV)

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation-


          Maturing as Christians means friendship with the biblical text. I want to describe this friendship in a way that will make it clear the special role the bible plays in the formation of Christian life.

          First, we need to accept the bible as a trustworthy and true witness to what God is doing in the world. Enough scholarship has entered the public sphere to make many Christians wonder if one can rely upon the bible. Yet, further study can help mature our views. The bible is a truthful witness to the God of Israel and to the God of Jesus Christ. We can appreciate the varying use of myth, legend, history, sayings, court records, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, parable, and letters. The bible is not a philosophical text. Plato and Aristotle produced such texts in a way that remains useful today. The bible is not a scientific text. Galileo, Newton, and Einstein produced such texts that remain useful today. The bible is not a modern historical or biographical text. The truth is, a good bible study will expose us to things we did not learn in early Sunday school classes. For some people, new discoveries mean loss of faith. One wonders if faith so easily shaken is genuine faith. One way to approach thorough bible study is to study it in context, in terms of both literary and historical context. This approach recognizes the historical distance between the reader who interprets and the text. The goal is let the text speak with all its strangeness and unfamiliarity. The bible speaks to us from a different historical period and culture. Good bible study will help us to experience that difference. Yet, the value of the bible is that as we read it today, it helps us to consider questions, such as: what is valuable in life, to what end, for what purpose?

          Jews and Christians have accepted the present text of the Old Testament as truthful concerning what God wanted to say through Israel. Some Christians accept other texts, called apocrypha, as part of their rule or standard of faith. Christians have also accepted the New Testament as a faithful witness to what God was doing through Jesus Christ. Archeologists have also discovered other texts, mostly Gnostic in nature, that speak of Jesus Christ. Regardless of the connection with the New Testament, we need to make a judgment today as to whether the early church made the right decision in accepting the New Testament texts as reflecting apostolic tradition. This decision is critical. If the New Testament is already untrue as a witness concerning Jesus, if the New Testament already distorts whom Jesus of Nazareth was and what God was doing through him, then the New Testament is of no value today. It reflects a church already apostate and fallen from the truth.

          Second, we need to assimilate the truth contained in the bible. Many modern authors approach the bible with a skeptical and suspicious eye. Such studies can be helpful in pointing out dimensions of the text that the church has not generally seen. We need to have discerning read of the text. This often means reading generously. The parable of the farmer who sowed seed (Mark 4) says it well. Some seed fell on hard soil, some on shallow soil, and some on soil with weeds. Yet, the seed could multiply and bear fruit only on good soil. If we get nothing out of reading the bible, we need to check the way we approach the text. We also need to listen to the way James recommends approaching the text.


James 1:21 (NRSV)

Therefore, rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.


          Christians need to read the bible in order to grow in faith and life. Listening to a sermon Sunday morning is not enough to bring maturity. At this point, one of the many daily reading plans available can help people read the bible every day.

          Bible study is a good discipline. This means utilizing the many helps, such as study bible, bible atlas, multi-volume commentaries and bible dictionaries, introductions to the Old and New Testaments, theologies of the Old and New Testaments, concordances, and so on. One might even want to gain some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, the languages in which the bible was originally written.

          One way to engage in good bible study is to ask good questions. Too often, Christians who read the bible are afraid to ask questions of the text, especially if one wants to argue with a text. When a text attracts us, we might try memorization, often by using the text while jogging, while driving, and in other ways throughout the day. One might also try remembering certain meaningful passages. One will come across passages that have an attraction. Reflect upon them with the goal of learning why it attracts at that stage of one's life. In idle moments, such as while driving or exercising, simply meditate upon the verse repeatedly. To explore the theological dimensions of a text, we might ask questions like this: what does the text teach us about God, about humanity, and about the relationship between God and humanity? With some narratives and stories in the bible, it can be helpful to reflect with the use of the five senses. What would you, in your imagination, see, touch, smell, hear, or taste? With the same intent, one could use the gift of imagination to put oneself into the story, imagining the characters in the stories, and even placing oneself in the story. Of course, none of this imagination tells us what actually went on in the story. Using our imagination in this way allows us to explore the issues with which we are dealing in our lives. Another way of personalizing the text is to reflect upon it to the place where one paraphrases the text, using words common to one's life and experience. With some texts, we might accept a challenge that moves us toward change of personal and communal life. What does the text say? What did the author intend to communicate to the first hearers? What situation does the passage address? What is the central idea? What does the text say to believers today? What meaning does the passage have for us today and for me as individual? What does it say to me as a reader? What do I as a reader say to the text? What claims does the passage make upon us today?

          Meditation is focused thinking. To takes effort. Worry is focused thinking upon something over which you have little control. Meditation is focused thinking upon a verse or thought you have received from bible reading and study.

          Third, we need to bring into our lives the way of life we have learned from the bible, and in particular from Jesus. James 1:22 encourages readers to become doers of the word. We can read, study, and attend many bible studies. None of it matters if we do not do anything about what we have learned. The purpose of the bible is to transform us. Read as a Christian, it seeks the transformation of our lives so that we become more like Christ. Some conservative and evangelical Christians go to so many bible studies and seminars, always taking in something new and exciting for the moment, but never allow the word to dwell in them in such a way as to change them. Endless classes can mean little more than avoidance of the hard work of allowing God to work through the bible to change us. Most mainline Protestants do not have this problem. Most need to have someone re-awaken an interest in the bible. Many mainline Protestants have given up on the bible and concern themselves with what they believe is living the faith, all because people of a fundamentalist persuasion turn them off. One reason one may avoid this step is that living what one has learned is difficult and sometimes painful. The truth will set us free. However, it will often make us miserable first. Further, most of us resist change. When we attend studies with spouses and friends, we discover support in the change that God may want to bring into our lives. In small group studies, we learn from other people what they think about the text and how they apply it. One way to stay focused here is simply to ask oneself about what this text or lesson calls forth from us as an action step. Keeping a journal of such activities will help us stay focused, writing down what we have learned and what we hope to do about it. The focus of this study is a changed life. Increasing our knowledge about the bible is important. However, as the standard or rule of the church, its purpose is to change our lives.

23. Spiritual Formation and Christian Discipleship through Difficulty

          The problems, barriers, evil, and suffering, we experience in life have the potential to defeat us or to shape us toward being the persons God wants us to be. God can work in every circumstance. We need open minds and hearts to receive the lessons in living such circumstances teach us. These circumstances develop our character. Life is difficult. Life consists of events beyond our control that bring good fortune or bad fortune into our lives. Life also consists of our learning through the mistakes of others, as well as the mistakes we make. We create problems for ourselves through the choices we make. This is a human world, and a human world consists of such trouble, ambiguity, and difficulty.

          The difficulties of life can bring us closer to God. We discover our weakness, our dependence upon others for help, and our sinfulness. We can become increasingly honest and genuine with self, with others, and with God, when we face the difficulties of life. We can discover that we are not in this world alone. Other people care about us. God cares for us. Such difficulties can strip away our tendency to keep relationships at a superficial level. We learn in suffering things about self, others, and God that we could not learn in any other way. Problems help us see our vulnerability. The world does not go according to our plans. Our plans may not have been so great. Difficulty can bring us closer to our true self, to significant others in our lives, and to God. We learn that the discovery of our true self occurs as we turn our focus away from self and toward God and others. If we depend solely upon self, we discover we do not have the resources to live reasonably well and happily. We need others. We need God. We often discover that God has worked through other people in our lives, to draw us closer to God.

          We often puzzle about why difficulties we view as undeserved could happen to us at this time and place. Some Christians will say that everything that happens is what God has already chosen for us. Other Christians will say that God permits all of these things to happen. One problem I have with this position is that the will of God is done in only one place. We need to remember the Lord's Prayer: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven." This prayer assumes that the will of God is not done on earth. Yet, to speak of God choosing everything that happens on earth says the earth is already doing the will of God. A human world has many events, circumstances, and characters that resist the will and purpose of God. This means that God has not determined, before we were born, every detail that will happen to us.

          In one sense, such questions about why certain difficulties occur in a human world are abstract. Even if God determined everything, we do not have the perspective God has. From our perspective, freedom and uncertainty are realities, even if they are not for God.

          The key verse for this discussion we find in Paul:


Romans 8:28-29 (NRSV)

28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.


Clearly, not everything that happens in this world is the will and purpose of God. Both bad and good occur in a human life. We can also shut ourselves off from the possibilities in these circumstances by becoming resentful of God and of people. However, the promise contained here is for people who open themselves in trust to God. If we open ourselves to God, even circumstances full of evil and suffering can become occasion for God to shape us into the people God wants. We can see how every experience has a connection to others. Circumstances do not occur in isolation from other events in our lives. Our experiences work together to make us the persons we are. Foreknowledge and predestination relate to what happens to those who open themselves to the grace of God through faith and trust. God can use every circumstance to shape us into the "image of his Son." The choice of God is that we become certain kinds of persons. Difficulties, problems, and circumstances will change throughout our lives. We can leave certain problems and people behind us. We take ourselves with us, wherever we go. However, we take ourselves into every difficulty, problem, and circumstance. We can try to avoid self, but we cannot. Paul places the suffering he experiences as an apostle in the context of what God is doing in his life.


Romans 5:3-5 (NRSV)

3 … we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.


We can have confidence that through circumstances, God molds us into people of character, hope, and love.

          I will now suggest some ways in which we can come to God, even in the midst of trials, troubles, problems, difficulties, suffering, and evil.

          First, we can be confident that the will and purpose of God for the world is good. We can easily lose perspective if we focus upon our pain or struggle in this moment. God sees value in a world that works independently of the will of God. God sees value in a world that must learn to work together to accomplish the will of God. God even works patiently with this human world, to the extent of becoming one with us in Jesus Christ, in order to show us the way. If we focus upon the world as it is, we can easily become discouraged. Sometimes, evil and suffering seem dominant. If we focus within, we can easily become depressed. We often lack the moral and spiritual resources to lead our own lives. However, if our focus is Christ, we can have hope and confidence in what God is doing in the world.

          Second, adopt a thankful attitude toward life. We take so many people for granted. Many people have nurtured us in our lives. Even if we came from dysfunctional homes, we may have had friends or extended family who came along side us to help us. If we found our way to church at an early age, these persons became mentors to us, whether we were aware or not. We may have found teachers or bosses who became such persons as well. A mentor is one who makes time for us in their lives beyond the norm. They share with us their perspective on life, and we find some comfort and help in their wisdom. We have much for which to be thankful. We need to resist the temptation to take the good experience through other people for granted. I like the way Paul puts it:


1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NRSV)

give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.


Even the circumstances we experience as bad and evil, we can discover the will of God for it in our lives. In fact, maturity in life is learning that what seems random, baffling, and pointless is part of the fabric of our lives that shape us into the persons we are. In some cases, we might hate things we have done or that others have done to us. Yet, they are part of our lives. Such experiences God can still use to form us into the person God wants.

          Third, we need to persevere. We need discernment, of course. We cannot make other people become something they are not. We do not need to stay in relationships that become destructive to the human spirit. Yet, perseverance is a lost art of living. We often give up too quickly on people or circumstances. If something is not convenient to us, we often want to abandon it. The point is, building character is a slow process. Our willingness to abandon people or circumstances is often our attempt to avoid problems and difficulties. Yet, facing them is precisely what we need to mature. We can short-circuit the growth process and end up in worse pain. Denial and avoidance do not lead to maturity. Perseverance will lead us to consider what difficulties have to teach us, rather than ask why they occur in the first place. For most of the persons reading this text, a problem or difficulty we faced in life caused us the greatest learning in our lives. We might even want to pause and consider that event in our lives that helped us to learn.

24. Spiritual Formation and Christian Discipleship through Engaging the Battle

            The church needs to form Christians who take evil seriously, and who will therefore resist it.

          Temptation reflects the reality that human beings have moral choices to make. When we come face to face with other human beings, we have moral choices. When we confront the possible future self we will become, we confront a moral choice. The experience of temptation reflects the fact that we are self-destructive beings. Although we may desire the best for us, we do not automatically know what is best or, when we do know what is best, often do not choose it. Such moral choices are so significant because they build the character of the person we are. Either we trend toward our best self and the person God wants us to become, or we rebel and deny that best self. We take ourselves with us everywhere we go.

          The person God wants us to be is to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The fruit of the Spirit defines this kind of person carefully:


Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSV)

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.


To bear this fruit in our lives is to become increasingly like Christ. As with natural fruit, spiritual fruit ripens slowly. Every circumstance is an occasion to bear this fruit, or to show and develop their opposite. Temptation occurs when circumstances arise to show the opposite. For example, love is a difficult fruit to show when difficult people are in our lives. Joy is difficult when we confront circumstances of sadness and sorrow. Peace is difficult in circumstances of confusion and chaos. Patience is difficult when we have to wait for something we want now, causing anger to arise. We build character as we pause and consider how we treat the person in front of us and as we consider the kind of person we want to become. We build faithfulness when circumstances confront us with the choice to do so. We build integrity when we defeat the temptation to be dishonest. We build humility when we refuse pride. We build endurance every time we do not give up when the easier path would be to do so. Defeating the temptation toward self-destruction brings us closer to becoming like Christ.

          Temptation arises because of desires we have. Our struggle is to orient our desires toward a life of excellence. Every circumstance is an occasion in which we will orient desire toward the best human life or settle for something far less, and even self-destructive. This self-destructive impulse is difficult for many to understand, largely because we have an inadequate understanding of sin. The human condition is not one of lack of knowledge, but of an improper ordering of desire. I stress this because sin is often twisting proper desire. Fulfilling sexual desire in a way that makes us the best person we can be is a matter of faithfulness to another human being. Sexual immorality, adultery, and lust are wrong. Desire for improvement in our material condition is a matter of doing so while also respecting the personal and property rights of others. Therefore, theft greed, and envy are wrong. Integrity, humility, and wisdom move us toward the best persons we can become, while deceit, pride and foolishness move us toward the worst we can be. The path of life we choose lead us to different places. All of them sparkle and beguile us. All of them have the possibility of leading us away from the person God wants us to be. One road goes to wealth. Another road goes to excitement, variety, and stimulation. Still another leads to status. These roads will not bring us closer to the person God wants.

          Of course, the struggle with temptation does not stop with desire. We then have the choice of whether we will meditate and reflect upon our desire toward self-destruction. Martin Luther had an interesting way of reflecting upon this portion of the process of temptation.


You cannot keep birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.


We generally do not admit its self-destructive force, for that is the deceptive nature of sin. Evil rarely announces itself as evil. Most people would turn it away if evil appeared with horns and pitchforks. Instead, evil appears to us at least allowable and understandable, only human, and possibly good.

          The final birthing of temptation leads to behavior. We give in to the self-destructive force of our desire and thought. We give in to whatever caught our attention. Here is how James put it.


James 1:14-16 (NRSV)

14 But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved.


          We do not have to give in to self-destructive forces. Here are some simple reminders of ways we can gain the important internal victory we need in order to become the person God wants us to become.

          First, we simply acknowledge that we are human beings, and therefore not angels or demons. Human beings have these choices to make. We will move toward either our best self or our worst self. Consequently, surprise, shock, or discouragement that we experience temptation is not a proper response to wrong desire. In one sense, such a reaction reflects the false expectation of perfection. It will also lead to misplaced anger toward self. Even when we follow through to the point of wrongful behavior, we do not need to beat ourselves up too much. We need to learn from what we have done, reflecting upon the process enough not to repeat it, and then move on with life.

          Second, we need to become aware of the pattern temptation takes in our lives. Keeping a journal can help one discern this process. I would recommend taking out 30 minutes per day and simply write down everything that comes to your mind. If you do that, and then give yourself time to reflect upon what you have written, you will start to notice patterns in your life. Some of those patterns you will notice as trending toward the best, and some will be self-destructive. We need to consider when we are most tempted. It might be a particular day or time of day. It might be a place. It might be when we are with certain persons. We need to consider the feelings we have when we are most tempted, such as hurt, anger, or sadness.

          Third, we need to open ourselves to the help God can give. We are not alone in this battle to become the person we can be. Even in our weakest places, God is with us.


Hebrews 4:15-16 (NRSV)

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.


God is patient. If we consider the age of the universe, the age of this solar system, the age of the earth, the emergence of life, and the emergence of humanity, we recognize the patience God has. Further, God has brought into existence entities that are genuinely independent of God. They do not exactly mirror the will and purpose of God. This genuine independence is what makes choice so important. The patience and love of God does not end because we have difficulty making choices that reflect the will and purpose of God. 

          The fact that we experience temptation toward our false self and destruction of the true self God intends forces us to move outside self and toward the help that others can give and toward the help God can give. We recognize our interdependence. If we succeed in this battle to win for ourselves our best self, to win for ourselves the person God wants, it will be because we have opened our lives to the influence of other persons as mentors. We will also open self to God as the one who is the source of life, the one who sustains life, and the one who completes life.

          Christians throughout history have struggled with temptation. Often, this means the discipline of physical or biological drives, bringing them into line with the gospel. This discipline is important in that it acknowledges that this world is finite, temporal, and therefore is not of ultimate significance. This discipline focuses our attention upon our relationship with the Eternal and Infinite, with God, and with the development of relationships with God and self that reflect what God wants. This discipline places into proper perspective our appetite for food, sex, material comfort, pleasing other people, and getting what we want. Asceticism and mysticism often misused this discipline. In fact, they focused upon the enemies of lust, greed, pride, anger, envy, gluttony, and laziness. Yet, when we tell ourselves, "Do not lust," "Do not desire material things," "Do not consume inappropriate amounts of food," "Do not lust," and so on, we have already acknowledged their power over our thoughts and potentially our behavior. Our focus upon the enemy increases the power of the enemy, even if we desire its defeat.

          Further, when we struggle in a particular area of our lives consistently, we can become discouraged. We need to remember, however, that gaining an inner victory is the most important victory we can gain. The greatest battles we face in life are not with other people (including parents), but with our fear, anxiety, and doubt. Our greatest battle is with self.

          The experience of temptation toward our false self and our self-destructive tendencies leads us to consider the way in which we can gain an internal victory. If we speak of victory, we acknowledge a battle. The question before us is the best way to wage the battle.

          First, we need to focus our attention upon what is excellent.

          Temptation presents itself to us first as a thought upon which we dwell and meditate. When we meditate upon self-destructive qualities and behaviors, we strengthen the attraction they have to us. Every time we try to block a thought of our minds, we drive it deeper into our minds. By focusing upon resisting a thought, we re-enforce its power over our lives. One reason why diets fail so often is that they keep our attention upon food. Further, we focus our attention upon the foods we enjoy, but can no longer have if we are to stay on the diet. A person enjoys warm bread. The same person commits to a diet that includes protein and vegetables, and excludes bread and other carbohydrates. Therefore, that person will think about bread. Another person has a problem with sexual desire, focusing upon variety. The person experiences attraction in the presence of beauty. Instead of appreciating beauty, the person fights against acknowledging it. The person suppresses this attraction, which will then emerge in other ways. A third person has a problem with wanting material comfort. By choosing a life of poverty, the person acknowledges the hold that material comforts have.

          The easiest way to resist that which tempts us toward self-destruction is to dwell and meditate upon things that move us toward excellence. Paul must have had something of this in view when he said:


Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.


We need to pay attention to those things that get our attention. We need some discernment, making sure that the things upon which we think, reflect, and meditate are things that move us toward our authentic self.

          Second, we need to reveal our struggle to a spiritual friend or support group.

          Our habits are such because they have become automatic. Some of our habits are to our benefit. Some of our habits are roadblocks toward becoming our best self. Anger in certain settings may feel automatic, as if we could not control it. The same may be true of our sexual desire, desire for material comfort to the point of inappropriate debt, desire for others to like us, lying to protect our selves or get others to like us, and failing to keep promises because it puts us at a disadvantage. When we approach such struggles as if we are in it alone, we keep our struggle a secret. Keeping such matters secret enhances their power. We may want to communicate the illusion that everything is under control. Yet, if we could have handled such areas of our lives alone, we would already have done so. Willpower and personal resolutions are not enough.

          We do not make changes in our lives easily. We are so deceptive that we will pretend to ourselves that we do not have a problem. We are often afraid to talk about it. In order to gain internal victory, we will need to acknowledge our vulnerability and seek the aid of other people and of God. Soldiers do not go into battle alone. They are part of a team. Confession of our struggles and failures to another human beings is an important dimension of gaining internal victory.

          We have a graphic example of temptation in Genesis 3. Eve isolates herself from Adam. While alone, the thought arises to do something God forbade, namely, eating fruit from one particular tree. It bothers us that the command of God concerns such an unimportant thing as fruit. Yet, often we reveal our character in small events. An angry word, a selfish act, lustful meditations, inappropriate consumption of food and expenditure of wealth, and so on, can reveal who we are and what we value. In the small act of disobedience, Eve discovered who she was. She wanted to lead her life independent of God. She also wanted to bring Adam into her orbit. Then, they broke the familiar relationship they had with God in Eden by hiding from God. The secretive nature of sinful behavior becomes clear. Yet, even though Adam and Eve sinned together, the sin disrupts their relationship with each other. The experience of authenticity they had in Eden with God, with each other, and with nature, remains a hope, but is not human life. Chapter 3 of Genesis shows the disruption of love for God, while Chapter 4 shows the disruption of love for the neighbor. The Ten Commandments reflect concern for love for God in the first four commandments and love for the neighbor in the last six.

          The authors of the Gospels tell us that Jesus experienced temptation and struggle. In particular, at the opening of his public ministry, in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, Jesus experienced a temptation none of us will have - to be the Messiah that contemporaries wanted him to be. The temptation came after Jesus isolated himself from others by being in the desert and denying himself food. The resistance of temptation through scripture suggests the importance of meditating upon the bible as a resource for gaining internal victory. The prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane in Mark 14 reveals the struggle of Jesus as he approached arrest, trail, and death.

          The New Testament does have a description of what we need for this battle.


Ephesians 6:10-17 (NRSV)

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.


25. Spiritual Formation and Christian Discipleship takes time

          Fruit takes time to mature and ripen. The development of Christ-like character is not something that one can rush. As with physical growth, so also spiritual growth, takes time. Our question is often how fast we can accomplish a task. The question with which God appears concerned is the strength and depth of character we develop. Clearly, character is not a task we accomplish; character is a life we develop. The development of character occurs sporadically. Although our basic commitments affect the totality of our personalities, these basic commitments exert their influence slowly, by fragments, and in sudden lurches forward and backward. If we imagine our interior lives as a home, we have various rooms, closets, crawl spaces, and hidden compartments that affect our thinking and behavior. We do not know ourselves fully. We can give to God day by day what we know of ourselves. As we discover the hidden places, and the places we need courage to enter, we open ourselves increasingly to the influence Christ wants to bring into our lives. This is the way Paul expressed it.


Philippians 1:6 (NRSV)

6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.   


Completion of this work of God in us awaits the future. In fact, the ministry of the church has its purpose in helping people become like Christ.


Ephesians 4:11-16 (NRSV)

11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.


The fact that people come to church weekly as well as attend other groups for study, prayer, worship, and service, suggests we understand at a tacit level that spiritual growth takes time. Speed and a quick fix do not work when it comes to development of persons.

          Clearly, God loves life, and therefore God loves growth. Living entities suggests growth.  We might imagine what a world would be like if every living entity received life, physical maturity, and intellectual maturity at the beginning. However, we do not have that type of world. 

          We learn slowly. Every individual learns less rapidly in one area of life than in another. We keep learning the same or similar lessons through mistakes. We revert to self-destructive patterns of thinking and behavior.

          We un-learn slowly and unevenly. Therapists learn that the presenting problem upon entry into a counseling relationship is rarely the issue that they will discover later. One must uncover the roots of the presenting problem, often going back to patterns of behavior learned in the first five years of life. We need to remove the old self and put on the new self, a process that takes time.

          We are afraid to face the truth about self. Denial of a problem or issue is often easier than facing the painful reality of the truth. Even if we conclude that we have invested self in lies or self-destruction, we still have invested a portion of who we are in them. To let go of old patterns of behavior is to let go of a portion of who we are.

          Our habits take time to develop. We have spent years becoming the people we are, doing so through certain patterns of living. If we are to develop new patterns of life, we will need to develop new habits. Spiritual discipline is the way Christian tradition expresses this principle. This process takes time. Keeping a journal or notebook often helps us to reflect upon the patterns our lives weave. We need patience with ourselves. The value of a journal in spiritual discipline is that we so easily invest ourselves externally in the activities of the day that we never pause for a few moments and ask ourselves questions about what we brought to the events to the day, as well as what we can learn from them. A journal is a way of holding that experience for a moment, reflecting upon it, and learning from it.  It is a way of working through bad experiences and bringing ourselves to the point of healing and forgiveness.  It is a safe place to share our thoughts, our images, and our feelings.  Such a journal allows us to have a record of memory, as well as to reflect upon events in life more deeply. The anger that spiritually sensitive persons often have toward self, especially because of impatience with spiritual growth, is itself an expression of our lack of appreciation for the life and growth that God loves.

          Spiritual discipline is a matter of refusing to lose self in the instrumentalities of life. It must maintain its connection with Christian worship and fellowship in community. Christian spirituality suggests that the aim of one's life is to become a human being who reminds others of their source and destiny in Christ. The focus is authentic spirituality, a possibility through relationships with others and with God. Authentic spirituality refers to the orientation of one's life toward Christ, an orientation never fully realized in the present. The assurance of forgiveness that justification brings provides the foundation for authentic spirituality. The fact that forgiveness of sin in justification includes those whom we have harmed suggests that authentic spirituality is also in community. Authentic spirituality is for this world, enabling us to turn toward this world with love and grace. Since God has left no one alone in this world, the potential is present for every person to respond to this love and grace, to this life-giving Spirit. The human predicament is a social predicament, in that we express our sin toward others. The healing of the human predicament is a social healing, in that the reconciling work of God in Christ seeks the healing of relationships within humanity as well as with God. Laws and rules will not provide the integration and direction that spirituality requires. Rather, the wisdom the bible provides in terms of loving God and neighbor, of honoring the body, of cultivating virtue and avoiding vice, of pursuing peace and justice, occur in the context of Christian community. No one can have any degree of authentic spirituality without participation in Christian community and loving embrace of the world that God loves. Authentic spirituality is nothing less than love actualized in our character and in our action. The life-giving Spirit calls all Christians to the fullness of that life.

          Growth in human life occurs in stages. We move through stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and various phases of adulthood as we mature in life. Spiritual growth can demonstrate some of the same type of stages. Just as with the stages of a human life, we can define spiritual growth stages by the types of problems we face. Of course, some people exhibit signs of being “clueless” when it comes to spiritual matters. However, most people are at some stage of spiritual growth.

          The seeker is asking important questions, such as whether life has more to offer than acquiring more stuff, power, or popularity. The seeker rarely has a sense of how sinful and self-deceptive one is in the process of seeking. Seekers will give themselves far more credit than they ought. God works on them through what many traditions call prevenient grace. From the Christian perspective, the big question of this stage is who Jesus is to them. They need conviction of their sin and their need for the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

          The follower has made the move toward Jesus and wants to follow him. The problems they face are around the values by which they live, for they want to live consistent with Christ. They have experienced justifying grace. They recognize that their lives will need to increasingly focus upon Christ rather than self. Many experience some joy and happiness in discovering clarity in their lives as they follow Christ. They want to learn more about Jesus. They need information.

          The owner struggles with the form his or her ministry will take. We might calls this the working of sanctifying grace, as one goes deeper with God in both devotion and service. The owner wants to give more time to God. The owner wants to help in the body of Christ. This stage can become a place where people become stuck, pushy, judgmental, legalistic, crusty, and self-righteous. They need personalized direction from God to move to the next phase.

          The reproducer faces the problem with becoming too familiar and stale with Christian teaching. Church is boring. They have the same experiences. Yet, sanctifying grace continues to work on them in steadily directing and focusing their lives. They need to learn to share what they have learned in Christ with others. One wants to spend time with people in whom they can invest their lives. Growth is in learning to replicate their faith in others.

          We develop spiritual habits in order to open our lives toward an end or purpose of our lives that we value. Such habits we develop over time. I have previously discussed corporate means of grace, such as worship, accountability groups, bible study, baptism, and the Lord's Supper. I would now like to focus upon other ways in which we may open ourselves to the grace of God.

          Pascal once said, "All of humanity's problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone."  To achieve simplicity and peacefulness in our lives, we need to spend time alone.  This practice can help us develop an intuitive heart.  We need to learn to listen to the inner voice that is our greatest source of wisdom and grace.  Inner peace translates into outer peace.  It helps to balance the noise and confusion that infiltrate much of our day.  Those who set aside this time find they can manage their lives much better.  When they do not get this time alone, they notice the difference.  We can learn simple meditation practices that help quiet our minds.  Finding time to be alone is not an easy matter for many people, including Christians. So much irrelevant stimuli and randomness occurs as we immerse our lives in the world. If we grow in our inner life, we must penetrate below the level of the obvious. Solitude is the stronghold of the strong, providing a place for life to flourish. Even busy lovers find time to be alone and write letters. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said:


Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils.  One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.


          Study is an analytical process by which we observe and change our habits of thinking.  It involves a certain amount of repetition of the practice, concentration, comprehension, and reflection.  For example, understanding, interpreting, and evaluating a book or other objects of study are important elements of study.  There may be times when we pay the price of one barren day after another until the meaning becomes clear to us.  However, this process can revolutionize our lives.  Whether the object of study is the Bible, or some other great spiritual classic, or a great commentary or theological work, or any of the human and social science, we can grow in our walk with God through them.

          Fasting in scripture is a matter of abstaining from food.  Normally, such fasting referred to abstaining from food, but not water.  In most cases, fasting is a private matter, between the individual and God.  There are, however, times for corporate prayer.  There are also times in the scripture for regular fasts.  Note that in the Sermon on the Mount, fasting appears to be part of devotion, along with charity and prayer.  Also, in Mt. 9:15, it is clear that Christians are expected to fast after Jesus was gone.  Where are the people today who will respond to this invitation? Fasting has long been an important aspect of prayer.  To fast is to abstain from eating and drinking for a shorter or longer period.  Fasting implies merely that our souls at certain times need to concentrate more strongly on the one thing needful than at other times.  For that reason, we renounce for the time being those things that may be both permissible and profitable.  Fasting is entirely in line with what we have said above about the necessity of having quiet and secluded seasons of prayer.  We resort to fasting in order to set our distracted minds free from material things and the distraction of our environment.  We give the Spirit an opportunity to search out our whole inner being and speak with God about the things that grieve the Spirit.  In this way, we can re-establish unhindered communication with the Holy Spirit and receive a greater inflow of divine power.  One may feel the need to fast during times of great temptations, before one makes an important decision, while planning and carrying out difficult tasks, and before great and mighty acts.

          Simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style.  It begins with an inner focus and unity.  We need courage to articulate new, more human ways to live.  Simplicity is not a dream, but a vision of the future that Christians can recapture today.  The church needs to recapture it. We will not get everything done.  Many of us live our lives as if the secret purpose is somehow to get everything done.  We take life so seriously.  People are frustrated and uptight about almost everything.  We have certain expectations of the people around us.  We become frustrated when life does not go the way we want.  We stay up late, get up early, avoid having fun, and keep our loved ones waiting.  Sadly, some people put off their loved ones for so long that others lose interest in maintaining the relationship.  We convince ourselves that our obsession with the "to do" list is temporary.  Once we get through the list, we will be calm, relaxed, and happy.  In reality, this rarely happens.

          Humility and simplicity in life go hand in hand.  The less compelled we are to prove ourselves to others, the easier it is to feel peaceful inside.  It takes an enormous amount of energy to continually point out our own accomplishments.  Such bragging actually dilutes the positive feelings we receive from genuine accomplishment.  The less we care about seeking approval, the more approval we receive.  People are drawn to those with a quiet, inner confidence.  Such persons do not need to be right all the time, or steal all the glory.

          The Buddhist teaches that the glass is already broken.  Everything that we see today will eventually vanish.  If we look far enough into the future, the earth itself will fall into the sun.  If we look at the immediate future, our favorite glass will break someday.  Everyone we meet will die.  Nothing lasts forever.

          "Will this matter a year from now?"  Whatever circumstance we deal with is not happening right now, but a year from now.  Then, we need to ask ourselves "Is this situation really as important as I'm making it out to be?"  Once in a great while it may be, but a vast majority of the time, it simply is not.  Chances are, a year from now, what we care about so much now simply will not matter.  It will become an irrelevant detail in our lives.  Such a question can give us needed perspective.

          Submission carries with it the freedom from the need to get our own way.  The focus in the Bible is on the spirit with which we view other people.  We are free to value other people.  Their dreams and plans become important to us.  Self-denial is simply a way of coming to understand that we do not have to have our own way.  Our happiness is not dependent upon getting what we want.  Self-denial does not mean losing identity or self-contempt.  This theme is difficult for us because it runs counter to modern life.  Submission is a voluntary act of service to others. Its limit is when those to whom one submits become destructive or abusive. Human community has webs of authority, in which in some places we are at the top of the pyramid, and in other places in the middle, and in still others at the bottom. No matter where we are in human hierarchy, submission is an important Christian quality.

          One can find great liberty in serving. Many parables of Jesus have servants in them.  Do we identify with them? Service enables us to say no to the world's games of promotion and authority.  The point is not that we are to do away with all sense of leadership or authority.  True service comes from a relationship with the divine deep inside.  It is willing to perform small and large acts of service with the same spirit.  True service is content to remain hidden.  It has no need to calculate results.  True service is a life-style.  It builds community. Service is conducive to the growth of humility.  It is a way to discipline the desires of the flesh.  Such service is hidden and content with small things.  It has willingness to guard the reputation of others.  Common courtesy, hospitality, listening, and bearing the burdens of others are wonderful acts of service. 

          Nothing helps us build our perspective more than developing compassion for others.  Compassion is a sympathetic feeling.  It involves the willingness to put yourself in someone else's shows, to take the focus off yourself and to imagine what it is like to be in someone else's predicament and simultaneously, to feel love for that person.  It is the recognition that the problems of other people, their pain and frustrations, are every bit as real as our own -- often far worse.  In recognizing this fact and trying to offer some assistance, we open our own hearts and greatly enhance our sense of gratitude.

          Compassion is something we can develop with practice.  It involves two things: intention and action.  Intention means we remember to open our hearts to others.  We expand what and who matters.  We expand our interest from ourselves to other people.  Action is the "what we do about it" phase.  It is not so important what we do as that we do something.  Service needs to become a more important part of our lives.  Genuine acts of service arise out of our own life context.  We need to become more open to helping those around us each day.  The small, quiet, often unnoticed acts of kindness could often be the most meaningful.  As Mother Teresa said:


"We cannot do great things on earth.  We can only do small things with great love." 


Compassion develops our sense of gratitude.  It takes our minds off the small stuff upon which we train ourselves to focus and take far too seriously.  We cannot change the world.  We can make the world a brighter place because we lived here. 

          We need to look beyond the behavior of others, when they act in ways we do not improve.  We need to become more interested and curious in the way other people choose to live and behave.  This does not mean we allow others to "walk all over us."  It does not mean we approve of negative behavior.  However, we need to give other people the benefit of the doubt.  The behavior of others needs to bother us less.  In most cases, the behavior is innocently motivated.  Other people have their way of viewing the world.  We need to respect that difference.  We have enough to do with our own lives.  We do not need to try managing the lives of others. 


V. Considering Our Influence: A Life-style of Developing the Heart of a Servant

26. Accepting Our Task - Living What Matters

          We have the purpose of making a positive contribution to the individuals, families, communities, work places, nation, and world in which God has placed us. We are not present simply to receive from others or consume the resources we have. We are here to become a resource for others. The point of life is to make a positive contribution to life on this planet. We have received life as a gift from others and from God. We have received a political, cultural, moral, and religious tradition, much of which we can receive gratefully and live. We have received so much as a gift. We need to give back to life. What we give back is our ministry or service.

          I like the way Paul often balances grace and works. Here is one important text.


Ephesians 2:8-10 (NRSV)

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.


Life is not about getting what we deserve. We overestimate self when we think that we deserve what we have received from others and from God. We fail often enough in reaching our own goals and standards, let alone in relationship with others, to forget how much we owe to the grace of other people and to the grace of God. We give other people plenty of reason to ignore us or oppose us. Yet, for that reason, God has shaped us to overcome our self-centered approach to life and influence others through caring for them. We discover our best self as we engage in life with others. If we want to be part of what God is doing in the world, we will need to make a positive contribution to the individuals and communities we touch. I question whether someone has genuinely experienced the love and grace of God in their lives and at the same time does not sense a call to share that love and grace with others. We dare not separate salvation from the fruit of good works. If the healing work of God has begun in our lives, we will want to become agents of healing in the lives and communities of which we are part.

          One of the most important communities we have the privilege of touching is the church. Every ministry or service in the church is an important one. Many people do things behind the scenes that, if they did not do them, the church would have a difficult time. Trustees maintain buildings. Electronic persons keep sound and video functioning. People write notes of love and care to pastors, teachers, and the sick. We dare not think that something about which we are passionate is not important. All of it is important for the healthy functioning of the church.

          When we are clueless concerning spiritual matters, we often live as if getting what we want is all that mattered. When we become seekers, we suspect that we need to commit to something far larger than us. We may have some uneasiness about the pattern we weave with our lives. When we become followers of Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves to a form of life about which we will need to learn. The bible, bible studies, worship, and groups for service, all contribute to our learning what following Christ means. However, we cannot spend our whole lives taking in what it means to be Christian. In fact, an important aspect of learning to be Christian is to teach others, through word and deed. We need to act upon what we have learned. We need to allow what we have learned to shape our way of life. When we look for a church, the question we often have is whether the church meets our needs or blesses us. Finding such a community is important. Life is hard. We need a community where we feel embraced by the grace of God. In fact, a sign of unhealthy spiritual development is to continue trying to make a community into something it is not, in order for it to feed you. Every church has a tradition, a set of values and commitments, which shape its life together. The church may not have a form of life that nourishes us. If so, we simply need to move on. It is better for that Christian community, and for your spiritual development, if you admit it and move on. At the same time, we need to ask ourselves where we can find a place to serve and be a blessing to others. We need to get past wondering which church will meet our needs, and move on to wondering what needs we can meet in the lives of others through this church.

          An interesting story occurs in Mark 10:35-45. When Jesus comes in glory, James and John want to sit next to Jesus, one at the left and the other at the right. The other ten disciples become angry at the request. Jesus then has these sharp words to say:


Mark 10:42-45 (NRSV)

42 "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."


The point I would emphasize is that even Jesus came to serve others. Those who would follow Jesus must learn to do the same thing. An important part of the reason we are here is to discover how we can best serve others. God wants us to make a difference in the lives and communities we touch. The point is not the duration of our lives but how well we have lived. We can gauge how well we have lived by reflecting upon the contribution we have made to others. Learning to serve is the path to discovering the meaning and significance of our lives.

27. Becoming Servants

          Ephesians 2:10 has a word that refers to a work of art, a masterpiece in the New Living Translation, a work of God that refers to our lives as this work of art. God takes every facet of our lives and molds it into this work of art that is - us. God does not waste anything in our lives. Even those areas of our lives we wish we had not done, or we wish others had not done, can become agents of healing and grace to others. From the standpoint of nature, this set of genetic material never existed before and will never exist again. Even identical twins will have enough separate experiences that will make them into different people. Jeremiah 18 has the wonderful image of the prophet wondering if God would still work with sinful Judah. Yet, he observes the potter at the wheel, making a mistake, and then simply re-molding the clay into a vessel the potter can use. Every experience we have is something that, if we are open to it, God can use to make us into channels of healing and wholeness to others.

          Only I can be me. Only you can be you. If we try to become what others want us to be, we deny to them the gift God intended us to be to them. If we are fearful, we will pull back from becoming our best self. If we are full of neurotic self-doubt, our anxiety will hold us back. We long to do something that only we can do well. We long to give something to the world that will bear the stamp of our presence here. God calls us to add something to the creation of the universe. God shaped us for a purpose, a ministry, a service. Psalm 139 is a wonderful testimony to the care God gives to each individual.


Psalm 139 (NRSV)

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

3 You search out my path and my lying down,

and are acquainted with all my ways.

4 Even before a word is on my tongue,

O Lord, you know it completely.

5 You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9 If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10 even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night,"

12 even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;

you knit me together in my mother's womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.

15      My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

all the days that were formed for me,

when none of them as yet existed.

17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

How vast is the sum of them!

18 I try to count them-they are more than the sand;

I come to the end -I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,

and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me-

20 those who speak of you maliciously,

and lift themselves up against you for evil!

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

22 I hate them with perfect hatred;

I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my thoughts.

24 See if there is any wicked way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.


          I would now like to share some ways that God molds us into the persons God wants us to be.

          One, God shapes us by helping us discover our spiritual gifts. The classic texts for this emphasis are in I Corinthians 12-14, Romans 12:1-8, Ephesians 4:1-16, and I Peter 4:10-11. God has graced each of us with gifts. The fact that these gifts arise out of Christian community suggest the interdependence we have. No individual has all the gifts, for that individual would have no need of others to bring completion to him or her. We need each other to discover our wholeness. Using our gifts, we show love and care to others and receive the love and care of others. A spiritual gift has the purpose of helping others. We need to open the gift God has given us, and become the messenger of healing, love, and hope that God intends for us to be to the communities and people we touch. Discovering our gifts is an important way for us to discover the ministry or service God has for us.

          Bonhoeffer, in Life Together makes the following observation:


A community that allows unemployed members to exist within it will perish because of them.  It will be well, therefore, if every member receives a definite task to perform for the community, that he may know in hours of doubt that he, too, is not useless and unusable. 


          An inappropriate emphasis or an inappropriate dismissal of spiritual gifts has led to problems. One is the envy of the gifts of others. We de-value our gifts and magnify the gifts of another. Although we may delude ourselves into thinking that we are humble, we actually become envious. Two is when we expect others to have the gifts we have. One example is the gift of compassion. Some persons have a special gift for noticing suffering and responding to it. Yet, to expect everyone to have the same level of compassion is unrealistic.

The church is a gift-evoking, gift-bearing community.  I base this description on the conviction that when God calls people, God calls them into the fullness of their own potential.  No one enters into that fullness except in community with other persons.  No community develops the potential of its life together unless the church evokes the gifts of each of its members and people exercise them on behalf of the whole community.

When people use their gifts, they become initiating centers of life.  When we confirm their call to this segment of the church, we say by that confirmation that we will be instruments in calling them forth in their totality.  The one who joins assumes that same responsibility for all the other members of the community.  This covenant is implicit in the celebration of commitment of each new member.  The church is full of variety.  Sameness and conformity are the demands of alien spirits.  No gift is unimportant.  There are no lesser gifts.  Each is crucial to the proper functioning of the body of Christ.  Each contributes to the rich diversity needed by the church for its work within the total community.  Such a church has the power to heal, to liberate, and to tackle even the most complex issues of our society.

We recognize that when we use our gifts, we meet a need in us that corresponds to the needs in the world.  Those who teach do so because of their own need for knowledge, and then they share what they learn with others.  Those who become involved with the poor often confront their own conflicts with money and possessions. 

In the end, we have to say that the exercising of gifts has to do with love.  God addresses us by love, and we love.  Discovering and using our gifts is a preparation for love.  Therefore, such a process is difficult.  Discovering our gifts requires a reflective mind and a contemplative heart.

One important resource for discovering spiritual gifts is regular participation in worship. Another resource is reflection and meditation upon the bible. Another important resource is our life of prayer, meditation, and writing. Genuine gifts we discern and develop will lead to an increasingly Christ-centered life, enable us to share in the mission and ministry of the risen Christ, and unleash the power of the Spirit through us to a world in need of love and healing.

Paul offers several lists of gifts of the Spirit. Here is one way to list them.



Assistance or helps

Compassion or mercy

Discerning of spirits




Generosity or giving


Leadership or administration

Leading with diligence

Pastor and teacher




Tongues interpretation

Utterance of knowledge

Utterance of wisdom



          Two, God wants us to listen to that about which we are passionate. The Book of Proverbs has some interesting wisdom to offer concerning the importance of discovering our passion.


Proverbs 13:12 (NRSV)

12 Hope deferred makes the heart sick,

but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.


We have a bundle of desires, hopes, interests, ambitions, dreams, and affections. Such passions reveal who we are. We have a dream of what we can become. We have a dream of making a difference in the world, in families, in communities, in work, and in church. What makes living worth while is having a dream large enough that catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance. Although God cares for every human need, human beings have limits. God has placed a dream in each of us that meets a legitimate need. We have certain subjects that enliven us and bore others. Some experiences bore us, while still others capture our attention. Such experiences reveal who we are. When we bring passion to what we are doing, we bring enthusiasm. What excites us about the world? What angers us about the world? What would we do if we had the time and money to do anything? What do we enjoy doing so much that time flies when we are doing it? We do what we do for the sheer enjoyment of doing it. I have heard some people say, and I have said it myself, "Just think, I get paid to do this." One does not need applause, rewards, or payment, although we all need them occasionally. When we do that about which we are passionate, we do it because we love to do it. Of course, the opposite is also true. We become easily discouraged when we do that which we no longer have passion for doing. When we bring passion to what we are doing, we also bring effectiveness. When we love to do something, we also want to be good at it. Passion drives us to excel and to move toward excellence. Making a profit or doing something out of duty will never satisfy us. Achieving authority over others, becoming famous, and surrounding ourselves with stuff, will not satisfy us. The good life is never enough. We can have something to live on, but if we have nothing to live for, we have missed the point of our lives. Discovering our passion is an important key to unlocking why we are here.

          Three, God wants us to use our abilities. Some people have a facility with words, others with athletics, and still others with numbers, music, or mechanics. Some people have a natural ability for the arts, another for architecture, and another for running a business. Some people will make a lot of money. Some will be good with farming and gardening, and still others for inventing and selling. Some will actually enjoy dangerous settings, such as the police officer, soldier, detective, and fire fighter. God has a place for all of them in the larger plan God has for the world. The point is whether we recognize that such abilities come from God and have the divine purpose of serving others. We need to learn to be good stewards of what God has given us. If we want to know what the will of God is for us, we need to take seriously the clues we receive in what we are good at doing. The abilities we have are a strong indication of what God wants us to do with our lives.

          Four, God wants us to use our unique personalities or temperaments. Students of human psychology have long noted what appear to be certain types of persons. Some will be extrovert, receiving energy by being with others. Others, although drained by too much people time, will find energy in reflecting and meditating. Still others will enjoy thinking and analyzing, while others will rely more upon how they feel. Some will want to tie things together nice and neatly and as quickly as possible. Others are quite comfortable keeping many decisions hanging, keeping their options open as long as possible. Some will rely upon intuition, and others will rely upon their five senses. The point is, each of these dimensions of personality, as derived from Carl Jung and the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, are ways in which God works through us.  God can work through our personalities. In order for us to grow, we often seek out persons who complement or represent in some way the opposite of our personalities. Rarely do we engage in this process intentionally, but it does seem quite natural. In order for us to mature as personalities and to grow spiritually, we often need to the opposite of what we are. We often do the same in our occupation. Introverts will often instinctively put themselves in jobs that require them to engage with people. In fact, if we do not seek the opposite, we often stunt our growth. Of course, one can take this too far. In general, people will need to reflect upon their personalities enough to know persons, jobs, and even churches, which will simply not fit.

          Five, God wants to work through our experiences to shape us into the person God wants. Our families are part of experience. In particular, the emotional life of parents becomes part of our experience at deep levels. Their anger, fear, and joy become part of who we are. Our teachers influence the subjects that attract us. The first jobs we have influence the direction we seek in life. The first experiences of meaning, fulfillment, and wholeness shape us. When we take our first steps in doing what we believe God wants, we discover more of what God wants. Painful experiences, consisting of the problems, hurts, and trials of life, become part of what shapes us. God wastes nothing in our lives, and that includes the most painful and hurtful of experiences. Often, the place where we touch others most deeply is through our hurt, rather than our successes. I do not believe that God wanted us to go through such experiences. Such painful experiences often include people who have gone against the will of God. Yet, God can mold these experiences in such a way that we can bring healing to others and in the process to ourselves. The experiences we resent, regret, or even would like to hide from and forget, are the ones God wants to use to help others. God can shape our ministry through these painful experiences. For God to use painful experiences, we need to stop covering them up, admit our faults, failures, and fears, and share them. We often encourage others in their spiritual journeys when we share the way the grace of God has helped us in our weakness. Aldous Huxley once said:


Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.


          God uses all of these ways to shape us for ministry or service in the world. The combination of spiritual gift, passion, ability, personality, and experience represent the unique people we are. They are the keys we need to unlock the path we need to take toward fulfillment and fruitfulness in our lives. Whatever success we have in life will be because we have made a fit with our gift, our passion, our abilities, our personality, and our experiences. Giving prayerful attention and discernment to these areas of our lives will move us further down the path God has for us.

28. Offering to Others What God Gave to Us

          A Danish proverb goes like this: What you are is God's gift to you; what you do with yourself is your gift to God. Spiritual gifts, the desire or passion of the heart, abilities, personality, and experience, are the primary means ways in which we become who we are. The grace of God leaves no one alone. Even when we are unaware, God draws us toward the person God wants us to be. Even our disobedience and the disobedience of others become occasions for God to mold us into what God wants. Not everything that happens clearly is the will and purpose of God for us. However, God is able to shape all experiences into what God wants.

          The process of discernment is one of discerning the often subtle ways in which God guides us toward being who we are and doing what God wants with our lives. We talk with other trusted people who can be honest with us. Several inventories for spiritual gifts, abilities, and personality are on the market. They can be important to us as part of the process of discernment. However, the results always need the prayerful reflection of the one who takes the inventory and the honest consultation with other trusted persons.

          One of the reasons we have difficulty identifying our gifts is that we have had no one to listen to us or even to look at us.  In Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town, after Emily has died she chooses to return to her home and observe the day of her twelfth birthday.  As she watches the day unfold, she becomes painfully aware that no one really notices what is going on.  Finally she cries, 'I can't, I can't go on.  It goes so fast.  We do not have time to look at one another."  Very few of us have had a listening, seeing person in our lives.  We do not hear what others, not even our children, are saying because we, ourselves, have had no one to hear us.  We do not have the feeling that what we think and what we say is important.

          The best way to discover spiritual gifts or natural abilities, for example, is to experiment. We need to start serving, and in the process, we will discover spiritual gifts and natural abilities. We may have abilities and gifts of which we have no knowledge because we have not tried them.

          We also need a process of discernment concerning our passion in life and our personality. What do I enjoy doing most? When do I feel the most fully alive? Am I introverted or extroverted? Do I like things quickly concluded or do I like many decisions left hanging? Do I operate by intuition or by the five senses? Do I make decisions by analysis or feeling? Such questions need our prayerful reflection, often with a journal of our reflections. We also need to engage other trusted persons in conversation concerning our passion and personality.

          We also need a process of discernment as we prayerfully consider what we can learn from our experience. Extracting the lessons from our experience that God wants us to learn takes time. Often, as the future unravels its mysteries, we discover what certain decisions and experiences mean to us. Often, the smallest decision or event can loom large as we live our lives. Often, decisions or events that seemed so immense at the time lose their significance. A journal can help us reflect upon these experiences.

          Each of us becomes who we are in a way that both provides openness of possibility and limits or boundaries. Resentment or rejection of who we are will not move us toward what God wants. We need to recognize the hope and limits of the unique person we are. God has a field of service for us. Comparing ourselves with others is not helpful. Another person does what we do better than we do, so we become discouraged. Another person does what we do worse than we do, so we become full of pride. Either way, we rob ourselves the joy of serving God. Further, conformation of our lives to the expectations of others is never helpful. Others will not understand the unique person we are, and so will criticize us because we do not conform to what they think we should be doing. For these reasons, it becomes important for us to discern the ways of God in our lives, have confidence in what God is doing in our lives, and have hope for the direction God leads us.

          We enlarge and develop who we are through using spiritual gifts, passion, and natural ability. Failure to use them will result in loss of them. Jesus told an interesting parable that illustrates this principle of enlargement through practice.


Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)

14 "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'


29. A Heart like a Servant

          We need to develop the heart of a servant.

          Generally, human cultures value political or economic power, achievement, possessions, or social status. We want other people to admire us, pay attention to us, and serve us. Becoming a servant is not a popular image for the successful life. Yet, as Christians view God through Jesus Christ, greatness is a matter of the service we render to other people. One day, Mark tells us, the disciples of Jesus argued among themselves as to who would have prominence among them.


Mark 10:42-45 (NRSV)

42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."


          Unfortunately, many people have led lives that they consider one of service, when it is little more than becoming a doormat for others. They confuse the heart of a servant with lack of confidence in oneself, conforming to whatever others want us to be in order for them to like us. Having the heart of a servant is a matter of setting aside self-centeredness and incorporating the needs of others into our plan of life.

          Knowing who we are reveals some of the possibilities and limits of our lives. Developing the heart of a servant reveals our maturity.

          We know we are in the process of developing the heart of a servant if we become available to serve. Servants do that which the situation in the family, community, place of work, or church seems to require.

          The heart of a servant pays attention to the needs of others. The servant responds in that moment, because the opportunity to serve a particular person may not come again.

          Servants do the best with what they have. Less than perfect service is better than the best intention. We have heard, and maybe even used, a phrase something like this: "If it cannot be done with excellence, do not do it." We often fear serving because we do have a perfection streak. The problem with this attitude is that we have to start somewhere. The first time we try something will probably leave us wishing that we had done better. We need to leave room for improvement, for we grow in that way.

          The heart of a servant recognizes that we are never beyond doing menial tasks. Part of the development of character is recognizing that the mundane will always be part of our lives. Jesus washed feet, helped children, fixed breakfast, and served lepers. No act of service was beneath him because he came to serve. In fact, great opportunities often disguise themselves in small, menial, and mundane tasks. Faithfulness in little things will often prepare us for faithfulness in the big things.

          Servants will be faithful in what God has led them to do with their lives. Servants will keep their promises. They do not quit when they become discouraged. They are trustworthy and dependable. Most people make casual commitments. They will break commitments and promises for the most slight reason, with little hesitation, remorse, or regret. Most churches have people volunteer but fail to prepare, show up, or notify those whom they affect by such decisions.

          Servants willingly maintain a low profile. Serving to impress others is not impressive. Self-promotion and developing the heart of a servant do not mix. The servant has an audience of one - God. Many people are faithful servants in small places where they feel unappreciated, a feeling that may reflect reality. Yet, God cares immensely for us. We need to be discerning of whether God wants us to stay where we are, or to move to another field of service. We need to learn the difference between prominence and significance. We need to put behind us the quite natural discouragement we feel when our service goes unnoticed or taken for granted: whether in the family, church, work, or community.


30. Thinking Like a Servant


Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV)

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

8      he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death-

even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.


          We need to learn to think like servants.

          Servants think more about others than themselves. They are self-forgetful. When we stop focusing upon getting what we want, we become aware of the needs and desires of others. Service often becomes self-serving. We want others to like us, to admire us, or to achieve our goals. Such manipulation of other people is not genuine service. Self-forgetfulness is rare. Self-denial, losing one's life in order to find it, is the core of developing the heart of a servant.

          Servants think more like managers than owners. They recognize that every relationship that matters and every possession they have is transitory. They do not cling to people or things as if their meaning and significance comes out of these finite and temporal things. The time, relationships, and things in our lives belong to God. In particular, the way we manage our material possessions reflects our willingness to use what we have to honor God. Jesus talked often about wealth. He used examples from the business sector of his world.

          Servants think about the tasks God has given them to do. The servant does not have time for comparing oneself with others, criticizing others, or competing with others. Jealousy is rather petty. Our job is not to evaluate other servants. We find this view from Paul as well.


Romans 14:7-12 (NRSV)

7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written,

"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,

and every tongue shall give praise to God."

12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.


Luke 10:38-42 contains a story about Martha complaining that Mary was not helping with the work. In doing so, she lost the heart of servant.

          Servants receive their identity through their relationship with Christ. They do not have to prove their worth. As such, they do not gain a sense of worth through what they do or what they have. Our insecurity leads us to want others serve us and receive their approval. When we give up seeking the approval of others, we free ourselves to serve them with what they need. No job is beneath the servant. We need to hear the practical significance of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.


John 13:1-5 (NRSV)

 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.


Notice that this text has Jesus aware of who he is as the Son, to whom the Father had given all things, and yet he washed the feet of his disciples. Jesus was a servant in every way. We need to develop the same heart for serving others.

          Servants think of ministry as an opportunity. Service does not arise from a sense of obligation or following a law. They enjoy helping other people become the best they can become.

31. God's Power Shown through Our Weakness

          Everyone has weaknesses. The question is what we do with our weaknesses and imperfections. Usually, we deny, defend, excuse, hide, or resent them. When we do not face our weaknesses and imperfections, and accept them as part of who we are God cannot minister to others through them. In fact, God often ministers through weakness.


1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NRSV)

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."


In this text, foolishness and weaknesses are the ways God chooses to work through us. Jesus was not a political or economic leader. He was part of a despised religious sect of the Roman Empire. The disciples were not part of the upper class in Israel. The first Christians were not from the upper social classes. If God shows us what God is like in Jesus, we need to look away from political and economic power. We need to look away from social status and prestige. Of course, human self-delusion is often blind to the imperfections of the human condition. Power and wealth draw us toward them. Yet, the point Paul makes is simple. If God is going to work with human beings, God will need to work with imperfect people, for imperfect and weak people are all that exist. By weakness and imperfection, I mean that which we inherit as a limitation upon our lives. Often, such weaknesses are simply part of the accident of birth and environment. Some good fortune is simply in the genes and in the family and neighborhood. Some bad fortune is simply in our genes and in family history and the neighborhood. For many persons, the accident of being born in the USA is a matter of good fortune. The political environment and the social status of family are matters of good fortune and bad fortune. They are often the gifts through which God will work, if we accept the limits as limits.

          Paul is honest about his own ministry, which he admits is through weakness.


2 Corinthians 4:7-12 (NRSV)

7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.


2 Corinthians 12:7b-10 (NRSV)

7bTherefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.


          We need to admit weakness and imperfection. Denial and excuses will not help. "Fake it until you make it" is not the path to happiness in life.

          We need to be content with our weaknesses and imperfections. Such limits are part of a human life. We are not gods, angels, or demons. Our weaknesses help us to depend upon God. They keep us humble. They keep us in fellowship with others. Our strength tends to encourage us toward independence. Our weaknesses tend to show us how much we need each other. Further, our weaknesses increase our capacity for sympathy and ministry. We are far more likely to be compassionate and considerate of the weaknesses of others. Moses had a temper, Gideon showed deep insecurity, Abraham showed fear, Peter was impulsive, and so on. God turns our weakness into strength in the sense that it often becomes the point of connection we make with others.

          We need to be vulnerable with our weaknesses and imperfections. Becoming vulnerable is another way of describing humility, as we become honest with other people concerning our weaknesses and imperfections. Authenticity attracts others. Vulnerability is the path toward intimacy. We can impress people with our strengths as long as we are at a distance. We have to become close to others in order to influence them.

          We need to learn to thank God for our weakness. We can pose as self-confident and invincible people. Other people will see our weaknesses, often before we do. Some will delight in pointing them out. The best way to deal with such criticism is something like this. "Yes, you are right. In fact, if you knew more about me, you could point out even more flaws, weaknesses, and imperfections. I have more than I can count." The point is that God helps us in such weakness. Our tendency to become defensive is not helpful.

          God works best in our lives when we admit our weaknesses. We will limit the power of God in our lives the extent to which we hide weakness from self or from others. The grace of God is sufficient for us. The power of God reaches perfection in our weakness.


VI. Considering the World: A Life Style of Re-presenting Christ to the World

32. Human Life with a Mission

                God made us for a mission. The sense of personal mission arises from our consideration of ends. Personal mission is not satisfied with following rules. Personal mission recognizes the human hunger for a connection to something greater than self-preservation or self-advancement. God is at work in the world. God wants us to join in what God is doing. When we do so, we discover our mission in the world. When we develop the life-style of a servant, we are thinking primarily of the ministry we have in the body of Christ and through the body of Christ. Our mission is the service we render in the world. The Greek word that we translate as "apostle" is a word that originally meant one sent in the name of another or representing another. We need to discover the reason we are in the world. For the Christian, the reason we are here is nothing other than representing (re-presenting) Christ to others. In fact, John connects the mission of Jesus and the mission of the disciples, and therefore our mission.


John 20:21 (NRSV)

21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."


The mission Jesus had on earth has become our mission. The mission of Jesus was to bring people and God together. People have taken the path of alienation from their best self, alienation from each other, and alienation from God. While we sense this separation, we seek to overcome it in ways destructive of self, others, and society. We need God to show us the way of reconciliation. The need for reconciliation arises because those who were once friends have become separate. Engagement in reconciliation brings us in line with what God is doing in the world, uniting us to our best self, to others, and to God. God has shown us that way in Jesus. Paul phrased the mission of Christians in this way.


2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (NRSV)

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.


When we accept this path of reconciliation, we put ourselves on the path to love God with all that we are, to become part of a body of the body of Christ, to become like Christ, to become servants of humanity and Christ, and to show the world what God is like through presenting Christ to the world. The church today, and therefore the individual Christians today, has the mission of being messengers of the love of God for the world.

          Our mission today continues the mission of Jesus in the world. We do not have a call only to come to Jesus. We also have a call to go into the world for Jesus. Our families, our neighbors, our co-workers, need to see Jesus through our words and deeds. We would disobey God if we refuse to accept responsibility for this mission.


Matthew 28:19-20 (NRSV)

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Mark 16:15 (NRSV)

15 And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.

Luke 24:47 (NRSV)

47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

John 20:21 (NRSV)

21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

Acts 1:8 (NRSV)

8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."


          Our mission is a privilege. We have the opportunity to partner with God in the building of a world that reflects what God wants. We have salvation because of Christ, we are part of the family of God, we have the Spirit who shapes us into the image of Christ, and who then makes us agents for Christ in the world.

          Sharing with others the source of meaning and happiness in life is the greatest thing we can do for them. The greatest kindness we can show others is to share what God is like in Christ and what God wants humanity to be like in Christ.

          Our mission connects people with the Infinite and Eternal. When people make this connection, they make the greatest connection they can make in their lives.

          Our mission gives our lives meaning. We need to invest our lives in something that will outlast our lives. That is why we need to live committed to worship, to fellowship, to spiritual growth, to ministry, and to fulfilling our mission. Our lives are not a waste when we invest them in this way.

          If we accept such a mission, we need to abandon our agenda and place our mission in life alongside what God is doing in the world. We need to learn to care about what God cares about in this world. What God cares about seems simple enough. God wants lost people found. God wants lost people to come home. God wants reconciliation.

33. Sharing Our Life Message with Others

          Before people believe God is trustworthy, people will need to have some sense that the church is credible and that individual Christians are credible. Before people read a text called the bible, people read the text of our lives. God wants to speak through the unique messenger we are to a world that needs what we have to say through word and deed. Through our spiritual gifts, passion, abilities, personalities, and experiences, we can help bring other people into the family of God. What I would like to do now is to give some ways to help the reader work through the unique story we have to tell others. I offer this statement as a summary of what I have shared in this text.

          We have a testimony or witness to share with others as part of our life message. At this point, we do not have to prove a legal case. Yet, we are the greatest authority on the ways God has worked in our lives. We can learn to share our story by working through four areas of our lives. We need to ask ourselves what our lives were like before Jesus became important to us, what happened when we realized we needed Jesus, the time and place we committed our lives to Jesus, and the difference Jesus has made in our lives.

          We have life lessons as part of our life message. God has taught us many lessons in life and discipleship through our experiences. People can learn from what we have learned. We are wise if we write down the major life lessons we have had so that we can share them with others. We can learn from success and failure, from our faithfulness and our unfaithfulness. We may have gone through a time when we lacked financial resources. We may have gone through pain, sorrow, or depression. We may have waited. We may have learned from critics. The point is, life experience is an important source for learning.

          We have passions that are part of our life message. God cares about everything in the world. Since we are not God, God gives each of us a passion or something about which we care deeply. God gives us different passions so that everything God wants to happen in the world will happen. No one can do it all.

          We have good news as part of our life message. The good news is what God has done in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God shows us what God is like and what God intends humanity to be. We need to learn how to make friends, be a friend, and bring our friends to Christ. Friendship is the best way to share the good news with others. As Christians, we need to have friends who are not Christians. God loves each person. Every person matters to God. Love leaves no choice but to share the love of God for them. Paul gives some good advice at this point:


Colossians 4:5 (NRSV)

5 Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.


God does not want anyone to remain lost, isolated, alienated, or alone. God wants the redemption of all. God has made us to be a member of the family of God, to model the character of Christ, to bring glory to God, to be a minister of grace, and to be a messenger of good news to others.

          The image I have in my mind is that of bringing people to the door of life with Christ. We can stand by the door, and direct those whom we influence to walk through the door. We cannot walk through the door for them. Anyone who is a Christian today is so because others have faithfully shown the way. However, at some point, we want to say “Yes” and walk through the door. I want to encourage Christian parents in particular that we cannot make our children walk through the door. However, we can be as faithful as we can be in pointing the way. Our part is faithful witness in word and deed. The rest, we need to leave to God. We may never see the fruit of our faithful witness to others. We may be one stage in their journey.

34. Sharing Our Life Message in Modern Society

          Individual Christians and the churches have a right to participate in forming the best modern society we can become. Christianity in a modern context shows its participation in modern society through its encouragement of families, the benefits it receives from science and technology, its encouragement of people to participate in political life through voting, and the benefits it receives from the economic life of modern society. The church benefits from the tolerance and pluralism of modern society, in that the church has the right to proclaim its message and live its message. In this segment, I want to suggest a few areas in which Christians and the church can share its message in a modern society. In doing so, I hope that churches and individuals will consider ways their mission in life can contribute to what God wants to do in the context of a modern world.

          One way to think of the influence of Christianity and the church is how it deals with the individualism of modern society. Generally, persons in modern society rightly celebrate the opportunities for expressing and receiving worth and dignity within modern society. Most scholars today recognize that the self arises out of social interaction. We are not unencumbered and isolated selves. Our personal happiness depends on our ability to come out of self and genuinely care for another.

          One alienating feature of the modern form of life is the abuse and misuse of the freedom individuals have to pursue the best life they can lead. When the church helps people consider proper ends toward which we strive, the church can become part of the intricate web of strengthening connections in society. The church can do this, while always recognizing the imperfect way in which the practice of love and justice will find expression in society. Genuine Christianity will not succumb to the perfectionist tendency of much of religious involvement in society. The fulfillment of the purpose of God is always ahead of us. It will never find full presence in the institutions of society. The practice of Christianity, morality, and love will always be a matter of choice and persuasion, rather than law.

          The first community to which one relates is family. Here is the beginning of self. I do not think I need to enumerate the stresses upon the family. Divorce rates are high. In many cases, couples do not consider either their own growth or the development of their children as they consider divorce. Single parent families need the support of the church, for they experience even greater stress. This does not mean society should be against divorce. The occasions of physical and mental abuse upon spouse and children are evidence enough for this. Theologically, we might suggest that the marriage has the intent of bringing two people to their best life together and to bringing them closer to being like Christ. However, the couple also has the right to determine the point at which they have failed that covenant. The church needs not to be in a position of consigning people to marriages that bring out the worst in each other. Having said this, the church needs to be in the position of strengthening families. Most churches do so unintentionally, as they provide intergenerational experiences, where young couples witness the example of older Christians who have happy marriages and good relationships with their children. Churches can also have this influence through intentionally designed ministries that address the needs of families within the church and community for good marriages and parenting.

          The nature of the family has come under public discussion. Given the freedom of modern society, homosexual relationships will need a form of legal protection so that abuse of a partner does not occur. Some form of domestic contract is a possibility for society. However, those who find the bible to have continuing relevance can only note that marriage in the bible always means the relationship between man and woman. Even in the relationship between God and Israel or Jesus and the church, the bible finds useful the metaphor of husband and wife.

          The second community to which many persons relate in modern society is an educational system, the classroom, teachers, and administrators. As society becomes increasingly secular, the way the schools handle religion will undergo change. I do not know where this will head. However, the church and Christians can help shape their school system. Christian schools and home schooling ought to be options that a secular society accepts, for it values individuality and freedom. School choice should have the support of society as much as any other choice. However, from a Christian perspective, isolating the Christian from rubbing shoulders with people who are not Christian is not the best long-term option. The point is that churches and Christians can work through various parent and teacher organizations, as well as administrators and school boards, to ensure quality education that supports ethical norms and values recognized by most persons. Goodness and moral life is not the exclusive property of religious people or Christians. The fact that all persons bear the image of God and that God influences all persons through the subtle working of the Spirit in ordinary life move people in that direction. Everyone needs to discipline feeling through courage and self-control. Everyone needs to discipline their use of tangible goods of life through liberality or generosity, valuing productive work as an expression of our worth and dignity, having both honor and humility, and practicing simplicity. We all need to develop responsibility, tolerance, justice, truthfulness, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, gentleness, and faith in our relationships with others. We all need the emotional maturity that forgiveness and gratitude bring.

          Local communities need persons committed to form a good society. One way to think of it is that whatever is true and good belongs to what God is doing in the world.


Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.


          A third community to which most people eventually belongs is that of work. People have a natural concern for economic well-being. Earning an income and supporting family is a prime undertaking in our lives. Adults spend most of their waking hours working. The weakened ties to family and church mean that the place of work has become the primary social environment for many persons. Coworkers have become the new family and social community for many persons. We become citizens of the place of work, receiving salaries, pensions, and health insurance. Many companies become the center of the lives of employees through childcare, health centers, drug and alcohol counseling, and an array of social services. Too many adults overwork as an escape from family life, a place where they enjoy adult social relationships and have their hard work appreciated. Yet, churches rarely emphasize the relationship between work and faith, and I suspect many Christians see little connection. If the church serves well in a modern society, it helps business leaders approach their role in Christian ways, without dictating specific business or economic practices. The church needs to be among those who respects the worth and dignity people experience in owning things (private property) and producing things (wealth.)

          Human society struggles with the distribution of the physical and cultural goods that provide for the preservation and fulfillment of human life. The bible protects private property in its command not to steal. The Old Testament clearly objects to kings abusing their authority by taking the property of the weak. The bible is clear that seeking wealth is not an end in itself. Wealth is not a tool for the oppression of others or the use of cruelty in amassing it. The bible is also clear that God owns everything and that God entrusts human beings with the care of the world. One way to view the Parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is that it is moral to profit from our resources, wit, and labor. God may well expect us to use our talents toward productive ends. The moral formation of a people will lead to a society that increasingly produces the best for life together. Failure here leads to many persons focusing upon success in work as all that matters.

          The pressure in modern society is to surround oneself with as much stuff, pleasure, and prestige as one can. The pressure is on to have others notice your worth and dignity and elevate you to distinction. The gift of simplicity is that of not taking oneself so seriously. One does not have to own the best car, achieve the highest office at work, become the most popular person in the community, or become the wealthiest person in the community. For Christians, the way one uses financial resources becomes a witness to the community. The lifestyle of the Christian matters. I do not suggest that anyone has the right to judge whether others have proper stewardship of their financial resources. I do suggest that Christians need to raise this question and answer it for themselves. The kind of home, car, entertainment and other expenditures tells the community something about us. Everything we have belongs to God. We need to discern prayerfully how God wants us to use the financial resources we have.

          Jesus showed the way of the Christian in his compassion and the embrace he gave to people his society rejected. Christians will differ politically in terms of how we influence society toward compassion. The capacity to offer compassion in a modern society assumes that those who help have largely reconciled themselves to a modern way of life and want to help others engage in it. Compassion for the poor recognizes that some people will find it difficult to connect with the complexities of modern society. Compassion from those who have found a place in modern society toward those who have not can help bring healing and reconciliation to hurting lives. Such compassion acknowledges the worth and dignity of the persons and families one is helping. It also extends a bridge across racial and economic classes in society.

          A fourth community within modern society is that of science. Modernity justly values the influence of science. It has provided many benefits that Christians have experienced in their daily lives. Yet, some Christians have suspicion of science. I grant that the attempt of some scientific theory to reduce human beings to the interaction of electrical charges and genes is difficult to reconcile (possibly impossible) with the view of God as the source of life. However, Christians assume the goodness of nature, based upon Genesis Chapter 1. Scientists assume the orderly character of nature, using mathematical principles to describe it. Some Christians have particular difficulty with evolution. Although many in the scientific community assume the random character of evolution, the development of intelligence suggests evolution has a direction. If it has direction, it may well have purpose. The point is that, from a Christian perspective, God demonstrates infinite patience in bringing life into the universe, as well as forming humanity into the best it can become. This patience suggests that God respects the individuality and freedom of the beings God created. God does not exercise power in the way human beings do. God exercises power through subtle influences of what is true, good, and compassionate.

          A fifth community in modern society is the media. The forms of communication of a culture are a major influence in shaping the way a people think and behave. We might note this reality in what people read, what people watch on television, the movies and plays people attend, the web sites people develop and visit, the songs people sing, and so on. We might distinguish between folk culture that emerges from the way of life of a people and the new, mass produced, and standardized character of pop culture. Christians and the church can have an influence in pop culture through self-discipline of habits in saying no to the worst of that culture. However, the best way to overcome the worst is to cultivate something better. Churches and Christians need to cultivate what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and excellent. At the risk of sounding rather boring, one of the best ways to do this is to encourage reading classic works and focusing upon plays and movies that inspire and motivate. Having groups of church members who participate in culture in this way provides a positive example. Having Christians involved in the production of such culturally uplifting material would be a great way of influencing culture.

          A sixth area of concern is that of nature. Humanity often works with nature to make the world increasingly like a home. In particular, modern society seeks the improvement of daily life for the masses. Science and technology provide opportunities that previous generations could hardly have imagined. Yet, such advances occur because of increased knowledge about the world, especially about atoms, cells, and chemical reactions. For the sake of our life together, science, communities, and religious communities, need to remain in dialogue with each other to determine proper courses of action. Simply because science describes a process whereby human beings can do something does not mean that human beings should do it. Such decisions require the involvement of all participants in modern society. The churches need to have a place at that table.

          Finally, there are matters of war and peace for modern society. Churches benefit greatly from modern society. By their actions of marriage, family, work, cultural involvement, voting, and running for office, Christians show their ratification of the basic institutions of modern society. This means that Christians and their churches have a stake in the continuation of the political and economic structure of modern society. It means openness to improvement of the structure, but not its over-throw. It means recognition that any threat to a free society is a threat to Christians as well. Discussion and negotiation is always the preferred way of resolving disputes. However, there are times when people come to irreconcilable differences. The matter of the continued existence of slavery in the United States was one such occasion. Another occasion was when the Nazis believed Jews were the source of the problems in Europe and therefore deserved execution. Another occasion was the form of political and economic organization espoused by Soviet Communism and that of liberal democracies. Although one large war did not end this battle, Korea, Vietnam and the nuclear arms build up were part of that confrontation. Consequently, pacifism is not an appropriate Christian response to the threats to modern society. Pacifism is a response that ultimately brings great harm to us, to our families, and to our neighbors.

          The recent threat from Muslim terrorism has had profound impact upon world relationships. Throughout the 1990's, terrorists waged war on the West. The attack on September 11, 2001 made it clear to all with eyes to see the cultural war that now engages the world. The freedom Americans assume is a threat to the moral system of extremist Muslims. These persons willingly cut the throats of innocent persons, shoot children in the back, strap bombs to the bodies of children, women, and men, in order to kill women and children. They hide in neighborhoods rather than fight soldier to soldier. Such behavior is all I need to know about them. All I need to know about Nazis is what they showed the world in their movies of people getting off trains, stripping men, women, and children, and ultimately gassing them to death. I do not need to understand the psychological, sociological, political, or economic forces that brought this behavior to their minds. They told me all I need to know. Given the power they had, they had to be defeated. Modern terrorism is the same type of force, although it does so for religious or cultural reasons. Free societies need to be clear that the objective of these terrorists is their destruction. Christians living in a modern world have a stake in the continuation of the freedoms they have enjoyed. 


35. Becoming Fully Alive Christians

          We need to become persons fully alive to God, to others, and to what God is doing in the world.

          Most of us have gone through phases of life when we did the minimum to what we thought of as getting us by when it came to our faith. We were on the fringes of the church and of the faith. In some cases, we may have pretended to be Christians, knowing in our minds and hearts that we were not. To some degree, we may have wandered around, not sure if we really wanted to live our lives in a Christian way or not. I now want to share how we can become mature Christians.

          First, we need to shift from self-centered thinking to other-centered thinking. We discover our true self, our best self, not by obsessing about self, but by focusing others. We are important. This time and this place are for us of great significance. Yet, we discover genuine joy, happiness, and meaning in life through opening our lives to others. I would suggest taking prayer without ceasing seriously at this point. As we engage people, we can engage them prayerfully, seeking to tap into the resources of wisdom we already possess. We can have discerning engagements with others by giving attention to them and to their spiritual journey.

          Second, we need to shift from local thinking to global thinking. The church is far more than the local church that nourishes us. The church is far more than the denomination we appreciate. Christians come in many traditions, rituals, beliefs, and values. We are Evangelical, Holiness, Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many new groups that have formed since the end of World War II. These differences matter. We take them seriously as we consider the church family to which we belong. Yet, they are not of ultimate difference. We share with Christians around the world the mission of sharing the good news with others. Some people will have the special calling of bringing Christ to new cultures. We can support them. We can become short-term missionaries. We can educate ourselves about the mission work of other denominations in other countries. We can work with Christians locally from other denominations. Among the gifts of the church is that it includes persons from every nation on earth, every ethnic group, ever social and economic status, and so on. If the church thinks globally, it can become more of an agent for reconciliation in the world than it has proven to be thus far.

          Third, we need to shift from grasping at the finite and temporal and turn toward the Infinite and Eternal. We often grasp at things that even five years from now will not matter, let alone when we contemplate Eternity. This world matters. Our stewardship of this time and place and the portion of the world we influence is important. Yet, properly holding the present in the presence of Eternity helps us to not grasp at things and people as if they will give us something they could never give.

          Fourth, we need to shift from living from excuses to living from responsibility. A genuine life is a life of response to a call. We can always reject this call. We need to accept responsibility for this life that God has given us. God has already called us to worship God, to fellowship with other believers, to grow into the image of Christ, to be servants, and to join in the mission God has in the world. We do not need to wait for a call from God to start living this form of life.

36. Balancing Our Lives

          A balanced life is a life blessed by God.

          It can become quite easy for us to over-emphasize any dimension of life, even if they are part of what God wants. We can achieve some balance as we build into our lives a pattern of accountability for spiritual life.

          We become accountable to others through a spiritual friend, guide, or small group. We can learn to ask in small groups such questions as when we felt close to Christ, when we felt distant from Christ, or when we responded to the call of God. We can learn to ask how things are with the soul or spiritual life of others. We can give feedback to others, and receive feedback from others. Often, such accountability can come through bible study groups. We can learn to encourage others and give strength to each other through such groups.

          We can give ourselves a spiritual self-examination. This requires prayerful reflection, a discerning heart, and honesty. We can check our spiritual health as we reflect in various ways upon whether our worship of God is true, our fellowship is genuine, our character formation is toward Christ, our service and ministry honors Christ, and our mission re-presents Christ to the world. Reflection upon the seven deadly sins has proven helpful for some: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth (laziness). The seven virtues of Christian tradition are also helpful sources of self-examination: humility, liberality (generosity), chastity, mildness, temperance, happiness, and diligence. The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, is always a fruitful source of reflection. Here are some other texts I would offer.


Exodus 20:1-17 (NRSV)

Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work-you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.


1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV)

 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


Galatians 5:16-26 (NRSV)

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.


          We will need to learn to record progress in a journal. Writing re-enforces for us the importance of what we are doing. Even if set aside a small amount of time for this, we will find a pattern in the things with which we struggle, the things that attract our attention, the things that repel us, and so on. The pattern is what often surprises us and becomes part of our growth.

          We will need to learn to mentor others. Sharing with others what we learn is the best way to re-enforce what we are learning. Our mission is to re-present Christ to others. God loves this world more than we can know. God loves the world more than many people in the world will ever know. They will never know unless we take seriously our mission to share the love God has for the world with others.

37. Living the Life that Matters

          Most of us want to live with fullness, happiness, and meaningfulness. Such decisions are far from easy. We learn from the diversity that we see as we engage other human beings, beginning with family, and continuing with our community, schools, places of work, and religious communities. We recognize that others will not come to the same conclusions to which we have come. We end up struggling with questions of identity and purpose. Who are we? Do we matter? Once we work through such questions, we have worked through our basic plan of life. These are questions regarding moral life. How shall we live? Many people live aimlessly, without direction or purpose. Many people discover that without some sense of direction and connection to a worthy end, their lives will have little meaning. Many people discover that they need to discern what matters most. Without discerning this, we easily become distracted and get off course.

          One way to work through matters of our basic plan of life is to consider the direction of our lives. We need to know that what we do with our lives glorifies God, brings us closer to an appreciation of the people of God, helps to grow toward Christ-like character, develops the heart of a servant, and helps us re-present Christ to others.

          What gives our life its center? We might also refer to the foundation or ground, or even to the end toward which we live our lives. However, settling the question of what gives our lives a center of gravity is one that brings clarity to our lives. If we know that we want our lives to honor God, we have added a certain course of action, and have subtracted many others.

          What character will I develop? We take ourselves with us wherever we go. We change jobs. Our families change. We change. Yet, we must live with the person we have been, are, and will become. For the Christian, the decision is settled. We want our lives to reflect Christ.

          What influence will I have upon the people and groups of which I am a part? We determine our influence as we reflect upon our spiritual gifts, our passion, our natural abilities, our personalities, and our experiences. This question concerns the service or ministry we want to bring to others.

          What will I say to the world with my life? The point of our lives is to share in the mission God has in the world. God is moving the world to a gracious end that God has defined in Jesus Christ. We need to discover our place in that mission.

          In what community will I invest my life? Human community shapes who we are, whether our family of origin, our neighborhoods and schools, and places of work. The family we choose, either as single persons, spouse, or children, are important communities as well. They are places we need to live out our faith. Yet, when we choose to be part of a community of faith, we are with people who share our desire for growth in faith, hope, and love.

          All of this suggests a sense of accountability. We are accountable to the best person we can become. We are accountable to the people who become part of our lives, and to the way we become part of their lives. We are accountable to the way we have worked with God to become part of what God is doing in the world.