Shape your worries into prayers

prayer

In Philippians 4, Paul offers a positive strategy for dealing with worry. Since worry is  a prideful way of thinking that you have more control over life and its circumstances than you actually do, the strategy is the release of humility. 

As Martin Luther put it, with characteristic punch: “Pray, and let God worry.”

When someone says, “Please pray for me,” they are not saying “let’s have lunch sometime.” They are issuing an invitation into their lives and their humanity- and often with some urgency. And worry is not a substitute for prayer. Worry is a starting place, but not a staying place. Worry invites me into prayer. As a staying place, worry can be self-indulgent, paralysing, draining, and controlling. When I take worry into prayer, it doesn’t disappear, but it becomes smaller.

We can pray.  That’s our part in the plan. Worry divides the mind. Prayer concentrates it. “We tend to be preoccupied by our problems when we have a heightened sense of vulnerability and a diminished sense of power. Today, see each problem as an invitation to prayer.”  ( John Ortberg)

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.” (Phil 4:6,7)

The frame of prayer is laid out quite clearly: “petitions and praises.”  The first simply means the acknowledgement of need, and the expression of faith-filled requests. The  second means the expression of gratitude and the offering of thanksgiving. And this too is faith-filled and trusting. What He says He will do, He will do.  It is my part to sort through the issues, work calmly, with all the intelligence I can muster, and lay it all out before my Father, and then leave it with him.

I used to have a boss who said that. I would bring an issue to him, and he would say, “Leave it with me.” It didn’t mean, “Don’t bother me.” Neither did it mean, “Your concerns are not worth considering.” On the contrary, it meant that I had done the right thing, as an employee, and had taken the problem to the place where it could now be dealt with properly. And it would be “actioned.” What a great word. Action would be consequent upon request.

But Paul doesn’t leave it there. He wants to conclude this section by talking about the one who prays. How do you get to be someone who is not tossed and bothered by all the bits and pieces of life? How do you become someone who is comfortable in their own skin, and who exudes peace and calm and clarity of thinking?

His answer is to do a character sketch of the one who has learnt to shape his worries into prayers. Paul describes someone who has learnt to live in the confident assurance that the things he has left with God will stay there, and that God will sort it out and see it through.

And, primarily, the one who experiences this assurance is one who has learnt to think differently from the “normal” ways of the world.

“Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” (Phil 4:8.9)

It’s a specific call to bring your thought-life into line with the character of God as a way of dealing with the ruinous grooves of worry and anxiety.

Negative Rumination

Although it’s natural and can be healthy to self-reflect, reflection becomes problematic when it’s negative, excessive, and repetitive. Rumination is a kind of negative thinking in which we get mentally stuck and keep spinning our wheels without making progress, like a car stuck in the mud. Rumination can make you more and more anxious as you keep thinking of more and more negative outcomes that could possibly happen.

Overthinking

Overthinking is when you go over and over different choices in your mind, trying to imagine every possible outcome and everything that could happen in the future, to make sure you make the perfect choice. Your focus is on avoiding mistakes and risk. The problem with overthinking is that it’s an attempt to control what isn’t controllable.

Cynical Hostility

Cynical hostility is a way of thinking and reacting that is characterised by angry mistrust of other people. You see other people as threats. They may cheat you, take advantage, let you down, deceive you, or otherwise cause you harm. Cynical hostility involves interpreting other people’s behaviour in the worst ways. You may think the driver ahead of you is being deliberately slow to frustrate you, or that a friend has an ulterior motive. Cynical hostility can ruin your relationships and increase your blood pressure.

What do you do? You fill your mind with the best; you consider the things that are “true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious.”

“Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realised. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.”

This is a helpful conclusion. It contains the things that we do ourselves and the things that God does for us. We work in tandem.

But as for me and you, the way is pretty simple. Fill your mind with the goodness of God. If you’re not happy, then something is wrong. A person comes into the world as a happy being, yet over time, the happiness fades away and they find themselves in this bubble of anxiety and misery all the time. And it’s a comfortable place to stay, so they end up hanging out in this bubble for years and years before it suddenly dawns on them that life is meant to be happy. And, it is. It’s just that they’re too busy getting caught up in worry and stress to notice that life is magnificent and beautiful. Being alive is good. Being alive should already make you happy.

Shape every worry into a prayer because praying is faith, It is faith that God hears, that God is in control and that God answers.

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Displacing Worry

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“It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life.” (Philippians 4 The Message)

I was introduced to the idea of Worry when quite small, watching our dog feverishly nibbling at the frayed edge of the living room carpet. And my mum said, “Ah, he’s always worrying that carpet.” And my father said, “No wonder the carpet looks worried.” And they both laughed, but I stored it away, uncomprehendingly.

We are, perhaps uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take the idea of dying, unable to sit still. Worry is a momentary atheism crying out for correction by trust in a good God. Worrying is that futile attempt to take back control, nibbling at the edges but not understanding the whole.

Worry is a misuse of the imagination.

Corrie ten Boom related this to our anxiety for the future. She said: “Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”

This is just common sense. If you want to be happy, do not dwell in the past, do not worry about the future, focus on living fully in the present.Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can create.More smiling, less worrying. More compassion, less judgment. More blessed, less stressed. More love, less hate.If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.

But seriously, and speaking generally: How would your life be different if you stopped worrying about things you can’t control and started focusing on the things you can?

Let today be the day! Free yourself from fruitless worry, seize the day and take effective action on things you can change.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, Faith looks up.”  What does that “faith-looking-up” look like?

Because I’m a Christian, I always refer back to the amazing words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus was talking to crowds of (probably) very poor people who lived at a very basic, almost subsistence level, with no prospect of job-security, benefits and pension entitlement. So it’s simply amazing to hear this:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” ( Matthew 6:25-34)

Jesus pinpointed the things that fill our minds with occasions to fret. What we eat, what we wear, how we live…. it’s the table of contents of every modern magazine (food, fashion and lifestyle) and it’s all pointless. The thing is: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions). Our hearts are designed for peace, not worry. We can only find real rest when we follow the Maker’s Instructions.

So what happens when “Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life”?  You learn about the moment. You learn to walk with a Companion who loves you and shares every single circumstance. You learn to talk it all over, and the more you pray, the less you’ll panic. The more you worship, the less you worry. You’ll feel more patient and less pressured. Peace is not something you wish for,  it is something you make, something you are, something you do, and something you give away.

“For Equilibrium, a Blessing:
Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity by lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of god.”
― John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

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The one the King delights to honour

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“What shall be done to the man whom the King delights to honour?” (Esther 6:6)

It’s the surprising turnaround moment in the story of Esther. The villain, Haman, deduces that he himself must be the one of whom the King speaks. So he lays it on thick, unleashing a gush of fantasy pleasures, only to discover that the  subject is his mortal enemy, Mordecai! And, just to rub it in, that it is now he, Haman, is the one who has to do the fawning – to do for his enemy what he proposed to have done for himself!

But I was thinking of that word “honour.” According to this online dictionary, it means “distinctionprivilegeglorytributekudoscachetprestigefamerenownmeritcreditimportance.”

Does that sound desirable to you? It’s a surprising picture of what God intends.

A Chinese idiom says it well, “People want ‘face’ like a tree wants bark.” Why? One’s “face” refers to how people value him or her. We could use other words like “respect” and “reputation.” To belong in a group (i.e. be accepted by others), having “face” is critical. Maybe this explains why a fifth of the world’s population is on Facebook.

The gospel exposes the danger of people pleasing or estimating worth based on the number of one’s Twitter followers. Jesus gave similar warnings (Matt 23:5–13). This doesn’t mean that seeking praise and honour is bad (Rom 2:7, 10). Instead, for the one who believes the gospel, “his praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:29).

Jesus prayed, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22). What an amazing contrast to those at Babel (Gen 11:4), whose fear, insecurity, and pride led them to seek the wrong sort of recognition.

But don’t miss that Jesus-moment: I have given them the glory that you have given me! What shall be done for the one whom the King delights to honour? More than you can possibly imagine.

In Rebecca DeYoung’s excellent book Vainglory, she gives a gospel perspective, “Acknowledging that our glory is already given [in Christ] also frees us from excessive attachment to our own accomplishments and reputation.”

God desires to bless us. Do you doubt it? Do you think that you are not deserving of it? Though the answer to the second question may be “Yes,” that says more about you than it does about the King. The King’s delight in honouring has more to do with the King;s character than it does to do with the subject’s worthiness.

Paul describes it in terms of legacy: “In him we have obtained an inheritance.” (Ephesians 1:11) It’s done “in Him.” God favoured us, not because of anything we did (Eph 2:9) but because of Who He is (John 3:16; Rom 5:8, 10; Eph 2:8). This potently, powerful promise of God is that the believer has already “obtained an inheritance” since the Greek form is past tense. It’s done! It’s given! Those of you who “when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13) which for you “is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:14).

 

 

“Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17)

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.(2 Peter 1:3-4)

Think about what God has granted us.  These are not just great promises, they’re precious promises.  They’re not just great promises but very great promises.  Why? It’s because we’re partakers of the divine nature (in Jesus Christ), which is why we’re being made more and more into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18) and becoming new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17), and we’ve barely escaped the evil corruption that’s in the sinful world.  That is favour.

It’s who God is. It’s what He does.

Psalm 84:11: “For the Lord God  bestows favour and honour. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.”

The gospel changes believers’ group identity; we now belong to the people of God (Ephesians 2:10–20). This transforms our subjective sense of honour. We no longer need to “build a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4) or do shameful things (Romans 6:21). Rather, we seek glory, honour, and praise from God (Romans 2:7, 29). Even Jesus explains true faith in terms of glory:

“How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44)

Remember Jesus said, “I have given them the glory that you have given me” (John 17:22, cf. Romans 2:10). Believers will be glorified and honoured with Jesus (2 Thessalonians 1:12, 2:14). Our status is transformed. God turns our “shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zephaniah 3:19). As Peter summarizes, “So the honour is for you who believe” (1 Peter 2:7)

What shall be done for the one the King delights to honour? A transformed status and a guaranteed legacy. The slave is set free. The orphan is set in family.

It’s all good.

I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God

From my mother’s womb
You have chosen me
Love has called my name
I’ve been born again to my family
Your blood flows through my veins

I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God

I am surrounded
By the arms of the Father
I am surrounded
By songs of deliverance

We’ve been liberated
From our bondage
We’re the sons and the daughters
Let us sing our freedom

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“That… Christ will be magnified”

magnifying-glass-facts

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20)

I know that it’s my role as a pastor to “encourage.”The word literally means “to put courage in” or “to give heart.” Sometimes we’re tempted to think that it means less than that: to cheer people up, put a good face on things or jolly things along.

But that’s not the case. And the world is too tough and too serious a place for escapism or triviality. When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he wrote with an enormous sense of joy and confidence but with the serious acknowledgement that “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”  And that’s the principle that comes to the fore in the text up there, that whatever happens, Christ will be magnified.

I remember from years back,  a sermon from the great John Piper, that I heard and then filed away, that speaks to me of how a pastor can truly encourage his church:

“As a pastor, I do not think it is my job to entertain you during such days or help you have superficially cheerful feelings. My job is to put the kind of ballast in the belly of your boat so that when these kinds of waves crash against your life, you will not capsize, but make it to the harbour of heaven full of faith and joy.”

It’s good, isn’t it? It speaks of something weighty and solid that provides a counterbalance  to the storm raging around us.

Otherwise, in Piper’s metaphor, we will capsize. And , according to Philippians 1:20, we’ll be “ashamed.”

But, says Paul, it’s “my eager expectation and hope that I will NOT be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.”

So you have two opposite trajectories, a negative and a positive pole, an Either-Or. And Paul was very explicit about where he wanted to be himself.  Either you are ashamed or Christ is magnified.

Either your life is reduced to the mere coddling care of the self or it is expanded into the life of Christ.

And Paul was not talking theory, or making some metaphysical point. He was talking about the reality of his own situation. The “eager expectation and hope” which Paul had was not, primarily, that he might be released; but it was that, in all circumstances, he might be able to honour the gospel, living or dying. To that he looked as a much more important matter than to save his life. Life with him was the secondary consideration; the main thing was, to stand up everywhere as the advocate of the gospel, to maintain its truth, and to exhibit its spirit.

So here’s the thing:you magnify your self (and lose anyway) or you magnify Christ and gain everything. For in the act of magnifying you discover reality itself: and it’s a truth not just about the Creator but about the creature too.

I suspect that this is what Thomas Traherne meant in this passage from Centuries of Meditations:

 “Objects are so far from diminishing, that they magnify the faculties of the soul beholding them. A sand in your conception conformeth your soul, and reduceth it to the size and similitude of a sand, A tree apprehended is a tree in your mind; the whole hemisphere and the heavens magnify your soul to the wideness of the heavens; all the spaces above the heavens enlarge it wider to their own dimensions. And what is without limit maketh your conception illimited and endless.”

The thing is, you take on the shape of that which fills you. You were built for God. You were designed for eternity. You were purposed for blessing and the supernatural enlargement that comes with walking with God, in the company of Jesus and in step with the Holy Spirit. And this is the real encouragement – this is the truth that puts fire in your bones and a song in your heart. This is the force that is unstoppable – the majesty of the presence of God.

“I live in a high and holy place,
    but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
    and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

So how counter-intuitive it is to be so absorbed with the self that you are ashamed by your limitations. And how wise, and how freeing, to be so liberated as to give yourself body, soul and spirit into the purposes of God. Irenaeus said: “The glory of God is a person fully alive” -fully engaged in all that God is. And Eric Liddell, the Olympic medallist put it like this: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. ” What a wonderful picture of the expanding of the one who has set his heart to magnify Christ.

Either your life is reduced to the mere coddling care of the self or it is expanded into the life of Christ.

But once you are given, you begin to expand and develop into far far more than you can possibly imagine. God spelled out to Abram just what the consequences of confident trust were:

‘I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
  I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.’ (Genesis 12)

In the act of Abram’s magnifying God, (through simple faith in His promises), God outlined a programme of expansion that began with one man and encompassed the world.

Time to step up to the plate.

 

 

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Whose approval am I really seeking?

Image result for whose approval do you seek

It’s hard to kick the approval habit.

Everyone wants to be wanted. Everybody enjoys being enjoyed. Everyone appreciates those warm fuzzy feelings when someone speaks well of you.

But when you live your life seeking the opinion and approval of others, you become enslaved. In The Moon and Sixpence, Somerset Maugham wrote: “Man’s desire for the approval of his fellows is so strong, his dread of their censure so violent, that he himself has brought his enemy (conscience) within his gates; and it keeps watch over him, vigilant always in the interests of its master to crush any half-formed desire to break away from the herd.”

Life is simply too short to waste time waiting for other people’s approval on how you live it. Before long that sense of slavery will kick in, and you’ll constantly need verbal affirmation, smiles, nods and approbation until the need for external acceptance will literally become an addiction.

The underlying principle is spelt out clearly in the book of Proverbs (Prov. 29:25): “The fear of man brings a snare.

The only way out of bondage is to begin seeking God’s approval instead of man’s approval.

According to John’s Gospel, the snare of approval-addiction inhibits discipleship:

“Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” (John 12:42–43)

It’s bad enough to inordinately long for the approval of others. It’s much worse when such longings transcend one’s longing for God. Get your priorities straight here!

Jesus spoke clearly about this:

But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.” (Matt. 23:5–7)

Even those things that are religious in nature (such as prayer, fasting, and giving) can be done with a hypocritical motive to gain man’s approval.

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:1)

So, according to these very straightforward passages, my approval-addiction is a kind of hypocrisy. And at heart, I’m a Pharisee and my so-called service to God is a bit of pious play-acting. What I do I do outwardly, hoping to be noticed. My first thought is not ‘How will God be glorified by what I am about to do?’ but rather “How will others perceive me when I do what I am about to do?”

It’s as well to be honest, isn’t it? Because the Bible calls us to “truth in the inward parts.”

You have to confront the question: “Whose approval am I really seeking?”

The alternative is suggested by phrases such as “approved to God” (2 Tim. 2:15), “well-pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18), “acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1), and “glorifying God” (Luke 17:15).

These phrases indicate a kind of selfishness or self-centredness at the heart of being an approval-junkie. I’m concerned (if not consumed) with the establishment and maintenance of my own reputation. My heart so craves being held in high esteem by others (and to hear their praises) that little room is left to entertain thoughts of what I might do to acquire God’s praise.

And so I become addicted to “the approval of men rather than the approval of God” (John 12:43).

Paul provides a vivid contrast:

“But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness…”(1Thess. 2:4–5)

Did you see it? He came to Thessalonica, “approved by God.” And he was “approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.” That was the proof of God’s approval! And so, because of that, “we speak, not as pleasing men but God who examines our hearts.”  Once you have this point sorted you can stand tall before other people. A person who knows he is faithful and has therefore been approved by God can speak freely and boldly to others. He does not use flattering speech because he really doesn’t care much about pleasing people.

It is the person who seeks to please man who doesn’t care much about pleasing God and so resorts to flattery or pretext.

As a pastor, this is a pretty serious failing, and yet the danger of becoming an approval-junkie is extremely common in this field of service. Here’s a list that I picked up from the internet this morning. It was called “The Dangers of being a People-Pleaser” but I’m using it to critique my own role as a pastor and to examine the dangers of being an approval-junkie.

Call it a spiritual check-up.

“The People-pleaser:

  • Rarely confronts sin in the life of another believer.
  • Rarely challenges or even questions the opinions of others.
  • Prematurely terminates conflicts (usually by yielding, withdrawing, changing the subject).
  • Rarely reveals to others the truth about who he really is inside (especially his struggles with sin).
  • Steers conversations away from those topics that might cause others to realize what he is really like inside.
  • Shades the truth (lies) in order “not to offend others.”
  • Finds clever ways to subtly introduce his accomplishments into conversations.
  • Fishes for compliments.
  • Listens attentively when others talk of things that displease him (so as not to say or do anything that might result in rejection).
  • Frequently puts himself down in the hope that others will disagree with his purposely exaggerated negative self-assessment.
  • Finds it difficult to say “no” to those who make requests of him, even when he knows that saying “yes” will not be the best choice.”

Only one thing will set us free, and that is truth. Yet that is the one thing we have a hard time dealing with. We don’t mind facing the truth about everyone else, but when it comes to facing the truth about ourselves, it is quite a different matter!

True freedom never comes until we fully realize that we don’t need to struggle to get from people what God freely gives us: love, acceptance, approval, security, worth and value.

 

“Christ continually shouts through the universe, “You have a love that is already yours. You have nothing to prove to anyone. You have nothing to prove to Me. You are significant and preapproved and utterly cherished. Not because you are ‘good,’ but because you are Mine.” ― Jennifer Dukes Lee

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Breaking out of “Locked-in” Thinking

 

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“There is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain…break every chain!”

What do you do when your thinking is “locked-in”?

Imagine you’ve been offered a lift in someone else’s car, but then you become unhappy with the way it’s been driven. You don’t like to say anything about it, since they’ve been good enough to offer the drive, but you just wish they’d slow down a bit, take the corners more carefully, and pay attention to other vehicles. And that child-lock makes you feel trapped!

The situation is quite close to the way that your thinking is often governed by prevailing worldviews, or “driven” by external, sometimes hostile influences. And you are “locked-in” to that pattern of thinking.

I remember working in a prison. The sheer amount of abusive language that I heard all day, every day, inevitably coloured my own speech patterns, until it was really hard not to just join in.

But the processes of thought are on a deeper level than speech. And even if I could, with a measure of success, “set a guard on my lips,” it was much harder to stay clear of the prevailing thought that the prisoners were of less value, second-class and somehow less worthy of respect as human beings.

And this is the heart of racism (the view that one race is inferior to another), of misogyny (the view that one gender is inferior to another), and of social snobbery (the view that one class is inferior to another).

So Paul counters this false-thinking by a statement of the truth as it is in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (Gal 3:28). We are challenging this old, worldly way of thinking with a new one: we are “all one in Christ Jesus.” And according to this new centre, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (racism) slave nor free (class-ism) nor is there male and female (sexism).”

It is testimony to the radical nature of this concept that the challenge of that one verse is still sharp today. Our thinking is locked-in to a car driven by others. And, by and large, the car is on a different journey to the one God intends for you. This is what Paul meant, with the instruction to Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things,” (Colossians 3:2).

How do I re-set my thought life?

The word “set” here means to plant or fix and in 2 Corinthians 10, Paul discusses that “fixing” process. Is it merely a matter of doing your best to think in a different way? Not at all! “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh. That is, they are not merely human.” (2 Cor 10:4-5).

Paul argues that, in the Spirit, we can derail a powerful train of thought that is taking us in the wrong direction. “The weapons of our warfare have divine power to destroy strongholds.”

A “stronghold” is an entrenched way of thinking. It’s like being “stuck” in a particular negative mindset.

And then he defines this powerful stronghold-destroying activity in two steps. Verse 5: “[First,] we destroy arguments and every lofty or proud opinion raised against the knowledge of God and [second,] we then take every thought captive.” It’s like when you move in a battle and you destroy the fortress and then you take captives.

How do I ” take every thought captive to obey Christ” ?

Some would apply this to themselves, and just try to be more obedient to Christ in their own thought life. But when Paul says first he is destroying arguments and arrogant opinions against God and, second, that he is taking thoughts or minds captive, we need to realize it is the minds and thoughts of others. He is not talking about taking his own thoughts captive. It is the thoughts of others.

In other words, it’s as is if Paul is saying, “I am moving against these false teachers in Corinth who are so proud of their philosophical know-how that I am going to demolish them not by counter philosophy, but by divine power. They are going to collapse in their thinking. And then I am going to take their thoughts captive so that they now obey Christ.”

How? By a spiritual counter-thought! By the “truth that sets free.” By the chain-breaking power of the cross of Christ.

The cross exposes what wrong-thinking does. It’s an “open display” of the powers of darkness.  It corrupts and kills and destroys everything  that is good. But the cross also exposes what God is prepared to do in response – to give and love until death.

Holy Spirit, do your demolishing work on me. Do your captive-taking work on me. Destroy in my mind any false or proud thoughts that I have about God.

I need to submit all my thoughts and ideas and feelings about God and if anything is out of sync, I must let it be destroyed.

We ask the Holy Spirit to work, because Paul said we don’t fight with human arguments. “Our ministry has power” so we should expose ourselves to that power. “The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power.” In other words, he is tearing down arguments and God-belittling ideas, but he is not doing it merely by human reasoning.

Lord, I know that mere intellect will not dismantle the deeply rooted errors of my mind so I open myself  to the Holy Spirit and I seek your face, Lord. 

In Jesus’ name

This is a clip from Ken’s recent book, The Sanctified Mind. 

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A sense of “calling”

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When I first applied to be a pastor, at the ripe old age of 18 and a half, one section of the interview was labelled “Sense of calling.” Did I have a sense of calling? In what way was that sense of calling manifested? What had I done about it so far? In a hundred searching questions, the interviewers sought to unpack the meaning of God’s hand on my life.

Clearly, because I was so young, I didn’t have much experience of life, and the conclusion of the board was that I should complete my degree, continue working in local churches and take opportunities to preach wherever they arose. Fair enough. I offer the same sort of advice to younger would-be pastors now, now that the boot is more often on the other foot.

But my answers to the board then are still fresh in my memory today. In fact, they seem to me to have gained validity with the passage of so much time.

So how did I justify a “sense of calling”? I talked about begging my big sister to take me to Sunday School when I was four, singing “Turn your eyes upon Jesus,” with passion and emotion, joining the choir when I was seven, responding to a talk at Pathfinder camp when I was eleven with a tremulously raised arm,  and feeling the hand of the bishop on my head when I was thirteen, at confirmation, and the words “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Not a saintly boy by any stretch (before any of my old friends write in to expose me!) but somehow –in some mysterious fashion- actively seeking God for pretty much the whole of my life. Where did that desire, that seeking, come from? None of my family were church-goers, or religious in any way. Just me. I can still remember huge chunks of the old Book of Common Prayer to this day.

What a weird little boy!

My explanation is mixed with that strange word “calling.” That picture on the Sistine Chapel ceiling has man reaching out for God as God reaches for man. Which comes first? And what is happening in the moment of contact?

The Bible is full of stories about that moment. Two personal favourites are the story of Abraham (in Genesis 12:1-3) and the call of Isaiah (in Isaiah 6). The Genesis passage was given to me to speak on that first Christmas carol service. At age seven I stood at the lectern, on a little box, almost entirely hidden by a massive golden eagle, and spoke words which I claim to have understood. “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (12:1-3).

Before I was allowed to speak the words, the curate (a wonderful man who made a huge impact on my life and whose name I’ve completely forgotten) took me on a run-through and gently asked what I understood by the passage. I said that even when Abraham wasn’t seeking God, God was seeking Abraham. He paused and let the silence settle, and then he said: “Maybe God is seeking you too.”

I can’t tell you how my heart was stirred with that thought. Even writing it down now recalls a powerful emotion, fifty years later. It was certainly there still when I came before the board as a Bible College student. Maybe God is seeking me too?

The question arises: “For what purpose?” The answer came for me in another moment of calling, in the story of Isaiah; “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go…” (Isaiah 6:9).

As I grew older, there were many voices competing for my attention, but when you are young, before you accumulate responsibilities, you are freer than most people to choose among all the voices and to answer the one that speaks most powerfully to who you are and to what you really want to do with your life. Isaiah suggested to me that I listen to the voice of God, and pay no heed, as Buechner puts it, to “the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture,” a voice that – among other things — tells you that “salary and status” are all that matter about work. Listening to that voice, for Buechner, risks your becoming one of the world’s many people “now engaged in a life’s work in which they find no pleasure or purpose” and “suddenly realizing someday that they have spent the only years that they are ever going to get in this world doing something that could not matter less to themselves or to anyone else.”

Reading John Calvin’s take on vocation in The Institutes (that we belong to God and must be faithful to his calling), we have to listen carefully to the many voices speaking into our lives. Parents, teachers, vicars, books, poets, musicians…they can all can speak powerfully and help us realize something about ourselves and our gifts that we hadn’t fully realized. But those same voices can also be noise, distracting us from the same voice that called Isaiah to his life of faithful service before God.

Perhaps we’re too slow to be silent before God and listen for his voice — which whispers as often as it shouts…we must be careful with our lives, for Christ’s sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously…. Because surely Marquand was right that for each of us there comes a point of no return, a point beyond which we no longer have life enough left to go back and start all over again.

To Isaiah, the voice said, “Go” [Isa 6:9], and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey with our lives, which of the voices that call is to be the one we answer. No one can say, of course, except each for himself, but I believe that it is possible to say at least this in general to all of us: we should go with our lives where we most need to go and where we are most needed.

First, we should listen-as Buechner said- to “the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness.” Doing so would lead us to do with our lives whatever “makes us truly glad.”

Glad. Not “happy” — saying “Here I am” to God certainly didn’t guarantee Isaiah a life of unbroken bliss — but “glad,” which one student suggested was a synonym for “joyful” or “fulfilled.” I think that’s right, and while that can sound self-centered… Christianity does not teach the negation of the self, but the restoration of the self. While broken by sin, we are distinctive persons made in the image of a Triune God, and so, meant for relationship and community — not dissolution into a whole, but as members of a Body.

And so, I need to listen to the voice telling us to go “where we are most needed.” Gladness is not for our own sake alone, but is needed by others enduring a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain.

Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” [Matt 4:4], and in the end every word that proceeds from the mouth of God is the same word, and the word is Christ himself. And in the end that is the vocation, the calling of all of us, the calling to be Christs. To be Christs in whatever way we are able to be. To be Christs with whatever gladness we have and in whatever place, among whatever brothers we are called to. That is the vocation, the destiny to which we were all of us called even before the foundations of the world.

An unfolding epic adventure. Starting when you say yes to God.

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