In This Edition:
Spiritually Directed Toward the Abundant Life: An Introduction
New Things To Love
A Change of Desire
Top Picks: This Week’s Recommended Resources
Spiritually Directed Toward the Abundant Life: An Introduction
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. (2 Peter 3:11-12 NIV)
So far in this series, we have discussed casting a Great Commission vision, understanding adult learners, and setting up a classroom, as well as being biblically rooted and theologically grounded. Last week, we considered ways to invest in relationships so that our classes are transformational. But transformational in what sense? What kind of people are we hoping to form?
The answer is spiritual people. People who desire God, whose deepest love is Jesus Christ and the Kingdom, and are being transformed into the image of Christ by the Holy Spirit. People who are best described as full of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). People who seek after a wisdom that is “pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, fully of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
This is our aim in our Bible classes, small groups, and church gatherings. At a later time, we will look at specific “spiritual disciplines” associated with “spiritual transformation.” But, for now, consider what it means to become spiritual—to have a change of desire so that we love the right things, delighting in what the Spirit provides and where the Spirit leads.
New Things To Love
David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. In a 2015 column entitled “The Moral Bucket List” (summarizing his book The Road to Character), Brooks describes two kinds of virtues that people seek in life: the resume virtues, and the eulogy virtues. Most people spend their time at school, and most of their lives, in pursuit of learning and living the resume virtues – those things that show you are competent at your job, can best the competition, can climb the social ladder, and can out-maneuver everyone else in a kill-or-be-killed world. Instead, writes Brooks, when we take a minute to think about the fleeting nature of life, we will begin to reflect on the eulogy virtues, those things people will hopefully say about us when we are gone. At our funeral, will they speak of how much money we made, or how cut-throat we could be? We would hope, of course, that they would speak of our humility and kindness, our bravery, honesty, and faithfulness—those things usually associated with spiritual maturity.
“If you live for external achievement,” writes Brooks, “years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be OK. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self.”
What Brooks discovered is what St. Augustine said long ago: you are (and will become) what you love. Brooks explains what this means:
“We become what we love because only love compels action. We don’t become better because we acquire new information but because we acquire better loves. We don’t become what we know. Education is a process of love formation. When you go to school it should offer you new things to love.”
Brooks hits on a truly spiritual note: the answer to our troubles is not to find a new mantra, or a 5-step process for behavior modification. There needs to be a transformation from the inside-out, in which we don’t simply learn how to constantly say “no” to our desires, but have our desires changed into things to which the wise and spiritual person would say “yes”!
The eminent church historian, Robert Wilken, couldn’t agree more.
“I am convinced,” writes Wilken, “that the study of early Christian thought has been too preoccupied with ideas. The intellectual effort of the early church was at the service of a much loftier goal than giving conceptual form to Christian belief. Its mission was to win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives.”
Motivated in this way, Wilken set about writing The Spirit of Early Christian Thought as a new kind of church history: one centered on the goals or ends to which Christian ideas pointed, to the kind of people we were supposed to become as a result of embracing Christian truths. In other words, to discuss what it means to grow into what we love.
School should give us “new things to love,” challenges Brooks. “The church gave men and women a new love,” responds Wilken, “Jesus Christ, a person who inspired their actions and held their affections.” Call it the “school of Christ.” The voice of wisdom is simply echoing St. Augustine’s prayer to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless, until it rests in you.
In the end, we can summarize the problem in very simple terms: there is a tug of war between the mind of Christ and the mind that is centered on the self. It’s a tale of two different loves. Brooks diagnoses the problem: for many in our culture today, what it means to pursue a worthy goal is simply this: to be true to yourself (without knowing what you were made for) by pursuing your hearts desire (a heart that doesn’t know what it ought to desire). And what is the result? For Brooks, it means that we have lost our ability to empathize, and instead of loving people and using things, our default position is precisely the opposite.
Not coincidentally, that was Augustine’s line, too. And the culture he was describing is 1600 years old than ours.
“If we are going to discern what really matters,” writes James K. A. Smith, “the place to start is by attending to our loves.” The teaching and practices of Christ and the church are designed to make us into better lovers. And we need to pay attention to it.
Why? Because we have bought the cultural narrative hook, line, and sinker. “Define yourself by your unintentional desires. Consider how you aren’t getting what you want, and make getting it the cause of your life. See everyone and everything through the lens of your political views, your pet project, or your unique take on the world. And if anyone—including Christ and His church—gets in the way and won’t let you pursue it, go alone or find a community that will.”
On the other side, of course, is the call to self-denial. A call to adopt new things to love. Read a famous passage in an unfamiliar translation: According to Galatians 5:22-25, the Spirit produces fruit in our hearts and lives, and the goal here is to get rid not just of our outward desires, but our inward condition: for “those who belong to Christ have crucified their old nature with all that it loved” (Phillips).
At some point, the language of self-help, self-esteem, and self-expression must give way to a greater foundation: what our new love demands. For the Christian, Christ-centered love is how one comes to know and discern what is best (Philippians 1:9-11), and wisdom is shown in a good life, “by deeds done in humility,” rather than the “unspiritual” and “demonic” wisdom of the world displayed through harboring “bitter envy and selfish ambition” in our hearts (James 3:13-15). Listen carefully as James continues:
“For where you have envy and selfish ambition—[the kind of things often aiding the resume virtues]—there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:16-18).
Did you catch that list? Pure (of heart), merciful, peacemakers. James is describing the kind of person who, contrary to the resume-virtue-seeking world around us, Jesus calls “blessed”, “fortunate”, and “happy” (Matthew 5:3-12).
Brooks seeks desperately to find an antidote to the challenge set before us, some way to reorient ourselves. What does Brooks suggest we do? Well, what do you think? Learn some intellectual truths, develop virtuous habits, and participate in meaningful rituals. Develop a code of life that emphasizes humility over pride, and acts of charitable giving over self-indulgence. And above all, to submit to a larger community that demands these things of us.
And here we come full circle. Wilkins begins his book with these words: “The Christian religion is inescapably ritualistic (one is received into the church by a solemn washing with water), uncompromisingly moral (‘be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’), and unapologetically intellectual (given a reason for the hope that is in you).” That is, Christians make it our aim to do right things, think right things, and practice healthy habits. And we do this together as a community of love.
You show me what you intellectually believe, how you morally behave, and what rituals you practice, and I’ll tell you what you love.
We are made to love, and only the love of God will provide rest for restless hearts. Christians through the centuries have seen the best way to love God is through loving pursuit, learned and practiced in the communal life of the church. This involves reading texts, holding orthodox beliefs, learning moral habits, and engaging in personal and church-wide rituals. This involves the intellect, the spirit, and the body: which is what it means to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. The church believes that what you think, and what you do, work together to help define who you are, and what you will become. And the inner process of transformation of character—to make us into better people, living a fuller life—is what Christian teach and church life are all about.
But we are not Christian simply because we do these things, think these things, and practice these things. As the old saying goes, standing in a garage does not make one an automobile. No, at first we may very well work feverishly through the motions (that is not always entirely bad). But ultimately, by the Spirit of God, we do, think, and practice these things because we think and act with the mind of Christ. This is who Christ is, and so this is what “little Christs” think and do. His love compels us, which means we do as His Spirit increases our desire, and become what we love.
David Brooks, “The Moral Bucket List,” New York Times (April 11, 2015).
David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015), p. 211.
James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press, 2016).
Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. xiii-xv.
Taken from my fuller blogpost “New Things to Love” on the Healthy Theology website.
A Change of Desire
Lord my desire is to be like you
To say the things you say, and do the things you do
O, help me hear your still voice through all the other noise
So that I can be just what you want me to be.
– Randy Butler
In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says we have to reject the popular notion that the gospel message can be reduced to sin management and behavior modification. The good news of the kingdom is not “if you keep saying no to what you really want, and force yourself to do the right list of things, then you can win a ticket to heaven when you die.” If this is new for you, let this point sink down deep into your ears.
When I was just entering my teen years, wishing to be preacher, I cut my teeth on old “sermon outline” books. Somewhere along the way, I remember running across a 3-point lesson based on this line from Paul: “Touch not! Taste not! Handle not!” (Colossians 2:21 KJV). The exact points have escaped my memory; but I do remember the title, and thought the preacher was mighty clever.
I now think that, whatever the merits of his lesson, he was preaching from the wrong text.
Listen to the passage from another translation:
You died with Christ. Now the forces of the universe don’t have any power over you. Why do you live as if you had to obey such rules as, “Don’t handle this. Don’t taste that. Don’t touch this.”? After these things are used, they are no longer good for anything. So why be bothered with the rules that humans have made up? Obeying these rules may seem to be the smart thing to do. They appear to make you love God more and to be very humble and to have control over your body. But they don’t really have any power over our desires. (Col 2:20-23 CEV)
Paul here is saying that the Christian religion—rooted in the good news of the kingdom—cannot be reduced to sin management and behavior modification. Seeking to control my sin behavior by just trying harder to live by a new set of rules puts me in a hopeless and miserable position: constant awareness of my failures with no power to be different! This is the very definition of legalism. One is then forced into an endless cycle of doing the same things, using the same tools, and expecting a different result (a phrase some use to define insanity). Trying to change what you do, without having changed what you love, is insanity. It simply won’t work.
The good news of the kingdom of God involves an inner transformation of the heart, mind, and soul—exercised through the habits of the body—in a way that leaves us changed from the inside out. Christian living is not described well as trying real hard to do things Jesus said; instead, it should describe our pursuit of growth into the person who delights naturally in the way of Christ. To become the kind of person who no longer desires to do wrong—who loves the right things—is an act of grace, produced by the Spirit of God as we submit to His leading. And it means a change of desire.
Most of the time when our desire is in overdrive, we are craving the very things we are called to give up (Titus 3:3; 1 Pet 1:14; 2:11; 4:1-2; 2 Pet 1:4; 1 John 2:16). And our frustrated, misplaced desire is destroying us from the inside.
What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war…You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires (James 4:1-3 HCSB).
Imagine if we weren’t governed by our desires. What if we knew that our natural desires could not give us ultimate satisfaction? What if God enabled us to escape the pull of desires that war against the soul?
In Ephesians chapter 4, Paul describes a person lost—in the world—governed by what they eagerly desire. Paul speaks of “the futility of their thinking,” since they are “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God.” Such people loose “all sensitivity so as to indulge” in every kind of deceitful desire (Ephesians 4:17-19).
That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:20-24 NIV).
What Christ promises is the satisfying water that, if taken in, will cause us to never thirst again. The powerful Holy Spirit of God can—and will—provide us right thinking about what is good, right motivation to pursue the good, and constant help to will the good. God can so change us that, over time, we want more and more of what He wants, and find less and less satisfaction in the deceitful desires that once dominated our lives.
Changing our desire…is changing what we love.
And this will have a profound difference on how we live our lives: not because we have to tell ourselves to avoid our desires, but because our desires have been changed into love.
Show me what you do, and I’ll show you what you desire.
Show me what you desire, and I’ll show you what you love.
Show me what you love, and I’ll show you what you will become.
Taken from my fuller blogpost “A Change of Desire” on the Healthy Theology website. To hear Dallas Willard present an excellent analysis of this change of desire, check out his speech “Case Studies in Anger, Contempt, and Cultivated Lust” available here.
Top Picks: This Week’s Recommended Resources
Richard Foster’s “Life With God” Resources
Richard Foster is a Christian theologian in the Quaker tradition. He is probably best known for his 1978 classic Celebration of Discipline. But teacher’s looking to remind themselves of the end-goals for teaching, or those seeking to transform their classroom into a spiritual oasis for those thirsting for living water, consider the following resources:
Book: Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation (HarperOne, 2010).
Bible: The Life with God Bible (NRSV)
Video series: “Get a Life! The With-God Life” by Richard J. Foster (7 parts)
Dallas Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy” Resources
Dallas Willard was a world-class philosopher, but is best known in Christian circles for his books and lectures on Christian discipleship and spiritual transformation. He challenged the church to develop a “curriculum for Christ-likeness.” To immerse yourself in what it means to be spiritually directed toward the abundant life, check out these resources:
Website: Dallas Willard ministries
Bible: The Renovare Spiritual Formation Study Bible (HarperCollins 2006; Zondervan 2009)
Podcast: “The Goodness of Holiness”
Video series: “Divine Conspiracy” by Richard J. Foster (12 parts)
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Avenue For Faith is a publication of the Adult Education Ministry of Sherrod Avenue Church of Christ in Florence, Alabama. My name is Nathan Guy, and I am the Minister of Adult Education. I am happily married to Katie and also serve as President of Mars Hill Bible School. You can find more resources on our website over at avenueforfaith.org. Follow us @avenueforfaith (fb/tw/ig).