Archive for the ‘Discipline’ Category

Martyrdom, Large and Small October 8, 2014

And He was saying to them all, If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it…. For whoever is ashamed of Me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory…” (Luke 9:23-24, 26).

Born from the shed blood of our Lord, Christians are not a squeamish people. The Church across the ages has not shied from ridicule, torture, or death. Perhaps the grisly spectacle of public execution itself strengthened and expanded the faith.

In his Apology for Christianity, an “open letter” to the Roman authorities written less than 200 years after Christ, Tertullian plead for tolerance, pointing out that their persecution was having the opposite of its desired effect. “Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers [allows] that we thus suffer…. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apologeticus, Chapter 50). This last phrase is often repeated as “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Armed with the honorable defiance conferred by unjust suffering, we imagine ourselves able to go to the lions like our forbears, heads held high as we slip into Christ’s presence. What happens, though, when there is no host of error to hear our confession, no one in the audience to believe Christ and recount our last act of witness to future generations? What of martyrdom when the injustice is softer, subtler, and the arena a workplace, classroom, or courtroom of precipitating thumbs and upturned noses each thoroughly satisfied at your demise? What if, rather than an immediate crown of glory, your last stand is followed by professional disgrace, financial hardship, social excommunication.

Much has been made of the increasing persecution of Christians around the world, whether the brazen death-dealing of a Caliphate reborn or the general sneer of the West at the faith that birthed it. The specter of real suffering is rising for many Christians (and I include myself in this number) for whom the idea of persecution has hitherto resided only in the untroubled past or romantic ideal. We know that we should be willing to suffer and die for our faith, maybe we’ve committed the relevant verses to memory. Now, for the first time, we are asking ourselves what comes before the blaze of glory; groping to “count it all joy” when the “various trials” we encounter are both excruciating and mundane.

We are coming to terms with the fact that we have not practiced dying. Outcasts are ready to be martyrs; children of privilege require preparation. We who are accustomed to open doors, wealth, and influence have so much to lose, we don’t know how to be thankful for the gift of life. A thousand small deaths stand between us and the moment of truth before the mob. Maybe we have asked ourselves if we are willing to die for the Lord, but not what we are willing to let Him kill. Take my life? Fine–I’m courageous as can be. Take my comfort, my power, my stuff? I wobble.

It is precisely to these miniature martyrdoms God calls us. The cost of following Christ is turning our worship from the trifles that surround us to His infinite worth. He knows what stands in the way, and when He tells us what must be cast off, may we not be like the rich young ruler who “was saddened, and went away grieving,” for our beloved possessions (Mark 10:22). The eye of the needle stares us down, and paradoxically the strength to forsake all for Him must be given to us by Him as well–”with people it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:26).

The Apostle Paul tells us to “put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5) in order to “put on the new self.” This our forefathers seized as the discipline of mortification, recognizing that there is no sanctification without such daily murder. Every new birth of holiness in our hearts corresponds to a mangled sin excised from within. In the Colosseum of our hearts, we are both gladiator and bloodthirsty crowd. Death by death, we practice. Our faith, invigorated by battle with our nature, is trained thus for assaults from without. Until we recognize this, we will not be ready to give honor and glory to God for whatever persecutions may come.

So it has been, and so it will be. Ours is a liturgy of blood. Death is life unto us.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

Captured by Heart February 15, 2012

These days there is much discussion in the Church about the permissibility of behaviors for Christians. These issues range from cultural (what movies/music/entertainment choices are appropriate for Christians) to sexual (what are acceptable actions between a man and his wife; what are the parameters of marriage; etc.) to lifestyle (drinking, smoking, etc.) and everywhere in between.

At the risk of reductio ad absurdam, I see such debates typically coming at issues from one of two perspectives (each replete with proof-texts to hurl at their opponents): the restraining impulse to abolish any behaviors outside biblical prescriptions and a notion of “good Christian living” or the antinomian impulse to “follow your heart.” The extreme ends of this spectrum are easy enough to recognize (i.e. the Holiness denominations vs. old Mainline churches), but often opinions fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two. The arguments may look like a loosely restraining “some things that aren’t expressly biblical can be good if they fit our idea of ‘good clean fun’” or a loosely grounded antinomian “whatever is not expressly forbidden in Scripture is OK.”

To try to hold any kind of a biblically sound, logical, and socially realistic middle when these questions heat up is difficult at best. Nevertheless, I think that is exactly what we are called to do.

Christians of all stripes are quick (and right) to exult in the fact that salvation is a transformative experience: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). For restrainers, the temptation is to interpret that from a purely external view. They tend to say that this idea means that we are to put away everything that our culture values and create a new, Christianized (or at least sanitized) subculture that is noticeably distinct. For antinomians the temptation runs the opposite direction. They might say that what they do with their time, money, bodies, etc. is not the point, so long as they feel that Christ has changed their hearts to be more loving, caring, or what have you. The restrainers can quickly fall into a ditch of being distinct to the point of becoming insular–they shut out the world and end up failing to reach the lost. The antinomians can quickly fall into a ditch of being at ease with the culture to the point of being completely unrecognizable as Christians–they welcome the world without critiquing it and end up failing to reach the lost.

This, I think, is where we find the middle: to be transformed by Christ is to be overtaken by, in the words of Thomas Chalmers, “the expulsive power of a new affection.” The change is total, encompassing internal and external. When Christ lives in us, He must change our character: “For those whom He foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” (Rom. 8:29). This necessarily changes our external behavior as well, not simply in good deeds toward others, but in our personal standards of conduct: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Pet. 1:14-15). What gets lost in these often well-intentioned disputes is the core question of why whatever issue is at hand distracts us from Christ.

If I obsess over making sure I am perceived as holy without growing deeper into Christ (who is the only source of righteousness in my life), I lose touch with the reason for holiness, trading it for pride. If I obsess over my behavioral “rights” without recognizing that my life serves as testimony to the One who lives within me, I have traded my Savior for the will of the flesh.

In whatever situation arises, the determining factor for a Christian response should be our answers to these two questions. 1) What has Christ provided me from His overflowing grace that I may be ignoring in order to stand in my own power rather than His? 2) What has Christ asked of me from His holy authority that I may be refusing in order to indulge my desires? If the old cliche that Christianity is “not a religion, it’s a relationship” is true (and I believe it is), then to take a stand on anything without asking those two questions is a lot like buying a sports car without asking your wife.

Posted by Justin Lonas

2011 Booklist December 27, 2011

Here are a few books (in no particular order) that I encountered this year of varying genres that I would say are worth recommending for one reason or another.

Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, Michael Card

This wasn’t a particularly exegetical or particularly thorough commentary, but it caught my attention for its style. Card looks at the biblical text with an artist’s eye, and reminds us that the coming of Christ into the world was nothing less than astonishing. It is too easy to get stuck in a rut spiritually, and Card’s “devotional commentary” drags you back to the sheer wonder of our Lord and His love for men. Read my full review HERE.

Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day, Kevin DeYoung, ed.

Some books are great at covering vast expanses of material in succinct and engaging ways. This is one of those. A bunch of young-ish pastors and theologians from around the world team up to tell a new generation of Christians the basics of theology, and the result is a great reminder of what we believe and why it matters. In particular, Greg Gilbert’s chapter on the message of the Gospel is probably the most powerful expression of the central truth of Scripture I’ve read in a long time. Read my full review HERE.

Truman, David McCullough

I love history, and I love getting a glimpse at history through biographies. Learning abstract ideas is useful, but opening a window into someone’s life to watch how those ideas play out over decades. Perhaps nobody is writing better biographies presently than David McCullough, and his Truman is a monumental work (in scope and depth). Though I find I disagree with many (if not most) of his political viewpoints, I think I’d have loved to have dinner and a Poker game with Harry Truman. McCullough’s portrait of the 33rd president shows the authenticity and grit of the last true “man of the people” to inhabit the White House.

Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell

I’m a longtime follower of Sowell’s incisive and prescient newspaper columns, but somehow I’d managed never to read any of his books until now. In the pages of Basic Economics, he unlocks the mysteries of the marketplace in ways that anyone could understand, bringing the complexities of the “dismal science” into principles that every voter should bring to bear on their elected officials. If more people would read and take to heart these lessons, the populace might never again elect someone whose political platform includes any form of government tampering with domestic and international markets.

How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home, Derek W. H. Thomas

Derek Thomas’ short and sweet meditation on “the greatest chapter in the Bible” was one of my favorite surprises this year. Thomas is quick to remind us that this Gospel spelled out so beautifully by Paul in Romans chapter 8 is the heartbeat of our faith, and that we can never devote too much time and energy to telling and retelling its mysteries to God’s great glory. Indeed the cross of Christ is the center point of all God’s creation and character, as Paul writes, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). How could we spend our energies on anything less? Read my full review HERE.

What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert

Beyond simply articulating the pitfalls of a misdirected mission (i.e., that doing all manner of social good at the expense of Gospel proclamation fails to achieve eternal good), DeYoung and Gilbert issue a rallying cry for the Church to recapture the excitement and joy that comes from pursuing Christ’s commission to us. They remind readers that what ultimately leads to the transformation believers seek in the world is the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit, and they challenge believers to remember that God chooses to break into the lives of the lost through the faithful proclamation of His Gospel through the Church. They make the foundational point that the only thing the Church does that no one else in the world will do is to make disciples of Jesus, and that this should be our driving motivation. What Is the Mission of the Church? is a well-written, well-researched, and much needed book—it might be the most important Christian book of 2011. The implications of our interpretation of our mission for the Body of Christ are tremendous. Read my full review HERE.

The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek

Sowell whet my appetite for a more in-depth look at socio-economic studies, so I took a stab at Hayek’s magnum opus. It’s a bit dense at times, but that’s more a reflection on the reader than the author. This is a tremendous repository of wisdom for citizens of any nation. Hayek’s commentary on issues from unionism to taxation to social security to state coercion reads as though it was taken from present-day political discussions rather than a 5-decade-old treatise. This is a more openly ideological work than most books on economic theory, but Hayek’s razor-sharp intellect makes his arguments in favor of limited government and free markets sound like the height of accepted wisdom. A must-read for anyone in any kind of policymaking position.

Desiring God, John Piper

I’m rather embarrassed to have never read this classic before., but I’m glad I took the time to enjoy it this year. Enough has been said about this book elsewhere to fill a shelf (and Piper’s eponymous parachurch is a daily fleshing-out of its themes), and all I’ll add is that it is a unique and powerful work. Joy is the only valid motivation for the Christian, as it wasn’t for duty that Christ died.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Another one I’m embarrassed to have missed up to this point. Finn is so ingrained in the fabric of our American culture that it’s easy to think you know the story without ever having read it. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the classics–Twain’s narrative style is comically brilliant, his themes touch every aspect of life in 19th century America, and his insight into the soul of the nation still resonates. Truly the firstborn of American novels.

A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, Paul E. Miller

I had heard about this book from various quarters for quite a while, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get a copy. Frankly, I’m not a fan of books about prayer and other spiritual disciplines because they often share a common flaw–an author assumes that the way that God worked with him in his own life is somehow a measurable, normative prescription for how God works with everyone. Miller delightfully avoids this temptation, and the result is a book that is both bold and helpful. Read my full review HERE.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Lament October 28, 2011

Lamentations 1:12-14, 20.

Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?
Look and see if there is any pain like my pain
Which was severely dealt out to me,
Which the Lord inflicted on the day of His fierce anger.

From on high He sent fire into my bones,
And it prevailed over them.
He has spread a net for my feet;
He has turned me back;
He has made me desolate,
Faint all day long.

The yoke of my transgressions is bound;
By His hand they are knit together.
They have come upon my neck;
He has made my strength fail.
The Lord has given into the hands
Of those agiainst Whom I am not able to Stand.

See, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is overturned within me,
For I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword slays;
In the house it is like death.

Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Old Testament. Its intense grief over the destruction of Jerusalem gives way to a profound picture of God’s hand in both good and evil that shows clearly that He is the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. What I sometimes gloss over in reading this book, though, is that the destruction wrought upon Jerusalem that moved Jeremiah’s pen came from within. The blight on Israel was a result of their collective sins, and they recognized it (though only after it was too late).

The implications for daily life are painfully real. I so seldom lament the sin in my own life and the destruction it causes. Even when I do, the tendency is always to lament the consequences and fail to connect them to the sin. We are the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, regretting our lack of cookies rather than the breach of trust and relationship with our parents our actions caused. We go on this way, stumbling from transgression to transgression without considering the brokenness of our own hearts.

When God allows our sins to bear fruit in pain and suffering, it is really His special grace to call our attention to our eternal destiny through such temopral consequences. The destruction wrought by our sinful actions should move us to consider our sinful hearts and our cardinal sin of rebellion against our Great and gracious Creator. The brokenness that comes when sin “catches up to us” should drive us to the cross, where the consequences of all man’s sin are on full display, heaped on the Son–”once for all, the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3:18). As Charles Hodge put it, “It is obvious that no severity of mere human suffering, no destroying deluge, no final conflagration, not hell itself can present such a manifestation of the evil of sin and of the justice of God as the cross of his incarnate Son.”

When we fail to recognize these connections, to lament and mortify our sin, we heap further guilt on our heards. What is lament but to dwell on our own failure in the face of God’s holiness and to consider ourselves as He does? For the believer, lament is a crucial discipline, the result of which is not despair but the joy of Christ’s sacrifice considered anew. It is only through lamenting the sin that stains us that we can see the grace of God in full. This is what allows Jeremiah to say from the depths of sorrow, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never ceases, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23).

Posted by Justin Lonas

The Disappearance of Discipline December 17, 2009

For centuries, believers practiced a plethora of spiritual disciplines designed to focus attention on the things of the Lord and promote prayer and true repentance. Fasting, monasticism, meditation, pilgrimage,  and even self-flagellation were fairly common to the life of the church. By the 16th century, however,  the reformers  proclaimed (in most cases, very correctly) that such external practices of the Catholic church were all for show and served only to cover up the lack of commitment in the heart. Zwingli, it is said, went so far as to stage an “œostentatious public sausage-eating*” during Lent to mock the futility of fasting for salvation.

In modern Evangelical Christianity, very little, if anything has changed about the general attitude toward many of the liturgical practices associated with more formal branches of the Church (Roman Catholicism, Eastern/Russian Orthodox, and Anglicanism).

Scripture, however, is not wholly on the side of either interpretation. Both the Old and New Testaments are replete with references to fasting and meditative prayer. Christ’s teaching on fasting in Matthew 6:16-24 presupposes its practice: He begins by saying “œWhenever you fast . . .”, not “œif you fast”. Jesus Himself fasted, most notably for the 40 days culminating in His temptation by Satan. While Protestant tradition is correct to point out that spiritual disciplines alone have no power to save, nor to change lives, it often misses the larger point that such habits serve to break up the flow of everyday life and remind us of our true calling. The liturgical tradition, while enforcing a spiritual mindset through discipline, fails to differentiate between means and ends and can very easily promote self-righteousness through what should be very selfless practices.

To a degree, the idea of spiritual discipline is one of “œself-induced suffering”. God promises that suffering and persecution will follow Christians (1 Peter, for instance), but also that He will sustain us and use such occurences to shape us into the men and women He desires us to be. When we partake of a fast, a prayer retreat, or sacrificial service of others, we are voluntarily laying aside the worldly clutter that so easily hinders our prayers. To do so is an open invitation for God to work in our hearts. It is during those times when He is most able to point out and excise sin from our lives and renew our commitment to His purposes.

Fasting in particular can also be a way to empathize with brothers and sisters around the world who go hungry everyday by no choice of their own. It is far easier to have a genuine concern for the poor when you’ve gone to bed hungry. It can serve as a motivator to proactively involve yourself in their lives. As Isaiah 8:6-7 says “œIs this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh. Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.”

Perhaps it is time to reexamine the balance of our Christian life. Perhaps we desperately need to refocus – to follow Christ alone and not the muddled images of Him that we so often pursue. Discipline alone is no help in the journey, but when coupled with a broken and contrite heart and an ear inclined to His wisdom, it can be a tremendous step in the right direction.

 *Wikipedia

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