Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Slaves or Friends, Sons and Daughters?

One of my friends and readers asked me to clarify the statement I made two weeks ago about living as sons/daughters not slaves. I quote it here: "Yes, there is submission to God’s purposes, but it’s the submission of a deeply loved and therefore loving son or daughter, not the servile, self-interested submission of a slave! And yes, living as a slave smacks of profound self-interest since the obedience comes in order to preserve or gain something for oneself rather than because of true love and desire to serve the interests of the Father whom we love!"

So what is it? Are we to live as slaves or as beloved sons and daughters? The answer to this is very, very important and is the difference between cruel religion and tender relationship. At first glance, there seems to be some contradiction in the Bible about this. Consider the following.

John 13:14-17 (HCSB) "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 15 For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you. 16 I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them."
John 15:14-15 (NLTse) "You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves because a master doesn't confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me."

Romans 1:1 (HCSB) Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle and singled out for God's good news...
Romans 8:14-15 (NLTse) For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead you received God's Spirit when He adopted you as his own children. Now we call Him, “Abba, Father.”

So...what's the deal here? Are we friends and sons/daughters, or are we slaves? In good Hebraic fashion I would suggest both, but we must always start with sonship. Those who have been deeply impacted--inundated--by God's love for them cannot help but live in loving surrender to God's purposes, not because of fear (which speaks of self-interest: the desire to preserve oneself from harm) but because of deep love and affection. As Paul Young so wonderfully explains in The Shack, true relationship can never form around obligation, duty, expectation or requirement, and God wants relationship with us first and foremost, not our service. There are no requirements for someone to be loved as a son or daughter and to live as a dearly loved child in a healthy family. But a dearly loved son or daughter knows that the best way to live is to follow the guidance of their loving (and wiser) parent.

Jesus modeled this for us perfectly, of course. Before He ever "did" anything, Father God said to Him, "You are my dearly loved Son, and I am (already) pleased with you." (see Mark 1:11, etc.). On the other hand, Jesus so loved His Father that to obey Him and serve Him was the only response He wished to make to such great love. Thus He could be both son and servant. For more comments on this, check out my earlier thoughts on March 7 last year. Click here to go there quickly.

I feel like I am sort of rambling today, but this is so dear to my heart (and God's heart, too) that I get really passionate about this and tend to ramble! Listen, dear ones, lots of people "serve God" but God doesn't desire your service to Him, He wants your heart. He wants you to live loved. Only those who live loved can ever really serve God as He intends: from the overflow of the River of His love powerfully transforming them from within and generously spilling over onto those around them. And far too many people out there are "exhorting" folks to obedience (often rather harshly) instead of inviting them to finally let God love them to wholeness. My concern is that many believers, even those who think they "get it" in terms of intimacy with God, live their lives with a subtle, underlying fear motivating what they do. And the solution to this is not to try harder, become a better servant, it's to allow God to pour His love into you, upon you and through you until you are saturated and secure in Him. When you get to where you live there, let's start talking about "serving"!

Hmmm. Well, maybe this is clearer. Maybe not. But you have felt my passion for sure. And I am sure I will hear from some of you if my words are even less clear than before! :-)

Learning to live loved,

Tom, Abba's little boy

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Surrender, Stillness, Solitude and Hearing God's Voice

     Today I borrow from an article I have written on hearing God's voice, extracting the parts that describe how surrender, stillness and solitude support a life of listening to Papa's voice.
     First, a reminder as to why I am writing so much about listening: The core of the Christ life is an increasingly intimate relationship with God, and constantly improving communication is essential for that relationship to grow. And because God’s desire is for each believer to hear Him on his/her own, not through a “pastor” or other teacher, it is crucial for you to learn how to hear Him well. Just how important is it for you to hear God’s voice for yourself, constantly, up close and personal? I answer that with another question: How else are you going to build a relationship with Him?
     Hearing and surrender. Smith Wigglesworth, that intriguing plumber turned evangelist of the last century, once said, “It is the easiest thing to get the mind of the Lord when your whole heart is only desiring the will of the Lord.” (Smith Wigglesworth Speaks to Students, p. 11). I have found this to be absolutely true. You cannot hear God in any area in which you are still in control, still not surrendered. Why would He speak in that area? This is perhaps why we get confused even about dreams God plants within us. The dream may really be something from God, but once we see it, we are so deeply touched by it and excited about it that we may try to make it happen, thereby missing the path to see the dream fulfilled (which unfolds to us via constant conversation with God). Being “led by the Spirit” implies that we are indeed being led, not doing the leading!
     Would you spend a lot of time talking to someone who wasn’t responding to what you said? I don’t imagine that God will either. The people who hear God best always approach Him with an attitude of absolute surrender, yielding all control of their lives to God’s purposes. To hear God’s voice clearly, you must approach Him with a willingness to do what He says without hesitation or reservation! Smith Wigglesworth often boiled the Christian life down to one word: yield. He told his hearers, “Yield and yield and yield!”
     God won’t speak to the person who isn’t willing to submit to His rule. I like to think of Surrender and Submission as the front and back doors to God’s throne room. Surrender gets me into the throne room so that I can hear Him, and submission is the door I go through as I leave, fully committed to act on what He has said. One sure way to improve your hearing His voice, then, is to start obeying those “nudges” you get from Him. The nudges get “louder” as we come ready to obey and then follow through with obedience. And remember, we are not surrendering to a cruel master who wishes to do us harm, rather we are surrendering a child to its loving, wise parent or as a lover into the arms of the beloved. Otherwise the concept of surrender negates what we know (and about which I wrote last entry) about being sons and daughters, not merely slaves. Surrender recognizes that we are in relationship with the Infinite and Almighty One who is God Most High, but who also loves and cherishes us so that His words come to guide in a way that's always best for us and never meant to coerce us.
     Hearing and stillness. It’s amazing to me how many people think that they can hear God in the middle of the noise of their crowded lives. Have you ever tried to carry on a serious conversation in a noisy restaurant or while the TV was going? It’s impossible! And God usually speaks very, very softly, so we need to get really still to hear Him. In fact, when you first start trying to hear Him, you will find that you face not only external noise but internal noise as well. You may be like many others who find that even when they finally get alone and quiet find that their minds at first are filled with “noisy thoughts” that drown out God’s still, small voice. What can you do about this? First, be quiet. Make prayer a two-sided conversation, not a laundry list or a 911 call. If God can’t get a word in edgewise, it’s not likely that you will hear much. For me prayer is now far more listening than talking! Second, take the time needed to get still. Get alone, tune out the outside noises, put on some soft worship music if that helps, and just sit until your soul quiets down. Certain scripture passages have helped me reach stillness, and they may help you, too (Psalms 46:10 and 131:1-2, for example). Finally, don’t give up! Most of us are so unaccustomed to inner stillness that it takes practice to get inwardly quiet and peaceful. But when you do get truly still, hang on! You will find God speaking volumes to you, and you will learn how to take that stillness with you wherever you go.
     Hearing and solitude. We can’t form a relationship or learn to recognize someone’s voice in the middle of a crowd. Learning to recognize how someone communicates—with both verbal communication and non-verbal communication—requires us to spend time alone with them, doesn’t it? Our relationship with God is no different. If we want to get to know the subtle nuances of the ways He communicates, we must spend time with Him alone. It is impossible to learn to hear God just by attending meetings, reading books, etc. Those things may help, but they cannot take the place of time alone with Him. I have discovered a direct connection between how much time I spend alone with Him and how well I recognize His voice. And I have never met anyone who took the time to be alone with God (to listen) who didn’t learn to hear God well. Again, try it! Take the time you have in your life that’s yours to invest as you wish and spend it alone with God and see what happens! Please note: I know that many who read this blog don't have a lot of discretionary time, but you may be surprised at what you find when you start inventorying your life as to how you spend your time. One young mother I know found that her time of solitude had to take place while she was in the bathtub, but she found a way to extend those times to be alone with God!
     Okay, this is a bit longer than some of my posts, but these three S's all seem to go well together. Let me know how this is working for you, okay? And remember that God is more committed to your hearing Him than you are to learning how to hear Him! How else can He communicate how much He loves you!!!

Lost in His love,

Tom, Abba's little boy

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Still More on Listening

      Yes, I am sensing that I need to write still more on hearing God's voice. I think last week's article is argument enough for why I wish to keep writing about this even though many, many books have been written: we cannot be transformed nor can we participate in the transformation of our culture through the Good News of the Kingdom of God apart from the intimacy with God that hearing His voice facilitates. So today I want to talk about the place of Scripture in hearing God's voice, plus a few other thoughts on discerning Papa's voice.
     People often ask me, "What does God's voice sound like?" Hmmm, God sounds like…well, He sounds like God! So one of the best ways to discern His voice is to get to know Him via His written word. If you will memorize and meditate passages that describe His character and purposes, and if you will get to know God as revealed in Jesus by reading the Gospels over and over, you will immensely improve your ability to recognize His voice. Take 1 Corinthians 13, Galatians 5:22-23, for example. These passages supply us some wonderful filters for determining whether what we are hearing is really God. If Paul says, for example, that "love is patient, love is kind, etc." and God is love as we are told in 1 John 4:16, then don't you suppose God's words to you will be characterized by patience, kindness, etc.? You get the picture, I think, yet many believers somehow believe that God's voice is always confrontational, rather harsh, etc. What's wrong with this picture!? Galatians tells us that the fruit of God (His Spirit) is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. That tells us that God's voice will be loving, joyful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and not filled with rage or anything out of control. 
     Also, passages like 1 Corinthians 14:3 (prophecy, God's voice given through His people builds up, comforts and encourages!) and Ephesians 4:29 (which tells us how we are to speak to one another and hence how God will speak to us), help to open your ears to hearing God's voice as one of encouragement and expressions of love for you. This in turn will help you begin to hear Him for just the sake of relationship, not just direction and guidance. 
     And speaking of "guidance," we must be careful not to think of it as merely coming to God for something to do for Him. That smacks more of a slave mentality than of a son or daughter in conversation with their Father about life and life choices. Some of the teaching about guidance that I have heard or read sounds more like hearing God is more about "checking in with the boss" then going out to do what he said in a basically independent manner. It seems to me rather that guidance is what will flow out of a continuing conversation with God as we walk with Him throughout our day. As we converse with Him, we discuss our life’s direction in the light of His heart and purposes and the best way unfolds before us. This to me is what Jesus was describing in John 5:17-19. Yes, there is submission to God’s purposes, but it’s the submission of a deeply loved and therefore loving son or daughter, not the servile, self-interested submission of a slave! And yes, living as a slave reeks of profound self-interest because a slave obeys in order to preserve or gain something for him/herself rather than other-oriented love and a desire to serve the interests of the loving Father. Think about it and you will discern that what I write here is true.
     I close with a few quotes from Smith Wigglesworth that I have given in an earlier blog--just good reminders on what God sounds like (from Smith Wigglesworth Speaks to Students).
     “The difference is joy, gladness, expression; instead of sadness, sorrow and depression. You are always right to test the spirits to see whether they are of God. If you do not, then you will be sure to be caught napping.” (p. 128)
     “If ever you know anything about God, it will be peace.... God showed me a long time ago... that if I was disturbed in my spirit and was at unrest I had missed the plan.” (p. 129).
     “So these voices, if they have taken you out of peace, you will know it is not the will of God. But If the Spirit speaks, he will bring harmony and joy, because the Spirit always brings three things: comfort, consolation, and edification and will make you sing songs in the night..”.. “If you go breathlessly to the Bible, looking for confirmation of the voice, that is the devil.” (p. 31).
     On my next post I will continue to write about hearing God's voice. We will look at how surrender and stillness aid us in hearing Him.

Listening for Papa's kind voice,

Tom, Abba's Little Boy

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Fruit of Listening

     I am more convinced than ever that our culture is not being transformed because God's people have lost intimacy with Him and the listening to Him that nurtures that intimacy  (and the fruit it brings). Instead of fixing the eyes of our heart on Papa, we instead live our lives almost entirely with sights set on our own plans and at our own initiative. When we make the shift to a listening lifestyle, however, incredible things happen in us and through us. Consider a couple of stories.     This past week my friend Ken, who is a listener extraordinaire, was waiting for his connection in Chicago when he "noticed" a lady who was reading The Shack. His careful listening (to Papa God and to the woman) led him into a two hour conversation with a woman who initially had no interest in God. The conversation ended with Ken being able to encourage this woman towards God via reading The Shack and with his promise to pray for her as she did. This kind of God-incidence happens all the time for Ken. Another story that comes to mind is also a travel story. Someone I know was on a flight from Burbank to Dallas and heard God tell him that a certain lady coming down the aisle would be receiving God's touch through him. Sure enough the lady sat down next to him. When he asked Papa how to enter a conversation with her, He said, "Ask her to tell you her story." When he did so, this young woman, an actress and acting coach, poured out her pain, explaining that she was on her way home to see her estranged father who had just suffered a major stroke. She was typically suspicious of "Christians," but because of his listening to her and to God, by the time the plane was descending for landing he asked her if he could pray for her, and she literally leaned into him, head to head, as she said "Yes!" She then walked to her gate clinging to him, left him her contact information, etc. I could add many, many stories like this story because to me is the "normal Christian life" and there are many stories to tell.
     But how many of us have a relationship with Papa that is intimate enough to allow us to live like this most of the time? How many of us instead live most of life almost entirely on our own initiative, with little thought or reference to engaging God in an ongoing conversation about things as we go through the day? And what kind of fruit does that bear? Help us, Papa! (Yes, I still wrestle with how to live this way, too!)
     I close with this poignant and parallel thought from Thomas Kelly in A Testament of Devotion (pp. 96-97). I have updated the language slightly.
     "the sense of (God's) Presence carries within it a sense of our lives being in large part guided, dynamically moved from beyond our usual selves. Instead of being the active, hurrying church worker and anxious, careful planner of shrewd moves toward the good life, we become pliant creatures, less brittle, less obstinately rational. The energizing, dynamic center is not in us but in the Divine Presence in which we share....The sooner we stop thinking we are the energetic operators of religion and discover that God is at work, as the Aggressor, the Invader, the Initiator, so much the sooner do we discover that our task is to call men to be still and know, listen, hearken in quiet invitation to the subtle promptings of the Divine....too many people are so preoccupied with the clatter of effort to do something for God that they don't hear Him asking that He might do something through them."
      That's it for now. I could write much more, describing many instances of incredible fruitfulness for those who have learned to listen, but perhaps you can add your own stories. For me, my life is one continuing story like this! I can never go back to living on my own initiative!

Listening and living loved so that I may love others as I live,

Tom, one of Abba's beloved children