As in “How do I stop living the old way and live the new way Christ opened up two millenniums ago? How do I start living my life focused on growing closer to God instead of trying to “behave myself” so He’ll bless me with what I think will make me happy? How?” Well, it really comes down to our willingness to let the Holy Spirit overhaul, upgrade and transform our heart and mind. Then and only then can we develop an ever-deepening bond with our Heavenly Father. John Owen called it a personal communion (Webster’s defines that word to mean “an intimate spiritual relationship.”) Owen wrote, “The knowledge that God and man can live in fellowship is hidden in Christ. It’s too wonderful for sinful, corrupted human nature to discover. But we have, in Christ, the way into God’s presence without fear… Those who enjoy this communion are gloriously united to God through Christ and share in all the glorious and excellent fruits of such communion… This communion will be perfect and complete when we enter into the full enjoyment of Christ’s glories. Then we’ll totally give ourselves up to Him, resting in Him as the fulfillment of all our desires… This communion is now only partial because we presently only enjoy the first fruits of that future perfection.” In other words, we’re sampling but a tiny taste of the banquet that awaits us in heaven. While that may sound like we’re getting short-changed, that’s not it at all. Larry Crabb got it right when he stated, “…Partially enjoying God is better than fully enjoying anything else.” And in our soul of souls we know that’s true.
Yet even though I’m a born again Christian I often catch myself yearning to enjoy something more tangible. And not only completely but pronto. That’s my sinful nature throwing a “gimme tantrum.” It concludes that, since I’ve dedicated my life to following Jesus, I should receive all the perks now. But that’s not how it works. Discipleship requires unconditional surrender on our part with the clear understanding that the best phase of our existence lies on the other side of physical death. Until then we’re to live, with His promises serving as sufficient spiritual nourishment, one day at a time until He calls us home. His grace is enough. We who aim to emulate Christ must avoid succumbing to living the old way whereby we strain to earn God’s blessings. The problem is the old way makes logical sense to us. Especially compared to the new way that involves putting all our trust in God without any guarantees we won’t suffer hardships and trials down the road. But the Gospel assures us it’s worth it. So very much worth it. We’re told any encounter with our Heavenly Father, no matter how brief or fragmentary, is a zillion times better than any delight we can hope to receive from indulging in anything this misguided world offers. Anyone, including myself, who’s felt God’s comforting presence will testify to that previous statement’s veracity. For most of my life pleasure, not God, was my idol. Despite discovering again and again hollow pleasures never lasted and thus never fully satisfied me I kept on chasing them relentlessly. Yet if someone asked me if I was a Christian I wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Yep. You betcha!” You see, my faith in Jesus was no more than fire insurance. I can’t believe how many years I wasted as a phony believer.
Maybe that’s where you’re at now; the same place I was almost eight years ago when my mask got shredded and my shameful hypocrisy exposed. I was cornered. I had to choose. Either run away from God (again) in order to keep trying to please myself or stop the charade and finally make knowing my Lord and Savior my #1 goal. I surrendered and never looked back. Smartest decision I ever made. I found a church that welcomed me with open arms. I found a non-judgmental ministry (Celebrate Recovery) populated by sinners just like me who needed healing from their hurts, habits and/or hang-ups. I started reading God’s word every day and found it to be the most fascinating book I’ve ever cracked open. Folks, God changed me because I let Him.
Now, did my circumstances immediately change for the better overnight? Not on your life. I had a lot of amends to make and, considering the messes I’d made, it wasn’t easy to convince those whom I’d let down that I wasn’t the same old self-centered, antisocial introvert they’d grown so tired of fooling with. Still, they could tell something was different. Mainly that my professed faith in Jesus wasn’t fake anymore. I had no desire to keep the con up because I could genuinely feel the Holy Spirit stirring inside me. Needless to say, I was as shocked and surprised as anybody regarding what was happening. I realized Ephesians 4:22-24 wasn’t just wishful thinking: “You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance to deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image – in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth.” My time to take a stand for Christ had arrived and this time I was ready. Is that where you are now? Take my advice. Go for it.
Of course, this leads us back to the “how” question. How does one go about leaving the old way behind and adopting the new way that leads to knowing God better? Well, only He knows what’s in store for you. All I know for certain is that (a) your journey will be as unique as your fingerprint and (b) it’ll be the most gratifying adventure you’ll ever go on. But if it’s only His blessings you’re after you’ll be sorely disappointed. Aim higher than blessings. Go all in for God. Do as Jesus said: “But above all pursue his kingdom and righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). He was promising if we put seeking God ahead of everything else He’ll see to it that, while we may not necessarily get everything we want, we’ll definitely get everything we need. Crabb wrote, “The abundant life Jesus provides doesn’t consist in what we usually call the blessings of life, despite what you’ve heard from too many pulpits and read in too many books. Blessings are good, but they’re not enough. Not for your soul. And now you know you have a soul. You are a soul, created by God for God to find yourself in God and then to live your life through God.” The old way consistently puts pressure on Christians to “perform” for God when all He truly longs for is for His children to return the unconditional love He’s freely bestowed upon them. But they’ll get nowhere copping an old way attitude. They’ll come to feel they’re in a cage, furiously wasting energy like a hamster in a wheel. Next thing you know, they’ll give up on God because the expected “payoff” didn’t arrive. One can only wonder how many have abandoned their faith due to the inevitable failure of their old way mentality.
The new way frees us from unnecessary futility. When we put God first we discover that loving others comes naturally because we see our neighbors as flawed-but-nonetheless-beautiful entities that bear the image of God – just like we do. I realize this “new way” terminology can start sounding like just another hip slogan after a while and I hope that’s not the impression you’re getting. The new way has been around for a very long time. Paul wrote, “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). What’s apparent is hordes of Christians aren’t even aware of what the new way of the Spirit means. And therein lies the elephant-in-the-room problem in that all it takes is an urgent phone call in the middle of the night to bring their well-planned-out world crashing down. In an instant their faith goes AWOL. When the unforeseen rogue wave hits the idea of cultivating an intimate, one-on-one relationship with the Creator of the universe sounds absurd and irrelevant. It might be something of interest to monks, nuns and theology professors but utterly useless when a loved one’s life is hanging by a thread. In those critical hours when fear and uncertainty overwhelm their senses the most rational act that comes to mind is to cry out, “God, if you’re really there and you’re really on my side, FIX THIS NOW!” Rather than leaning on the everlasting arms that have them firmly in their grip for strength, resolve and comfort, they demand God’s personal intervention on their behalf. Turns out their trust in Him is based on what He’ll do for them instead of who He is. If it’s His will, a miracle will take place. If it ain’t, it won’t. Our faith in God should never depend on whether or not He answers our prayers in the fashion we want Him to. But that’s what the old way leads a believer to think.
Only by reading and absorbing what God’s told us in the Bible can a person not only comprehend but actually live their life the new way. Recently my wife had to undergo emergency stomach surgery. I felt like I’d been hit upside the head with a 2×4. Crucial things were happening in real time and I had no control over the situation whatsoever. Yet I didn’t rail against God. Instead I asked Him to be with Debra and for His will to be done. I knew there was nothing I could do to merit His blessings because He’s already blessed me with the greatest gift of all – life. So I simply requested His presence. That was all it took. He didn’t smooth out the course of events to suit my preference. What He did do was walk with me, my wife and our family members “…through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). I don’t know if He miraculously spared Debra’s life but I do know He never left her or my side. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no saint. No expert at living the new way. But I can tell you it beats the tar out of living the old way.
This isn’t to imply we’re to turn into slothful do-nothings. Right off the bat in Genesis 1 we read that God gave us a communal job to do. In verses 28-30 it says it’s to rule over all living things (animal and plant) on the planet. It’s our task, not His, to take proper care of Terra Firma. At the same time, we can’t take proper care of much of anything without God’s power being involved. Dallas Willard wrote, “However unlikely it may seem from our current viewpoint, God equipped us for this task by framing our nature to function in a conscious, personal relationship of interactive responsibility with Him. We’re meant to exercise our “rule” only in union with God, as He acts with us. He intended to be our constant companion or coworker in the creative enterprise of life on earth. That’s what His love for us means in practical terms.” In other words, if and whenever human beings work together in conjunction with the great I AM there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished. Alas, mankind as a whole fumbled that ball a long time ago. We became arrogant jerks who were sure we knew better. We not only distanced ourselves from God but from one another. Evil ensued. Paul wrote that “…the creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20). We never learned. We just kept trusting only in ourselves and our own understanding while the world raged on in a perpetual state of turmoil. History and the 24/7 news channels won’t let us overlook or ignore that for a minute.
Yet the fundamentals of what makes us human haven’t changed one iota. In the deepest regions of each individual heart one knows precisely what our core purpose is. “Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments’” (Matthew 22:34-40). Our purpose is love. Willard opined, “Apart from harmony under God, our nature-imposed objectives go awry. The social and individual chaos of human desires sees to it. Much of our time and energy is spent trying to dominate others or escape domination by them, from ‘office politics’ to tribal warfare to international relations on a global scale.” The old way of thinking that our admirable/honorable intentions should be more than enough to garner a bevy of God’s blessings has proven to be audaciously unrealistic so many times it’s not even funny. We think way too highly of ourselves. That’s why the new way Christ brought into being is the only way. So how does one go about living the new way?
One way is by copying those who’ve led exemplary Christian lives. Take Frank Laubach for example. He began as a missionary in the predominantly Muslim Philippines but ended up being one of the world’s most respected Christian spokespersons. He founded the World Literacy Crusade (still thriving today) and was very influential in the formulation of our country’s foreign policy during the post-World War II era. It’s been said he was “forever and foremost Christ’s man, and always knew his brilliant ideas, incredible energy and effectiveness derived from his practice of constant conscious interface with God.” He managed to live the new way but it didn’t come easily. He had to work at it. In his 1976 book, Practicing His Presence, he wrote about how 46 years earlier he’d conducted an experiment to see if he could achieve moment-to-moment submission to the will of God. He concentrated on cultivating the habit of focusing his mind on Jesus for one second out of every minute. He kept a journal and, after only a month of this mental and spiritual exercise, he reported, “I feel simply carried along each hour, doing my part in a plan which is far beyond myself. This sense of cooperation with God in little things is what so astonishes me, for I never have felt it this way before. I need something, and turn round to find it waiting for me. I must work, to be sure, but there is God working along with me.” Now that encourages me.
Too many Christians bull-headedly think they can do something that’ll coerce God into blessing them with what they want. They don’t like the idea of having to wait patiently for His blessings because they want to be in control of the whens, wheres and hows of grace. They want to believe that if they do everything correctly God will reward their 90% righteous behavior with blessings they’re positive will in them possessing the “good life.” But if that method was infallible every church would be filled to the rafters every time the sanctuary doors swung open because wealth is attractive. There’d be no poor Christians. We know that’s far from being the case. Living the new way has nothing to do with material prosperity but the everlasting riches it brings into our lives are inexpressibly precious.
Crabb confessed that, in order for him to live the new way, he had to change his prayers to something along the lines of: “God, I don’t know how You can produce the fruit in my heart of a consuming love for You. I seem to find so much more enjoyment in the good things of life, and sometimes in sin, than in knowing You. I like blessings more than I love You. It’ll take a miracle to change that. You tell me the miracle has already happened, that I have a new heart that wants You as my ultimate pleasure. But I don’t know how to make that real so I’m trusting You’ll show me. I’m ready.” I know this: If that’s what any of us starts praying for, God’ll faithfully and reliably show us how.