Something we all do to one degree or another is after December’s done we promise ourselves to do something positive about whatever it is we don’t like most about ourselves. The annual urge to “self-improve” is one of our species’ more admirable traits. I once sweated/grunted through a period in my life when I went to a health club at least three nights a week for several years. January always shoved inconveniences into my workout regimen because the place would be packed with newbies whose resolution was to finally shed the disfiguring spare tire encircling their waistline. God was probably teaching me patience because I eventually gleaned from experience that by Valentine’s Day there wouldn’t be a long line at the Stairmaster anymore. In my spiritual life, however, I’m no better than the “this time I mean it” folks I’d look down on back then. Like many, I entered 2016 intending to become a better Christian in every aspect of my faith by living the new way Jesus demonstrated but within months my selfish habit of expecting God to bless me with what I wanted had managed to disrupt the whole developing-a-closer-relationship-with-my-Heavenly-Father initiative. The old way of thinking hadn’t disappeared. It’d merely waited for my inherent laziness to return from its short-lived hiatus. “Oh well, there’s always next year,” I sighed.
The new way isn’t a secret. It’s laid out explicitly in Matthew 5 through 7. Dallas Willard wrote, “What we’ve come to call the Sermon on the Mount is a concise statement of Jesus’ teachings on how to actually live in the reality of God’s present kingdom, available to us from the very space surrounding our bodies. It concludes with a statement that all who hear and do what He says will have a life that can stand up to everything – that is, a life for eternity because it’s already in the eternal.” In His awesome sermon Christ informed the world the Kingdom of God isn’t situated way off in the future somewhere, it’s here now because He brought it with Him! In the 3rd century Clement of Alexandria poetically wrote, “Jesus Christ, by coming into this world, has changed the sunsets of time into the sunrises of eternity.” In other words, followers of Christ shouldn’t be waiting for New Year’s Day to instigate much-needed changes. The truth of the verse, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8) is in effect 24/7. That ability has been ours to freely indulge in ever since we surrendered our life to our Savior. Larry Crabb opined, “Heaven’s ecstasy will flow from the literal presence of Christ. The beginning of that ecstasy, in this world, depends on the appreciated presence of Christ. The old way, by its focus on tangible blessings now, severely limits the depths of that appreciation. In the new way, appreciating Christ’s presence as the ‘sunrise of eternity’ is possible. Not automatic. Never complete. But possible. And the possibilities are staggering.”
In the previous essay I presented ideas about how to get on and stay on Jesus’ new way path. I’ll add a few more. One’s particularly timely: Redefine your spiritual goals. Foremost of one’s aims should be, as the late Brennan Manning would say, to trust God ruthlessly. Without reserve. Without hesitation. Why? Because you know Him via your encounters with Him and you know He’s good. Admit it. You’re always surprised by the depth of His amazing grace. He always embraces you as you are. You never have to put on airs for Him. You never have to dress up. You never have to try to hide your weaknesses because He’s seen them all – in Technicolor. When no one else accepts you warts and all, He does. That kind of unconditional love can’t help but elicit sincere worship. “Ruthless trust” will lead to experiencing community. One of the many things I cherish about Celebrate Recovery is the blessing of getting to be a participant in an unpretentious, non-judgmental, loving fellowship of confessed sinners every week. It doesn’t matter who’s there or ain’t that night because the Holy Spirit never misses a meeting. Uncompromised trust in God will put you in position to have your heart be transformed, as well. If you trust only in yourself it’ll never happen. Only God can give you a heart that looks like Christ’s.
When Jesus announced the Kingdom of God was “at hand” He meant “it’s here now.” Willard wrote, “It’s a kingdom that, in the person of Jesus, welcomes us just as we are, just where we are, and makes it possible for us to translate our ‘ordinary’ life into an eternal one. It’s so available that everyone who, from the center of his or her being calls upon Jesus as Master of the Universe and Prince of Life, will be heard and will be delivered into the eternal kind of life.” The Bible tells us our Savior didn’t leave our ongoing justification to chance, either. He taught His disciples, “I have spoken these things while staying with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will cause you to remember everything I said to you” (John 14:25-26). Unlike Elvis, the Holy Spirit is still in the building, powerful as ever. He hasn’t gone anywhere. Jesus said of Him, “…He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own authority, but will speak whatever He hears, and will tell you what is to come. He will glorify me, because He will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you” (John 16:13-14).
That’s precisely what He’s doing. Paul wrote, “And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). He reaffirms our status: “The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16). He reassures us of eternal life in heaven: “…When you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation) – when you believed in Christ – you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14). Because of the Holy Spirit, our mind-blowingly bright future with the Lord in paradise is guaranteed: “…It is God who establishes us together with you in Christ and who anointed us, who also sealed us and gave us the Holy Spirit in our hearts as a down payment” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). In other words, we’ve got everything we need: “…You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth… The anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you” (1 John 2:20, 27). The key to living the new way is relying 100% on the Holy Spirit. Crabb described our anointing thusly, “…Followers of the new way will be given the passion and wisdom of Christ to respond to every challenge they meet in life. If we learn what it means to come to Him, we’ll receive an anointing that enlightens us about what to do and empowers us to do it in any circumstance of life.”
As I’ve emphasized throughout this series, the new way isn’t a “new and improved” version of Christianity. It’s been around for 2,000 years. It’s how the Son of God intended us to live all along. To reiterate, Jesus told us all about the new way in His Sermon on the Mount. But if your prayer life reflects the old way more than the new way then you’re missing out on a vital aspect of deepening your relationship with God. There are three indicators of old way praying. First is asking for your will to be done. As in “make my back stop hurting” or “make my kids respect me” or “make my boss give me a raise.” Second is requesting God pave the way for you to get what you want. As in, “open some closed doors for me” or “bring someone into my life who’s got some clout.” Third is to plead with God for Him to make you happy. As in “do whatever’s necessary to make my depression go away” or “stop making my life so hard to deal with.” Now, please understand there’s nothing wrong with asking God for help – unless His blessings are what you desire more than Him. That’s old way praying. New way praying never involves putting demands on God. It’s asking for His light to shine upon you even when your environment is darkest. It’s requesting His beauty overwhelm the ugliness of this world. It’s inviting His love to saturate your soul to the extent that others, especially non-believers, will want what you have in Christ.
Having said all that, I readily confess that spontaneous, conversational prayer is difficult for me. My brain insists things be orderly; that I adhere to an unyielding schedule so certain things get done at a certain time of day. I’m above average at keeping track of stuff. In my younger days I’d note casual/trivial events on a calendar and then store that calendar with my other “portable junk”. Thus decades later I can tell my aging musician pals exactly the day we played a particular gig, for example. The downside of that trait has always been that some tag me “anal retentive.” (I’ve been called worse, believe me.) The upside was that I eventually landed a well-paying job with a financial portfolio management firm in their operations department because I was proficient at making sure all the numbers involved in their stock trades matched up. But in my prayer life my ducks-in-a-row tendency severely inhibits conversing with God as if I’m hanging out with my best friend. Like clockwork, I pray first thing in the morning after perusing my “read-the-entire-Bible-in-a-year” passage for the day and then quickly at night before I slip under the covers. I have a set list of things I recite in my mind and a roster of folks I make sure to mention along the way. Otherwise I fear I’ll forget to pray altogether. A few years ago I read some books on how to pray better and they helped a bunch but I still stubbornly rely on a lot of routine in my supplications. Perhaps you’re the same way. I feel for you. I do gain a lot of solace in the words of Romans 8:26-27, “…The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will.” The Father provides.
Basil Pennington wrote a piece that hits home with Christians like me on a profound level. He imagined a scenario where a father has given his 3-year old daughter a coloring book and a box of crayons. What she creates can be labeled “abstract art” only in the broadest and most generous of terms but he watches her color away, transfixed in his adoration of her. When she finishes she proudly presents her creation to him. He’s tickled pink. Pennington wrote, “A father is delighted when his little one, leaving off her toys and friends, runs to him and climbs into his arms. As he holds his little one close to him, he cares little whether the child is looking around, her attention flitting from one thing to another, or just settling down to sleep. Essentially the child is choosing to be with her father, confident of the love, the care, the security that is hers in those arms. Our prayer is much like that. We settle down in our Father’s arms, in His loving hands. Our mind, our thoughts, our imagination may flit about here and there; we might even fall asleep; but essentially we’re choosing for this time to remain intimately with our Father, giving ourselves to Him, receiving His love and care, letting Him enjoy us as He will. It’s very simple prayer. It’s prayer that opens us out to all the delights of the kingdom.” In other words, our Father in heaven is immensely elated whenever we take the time to spend a few moments sitting in His lap. Even if our prayers are recited by rote.
Still, I’ve picked up pointers that help to at least expand the scope of my one-on-one chats with God. I start by honestly opening up and telling my Heavenly Father where I’m at; where my mind’s been wandering off to, how I treated my wife and other folks I interacted with recently and whether or not I put Him first in my life. I confess my sins and beg His forgiveness for my failures in being His ambassador. Next I tell Him how much I love Him, worship Him and want to please Him through honoring His name and character. Because it just feels right, I then recite the Lord’s Prayer before asking Him to bless the people I care most about, identifying them individually. I conclude by thanking my Father for all the blessings I too often so callously take for granted. (Compared to millions of humans on this planet I’m a privileged, wealthy man simply because I have shelter, food and clean water.) And, of course, I express my gratitude for His sending His Son to die in my place before I mutter amen. I try to allow a few moments of silence to pass before opening my eyes and raising my head just in case He has something to say to me but I have yet to hear His sweet voice. (That’s because I’m usually instantly distracted, thinking about what I’m gonna do next. He can’t get a word in edgewise! I don’t know how He puts up with me. I guess it’s because He loves me more than I can fathom.)
While living the new way includes obeying God’s laws, in and of themselves they can’t change our hearts. Only Christ can do that. “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty. But I told you that you have seen me and still do not believe. Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me – that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father – for everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him to have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:35-40). Willard wrote, “He [Jesus] knew that we can’t keep the law by trying to keep the law. To succeed in keeping the law one must aim at something other and something more. One must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the law naturally flow. The apple tree naturally and easily produces apples because of its inner nature. This is the most crucial thing to remember if we would understand Jesus’ picture of the kingdom heart given in the Sermon on the Mount.”
Let’s all make a resolution to stop living the old way and start living the new way of the Spirit that Christ died on the cross to make available to mankind. Crabb wrote, “Either we can keep asking God to give us what we think will make us happy – to escape our dark room and run to the playground of blessings – or we can accept His invitation to sit with Him, for now perhaps in darkness, and to seize the opportunity to know Him better and represent Him well in this difficult world.” The choice is ours. At the end of next year I’ll either look back on it regretting I lived it the old way again or I’ll be blown away over how my soul benefitted from consistently living the new way. I know if I place all my trust and faith in Christ, whose love for me was put on full display at Calvary, I have no doubt I’ll know I’ve grown as a Christian. It’s up to me to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.” So be it.