Real New Life
The following is adapted from a sermon I preached on New Years Day, 2010, at Edinburg SDA Church. As such, apologies for the length.
A couple weeks ago, I spent sometime setting up an artificial christmas tree in my little apartment in Boston. I had just bought the tree for fifteen dollars; it was about six feet tall. If you’ve ever set up an artificial christmas tree, you know what its like. With this one, I stuck together two poles which formed the trunk, and I had to slide the main branches onto little slots that circled this “trunk.” With that accomplished, I set out to do the longer task of spreading out all the twigs that were bunched up towards the center of each branch. And so I sat there, “opening up” the branches of the tree, for about an hour.
As I was doing this, I began to contemplate and pray. While I was praying, the thought occurred to me (by the Spirit or not, I do not know), “What am I doing right now? What is the purpose, what is my goal, in spreading out these branches?” “My goal,” I thought to myself, “is to spread out these branches in such a way so that the tree looks as real as possible. I want to hide all the wires and plastic that form the trunk and the branches by pulling apart the twigs, and I want to do it in such as way as to mimic the randomness of nature so that the tree looks more real.”
I began to contemplate about what this meant for me. Was I doing this in my own life? I think most of us spend a lot of time, sprucing ourselves up. Unfurling these nice looking things on the outside so that we can hide the ugliness that lies just behind the surface. Stuff that we think nobody really wants to see. And by doing this, we deceive others, we deceive ourselves, and we attempt to deceive God.
I also began to think about why I didn’t get a real christmas tree instead of a fake one. Well, for one, real christmas trees are messy: moving it in and out of my apartment will mean pine needles scattered everywhere, and so it would be as long as I have that plant standing in my home. So it tends to be when we being to get real with people that surround us, with our brothers and sisters in the Church. Things get messy. All our insecurities, fears, and sin are laid bare and we have to take the risk of our brothers and sisters seeing us for who we really are, seeing our mess, and, amazingly, actually getting to know us.
But I’ve talked and written much before about the importance of openness and honesty within the community of Christ already. It’s very important, and I’m still learning much about it, but that’s not what I came here to talk about tonight. I want to address instead the reality of our personal spiritual lives, and the need for honesty with ourselves and with God. The problem is that sometimes our spiritual lives are as nice looking and just as fake as the christmas tree in my apartment. We have all the trappings of a real relationship with God: we sing worship, we go to Church every week, we read our Bibles mostly regularly, we pray before meals and before bed, we are engaged in some sort of ministry, we try to tell people about Jesus every once in a while, and we are surrounded by Christian friends. But every once in a while, we realize, that just like that christmas tree, all these things are mere unfurling of branches and twigs in order to make things look real — to ourselves, and maybe even to God — but there’s something deep within that knows, no matter how skillful we are in mimicking true spiritual nature, there’s something deeply missing in our lives. There’s the stark reality that of un-realness. There’s deep abiding notion that we really aren’t experiencing God, having a living and active relationship with Him like we should be.
This seems to be a great secret, unspoken truth within the Church. I see it in myself, and I see it with a good amount of my religious of friends. The joy and passion in worship that we experienced the hour we first believed has started to fade. The words of the Bible which once seemed like gold now falls almost dead on our hearts. Interactions with our brethren, though still meaningful, have lost their spiritual power and encouragement; the Church for us has turned into a social club. Prayer seems dead and lifeless, words that come from no deeper than our skin and reach no farther than the ceiling. Repetitive sin continues to rule our lives; the things we struggled with years ago — that we thought would be overcome by now — still plague us. But most of all, there is a sense that there must be more. Our life with God must be more than just another cause in this world, just another mission like any other, be it feeding the poor, Communism, nationalism, or some other utopian goal. Spiritual power in our life is missing. We don’t have the amazing gifts and fruits that we were promised, we don’t have the completely satisfied joy of abiding in Him, and we don’t see the mighty and living hand of God in our lives. Our words lack the power of the Spirit when they fall upon the ears of others, and our lives look just like any other “good” person’s with simply the Jesus twist. There is no supernatural joy, no passion, no peace, no power.
Almost each month one of my good friends comes to me expressing this emptiness. And yet, as I go through the same things, one by one they are able to provide my with answers to my questions, words for my frustrations, and possible solutions to my problem. One of them, indeed my brother in blood and brother in the Lord, directed me to a letter written by Ellen White in Testimonies to the Church, Vol. I, chp. 49 (I highly recommend you read this chapter, although it is quoted extensively here). It is entitled, “Entire Consecration,” and it is what we desperately need today, as a Church, as individuals who earnestly desire a full life in Christ.
The letter is addressed to two people who she states are in a lukewarm condition. Of course, we all know where the expression comes from. In Revelation 3, Jesus says to the Church of Laodicea, in verses 15 and 16: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Many of us think that this accusation of lukewarmness doesn’t apply to us: we go to Church, we do good things, we spend more time “with God” and know far more of the Bible than your average American, than your average Christian, and even more than your average Adventist. On a scale from wickedness to holiness, surely we are more hot than cold, how can we be lukewarm?
For many of us, we are lukewarm because, despite all these things, we have kept one foot in the water, and one foot in the sand. We are trying to live a life dedicated to God that has no risk of harming our worldly success and popularity. One of my best friends said it this way: “I could be just going through the motions to appease myself, to meet some minimal level of holiness in my own mind so that I can do what I want with the rest of my life.” But this is not possible. If we aim for success in both this world, and the next, we will fail at both. If we aim to be liked, respected, popular, wealthy, powerful, and adored in this world, we “will fail of everlasting life.” Similarly, if we really want the great things this world has to offer, we are wasting our time with this Jesus-stuff. We could be doing so much better in the world if we do as the world does and ignore all the burdens of walking with Christ. But if we play both games, we lose at both. In that Chapter from Testimonies to the Church, Ellen White advises:
“You love the society of the young who have no regard for the sacred truths which you profess. You have appeared like your associates, and have been contented with as much religion as would render you agreeable to all, without incurring the censure of any. . . . You mingle with your associates and forget that you have named the name of Christ. You act and dress like them. . . . In a divided, halfhearted life, you will find doubt and darkness. You cannot enjoy the consolations of religion, neither the peace which the world gives.”
This is no surprise, I think. Most of us reading this are not unbelievers. We know that the world offers only fleeting pleasures, that its comforts and legacies will last but a short while. But we also know the fullness of the other side. I think back to my christmas tree in my apartment. Why did I not get a real christmas tree, a nice douglas fir? One reason, I already said, is that it would be messy. But also, real trees are dangerous. The tree quickly can dry up, and with a heating vent below it, or lights upon it, it can catch fire and destroy my apartment. Lastly, real christmas trees are simply much more expensive than the $15 fake one I got off craigslist. I settled for the artificial thing because the real things was (1) dangerous and (2) costly.
Meanwhile, many of us sit there in our spiritual lives just like my fake christmas tree because we know a real, totally consecrated relationship with God is dangerous and costly. We risk losing everything the world holds dear. People will revile us, the Bible says. We could lose all our possessions, everything we’ve worked so hard for. Like Jesus, we risk being rejected and scorned, pariahs. We may be met with failure on all sides. But this should be surprise: Paul says, that absent the resurrection and the hope of that eternal crown of righteousness, “we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15:19). Our lives could be so miserable by the world’s standards that they should pity us above all if not for the hope that we have. But many of us have not put these things on the line for our God. In Romans 12:2, the Bible commands “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” but many of us stay conformed just enough to be comfortable and safe. But this is an illusion, for we are neither comfortable in our spirituality, nor safe in our salvation, nor at harmony with the world. We buy into this illusion, but back in Revelation 3, as a solution to lukewarmness, Jesus commands in verse 19 “be earnest and repent.” Ellen White elaborates:
“They need a work wrought in their hearts by the Holy Spirit of God, which will lead them to love and choose the society of God’s people above any other, and to be separate from those who have no love for spiritual things. Jesus demands a whole sacrifice, an entire consecration. . . . [Y]ou have not realized that God requires your undivided affections. . . . Come out from the world, and be separate. Your life must be marked with sobriety, watchfulness, and prayer. . . . Thoroughly examine the grounds of your hope. Deal truly with your own soul. A supposed hope will never save you. Have you counted the cost? I fear not. Now decide whether you will follow Christ, cost what it will. You cannot do this and yet enjoy the society of those who pay no heed to divine things. Your spirits cannot mingle any more than oil and water.”
What we are called to is clear: entire consecration. Our lives must be separate and totally different than those of the world’s. It is a dangerous thing, a costly thing. Those around you will call it a phase, will deride it as impractical, prudish, superstitious, and self destructive. Your very flesh will rebel against it. It is not easy. In that chapter, Ellen White says “It requires effort and moral courage to live out our faith.” It requires resolve. So in this first month of 2010, let us resolve, make a resolution, for a new year, a new life. If there is one thing we will accomplish this year, after all the diets, exercise programs, business plans, and career endeavors have failed, let that one thing be what is written on the turban of the High Priest, “Holiness to the Lord.” Costly holiness, which means walking by faith, and doing things that are foolish in the eyes of those who know not our hope. Selling all our dignity for that precious pearl, that buried treasure. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t write to you as one who has already traveled this road. I am not nearing the end of the reckless journey, having experienced its heights and pitfalls, and bidding you “come, follow Jesus.” I am no bloodstained veteran. I am but a young, inexperienced warrior — with a battle plan.
“First there must be a thorough heart work,” Ellen White writes, “then their manners will take that elevated, noble character which marks the true followers of Christ.” Paul in 2 Cor. 13:5 admonishes, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” This means we must first realize where we are at with our faith. This is what I’ve been trying to delve into with the first part of this post. Is our faith more like the artificial christmas tree sitting in my apartment, or like the real one I chose to leave outside in the snow? Do we really take seriously the call? Or are we merely just another worldly person, masquerading around as someone who has a real, intimate, relationship with God, hoping that one day we will be filled with the Spirit? I had a friend who used to say, “Fake it ‘till you make it.” Live as if you had the joy of God in your life, and eventually it will be true. That’s nonsense. No matter how real I make that christmas tree in my apartment look, feel, and smell, it will never become a living, breathing organism.
We know that our God is there, that He is living and active, transforming people’s lives. We’ve heard about it in others, even seen it in those close to us. But knowing that God works wonders in others is not enough; copying their behavior is not enough. Ellen White writes,
“They must feel an individual responsibility and have an experience for themselves. . . . Some will lean upon others’ judgment and experience rather than be at the trouble of a close examination of their own hearts, and will pass along for months and years with no witness of the Spirit of God, or evidence of their acceptance. They deceive themselves. They have a supposed hope, but lack the essential qualifications of a Christian. . . . Thoroughly examine the grounds of your hope. Deal truly with your own soul. A supposed hope will never save you. Have you counted the cost? I fear not. Now decide whether you will follow Christ, cost what it will.”
We are called to examine our hearts, in all the ways described above. Another question to ask ourselves is, “In what ways are we not surrendered and consecrated to Him?” But make no mistake, our hearts are not empty. Those parts not consecrated to Him are consecrated to something else. In examining our own souls, we must discover the idols of our own hearts and are called to destroy them like Israel of old. What gives us comfort and pleasure aside from our Lord? These things may not seem sinful at first blush. For example, earlier this month I realized that one of my idols was other people. Now, there’s nothing wrong with spending time with other people, but I realized that my soul drew comfort and joy from socializing, instead of from God and to the neglect of spending time with God. Approval and friendship with others is what I sought, towards what I directed my energies. We are called to realize what rules our hearts instead of Christ, so that we may destroy such things. We are called to experience God for ourselves, truly examine the cost, and accept it, and follow Christ without reservation.
But discovering our need for an actual, real walk with Christ, and discovering the things which take the place of it, is only part of the answer. Actual consecration, remember, takes courage and effort. How are we to go about this? This leads me to the second thing I’ve learned that we desperately need: we need to fix our eyes upon Jesus. Hebrews 3:1 says, “Therefore, holy brothers, who sharein the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” And again in Hebrews 12:2, the Word says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” There is no other way to consecration.
In this same chapter of Entire Consecration that we’ve been reading, Ellen White tells us some reasons why. First, while we should draw encouragement and inspiration from the lives of our brothers and sisters, we must not be focused on them. Ellen White writes, “Look not at the lives of others and imitate them and rise no higher. You have only one true, unerring Pattern. It is safe to follow Jesus only.” More than this, however, we must fix our eyes upon Jesus — constantly contemplate and relive His life, death, and resurrection — because only then will we draw strength to truly consecrate ourselves. Listen to her words:
Christ demands all. If He required less, His sacrifice was too dear, too great to make to bring us up to such a level. . . . And when you think that the way is too strait, that there is too much self-denial in this narrow path; when you say, How hard to give up all, ask yourselves the question, What did Christ give up for me? This question puts anything that we may call self-denial in the shade. Behold Him in the garden, sweating great drops of blood. A solitary angel is sent from heaven to strengthen the Son of God. Follow Him on His way to the judgment hall, while He is derided, mocked, and insulted by that infuriated mob.
Behold Him clothed in that old purple kingly robe. Hear the coarse jest and cruel mocking. See them place upon that noble brow the crown of thorns, and then smite Him with a reed, causing the thorns to penetrate His temples, and the blood to flow from that holy brow. Hear that murderous throng eagerly crying for the blood of the Son of God. He is delivered into their hands, and they lead the noble sufferer away, pale, weak, and fainting, to His crucifixion. He is stretched upon the wooden cross, and the nails are driven through His tender hands and feet. Behold Him hanging upon the cross those dreadful hours of agony until the angels veil their faces from the horrid scene, and the sun hides its light, refusing to behold. Think of these things, and then ask, Is the way too strait? No, no.
It is by casting our eyes upon the Cross that we obtain the transformation of righteousness.
But you can no easier fix your eyes on the right wall and at the same time fix your eyes on the left than you can fix your eyes upon Jesus and yet fill your life with other things. True concentration on the Cross means abandoning all other distractions. In the 19th century, these distractions could be flippant books (as Ellen White addresses below), but now we must confront far more mind-numbing things like television or idle internet browsing or empty chatter. I don’t think these things are wrong, per se, but indulging in them instead of finding our delight and rest in God deadens our senses and enjoyment of heavenly things.
“You are indulging an evil which threatens to destroy your spirituality. It will eclipse all the beauty and interest of the sacred pages. It is love for storybooks, tales, and other reading which does not have an influence for good upon the mind that is in any way dedicated to the service of God. It produces a false, unhealthy excitement, fevers the imagination, unfits the mind for usefulness, and disqualifies it for any spiritual exercise. It weans the soul from prayer and love of spiritual things. Reading that will throw light upon the sacred volume, and quicken your desire and diligence to study it, is not dangerous, but beneficial. You were represented to me with your eyes turned from the Sacred Book and intently fixed upon exciting books, which are death to religion. The oftener and more diligently you peruse the Scriptures, the more beautiful will they appear, and the less relish will you have for light reading. The daily study of the Scriptures will have a sanctifying influence upon the mind.”
We must find the distractions in our lives, those things which divert our gaze from the Savior, and purge such things from our lives.
Third, we must enter into serious prayer. My brother in Boston, Deriba, has taught me much of what a life in prayer looks like. He spends hours each morning in prayer, and the Spirit speaks to him. He once wrote this to me and his other friends:
“Many of you do not pray as you ought. That is to say, even though you consider yourselves children of the kingdom, your prayers are brief, general and languid. Emergencies only cause you to seek the Lord with greater earnestness. You call upon the Lord when you are in dire straits for the deliverance of your flesh rather than abiding in the One who promised to be a constant friend and councilor. What marvel is it then that you struggle with the same sins every day? . . . It is impossible to overcome without a humble life of prayer. This is a faithful saying, that if your life is not one of steadfast prayer, you will not see God. . . .
There is no substitute for this. Some prefer to read Scripture and dwell on subtle meanings to prove their call and election. But the Word that has not taken root in the contrite heart through ceaseless prayer will be used by the Devil to bring in overmastering temptations to many. Do not forget that Christ prayed with great trembling, all night long, resisting unto blood. Who are you then, my friend, to think you can get away with 20 minutes of prayer today?
My friend Deriba is saying that if Jesus Himself was in such desperate need of the Father that He prayed earnest every morning, and sometimes throughout the night, are you in such a great spiritual position that you can survive praying for merely minutes? No. We pray not because we have God, we pray because we need God.
Fourth, we need to meditate on Scripture. Note here that I did not say that we need to read the Bible, or merely know it. These things are good, but we have done far too much of it to the neglect of actually living in the Word. Pastor Samuel Pipim has said that “Adventism is a very heady religion.” He’s right: we have great knowledge and intellectual power in the Scriptures. We know a lot. But there comes a time where we must stop merely reading vast quantities, and instead slowing down and really savoring the Word. We need to read it slowly, really try to understand it, incorporate in our lives, and let it dwell in our hearts throughout our day. Psalm 1:2, speaking of the righteous man, says “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” In summing up the Pentateuch, the vast history of Israel and its laws, Moses commands in Deuteronomy 32:47: “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life.” This is what the Word needs to be for us: not just an object of curious study, but our very life, as if we’ve never eaten a crumb of bread in our existence and now we have the opportunity to savor every morsel.
Lastly, in all these things, we must avoid sin. Our heart and mind is deceitful, we know the subtle paths that lead toward temptations, and we must flee from them. Proverbs 5:8, speaking of the adulteress woman of temptation, says “Keep a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house.” It is not enough to merely resist temptation, we must actively avoid even being tempted. We know the paths and the doors that might lead to sin, let us not even begin to go down them.
There it is. Here are my resolutions, as a man tired of the lukewarm life, of the unremarkable safe existence which takes just enough from both worlds to please both, but really satisfies neither. Here then are my 2010 resolutions: (1) to examine my own faith earnestly and find where I need to replace my idols with altars to God, (2) to truly fix my eyes upon my Jesus, the only hope of salvation, and eliminate all distractions which keep me from focusing on Him, (3) to pray in earnestness with all the time and energy I can muster, (4) to meditate day and night upon His Word such that it becomes my very life, and (5) to flee from even the temptation of sin. I really feel that I am at the brink of something new, at the edge of some great precipice, at the start of a great new adventure with God. Others I have talked to believe they are at a similar edge. My prayer is that at the end of 2010, we may truly declare like Paul, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.”