Spiritual Formation and Discipleship

All the Way Back Home to Shalom

To read the whole essay click here. All the way Back Home to Shalom by Stephen HagueMarch snow 2018

For Julian and Marcus upon their return home March 10[really the 7th], 2018 in hopes that home will always be with, behind, and before them.
And for Lucas who made traveling to Mexico and back home a joy I will never forget.
♥   ♥
In memory of the Contes’ family home (which burned down the day I finished this essay), and which did not destroy their home nor their memories of it.

“Homemaking, like world-building, is a world-ordering enterprise. To turn space into place is to establish normative boundaries that bring a certain kind of order to the life lived within those boundaries.[1]

What if I was to ask you what is the word that most warms your heart, touches on your deepest longings, evokes your riches memories? For me, that word would be HOME. Home to me is the essence of our earthly life, the center, the focus, the foundation of life in this world. And, this is coming from one who loves to travel, and often “get away” from home! “Home” may not be the word that comes to your mind, especially if you had a painful or tragic home-life as a child, or do at present. There is also the feeling, or reality, of homelessness and displacement prevalent in our times. Yet, if you have painful associations with the concept of home, let me suggest for the moment that you put aside those pains and fears and allow yourself to consider the beauty of this word “home.” That is, I suggest, the pain of those who have suffered through childhood is in fact particularly acute because we have an intrinsic understanding of, and longing for, what home should be, for as we are made in God’s image he has made us for home. Therefore, I believe all humans that have ever lived can understand and relate to the pictures I am going to present here on this theme.

To read the whole essay click here. All the way Back Home to Shalom by Stephen Hague

[1] Prediger and Walsh, Beyond Homelessness, p. 53.



The Quest for Spiritual Experience [through asceticism]

For pdf file click here: Quest for Spiritual Experience [through Asceticism]

The linguistic root of “asceticism” is the word askēsis which means practice, training, or exercise and came to be used in reference to spiritual disciplines and self-denials. There have been various forms of asceticism in the major world religions, including “pagan” forms that similarly involve escaping the corrupting world, but as a non-religious salvation or secular “self-improvement.” In ascetic systems, it is typically understood that the things of the world, and even enjoyment of them, are not in themselves simply rejected but are considered a hindrance and obstacle to some perceived higher religious and spiritual objective. The common idea is that self-denials and restraints will give greater freedom and detachment from those obstacles to one’s spiritual and moral health or growth.

  • Christian Asceticism & the Quest for Spiritual Experience

Since asceticism has played such a large role in Judeo-Christian history, we must ask if it has biblical grounds. It might be argued that there are two definitions of asceticism. To simplify these two, we could say that the one definition is life/world-affirming and sin denying, while the other is life/world-denying and sin-denying. The biblical gospel through both the Old and New Testaments is clearly life-affirming wherever it might be argued that it has some kind of ascetical aspects (e.g., Nazarites), and it is never life-denying. If there is a biblical ascetic, it never flows from the presupposition that the created world or human body is essentially bad or evil and thus demands escape. The biblical view is that self-denial of some earthly good is not because that earthly good is in fact bad, but rather that some higher good is needed (as in intensive fasting and praying for a season). That is, the motivation of such denials is not to escape some evil in order to achieve some higher good. Although, there are evils in this world that are necessary for all believers to avoid and escape for their own spiritual good, but it is not for self-justification or self-sanctification. The biblical view is always sin-denying and holiness and life affirming in its totality, or wholeness. Anything we might call a “spiritual discipline” that involves some form of concentrated self-denial or focus, is to be understood in the context of the whole life, and not separate from it, as an escape from it, nor a diversion from it, out of fear of some obstacle to the higher spiritual life. “Praying without ceasing” does not mean that we leave the world and sit forever in church or on a pole, as discussed next.

The other definition, wherever it is found, rests on assumptions of the evil of the world and the body and the consequent necessity of denying and escaping such earthly things for higher (spiritual) purposes (usually related to self-justification in terms of works-righteousness). There were ancient “pole-sitters” (stylitēs) who would sit on platforms on tops of high poles (see illustrations above), and those who spent their lives hiding in caves or monasteries, to escape the corruptions of the world. Underlying much of this form of asceticism is a dualistic view of the universe. Even if the ascetic impulse is not combined with this view of the intrinsic evil of the world and its pleasures, this world is typically perceived as a hindrance to spiritual pursuits and advancement. Thus, in either case, the means of such denials include abstinence and austere disciplines of denial and even self-inflicted deprivations, pains, and various flagellations. Such unbiblical views of human nature, the image of God, the creation of God, human life in this world, and justification and sanctification, make much of these ascetic traditions untenable and counter-productive for Christians.

Super-spirituality and self-righteousness are dangers we always will face in our prideful state, but it can be that such asceticism, ironically, can swiftly open those doors. This is not to say that humility and self-abasement can not come from self-denials (such as intensive prayer and fasting), but the goal is knowing and glorifying God in Christ in order to live in the world, not self-justification by seeking spiritual perfections (to become “spiritual athletes”) or experiences or escape out of the world from corrupting threats. The goal of the Christian life is Christ-likeness, living fully in this world in service to others.

In Christian asceticism, for example, the idea that God is unquestionably prior to one’s family, or other human responsibilities, in terms of one’s life, vocations, and service, leads to the view that it is more spiritual to do missions or evangelism or some other obviously Christian activity than to serve one’s family or “secular” vocation in some capacity. This is perhaps based on Jesus statement recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:

Mtt 10 37 “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.

Nevertheless, I believe this is a serious misunderstanding of the nature of Christian service and love, since serving one’s family, or fulfilling some rather “ordinary” vocation or task, may be the very “highest” calling we will ever have, and by loving and serving our families, doing our work well, and serving a vocation, we are indeed fulfilling God’s calling and vocation for us. (In this text in Matt 10, Jesus was addressing those who would forsake or reject him for others, or for something else.) That is, it is not less spiritual to peel the potatoes at home than to do a short-term missions trip. There is also the commonly used phrase, “full-time Christian ministry” that indicates we have not moved past the medieval notions of the separation of sacred and secular. That doing “full-time ministry” is somehow a higher calling than everything else, and that it can even justify abandoning other human, familial, and vocational responsibilities has (inadvertently) caused much heart-ache in people’s lives in the history of the church.

In light of these matters, is such a thing as Christian asceticism possible, and is the idea truly oxymoronic? Historically, Christian’s have attempted to develop and practice various forms of asceticism, and they often drew on both pagan and Jewish forms, but today they draw most readily from Greek and Gnostic traditions.

“The prevalence of asceticism cannot be traced to a single source or motivation. Selective use of the canonical Gospels and Paul, the Stoic ideal of apatheia (“passionlessness”), Platonic dualism, the influence of Essene and other Jewish communal practices and the widespread ascetic impulse in serious circles in the Greco-Roman world all contributed. From no later than the mid-second century, the Protevangelium of James propagated reverence for Mary’s perpetual virginity.”[1]

The important question is, can asceticism contribute to the sufficiency of Christ?

Our sufficiency is in Christ alone; there is nothing we can add to that sufficiency. Spiritual exercises and religious observations may be helpful in some practical ways (concentration and focus in prayer and worship), but ironically they become a serious hindrance to godliness whenever thought to be the path to a “higher spirituality” or spiritual qualifications before God. Very seriously, asceticism can also threaten a believer’s subjective assurance of the objective assurance they have in Christ’s sufficient grace. Works for righteousness always undermine our confidence in the all-sufficiency of Christ Jesus.

Indeed, there are so many movements and people and ideas that would take away from the full sufficiency of Christ, or that would add to the full sufficiency of Christ. These are probably the two most common temptations we sinners often fall for, being frequently restless and discontent and failing to grasp that Christ is absolutely sufficient in himself for us and our redemption, body and soul. There is nothing we can add to his all-sufficiency, but there are so many voices that call us to either diminish his sufficiency (unbelief, Liberalism, many world religions, etc.), or to add to his sufficiency by our own efforts (moralism, legalism, works, higher spirituality, super spirituality, etc.). This is what Paul was addressing at the church at Colossae:

Col 2:8-10 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority . .

In conclusion, all such unbiblical notions that diminish or add to the all-sufficiency of Christ in asceticism are completed contradicted and vanquished by the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Jesus, since in both God affirms the goodness of his creation and his purposes to resurrect the body of those he claims as his own people. This is why Paul condemns all those who say “do not handle, do not touch, do not taste” (Col 2:20-23), in order to curb one’s sinful heart, or to sanctify oneself, since these deprivations in themselves have no advantage, power, or value against sinful indulgence. In response to the various deprivations and denials for the higher spiritual life, Jesus said that it is not what goes into our mouths that is a danger, but what comes out of our hearts . . . (Mtt 15:11).

Jesus lived the perfect life for us, though tested and tempted, in the created world, in the flesh, and thus fulfilled in his life the Edenic ideals that Adam failed to accomplish. His power and Spirit alone can sanctify us in heart. Christ’s incarnation and resurrection are the proof that the new creation will be a glorious renewal of all that he has made and all that he has redeemed. And then we will come to fully understand that to be human in itself is to be fully “spiritual,” and it is in being human that we glorify him.

[1]Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids, Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, c1997).

For pdf file click here: Quest for Spiritual Experience [through Asceticism]

peanuts and happiness

Is being a [ordinary] human-being itself [extraordinarily] spiritual?

Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs write that even peeling potatoes is as “spiritual” as worship and witnessing:
potatoThe “world” in the New Testament is the sphere of life in which God’s lordship is rejected, where the things of this life become ends in themselves or even are worshiped. The world in this sense is most certainly to be rejected, but this does not mean that we are to hate life, culture, nature, sex and other material things.

“Everything created by God is good,
and nothing is to be rejected if it is
received with thanksgiving.” 1 Timothy 4:4

Paul even asserts that the teaching that the material world is not to be enjoyed is a doctrine of demons (v. 1). We have been created to enjoy God’s world in all its richness. Human culture is also to be enjoyed.

Spirituality involves the whole of human life; nothing is nonspiritual. But wherever Platonism has affected Christian teaching there has been a separation of the sacred and secular. Thus, prayer, worship, evangelism and “the ministry” are thought to be sacred. All other activities are secular. The sacred is said to be more spiritual.

Even where a necessary involvement in everyday tasks is acknowledged to be a Christian duty, the work, it is said, has to be done only physically. The spirit within has to be involved in silent communion with God, practicing his presence. This is similar to the command of the BhagavadGita to act as if we were not acting, love as if we were not loving. The necessity of involvement in the world of people and things is accepted, but the action must be done with the spirit withdrawn into the secret place of union with God, where the “real” business of life is said to be carried on.

This mentality subtly affects Christian thinking in numerous ways. For example, someone might say, “If only I could be involved in something really spiritual like witnessing rather than peeling these potatoes.” The New Testament stands absolutely against this division of life into more and less spiritual sections. Consider Ephesians 5:18. We are commanded to be filled with the Spirit continuously. How is this to be expressed? In singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs; in giving thanks in all things; and also in thinking of others’ needs as we submit to one another in the ordinary everyday relationships of husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee. We are to obey God’s Word in all these areas, living before him in dependence on his Spirit. This is what it means to be filled with the Spirit.

Paul says elsewhere that we are to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Col. 3:17). All we do is to be done under the lordship of Christ–even washing floors. Everything we do as human beings is spiritually important. There is no sacred and secular. This does not mean merely that we see practical value in “secular” tasks like peeling potatoes and washing the floor. It means far more: God himself delights in them because he has created the realm of the physical. Therefore, we are to value every part of our lives just as he does. In fact, spirituality is to be expressed primarily in the ordinary everyday affairs and relationships of our lives. God will reward his servants both for their work in everyday tasks (even if in slavery-Col. 3:22-24), and for their work in proclaiming the gospel (1 Thess. 2:19). Anything done well on the foundation of Christ will be approved by God on the day of the believer’s judgment.

From Ranald Macaulay & Jerram Barrs, Being Human: the Nature of Spiritual Experience, pp. 54-55.  

Christian Responsibility Towards the World: Withdrawal or Involvement?

_DSC0430Oftentimes, I have been blindsided by attitudes in the Christian community that react to Christian efforts to seek justice, or to right wrongs in this world; it is an attitude opposed to those who work for righteousness and truth and love in the various avenues of social, political, educational, artistic, medical, and economic concerns of people in the world. On one hand, it may be from an understandable fear of diluting the gospel of Jesus to a “social gospel,” and on the other hand from a culturally separatist (otherworldly) attitude that believes we are only supposed to “preach the gospel” and get people on the bus to heaven. In both cases, I think there is a failure to understand the nature of the gospel-promise along with the gospel-responsibility: the promise of a new creation shows God’s love for his creation, that Christ is presently Lord of every atom, every grain of sand, and every galaxy in his creation, and that he is going to restore his entire creation at his return. Thus, all our activities and responsibilities in this world have spiritual significance; we are not just preparing people to get on and off the bus! We are to make disciples (of all the nations); that is, people who live in this world as the light and salt of this world, bearing good and lasting fruit, preparing us to live on the earth renewed forever. There is no such dichotomy between do we “preach” the gospel and/or rescue people from trafficking/slavery, brutality, or injustice in the courts . . . , etc. Rather, the gospel rescues us from both spiritual darkness and the darkness of human injustice and cruelty. Christ is deeply concerned with both the salvation of the soul and the body, he redeems the whole person within the entirety of his creation. “God so loved the cosmos . . .” (Jn 3.16). As Paul tells us, “The whole creation groans in travail . . .” and yet, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8.21-22).

In regards to this question of the relationship of Christ to the world, Christ and culture, John Stott summarizes most beautifully and profoundly the confusing tendencies in the Christian community to “withdraw from the world,” in what he calls various forms of modern Pharisaism.

CHRIST THE CONTROVERSIALIST. Responsibility: Withdrawal or Involvement? John Stott, IVP, pp. 182-188. To read the whole selection go to Stott, John.CHRIST THE CONTROVERSIALIST.
Christ’s fraternization with outcasts was interpreted by the Pharisees as an inexcusable compromise with sin; they did not see it for what it really was, an expression of the divine compassion towards sinners.

The attitude of Christian church
Leaving the first century and entering the middle of the twentieth, it is necessary to ask what the attitude of the contemporary church is towards outsiders, outcasts. Is it Pharisaic, or is it Christian? I fear that it is often Pharisaic. That is, the church tends (has always tended) to withdraw from the world and leave it to its own devices. Evangelical churchmen have by no means been free of this tendency, although indeed it is a denial of their true character. Many examples could be given, illustrating different causes of the same general attitude. Let me try to enlarge on what I think are the four commonest.

  1. “plain, unvarnished, Pharisaic self-righteousness”
  2. “the withdrawal of the church from the world is a genuine if mistaken fear of contamination”(a monastic type of self-absorbed isolationism)
  3. an unbalanced understanding of the relation between evangelism and social concern that can go in to both extremes: “The ‘evangelical’ thesis in its extremist form is that God’s chief concern is the salvation of individual souls; that the church’s sole responsibility is the proclamation of the gospel; and that therefore social action being the first cousin of the ‘social gospel’ must be firmly eschewed.”
  4. that “we stand aloof from the world is plain laziness and selfishness. We do not want to get involved in its hurt or dirt”

“Underlying these four causes of withdrawal there lurks a false view of God. The God revealed by Jesus Christ is a God who cares. He loves people who do not deserve to be loved. He makes His sun rise on the evil as well as the good, and sends rain on the unjust as well as the just. He made us body-souls and cares for us as body-souls. And He has taken action — sacrificial action — to supply a remedy for our sin. He has got Himself deeply involved in our predicament. So Jesus Christ Himself did not remain aloof, or refuse to get involved, or hide away in the safe immunity of heaven. He entered our world. He assumed our nature. He identified Himself our humanity. He exposed Himself to our temptations, sorrows and pains. He made friends with outcasts and was nicknamed ‘a friend of tax collectors and sinners’?13 He humbled Himself to serve people in their need. He washed His disciples’ feet. He never drew back from any demanding situation.”

To read the whole selection go to Stott, John.CHRIST THE CONTROVERSIALIST

“Those who lead the country into the abyss . . .”

Those who take the meat from the table
Teach contentment.
Those for whom the taxes are destined
Demand sacrifice.
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.

(Dallas Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 249, quoting Bertolt Brecht. Willard says we idolize leaders in order to believe — a self-delusion — that they are the kind of people who can solve the problems of human society, but in truth they cannot, since they are truly powerless to do so unless “they work in the power of God and have character to bear it without corruption.”

“We have one realistic hope for dealing with the world’s problems. And that is the person and gospel of Jesus Christ, living here and now, in people who are his by total identification . . .”, p. 237)

Christ restores all . . .

“Christ restores all things and all relationships. In terms of our macro-typology, Christ is the antitype of every aspect of reality: nothing exists outside this relationship. Everything the Bible deals with comes within this relationship. To put it another way, the incarnate God-man is the representative embodiment of every aspect of reality in perfect relationships. What God has done in Jesus is made to involve us as we are related to Jesus by faith and, by involving us, has ultimate implications for the whole of creation (Romans 8:19-23).” Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, p. 224.

Calvin on taking up our cross and bearing our pains

“And it is of no slight importance for you to be cleansed of your blind love of self that you may be made more nearly aware of your incapacity; to feel your own incapacity that you may learn to distrust yourself; to distrust yourself that you may transfer your trust to God; to rest with a trustful heart in God that, relying upon his help, you may persevere unconquered to the end; to take your stand in his grace that you may comprehend the truth of his promises; to have unquestioned certainty of his promises that your hope may thereby be strengthened.” John Calvin,
Institutes, III.VIII.3, Battles,  p 704.