Run with Discipline: insights on spiritual growth and suffering from Hebrews 12

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Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? (Hebrews 12:7)

this is a radical reframing of the suffering that the believers are enduring. It is not making light of the suffering, but an invitation to see suffering in a different light. What is that light? It is to see suffering in light of belief in God’s trustworthy work as a good Father.

There are two aspects of this perspective on suffering. The first is this: the race of faith requires enduring hardship as discipline.

Now everyone knows that if you want to run well, you have to train. As much as I would love to think that I could simply wake up one morning and run a marathon by simply changing my shoes and outfit, I know that would not work at all. So, the writer says, similar to an athlete who enters into training, we can begin to see our life as not only a race of faith but a training in faith. “Endure hardship,” the writer says, “as discipline.” This is the discipline not only of a good trainer, but of a good Father who is helping to shape faith into our lives so that we can run the race well. It does not mean it is easy, but we all know that, as in athletics, so too in life: no pain – no gain.

“How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!” (Hebrews 12:9)

When we have that perspective on suffering and know that our trainer is also our good Father, we can then, second of all, as it says in verse 9, submit to the goodness of God’s fatherly training.

Now there is a difference between submitting to suffering and submitting to God’s fatherly training amidst suffering. There is a difference between giving ourselves over to suffering—letting it have its way with us—and giving ourselves over to God amidst our suffering—letting Him have His way with us. We still want to name wrong as wrong, injustice as injustice, sin as sin. We are not equating God with suffering. However, there is a difference when we know we are dearly loved children of God. We can trust our Father to apply His goodness to our lives even amidst situations we would never choose.

This is the reality that Paul describes in Romans 8:28, which is never trite, but deeply true that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

And so, in light of who we are as God’s dearly loved children, let us run the race of faith with discipline!

Discipline is the Price of Freedom

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I came across this excerpt from D. Elton Trueblood’s 1970 book The New Man for Our Time on the topic of spiritual discipline. It caught my attention as I continue to give attention to the disciplines of grace necessary for us to grow in the spiritual life, drawing upon the influence of writers like Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, as well as other spiritual writers of much earlier eras and today.

When we begin to ask what the conditions of inner renewal are, we receive essentially the same answers from nearly all of those whom we have most reason to respect. One major answer is the emphasis upon discipline. In the conduct of one’s own life it is soon obvious, as many have learned the hard way, that empty freedom is a snare and a delusion. In following what comes naturally or easily, life simply ends in confusion, and in consequent disaster. Without the discipline of time, we spoil the next day the night before, and without the discipline of prayer, we are likely to end by having practically no experience of the divine-human encounter. However compassionate we may be with others, we dare not be soft or indulgent with ourselves. Excellence comes at a price, and one of the major prices is that of inner control.

We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom, to the effect that we are most free when we are bound. But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matter is the character of our binding. The one who would like to be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and by abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the track. His failure to train rigorously and to live abstemiously denies him the freedom to go over the bar at the desired height, or to run with the desired speed and endurance. With one concerted voice the giants of the devotional life apply the same principle to the whole of life with the dictum: Discipline is the price of freedom.

[From D. Elton Trueblood, The New Man for Our Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).]

How Does Spiritual Formation Happen?: themes of Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart

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This summer, I have been returning to some classic guidance on spiritual formation, am reflecting on how spiritual formation happens in our individual lives and in the church as a whole. I shared a reflection from Eugene Peterson yesterday, and have peppered in other thoughts on my blog over recent weeks. Having just re-read Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart this summer, I wanted to offer a high level summary of Willard’s thinking in that book here.

Willard says that spiritual formation must take account of the various aspects of our being: spirit (heart/will), mind (thought/feeling), body, social, and soul. It is only when we thoughtfully account for all these aspects of our person that whole spiritual transformation will truly happen. He writes:

It is the central point of this book that spiritual transformation only happens as each essential dimension of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of grace from God. Such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by putting pressure on the will (heart, spirit) alone.” (41-42)

Such transformation happens according to “the general pattern of personal transformation, which also applies to spiritual formation” (85), which Willard describes with the acronym VIM, which stands for vision, intention, and means.

  • Vision: “The vision that underlies spiritual (trans)formation into Christlikeness is, then, the vision of life now and forever in the range of God’s effectives will—that is, partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 3:1-2) through a birth ‘from above’ and participating by our actions in what God is doing now in our lifetime on earth….What we are aiming for in this vision is to live fully in the kingdom of God and as fully as possible now and here, not just hereafter” (87).
  • Intention: “We can actually decide to do it…first of all to trust him, rely on him, to count on him being the Anointed One, the Christ…Concretely, we intend to live in the kingdom by intending to obey the precise example and teachings of Jesus….Now, on intention is brought to completion only by a decision to fulfill or carry through with the intention (87-88).
  • Means: “Here the means in question are the means for spiritual transformation, for the replacing of the inner character the lost with the inner character of Jesus: his vision, understanding, feelings, decisions, and character” (89).

This must be vigorously and holistically applied to our lives with God’s grace for growth. When we do that, what does it look like? Willard cites these passage as a “New Testament descriptions of what the apprentices of Jesus are to be like”:

  • Matthew 5-7
  • 1 Corinthians 13
  • 2 Corinthians 3:12-7:1
  • Galatians 5:22-6:10
  • Ephesians 4:20-6:20
  • Philippians 2:3-16; 4:4-9
  • Colossians 3:1-4:6
  • 1 Peter 2:1-3:16
  • 2 Peter 1:2-10
  • 1 John 4:7-21

In the local church, while the individual work is intimately involved, the plan for spiritual formation is built around the definition of Matthew 28:18-20:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Specifically, Willard describes three essential emphases for churches to really move toward this reality of spiritual formation in their life together (240):

  1. Making disciples – the church must aim for actually apprenticing people to Jesus in their lives
  2. Immersing the apprentices at all levels of growth in the Trinitarian presence – the church must call disciples into the lived presence of the Triune God that is accessible and available at all times and in all spheres of our lives
  3. Transforming disciples inwardly – through spiritual practices/disciplines, the church must help disciples grow in such a way that doing the words and deeds of Christ is not the focus but the natural outcome or side effect of living

This is Willard’s basic thrust in Renovation of the Heart, which helps us see how true spiritual formation in Christlikeness happens in the lives of the individual believer and local church.

Senior Pastor Video Update in the Time of COVID-19 (May 20, 2020)

Here is my latest video update for Eastbrook Church as we navigate the time of COVID-19. I will continue to re-post these weekly video updates here at my blog for those who have not seen it or who are not part of our church but could use the encouragement. You can watch it here or at the Eastbrook Church Vimeo channel.

In this update I focus on the life of Moses through the lens of Psalm 90:1-2:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

In a confusing time we can often feel confused about how to come to a place of peace, rest, or belonging. If we are trying to squeeze that out of our circumstances in these times we will never get there. However, if we put the anchor for our souls in the eternal God we will be on the right track.

Senior Pastor Video Update in the Time of COVID-19 (May 13, 2020)

Here is my latest video update for Eastbrook Church as we navigate the time of COVID-19. I will continue to re-post these weekly video updates here at my blog for those who have not seen it or who are not part of our church but could use the encouragement. You can watch it here or at the Eastbrook Church Vimeo channel.

In this update I reference 1 Thessalonians 5:17, one of the shortest verses in the Bible:

 pray continually… (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

The word behind “continually” in the Greek is also used of things like a persistent cough. We are to be persistent in prayer or, as the New Living Translation renders it, “Never stop praying.”

The life of hearing God must continue into our lives beyond set times and places. Some of the best guides on this are two men from vastly different times: Brother Lawrence, a 17th century French monk, and Frank Laubach, a 20th century missionary and worldwide ambassador for literacy. Both of these men learned how to cultivate everyday conversation with God, both speaking and hearing. I would encourage you to read their books, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and Laubach’s Letters by a Modern Mystic and Games with Minutes. Hearing God does not mean we withdraw from life but that we engage in life with God. We can begin to converse with God in the midst of our activities, work , and other conversations.

This serves as a counterbalance to set times of prayer, which I talked about last week in my video update. Fixed-hour prayer and Scripture reading overflows into conversational relationship with God in prayer, while conversation relationship with God in prayer fuels our fixed-hour meeting with God in Scripture and prayer.