Monthly Archives: December 2014
This is that time we tend to redo or accumulate plans for the new year: financial budgets, diets, exercise regimes, even plans to take a vacation later in the year.
Just about the only thing we don’t plan for is our spiritual life! But if there is anything more important to the Christian, it is the health of their inner being. The apostle Paul once said that “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come” (1 Tim 4:8, NLT).
The Bible speaks a lot about planning. By all means, get physically fit. Plan a good budget. And find time to rest with your family, or get away. But don’t forget the part of you that needs the most care.
Make a plan to feed your spirit!
One of the most basic and far-reaching ways to do this is to be in the Word of God daily. I give an extensive sermon about the value of God’s Word here. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah was so sustained by the Scriptures, that he compared them to food: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer. 15:16). Jesus would take this even farther, saying that God’s Word was able to sustain us even more than bread (Matt 4:4).
We may find this agreeable. But if you’re like me, it doesn’t just happen automatically. There are too many other things in our lives that want to compete with our spiritual well being. That’s why we need to have a plan. And for some of you, it may help to have a little bit of structure for reading the Bible.
Here is the whole Bible broken up into quarters for readability:
Every day it will take you through portions of the Old Testament and portions of the New Testament. You don’t have to use this for your “spiritual plan,” but if it helps, by all means use it!
There will probably be times when you skip a day or two, or ten.
When that happens, it’s easy to feel guilty about missing chapter readings, and fall even farther behind trying to catch up. Inevitably, people stop reading all together because they are discouraged. Please don’t let this happen to you! It is not about reading every single word, or filling out a quota, or saying you read the whole Bible.
This Bible reading plan is about posturing yourself in the presence of God to receive from His words!
So if you skip a day here and there, or fall behind, it’s ok! Don’t try to catch up, just take it back up where you left off. The point of all this is not perfection, but consistently opening up the Scriptures. After a year of training yourself to hear and read God’s word, your life will be significantly transformed. But it’s hard to do that sometimes, isn’t it?
That’s why we need a plan for our spiritual lives going into 2015. If you need one, I hope this will bless you next year!
Let me define “favorite” and “of 2014.”
By “favorite,” I just mean impactful. But there are other things I consider too: if it was well written, if the author was able to carry me from beginning to end, if the ideas and concepts in the book were cohesive and well-developed, and if the writer has something to say that is worth reading.
What I mean by “of 2014” is not published in 2014–some of the selections are a decade older. They are simply books I read in 2014. I’m such a latecomer to books!
As a side note, this list is not written in order of importance. I’m lining them up as a narrative. I hope that storyline pops out in the descriptions about what has been most formative for me this last year. Without further ado…
It’s about time I read this one. The late Dallas Willard is one of the greatest thinkers of our day. I hesitate to say “Christian” thinkers, because he can flex his philosophical muscles with the best secular intellectuals of the century. Willard’s books often mix his mastery of the human personality with a deep admiration for the believer’s union with Christ. The Divine Conspiracy is his magnum opus. And what a great work it is! Taking the Sermon on the Mount as his cue, Willard pokes holes in flimsy, modern assumptions of Christianity that leave the confessor void of transformation or commitment. His premise is that being a “Christian” is to live vastly different in every area of life, because of the indwelling life of Christ. What follows is a four-hundred page juggernaut to convince you. By the time I was half way through this tome, I wasn’t just convinced, I was desperately hungry for change in my own life. One that can only be described as discipleship.
Emotional Health is a discipleship issue. Unfortunately, a lot of “discipleship” in the church consists of teachings and other knowledge gathering, with a dash of volunteering. Essentially, read more, do more. Scazzero opens with stories peppered throughout (both Biblical and personal) of why that doesn’t work. He immediately follows with examples of emotionally unhealthy habits (in case you are tempted to drop the book and think, “I’m emotionally good-looking”), before he explains what an emotionally and spiritually healthy person looks like, and how they become so. I found myself hooked. Mostly because the person he was describing so well, was me. He ends the last half offering a way out of the nightmare of emotional and spiritual immaturity. His solution involves getting mystical and contemplative, in a non-creepy sort of way.
Here is a more extensive book review I wrote on EHS.
If Scazzero revealed how detrimental emotional immaturity can be to an individual, then Lencioni shows you how it can unravel a team, community, or even a simple group project. Lencioni is a fascinating writer who takes two seemingly opposite concepts–business and narrative–and combines them. What you have left is a masterfully told story that drives home principles of team health and dynamics. The storyline is so captivating that you never even know what hit you. In the final chapters of the book, Lencioni steps out of his storytelling role, to explain what just hit you. Even if you are not a leader, per se, so much in this short read will enlighten you to why things didn’t work very well on that project you were working on with so-and-so. It will also prepare you for how to work well with others. A necessary component in today’s world of team-oriented everything.
Contemplative spirituality and spiritual disciplines can sometimes scare Protestant evangelicals, because it reeks of a mystical nature. I really appreciated Calhoun’s ability to break these practices down with clarity and brevity, supporting them with Scripture, and showing the differences between Christian acts of spiritual discipline and the counterfeits offered by other world religions. Each discipline warrants no more than three pages, including an inspirational explanation, a tutorial, appropriate Scriptures, and a litany of ways said discipline can transform your life. As good as each of these are, the gold is in the introduction. Nowhere, in all of the titans of contemplative spirituality and disciplines, have I witnessed such an clear and enlightening vision for why a Christian should practice them, or how to practice them effectively. If you get this book (and you should), DO NOT READ IT WITHOUT FIRST READING THE INTRODUCTION. It is that good, and that necessary.
This is an introduction to Lectio Divina, one of my favorite contemplative disciplines. It is the ancient practice of praying and meditating on the Scriptures, in a way that allows the Word of God to permeate, not just the intellect, but the heart. It is a slow reading of Scripture. It allows the reader of the Word to be read by the Word. Casey is filled with deep reverence and knowledge of Lectio, and his admiration for God’s word catches fire to the reader. A word of caution, it is not a manual for practicing Lectio Divina; for that, refer to Calhoun’s book on Spiritual Disciplines mentioned above; Casey’s Sacred Reading is a glimpse into a lifestyle of communion with God through His Word. It is meant to captivate you to a different way of reading.
The favorite of the favorites?
My number one book of this last year was Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Scazzero. It’s affect on me was no doubt due to the journey I had been on at the time (which I talk about here). But as Scazzero points out, and as the experience of many other people I’ve talked to over the last couple months confirms, this is a topic that is as neglected by Christians as it is crucial for their maturity. This short read is a breathe of fresh air on a long pathway. So for all these reasons and more, this was the most impactful book on me in 2014.
What were your best reads of 2014, and why?
Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ is a classic approach to contemplative prayer. It’s shaped by a longing to experience the indwelling union of God. Written in the 1700’s, it was banned by the church, and Jeanne Guyon was imprisoned. The sheer impact of Madame Guyon’s approach throughout the centuries at least demands our attention. John Wesley, Count Zinzendorf, Fenelon, Hudson Taylor, Watchman Nee. They were all influenced by this unassuming little pamphlet.
Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ (EDJC) sounds like a devotional, yet it functions like a manual–with progressive steps, each leading to new levels of experiential maturity. That was the greatest draw for me—few books on prayer are written with such practical vitality. Guyon’s entire premise is based on experiencing union with Christ, so the subsequent chapters involve some added measure of surrender. I found myself easily drawn to her style of writing. It felt less like a theological exploration of prayer, and more like sitting at the feet of an older woman teaching me to pray. There were several chapters where I had to put the book down and practice what I read. Some of her instructions were as rich as they were simple, and I would get stuck on one page for several days, enjoying the journey those few words would take me. I think the power in this book lie partially in its audience. Guyon is clear in the intial chapters that she is writing to people who don’t know how to pray—basically illiterate believers of her time. I think it caused her to trim the fat, so to speak. What’s left is a powerful example of contemplative-style praying.
At times, her terminology has a Roman Catholic feel. This makes sense, as Guyon is apparently a Roman Catholic. I tend to veer away from Catholic books on contemplation. A Catholic might practice the same discipline as observed by a Protestant, and yet with entirely different motivations. Catholic contemplatives often practice spiritual disciplines believing that their asceticism will impact their salvation in a positive way. Protestants firmly reject this. We engage spiritual disciplines, believing that all we receive from God we receive by grace. And so the purpose of the disciplines is not to twist God’s arm, but to posture our restless hearts to experience his grace. That alone is a big difference between these two theological titans, and reason alone to generally reject Catholic books on contemplation. I think this is a healthy apprehension, summarized best by the late Lutheran theologian, John W. Doberstein,
It is not true that prayers and books of devotion, even the so-called “classics of devotion,” can be used indiscriminately. Many of them are infused with a mystical tradition which is completely alien to the gospel and can only be confusing to the evangelical user of them. Prayer and liturgy are realized dogma, doctrine which is prayed; but if the doctrine is false, putting it into the form of devotion does not make it any less false. The Roman Catholic forms of spiritual exercises can never be a pattern for us, though they have crept into many popular Protestant manuals and discussions of prayer and meditation. The difference that separates us is that all Roman Catholic meditation rests upon the dogmatic assumption of synergism. (The Minister’s Prayer Book, XIV-XV)
The Catholic influence alone would put up my defenses with this book, but Guyon kept evading many of my fears. In certain places she spoke of God’s gracious sovereignty with such brazenness, that I actually began to wonder if she was a closet Calvinist! For example, she asserts, “You can be sure you would never consent [to union with Christ] if it were not that God takes it upon Himself to act upon you…God must take responsibility for bringing man into union with Himself” (130-131).
I wonder if it were quotes like–usurping the works-based theology of the Catholic church–that resulted in her imprisonment. I can certainly understand. She said many things that initially rubbed me the wrong way. But was I simply biased and unteachable? So I tried to read it with an open, but discerning mind just to be sure. Unfortunately, some books have so much to “discern” that I wonder if they are worth reading at all! However, with EDJC, I’m torn. If it’s the case that Guyon was veering from her Roman Catholic roots, my opinion of this book would change drastically, and I would feel free to recommend it. At the moment, I don’t think I could give this book to a believer who was weak in their faith, or lacked sound theology or discernment. It’s one of those. But for Christians who have been trained with discernment, there are few books on prayer that were as exciting for me to wade through as this. It may be worth the effort for you.
Overall, it was refreshing. It is leaps and bounds more impactful than many modern books that opine for chapters on end about the technique and beauty of prayer without ever actually praying.
My final verdict: proceed with both caution and curiosity.
If I were to ask you to explain what it meant to be a Christian, what would you say?
Many would say it involves mostly rules. Others think it’s doing good things for other people. Or maybe church attendance. Perhaps intellectual belief. But how does the Bible define following Jesus?
Overwhelmingly, we hear descriptions about being in Him.
- Paul says “in Him” 11 times just in the opening chapter to the Ephesians.
- The same phrase, “in Him,” occurs 73 times in the New Testament .
- Just a couple tantalizing examples,
- In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:5-6)
- Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
- Just a couple tantalizing examples,
We also hear descriptions about Christ being in us.
- To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)
- I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
- So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)
So frequent are these terms used to describe the Christian, and so extensive is the scope of each, that for simplicity’s sake, the entire mystical endeavor is often simply called Union with Christ .
What is Union with Christ?
Christ put it rather succinctly, “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, you are in Me, and I am in you” (John 14:20, HCSB). I think Wayne Grudem’s definition is helpful here: Union with Christ is “a phrase used to summarize several different relationships between believers and Christ, through which Christians receive every benefit of salvation“. In other words, everything noteworthy about salvation–from start to finish, from conversion to glory–is inextricably tied to our union with Christ! We do not have any Christianity apart from our union with Christ.
It underlies all the works of God in our lives: election, calling, regeneration, faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. To study union with Christ is to explore all of these particular blessings, and therefore the vast range of meaning in that little word in. – John M. Frame.
Why should you care?
Some of you may think of union with Christ an abstract doctrine, useful only for arm-chair theologians who like to spend endless hours nitpicking ethereal concepts that never touch the human experience. I hope to relieve you from this state of indifference!
There isn’t anything in the Bible that touches the human experience more than this. 
When a person becomes a Christian, they are not merely brought into a new set of beliefs, a list of behaviors, or a social club; it is a mysterious, all-encompassing, multi-faceted relationship and realm involving a divine Person. God himself invades our mess in the most literal way possible. Divine beauty and sinful flesh converge in a miraculous display. That mystical relationship has tremendous implications. I’ll just share from my experience of life in union with Christ.
It explains who I am.
- I’m justified in Him (Rom 3:24; 2 Cor 5:17,21; Phi 3:9)
- I’m identified with Him (Eph 2:6,10)
- I’m adopted by Him (Eph 1:5-6)
- I’m brought near to Him (Eph 2:13)
To name a few.
It fuels how I live.
- My sanctification is in Him (John 15:4; Rom 6:4; 1 Cor 1:2,30; Gal 4:19; Eph 3:16-17; Col 1:28)
- The spiritual disciplines I practice are in Him (See my post on a “contemplative approach”)
- My emotional health is in Him (See my sermon on this topic)
To name just a few.
It shows where I want to go.
Perhaps you answered my original question by saying, “Christianity has to do with following a set of rules,” or “It is mainly about being a good person.” I would say Christianity may include or overlap with some of those popular definitions of religion—I certainly hope Christians can be identified with good people, who are consistent in their beliefs and convictions. But I would also suggest that being a Christian is more. It’s about being the version of humanity that God originally intended. But for that to happen, you must be indwelt with the Divine (2 Pet. 1:4).
In his Magnus Opus, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard suggests that a person cannot keep Christ’s law by trying to keep Christ’s law. That person must aim for something higher. “One must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the law naturally flow” (142).
I believe our Lord put it this way: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4, ESV).
Back to my point, where I want to go.
Well… I want health in my entirety. A healthy Christian is someone who is made more like the Christ who indwells them. Paul said that God’s good purpose is that we would be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:28-29), which is also to “mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). This involves the health of the whole person. To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt 22:37). It’s what Jesus said was the most important command; the one to write home about, certainly, the one to remember if you are prone to forgetting such things.
I’m sure you’ve heard of nominal Christians. Perhaps judgmental Christians. Or [fill-in-the-blank] Christians. But my obsession is with healthy Christians.
I’m obsessed with how Christians can become healthy. So far, I’m convinced that it has to do with our union with Christ. So I obsess about that too. Mostly because I want to be a healthy Christian. And I want everyone I know to become one too.
What this blog offers
This blog exists in great part to take this far-reaching, all-encompassing, glorious doctrine of our union with Christ, and show it’s daily implications in everyday life. Union with Christ is not for the armchair theologians.
It’s for you. And it’s for me.
How do you experience Union with Christ?
The apostle said, “When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). That’s a great place to start.
Your experience of Jesus starts by believing the truth about Jesus. As J. Todd Billings writes, “Full humanity is humanity in complete union with God” . So most of these posts will explore the realization or practical application of this truth. Even if it’s subtle. For example,
- How my ignorance of union with Christ drove me to a contemplative approach to Christianity.
- How union with Christ draws me to a life of simplicity.
- How understanding union with Christ enabled me to evangelize as the introvert that I am.
- How union with Christ protects us from getting burnt out by overwhelming needs.
- Or why union with Christ means Christians attacking Christians is a really big deal.
- It also shows up in some of my book reviews.
So, stay tuned!