Not only is the appreciation, knowledge, and care of any particular “place” literally left behind in the exhaust fumes of the automobile, so also do the civic virtues necessary for living together in community evaporate in a car-dominated society. Who needs to develop neighborliness if one lives in a detached house accessed almost exclusively by the automobile? If one never walks down the block to buy a loaf of bread, then one never notices the new rose bush in Mr. Albert’s garden five doors down, nor does one ever meet the single mother and her three kids who live above the local bakery. In fact, with the dominance of the car and the shopping malls that have been built to accommodate its culture, there are hardly any local bakeries to walk to anyway. Civility assumes proximity. We develop civic virtues in the context of societal relationships. But the automobile enhances individuality and reduces proximity to the traffic jam. Civility gives way to road rage. ~ Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh (Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, 257)
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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.
I once suggested the necessity of reading a variety of authors and backgrounds to keep from becoming overly biased and ignorant. Then I wrote that this requires chewing on the meat and spitting out the bones since no author is perfect. Now I’m writing that some books, sermons, podcasts, etc., are simply not worth wasting your time on at all. Here’s what I mean, to further my last analogy…
I was once at a bar-b-que where the main course was chicken. I grabbed a couple of wings and threw them on my plate next to a generous helping of mashed potatoes (my mouth is watering as I write this), sat down, already famished, and began devouring a wing. To my dismay, there wasn’t anything there to begin with—the only bit of existing meat lie deep between stacks of chicken bones—I felt like I was trying to chew slivers of string cheese stapled to toothpicks. I took two small bites before throwing the remains back on my plate, and grabbed the other wing hoping for a better catch. No luck. Those emaciated chicken wings were so boney that it wasn’t even worth eating them at all. I should have stuck with my hunch and filled my whole plate with mashed potatoes! The moral of the story is:
Chicken wings don’t have enough meat on them to be worth your time—especially when there are thighs on the other serving table.
Authors, preachers, and speakers are basically the same. There are times when you feel like you are chewing on a chicken wing—sure, there’s a pocket of teriyaki sauce that globs up and whets your appetite when you bite it, but there’s not enough meat to make navigating those bones worthwhile—kind of like the preacher or author who constantly drops clever one-liners but without any substance. The earth is full of these! Do yourself a favor: find something else that will satisfy your hunger and don’t waste time on finger-food anymore.
It’s probably clear that no one out there will ever offer a perfect meal of words except for Jesus. But that’s why we read widely, chew on the meat, and spit out the bones—otherwise we wouldn’t learn anything. Just stick to those preachers and writers that actually have substance, or you’ll wake up with a mouth full of bone marrow, disgruntled because you can’t seem to figure out why there’s no spiritual growth in your life.
Perhaps because you’re not really eating?
[[If you have a weak stomach, you may not want to read ahead. If not (or if you have kids) read on]]
I was reading the late John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, while my daughter, Abby, slept in an ergo strapped snuggly to my chest. Suddenly she let out a few grunts and her body began twisting inside the carrier. I set down my book and saw that she woke herself up vomiting. A lot. It was the first time I saw Abby throw up, and it was disturbing at the time—perhaps more seasoned parents understand (this was months ago, and now I’m used to it!). So I jumped off the couch and called for Brianna while straining at the Ergo straps around Abby, who, by this point could not stop regurgitating rivers of granulated sludge from her nose and mouth. She struggled to breathe. There are few times I’ve felt this helpless before—staring down at my sweet little girl, not knowing what’s wrong, while she stares back at me with a look of perplexity, hoping I will rescue her as her body attempts violently to eject some foreign ingredients from inside. All I could do was hold her like the Koala she is, stroke her hair, wipe her dainty little lips. Then everything slowed down; she returned to her bouncy, infectious self. But I was shaken up. I don’t want to see my daughter like that; the look of her wide eyes and puppy-dog pout still burned into my memory.
We put her to sleep, exhausted as she was; and I picked up my book, starting from where I left off: John Stott was explaining five common metaphors in the Bible for God’s hatred of evil, the last of which is…vomiting. Stott’s explanation of the biblical metaphor comes close to home:
Regurgitation is a common Biblical metaphor indicating “that the holy God’s rejection of evil is as decisive as the human body’s rejection of poison by vomiting. Vomiting is probably the body’s most violent of all reactions” (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 109). In Revelation, Jesus says to a local church that because of lukewarmness “I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Rev. 3:16, HCSB).
After reading that paragraph, I put the book back down. With my shirt still soiled from several hours ago, I felt compelled to repent of any sin in my life that might cause the Lord to “vomit.” Not just the obvious evils that we like to condemn from our blogs, but the secret evils within: pride, anger, anxiety—all the “respectable sins,” as Jerry Bridges refers to them. I am sometimes (often?) guilty of treating grace as a gift card for my sins, forgetting that although I am forgiven, sin still grieves God as His “eyes are too pure to look on evil,” and the wrath that I deserved did not disappear—it was merely transferred to the Son of God who became my sin to bear my punishment.
In that instant, the gospel became all the more alluring to me: God does not just command me to be free from sin; He removes the rebellion from within. After seeing in my daughter’s face a vivid illustration of God’s grief over my sin, and knowing that this same God went to such lengths to rescue me, I will more often have this prayer on my lips:
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the everlasting way (Psalm 139:23-24).
Legalism is something to which we are all prone, because it is one of the key tendencies of the sinful human heart. At its base it is an assertion of our control over our relationship with God. It is a soft-pedalling of the greatness of God’s grace to sinners. On the surface it may appear to be an exalting of the law, however the law is understood. Yet when we examine the nature of legalism, we find that the opposite is true. Once we imagine that we can somehow add to God’s grace or establish our righteousness by our deeds, we have in fact dragged God’s law down to our level of imperfection. If salvation is by faith in Christ plus some form of obedience, the gospel is diminished tot he extent that we add to the principle of Christ alone. (Graeme Goldsworthy. Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 171)
Let us be free from the silly pressure of maintaining a fake happy face in all situations (as shown in my earlier post on grieving), by knowing the difference between happiness and joy. One is an emotion, while the other is a gift of God. Elton Trueblood argued that the Christian does not have to choose between sadness or joy, but can live comfortable between both worlds, giving validation to one, while maintaining anchor in the other. We call this being authentic.
The Christian is [delighted], not because he is blind to injustice and suffering, but because he is convinced that these, in the light of the divine sovereignty, are never ultimate. He is convinced that the unshakeable purpose is the divine rule in all things, whether of heaven or earth (Eph. 1:10). Though he can be sad, and often is perplexed, he is never really worried. The well known humor of the Christian is not a way of denying the tears, but rather a way of affirming something which is deeper than tears. – Elton Trueblood (The Humor of Christ, 32)
What he is saying is that Christians can simultaneously experience joy and grief, when their underlying hope is in the resurrected Christ. Have you ever been grieved, yet felt strangely warmed by the presence of Christ?