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Book Review: Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, by Jeanne Guyon

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.

Get the book on Amazon.

Union with Christ

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 [1].
    • 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)

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 [2].

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[3]. 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[4].

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. [5]

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.

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 ConspiracyDallas 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” [6]. So most of these posts will explore the realization or practical application of this truth. Even if it’s subtle. For example,

So, stay tuned!

Works Cited… Read the rest of this entry

A life of radical simplicity

I need to preface this post with a disclaimer: I do not have a life of simplicity. My life is really complicated. But I hope to change that someday. I’m writing now with that longing in mind.

I came across a passage in our Bible reading schedule that stopped me cold.

“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NASB)

I’ll come back to this passage in a paragraph or two. But first a question for anyone who has gone to a church.

Have you ever noticed the pressure in evangelical church culture to live an activity-filled life? 

I’ve talked to more than one individual who felt this pressure. And as a result, condemnation, albeit indirectly, by their fellow Christians, for not being as “on fire” as the critical mass of worshippers in their church. Now a second disclaimer: No blame should be left at the feet of those who are passionate about their faith. Especially if they are excited about following Jesus. Passion is needed in the church. All I’m suggesting here is that not everyone is in the same place that you are, spiritually speaking. And they don’t have to be. Everyone has their own pace at which they grow in their spiritual walk. All that really matters is that you’re growing. We shouldn’t quench the fire of the zealous ones among us; neither should we quench the smoldering wick of the Christian who is just trying to make it through the day without screwing up. For that reason, I can’t stop going back to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Specifically, those two verses in chapter four.

Paul’s instruction are a blatant contrast from the now overdone trend in Christian youth culture to be radical, sold-out, and influential.

There is this prevalent idea among Christian (evangelical?) millennials to live in a manner that is unparalleled by their peers. In a way that stands out. There is an external pressure to wield as much influence, power, and connection in the world as possible. After all, this is the “next great generation,” as they say. And we have a hefty expectation to live up to. “Ahem”…for the glory of God, of course.

Now, I do believe God’s call on our lives is radical in itself. Jesus changes our innermost being, relationships, worldviews, social structures, and then sends us as disciples into the world to repeat the process with others. Just the nature of our salvation, involving the mysterious union we have with Christ is beyond the scope of imagination. Consequently, anything we do as Christians, if the presence of Christ is in us, is by association, of a radical nature. To share the gospel with a non-believer, if done with the Spirit of Christ in us, is a radical commission. To open our doors in hospitality to our neighbors, when infused by the Spirit of Christ in us, is radical. If we are one with Christ, then talking to a cashier at the local grocery store can be radical. If, by radical, we mean, “far-reaching or thorough” in its “affecting the fundamental nature of something.” You can see how talking to a cashier in a grocery store about Jesus can have “far-reaching affects” if you are speaking by the power of Christ’s indwelling presence.

So then why are millennials so unsatisfied with their jobs, homes, churches, environment, and callings? It’s not the technical definition of “radical” that we seem to be after. For then, we’d already be satisfied in the seemingly mundane, as long as God is present with us. But we’re not satisfied. We’re the unsatisfied generation. I lost count of how many restless friends I’ve known who left the town they initially thought they were “called to.” It’s like they’re always on the run to find the next best thing “God has for them.”

I wonder, why don’t I ever hear of millennials staying in the same place, for years and years, faithfully ministering to the same people, day in and day out? Why don’t I ever hear stories about that twenty-three year old who worked for twenty years at a job she hated because of the uncontrollable burden on her heart for a co-worker? Why do I less stories about millennials counting the cost to obey Christ, and hear instead about “chasing my dreams”? Why do I see young people hopping from “calling” to “calling”–as if God keeps changing our minds (or His) on what He’s called us to?

Could it be that we have turned an already Great Commission into a romantic expectation? 

Maybe our dream is of big venues, great movements, and the prestige that will come when God uses us. Perhaps we daydream about the connections we’ll make, the book deals we’ll sign, or the influence we’ll have. We see non-profits, CEO’s, celebrity pastors, entrepreneurs and kind-of-famous musicians. Even if we can’t be that big, we at least dream of being as happy. We feel as though our right as Christians is to serve God doing what we want to do. We have passionate ambitions. We cannot imagine serving God in anything less than our dream job, with our best gifts, on our terms, and according to our schedule. I fully support dreaming big. But sometimes big dreams emerge from small beginnings.

I remember visiting the Sistine Chapel six years ago. The swell of global visitors in that room was astonishing, as everyone stood on tip-toes clamoring for a blurry shot of the famous ceiling frescos that were too far away to promise any photographic detail. Greatness. We want to be the Michelangelo of our day. But Michelangelo was primarily “gifted” as a sculpter. In fact, it’s said that he had a low opinion of painting. How many of us would turn that opportunity down because “our gifts are not being used,’ or “it wasn’t my dream job!” But Mike faithfully undertook the commission. Four years later, a masterpiece was born. That’s true greatness. But lying on scaffolding, with paint leaking into your eyes after the 10th hour on your back is certainly not romantic. Greatness rarely is. And according to the apostle Paul, the greatest ambition we should be pursuing is an invisible one.

What if God never intended for you to be legendary? What if you never made the paper, the TV, or even Youtube? Are you ok with being insignificant in the eyes of culture, to be obedient before God’s? What if God just wanted you to be faithful to your classmate, your friend, your neighbor, your kids? What if the inner change that occurred over the slow months of investing into them was the world-changing venture God had in mind for you? What if God just wanted you to teach others what you were once taught? Would you be ok with that? Because Paul’s verse to live a quiet life, not bother anyone, and have a good reputation would also certainly dovetail with his calling to make disciples. Paul is consistent. Maybe we’re the ones that have it skewed.

In Hebrews 11:32-40, aptly nicknamed the Hall of Faith, some of the most faithful believers don’t even get named. To be sure, some of them “stopped the mouths of lions” (33). But others were simply mocked, flogged, or imprisoned (36). How unglamorous. All of them went down in history nameless and unknown to us. Yet they are unforgettable to God. In fact, the author of Hebrews describes them as people “of whom the world was not worthy” (30). A backhanded jab at prevailing culture’s adulation for celebrity, fame, and power. The irony is that most of us don’t even know any Greek pagans from that time in history–the ones with honor and prestige. But our churches exist because of the nameless in the Hall of Faith. The explosion of the early church was founded on the faith of such men and women. So yes, history yields a radical result. It’s just not worthy of the world’s fame. Or even a headline in a blog. But God is thrilled. Is that enough for you? To be praised by God, if not by the Huffington Post?

I think that Paul is calling us to a life of simplicity and obedience.

This grinds in the face of what many of us think we want (try sitting in a chair for 20 minutes without having to look at your phone). In fact, Paul seems to correlate the overall health of our relationships with non-believers to a simple and quiet life: “lead a quiet life and attend to your own business…so that you will behave properly toward outsiders”

I have recognized the glaring absence of simplicity in parts of my own life.

As I mentioned at the beginning, my life seems anything but simple. The times my life is the most complicated, sometimes also happens to be the most lacking in true, heavenly power. And I wonder if there’s a correlation. I long for simple power. To not be dominated by my calendar, technology, bills, emails, and urgent-but-menial tasks. I’m guessing that for a lot of you, it’s the same. That would make simplicity a discipline that we must enter into and practice if we’re going to take seriously God’s Word. It won’t just happen. But the discipline we enter into is not some spiritual form of self-flagellation. It’s a pattern by which we subvert dangerous cultural norms that threaten to derail us from true peace of mind. It’s a discipline by which we experience and reflect God’s power in our lives regardless of the external pressures of our world. It’s a way of saying, breathing, and living a simple motto: my union with Christ is enough. It lies latent in every believer who can slow down enough to trust and obey their Lord. It will cause us to slow down and refocus our inner life on the indwelling presence of Jesus, if we let it. But since acts of simplicity are an enigma for many of us, it might help for me to spell it out for the sake of clarity. Since I am still a novice at it, I’ll offer direction from one of the great modern-day contemplatives.

So my next post will bring with it ten acts of simplicity, by Richard J. Foster. A guy who knew where the radical nature of Christianity lied: the interior life of every Christian.

An introvert’s guide to evangelism

I know of a Christian who struggles in social settings.

This seems counterintuitive. Evangelism is a basic tenet of his faith, and he feels exhausted just thinking about it! Maybe it’s because the word evangelism draws up for him caricatures of open-air street preaching. Or maybe because he would rather get to know and enjoy his neighbors before trying to proselytize them from a distance, as it often feels like. Whatever it is, that particular trigger of emotional exhaustion doesn’t travel alone. It is sometimes coupled with shame. Shame of not being naturally adept at something so essential to Christianity. And it certainly is essential…Jesus told His followers to speak about Him. And what Christian wouldn’t want to speak about Jesus? But it’s the speaking part that’s troubling!

It’s difficult for him to talk to strangers in a superficial environment, without a particular gift for social interaction.

Now, evangelism is one of the most thrilling, life-giving experiences a Christian can have. But evangelism, as the church has come to know it, feels much like peddling products door-to-door, or making cold calls to sell insurance. Now, you may think, “This guy is just ashamed of the gospel!” But I want you to think about that for a moment. Are you ashamed of having insurance just because you would never sell it door-to-door? Are you opposed to businesses everywhere just because you hate making or receiving cold-calls? Of course not. You can promote your insurance company while at the same time disdaining the way some insurance salesman treat you at the front door when they try to make a sale. (This is all hypothetically speaking, of course…I’ve never been approached by a door-to-door insurance salesman). There might be a few people who are wired to make “cold calls” in evangelism and great at doing it. But others ask, “Wait, people still do that?” Exactly. This is his perception of “evangelism” as it is often caricatured. And it’s an awkward feeling he will never escape. You see, he’s the pastor of an evangelical church. And evangelicals can sometimes hold a parochial definition of how evangelizing is supposed to go down. By the way, that guy is me.

But it’s not just me. Probably half of my congregation are introverts.

There are some very common misunderstandings about introverts that have made evangelism seem very untouchable. One is that introverts are shy and anti-social. You can see how this might affect our view of an introverted evangelist: “It’s a misnomer.”

But introversion and extraversion have less to do with a person’s identity, and more to do with how they choose to recharge. Susan Cain, famous for her 3 minute TED talk on the power of introversion, offers a simple definition in her book, Quiet:

Today’s psychologists tend to agree…introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, 11)

An introvert might be very adept to social interaction, but also need a proportionate amount of time to “recharge” in solitude. Whereas, an extrovert can read books, yet need to recharge by being around people. Think of how this affects evangelism. Maybe extroverts are generally more comfortable with “evangelistic” activities (like passing out tracks at the Farmer’s Market), because they are energized through interaction with groups of people.

Either way, no character trait should keep us from heralding the gospel.

I cannot say, “I’m not going to talk about Jesus with them because it’s out of my comfort zone as an introvert.” However, evangelism does seem monopolized by the extroverted ideal. And that’s not ok. While it may work well for the outgoing type, those who are more introspective need their own working model. We’ve all been trained over the decades to see effective evangelism through certain caricatures, i.e., street preacher, the altar-call giver, the stadium evangelist, and the person who talks a lot but never asks questions. There is nothing wrong with any of these caricatures, per se, but they aren’t all that there is to evangelism.

Again, this doesn’t mean those with introverted tendencies hate talking about Jesus. I would hate for you to misconstrued this post as a cop-out. Christians love Jesus. Introverts just don’t always like evangelizing on the same terms that are normally appreciated by our extroverted brothers and sisters. Nor is it always as effective, since we have differing gifts. God doesn’t assimilate our personalities into some universal ideal; the doctrine of Union with Christ teaches us that the image of God in us is being restored by His indwelling presence. That means we are being restored to the original luster of who God intended us to be. I would think that this includes our personality quirks. The question is not whether introverts should evangelize, but in what way? If an extrovert, who may love the thrill involved in, say, street-preaching, can evangelize in that way and be true to who God made them, how should introverts be evangelizing in a way that is faithful to Christ, and utilizes their gifts as well? That’s a question worth pursuing.

Unfortunately, the pressure from these over-the-top caricatures, and the shame attached to introversion in the church have inundated a large portion of gifted, caring, spirit-filled men and women in our church, and rendered them outsiders. (See Adam McHugh’s, Introverts in the Church) But it ought not be this way.

Read the rest of this entry

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