The Road Goes Ever On and On…

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with weary feet,

Until it joins some larger way,

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

Thus said the hobbit Frodo Baggins as he set out with his friends on a journey whose dire significance he had yet to discover (see chapter 3 of The Fellowship of the Ring).

Talbot acceptanceA new segment of that Road is opening up for me this fall, as I prepare to begin an M.Div. program at Talbot School of Theology, and it promises to be a long, long road, the significance of which–like Frodo–I do not yet know. But I’m thankful for how God is pushing me out the door onto this Road. It has been 22 years since I sat in a college classroom, and life is much different now than it was then, so it is not without a little trepidation that I step out onto this Road. As old Bilbo used to say, “It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

But there is much to learn, and much that I trust God has in store for me through this…and so I look forward to it!

The “Golden Triangle” of Spiritual Growth

Dallas Willard, who, before his death 2 years ago, was a professor of philosophy at USC and a key thinker and writer about Christian discipleship, has a simple diagram that explains well the process by which God brings about change in our hearts as Christians.Image 1

Here is the diagram (from page 347 of his landmark book The Divine Conspiracy), which Willard calls “the Golden Triangle of spiritual growth.” The triangle represents the correlation of factors which lead to transformation into Christlikeness. The center of the triangle has to do with our thinking, showing that, as Romans 12:1-2 states, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds—that the changing of our thinking (about God and about self especially) is central to the whole process.

Then at the apex of the triangle is the action of the Holy Spirit, demonstrating that the work of the Spirit is primary and vital to transformation—this is not merely a self-help project. Ordinary events and trials of life, coupled with spiritual disciplines (or heart-training exercises, as I like to call them) indicate that where the transformation is actually carried out is in our real, everyday life where we interact with God and people. The role of what is imposed upon us (ordinary events and trials) goes hand in hand with our intentional efforts to open our hearts to God (disciplines).

So God moves, through His Spirit, to awaken our minds to His truth–to correct our perception of Him, to bring awareness of the depth of our sin and need of a Savior, to point out ungodly beliefs and correct them with the truth. God changes our thinking and renews our mind. But He doesn’t just stop there—we are not changed simply because we learn a new truth or feel convicted about a particular command. Changing our thinking is central, but it does not produce transformation on its own. Rather, what is changed in the thinking must then be lived out in the everyday events of life and proven in the testing grounds of ordinary struggles and suffering and relationships. We cannot directly cause the transformation to happen, but we can choose to put ourselves in a posture of openness and receptivity to the Spirit’s work—and that is what heart-training exercises accomplish, disciplining ourselves for the purpose of Godliness, as I Timothy 4:7 states.

UPDATE: I preached a sermon at Lifesong Community Church this past Sunday (May 24, 2015), in which I gave a couple illustrations of this “golden triangle” in everyday life. You can find the sermon here.

Making Sense of Suffering

Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes have written an excellent book called When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty. I had read it some time ago, but picked it up again yesterday to look for a particular quote, and was struck again by the truth of what they have written–truth that is comforting to hear but not easy to live out.

Here is a portion of how Joni–as a quadriplegic for 40+ years–makes sense of the suffering she continues to endure day by day…

“…the cross is where we die. We go there daily. But it isn’t easy. Normally, we will follow Christ anywhere—to a party, as it were, where he changes water to wine, to a sunlit beach where he preaches from a boat, to a breezy hillside where he feeds thousands, and even to the temple where he topples the tables of moneychangers. But to the cross? We dig in our heels. The invitation is so frighteningly individual. It’s an invitation to go alone. The Lord does not give a general appeal but a specific one, personal to you. The transaction exists between the Almighty of the universe and you.

We know it as a place of death. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature…” (Colossians 3:5). Who wants to do that? Crucify his own pride? Kill his own daydreams and fantasies? Dig a grave for his pet worries?

We simply cannot bring ourselves to go to the cross. Nothing attracts us to it.

Thus we live independently of the cross. Or try to. As time passes, the memory of our desperate state when we first believed fades. The cross was something that happened to us “back then.” We forget how hungry for God we once were. We grow self-sufficient. We go through the motions—turning the other cheek and going the extra mile—but the effort is just that, an effort. We would hardly admit it, but we know full well how autonomous of God we operate.

This is where God steps in.

He permits suffering. He allows Peter’s blindness, Laura’s degenerative disease, Mr. Beach’s hunting accident, my paralysis. Suffering reduces us to nothing and as Soren Kierkegaard noted, “God creates everything out of nothing. And everything which God is to use, he first reduces to nothing.” To be reduced to nothing is to be dragged to the foot of the cross. It’s severe mercy. Our dark side abhors it; our enlightened side recognizes it as home base.

A miraculous exchange happens at the cross. When suffering forces us to our knees at the foot of Calvary, we die to self. We cannot kneel there for long without releasing our pride and anger, unclasping our dreams and desires—this is what “coming to the cross” is all about. In exchange, God imparts power and implants new and lasting hope. We rise, renewed. His yoke becomes easy; his burden light. But just when we begin to get a tad self-sufficient, suffering presses harder. And so, we seek the cross again, mortifying the martyr in us, destroying the self-display. The transaction then is able to continue. God reveals more of his love, more of his power and peace as we hold fast the cross of suffering.”

Sometimes I’d rather wallow in self-pity than go to the cross to kill that self-pity and receive God’s “severe mercy.” But it’s mercy I need, so to the cross I must go.

Hope + Tribulation = Constant Prayer

Romans 12:9-21 lists a long string of concise commands depicting the kind of life that characterizes one whose mind is being transformed through the Gospel (Rom. 12:1-2). Though all of those commands do not necessarily have an obvious connectedness and flow, one verse in particular (verse 12) jumps out at me because of how the 3 commands in that verse do seem to fit together.

Verse 12 reads: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”

When I have no hope, I am not patient in tribulation, but instead, I all too easily succumb to sin and self-pity and despair. And when I have no hope, prayer goes out the window with a cynical shrug of my shoulders…”Why bother–nothing ever changes anyway.” So hope is vital to patience and to prayer.

When I have no tribulation, I do not find much joy in the great hope that I have in Christ, because life is comfortable. And when I have no tribulation, I may pray half-heartedly for that which I’m “supposed to” pray for, but I’m certainly not constant in prayer. So tribulation is vital to hope and to prayer.

When I am not constant in prayer, I find myself pursuing false hopes and human solutions for happiness. And when I am not constant in prayer, rather than patiently enduring tribulation as God’s means of refinement, I am looking for the easy way out. So prayer is vital to hope and to patience.

So these three commands are deeply intertwined:

Hope + Tribulation = Constant Prayer

Tribulation + Prayer = Joyful Hope

Prayer + Hope = Patience in Tribulation

I like hope, and I don’t mind prayer, so I’m glad those are vital components of a life that is being transformed. But I don’t really care for tribulation (or patience either, for that matter), so I’m a little less enthusiastic about that also being a vital component. But it is. God in His mercy and wisdom ordains that suffering and hardship are part of our experience as His children, in order to teach us to pray, and in order to increase our hope. And so let us pray–constantly–and let us hope–joyfully–in the midst of the suffering that God allows and brings into our life, so that, as James says, the testing of our faith would produce steadfastness in us, and when that steadfastness has its full effect, we “may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)