Category: Spirtual Formation

He Guides the Heart

Now may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience of Christ. ~ 2 Thessalonians 3:5

a prayer that He will guide my heart
to two destinations…

1. the love of God &

2. the patience of Christ

personal experiences with Him
that become
observable qualities in me

only through knowing Him
can I make Him known

guide my heart, Lord!

You Can’t Have Two Altars in Your Heart

The book of Judges is an account of one of the darkest periods in the history of God’s people. Armed with His promises but weak in faith, the first generation to enter the Promised Land convinced themselves it was too hard to drive out the Canaanites. Defeat became a way of life. Settling down to live with the enemy, God’s people continued to speak His name, but they forgot who He is and what He had called them to do. The God of Abraham and Moses was reduced to a place of mere recognition among the gods in this world. Exclusive devotion to God disappeared.

But the God of grace and mercy did not forget His people. Keeping His promises to their forefathers, He pursued a very lost generation. Sending years of pressure into their lives, the Father waited on His people to cry out to Him… to genuinely turn away from all of the gods of Canaan, and to return to Him with all their heart. Hearing their cries, the Father would then send a deliverer – called a “judge” — to go against and remove the disciplinary oppression of God’s people. This cycle of forgetting God when at peace and remembering God when under distress is repeated by the people until it seems darkness has triumphed. However, by the end of the book, God’s people have stopped crying out. There is no happy ending… Judges is not a “feel good” story about the natural condition of the human heart.

During one of the cycles, the Midianites were invading the land during the annual harvest. As soon as the Israelite crops were ready to be brought in, the parasitic oppressors would arrive, driving God’s people into the hills, and destroying everything Israel had earned in that year. This went on for seven seasons. Then the Bible reports: “And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the LORD.” (6:6)

And He heard their cry.

A young man named Gideon was threshing wheat in a wine press. Hiding his meager efforts to keep some of the harvest for his family, Gideon was not on a mission to oppose the enemies of God’s people. He was just trying to get ahead. He was a product of his age. A farmer. A survivor. An idolater.

To get ahead in Gideon’s day meant doing business with the local gods. Asserting that they controlled the weather and the harvest, Canaanite deities had to be appeased if you were going to be successful. If you wanted to trade with Canaanites and marry their daughters, you had to show some respect for their beliefs and values. So you kept your identity as a devotee of Yahweh, but you engaged other gods too, unconsciously embracing a Canaanite worldview.

Years later the Psalmist described the creeping syncretism that was blinding the people of God…

They did not destroy the peoples, as the LORD commanded them, but they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.” Psalms 106:34-38

The altars of Canaan were used for child sacrifice and sexual perversion on a massive scale. The people of God had become Canaanized in every aspect of their lives. In the sight of God it was sin (3:7, 12, 4:1, 6:1, 10:6, 13:1). In their minds, it was the right and sensible way to live (17:6, 21:25).

In order to go on God’s mission, Gideon first needed to know God. God cannot be just another “priority” in a busy life. God does not hang around just to bail us out of our latest predicament. God does not exist for us.

We exist for Him.

He will never be satisfied with the tiny spaces given him by His people (then or now)… to exist as one god among the “gods” in our cultural pantheon. I can’t give him a few minutes of reflection on Sunday, and then live as if He doesn’t exist the rest of the week, sacrificing my life on a dozen other altars in my heart, and doing what everyone else does (unthinkingly) to be happy and get ahead. He will not accept anything less than all of my devotion. Jesus said it this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

As Gideon begins to understand this truth, he builds a personal altar to Yahweh. But it’s not enough. He has other idols roaming around in his life. Listen…

Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD and called it, The LORD Is Peace… That night the LORD said to him, “…pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it and build an altar to the LORD your GodJudges 6:24-26

There can only be one altar in my heart… not two. If Gideon… or anyone… begins to draw near Him, the other gods of the heart must be decisively evicted. Why? If He is who He says He is… the one true God and Creator and Sovereign Lord of all creation (including me)… then He alone can be trusted to tell me the truth about my life.

All the other “gods” are nothing more than powerless pretenders and silver-tongued liars to the human race. Fake gods are not worthy of my faith. All they can do is promote a self-actualized distortion of my humanity, pushing an illusion of happiness to dispel the deep foreboding undertow of hopelessness… calming me with a few fairy tales on the road to hell.

Yes, every other altar must be torn down until only one remains.

His.

What God Starts, God Finishes

“…being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
Philippians 1:6

Does the Bible really say that? I was stunned sitting in that pew on a Sunday night… and deeply moved.

A few months earlier I had been sitting in my dorm room at the University of Texas in Austin, when someone knocked on my door. David Procter, a staff member from Hyde Park Baptist Church, had dropped by to invite me to their college ministry. He later introduced me to a deacon, Alphonce Brown, who soon started picking me up for church on Sundays. As a year-old Christian, I had nothing to offer the church, but they invested time in me. Their love for Jesus was infectious… and their influence on me would last for decades.

So that’s how I came to be sitting in that pew on a Sunday night. That was the moment when I heard our pastor, Ralph Smith, mention a verse of scripture I had not heard before. I don’t recall anything else about the sermon, except I couldn’t wait to figure out where that verse was located in the Bible. After the service, I moved down to the front, surprised that no one else was lined up to speak to Dr. Smith (usually there was).

Pastor,” I asked, “you quoted a verse… something about God completing a work that He begins.” He smiled. I was one of those who regularly queried him after his sermons. With a notebook in hand, I wasn’t challenging anything he said, but I always had questions. He told me where to find Philippians 1:6 and then, as we briefly discussed what it means, a truth formed in my heart that has never left: what God starts, God finishes! I really needed to hear that.

As a young believer, all I could see were my ongoing struggles with sin and my failed attempts to live for Him. I wanted to get it right, but it seemed like I was always getting it wrong. I was focusing on what I wanted to do for God, instead of what God was already doing in me. I needed to understand that when I first trusted Jesus, God began a work in me that is unstoppable. What God starts, God finishes!

In me — just me — nothing good dwells (Romans 7:18). On my own, I will always stumble and fall.

Dr. Ralph Smith

Every failure reminds me that I cannot live without Him. Jesus Himself said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Today, I am thankful that He never fails to finish what He starts, and that He long ago started to work in me. Steadily, unfailingly, and relentlessly…

He is finishing what He started.


“Things are not as bad as they seem, things could get worse, but they will get better.” ~ Ralph Smith (1931-2017)

Dr. Smith was the pastor of Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin, Texas for 36 years. Click here for a brief account of his life from the Austin-American Statesman newspaper.

“Pray like this…”

2016-06-13 21.28.56 - CopyMy Father
Unseen, but always seeing me

Your name… let it be deeply revered by all

Your kingdom… let it come, Your ruling Presence

Your will… let it be fully expressed
on earth in my circumstances
as it is in heaven where Your will is unopposed

Today

Here are my needs, I leave them all with You
the One who cares for me

Oh…
cancel the mountain of wrongs inflicted by me
and with fear and trembling
I ask You to pour out Your mercy shown to me…
Your grace freely flowing through me…
drenching every person who owes me

As You walk before me into every moment, I am at rest in You
leaning in and listening
as You shelter me in Your shadow
during the enemy’s vicious attempts to destroy me

You are the glorious King… and I am so privileged
to be Your child!

Amen.

(one expression of His outline for prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13 ~ DP)

When the manna stops falling…

father's hand“Then the manna ceased . . .” Joshua 5:12

“So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.” Deuteronomy 8:3

The people of God had wandered in the wilderness for forty years, sustained by a daily provision of manna that fell from the sky. The promised land was waiting. They crossed the Jordan River into the land. And then… no more manna.

Living by the Word of God is a journey of faith.  We can trust Him for the most basic of needs. The manna is the bread of heaven, a gift from God, and a life-giving resource in the believer’s life. But there’s more… He wants to grow your faith.

A life of faith is always in motion. The faith I exercised in Him yesterday must be renewed today. My faith delights Him (Hebrews 11:6). It is to be a continual, heartfelt response to what He is doing… now… and in every moment.

A life of faith is always in response to what God has said. I can’t control Him, guide Him, or make Him do my will. I can’t decide what God needs to be doing today in my life or the lives of those I pray for… but I can seek Him. I can wait on Him for direction in how to pray. Once He speaks and His desire is clear to me… then I know what to ask for and what to expect (1 John 5:14). My faith can only rest in His Word (Romans 10:17).

So the manna fell for forty years… and then it stopped. It was a training tool to grow and deepen faith in the hearts of His people. Can I trust Him? Must I take care of me? Or will He take care of me?  The daily manna for your life is a reminder that you are always cared for and that He is always reliable.

However, there are rivers to be parted and crossed. There are walls that need to come down, captives to be set free, and battles to be won. He is calling you to trust Him for more than your daily bread… He wants to enter into your circumstances, as well as into the life situations of people you know. He taught us to ask for His rule in heaven [where there is no Satan, no sickness, no sin] to be expressed on earth (Matthew 6:10). He wants to show Himself as a living God (2 Chronicles 16:9).

In a journey of faith, don’t be alarmed when the manna ceases… He always has an abundance for you (Philippians 4:11-13)… but get ready for the larger work of God.

He wants to come!

Stones, Serpents, and Scorpions… or Life in the Spirit?

iStock_000000662082SmallFor most of my journey as a Christ-follower, I have repeatedly asked the questions, “How does God change a man?” and “Am I changing?” Consequently, I am—at best—a student of what happens to someone in the Presence of God. No experts here—so I pen these words with a continual readiness to be corrected and better informed. However, there are ways of applying the good news of Jesus that reduce it to a manmade religion of self-effort and human accomplishment.

“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.” – Mark 7:21-23

In Mark 7, Jesus warned against a preaching ministry that relied solely on words: words aimed at chiding a congregation to achieve an external set of standards of behavior. Such a ministry is functionally bankrupt from the outset, since the locus of true change lies within us (Mark 7:21-23; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:5). Preachers must preach the truth with words, but they must aim at directing hearts to the Presence of God (Mark 7:6).

Why? The thoughts that lead to actions flow from the heart. Powerful emotions that lead to sinful acts begin as sinful desires and attractions of the heart. Pride and deception live in the heart. Unless the heart is engaged and transformed, you will not change. Jesus does not simply want to change your behavior: He wants to change your heart.

How do you change a heart?

Many spiritual disciplines and practices come to mind. They can be excellent tools for transformation, but they cannot replace the Author of transformation. By themselves, the disciplines can rapidly devolve into a body of strict, lifeless habits. Using discipline, you can control your behavior and silence the internal “voices” – but you cannot change the root impulses and “messaging” of the heart. Many religions embrace various forms of discipline, but the hearts of the practitioners remain unchanged.

I believe that a community of Christian believers can be a major force in spiritual transformation. True believers want to be with others who love God, seeking to follow Him with their whole life. But involvement in a vibrant community of practicing disciples is not enough…

I am an advocate for Scripture memory and meditation. God speaks to my heart through His Word, challenging me, correcting me, and guiding me into ways of living that please Him. It’s a non-optional and essential ingredient in the process of transformation, but it’s not enough…

I can contribute to the change, and I can cooperate with the Author of change, but I can’t cause my heart to change. The Author of change is Jesus, Who comes and dwells in the heart when someone accepts His invitation to abandon self-rule (a form of rebellion against God), to accept responsibility for personal sin, and to surrender life governance to Him. The result becomes “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The Spirit of Christ indwells a person for the purpose of salvation… not just from a future hell of separation from God, but also from the present “hell” of being dominated by a dark and unruly heart.

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit…” – John 7:37-39

Jesus said that when someone yields directional control of life to Him (“believes in Me”), then “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The “flow” of new life is produced by the presence of the Spirit of God within the heart (John 7:39). The transformation of my heart begins as I accept and trust the biblical revelation of Jesus, but it is accomplished as the Holy Spirit indwells and recreates my heart (Psalm 51:10-11). My only hope for change lies in a moment-by-moment dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) combined with a Spirit-initiated, Spirit-sustained renewal of the desires and inclination of my heart (Philippians 2:12-13).

However, Jesus limits this process of heart transformation to those who are “thirsty” for change (John 7:37) and those who are weary with the “self-made” approach to doing life (Matthew 11:28-30). So let me pause here a moment before I wrap this up [selah]:

    • Am I thirsty?
    • Do I really want to change?
    • Am I ready to abandon my efforts “to make it” and to be “successful” in the eyes of others (or even in my own eyes)?
    • Am I ready to accept His “yoke” and enter into a learning relationship with a living Jesus who is self-described as “gentle and lowly in heart” – knowing that He is going to make my heart like His heart?

What are the implications here for ministry?

“If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” – Luke 11:10-13

In Luke 11:10-13, Jesus makes it clear that the Father is ready to release His Spirit into the life of the man or woman who “asks” (or “thirsts” in John 7). I need to ask… I need to thirst… I need to want His Spirit to transform my heart. I need to engage Him with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12)—the Holy Spirit is a Person who can be “grieved” and “quenched” (Ephesians 4:30, 1 Thessalonians 5:19). Change is not automatic, but requires my cooperation with and sensitivity to the Spirit.

Jesus ridicules the notion that earthly fathers would give their children stones, serpents, or scorpions. The father’s heart should be tender towards the child who is crying and hurting. Our churches are populated with individual pastors and members who are crying out for change. They are longing for God to come and transform their churches, their communities, and their lives. They are asking and they are thirsty. They want more than the external activity and programming of the average church… they don’t long for a building or relocation program (“stones”?), a lengthy “how to be a success” sermon series (“serpents”?), or an ecclesiastical power struggle (“scorpions”?).

They want the “real deal”—they want Him—a life in the Spirit.

Transformation as an Expression of the Kingdom of God

“You can build a great church or you can build a great people. I’m not sure you can do both.” The older pastor looked at me steadily as his words settled into my thoughts. Hyperbole to make a point? Perhaps, but his point was well-taken.

Now, decades later, I recognize how easy it is for church leaders and pastors to become preoccupied with what they can do to make the church grow numerically. Don’t get me wrong: I am a cheerleader for churches that are attracting and reaching people with the gospel! Church gatherings should be well conceived and led with excellence. We should abhor mediocre, boring, and repetitive programming. However, stimulating small groups and stunning Sunday morning services may draw a crowd, but they also may have little or no effect on the heart. In a way that they can’t quite identify or describe, many church members sense something is missing.

Jesus is all about changing hearts — the core desires and dreams that bubble up and out into our words and actions. He is not satisfied that you should merely avoid committing sins like murder and adultery. He wants you to become a person who doesn’t hate or lust. He calls people “blessed” who ARE meek, merciful, and pure in heart. How can you change your heart? You can’t. But He can.

The central message Jesus preached was “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom of God is breaking into an unruly and chaotic realm of billions of individual fiefdoms – each one struggling for dominance over… something. The world you are living in is not the world God originally created.

The Bible credits the broken and dulled state of our universe to a single event at the inception of human history. It was a moment in time when a man and a woman abandoned the directional control of God in their lives, choosing instead to believe a lie promulgated by the ancient Adversary–that freedom involves living outside of God’s kingdom. It was sin… it was stupid. The lie-infected race continues to stumble along, either hailing scientific advance or hawking some religious, self-absorbed contemplation as evidence of enlightenment. With each succeeding generation, the corruption of the universe is a horrific reflection of the shredded remains of every human heart. Destructive. Diseased. Demented. Demonic. The “survival of the fittest” is not the driver of evolving and superior forms of life, but it is a constant reminder of the incessant, downward spiral of all creatures towards oblivion and anomie.

It will stop. It will change. That Day is coming. The diseased will be healed, the marred images will be wiped clean, the damaged will be restored, the rebels will be subdued, the evil one will be destroyed, and the darkness will give way to the light. The apostle Paul explains: “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:24-26).

So Jesus didn’t die on the cross so we could go to a great church. The church is a vital and essential ingredient in your inner transformation, but it is not the ultimate end or the primary locus of God’s activity on the planet. Properly understood, the church is an expression of God’s kingdom, and His vehicle for calling others into the kingdom of God. But the church is not the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the rule and activity of God Himself.

Jesus didn’t die so you could be a material or professional “success.” Your efforts to secure your life will never end and will never succeed. The most important thing you can do is find out what God is saying to you… and what He is prepared to do in you and through you. Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6:31-33).

Jesus was sent on a rescue mission… for you and me. If God intends to eliminate rebellion, destroy evil, and recreate a brilliantly beautiful world, what do you imagine He wants to do in your heart? He wants to transform every motive, every decision, every desire, every thought — exposing and eliminating every hidden corner and dark space. You do not lose your will. You simply lose interest in broken ways of doing life. “Repent,” Jesus said… the kingdom is right here. Right now. The people who “get that” will be an active and vital part of the church, but their public life will be fueled by a wonderful and unseen inner journey with Him who is a King.