I’ve been writing over the past few weeks about the lessons God is teaching me as I am silent (I have more to write in this area). The big question is, will these lessons stick? Will I be transformed when I can speak again? The answer is probably, no. Why do I feel that way? The answer to that and a proposition about what might change me is what I intend to ponder here.
Habits, Mind And Body
One thought comes back to me over and over again these three weeks. We are intensely physical creatures. Yes, we are more than that, but most of what makes or brakes us is that part of us that is inextricably physical. One of the signs of maturity is when a person learns this lesson and tends to their bodies with wisdom. Admittedly, this is NOT something I am good at. God has blessed me with a healthy body. As a result, I tend to neglect it and forget the significance it plays in my spiritual journey. Even as I write, I am emotionally saddened that this is the case. How much farther could I have advanced in my love of God if I had not neglected my body as a part of my journey?
Does this sound strange to you, this talk of the bodies role in the spiritual life? It would have sounded strange to me only a few years ago, and it would have seemed less crucial even four weeks ago. I’ve long known that the body played a part in my relationship with God from texts like 1 Corinthians 6:19. It says, “or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” I’ve read passages like that and thought, don’t do drugs kids. I joke, but that is about how lightly I took the passage. The context of that passage is talking about sexual sin, so I guess I included that as a bad thing for the body too. Now I believe that how we train our bodies can be incredibly transformative, and I’ll explain why later but first I need to lay a stronger foundation.
My First Attempt
It may help, in a blog about transformation, for me to tell you my story of seeking transformation. I’ve gone through several stages with varying success. When I first started to try to grow as a Christian, I thought the way one did that was to be a good boy. Maybe I just hadn’t tried hard enough to stop sinning, and if I did, I would grow. I tried that theory for several years, but it only drove me to despair. It almost turned me away from God. I found myself over and over again at the side of my bed confessing my many sins, weeping over my weakness, and begging God for another chance. I made bold statements to God like, “I’ll never do that again.” Usually, I found myself praying that same prayer the next day.
The trouble with an effort to eliminate sin is that you tend to find more crimes than you know you were committing before you started trying. The pattern of commitment, failure, confession, and recommitment almost broke my spirit towards Christianity forever. If you have a picture of God getting disappointed in your performance as you struggle with sin, eventually you will begin to hide from him. That is what Adam and Eve did when they sinned in the garden, and that is what you will ultimately do if you choose this method of transformation. My consistent failure made it harder and harder to go to God and confess. I just knew he had to be getting disappointed in my weakness. I would even try to do a few good things before returning to prayer hoping that my good deeds would make it a bit easier for God to stomach the confession I had to make. If this is your view of God and the Christian life, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE know that you have missed the message of Jesus as I had. Even though I felt like this season almost broke me I now believe that the struggle was part of God’s gentle leading. The lyrics to one of my favorite songs tell this story beautifully.
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
– John Newten
I remember a moment when my, “self and pride” was broken. I lay in my bed as a high school senior broken. I resolved that I would stop trying to fight for personal holiness. I remember the moment vividly. I told God, “I am not going to start trying to sin but I can’t do this fight anymore. I guess I’ll just be a failure, and you will have to deal with it.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I think that is what God wanted to hear from me. I now believe God’s response to me would have been something like, “finally! I’ve been trying to get you to understand that you can’t do this without me. I love you NOT because of how good you are; I love you because you are my son.”
My Second Attempt
(I didn’t intend this to become a testimony blog, but it all relates)
My first effort for transformation and subsequent failure was a crucial step in making the next step possible. Not long after that sense of giving up, I went to Bible College. Even after my sense of failure and my giving up I wanted to serve God. I had started to lead worship in my youth group a year before and found out I was pretty good at it. I was going to bible college so that I could check the, “I know my Bible” box off and become a worship leader/pastor. When I arrived at Bible college, I promptly forgot how to play guitar and how to sing. I am not joking. I can’t explain it to this day but all of the sudden it was as if I had lost any ability to play and sing. This left me with a new existential crisis. What would I do with my life? If I wasn’t going to be a worship leader, what would I do? I decided I would continue my studies as I figured it out.
One day I was studying the subject of grace for an assignment. I read a little note about grace that changed my life. I learned that the word grace meant favor. I then read in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia this section in its entry on Grace: “But God’s favor differs from man’s in that it cannot be conceived of as inactive. A favorable “thought” of God’s about a man involves of necessity the reception of some blessing by that man, and “to look with favor” is one of the commonest Biblical paraphrases for “bestow a blessing.”
It may take a moment to consume that fully but take that moment. Grace is God’s favor but God’s favor demands that he act favorably towards those he has grace for. As I continued to study, I learned that grace was the power of God and the source of strength that God gives to his children to be transformed. Given my last attempt at transformation and the collapse of that attempt, I decided I needed this “grace” stuff. I then began to research how a person could get grace. That search led me to several texts, but I’ll highlight two. First was, “But he gives more grace. Therefore, it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).” I quickly decided I couldn’t fabricate humility, so I kept searching. I then found Ephesians 2:8 which says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” This meant that grace came somehow through faith. Charles Spurgeon helped me greatly in his book All Of Grace. He says about the Ephesians passage that, “Grace is the powerful engine, and faith is the chain by which the carriage of the soul is attached to the great motive power.”
So now I knew that faith gave me access to this powerful grace that I so needed. The next question was how do I grow in faith so that I can get more grace? As a side note, I strongly recommend asking these kinds of questions and fighting for answers from God. I then started hunting for how I might find more faith. I was growing frustration that grace needed humility, humility needed faith, faith would need something else and the circle would go on forever. I then stumbled upon a text that is still exceedingly dear to me. Romans 5:1-2 says this, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
I remember to this day the feeling that swelled over me when I realized I was standing in grace. This powerful, most desirable substance of grace that I so longed for was something I was standing in all this time. Even as I write I am moved to tears of joy and gratitude. I can remember where I was sitting when this realization came over me. I pictured a little boy (me) standing in an ocean of grace looking to heaven asking God how I might get some grace. This realization was probably the most significant and “transformative” events of my life. I now realized that I had access to God’s grace at any given time NOT because of what I had or had not done but because I had been justified but Jesus. I don’t think this is when I was saved but it is when I learned that transformation was by grace through faith as well as salvation.
My Third Attempt
After that story, you may be wondering why I even have a 3rd attempt. The answer to that is I didn’t. After discovering grace, every other leap forward in transformation has been only a deeper plunge into that ocean of grace that I had found. I’ll shorten this section simply because I don’t have time to tell this entire story.
It was several (maybe 4) years later that I had another surprising discovery of about grace. I was then at Moody Bible Institute studying to become a preacher (remember I had given up on being a worship leader during my previous experience). I was serving at the Great Lakes Nave Base on the weekends with Campus Crusade Military Ministry (now CRU). The leader of the Bible study I was serving in there was named Nick. As I served alongside him spoke of the “gospel” regularly. The thing that made his voice significant to me was the way he lived. I had never seen someone (similar in age to me) live such God-glorifying life. He and his family were exemplary to me and as a result, I listened. What I couldn’t understand was why he spoke so much of the “gospel” and didn’t mention “grace” nearly as often. Over the course of 3 years in that ministry, he began to explain how grace was only one facet of the full good news (gospel) if Jesus. His pastor, Mike Bullmore described it well when he said the word “gospel” was like juice concentrate. Inside the word gospel was a thesaurus of other biblical ideas that included; grace, faith, adoption, sonship, justification, and on.
What I had discovered was that grace was just one of the terms that the Bible used to describe/articulate the gospel. The gospel is the life and work of Jesus Christ. Everything that Jesus taught lived, and accomplished for us = the gospel.
This truth opened the scriptures wider to me because I was then discovering my precious grace in more terms than just “grace.” This was also transformative. As a side note, the last section combined with this section of this post are why we believe in GOSPEL TRANSFORMATION at South Fellowship Church. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says it so well, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” In Ryan Paulson’s words, “as we see Jesus we are changed.”
My Fourth Attempt (why I won’t be changed)
(I’ll stop here)
Again, is there any reason to go beyond grace, the gospel, and Jesus in a conversation about transformation? The short answer is, no there isn’t. All other discussions about christian formation and growth must terminate with Jesus if they are valuable at all. With that said, Scripture is intensely practical when it comes to spiritual growth and transformation. If we are free from the burdens of Attempt 1 we are then also free to leverage more practical tools to grow in grace and therefore be changed. Up to this point, much of what I’ve talked about is very mental. I have spoken about several stages of my understanding of God, grace, faith, and the gospel. When will the beginning of this post come to play? I opened this blog with the statement, “we are intensely physical creatures.”
The fact of the matter is, I had strongly underestimated the role of the body in my spiritual journey. In God’s providence, I’ve found myself reading a series of books that have served as kindling for God to teach me more. God was giving me puzzle pieces as I read. He began to assemble the pieces during my silence. First let me just list some of the books that I am drawing thought from: Soul Keeping (John Ortberg), Change your Brain Change your life (Daniel G. Amen), Renovation Of The Heart and Spirit of the Disciplines (Dallas Willard), Eat This Book (Eugene Peterson), The Power of Habit (Charles Duhigg), Blink and Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell).
I was reading a book about spiritual formation and a book that addressed brain science right next to each other. It was unbelievable how well they lined up. Recollection of these books served me so well as I have processed my vocal situation. First of all, one notices the significance of the body more pointedly when their body gives out in one way or another. The body is a very significant part of who we are, and we must not neglect that knowledge. Dallas Willard describes the body as your power pack. “Imagine for a moment you had a will and a mind but no body (Dallas Willard in Soul keeping).” Your body is the means by which you enact our will. When one part of my body was limited, I felt limited.
Many of the lessons I am learning are about my misuse of my tongue. Many of my sins manifest themselves through my words. As I opened the blog I asked the question, “Will I be transformed when I can speak again?” I then said no. Why did I say that? I have been changed some but not as much as you might think. The fact is, many of the sins I commit with my words are habits of mind and body. As I’ve spoken a few words over the past few days, I’ve already caught myself saying things that were not helpful and sometimes even hurtful.
I broke my complete silence the day after the three-week mark. That first set of words I spoke were like a gateway drug for me. As soon as I spoke a little, I wanted to talk more. By the second day, I was speaking way too much without an official clear from the doctor. It was an old habit that I slid comfortably back in to. I also wanted to defend myself, make myself look good, seek praise, offer my opinion, and all the other things I’ve written about already. Those are habits of mind and body as much as they are reflections of my real heart. I have learned to associate the feeling of speech with a feeling of power and control. It is like a reflex now.
So is it hopeless? No, not at all. In fact, I think this season has given me tools to fight my sins of speech. You see, silence can be a spiritual discipline. Three weeks of intense silence, is far from a transformed life, but it can be a stepping stone. I intend to practice periods of silence again. Sometimes actual silence and other times the discipline of not defending myself for a day. Sometimes I may practice other creative methods to remind both my thinking and my body that I won’t explode if I don’t speak. You see, bringing the body into submission to the reality of grace and the gospel is the name of the game here. New patterns of life don’t come from a short burst of energy; they originate from a Long Obedience In the Same Direction (another great book by Eugene Peterson).
First, I learned that I didn’t need to work to earn favor from God. Now I free to work or train myself with no burdens of guilt. Again a Dallas Willard quote is fitting, “grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Spiritual formation involves intentional training of the body to respond not from the will but habits of righteousness. A great book to flesh this out is Soul Keeping by John Ortberg. I wish I had time to keep writing, but this has gotten way to long.
Will this change me? I hope it already has to some degree, but if I am not intentional about retraining my body and mind to set aside sins of the lounge, I will not be changed much at all. Just like an athlete disciplines their body, so Christians are called to discipline their bodies. This is not at all a foreign concept to scripture. In fact, if you look closely, scripture is far more concrete than we often think it is.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:12-14)
This kind of language is all over the bible. Paul often speaks of deep gospel truths but then anchors the implications of those facts right down to our physical world.
This is my attempt four at the spiritual transformation. I want to learn how to train my body to respond in obedience more naturally than it does today. Seriously, you must read up on this idea! I can’t do it justice here. With that, I’ll force myself to stop.