Beyond the Formulas, Part 5 – Step by Step

In my last post I explored Jesus’ call to follow him – to live life as he did, connected to the Father by him, the Son, and through the Spirit, calling others to do the same. In this post I’d like to share some thoughts on what I think it means to try and do that in the context of everyday life.

When I look back on my life and journey of faith thus far, it is divided into two parts. In the first half, faith for me was mostly about a decision. The decision was to accept that Jesus’ death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection accomplished something for me. It was about deciding that I believed who Jesus claimed to be and that his sacrifice accomplished something on my behalf that I could not accomplish for myself. I was accepted, loved, and redeemed by God based on what Jesus did. The problem is that for too long, this is where faith ended for me. What I didn’t realize for many years was that the decision I made was a first step not a final step.

When my two boys first learned to walk, they both had a similar experience. Both stood and took faltering first steps before deciding that crawling was way more familiar and comfortable to them. Walking was scary, uneasy and unpredictable. They couldn’t get very far crawling, but they also couldn’t fall down. Crawling was safe and predictable. But you can’t really grow and mature as a human being and insist on continuing to crawl.

In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul addresses a somewhat similar situation. Having taken their first steps of faith, some were actually going back to crawling:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
Galatians 5:13

Paul sees these new followers of Jesus who have taken their first steps of freedom. They have made a decision to believe in Jesus and to follow him. But Paul also sees that these followers want to stop and rest after taking their first few steps of faith. But he pushes them to keep moving forward:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Galatians 5:15

So Paul has now contrasted two different ways of life – “indulging the flesh” and “walking by the Spirit. Paul goes on in Galatians 5:19-26 to explain more what each of these ways of life look like. To continue my metaphor, indulging the flesh is about continuing to crawl in your familiar habits and ways even after you’ve taken your first steps of faith into a new way of life. Walking by the Spirit, in contrast, is the awkward stumbling-forward process of learning to walk, in the way of Jesus.

But the question still remains – how do you do this? Unfortunately I can’t give you the process or formula (did you read the title of this series?!). What I can give you are the words of Jesus. These words have been immensely helpful for me on many occasions:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Matthew 7:7

While there are no formulas, Jesus does give us a process that is helpful in understanding how we can continue taking steps forward, learning to walk in step with the Spirit:

  • Ask – God invites us to come to him with our cares, concerns and questions. So take him up on it. Go to God in prayer, ask him for wisdom, for guidance, for strength, for courage, for support. We ask, he gives.
  • Seek – This is an invitation to action. Seek people who can guide you in the process. Seek books and resources that provide insight and wisdom. Seek truth, beauty, and justice, knowing that these come from God.
  • Knock – Try things, and be willing to fail. The invitation to follow where Jesus leads is an invitation to learn from him. This will not be a perfect process. You will stumble. You will fall. But you never learn if you never try.

I can’t give you a formula or tell you what your journey of walking with God will look like. But I can tell you that God is found by those who seek him, and there is more joy and life in stumbling forward, learning to walk, than there is in going back to crawling. Who knows, we might even move beyond walking one day and actually get the chance to run. That’s something to look forward to.



**Photo from Flickr user cc511, used under Commercial Commons license

Beyond the Formulas, Part 4 – Learning to Walk

In my last post I talked about how we begin moving beyond seeing the Bible as our “handbook for life” by looking at some times in Jesus’ own life when he seemed to intentionally disobey the laws found in Scripture in order to obey them. Jesus’ explanation was that “he only did what he saw the Father doing.” Following the Father was how the Son knew how to fulfill the law by breaking the law. One of the challenges for me of reading the four Gospels (the books recounting the events of Jesus’ life) is knowing what things Jesus did that I am to do as his follower and what things he did simply because, well, he’s Jesus. Sometimes we jump too quickly to something Jesus did and assume that as his followers, living two thousand years later, we’re to do the exact same thing. Or conversely, we read something Jesus did and quickly assume, “Well of course he did that – he’s Jesus! That doesn’t mean we’re able or supposed to do the same thing!” This is where some context begins to help.

One of the first and most helpful principles you learn when studying the Bible is that context determines meaning. You can’t just rip a verse out of context and expect it to make any sense. The same is true for the things Jesus said and did. He said those things to a specific group of people, in a specific place, at a specific time, for a specific reason. To make those things generally applicable is an error. Likewise to assume that they’re not generally applicable is also unwise. Instead we zoom out and read the surrounding verses to understand how that verse makes sense within the story of which it is a part. We read those verses within the chapter or section of the book of which it is a part. We understand that section as a part of the whole book, which has its own place both in history and within the overall story of Scripture.

So applying that to Jesus breaking the laws in order to fulfill them, we need to look at what he taught his followers. Then what did they in turn teach their followers? Then, how have followers of Jesus understood this for two thousand years? Then, with those things in mind, we still have the work of deciding what that means for us, here, now.

What I have described is a fairly linear, rational, intellectual approach to understanding how to live as a follower of Jesus. This is good. At least it is a good place to start. But as I’ve been describing in this series, it is not enough. You cannot simply live by the rules and principles found in Scripture forever. At some point that approach begins to break down.

So Jesus knew how to truly fulfill the law (even if it meant breaking the rules) by, in his words, only doing what he saw the Father doing. Apparently Jesus was so intimately connected with the Father that this informed what he did. So when you watched what Jesus did – how he lived, how he treated people, all that he did and didn’t do – you were watching what God would do if he were walking around as a human being. Because that’s who Jesus is, God with skin on. So what about us? This isn’t something we can do…is it? Well, Jesus seemed to think that it was.

Toward the end of his life, Jesus made a promise. His promise was that it was now part of the plan that he go away – he would no longer be physically present with his followers to show them how to live. But he was sending someone who would show them how to live:

7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” (John 16:7, 12-15)

Jesus promises to send the Spirit of God to guide his followers in his absence. The Spirit will receive from Jesus what he will make known to Jesus’ followers. In his last words to his followers, Jesus gave them this command:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20

Jesus calls his followers to go and to make disciples (literally, “followers”) and to baptize them into this reality of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He doesn’t invite them to follow a rule book or to live according to a set of precepts or principles. He calls his followers to make more followers who will all live in a dynamic, living connected relationship to the Father by the Son through the Spirit.

In my next post we’ll take a look at how Paul describes this life – learning to walk with the Spirit. I’ll share some of my own struggles to understand what that means and how God is teaching me to do this more and more.



**Images from Flickr user loop_oh used under Creative Commons license

Beyond the Formulas, Part 3 – Breaking the Rules

In my last post in this series I talked about moving beyond seeing the Bible as our “handbook for life” and embracing it for what it is – a collection of stories, poetry, and wisdom that tells us a story. The Bible tells us the story of God and his interactions with people throughout time. I mentioned it then but it’s worth mentioning again that the book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight does an excellent job of looking at all the incorrect ways we read scripture and argues for reading it as God’s grand narrative. As we read the stories of Scripture we gain insight to our own story. We find where our stories, our lives, can align to be part of God’s story. One such story I want to take a look at in this post comes from Mark 2.

Throughout the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the four books which tell the story of Jesus’ life) we see Jesus regularly encountering resistance from the religious experts of his day. These men were the foremost expert of what the Hebrew Bible (what we know as the Old Testament) had to say and how to apply it to life. These men had taken the handbook paradigm to the extreme. They were so zealous to live by the laws of Scripture that they had added a long list of additional rules of their own. There was only one problem: they had lost sight of the purpose of the law. More accurately, they had lost touch with the one who had created the laws in the first place. Jesus knew that (obviously, since we believe he was actually God, the one who wrote the laws) and he pointed it out to them.

Beginning in Mark 2:23, Mark relates a story about Jesus’ interactions with the religious leaders around the rules and laws associated with the Sabbath. In Exodus God gave Israel strict instructions about their work week. They were to work six days, and then they were to rest on the seventh day – the Sabbath day. The practice of Sabbath was core to Israel’s identity. But somewhere along the way they forgot why God gave them that instruction. It just became a rule to be followed. Enter Jesus.

The story begins when Jesus’ followers, his disciples, picked some heads of grain and ate them while walking through a field on the Sabbath. The religious leaders confronted Jesus and asked why he allowed his disciples to “work” on the Sabbath. Now it seems a bit of a stretch to say that by picking some kernels of grain Jesus’ friends were working, but that’s how the religious leaders of Jesus’ time saw it. Jesus points out their error when he tells them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” He took them back to the intent of the law. He re-introduced them to a God who desired that there would be a rhythm of work and rest in their lives. He did this, not to have them to serve a law but to have the law serve them. Sometimes the rules should be broken. When? When following the rule undermines or contradicts its intent. To make this point perfectly clear, the next story Mark tells is of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath (an act taken as “work” once again by the religious leaders) to show that sometimes the rules are made to be broken.

“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”
Dalai Lama XIV

So how do you know when to break the rules? Well first, you have to know the rules. That means knowing the Scriptures and what God has to say about what is good and bad, right and wrong. But just knowing the rules isn’t enough. You have to know the maker of the rules. John gives an account in his gospel about Jesus healing on the Sabbath, and in his account he records Jesus’ answer to how he knew when to break the rules.

“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”
John 5:19

So what does this mean for us? First it means we should always be studying and learning more about what the Scripture says. But that is not enough. We should also be looking for what the Father is doing, even if it threatens the way we’ve always thought about the rules.

I’ll talk more about that in my next post.

Beyond the Formulas, Part 2 – Where’s the Handbook?

When I was growing up I often heard pastors and people at church say, “the Bible is like your handbook for life.” It was meant to be an encouragement to people to read the Bible, which is great. Unfortunately it was, and still is, a terrible paradigm to approach reading the scriptures. Websters describes a handbook this way:

handbook |ˈhan(d)ˌbo͝ok|
a book giving information such as facts on a particular subject or instructions for operating a machine.

I don’t know who first thought it was a good idea to start thinking about the Bible this way, but I’m guessing it’s probably a post-industrial revolution idea. In a world where we are surrounded by machines and their associated handbooks, it is tempting to think about life in a very process-oriented sort of way – to see it as a very big, very complicated machine – and to see the Bible as the operating manual for life. The problem is, the Bible just doesn’t cooperate with that paradigm. The Bible is a very complex book. In fact, it’s not a book at all. It’s a collection of books – sixty-six in all – written by over forty authors across thousands of years of time. It is narrative. It is poetry. It is correspondence. Even when it is proverbial and seems to be giving “how-to” directions about life it isn’t that straightforward. Here’s an example.

We’ve all had someone say something foolish to you before. Maybe it was that drunk guy sitting in front of you at a football game. Maybe it was someone being rude in line at the grocery store. So how do you respond? Well, let’s go to the handbook:

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” Proverbs 26:4

Okay, so I just shouldn’t say anything to that person who spouts off at me, right? Well, maybe – maybe not. Look at the next verse:

“Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Proverbs 26:5

So wait. I thought I wasn’t supposed to answer. So according to this verse I am supposed to let him know he said something foolish or he will simply continue thinking how he acts is okay. So which is it? Do I answer or not?

In my previous post I mentioned that my counselor/spiritual-director Denise pointed out to me not long ago that I was trying to live by the precepts and principles of Scripture – to understand the formulas to solve the problems of life, but that paradigm of life was breaking down for me. She said something interesting, “You can’t pre-decide how you’re going to act in a particular situation. To do so is not to be fully present in that moment. More importantly it means not being present with God in that moment.”

Knowing and understanding the truth of Scripture is important. It is vital. It is necessary for following God. But it is not enough. Knowing Scripture is not the same thing as knowing God. The Bible is not a handbook; it is God’s revelation to man – the story of his relationship with man throughout history. Knowing the Bible helps us to know God, but it is not the same as knowing God himself.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at a story from Jesus’ life that provides some insight into the difference between following God and just following the rules.

Follow up thought:
If you’re interested in reading more about how we think about the Bible, a book that was very influential for me was The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight.


Beyond the Formulas, Part 1

When I was in high school one of my worst subjects was math. So it makes complete sense that when I went to college I decided to major in engineering…with a minor in mathematics. Actually, looking back it makes no sense. But that’s what I did, and those five years (it takes longer to finish when you have to take some classes more than once) were very formative for me (brutally difficult, but formative). Although I use almost none of that engineering and mathematics education on a day-to-day basis, I find find that in a lot of ways that educational experience shapes the way I think. Studying engineering taught me to think. It taught me how to break down and solve problems using a logical, rational approach.

Earlier this year I started meeting with a counselor/spiritual director named Denise. My time with her has been life-giving in a variety of ways. She has the uncanny ability to integrate the best of psychology with sound theology to bring insight to the mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of life. She has helped me process and understand parts of my life journey and their impact on who I am, and she has opened up new insights on the journey that still lies ahead. In one of my first meetings with Denise she made the comment that she thought I might be entering “the second half of life.” Having just turned 40, I didn’t like the sound of this.

Denise went on to explain that life is divided into two halves. The first half of life is about figuring out essential questions of life:

  • What am I to do?
  • Who will go with me in life?
  • What gives my life significance?

From the perspective of Christian faith, the first half of life is about developing a sense of who we are in relationship with God. Rules, precepts, and principles are important in the first half of life. We learn and discover the formulas that serve us in solving the problems we face in life. The first half of life is significant. It is essential. It is formative. But apparently, it is an incomplete view of life.

“Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life… we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve as before. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.” Carl Jung

At some point the formulas break down. What worked to help you make sense of life in the first half is incomplete. What Denise observed in me was the tension of seeing my formulas break down. Does this mean that what I learned in the first half is wrong? Does that make the rules wrong? Does that make God’s rules and laws wrong? Not wrong but incomplete.

In my next post I’ll share how first-half thinking began failing me and some of the faltering steps I’m taking into the second half.