The Danger of “Spiritualizing”

There are certain passages found in the Bible which get “spiritualized.”  What I mean by that is that a meaning/interpretation is gleaned from the passage which just isn’t what the passage is saying.  There are a variety of reasons why this is done, but one that comes to my mind is this: “spiritualizing” the passage makes what is being said more palatable and acceptable to people.

The passage that is on my mind this morning (it’s my passage for this coming Sunday, BTW) is Matthew 16:14-27.  This is the passage in which Jesus says, “If someone desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  I have often heard this passage “spiritualized” by it being taught that this “denying” is denying one’s desires and giving up what one wants to do.  Like giving up a habit or some aspect of a lifestyle.  This is what is considered “denying one’s self.”  What a farce.

Here’s the problem; Jesus is not talking about giving up a habit when he says that anyone following him must deny himself and take up his cross and follow.  Just before uttering these words, Jesus straight out shows the disciples that it is necessary for him to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from those opposed to him.  Not only would he suffer things from them, they would see to it that he would be killed, but he also revealed that he would arise on the third day.  That is the path Jesus is walking.

This is that well-known passage where Peter rebukes Jesus for saying this will occur.  Jesus then rebukes him back by saying, “Get behind me, Satan; you are a stumbling block to me, because your mind is not set on the things of God, but the things of men.”  The humiliation, pain, and death which Jesus will experience are those things of God, necessary things.

This is the path to which Jesus is referring when he says, “…let him follow after me.”

The way some of the words are translated lessen the true impact of what Jesus is saying here.

The word that is translated as “deny” literally means “renounce claim to.”  Hence, Jesus isn’t saying if someone wants to follow him, that person must deny himself something liked, like chocolate or a habit or something else, as if giving up something liked or a habit can even begin to compare to what Jesus is saying here.  (BTW, the truth of that last sentence is the reason why I refuse to observe Lent and the giving up of something so I, as I have been told, “can experience what Jesus experienced.”  Right, because giving up chocolate or something else for 40 days compares to whipping, beating, and a horrendous death. Not.) He literally is saying that one must renounce claim to actually breathing.  A servant/slave has renounced claim to his literal life and handed it over to his/her master.  Because of this, if the master says to do something that will end in death, the servant/slave will still do it, because s/he has no claim on his/her life.

Another word is that of “follow.”  It literally means “to accompany.”  It means to travel with someone, not in a metaphorical sense of following a lifestyle, which is how it is often interpreted, spiritualized, and taught, but in an actual sense, meaning all the way, even to a place that will result in one’s death.  Jesus was going to Jerusalem to suffer many things, culminating in death.  One who desires to be a disciple must be willing to accompany Jesus and go to the place where he goes, a place where he dies.  But it also means that that person accompanies him to the place after death, which is resurrection and newness of life.  The Apostle Paul really drives this point home in Galatians 2:19b-20.

The third word is that of “life.”  Jesus drives home what he is saying by talking about losing and saving one’s life.  He is not talking about a quality of life.  He is not talking about a lifestyle.  He is talking about literal life – breathing and being alive.  The word used is the word that is also translated soul, which equaled the very source of life, not a lifestyle of quality of life.

So, what is Jesus truly saying here?  “If you want to follow me, you must give up your right to your very life, not a quality of life, lifestyle, some habit, or desire, hand that claim over to me, and accompany me where I am going and go where I tell you to go, even if you might possibly experience physical death at the hands of those who are along that path or at that place.”

Jesus is not speaking metaphorical in the least.  He is speaking to real and actual life and real and actual death.

And why did the “spiritualizing” of these words of Jesus come about?  Could it be because, in response to Jesus’ command to accompanying him in going to a place that is not nice or safe or comfortable, but a place that might actually end in death, a command that people do not find palatable, a place where they don’t want to go, people want to be able to say, “But, but, but,” in order to get around what Jesus is truly saying here?

And that is the danger of “spiritualizing.”

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A Discerning Ear

I have begun to be a bit more discerning in the Christian music to which I listen or skip by on Pandora.

How have I gone about doing this?  Well, it wasn’t by genre.  It was by the lyrics and the things that they were saying.  Believe it or not, there are Christian songs out there whose lyrics actually go against what Scripture teaches.  For example, I have heard a few songs whose lyrics reference 1 Corinthians 2:9 which says, “But just as it is written, ‘Eye has not seen and ear has not heard and has not come up in a man’s heart the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.'”  The lyrics of these songs follow the prevailing interpretation that Paul is speaking about heaven.  But verse 10 and the rest of the context shows that Paul is not speaking about heaven.  He is talking about God’s wisdom and revelation among the believers.  Paul states in verse 10, “…but God has revealed them to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.”

So I put the thumb down to those songs.

Another example is the song which says, “I’m desperate for God.”  I’m not desperate for God in the least.  Why should I be?  His Spirit, the Spirit of His Son resides within me.  Being desperate for God is an Old Testament attitude, not a New Testament one.  Why, then, should I listen to a song which speaks to an Old Testament view of and approach to God?  That’s just silly.  I would have to give up the intimate and constant presence of the Spirit in order to be desperate for God.  Why would I want to do that?

So, I won’t listen to songs whose lyrics are not in harmony with the New Testament and the wonderful news and new way of God relating and being with us found in the New Covenant.

This practice has really caused me to pay attention to the lyrics to which I am listening.

Using Your Circumstances as Fuel for the Future

In Focus

Brokenness

There are times in everyone’s life when, suddenly, smooth sailing gives way to choppy seas: the foundation that our lives and dreams are built feels like it is crumbling beneath our feet and we are left wondering, “Where is God? Why is this happening? I’m a “good” Christian, so why would He let this happen to me? What did I do wrong?” We turn our thoughts to negativity, feeling that we must have done something wrong, and even though we know that God’s grace is infinite, even though we know He will never leave nor forsake us, we wonder, how could this be happening?

As Graham mentions in Why Wounded and Betrayed Believers Are So Useful to God, “You have never failed God and God has never failed you.” So this season of struggle has nothing to do with how “good” of a Christian you are, but instead has everything to do…

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Walking through the Door

Yesterday, I had the privilege of participating in a small way in a person’s journey through a door, a door that is leading this person away from a “religious mindset” in which she grew up and into a place where she now is grasping and understanding to a deeper level than ever before what the gospel is all about.

This is a doorway I walked through about 4 years ago.  Up to that point, though I may have said differently, in practice I was displaying that the relationship with God through Jesus was driven through striving and performance.  In practice, but not in words, I was teaching that the gospel was wrapped up in religion.  I saw and understood the gospel through a “performance lens” rather than a “being lens.”

It wasn’t until I was introduced to the teaching of Graham Cooke by a friend and fellow pastor that, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:18-19, God “opened the eyes of [my] heart so that [I} [would] know what is the hope of His calling, what is the riches of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power unto [me] who is believing, according to the energizing of the dominion of his might.”  All of a sudden, I saw the gospel in a whole new light which unlocked a depth to it that I never dreamed possible.

The true gospel is not about performance (that’s religion); it’s about being.  The true gospel is not about striving (that’s religion); it’s about nature.  The true gospel is not about earning (that’s religion); it’s about already having received up front all the blessings possible in the heavenlies through Christ (Eph 1:3).  The true gospel is not about working or trying harder to be better than yesterday (that’s religion); it’s about realizing and relishing in who God has already declared me to be.  The true gospel is not about wondering what God thinks about me (that’s religion); it’s about delighting in Him and who He is for me because He is my Abba.

Over the past 4 years, as I have gone deeper in my understanding of the true nature of the gospel, I have examined the common ways the gospel and the rest of Scripture is taught and preached.  And I have to admit, it is much more common for me to see it wrapped up, in some way, in a cloak or veneer of religion.  That is why I have gone to great lengths to make sure that my teaching is nothing but the pure and unadulterated gospel.

I’m excited for this person.  She told me that she has so many things swirling about in her head that she cannot grasp it all and it is overwhelming.  I told her, from my own experience, it is and would be, but that as she goes deeper into that deep understanding of the gospel found on the other side of that door, she will be amazed and overjoyed at what she now experiences in her relationship with her heavenly Father.

Oh how I pray that everyone would walk through that door.

Why I Wrote Joyful Intentionality by Allison Bown

In Focus

Allison Bown is the Director of the Warrior Class and has just published her first book, Joyful Intentionality. She contributed a short article about why she wrote Joyful Intentionality and how the book came to be:

Joyful Intentionality

Most of us know a great deal about what we should do as a Christian. Like many of you, I had heard all of the scriptures and understood that I was supposed to be praying, studying and becoming more like Jesus. But the early models and experiences in my life left me working really, really hard to have a good relationship with God—but rarely feeling that I actually did.

In a continuing life of trying-harder-to-do-better-for-God, I consumed a lot of teaching, read loads of books and listened to CDs by the bucket load, yet always wondered at the slow pace of the transformation that was supposed to be occurring.

In 2002, I heard Graham…

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A Passionate God

In a conversation with my wife last night, she shared with me a small excerpt from a book by Brennan Manning, The Furious Longing of God.  The excerpt contained a personal experience Manning, a former Franciscan priest, had with a woman in a leper colony in Louisiana, an experience that speaks to the intimate and intense level of passion which God has.  And later in this post, I will share this incredible personal experience Manning had.

I believe it is the common reality within the church that God is displayed as this cold and calculating type of being.  God reasons things out before acting.  One could get the picture of God listing the pros and cons of each option, weighing them, and then making a decision.  God is portrayed as very rational.  Could this be the case because being rational and being deliberate are often consider two of the higher qualities of a person?  And since humanity was made in God’s image, isn’t it then reasonable to state that those qualities considered of the highest order would be God’s as well?  It very well could be an example of humanity making God in it’s image.

The problem with this is that the Bible numerous times speaks to the passions of God.  God is passionate.  That must not be diminished.  Consider Jesus’ time while here on earth.  Numerous times, the Gospel writers tell us about Jesus being moved by passion.  Consider Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem in Matthew 23.  What about John 11 when he wept while being at Lazarus’ tomb?  What about the clearing of the money changers in the temple?

What must be remembered is that God is passionate.  His passion drives Him.  His love, as well as Jesus’ love, was so passionate that He sent, and Jesus’ came, to give up his life for those who had rebelled against and run away from him.  His passion for us drives Him to desire to be in a white-hot relationship with us.

But that passion which drives God, other than found in wrath, is rarely a true point of emphasis.  It might be given lip-service, but not much more.  And unfortunately, it is very difficult to understand God’s character, nature, and His activity without truly grasping the reality and depth and intensity of God’s passion.

Manning, in another place, speaks of something Jesus said to him that speaks to the passion that drives Him.  Manning was spending time in seclusion.  Jesus came and said, “For love of you, I left my Father’s side.  I came to you who ran away from me…”

We must not dismiss or diminish the white-hot passion that drives God, for it is that same passion that drives Him in His relationship with us.

Here’s the story about the woman in the leper colony as recounted by Randy Patrick in http://www.thenewerworld.com/2013/05/23/brennan-manning-and-the-meaning-of-grace/.

“Manning was working in a leper colony near Baton Rouge, and a nurse came running to him to tell him one of the patients, Yolanda, was dying and needed a priest.

Once, he wrote, this Mexican-American woman had been “stunningly beautiful,” but Hansen’s disease had ravaged her face and body so that she was hideous. She had been abandoned by her husband and utterly rejected by society and her family. But not by God.

It had been raining that day, but after he anointed her with oil, Manning said, the room was filled with brilliant light, and he looked at Yolanda, and she was radiant.

“Oh, Father,” she said, “I am so happy.”

He asked her why, and she said “the Abba of Jesus just told me that he would take me home today.”

Brennan began to weep and asked her what the Abba (Father) had said to her.

She repeated these words:

Come now, my love. My lovely one, come. For you, the winter has passed, the snows are over and gone, the flowers appear in the land, the season of joyful songs has come. The cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land. Come now, my love, my Yolanda, come. Let me see your face. And let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is beautiful. Come now, my love, my lovely one, come.’

Except for her name, the words were from the Song of Solomon.

Six hours later, Yolanda died. That same day, Manning learned that she was illiterate. She had never read the Bible, or any book, in her life, and she had never heard those words from him. He was undone.”

There’s the white-hot passion of God on display.  May that same passion drive us.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; over such things there is no law.” – Galatians 5:22-23

I have always found that last phrase, “over such things there is no law,” to be quite descriptive of the gospel Paul preached, the gospel he received directly from Christ through a revelation and was taught by Christ (Galatians 1:11-12).  It speaks directly to how the true gospel differs from religion.

The true gospel does something that religion just cannot do – change a person’s nature.  When Paul says, “For I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me; and now, that which I live in the flesh, I live in faith, that of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:19b-20), he emphasizes the difference of who is now actually doing the living.  In the original language, the verb contained the pronoun so one wasn’t needed to be supplied, unless the speaker or writer wanted to emphasize it.  Paul did that here.  He included the pronoun, “I,” to place greater emphasis on what has happened to him through the gospel.  He is making a strong contrast between what he once lived and what Christ is now living through him.

The gospel is good news because, through a change of nature, there is no longer any need for laws to direct the one changed, because that person’s new nature is the nature of Christ.  No law can or is necessary to give direction to Christ’s nature.  Religion only attempts to manage sin through behavior modification.  If enough rules and requirements are piled on top of a person’s sin nature, the thought is what the person does will be right and proper.  There is a big problem with that approach, however.  Eventually, people find a way around the rules and requirements or flat out dismiss them in order to do what is in their nature to do – sin.

According to what Paul said in Romans 7, the reason God gave the law was so that people would understand the reality of sin.  The problem with trying to deal with the sin nature through the law is that eventually, no matter how hard you try, you do what it is in your nature to do – sin.  No amount of rules or requirements or regulations can stop that from occurring.  It may take more time for some than others, but it will eventually happen.  For example, this is why God instituted the tithe, requiring the Israelites to give back 10% to Him.  He knew that, in their sin nature, they were not generous people, so it had to be mandated.  But how well did that work out?  People eventually worked around it or completely ignored it when convenient.

But when a person’s old sin nature is killed through being crucified with Christ when s/he believes, s/he receives a new nature, that of Christ and it is a nature which is lived out through the perfect faith of Christ.  And when the nature is changed, there is no longer a need for rules or laws over that nature to give direction or mandates, hence, why Paul says, “over such things there is no law.”  So, in the example of the tithe, in the New Testament, there is no mention of it being required of the believer.  Why is that the case?  Because it isn’t necessary because the believer is generous by nature because being generous is in God’s nature.  Therefore, there is no need for a law/rule, like that of the tithe, to require and mandate generosity by the believer.

And just like those who came in after Paul and were teaching a “gospel” mixed with religion with laws and rules which convinced many of the believers in Galatia that they were still in need of those laws and rules because of an old nature, it has been far too common within the church that “sin management” and “behavior modification” have been the focus.  The focus is on following rules and requirements.

For those whose nature has been changed, these are those who are followers of Christ, there is no need for these rules and requirements, for there is no law over the character and nature of Christ.  No law or rule exists that can legitimately make a requirement of or mandate a certain action by that nature.  What the church has reinforced through emphasizing “sin management” and “behavior modification” is that a Christ-follower’s nature hasn’t truly changed and, therefore, must be dealt with accordingly.  What the church MUST be doing is teaching those followers what it means to have that new nature.  It must be emphasizing that true identity and nature.

It must continually remind people of who they are truly.  It must continually tell people, “This is who you are,” for when people become convinced that they do indeed have a new nature, that is the nature from which they naturally live.

And when people are convinced that they do indeed have a new nature, that of Christ, as their one and only true nature, there are no need for laws or rules to govern them.