Here are three pieces from my blog paulstroble.blogspot.com. In these pieces, I think about ways where we can focus on Christ and the Spirit during Lent.
My wife Beth and I are watching the Olympics this evening, but I’m also thinking about Ash Wednesday this week and the upcoming Lenten season.
Many of us will spend part of Wednesday with an ash cross upon our foreheads. Many of us will practice some kind of Lenten discipline, whether giving something up or adding something to our devotion. My question is: How can we prevent these practices from becoming self-centered rather than Christ-centered? To put it another way, how can our Lenten practices point to Christ rather than to ourselves?
To help answer these questions, I thought about a couple interesting passages from Paul, 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and Galatians 6:12-15. The first passage alludes to the original Greek sports. Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
Someday I may make a list of Paul passages that I wish he had expressed better or differently; this is one. Obviously Paul would never teach salvation by works, but a person unfamiliar with Galatians and other letters might use this 1 Cor. 9 passage as a proof-text for “earning” God’s love. We never ever ever earn God’s love; it’s simply ours in abundance. That’s why Paul is so grateful for the empowering cross of Christ, as discussed below.
Understood in context with the whole letter, 1 Cor. 9:24-27 refers to the self-discipline we need to love. We can certainly be very disciplined Christians–evidenced at Lent–but we’re wasting our time unless our spiritual practices lead to love, kindness, gentleness, and other gifts sketched by Paul in Galatians 5. (This, by the way, applies not just to Lent but to spiritual retreats like Emmaus, service ministries at your church, small groups, and other ways.) So the aim of spiritual practices is to curb our selfish inclinations so that we can display the lovingkindness and compassion that will definitely “show Christ” and not just proclaim Christ.
This point is depicted even more startlingly in the second Paul passage. Several years ago I wrote a short study book, Paul and the Galatians, for Abingdon Press. Paul’s hope that the pro-circumcision teachers at Galatia would “castrate themselves” (Gal. 5:12) is a notorious text. I think an equally startling text is just a few sentences down.
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Gal. 6:12-15).
The explicit bitterness of Gal. 5:12 makes it a more obvious put-down than Gal. 6:12-13, which, you might notice, contains a double entendre. “Flesh” (sarx) means the sphere of human existence–a word usually used by Paul in distinction to God’s Spirit—but “flesh” here can mean the circumcision itself. To restate Paul more crudely, the pro-circumcision teachers are boasting about their penises (i.e., their circumcision), and they want to boast about the Galatian men’s penises, too (i.e., to boast about converts to their belief that circumcision is necessary for Gentile Christians)!
Expressed so rudely and absurdly, the whole issue is clearer: boasting about our own righteousness is foolish. Only the amazing gifts of God–the cross of God and the consequent gift of the new creation through the Holy Spirit–are properly boasted about, according to Paul.
I’m very aware how regrettable is Paul’s language for contemporary Jewish-Christian fellowship. Paul faced different issues and a different circumstance than our own time, when many of us are seeking to help heal centuries of Christian anti-Judaism. Paul is upset here, not because he is prejudiced against Jews and their religion, but because he believes God has opened up amazing possibilities for Gentiles via God’s faithfulness to the Jews. Jews had always had (male) circumcision, but the Galatians were Gentiles and had never been required to adopt this Jewish sign of the covenant. And yet the Holy Spirit had been given to the Galatians–thus including Gentiles within God’s covenant-faithfulness–without them doing anything to earn or deserve such a gift! God had already given them freedom and equal standing as heirs and children (Gal. 4:7). For Paul, this was an amazing, wonderful blessing for the Galatians (and others).
That’s why Paul was so angry; the pro-circumcision teachers convinced the Galatians that they had to “make sure” they were truly within God’s will. For Paul, that was tantamount to saying that God’s gifts of freedom and equal standing as heirs was unsatisfactory; just in case the Holy Spirit is not enough, we need to “cover our bases” by adding a traditional rite. But how could the Holy Spirit be not enough?
As we study the Bible, we discover numerous gifts of transformation that the Holy Spirit provides as we’re touched by God’s love.
· Humility: a willingness (hypothetically, at least) to wash the feet of someone who has not “earned” your love but whom you love, nevertheless, as Christ loved his very imperfect disciples.
· Peacefulness: a kind of understanding of God that surpasses a purely cognitive agreement of doctrines about God
· Suffering: a condition we’d prefer to avoid, but which is biblically attested to be potentially a sharing in Christ’s own life.
· Loving-kindness and compassion: a desire to ease the suffering of others (certainly not to inflict it) because—to use a cliché—you feel the other’s pain. (Etymologically, compassion means “to suffer with.”)
· Knowledge of God: you can see God in the needs of the other person
· Love for enemies: you feel no hatred or anger for someone who has mistreated you (or, at least, you regularly turn to God for healing of your hatred).
· Contentment: a tranquility independent of your circumstances
· Joy: not just happiness and mirth (wonderful as those are) but a confidence that you understand the meaning and direction of life.
· Avoidance of certain circumstances: those wherein you might succumb to a temptation to which you’re prone, and you know yourself well enough to know your weaknesses.
To connect these gifts to our Lenten disciplines: we must keep in mind that these gifts are not characteristics that we’re supposed to achieve through will-power and discipline. Nor are our disciplines add-on rites about which to boast as if they, in themselves, make us righteous. [T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things (Gal. 5:22-23). Paul is being sarcastic again–of course no law (including laws stipulating circumcision) would create these qualities. They are gifts of the Spirit’s “new creation”. We, in turn, can open ourselves to the Spirit’s love as we seek to understand more fully the depth of God’s love.
Paul’s affirmation in Galatians 6 can be an excellent guide and focus during the upcoming season. Everything relies upon the power of God through the cross of Christ and the transforming Holy Spirit, and whatever personal righteousness I might bring to the table counts as nothing. How wonderfully freeing is that?! And yet our Lenten disciplines are not worthless because God can use them–and, indeed, God can lead us into undertaking them. 1 Cor. 9:24-27 alerts us that the power of God can tragically elude us if we’re not careful. And so, aware of how easily we can become unloving, we strive to focus on seeking the Spirit’s gifts of love, kindness, and gentleness which, in turn, show Christ.
Lent is an excellent period in which to renew one’s prayer life… but so are other times of the year.
The epistle says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) but of course that cannot be taken literally if it refers to an individual Christian’s prayer. I like this short page (http://www.allaboutprayer.org/pray-without-ceasing-faq.htm) that explains “without ceasing” as an attitude and an openness. One of the first Hebrew words I learned was hinneni, “Here am I!” the response that people like Abraham made when God called to him. Our professor, Bonnie Kittel of blessed memory, noted that the response implied a openness and readiness to hear God. That’s one good way to think about prayer: a communicative attitude toward God that in turn makes us open to God’s leading and guidance.
I’ve several prayer books but usually read from the “Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer” based on the Liturgy of the Hours, and I’ve four devotional quarterlies that I like to use. Recently I got out other resources that I like but haven’t used for a while. My wife’s deceased first husband received a little prayer book (“My Prayer Book”) when he was confirmed, and it contains wonderful intercessory prayers. I’ve other books that I use less often, but I found a nice “Minister’s Prayer Book” published by Muhlenberg Press in the 1950s.
I wish I was more consistent day to day to use these resources. I do pretty well, but since my days are filled with teaching and writing on religious subjects, I’m often thinking about God and mentally praying to God but my “organized” religious devotion falls by the wayside unless I make an effort to keep that part of my life on track.
On the other hand … Years ago (1980s?) I read an article in Christian Century that made the point that Jesus seemed not to have a structured way of praying. He prayed a lot and sought time and places for solitary prayer, but the texts say nothing about specified times that he prayed, nor did he make people wait for him to conclude his prayer time. The article noted that being organized in our prayer lives could just mean that we’re … well organized!
We grow in quality and quantity of prayer among our daily comings and goings (Ps. 121:8). When I was in seminary, my prayers were self-doubtful, anxious, and uncertain about the future—not untypical of a “dark night” situation. Seminary is a time for many of us when God tests our calling and vocation. Now … I’m nearly thirty years out of seminary, happy with and amazed at the ways God has led me over the years. So my prayers aren’t self-doubtful in the manner of a young person, but my prayers are offered with a heightened, respectful sense of mortality and the unpredictability of life. During the last ten years my amazing daughter has grown from middle school- to college-age, and I’ve handled my widowed mother’s affairs in addition to all my other responsibilities. Circumstances like these (and others) can help a person turn more of “life” over to God’s care. You really do understand, psychologically, that surrendering to God’s care is a happier way to live than clinging to the idea that you have a lot of control over your life.
But mental prayer can carry the risk of self-involvement and self-satisfaction. That’s why I have my little battery of prayer helps that I use to direct my prayers during those secret times of Matt. 6:6. Prayer resources are wonderful: among other things, they explain prayer, they provide accompanying scriptures, they contain great prayers with which we can read along and make our own, and they remind us what to pray for. Prayer resources can also stop us cold when we encounter prayer-words that we really don’t want to pray at that moment! Thus we can think about the present situation of our feelings toward God.
I’m a member of two prayer chains. The requests come by email so I print these out. Much of my daily attitude in prayer is intercessory, but I’m liable to forget to pray for folks whom I don’t know unless I have the prayer requests at hand. I have these words of Oswald Chambers almost memorized: “The real business of your life as a saved soul is intercessory prayer. Wherever God puts you in circumstances, pray immediately, pray that His Atonement may be realized in other lives as it has been in yours. Pray for your friends NOW; pray for those with who you come in contact NOW.”
As I wrote this little piece, I grew very insecure. Specifically, I worried that I don’t do enough for God, both in my prayer life or generally. This is a good example of the importance of fortifying our mental prayers with scripture study and resources. We’re saved by Christ’s redeeming work, not anything we do. Although there are numerous ways to pray (some better than others), our prayers are never ways to earn God’s favor or to “leverage” God. Prayer is a wonderful way to learn more about the God who has done more for us than we can imagine (Eph. 3:20-21).
Reading the Bible
In my thoughts so far, I’ve reflected on the need to keep our Lenten growth Christ- and Spirit-centered. I want to think some more about that, with a different, somewhat round-about approach. How does our growth in Christ (at Lent and other seasons) connect to our Bible reading? How is our spiritual growth guided by the Bible?
We don’t always think through the way the power of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the Spirit’s ongoing presence in our lives guides the way we read and interpret the Bible. This point came home to me strongly as I was reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Goldsworthy says that, “while there is much in the Bible that is strictly speaking not the gospel, there is nothing in the Bible that can be truly understood apart from the gospel.” Although his assertion by no means exhausts the different ways we can read the Bible, I find his argument quite interesting with regard to preaching, devotional Bible reading, and Christian practice. How does the Good News—the wholly free gift of salvation of sinners through the blood of Christ and the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit—influence our Bible reading?
For one thing, the Good News gives is a larger interpretive framework with which to approach the whole Bible. For instance, consider the Torah. Jews revere the Torah as God’s direct word, while the prophets are God’s message communicated through the prophets’ words, and the books of the Writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, and others) are divinely inspired but are more definitely of human authorship. If a person’s sole scripture is the Old Testament, then this hermeneutical approach makes sense and is consistent. But the New Testament changes these levels of authority. In the New Testament, the prophets and also the psalms take on greater authority; the “lesser” prophets and writings became keys for interpreting Jesus as messiah and, therefore, for interpreting the Torah. Consequently, Christians interpreted the Torah as a preliminary, yet not abrogated way by which God expresses his will (Matt. 5:17-20, Rom. 3:31, Heb. 3:1-6). Because of Christ, we must think about the ways that the Torah is scripture for Christians. Instead of quoting it randomly for proof-texts, or ignoring most of it altogether, we must interpret the laws in the context of the Bible’s whole witness.
Similarly, consider the prophets. Read through those books and you’ll see the harshness of God’s judgment against the people’s faithlessness and the direness of his warnings. A person could easily neglect the context of the prophets in ancient Israel and use prophetic judgments to address contemporary examples of unrighteousness and social injustice. (For instance, we use the term “prophetic preaching” to mean sermons and writings that confront, challenge and criticize.) The prophets’ themes are timeless: the formal practice of religion is no substitute for true righteousness, and true righteousness always includes justice (e.g. Amos 5:23-24). But when we look at the prophets with a broader view, we also see that the prophets focus not only upon then-current societal situations but also God’s plans for the future. God achieves his will for the people of the divided kingdom of the prophets’ times, but God also, through the prophets, announces his will for the more distant future: the person and work of Christ. To use the prophets primarily to address specific social problems risks neglecting the “canonical shape” that puts the prophets in context with Christ’s salvation.
But not only does the gospel give us an interpretive framework for the whole Bible, the Good news of Christ’s death and resurrection also informs how we understand New Testament teachings, so that we don’t err and consider them a form of salvation by works, as Goldsworthy argues. The Bible’s words are inseparable from the life and power of a living Savior who is our teacher, healer, and risen Lord. The Good News frees us from the law (Gal. 3:10, 3:23) and also makes us take the demands of discipleship all the more seriously, because we’re freed from the notion that God saves us when we, in our supposed personal righteousness, have checked off the “shalts” and avoided all the “shalt nots.”
I thought of several ways this is true when we think during Lent (and other seasons) about our spiritual goals and growth in Christ.
* When I was young, I worried that God was keeping track of every time I became angry and called someone a “fool” (or “jerk” or “idiot” or more unprintable versions): Matt. 5:21-22. Yes, we’re held accountable for “every careless word” (Matt. 12:36), but we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do (Rom. 3:28). We’re saved from our sins, without reservation, and we have ongoing forgiveness and power for salvation (Heb. 4:14-16). But when we look at this “fool” passage in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see afresh at how Jesus has saved us from all our sins (past, present and future), and so, thus freed from the fear of earning God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9), we can respond with a new sense of joy and love, both for God and for one another (Rom. 8:1-8). As Christ healed his contemporaries, his love and power heals our souls of angry words (although anger is a normal human emotion when appropriately addressed: Eph. 4:26, 31).
Thus, instead of interpreting that “fool” saying as a law, we see it as an even deeper challenge: how are we modeling Christ’s love? How are we growing in love through the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24, so that dismissive and contemptuous comments cross our minds less frequently? How is the Spirit of Christ changing the content of our hearts?
* Similarly forgiveness. “We’re supposed to forgive each other,” we might say. But we forgive each other in the context of a lively, growing relationship with Christ. When we are freed by Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness is not a law or a hard obligation. Forgiveness is a response to Christ’s unearned love. Even more, we don’t have to force ourselves to forgive through our own will power, but we find power to learn to forgive (and even empowered forgiveness isn’t always easy) as we deepen our relationship to Christ.
* And prayer. Another verse that worried me when I was young was “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). I couldn’t do that! Nobody can: our brains are not neurologically set to focus continually. But that verse isn’t a law that requires every single thought to be prayerful. That verse is a call to deepen our love and concern for one another as we receive the resurrected Jesus’ love and power. Instead of interpreting the verse primarily as a rule, we focus upon Christ as our Savior and helper when we fail. Through Christ, our minds and hearts acquire the habit and impulse of prayer.
* And speaking of prayer: how do we pray the Psalms as Christians? Obviously the psalms are Hebrew and Jewish prayers, now part of the Christian canon, too. But as Christians, we could very easily neglect to connect the psalms to Christ’s death and resurrection. For instance, if you’re in (what I call) a “Psalm 51 state of mind,” are you praying the prayer as a plea to God for forgiveness and restoration? Do you also and simultaneously keep firmly in mind that we have forgiveness and restoration already through the crucified and risen Lord? I admit, I’ve prayed the psalm without connecting it strongly to Christ’s saving death and resurrection! But we Christians HAVE to connect the psalm to verses like Romans 7:24-25 and 8:37-39, where the assurance of Christ’s salvation of sinners is affirmed.
* What about using a Bible verse as God’s holy word in condemnation of another person? Jesus himself stood condemned by God’s word; he was under a curse because of God’s law (Deut. 21:23). He also gave grace and a new opportunity to the woman of John 7:53-8:11, when people used God’s word against her. Certainly the Bible warns us and can be used to warn. But one particular warning, Matthew 7:1-5, is all the more keen when we’re tempted to employ the Bible in a condemnatory way. This is good to remember–always, but also during a time of self-assessment and honest introspection during the Lenten season.
* As we grow in Christ, we’re called to make disciples. Is our evangelism always supposed to achieve great results? The contemporary decline of membership among mainline denominations has added urgency to evangelistic efforts. Acts 2:41 and 47 imply that, if we’re doing evangelism right, God will bless our efforts with great numbers. This outlook dovetails well with American concepts of success; but “getting great numbers” was not a concern of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46; nor was Paul’s ministry among the Athenians effective in practical terms. Yet no one would say that Paul shouldn’t have taken his ministry among the Greek intellectuals. Our command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) is relevant whether we make a few disciples or many: the real work of conversation is not done by us but by God’s Spirit.
* How about using Bible characters as models? Let me use David as an example, for the Bible calls him a “man after God’s heart” (1 Samuel 13:13-14, Acts 13:22), in spite of his very flawed life. If you’re like me, you want to be a person after God’s heart, too! We ask, “How can God use me? Does God see me as somebody he can use?” Neither is necessarily an easy question to answer. As we develop a good spiritual life that includes regular worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer, and a certain amount of spiritual discipline, we try to keep focusing back to God. We try to stay open to God’s guidance and purpose. We take comfort that a flawed person like David could be so well used by God.
But we can’t raise these questions only in the context of David’s stories! Goldsworthy makes this point concerning Bible heroes in general. First, we need to be careful not to place ourselves on a similar stature as David, to make ourselves equal somehow to him, or to make God’s plans with Israel similar to the patterns of our lives. (Besides, David was an Iron Age warrior and killer of many, many people; to focus upon and identify with only his spiritual humility is to ignore significant things about him.) David and his people were special in God’s salvation history, while we’re beneficiaries of the groundwork God accomplished through them.
Second, although we can certainly learn with aspects of Bible characters’ experiences, we need to seek God’s will about these stories in the context of our salvation in Christ. For instance, we all actually have a better chance to become close to God than David because, now, God’s Spirit is poured out to all of us. We potentially have a clearer notion of God’s will for our lives than Abraham, for we have the Spirit and a community to help us discern God’s leadings. God’s Spirit gives gifts of power and ministry unimaginable in ancient times, taking God’s will for us to new levels (John 14:12).
So often we take Bible passages and Bible commandments and separate them from the key things: our covenant relationship with God, our relationship to God through Christ, our assurance of salvation, and the power of the Holy Spirit which is at work in us. The way Goldsworthy puts it, “The problem is when the gospel is viewed only as how we start the Christian life, for then the only way to continue is law. Yet the perspective consistently set out in the New Testament is that we need the gospel [Christ’s saving power] to grow. . . The greater our sense of being forgiven and justified sinners, the greater will be the likelihood that others will see in us the character of Christ.” 
1. The idea of “progressive revelation” affirms the development of God’s truth from lesser to greater clarity. Scriptures such as a prophetic messianic text or a messianic psalm have has meaning for their own times but gain additional meaning when we connect the passage’s original sense to Christ.
2. Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching by Graeme Goldsworthy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2000).
3. Goldworthy, page 95.
4. In its variety of witnesses, the Bible allows for a variety of readings. For instance, Walter Brueggemann warns: “[T]he task of Old Testament theology, as a Christian enterprise, is to articulate, explicate, mobilize, and make accessible and available the testimony of the Old Testament in all of its polyphonic, elusive, imaginative power and to offer it to the church for its continuing work of construal toward Jesus. That is, Old Testament theology, in my judgment, must prepare the material and full respect the interpretive connections made in the New Testament and the subsequent church; but it must not make those connections, precisely because the connections are not to be found in the testimony of ancient Israel, but in the subsequent work of imaginative construal that lies beyond the text of the Old Testament.” Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy by Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), page 732. Brueggemann differs in his approach from the canonical readings of Brevard Childs.
5. The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures by Stephen M. Wylan, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), pages 22-23.
This is not to say Jews cannot interpret the Torah laws. Jews recognize that not every law is applicable today and therefore they must be discussed and considered. Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), is a publication from the Reform tradition that interprets and discusses the Torah material.
6. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context by Brevard S. Childs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986,), pages 128-132.
7. Goldsworthy, p. 96.
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