A disciple once came to Abba Joseph, saying,
“Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast, and my little prayer.
And according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my mind
of all evil thoughts and my heart of all evil intents.
Now, what more should I do?”
Abba Joseph rose up and stretched out his hands to heaven,
and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame.
“Why not be totally changed into fire?”
~from Prayer by Richard Foster
Been thinking a lot lately about the difference between pleasing God with our obedience and appeasing Him with works righteousness.
The two look awefully alike, yet the latter parades itself around as the former and does violence to my relationship with God.
The latter strips me of my ability to humbly accept God's grace.
When I ty to appease God with my fine deeds and good works, I end up being like Peter who balked when Jesus knelt to wash his feet.
I am sending this message: "Thanks. I'm good. I've got this."
When the truth is that: I'm ungrateful, and: No, I'm not good. No, I don't "have it."
Make no mistake, there are things we all need to "do" which are helpful in transforming us into the likeness of Christ. Being a disciple of Jesus has nothing to do with passivity!
It's certainly important to remember that while God is not interested in our attempts at earning, He is not opposed to effort.
The Pharisees were all about earning. Their righteousness was works in action. They did all the right things, read scripture prolifically, prayed (with aplomb on the temple steps, remember?), tithed, behaved correctly, and even participated in (sometimes unsolicited and one-way) "accountability programs" (i.e. told people how to act).
But Jesus repeatedly opposed the Pharisees. In fact, in Matthew 5:20, he said: "For I say to you that unless your rightousnes surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (NASB)
Stated succinctly, Jesus makes it clear that our rightousness need to SUPASS that of the pharisees.
Clearly works-righteousness like the Pharisees isn't good enough; He doesn't want our earning.
So, what does He want? What does "righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees" (effort in the absence of earning) look like, you might be asking?
Righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees has a "secret ingredient" that the Pharisees didn't include in their recipe for righteousness: Grace
So, if you're really a 'concrete operational' thinker- here's an equation that you might find to be helpful:
My Intentionality (Effort)
+ God's Grace (Jesus Does the Earning)
Transformation of Me into Christ-likeness* (*So I can bless the world!)
In other words- He wants us to lean into His Grace...And Yet...
Our Cooperation...Our intentionality...(and yeah)...Our Effort is okay...
This synergistic participation is best described by Paul in his letter to the Philippians (2:12-3) where he admonishes them to: "Continue to work out your salvation wih fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose."
No amount of work on my part can make me a more godly person. And if I misappropriate my efforts into trying to manage my own sin (or that of others), I have succumbed to a combination of blatent arrogance and naivete that is spiritully fatal. Focusing on sin management will actually bind myself to my sin more tightly, as it then becomes the focus of my attention and the locus of my worship.
Without the intervention of God's Supernatural Grace, nothing comes of my efforts but a lot of nice things done and a more altruistic me. I am not changed. No matter what I do, no matter how many prayers I pray, no matter how many chapters of scripture I read in a week, no matter how many sins I confess and repent of...NOTHING CHANGES unless Christ is in the equation...transforming me...changing me...discipling me...re-making me..reconciling me unto Himself.
Without Christ and the Grace that only He can bring to the table, there is No Real Change...
And there's Definitely no "fire"...
And I wanna BURN for God!
So how does one "become totally change into fire"?
A key can be found in Isaiah 58, where we see God resprimanding His people for performing spiritual practices (specifically fasting), but harbouring bitterness, quarelling, strife, and anger and by perpetuating injustice toward others. God makes it clear that He isn't impressed by such fasting- in fact, he asks a poingnant question: "When you fast like that, without being just to others- how do you expect that I would hear your voice?" (my paraphrase of v. 4).
So then, we ask ourselves: Does God want none of this? Is he telling us to not perform spiritual practices? The answer is a resounding "No!"
It is clear he doesn't want rote compliance, a sort of going-through-the-motions spirituality that makes no difference in a person's everyday life. If we fast or pray, or have daily devotions consistently, yet these practices are merely acts that have no effect in shaping our souls, then God wants us to defer from doing them. He's simply not interested in our works centered compliance- what he wants from us is an entirely different thing- grace centered RADIANCE.
So then, I will lean into God's grace...That means that I will believe Him when He tells me that I am His and that I am redeemed. I will choose to lean into His grace and take Him at His word. Next, I will believe that this same truth applies to my neighbor. I will choose to see her through the loving eyes of Christ- the same eyes that lovingly look at me. Because of this new way of "seeing" (a grace-based way) I will begin to have a transformed way of thinking of myself and my neighbor. My intentionality plus God's grace working in me supplants my need to manage my own sin. God's grace changes me completely into a person who desires to see the lives of others redeemed by God's mercy.
That is how one moves beyond sin managment and becomes changed into radiant fire...