Yesterday I talked about the need for repetition in learning things. Math and reading specifically come to mind. And as it is needed for those skills, it is also needed for learning the word of God.
In fact, I’d say especially for the word of God. When subjects are deeper, more layered, more complex, and more expansive, we cannot possibly understand with only a few quick lessons. The only way we can really learn them is by cycling over the material, gaining new understanding with each pass. And there is nothing deeper, more layered and complex than the Word of God. He created the laws of physics and the science of neurology, after all. If those subjects are daunting, doesn’t it follow a fortiori that learning about the one who created them would be more so?
Indeed. So much so that the Bible tells us God’s thoughts and ways are not like ours. They are foreign to us. More foreign than the most foreign culture or language could possibly be. And the more foreign and strange a subject is to us, again, there is no way we’re going to “get it” on the first pass or two. Probably not even the tenth pass, or the twentieth.
The Bible tells us the naturally-minded man cannot understand the things of God at all. They are foolishness to him. Only the spiritual man (ie, born again) who is filled with the Holy Spirit can understand. But even after salvation, all of us are in some respects naturally-minded. We still live in the world where we are barraged, in this present age as never before, with worldly thinking. And even though we’re saved, we still have our flesh, which sets itself against the things of the Spirit, and is a continuing source of wrong and worldly, self-centered thinking. It will even take doctrinal thoughts and distort them, misapply them (as Job’s three alleged friends were so fond of doing) in order to serve itself. And it’s not always easy for us to recognize when that is happening because a lot of times it feels “right.”
Further, in 2 Co 5:16 we’re commanded to “recognize no one according to the flesh.” A common interpretation of that verse is that we’re not to look at other people on the basis of their sins and failures, but on the basis of their position in Christ. And while it’s certainly true we are to regard other Christians in this way, that can’t be what this particular verse means because the passage goes on to say that we’re not to know Christ after the flesh, either, and He had no sins or failures.
So what does it mean? I believe it’s talking about our own flesh. We’re not to know others or Christ on the basis of our own fleshly thinking — our naturally minded way of interpreting things that are beyond our ken.
Let’s take self-discipline as an example. As an unbeliever, I knew all about self-discipline and was pretty good at it. After I became saved and read in Galatians that we’re to have the fruit of the Spirit, one part of which is self-discipline, I thought, well, I know what that is. I know I haven’t always been perfect at it, but I know it’s a good thing and now I’m supposed to do that. So I would double my efforts in the self-discipline area.
I’ve read of others who describe their efforts to cultivate and nurture this particular fruit. They deliberately take on tasks that will make their flesh chafe. The flesh hates service, one person said, but absolutely screams at hidden service. You have to train it to abide this, and you seek out opportunities to do so.
That all seems reasonable and logical and right. Except for three things.
One, that if you keep going with this kind of thinking, you’ll end up like the flagellants I wrote about some months ago.
Two, the fruit of the Spirit, as I’ve said before, is the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of me. If I’ve been crucified with Christ, I’m dead. I can’t produce a thing. It’s the life of Christ that has to produce this fruit, not me. In fact, all my pastors over the last 37 years have repeatedly said, “If the unbeliever can do it, it’s not the Christian way of life, because the Christian way of life is a supernatural way of life.” An unbeliever can discipline himself; in fact some are better at it than most believers. And everything I described above about seeing some quality the Bible says Believers are to demonstrate, and then setting out to acquire and practice that quality is very much a normal human way of approaching something.
The natural man does it all the time. I want to lose weight. I need to stop eating so much. I want to be a wonderful musician, I need to start playing the piano. I get angry too much, I need to start meditating and visualizing my anger as red smoke and exhale it. (Got that from The Mentalist 😉 ) I am too shy, I need to learn to make eye contact. I have a bad mental attitude, I will now tell myself affirmations all day… and on and on. That’s a completely natural, in some cases practical way of dealing with something. If I want to learn to sketch, I have to practice. If I want to get good at tennis, I have to practice. It’s all about I. Nothing really supernatural about it.
Which brings me to number three: God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways (Is 55: 8,9) Do we really stop and think what that means when we read it? I know in the past I haven’t. Oh, I agreed with it, but only on some amorphous, vague level. He’s the creator, after all. He’s omniscient, eternal. Of course His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways, and off I go, agreeing with the concept but not really living in it.
Maybe we need to reverse that verse, and say instead, “man’s thoughts and ways are not God’s ways.” Or even better, “my (natural) thoughts and ways are not God’s ways.
He considers our “righteous deeds to be as a filthy garment” (Is 64:6) after all. We struggle with that. When Cain brought his wonderful crop of vegetables, the work of his hands, as an offering, God rejected it. He was not interested in Cain’s work. It was gross. Cain was so upset he killed his brother, because his offering of a lamb was accepted.
Our efforts to please him in our flesh are nauseating to Him. (Rev 3:14-17) He is pleased with Christ and His work on the Cross. All those who have believed in Christ are subsequently placed in union with Him, and so when the Father looks at us, He sees His son, who paid our debt of sin. It’s because of what Christ did, that He is pleased with us. Paul, on this very subject reminds the Galatians that they came to salvation by grace through faith, not of works, and the same way they received Him is the way they are to walk in Him. By grace through faith, not works.
“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Gal 3:6
He says the same thing in Colossians:
“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established by means of your faith…” Col 2:6 ”
Faith in who He is and what He’s done, not faith in ourselves. Believing what He’s promised, believing He is who He says He is. It’s faith that pleases Him; in fact, without faith it is impossible to please Him. (Heb 11:6)
That’s not the way we tend to think. It doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t jibe with what the world says, even what the religious world says.
When you consider the number of elements arrayed against us learning the thoughts and ways of God it’s hardly surprising we would be a long time finally getting to the core of things. The complexity of the material, the outlandishness of its claims and promises, the depth and the foreignness of it all is challenge enough. But then we add in the fleshly part of us, thinking it understands when it is only distorting truth, or rejecting it outright because it finds the concepts offensive (eg, “step aside flesh, you’ve been crucified, you have no part in this”) and all of that occurring in a world that constantly affirms “natural-minded” thinking as reasonable, logical, responsible and rejects “heavenly-minded” thinking as nonsense, ridiculous, and off the wall. How could the learning curve be anything but long and slow?
I know. I’ve been fighting the battle with all those elements and my flesh is very adamant that some of my conclusions are nutty and “can’t possibly be right” and that my old viewpoint is the only one that really makes sense…
But that’s not what God’s been telling me. And ever so slowly I think I’m starting to believe Him.
I enjoyed this article, Karen. Interestingly I just used Is. 64:4 in a discussion at Mike Duran‘s blog about the Bible.
Basically I agree with everything you’ve said, but I can’t get away from a couple things. First is that part of the fruit of the Spirit is termed “self-discipline,” not “Spirit discipline.” Second is James 1:20 through all of chapter 2. Some key verses: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is [fn]dead, being by itself” (2:17); “You see that faith was working with his works, and [fn]as a result of the works, faith was perfected” (2:22); “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24); “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (1:22); and finally “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does” (1:24).
In no way do I believe James was saying we are to supplant faith with human effort. Instead, I think he, by the Holy Spirit, makes it clear there is a works component to faith — that real faith has to be lived out.
I think the inspiration of the Bible illustrates how God wants us to live our lives. He inspired the writers, the words are His, the truth is His, but they wrote from their own personalities, in their own style, to their own audiences. It was more than the Holy Spirit working in and through them. It was the Holy Spirit’s work. But that didn’t mean the writers did nothing. They listened and they obeyed and they wrote.
It’s a transcendent, synchronistic work which allows Peter to say, “but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior because it is written, “You shall be holy for I am holy.” (I Peter 1:16-17).
Apart from the Holy Spirit, that kind of admonition can be crippling because I know I can’t be holy. But it’s not me. And yet it is. By faith, I trust the Holy Spirit to work in me to create His fruit — that which brings praise and glory and honor to His name. But the only way anyone will see the fruit is if I step out in faith and act.
God knew Abraham’s heart. He didn’t need to see him poised to offer up his son on the alter as if He wasn’t sure what Abraham would do. But Abraham needed to know that he trusted God with what he held dearest. What’s more, Isaac needed to know it too, and of course all the rest of us receive instruction and encouragement by his example, so we needed to know it too.
So I might know the self-discipline is God’s through the fruit of the Spirit (or the love, joy, peace, patience, or whatever the particular is), but the world will never see that self-discipline unless I act in a self-disciplined way. Therefore I will step out to do so, trusting that God’s Spirit is indeed supplying me with His fruit to enable me to do so.
OK, I should have just made this comment my blog post! 😉
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Thanks for your thoughts on this, Becky. Since I’m still groping my way around all this, it’s nice to have some mild challenges to what I’m thinking. (note, mild; i’m not ready for something major yet) My off the top of my head response to a couple of things you’ve said here:
It doesn’t say “Spirit-control” because it’s not the Spirit that needs to be controlled but the self, and the inherent meaning is that it’s the flesh, since we only have the flesh and the new nature, the latter not needing to be controlled, since it’s unable to sin. I don’t believe it can control the flesh, though; Galatians 5:16,17 indicates it’s the Spirit that is in that battle.
Faith without works being dead is kind of a corollary to this whole matter of letting the life of Christ live and manifest through us. True faith in the promises, work and person of Christ, leading to the growing manifestion of Him through our lives will automatically produce works. Of course, you have to define works and I believe those are more in the area of the ninefold fruit of the Spirit and other virtues of Christ — ie, exhibiting patience, kindness, love, forgiveness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, courage — rather than the standard social program sort of activities that everyone sees and calls “good works” though those are not excluded. It’s just you can do the overt good works and not even be saved so they wouldn’t really be proof of a truly living faith.
No argument that God uses the personalities, vocabularies, understanding, frame of reference, background, and talents of His people to manifest His person and His word. I don’t see that as really negating the notion that it’s us giving the reins over to God and God using us as He’s made us to be to carry out His will. Not to say this is all mindless, but that’s definitely for another post a little further down the road.
Thanks for the food for thought.