Matthew 6:1, 5-8 says, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven…. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
The church is a visible community of people. There is no escaping the fact that if you want to be a Christian, you do so in community with others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that in calling the disciples to a righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees, the disciples would inevitably fulfill this in public ways, and that they needed to have a motive which lies beyond being visible for the sake of being visible. “Our activity must be visible, but never done for the sake of making it visible. ‘Let your light so shine before men’ (Matt. 5:16) and yet: Take care that you hide it!” Bonhoeffer’s point—one we see throughout the Scripture—is that the motive of the heart is what counts. When you’re following Jesus, seeking fame because of your piety is the furthest thing from your mind. And yet, as the Lord’s Prayer says, lead us not into temptation. God, don’t let us succumb to the temptation to be noticed by others when we’re praying in public.
One aspect of praying in public that we all deal with is wondering what others are thinking. Will I say the right words? Will my words come out cleanly or will I stutter? And we stop ourselves from participating in this basic Christian practice, one that we should all be masters at in a sense. Just imagine how much more praying we might do if more of us decided to let go of our fears of praying out loud?
I also have my own theory of how the two are related. Christians will practice at home the kinds of praying they hear in church. This relates to content. Have you ever noticed how little children will pray the same words they hear their parents pray? The same is true for adults. We use the same phrases as others. Our content is shaped by what types of prayers we hear in church also: thanksgiving and intercession and praise. This also applies to time. Because very little time is given in corporate worship to prayer, very little time is given at home.
It is therefore imperative that Christians broaden their horizons and find models for prayer outside of Sunday mornings. This is one reason why our church emphasizes small group involvement in a group that prays as part of its gatherings. At the same time, it’s imperative that Christians pray on their own.
One form of prayer that is simple to incorporate on your own is breath prayer. In breath prayer, you pick one sentence and say it from time to time all day long. Say the first part as you breathe in, and the second as you breathe out. Examples (and they are endless) include:
- Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner (also called the Jesus Prayer from Luke 18).
- Abba, I belong to you.
- Healer, speak the word and I shall be healed.
- Shepherd, bring home my lost son/daughter.
- Holy One, keep me holy.
- Lord, here I am.
Christ did not come to teach us how to pray and leave us in fear of doing it. Christ did not come to build His Church just so we could pay people to pray for us. Christ came and called us to discipleship, part of which is praying both in secret and in public.
Pharisees get a bad rap in the New Testament and in contemporary preaching. And for good reason. What is surprising is that Jesus and the Pharisees held several points of theology in common.
For example, they both believed in the resurrection of the dead (though the Sadducees didn’t). The Pharisees didn’t exactly like the Sadducees, who had political dealings with Rome, who were priests and led temple worship, and who perhaps only thought that the Torah was normative for life. Pharisees, by contrast, were anti-Rome, operated out of the synagogues, and tried to update, apply, and contextualize the Torah in their day.
None of us today would shudder at the thought of trying to contextualize Scripture for our congregations and communities. The word of God is active and alive. It was the way that Pharisees attempted to do this that caught Jesus’ woes and wrath. By emphasizing things like purity, food laws, who one ate with, activity on the Sabbath, and circumcision, the Pharisees sought to determine who among their Jewish brethren was faithful to the covenant. The Pharisees’ concern was not with getting in but with staying in covenant relationship. They were a sort of “puritan movement” with Judaism.
I have always been struck with one of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount: Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Righteousness was a very relational term that spoke not just of the state of one’s heart and the actions proceeding from it (though Jesus goes there in Matthew 7…a tree will be known by its fruit). Righteousness was about a person’s faithfulness to the relationship they were in. Did a husband act like a faithful husband? Then he was righteous (see Joseph in the birth narratives of Matthew 1).
Jesus called His disciples to have righteousness–faithfulness to their part of their relationship with God–that went beyond that of the Pharisees.
This means that they obey the Law not because they must, but because God has changed their hearts and enabled them to do so. It also means that they obey the Law not in order to be separate from outsiders or to look holy next to insiders, but because Christ commands obedience to the royal law of love. Obedience to Christ becomes a natural byproduct of their faith in Him and the grace He gives (which is the opposite of what Jesus tells scribes and Pharisees in Matt. 23:25-26 and Lk. 6:43-45).
Andy Stanley says that one of the five things God uses to grow our faith is personal ministry. What we’re talking about here is serving in ministry, mainly within the church, but also outside of the church. If transforming our bodies is to become a priority, then we must begin to use them in tangible, new ways to serve others.
I’ve called this one of the catalysts toward spiritual formation. Scripture is full of references to the attitude we must have in our personal ministry.
Matthew 20:25-28 says, “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
We are not to be like the rulers, or benefactors, of the Gentiles, who in Jesus’ day were among the wealthiest 3% of the Roman world. They gave tons of money to cities and expected praise and adoration and power in return. Rather, Jesus calls us to embrace the shame of a slave.
Romans 1:25 (on how we used to serve created things instead of God) says, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”
In this verse, we are reminded that our personal acts of service and worship in this world can be directed toward created things–money, other people, our jobs, social status–our equivalents of idols. When we do this, we participate in keeping the image of God in us marred and broken.
1 Cor. 12:4-6 says, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”
I love this passage. Gifts, serving and working are all paralleled here by Paul. In the various gifts and service that we find within the church, there is the same Triune God at work. God distributes the gifts. Notice that God is not only at work in the act of working, but also in those who are doing the work. This is one reason why faith sticks in teens and new Christians when they choose to serve in a local church. God shapes them in the work they do on worship teams, in kids ministry, at food giveaways, and in working with the homeless.
Ephesians 4:11-13 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
These are such oft-quoted verses, especially at ordination services. And they should be, for they speak of the importance not only of the ordained minister, but of God’s people at work in service. I think of aging as an apt metaphor. As people age, those who stay physically active as much as possible tend to stay alive longer (a generalization, but one with empirical evidence). So it is in the Christian life. Those who continue to serve in the church trek onward in maturity in Christ, while those who sit on the sidelines miss out on the corporate spiritual formation God seeks to do in His people, the church.
Too often we approach besetting sin by trying harder to conquer it. We determine never to do it again, we pray for God to deliver us from it, we set our will against it. But the struggle is in vain as we eventually fall back into the same patterns of sin. Paul says in Colossians 2:20-23, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (NASB).
What he’s saying is that observing the rules of not handling or tasting things may sound great as far as trying to beat our bodies into conformity with God’s will, but in the end, they have no power. Willpower will have a show of success for a time but cannot produce lasting change. Jesus alluded to this when he spoke to the Pharisees: “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:34-36, NASB). The will, originating from the heart, is what matters. If the heart has not been circumcised, been given newness of life by God, then we can try as hard as we want to do good, but in those careless moments, who we truly are shines through. If we are full of compassion, that will shine through; if bitterness, that will shine through.
Richard Foster quotes Heini Arnold, “As long as we think we can save ourselves by our own will power, we will only make the evil in us stronger than ever” (Celebration of Discipline, 5). Foster also writes, “When we are dealing with heart work, external actions are never the center of our attention. Outward actions are a natural result of something far deeper, far more profound.” It is quite ironic that the very thing that seems like a good plan–confronting sin head on–is what entangles us all the more.
There is a difference between attempting to continue on a journey of spiritual formation alone, by forcing change by your own will, and joining God, who can begin to help transform your will so it aligns with His.
What we’re really doing when we are concentrating on our ideas, images, gaining new information and using our ability to think is rejecting false narratives we used to believe and exchanging them for true narratives. This doesn’t sound super-Scriptural or super-spiritual, but it is a quite practical application of one of the meanings of repentance.
Getting rid of false narratives was one of Jesus’ hopes when he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He was calling the crowds to reconsider an old narrative–my sinful life prohibits me from participation in the rule and reign of God. Jesus said, A) turn from your sin, and B) know that it is for you that God’s kingdom has come, and you must enter it.
Perhaps the very thing that stops us today from choosing to enter the kingdom is the false narrative we have believed about God or ourselves.
James Bryan Smith, in his Apprentice Series, outlines several false narratives prevalent in Christian circles. Here are three of them.
|False Narrative||True Narrative||Scripture|
|God is an angry judge. If you do well, you will be blessed; if you sin, you will be punished.||God is good.||Matthew 5:45; 19:17; John 9:2-3|
|God hates sin so much he will send you to hell for just one unconfessed sin.||God is trustworthy as our Abba Father.||Matthew 6:9-11; Mark 14:36; Romans 8:28|
|God needs us to earn His favor and will only give His forgiveness and love to those who deserve it.||God is generous with His grace to us.||Matthew 20:1-15; Romans 5:8|
The hardest part of narratives is that they are so deeply engrained in us that they are subconscious. We don’t think about them, we just think them. And yet, with God’s grace, He can transform and renew our minds so that these ideas are not the ones we choose to trust, but rather, we choose to trust the One who gave us the capacity to think in the first place.
Previously, we wrote about a definition of spiritual formation, as well as a definition of discipleship. Here, we’ll expand phrase-by-phrase on what we mean when we say,
Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
Christian spiritual formation
As we’ve said, everyone goes through spiritual formation. But ours is distinctly “Christian” in the sense that we have:
1. Experienced conversion of the heart, where God makes it possible for us to partner with Him in our own spiritual formation.
4. Decided to reject other forms of spiritual formation as we are made aware of them.
We must determine, according to Dallas Willard, what in our spirit needs to be changed and how that change can be brought about. He says in Renovation of the Heart,
“The revolution of Jesus is in the first place and continuously a revolution of the human heart or spirit. It did not and does not proceed by means of the formation of social institutions and laws, the outer forms of our existence, intending that these would then impose a good order of life upon people who come under their power. Rather, his is a revolution of character, which proceeds by changing people from the inside through ongoing personal relationship to God in Christ and to one another. It [His revolution] is one that changes their ideas, beliefs, feelings, and habits of choice, as well as their bodily tendencies and social relations” (p. 15).
Christian spiritual formation takes place only as our hearts are transformed. Thus, Jesus can speak of how our inner person comes across in our outer person. Matthew 12:33-35 says, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in them, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in them.”
The danger here is that because we can see what happens externally, we then focus on it as the barometer of our spiritual formation or of the spiritual formation of others. We delve into legalism quickly when we watch for how people dress, whether they pray, church attendance, etc.
1. Conversion is a necessary part of spiritual formation, but it alone is not sufficient. Just as self-identifying as a Christian does not a Christian make, so also conversion alone does not a disciple make. It is the “ongoing personal relationship to God in Christ and to one another” that makes the ongoing difference.