Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Summer Reading: Absolute Surrender -- third chapter

Links to other posts in this series:
About Andrew Murray
Chapter 1

How do I know what God wants me to do?

I get this question all the time as a pastor. However, sometimes it’s hard to answer the question due to the life situation of the person asking. At times, the person asking has had an acquaintance relationship with Christ rather than a living relationship. Murray confronts this challenge head on in this chapter as he talks exposits Acts 13:1-14: the sending forth of Barnabas and Saul. Here are some key points:

1) God does indeed have plans. Murray reaffirms God’s sovereign design over creation; also he reaffirms that God keeps back the full intricacies of His plans.

Murray recalls to us the story of a Mission Institute that he was involved with. The principal of that mission institute delivered an address at the start of the year in which he said:

“Last year we gathered here to lay the foundation-stone, and what was there then to be seen? Nothing but rubbish, and stones, and bricks, and ruins of an old building that had been pulled down. There we laid the foundation-stone, and very few knew what the building was that was to rise. No one knew it perfectly in every detail except one man, the architect. In his mind it was all clear, and as the contractor and the mason and the carpenter came to their workd, they took their orders from him, and the humblest laborer had to be obedient to orders, and the structure rose, and this beautiful building has been completed. And just so, this building that we open today is but laying the foundation of a work, of which only God knows what is to become.” (92)

I’ve experienced this kind of awesome providence, as I retold in my sermon on Ruth 4 about God’s extraordinary providence through his long term-thinking.

2) God does give direction. Murray boldly asserts that for those who are willing to give themselves over completely to God, the Holy Spirit reveals God’s will.

“It is easy for those who are in right fellowship with Heaven, and who understand the art of waiting upon God. “How often we ask: ‘How can a person know the will of God?’ And people want, when they are in perplexity, to pray very earnestly that God should answer them at once. But God can only reveal his will to a heart that is humble and tender and empty. God can only reveal his will in perplexities and special difficulties to a heart that has learned to obey and honor him loyally in little things and in daily life.” (93-94)

I’m always cautious about such bold claims, for I’ve seen too many abuses: People who claim a “word from the Lord” who are actually baptizing the first impulse that they feel. Scripture gives us the story of Jephthah (Judges 11 and 12) who made a rash vow to God, and wound up sacrificing his daughter to keep the vow. The vow was a rash impulse in a fit of showy spirituality, and Jephthah wound up doing something terribly wrong and evil because of it.

I know from experience that not every impulse that seems God-honoring is from the Lord. A few years ago, I had a great ministry idea – hosting one of those remote broadcast seminars as an outreach to the business community. I sought wise counsel. I lined up all the players and got support from some media partners. All the resources were falling into place and I knew that God was blessing the effort – I kept praying for God’s blessing on the event. Two days before it was to occur, I received a call from the co-sponsor that there were only 5 reservations and we had to cancel the plug. I was so sure that I’d received a call from the Lord to do this outreach. However, I was being reminded by the Lord that not every impulse is of Him.

That’s why Murray talks about the disciplines of fasting and prayer: Waiting on the lord. Sitting on ideas for extended periods of time. I don’t like talking in terms of “words from the Lord” – I prefer to think in terms of sanctified intuition. That God will shape our capacity to discern right action – and he ordinarily shapes that capacity over a time of exercise of Christian discipleship: prayer, bible reading, spending time with wise Christians, humbly serving those in need, learning how to speak about Christ’s work. That’s what Murray means, I think by learning to obey and honor God “loyally in little things and in daily life” – Eugene Peterson calls it “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” (a great book for devotional reading if you’ve never seen it). This makes sense – If God’s plans work out in the Long Term view, then we must take a long term view to spiritual discernment.

3) God expects us to start with him, rather than coming to him as an afterthought.
“A man may often have a measure of the power of the Spirit, but if there be not a large measure of the Spirit as the Spirit of grace and holiness, the defect will be manifest in his work. He may be made the means of conversion, but he will never help people on to a higher standard of spiritual life, and when he passes away, a great deal of his work may pass away too. But a man who is separated unto the Holy Ghost is a man who is given up to say ‘Father, let the Holy Ghost have full dominion over me, in my home, in my temper, in every word of my tongue, in every thought of my heart, in every feeling toward my fellow men; let the Holy Spirit have entire possession.’” (96)

These disciplines of life are to tune us to grow toward absolute obedience.

4) God’s mission for us requires ongoing fasting and prayer:

“We have the key that can unlock the dungeon of atheism and of heathendom. But, oh! We are far more occupied with our work than we are with prayer. We believe more in speaking to men than we believe in speaking to God. Learn from these men that the work which the Holy Ghost commands must call us to new fasting and prayer, to new separation from the spirit and the pleasures of the world, to new consecration to God and to his fellowship.” (98)

Again, I’m cautious about calls for greater separation and self-denial. History has shown time and again that periods of great spiritual intensity often degenerate into a kind of legalism in which the “new separation from…the world” becomes a dour soulless imposition upon the spiritually weak and immature. We must realize that while the separation is a general calling for Christians, the specific manifestations of that separation will be rooted in our situation and shaped by our current sanctification.

For instance. The puritans considered theater “worldly entertainment”. Good Christians didn’t partake of the theater because it was decadent. However today, theater is considered art and many Christians believe it to be redemptive (plays are, after all stories – and good stories are about sin and evil and redemption and goodness). Naturally, as we grow in Christian faith, however, our taste in theater will be shaped by our faith. There are plays I won't go see because it would be unhelpful to my spiritual growth. And there are times and seasons when I might lay down theatre because more pressing things are on my horizon, or I have more needful uses of our finances. Or perphaps indulgence in the theater is producing something sinful in my life.

And that’s ultimately the real challenge. Where is the dross in our lives? Every garden needs to be pruned back. Dead branches need to be taken away. Out of control growth needs to be clipped so that new growth can occur. Lawns need to be kept trim to keep out weeds and to stimulate new grass to develop. The same is true in our lives.

We have certain entertainments and enjoyments that, while not overtly sinful, are distracting. God may be calling us at this time in our lives to trim some of these things out. However, there are so many things in this world that have so many uses, that that trimming is necessarily personalized. I have trimmed cable TV out of my life for the past decade – it’s been good for me and the family. Other families might decide to trim the internet out of their lives. Where are the places where you can trim the fat. The little book Give it Up, while not a brilliant tome, does challenge each of us to consider the need to prune things away.

The point is to clear up the clutter so that we can hear more clearly as God speaks.

Questions for reflection:
1) Look back over your life – what are events that you’ve experienced that bore fruit many years later in unexpected ways?

2) Look at your present spiritual disciplines – what are you doing that helps train you to better discern God’s calling on your life?

3) Look ahead to future decisions, events, or activities. In what ways can you begin now to seek God’s guidance and will before you have to make a decision? In what ways will you maintain an openness to unexpected possibilities?

4) What kind of response do you expect from prayer? How much power do you believe prayer really has?

5) How often do you reflect on your life and what can be pruned from it to make way for greater growth? If you were to look at your present commitments, entertainments, possessions, and habits, are there things that could be pruned away to make room for something better?