Search This Blog

Monday, July 26, 2010

Week 3: The Screwtape Letters - Faith Lived Out

"Religion is all very well up to a point.  A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all." [Screwtape to Wormwood]

Letter 9 Over 30 years later I can still recall my concerns after the first blush of salvation had passed.  While I loved learning Scripture and being with God's people, it slowly began to dawn on me that my long held world-views were under attack.  It was one thing to know I had eternal security, but an entirely different issue to apply the things I was learning to my lifestyle and opinions.  I also had unsaved friends and family members who were worried about what was happening to me, fearing I was going "too far" with this religious thing ... had perhaps even gotten myself involved with a cult!  We didn't have our own church building, after all, nor were we connected to any denomination.  That was unheard of in those days.  They, and I, feared I might be getting "carried away".

Screwtape advises Wormwood to "keep knowledge out of his [patient's] mind" and to be careful to "keep him out of the way of experienced Christians" who might direct him to the truths of Scripture.  The core group who started FBC consisted of mostly new believers. God in His grace provided a knowledgeable and patient first pastor to lead us.  Had he been the sort who demanded obedience to a list of Pharisaical behaviors or adherence to a set of doctrines which I had no base of biblical knowledge to evaluate, it's likely I would have walked away, chalking it all up to a "religious phase" I once went through.  Instead, Pastor Loren faithfully taught us God's Word and helped me fall in love with Jesus Christ ... which lead to slow, but steady spiritual growth from the inside out.

From this side of those 30 years, I am astounded that I, or anyone, would even consider it's possible that we could know better than God!  I find myself extremely saddened by those who start out on fire for the Lord, but subsequently remain more enamored with the things of the world or resist biblical truth when confronted with it, slowly losing their ardor for the things of the Lord.  When faced with trials, they are more likely to shake their fist at God in anger than to cast their cares upon Him and trust in His goodness and sovereignty.  At those times it's good to remind myself of my own shaky faith and lack of understanding as a new believer and to recall the patient love shown to me ... a love that consistently confronted me with God's truth, prayed for me during trials and loved me even when I was unlovable.

Are you in love with Christ?  What specific ways can you help other believers "grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ"? [Ephesians 4:16]  How can you expand your own biblical knowledge so that you are prepared to effectively encourage others with Scriptural truths, rather than just vague Christian "catch phrases"?

This week's set of letters deal primarily with the first steps of applying faith to our lives. Letter 10 peers into the area of friendships.  When first saved, it's common to have an overwhelming desire to witness God's truth, what little of it we may possess at that stage, to our unsaved friends.  A point comes, however, when we realize that the influence of our unsaved friends upon us is greater than our influence upon them!  Few of us like to admit our own vulnerability, but God also makes us increasingly aware of our pride, "the sin which so easily entangles us." [Hebrews 12:1]  How easy it is to be attracted to the "rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world" crowd ... especially if they want to include you!  There's a fine line between being IN the world, yet not being OF the world.  Fortunately, that line becomes more substantial as we grow in our knowledge of and obedience to God.  We eventually discover it's much more pleasurable to desire God and we begin to wonder what we ever found so enjoyable about the alternative!  But that's not always so obvious to us in the early stages of our Christian walk.

A believer "must very soon realize that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his friends is based."  If the temptation proves effective, "He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent."  After a time, he will find himself living "two parallel lives ... [acting like] a different man in each of the circles he frequents" ... a classic case of hypocrisy!  The thing about hypocrisy is that it can't be maintained indefinitely.  The human heart will eventually expose itself in actions, creating a "crisis moment" when you must decide which direction to go in... towards God or away from God?

Which leads to Letter 11, dealing with the misuse of humor, a mark of the unsaved.  Screwtape describes ungodly humor as "the all-consoling and ... all-excusing grace of life," finding it "invaluable as a means of destroying shame."  He also commends the particular "value" of flippancy, which turns virtue into a laughing matter.

I've been in Christian company for so long now that I find myself shocked at the coarseness and foulness of what passes for humor among the general populace.  People don't tend to speak this way in my presence, but I catch pieces of it in commercials advertising the nightly offerings of prime time TV!  Most unbelievers, if they've known me for any length of time, are careful to refrain from repeating such jokes in my presence. I do recall an incident from a few years ago when a young guy at a local establishment started to tell me an dirty joke.  His boss, who had known me for years, repeatedly attempted to stop him, letting the young man know I would not be amused.  The young fellow was incredulous that I could possibly find his joke offensive and kept trying to tell it to me, until his boss finally raised his voice and firmly said, "No ... she WON'T think it's funny!"  How many believers, I wonder, who would never repeat such jokes in my presence, have no hesitation watching entire TV programs or movies full of them behind the closed doors of their own homes?  What message is that giving their children?  How is it deadening their love for God?  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your ... mind."  [Mt. 22:37]

Take time to evaluate what you are regularly exposing your mind to.  What do you find humorous?  Do you think God would laugh?

In 2007 Jerry Bridges published a book called, "Respectable Sins" concerning the "small sins" we tend to tolerate in our lives.  Letter 12 reminded me of the inherent danger of these "small" or "respectable" sins.  Whether through a lack of watchfulness (Lewis) or through our desire to place sins on a scale, comparing ourselves with each other instead of with God's holiness (Bridges), unattended sin serves to deaden our spiritual life.  How often do you become aware of sin in your life and dismiss it to a list entitled, "Get To It Some Day"?  Both Lewis and Bridges warn about the ability of "small sins" to increasingly dull our relationship with God and quietly head us off in a direction we never intended to go, ultimately starving us of the richness and power which repentance and obedience could have brought had we only dealt with it.  I've noticed that "small sins" have a way of taking over our hearts if left unattended over long periods of time.  Eventually they come to color our entire walk before God, and any good we might have done for His glory is choked out by the undergrowth of our "small sin".  I look upon them as the "kudzu" in our lives.  If you've ever lived in the south, you know what kudzu is like!  Beth waged battle against it on the hillside in her backyard in West Virginia.  Left unattended, "small sins" act just like kudzu, wreaking havoc and eventually taking over until your life becomes characterized by your "small sin".

"You will say that these are very small sins ... But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [i.e. God].  It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing."  [Screwtape to Wormwood]

[Week #1; Week #4]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Week 2: The Screwtape Letters - Developing A Christian Perspective

"One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless.  In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever."  [Screwtape to Wormwood]

Letters 5 & 6 are written in response to the outbreak of WWII, an event bringing premature pleasure to young Wormwood and caution from his more experienced mentor.  Screwtape prefers the advantage of "contented worldliness," where men cocoon themselves inside sand castles to avoid the reality of death.  The tide of war, however, easily smashes through such flimsy defenses by bringing "the continual remembrance of death which war enforces."

The world's way is to avoid the issue of death, preferring to distract men away from the inevitable as an act of kindness.  From God's eternal perspective, however, it is no kindness!  For believers, death and subsequent judgment are motivating forces moving us to tell others of God's grace and provision. To the extent it doesn't do that may be an indication of how much of our culture's world-view has infiltrated our Christian world-view.

A biblical understanding of death helps those who have entrusted themselves to Christ to rest in the knowledge of their eternal hope.  Lillias Trotter, missionary to Muslim women in Algeria in the late 19th/early 20th centuries wrote, "Death is the gate of life. ... The Christian life is a process of deliverance out of one world into another." [Parables of the Cross, 1894]  Screwtape acknowledges that the "precise moment of terror, bereavement or physical pain" may result in human reason being "temporarily suspended."  But even in those painful moments, calling out to God results in His defense of the vulnerable.

To what extent has the world's desire to mask death had a negative effect upon your passion to be God's ambassador? [2 Cor. 5:20]  What steps can be taken to draw your focus back to God and eternity?

War also serves as a breeding ground for suspense, anxiety and fear.  God is concerned with your daily moment-by-moment walk of faith in the midst of circumstances, as you demonstrate reliance upon Him and  trust in His goodness and sovereignty.  "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result/work, SO THAT [purpose] you may be perfect/spiritually mature and complete, lacking in nothing." [James 1:2-4]  That is, endurance through trials leads to becoming equipped with every grace and skill God knows you will need to serve Him best!  Tim recently noted that praying for the avoidance of trials is akin to asking God for spiritual immaturity.  In contrast, demons prefer trials would serve to cripple your effectiveness for God by keeping your mind focused upon what MIGHT happen, hoping you will become "focused on the fear itself," instead of on God and His greater purposes.

How does your approach to a trial affect the level of benefit you receive from it?  How is it possible to count trials as "joy", though the trial itself is far from "joyful"?  What can serve to strengthen you during such times?

"All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [i.e. God], are to be encouraged."
[Screwtape, Letter 7]

In Lewis' era the extremes were Pacifism and Patriotism. The human propensity to latch on to a "cause" instead of Christ has not changed.  Perhaps it appeals to our prideful sin nature; we become attracted to the idea of "me and God against the unenlightened."  We begin to believe that we are the only ones who "get it" and instead of fostering unity in our local assembly, we become like the Corinthians who fostered factions and divisions, thereby diminishing their church's effectiveness in the work of God.

God gifts each believer differently [1 Cor. 12:4-7] with the express intention that all will work together as one body comprised of various parts.  Periodically you find a believer who has turned his God-given gift into a "cause".  He naturally gravitates towards others similarly gifted and a "clique" soon forms.  Other believers, gifted differently, become viewed with disdain.  "I and my like-minded fellows get IT ... the rest of my assembly does not."  That kind of thinking should set off alarm bells! That kind of thinking brings disunity and weakens any local body of believers.

How can your God-given gifts and passions be used to build  up your local assembly?  How can unity be promoted?

Finally, Letter 8 deals with "undulation", the emotional ups and downs common to every spiritual walk. Humans, Screwtape informs Wormwood, have "periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness" alternating with periods of "numbness and poverty".  We experience days when we're on fire for the Lord and can easily see His hand at work. Then we have days we can't get out of our own way, prayers hardly reach the ceiling and it feels as if God is very far away.  Being emotional creatures, it can be a challenge to not allow our emotions to shape our knowledge of God or dictate our interaction with Him. Building our faith upon the roller coaster of our emotions is fatal to spiritual growth!

Screwtape, having broader knowledge, recognizes God's desire to help His children mature spiritually, to see them learn and apply insights gained. "It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.  Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best."

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. ... By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; FOR he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen."  [Hebrews 11:1, 27]

How does walking by faith and not by emotion or sight affect your approach to the Christian graces [e.g. prayer, worship, studying God's Word, time spent with edifying believers, etc.]?  Where do you turn in Scripture for perspective during "trough" times?

[Week #1; Week #3]

Monday, July 12, 2010

Week 1: The Screwtape Letters - Starting the Walk

"It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds:  in reality our best work is done by keeping things out."  [Screwtape to Wormwood]

Screwtape and Wormwood are first met midway into their correspondence. We quickly note Screwtape's prideful arrogance and sense of superiority in the relationship.  We also realize we're being allowed to witness one battle in a long war.

Letter 1:  Screwtape asserts that the existence of God, whom he calls "the Enemy", is actually quite reasonable to the human mind.  "The heavens declare His righteousness,  And all the people have seen His glory." (Psalm 97:6)   "When Gentiles ... do instinctively the things of the Law... they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness."  (Romans 2:14-15)  Fortunately for the demons, early 1940's English culture is quite adept at drowning out such witness with a "stream of immediate sense experience".  How much further we have traveled down that road by 2010!  You'll not find many today who enjoy spending time in quiet contemplation.  We are so easily distracted away from such soul searching opportunities.  I'm reminded of Obi Wan's "old Jedi mind trick" which worked so effectively on "the weak-minded".  Left unattended, "streams of immediate sense experience" easily drown out "considered reasoning".  Our modern hunger is for "amusement" ... an interesting word.  The "a" at the beginning means "without" and "to muse" means to think, to meditate upon.  "Amusement" literally means an activity "without thinking".  Steep your life in it and you could easily become one of Obi Wan's victims!

As followers of Jesus Christ, how can we build the habit of meditating on the things of God, while resisting the flood of "amusement" around us?  How can we consciously build it into the lives of our children?

Letter 2:  We discover Wormwood's "patient" has become a Christian.  Yet Screwtape does not consider it reason for despair, noting, "All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favor."      Sanctification is a lifelong process, a day-by-day, repeated process of "putting off" unrighteousness, "renewing the mind" with God's revealed truth and "putting on" righteousness, all made possible by God's grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

The most obvious place to attack a new believer is within the church itself.  Screwtape points out the difference between the actual "body of Christ" triumphant through the ages and the "visible church", the assembly we sit among every week.  We say we love God, but often find His people annoying at best and sinful at worst.  How easy it is to perceive and be outraged by sin in others and yet be blind to sin in ourselves. (Mt.7:3) Don't we tend to expect more from others than we do from ourselves?  "If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?"

In our interaction with new believers, how can we best help them start their journey down the road of sanctification?  How do we train our minds off annoyances and onto worship?

Letter 3 deals with the area we probably struggle with most - living out the Christian life in our homes.  If we're impatient, unloving and self-righteous among the brethren, how much easier it is to be that way within the grind of daily living in our homes!  If we're not careful, we begin to routinely assess the actions of others negatively, shining an unflattering light on every phrase and deed, while expecting only the best light be shed on our own words and actions!  We eventually create "an imaginary person", less and less as they truly are.  Screwtape advises, "Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending, and yet having a grievance when offense is taken."

How can you develop an attitude of expecting "the best" of people, instead of expecting "the worst"?  What Scripture speaks to this issue?  What concrete steps can you take this next week to start to train your mind away from self and towards loving others they way God loves you?

Letter 4:  This week's final letter deals with hindrances to powerful prayer.  Screwtape believes the "best thing... is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying alltogther."  Barring that, he encourages he make "an effort to produce a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part," quoting poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who described his own prayers as "merely composing his spirit to love."  Another tactic involves turning "their gaze away from Him towards themselves... trying to produce feelings the action of their own wills".  Equally effective in producing powerless prayer is to have the patient pray to a god created from his own imagination, rather than to the real God who reveals Himself in Scripture.

In what ways have your prayers changed as your knowledge of God has increased?  What have you found  helpful to strengthen your prayer life?

[Week #2]

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Reminder from Young Charles Spurgeon

Having come from a long line of Congregationalists, Spurgeon became convicted of the need for believer baptism soon after coming to the Lord as a young man. Though a member of a local Congregational church, he made arrangements for his baptism with a Baptist church some 8 miles away and wrote seeking permission from his parents. His father replied with reluctant consent. His mother also agreed, but was not enthusiastic about the prospect. She wrote the following to him...

"Ah, Charles, I often prayed the Lord to make you a Christian, but I never asked that you might become a Baptist."

Spurgeon wrote in response...

"Ah, Mother, the Lord has answered your prayer with His usual bounty, and has given you exceeding abundantly above what you asked or thought."

Though this brought a smile to my face, it also reminded me of the importance of praying regularly and fervently for the salvation of our children and grandchildren. Spurgeon recalled his mother reading the Scriptures to her children and pleading with them to be concerned about their souls. "I cannot tell how much I owe of the solemn words of my good mother..." he wrote. "I remember on one occasion her praying thus, 'Now, Lord, if my children go on in their sins, it will not be from ignorance that they perish, and my soul must bear a swift witness against them at the day of judgment if they lay not hold of Christ.'... How can I ever forget when she bowed her knee, and with her arms about my neck, prayed, 'Oh, that my son may live before Thee!'"

[from "Spurgeon: A New Biography" by Arnold Dallimore]

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Priority of Family Worship

I thought I'd share practical advice from a worship pastor with 3 young children (aged 5, 6, 8) concerning Family Worship. The FBC Library recently added a number of resources for you to view/use - you'll find them at eye level on the right as you enter the library, at the end of the "Christian Living" section, I believe. [I'll label it soon!]

1. Keep It Short:
15-30 minutes on average. You don't want it to be a tedious time, but one looked forward to and tied into daily family living.

2. Read Scripture
Read a section of verses, then unpack them together... making sure you understand the wider context. Teach your kids how to make Observations. Interpret what the passage meant to the original recipients. Then consider the Universal Principles and Personal Application. "The important thing is to connect Scripture to life in a way your kids can understand." Remember the main theme of the Bible is GOD... not the characters, who are merely foils to help us learn about God and how He is working.

3. Pray
A family that prays together understands the cares and concerns of each child, and teaches their children that God is willing to listen and able to answer! Prayer is a privilege, bought with a great price ... use it!

4.  Keep It Regular
Choose a time of day and stick to it. Make the time. Keep it a priority. You'll miss a day here and there, but start up again. It will become habit after a while and be a time of great blessing!

5. Older Kids Set the Example
Young ones will watch the older ones. I was blessed to have an older child who embraced Family Worship. Though there was a 4 year age difference, it seemed to work out nicely.

6. Limit TV
It's a proven fact that TV decreases attention span, especially in young children. If you or your kids can't pay attention for more than two minutes, perhaps it's time to pull the plug!

7. Make It a Daily Priority
Remember you're the parent. You get to decide these things. There's nothing more important to do with your children than teach them God's Word and pray with them. Their SS teacher is just a helper... you're their REAL teacher.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

EXPAND Your Comfort Zone

One thing I've observed over the years is the tendency for Christians to cling to catch phrases. I've never been a fan, finding them a bit too pat and trite, not giving a truly serious consideration of God's revealed truth. I become especially concerned when I hear (...and read in fb conversations) people quoting catch phrases more frequently than they quote God's Word! Wouldn't bringing God's Words to bear on a situation prove so much more effective?

On his blog Pastor David Hegg, whose sermons I enjoy listening to, recently considered the Christian catch phrase, "stepping outside your comfort zone". I don't believe the phrase represents a true picture of what a God-honoring Christian life looks like. It makes it sound as if serving God and glorifying Him is painful and not filled with joy and satisfaction! The real problem is we've made our "comfort zone" too narrow and we're missing out as a result! Consider Pastor Hegg's words...

"I've been pondering the idea of "stepping out of my comfort zone." Like me, you've heard this many times. We've been encouraged to do it, to go outside the supposed boundaries of our comfort. Those calling us to do so make it sound like comfort is a bad thing, a self-centered thing, and ultimately, a barrier to better living. And all this time I've believed that comfort was a good thing! And so I've been thinking about this, and have come to a conclusion: calling someone to "step out of their comfort zone" is foolish, and actually quite counter-productive. If the thing you want us to do is "outside" the zone of comfort then even if we do it, we'll just retreat back into the zone when you're not looking. This is especially true if you keep telling us that the "thing" is actually uncomfortable! So, I have a better idea.

Here it is: instead of saying "step out of your comfort zone" to get me to do something uncomfortable, say "enlarge your comfort zone to encompass a new opportunity." Enlarging my comfort zone calls on me to do two things. First, to believe that there are actually "comfortable" things that I don't now recognize. Second, to understand that once I recognize and grasp those as yet unknown comfortable things, it will make my life so much better! ... So, try this:

Think of something you're uncomfortable doing, but you know would really bring a smile to God. Then, concentrating on God's glory, check off all the myths you currently believe that keep you from being comfortable doing what God loves. Then do it! And when you find that you're most satisfied when He's most glorified, you won't be tempted to retreat to a zone of comfort; rather, you'll find that your zone has grown to encompass what God has in mind. So, don't settle for "stepping out". Grow your zone!"