The Secret to the Christian Life

Do you still get angry? Do you fight with others in actuality or even in your own mind? Do you know why? I do. And I think you can stop. In fact, I think your whole life can change if you can understand two verses of the Bible. 

James 4:1-2 “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.”

The secret to the Christian life, that is, the answer to the question: How shall we then live, is given in these two verses.

James is writing to Christians in a church. They are fighting with each other pretty intensely over something or other. What is it? It doesn’t matter. They should not be treating each other this way, because they should not be feeling so murderous and angry. 

Why are they feeling murderous and angry? Because they have “passions” at war within them.  

This is “lusts” right? No. It’s the word for “pleasures,” the same word we get our word “hedonism” from. My translation:

“Why do you fight? You want pleasure, and your desire for pleasure is at war with another one of your desires for pleasure, AND, with someone else’s desire for pleasure.

So, desire for pleasure is wrong? Sure, if you don’t want to have any enjoyment of life at all. But is that what you want? Is that what God wants for you? You might be thinking: “No, God wants me to have pleasure in him.”

But how will you do that if you shut down your pleasure mechanism, which is what you’d have to do. You’d have to train yourself to be stoic. If you’re stoic, you won’t take the right kind of delight in God.

So, desire for pleasure must not be wrong, and I guess I can take pleasure in some things.

Ok, logically, that must be true. So it’s ok that we take pleasure in some things. So how is it that our pleasures get at war inside us and with others? 

I think it is because we have not done the hard work of prioritizing our life and values.

Pleasure is something I get when I gain something that I value: God, success, sex, cake, something beautiful, lot’s of things. The lack of pleasure comes from not getting those things when I’d like them, or losing them when I had them. It feels bad. It feels like pain, or depression. It should feel bad. This is not sinful.

So here’s how I do it: I set priorities logically based on what I perceive to be the facts of reality and causality. These are the things that I value, that is, the things that I act to gain or to keep. I make sure these things are the proper things for the way God has called me to live. 

It starts with my ultimate purpose: To enjoy and glorify God. He is my highest value. If I were thrown in a dirty dungeon to starve to death, I’d still have my highest value. You want your highest value to be the hardest thing for anyone to take away.

My penultimate purpose is my life: I believe in the biblical principle stewardship, so I believe life is not about what you have, but what you do with what you have. The most basic thing I have is my life. While I am on earth, I value staying alive and enjoying it if I can without corrupting my other values. Because of this, my next value is…

My health: I can’t do any of the important things of life if I not only don’t stay alive, but don’t have any strength or energy.

My work: I have to produce something in order to provide for me and my family. You could convince me that my family is a higher value than my work, but in the sense that I would tell a young man who wants to find a wife and have a family that he needs to get a job first, I put producing as a higher priority. If I don’t, all the Millers (that’s me and my wife and kids) die. I also put handling finances/investing in this category, and any mundane daily work as well. I put dishes, diapers, home repairs, and lawn work in this category. Work is producing some kind of order. But this would not justify workaholism, because my next value is…

My wife: Marriage has to be attended to. It is such an important part of joyful life and it brings attention and glory to God. I want my marriage to be fulfilling, and encouraging. Romance, connection, and cooperation are the key areas of focus and all equally important.

My Children: The kids come before any other relationships outside the marriage. I won’t put friends, church members, or extended family before my kids. The areas of focus in order of importance are: Their faith, love between us, character training, education. I suppose I might put my home in this category as well, because my home is the place for my family to live.

My church: For me, this is mixed up in my work, since I am a pastor, but I still try to think of my church as my church family separate from thinking of my job as the pastor of that church. Otherwise, worshiping on Sunday with my church family feels more like work and less like gathering with my brothers and sisters in the local expression of the worldwide Body of Christ. One is not restful, the other is.

Service to the community, the poor, and my geographical neighbors: This is not optional for Christians. We make time for it after the other things. If you are tempted to put this before the stuff above, seriously rethink that logically.

Extended family: They technically come before service to the community, but none of mine live close.

Leisure: Reading and playing the piano are my leisure activities. I don’t have time for any others (well, Mario Cart with my kids too), although there are things I would do if I had much more time (fishing, golfing, playing softball, singing in a choir).

Nice things: Having something I like is a bonus, but not a huge priority. I’d like a nicer car (I have 2006 Hyundai), but I value financial freedom more.

That’s the main stuff. To get any of it out of order will cause confusion, a war of pleasures/passions. For instance. I say I value family over reading. If I am trying to read more than I really have time to, and one of my kids is trying to get my attention, I might blow up on him. If I am aware of my value priorities, then I would get the proper pleasure from putting my book down, a lesser value, and talking to my child, a greater value.

Some of these values could seem like they are equal and need to be balanced as though they were. What I mean is, they are all important when it is possible to have them all in the course of your regular life. Work is really important, but things get messed when you cross a line into the other really important things in your life. So you balance intelligently based on your true and righteous values. You pick your values based on principles. If you currently don’t feel like making your health a high priority, then you need to readjust based on logic, not on what you feel like. If you don’t feel like putting your wife ahead of your friends, then you need to readjust your values based on logic, based on truth, based on what you thought was best when you were in your right mind with God with some space for visioning and planning.

Have you taken space for visioning and planning? Do it. Figure out what is important, and make those things important. Your “pleasures” will begin to align with your values in the right order. They won’t be at war with each other, because each of your values will know its proper place. Your emotions, the pleasure and pain mechanisms, will begin to serve you. This is the secret to never having “fights and quarrels.” It is the secret to a peaceful enjoyment of a powerful and productive life abundant. It is a life that glorifies God and brings a smile to the face of your good Father in heaven, who loves you very much.

Choose to Grow

Anything that is not growing is dying. We are made to grow. The very idea of life, especially abundant life, means that it is necessary to grow. Sometimes, because of events in your life, growth is automatic, but most of the time, we have to choose to grow.

You are saved by grace and reckoned as righteous by Christ’s sinless perfection.  But you still have to grow.  If you don’t like it, consider that Jesus was perfect, but still needed to grow. This may surprise you, but it’s true.  

The Bible says that he was made perfect through suffering (Heb 2:10). This begs the question. What was he before he was perfect?  In a sense, of course, he was already perfect.  Like a baby is perfect but still has a long way to go toward growing up.  In fact, Jesus was a baby at one point. As such, he could not talk, could not walk, could not do anything.  Like all babies, he had a long way to grow.  One day, his consciousness, that is, his ability to perceive, developed just to the point where he could build some minor concepts.  He would have been sitting there looking at the other kids who were slightly older than him, and he would have noticed some things. First, that they were a lot like him.  Two legs, two arms, hair, fingers, crying, eating, pooping.  He would realize that unlike the family goat, he had a lot in common with these kids.

But these other kids were slightly different than him. They didn’t crawl anymore.  That one there used to crawl, but now she’s doing something similar to his mother and father, the big people.  She is walking on two legs, upright. That created a longing in toddler Jesus.  Was it insecurity?  No. He was morally and emotionally perfect.  It was not sinful envy. But it was longing.  This new desire formed from the understanding that he could not do something, although he wanted to.   So, the next time he was able to pull himself up onto something, he took a step. 

What do you think happened to the glorious Savior of the world then? I think he crashed to the ground, and maybe he cried, until his adopted father, Joseph, having proudly watched the whole thing, came over, patted his head fondly, and stood him back up.

This likely happened again and again, until one day, Jesus was no longer a person who needed to learn how to walk. He had gone from a perfect being who crawled to a perfect being who walked. And this is one of the wonderful things about being a human. You can always grow, and the fact that you need to does not necessarily mean that you are less than perfect as you are. I am not saying you are perfect, but the fact you have to grow doesn’t prove that you are not perfect. It only proves that there is something you can learn, something you can grow in.  And to understand this is pure joy.  Have you ever seen the look on a baby’s face when he or she walks for the first time?  If you want to know what delight looks like, there it is.  

Now, by the way, this is a good time for a complicated thought:  What else usually happens in this moment that intensifies the emotion?  The baby is there and mom, dad, brother, sister, other sister, Aunt Peggy, and the UPS guy all happen to be there when this happens and what do they do?  They go crazy. They clap. They smile. They yell, “Good job! You’re amazing!”  The difference between you and Jesus is that somehow, perfect baby Jesus delighted in his accomplishment, and you (and I) got taken over by love for the praise of man (unless you are a lucky sociopath).  

This confuses everything.  Along with stern disapproval when they didn’t like what we were doing, we learned to do things to please others, or, we learned it was impossible to please others as much as our hearts wanted to, so we gave up and rebelled, which is two sides of the same coin of living for other people. There is a right way to live for others, generously, Christlike, and there is a wrong, and much, much more common way.  

But for now, just understand that growing is a part of life, and I would say a fun part, a rewarding and fulfilling part. Mastering things that were once hard is a superpower for building self-esteem and confidence.  

Wait!  Doesn’t that make it an idol?! Don’t preachers say that I need to find my esteem and confidence in what Jesus has done, and not what I do?

Now can you see why so many Christians are messed up?  We are hardwired by God to love a life of growth, but because of sin and bad (but well-meaning) parenting, we trade that for a life of seeking approval and praise from others.  And it is true that our primary identity is in Christ and in our Creator, after whom and by whom we are designed.  But here is an interesting question:  Did Christ build a false identity around walking?  Did he start announcing to everyone on Facebook that he was a walker? Did he go out and buy all the trendiest walking gear, shoes, ski poles with rubber on the end, T-shirts and bumper stickers for his car that announce to the world what he was about, walking.  No, he did not make an identity or a religion out of his new skill.  We would have done that, because we were born in sin, and so were our parents. But Christ did not. He was perfect.  

But that does not mean that mastering the skill didn’t give him some self esteem and confidence that informed his thinking when he noticed the next deficit.

Talking

“Why does it seem that the older kids seem to be saying something to each other? All I say is goo goo ga ga. What if my mom is actually trying to communicate with me and is not just making random noises? I need to learn. I am compelled to learn.” And just like you, learn he did. Then it was using the bathroom somewhere besides his diaper. Eventually it was using a mallet, and a saw. Joseph, his earthly adopted feather, was a carpenter. I’m sure that fairly early on it was reading Hebrew, then understanding the law and prophets so that by twelve Jesus could lose time in his Father’s house in Jerusalem conversing with the scribes about his Father in heaven. The Bible tells us that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature” (Lk 2:52).

And then what does it mean that he had to grow perfect through suffering?  Perfect in what way if he was already sinless?  It seems to mean that he had to suffer in order to be prepared for the ultimate suffering of taking on the sins of the world as the sacrificial Lamb of God.  Tortured. Broken. Filled with the filth of sin, which he had never experienced—my anger, my lust, my envy, my hatred, mine and yours and Adam’s and everyone else’s.  He had to endure a temporarily broken fellowship with his beloved Father in Heaven who had always been with him.   

Jesus was grown into the ability to endure all this.  He did not want to do any of it, but it was what he came to do.  In the garden of Gethsemane he even prayed that the cup of God’s wrath would pass if possible, but it was not possible.  God had to be just and the justifier.  There was apparently only one way to wipe the great sin of the world away, and God had been preparing the consciousness of the Hebrews for hundreds of years with the law and the sacrificial system.  It was time, and Jesus would say, “Not my will, but yours be done.” 

For you and I it is no less a process of growth to become what God made us to be.  Jesus deals with the sin in us, but we still have to grow spiritually. We are already perfect when we believe and put our faith in Jesus’ work to save us, repenting of our sin.  We are made into a new creation having received the righteousness of Christ as sure as he received in himself unrighteousness of us.  But we need to grow. You are perfect, but you need to and you can grow.   

See yourself right, and see your need for growth right.  Fellowship (verb) with God, abide in him (Jn 5:4), and look for what is next. What is he doing in you?  Do you still have unforgiveness? Grow. Do you still have anger?  Grow in love.  Do you still worry?  Grow in peace and trusting God.  Do you still find yourself seeking approval?  Grow in looking to what God has already done and to your own honest evaluation of yourself.  

Work with God on the things you see that need to change, and learn to delight in progress the way you did as a baby learning to walk.

But you are not alone in this. You have teachers. You have brothers and sisters in Christ. You have examples to follow. You have the Bible to learn from. And best of all, you have the Spirit of God living in you, by whom you can live and grow by his strength and direction. Choose growth and choose life. Let’s talk tomorrow about how the Holy Spirit enables us to do this.

Pride: Two Kinds

There are two kinds of pride. A good kind and a bad kind.  

What is the difference?  Indeed, what is the difference?  

The Good Kind

God created man in his image.  He delegated him to rule the earth in his name, to subdue it. To make things of it. To steward it.  He gives him gifts and talents to steward for his glory. Man should delight to function in these, to push himself to the limits of these for their own sake, for the Lord’s sake, because of the joy it brings.  

Isn’t that the way we were made to function? Would there be an exaltation in being man that would not rob glory from the Creator?  Could we not exult and still honor the one who is greater still than we could ever be?  

Could we not glory in Being itself?  Could we not take great joy in breaking out, and out, and out still further?  Could we not glory in doing a job well done, in bringing order to chaos, or chaos to totalitarianism?  

Could we view other men as intrinsic equals who are free to pursue the end of their own merits and potential?  Could we judge them, but not impartially, and not from a desire to defeat them, or to dominate them, or to take pride over them?  Could we love them and love their achievements as much as our own? Could we not give glory to God who made them as well as us?  Could we not join together in a “wise crowd,” and pool our talents, and energy?  Could we not glorify God in this pursuit?  

Could we not speak the truth to one another unashamedly?  Fearlessly? Lovingly, without fear of rejection? Rejection is a sign that someone is unworthy of us because they are not bearing God’s image properly. We can love them and move on. 

The good kind of pride loves life, affirms it.  The good kind of pride loves the Great God who made us, and Jesus Christ, the best of us. The good kind of pride loves its fellow man and expects the best of them, won’t settle for less. Won’t settle for less than total truth, total effort, total godliness, total righteousness. 

The Bad Kind

The bad kind of pride is envious of others.  The bad kind of pride seeks the recognition of men and puffs up when it gets it. The bad kind of pride gets mad at God for not making me better that I am, which means better than the men around me.  The bad kind of pride seeks the worship of others. The bad kind of pride hates. Hating one is hating all. Hating anyone is hating myself. Hating myself is hating God. 

The bad pride is suspicious of everyone and keeps score of status.  The bad kind of pride revels in dominating others because of our deep fear that we are nothing.  There is no joy in the bad pride.  There’s only suffering, arrogance, depression, anger, and fear.  The bad pride is hell. 

Cultivating the Good Pride

  1. Know God.
  2. Abide in God.
  3. Do right.
  4. Abide in God.
  5. When you have a chance to be courageous or cowardly, be courageous.
  6. Abide in God.
  7. When you have the chance to lie or tell the truth, tell the truth.
  8. Abide in God.
  9. When you have the chance to be responsible, or irresponsible with what God has assigned you (brushing your teeth, starting a company, raising a child), be responsible.
  10. Abide in God.
  11. When you see that you are holding a contradiction that to let go of will cause pain, choose to let go and go through pain. Wholeness and integrity is worth it. 
  12. Abide in God.

The good pride comes from knowing who God is, who you are in light of that, and walking according to what that means. It feels like being solid, settled in soul, happy, strong in spirit, and loving towards all. It feels like perfect peace. Don’t settle for less, and don’t go for the satanic bad pride. It’s hell.