A few years ago, a client of mine visited us for a series of meetings. He asked for a restaurant recommendation, and I suggested The Gandy Dancer, my favorite restaurant. The very next day he came to my office and raved about the restaurant. He was going to recommend it to every one of his colleagues.

Smiling, I asked what he’d ordered. “Nothing,” he said, because he’d been too busy. But he had “stopped by and studied the menu, and everything looked incredible.”

That is how many of us believers live our lives. We read the menu and miss the meal. It’s as though we’ve come to believe that Christianity—boiled down to its core essence—is an abstract impersonal menu of truths.

But it isn’t; and that mistake leads to a bland, malnourished, and starving life.

As an example, let’s examine the doctrine of Justification by Faith. Most Christians believe that we are justified by faith and not by works. I do too. Unfortunately, most teaching focuses on the theological concept of Justification by Faith. It doesn’t teach us how to live a life of Justification by Faith.

We are reading the menu and missing the meal.

It’s as though we think that entry into heaven is a one-question multiple-choice exam. We arrive at the pearly gates, and Jesus hands us the Entry-Into-Heaven-Exam sheet,

The Incarnation of the Son of God, the earthly ministry and teaching of Jesus, the suffering and death of the Messiah, and the resurrection of the Son of Man; they all boil down to this moment. Which box will we check?

The hosts of heaven wait in anticipation. All the disciples are there; the martyrs watch; the angels, the seraphim and cherubim all wait with hushed eagerness. Will we check the right box, or will we be chopped?

Is this the essence of Christianity? Does it all boil down to an impersonal, abstract, dry, lifeless question on a test?

Justification by Faith is an invitation to a feast. When Christ promises abundant life, he offers more than an extension of life in the hereafter; he offers a richness of life of living in a reality that is deep, fulfilling, and abundant. Now. That is Justification by Faith.

Do you see where I’m going? Are we content with the correct cerebral concept; or are we operating in the personal lived-in reality of the truth. Are we chewing on the menu or feasting on the meal?

The Movie Chariots of Fire examines the lives of two Olympic runners. Someone asks Harold Abrams why he runs so hard, and he says, “When that gun goes off, I have ten seconds to justify my existence.” When someone asks Eric Liddle, he says, “When I run I feel God’s pleasure.”

Eric Liddle feasts on the satisfying reality of experiencing Christ’s love; Harold Abrams hungrily grasps for his life’s justification.

It is possible to hold the correct abstract concept—Justification by Faith—and not actually be Justified by Faith. We can claim Justification by Faith, and yet:

  • Get our personal satisfaction from raising good children
  • Receive our self esteem from success, promotions, or money
  • Only feel fulfilled when in a romantic relationship
  • Feel especially good about ourselves because we believe all the correct doctrines
  • Get our personal applause from our preaching or ministry

Like Harold Abrams, we are justifying ourselves. In fact, when we justify ourselves by our checking Justification by “Faith,” it is a type of justification by works; the “work” is our theological correctness.

Acknowledging the correct answer—Justification by Faith—is not the same thing as the state of being justified by Faith. I suspect even Satan could check the right box.

Remember when our mothers wouldn’t let us eat cookies before dinner because it spoiled our appetite? It’s because the cookies give a sugar high which temporarily masks our hunger, so we miss the good nutrition from the meal. Likewise, our self-justifying actions temporarily satisfy us, but they nourish no long-term soul satisfaction.

We need to starve our self-justifying habits.

Ultimately, though, we need to ask God for a deep heart sense of his reality in our lives. When we sense his greatness in our hearts, and when we come to experience his deep love for us, then we begin to live a life that is Justified by Faith.

Hudson Taylor was a missionary to China in the late 1800’s. He prayed a daily prayer which began:

Lord Jesus make Yourself to me

A living, bright reality…

That is what we need, his living, bright reality. A meal that finally satisfies.

Sam Williamson

I know a man, a really good man, whose life is filled with drudgery. He dutifully cares for his wife and family; he dutifully pours out his life in service; and he dutifully attends to work. He resists opposing desires—like wanting to dodge a service he hates, or aching to “take it easy”—with willpower.

His life, he feels, is dull and empty. His life, he says, is “dreariness and doldrums; I go through the motions without a purpose.” Drudgery has been his life for years. He is joyless.

The driving force of his life—that which gets him out of bed each morning—is willpower, his determination to battle contrary desires. His joyless obligations rule his heart.

I feel sorry for him and his life of dreariness and drudgery. And, yes, he is a Christian. His joyless life unfortunately reflects the lives of many believers. It’s why many nonbelievers don’t like Christianity. They don’t want our dull life. They don’t want to become like us.

Yikes! The gospel is meant to be a transforming power of joy. What has happened to us?

Desires and the unexamined life (bear with me here)

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Thank you, Michele.)

Many embrace lives of passion, longing for freedom from rules and restriction, freedom to follow any desire. But unexamined desires fester. Desires become cravings, and cravings become addictions. Soon the desired pleasure is beyond reach, and the cravings become masters. Not wanting to be “slaves to rules” they become slaves—literally—to desires.

All because of unexamined desires. There is a world of desires beneath our desires, something we want even more. We need to examine what we most deeply want. G. K. Chesterton said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”

But Christians today—for the most part—are taught to live from will not desire.

Will and the unexamined life

Socrates’ comment equally applies to the “wills” of men and women. They’re unexamined.

Many believers mistakenly use “will” as the primary weapon against desire. Failure to examine our “will” keeps us from digging deeper. “Will” focuses on behavior rather than motivation. Tim Keller writes,

Religion operates on the principle: I obey; therefore I am accepted (by God). The gospel operates on the principle: I am accepted through the costly grace of God; therefore I obey. Two people operating on these two principles can sit beside each other in church on Sunday trying to do many of the same things—read the Bible, obey the Ten Commandments, be active in church, and pray—but out of two entirely different motivations. (Emphasis added)

Using “will” to avoid bad desires is good in the short term but it fails in the long term; we need to examine what is beneath our “will.” Stopping our self examination at willpower masks something deeper.

The most common word for “will” in the New Testament is thelo.  It can also be translated “desire.” That’s because will and deep desires are hard to separate. We skip the second scoop of ice cream due to will, but that will is closely connected to a desire to take two inches off our waist. The strongest desire wins, sometimes our yearning for ice cream and sometimes our longing to be lean.

Pharisees also used “will” to battle outer desires of the flesh, but that “will” was tied to inner desires for pride, reputation, and self justification; it was still based on bad desires.

We need to examine our will, for unexamined reliance on will can be dangerous. If we primarily use “will” to create behavior, we miss the motivations of the heart. Good external behavior can come from good desires and from bad desires.

Joy and desires

Pleasure comes from a desire that is placated. Joy comes from the deepest desires of the heart that are satisfied. Living in the shallow desires of sensuality brings some pleasure, but it is short lived and doesn’t deeply satisfy.

Coming to know the deepest desires of the heart—literally to know and be loved by God—brings deep satisfying joy. Keller also wrote, “The gospel moves you to do what you do more and more out of grateful joy in … God himself.”

Joy and Christianity

My friend (from the beginning of the article), who lives a dull life of drudgery, uses will to avoid shallow desires, but he also avoids any desires. To find deep joy, yes, we control shallow desires, but deep joy comes from actual fulfillment of our deepest desires.

In the end, the best “will” is choosing to live out the renewed heart’s deepest desires.

John Newton wrote this about the joy-filled believer’s heart:

Our pleasure and our duty,
Though opposite before,
Since we have seen his beauty,
Are joined to part no more.

When we begin to see the beauty of Christ and all he does for us, our duty and our pleasure—our will and our desire—become one.

Willpower alone leads to the joyless drudgery of restriction; desire-power leads to the joyful fulfillment of God-given desires of the heart. It leads to real Freedom.

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart. All rights reserved.

There’s a story about the artist Michelangelo who passed by a block of marble somewhere. He stopped transfixed and said, “I see an angel in there. Quick, bring me my chisel.”

This story illustrates how God sees his children.

Many believers I know primarily see the unfinished parts of their lives. It doesn’t matter if we are in grade school, High School, College, or in middle age. We see the things we don’t like, and we focus on the unfulfilled desires. We see the marble not the sculpture.

It’s like we are looking at our future lives through the wrong end of a telescope, everything we want to be seems really far away.

God, on the other hand, is looking at us through the other side of the telescope. He sees our future today, everything that we most deeply want to be, everything God desires for us. He sees all that now.

Just like Michelangelo.

God sees our future today, and he’s chiseling away at all that superfluous stuff that’s not us. At times that chisel may hurt a bit, but it’s just chipping away all the flakes that hide what he’s purposed us to be.

This truth is reality. God sees us today as the person he is making us to become tomorrow.

This is not something new.

It happened all the time in the bible.

  • God said, “Abraham never wavered in his faith” (Rom. 4:20). And yet Abraham disobeyed God and fled to Egypt; while there he lies to Pharaoh about his wife; and later he doubts God’s promise by trying to fulfill it himself. And yet God says Abraham never wavered. God saw the finished product while we see the work in process.
  • Gideon was scared to death of the Midianites; we first see Gideon cowering in the corner of a cave. The angel of God says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor” (Jud. 6:12). God saw a warrior in that block of cowardly marble.
  • And of course you remember David. He commits adultery, covers it up, and murders a best friend. Of him God says, “I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do” (Acts 13:22). What did God see that we don’t?

Okay. So what?

What we believe about God determines how we live. The serpent’s strategy with Eve was to corrupt what she believed about God. He told her that God didn’t have her best interests in mind; God was keeping her down. Eve believed the serpent, and doubted God’s love, and she acted. The rest of human history has been a story of violence, oppression, and betrayal.

All because of a person’s belief about God.

Our perception of God’s view of us reveals a belief about God. It is a belief about the nature of God. If we believe God is a harsh taskmaster, we will live our lives under the dark shadow of trying to avoid him. We’ll try to hide our faults from God and others; and we’ll even try to hide them from ourselves.

But.

When we begin to believe God is a loving parent who desires the best for us, we begin to relax, and we find peace. We see him as the Master sculptor, shaping us into the people we were designed to be. He’s chipping away the false us. He’s unveiling the real us.

He’s creating a work of art.

The various trials of life take on a new perspective. We now perceive the tests of God as his way of bringing us freedom from the stones that weigh us down; they make us into art.

We also begin to see others differently. Instead of seeing all the ways others fail to live up to the harsh taskmaster, we begin to see the person inside that block of marble. We root for them. We hope for them. We long for their freedom. We begin to love them more.

Our choice.

So here is the deal. We can choose to believe the real “us” is what we see today—like one of those many unfinished projects we started and will never finish, or we can choose to believe our real person is already seen by the Master Artist who is just polishing off the bits and pieces that conceal the real us.

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart. All rights reserved.