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Going Deeper - #2 The Religious vs. the Spiritual Person

Maurits Stevens, March 12, 2017

We continue our series Going Deeper on the practice of Spiritual Disciplines. We look at it from the perspective of two different types of persons - the first is ‘the religious and manipulative person’ and the other is ‘the spiritual and worshipping person’. How do you experience the presence of God in your everyday life? What challenges do you face? How can you encourage a fellow follower of Jesus in this? How can the Spiritual Disciplines help you in your everyday life with God?


Intro: stories, wisdom and sayings from the Desert Fathers

I would like to begin with some stories and wisdom.[1] A certain monk, Serapion, owned a Gospel manuscript: and he sold it and gave to the hungry, saying: “I sold the same Word that said to me, ‘Sell what you have and give to the poor.'”

Abba Theodore went to abba Macarius and said to him,  "I have three good books, and I am  helped by reading them; other monks also want to read them and they are helped by them. Tell me, what am I to do?" The old man said, "Reading books is good but possessing nothing is more than all.' When he heard  this, he went away and sold the books and gave the money to the poor.

When abba Macarius was in Egypt, he found a man in his house and he was stealing his possessions. He went up to the thief as though he were a traveller who did not live there and helped him to load the possessions and led him on his way in peace, saying to himself,  "We brought nothing into this world; but the Lord gave; as he willed, so is it done; blessed be the Lord in all things."

These stories come from the so called ‘Desert Fathers’.[2] They were early Christian monks who lived in the desert in Egypt beginning around the third century AD. The Desert Fathers had a major influence on the development of Christianity. They were radical in following Christ and the application of Scripture. They wanted to live and show a practical and consequent way of life that must be followed. This way of life was characterized by ‘solitude, silence and prayer, caring for the poor, doing good and memorization of Scripture’.

Take Gregory; a wealthy and well educated man with a high position in Rome in the 6th century. But he chose to become ‘a servant of servants’. [3] He sold all of his possessions and gave the money to the poor. One of his sayings is: ‘People think that they’re innocent when they believe that they don’t have to share their possessions. But people who think like that, are stealing the life of others.

They create a battle field, going around murdering, because they withhold what belongs to someone else. Because when you offer help to someone in need, you give what is from them and not from yourself.’ Radical stuff, what he basically says is: ‘not sharing with the poor is stealing from them’.

Today I continue with my series on the Spiritual Disciplines. They are practices like ‘prayer, solitude, fasting, giving, sacrifice and so on’ which help you to ‘Go Deeper with God’. The great thing about the spiritual disciplines is that they make your relationship with God so practical and physical. You’re whole being is involved in the practice of these disciplines; spirit, mind, soul and body. The Desert Father’s serve as a radical example in the practice of these sort of activities. But the involvement of your whole being is exactly what ‘spirituality’ is about: the outworking of your relationship with God in your everyday life.

But there is a danger in the practice of these disciplines. And the danger is that you’re going to use it for the wrong reasons and motivation. Today I would like to look at two different types of persons. The first is ‘the religious and manipulative person’ and the other is ‘the spiritual and worshipping person’.

The Religious [manipulative] Person

Reading: Isaiah 58:1-5

Isaiah was a prophet during the 8ty century BC. A prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of God. Isaiah spoke to the people of Israel in the Old Testament. They were the people of God since the days of Moses and were called in a deep, intimate and covenant relationship with God [Ex. 19 & 20]. And what was happening? What did God had to say to the Israelites through Isaiah? Over the centuries they’d developed an overall-lifestyle of sin and rebellion [vs. 1]. By name they were still God’s people, but their everyday lives didn’t show any difference compared with the surrounding nations. They had become ‘religious’. And what do religious people do?

They do as if they are believers; they call themselves believers, they even act as believers. They pray, they go to church, they tithe, fast and might even read their Bibles. Exactly like the Israelites in Isaiah 58. They seek God, go to the temple, they seem eager to know God’s will. They even fast!

 

What’s the problem? It all looks pretty good, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly what the problem is with religious people. It all may look pretty good, but going deeper – to the level of their hearts; you will find that it isn’t good at all! The problem with the religious person is that he does ‘as if’

Look at vs. 2 ‘they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God’.

As if they know what is right. But knowing and doing what is right are not the same. Neither is looking like or being a Christian the same. In vs. 3-5 you see what is really in their hearts: on the day of their fasting they ‘do as they please’ – things that have nothing to do with God’s will and purpose for life. They fasted and prayed as if they were God’s people, but meanwhile they were exploiting their workers. There were fights, quarrels, social injustice. I am not talking about an occasional sin. At times we all fail to live UP to God [1 John 1:8]. But their overall lifestyles didn’t show any evidence that God was in the center of their spirituality!

Their motivation was purely self-centered. They were fasting and praying ‘to get something from God’, rather than to turn to God and be transformed by God. They were manipulating God – keeping religious practices as going to the temple, seeking Him in prayer etc. for the single reason of getting God to work for them. And not to worship and please Him.

The religious person makes the spiritual disciplines as a means to an end. A big mistake, because the spiritual disciplines have no value in themselves. What is the point of fasting, if you just do what you will? What is the point of reading your Bible if your overall lifestyle is not changed by it? There is no point in that – ‘you cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high’ [vs. 4].

In the NT you will find Jesus constantly surrounded with religious people, like the Pharisees [e.g. Math. 9:14-17]. Jesus even warns ‘not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only who does the will of my Father…’ [Math. 7:21]. Jesus talks about people who look like and behave as if they follow Jesus, but deep down in their hearts have no interest in Jesus, only in themselves.

And even you and I; as devout but maybe not perfect disciples of Jesus, need to be careful to keep our motives right in our relationship with God [1 Tim. 4:16]. When I had just come to Christ and went to church, my pastor would often say that we should be faithful in keeping ‘quite time’; a time set apart each day to pray and read your bible.

And of course, you’ll need that – they are two simple practices to enjoy God’s active love in your life. But what happened with me is that over the years ‘Quite time’ became a goal in itself rather than God. I kind of lost the right motivation and purpose of doing it. It became a religious activity. E.g. I began to feel ‘guilty’ when I forgot to do Quite time. I even began to develop the belief that if I would not be faithful in keeping Quite time, God would withhold his blessing, forgiveness or approval from me. And thus, what I began to do was the opposite: making sure that every day I would read my bible and pray to God; so that I would not miss out on his blessing and hopefully would earn His favor. My motivation became to do Quite time in order to get something from God – rather than to enjoy His presence! Quite time became Manipulating Time!

The error of the religious person is that he uses e.g. the spiritual disciplines as prayer, fasting or studying Scripture ‘to get something from God’. To use Him for his own purposes, feelings and pleasures. The focus of the religious person is on the outward activity and not on the inner condition of the heart.  In fact, he is trying to manipulate God in the way how he practice the spiritual disciplines.

I don’t think anyone of us would like to be identified with the religious and manipulative person. And you don’t have to. Because there is a difference between religious activities and a righteous way of life. And to see how this sort of life looks like, we turn to the following verses in Isaiah 58.

The Spiritual person | Is. 58:6-9

Reading: Isaiah 58:6-9

Up to another story from the Desert Fathers? ‘Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and he said to him, "Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven; his fingers became like ten lamps of  fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."[4]

 

 

God is not looking for someone who is keeping the spiritual disciplines as a religious activity. No, God looks beyond the outward activity and wants to know what is in your heart. He wants to know whether your prayer, fasting, study of Scripture and so on has true meaning for your whole life. Your ‘everyday’ life – and not just on Sunday [e.g. vs. 5].

And thus, God seeks for a heart that is sincere, honest and genuine about Him. He seeks in you a person who is willing to repent and turn to God in full surrender [vs. 5]. So that God can really do his transformative work, release his free blessing and dwell in you. God’s desire for you is to become ‘all flame’ [Romans 12:11]; on fire for Jesus! Fasting or praying is not the issue, it is what pleases Him. A spiritual and worshipping person – though not perfect by himself but made perfect by Jesus [Col. 1:22] – has this desire. He has centred his life on Jesus. The spiritual disciplines are only activities that helps you to stay in that fellowship with God and keep that fire burning.

What happens to you, as a spiritual and worshipping person, is that God’s nature becomes such a part of your inner being that your worship expresses a love for God, which is so deep that it must overflow in the way you treat others. Especially those weaker than you. That’s the point of Isaiah 58. Fasting as surrender to God’s presence and as result of that - changed lives. Made visible in the overall lifestyle and attitude towards creation.

The spiritual disciplines then, not only become a way to go deeper with God; they become a tangible and physical expression of a life that is changed by God. Luther said about faith: ‘O, this faith is a living, busy, active powerful thing…such a man [with such faith] becomes without constraint willing and eager to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer all manner of ills, in order to please and glorify God, who has shown toward him such grace’. [5] The practice of disciplines as an overflow of grace, with the single purpose to worship God.

In Isaiah 58 we see that the overflow of grace is demonstrated in liberation. God seeks the liberation of every single person on this planet including your environment. And how this liberation is made effective is through His people; you and me, us, Christians.

Followers of Jesus. How? In the sharing of food with the hungry, by receiving the stranger and clothing the naked. Knowing deep from within that this is an ultimate act of service and worship to Jesus [see also Math. 25:31-40].

Can I ask you a question? Now that you have received the freedom of Jesus, what are you doing with it? […] I asked that question myself as well. Am I living as a free person, spreading the freedom wherever I go and in all my relationships? Or do I turn my face from the broken? The sinful? This week I had an interesting conversation with a father of a child in my daughter’s class. We talked about work. And what made this conversation interesting was his vocabulary. He was constantly swearing. In quite heavy words. Now, that’s interesting, to talk about my life as a Christian and work as pastor with a guy who deeply respect what I do, but made that clear with swearing! Anyway – my natural tendency would be to not talk with him any further and to quite the conversation as soon as possible. But in my following of Jesus I reached out to him, knowing that same God that he was cursing deeply loves him! For me, this was a practical application of Isaiah 58.  

The apostle James says: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ [James 1:27]. Later on he adds: ‘faith without works is dead’ [2:26].

We cannot be saved by works, good deeds or the practice of spiritual disciplines – we can only be saved by grace [Rom. 5:17]. And yet, faith, works and the spiritual disciplines are so closely connected with one another that they can’t be separated [James 2:24]. Dallas Willard powerful states: ‘It is first of all the in breaking of God into our lives, and that in breaking will change all our ideas and all our behaviour.’ A spiritual person cannot have an intensive prayer life and not show compassion with to neighbour. He cannot study the Bible and not do what is right in his own life. He might not be perfect, but genuinely he is pursuing righteousness and justice. Why? Because Jesus is in the centre of his spirituality. And once you have received the grace of God, you cannot but allow that grace to flow out to everyone around.

It is not about the spiritual disciplines and true fasting is more than what you don’t eat. It is about pleasing, serving and worshipping God. Being all flame. This is the true mark of a righteous way of life.[6]

The Abundant life

Let me come to a closing. Do you know what God promises when He becomes the focus in your life? When God is the centre of the spiritual disciplines? He promises abundant life. In vs. 8-14 Isaiah pictures the action of God towards people that genuinely humble themselves before Him, allowing God to transform their lives: then…when you do this, in such humble attitude…only then…light will break forth, healing appears, righteousness will go before you and the presence of God will rest upon you. You will call and the Lord will answer: ‘Here am I’.

The Spiritual disciplines, practiced in the right attitude and with the right motivation [to dwell in God’s presence and worship Him] do open the door for God’s blessing. Not as a reward, but as a result of His grace and love. The spiritual disciplines serve to lead you into the abundant life God offers [Isaiah 58:11, John 10:10].[7]

Let me finish with some practical questions, drawn from our passage today. If you look into your near environment. Your family, neighbourhood, street, job, study and so on…do you see people with a certain need? Do you see anyone hungry? Someone wandering through life? Do you see anyone struggling in whatever way? […]

How can you share your life with them? How can you be a source of God’s grace and freedom to their lives? How can you provide?

"If you will, you can become all flame."

 

 

Outline & Questions for the Home Group

Opening

  • Prayerfully read and meditate as a group on Isaiah 58:6-9 [10-15 min’s.]
    • What word/verse is highlighted for you?
    • What do you think the Lord is saying to you through this passage? 
    • Share briefly with one another what you believe God has been saying to you.

 

Group dialogue [30-45 min’s.]

  1. What are the most valuable possessions in your life? To what extend are you attached to it [rate from 1 (not attached) to 10 (strongly attached, can’t live without it)].
  2. How does a story like that of Gregory come across [see intro sermon]? What thoughts and emotions do you have in reading such a story?
  3. Study Isaiah 58:1-5. What is the root problem of the people’s attitude in fasting?
  4. Have you ever made a spiritual discipline like prayer, fasting, studying the bible a means to an end? If so, when, how and why? What made you change?
  5. Paul instructs Timothy to ‘watch over your life and doctrine closely and to persevere in them’ [1 Tim. 4:16]. What do you think it means to ‘watch over your life’? Can you tell the group in what ways you keep your motivations right? How do you watch over your core beliefs and doctrine? What activities/steps do you take in order to grow in your relationship with Christ?
  6. How do you experience the presence of God in your everyday life [Monday – Sunday]? What challenges do you face? How can you encourage a fellow follower of Jesus in this? How can the Spiritual Disciplines help you in your everyday life with God? Or if you practice them, can you tell the group how you benefit of it?
  7. Read the quote from Luther on page 5 of the sermon. How is his experience for you? Does it apply to your life? If not, why? If so, how?
  8. Read Isaiah 58:6-9, James 1:27 and James 2:14-24. Do you think that within our church we emphasize too less or too much on the practical side of our faith in Jesus? How is that for you personally? Or for you home group? How can both [personally and home group] participate in social justice?
  9. Read James 2:24 and Romans 5:1. Are these two passages in contradiction with each other? What does it mean to be ‘justified’? What is the relationship between faith, works and justification?
  10. What is the promise of God towards a person who genuinely and humbly seek His presence [Is. 58:8-14]?

 

 

Prayer / Ministry [10 min’s.]

  • Invite the Lord’s presence and take a few minutes to become aware of God’s presence
  • Ask the holy Spirit to fill you – take some time for this and allow the holy Spirit to gently touch your life and fill your heart with the overflow of His presence
  • Concentrate on the words ‘Here am I’
  • Tell God your needs, desires, wishes and allow God to speak to you about it
  • Maybe God has been speaking to you – share it with the group. If it is a word for someone else you can pray for that person. You can also share experiences.
  • Bless one another with the words: ‘May the God’s light break forth like the dawn, and your healing quickly appear. May God’s righteousness go before you and the glory of the Lord be your rear guard. May the Lord answer when you call. May you rest in His presence. Amen’ [Is. 58:8-9]

 

 

 

[1] http://www.coptic.net/articles/paradiseofdesertfathers.txt

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_Fathers ; ETA module ‘Spiritualiteit’

[3] Rouw, M. 2015. Woestijnvaders. Inspiratie voor nu. Barneveld. Uitgeverij Brandaan. Page 16

[4] http://www.coptic.net/articles/paradiseofdesertfathers.txt

[5] Luther as quoted in Willard, D. 1988. The Spirit of Disciplines. Understanding How God Changes Lives. Harper Collins Publishers. New York. Page 39

[6] See for a similar thought: Foster, R. 2003. Celebration of Discipline. Harper Collins Publishers. New York. Page 11

[7] Foster, R. 2003. Celebration of Discipline. Harper Collins Publishers. New York. Page 14

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