Search the Scriptures made me examine the process of backsliding in depth, by looking at (one of) the example of the Jews in Jeremiah 2:1-3:5.
First, a promising beginning of love and trust. God kept His promise to bless His people. They lived in peace, security, and happiness.
Yet it was this very proof of God's reality and goodness--not because of any lack in Him--which made His people complacent. They turned to trust in themselves and their chosen idols, giving credit for God's gifts to these idols.
I see the modern equivalent of this clearly in my urban first-world life. Once we become complacent with the blessings we are given, we don't remember as clearly Who gave them, or how they came. We start to think that perhaps we earned them, or won them. We forget that our eternal life is the gift of Christ, bought with His blood. We start to think that we earned this by all the Sundays we gave up. By all the ways we're a more self-controlled, more polite, nicer person than that Unlovable Person we know. We start to think that we've won our possessions or built up our reputation by our smart choices and good behaviour.
Whatever it is; human reasoning or street-smartness or just vanity.
Backsliding is both rejecting God and replacing Him. Many times it's not a dramatic change where we make a conscious decision to reject God. Instead, it's when we slowly, gradually, start to think our fulfilment comes from other places--slowly, gradually, start to rely on and chase after these things--slowly, gradually, fade Him out of our priorities so that our hearts are cold and hard when we do remember Him.
Your awareness of how important He is fades away.
This only happens when there's something else to replace Him.
I need to be wary of my heart. Watchful, in the midst of the blessings God has given me, in case they backfire; in case my heart is misled to backslide because of them. Watchful for arrogance which whispers that 'you earned this! you deserve this, you won this! and you have the formula to getting more!' Watchful for lusts which whisper 'I need more. I've got to have more. I deserve more.'
We don't fall out of love with one decision. We fall out of love when we forget. When we replace. And finally we reject.
Born again--we use those words without stopping to think what they really mean to our lives. They would stick like peanut butter in our mouths if we did.
As Christians our lives have begun again, this time with loving Christ as its new center instead of loving ourselves. Or at least, so we say. We even want it to be so, granted. We sing 'Jesus is the center of my world' and blissfully believe it.
However, since all of life stems from its center, we are pretty stupid if we think we can change that center without affecting everything else--or, inversely, that we've changed the center if we fixed everything else. Transformation is not the same as fixing. Polishing a bicycle's frame doesn't, strictly speaking, transform it. However, it is transformed if it sprouts wings and ceases to be a bicycle.
Love is a transforming emotion. It transforms the eyes with which we see, rather than the things we see. When we fall in love with someone we begin to see everything relative to the beloved (and get teased.) When we fall in love with Christ we ought to see everything relative to Him (even if we get teased.)
Loving Christ doesn't merely mean we fix the Sundays of our life to match Him, and fix the way we talk (most of the time) to match Him. That's a delusion of what it means to love--a popular delusion because an easy, unthinking formula. If you love your wife, you have to buy her flowers once a week, kiss her every morning, and tell people you love her. If you love Jesus, you have to tithe, go to church, and tell people you love Him. No need to think so much. No need to change so much. Jesus and your wife and everyone else will definitely be convinced you love them.
One of the greatest temptations I see in my own life and in the culture that we live in today, is the temptation to live unthinkingly. Living without thinking is bad enough as it is, but for Christians specifically I believe it's one of the most common and most harmful mistakes.
When we put Christ at the center of our lives, it means our lives will change. When our lives change, the first and inevitable step is to think. To examine ourselves, we have to first think. To realize something about ourselves, we have to first think. To change, in fact, we have to first think.
This world we live in does not challenge us to think. It challenges us merely to react. Reacting without thinking, of course, is hardly a wise idea, and anything but purposeful. And Christians live their new lives with a new purpose: as ambassadors of the Love that gave us life. And as ambassadors, as with any representative role, living unthinkingly is, well, unthinkable.
Let's keep it simple--only as much as fits in the ordinary teenager's life. The music filtering through my earphones, my mind, and out from my mouth. The news of suffering and need boring through my peace of mind, the beggar's eyes as I walked quickly past; the prickles of uneasy guilt with which I forgot them. The desires which are my puppeteers, motivating me so skilfully I don't think twice about the strings working my words and actions...I looked at one day in my life and it was enough.
Seeing all things relative to Christ. For me, that means I listen for shades of His beauty and echoes of the hope He brings, in my music. Consciously avoid (again, you must think in order to realize) what I find distracts me from Him. Respond to the news of others suffering, not in apathy and dismissal, but in sympathy and help--whether that means getting involved or sharing your resources or simply praying for those you cannot help otherwise. Prayer may not seem a very satisfactory answer to the problems of the world. But I believe that at the very least it protects us from becoming increasingly callous and indifferent to the suffering of others, which we eventually become if we keep shrugging it off. The guilt which pricks us uncomfortably at first becomes duller as we get smarter and harder. It's probably just a sensational rumour; you know how unreliable these internet reports are--there, I feel good again, and smart into the bargain. I can't help everyone, can I?--this way I won't have to help anyone.
We reason ourselves into apathy.
There are so many realizations ahead once your mind engages with what it used to run away from.
Think. Examine. Realize. Act.
For too much of our lives we are content to putter around looking at our tires, polishing a patch here on the frame, changing a gear, without once remembering that that's not actually what it's all about. We are born again--not to fix ourselves and make our lives look nicer. We are born again in the true sense of the word--transformed, in our eyes with which we see the world, our heart with which we feel, our mind with which we understand. We don't, however often realize this--that we need to involve our mind, our heart, our eyes, and not just be satisfied with our external actions.
Jesus didn't come to fix our tires. He came to give us wings.
Jim Elliott. John Wesley. Reading about the amazingly productive lives of these two men challenged me to examine my own life, and my goals for it.
How do you live purposefully and productively?
I have been slowly discovering how--mostly by discovering what is NOT the way to a purposeful and productive life.
Not by being frantically busy, involving yourself in everything that comes your way, and experiencing burnout, discouragement, disappointment when things don't work out, or you can't manage everything.
Our ideas of efficiency may work well enough for our work and studies, so that we continue thinking it's the only way to be efficient. But when it comes to spiritual things, we can't just apply the same format and expect results to pop up, exactly like how we study for an exam or get a project done (in fact it doesn't even always work for exams and projects either, as we've all bitterly learnt!)
For one, God's plans are greater than the shallow results our human methods could produce. He desires transformed hearts and lives. Even if only one or two, that may be His plan for your ministry, not a growing number of zeroes in your congregation numbers. And whereas you could come up with a smart foolproof marketing plan to draw people, you can't possibly come up with one to transform people. While this may sometimes seem frustrating, it also quietly reminds us that our service to God must always depend on Him. We cannot serve without Him. Our ministry is only effective when it relies on God for wisdom, strength, and guidance. Once we start thinking that we're smart enough, experienced enough, strong enough, pride and self-reliance creeps in and warps our service. Not only is its effect on the people we serve warped, the effect it has on our own hearts is warped as well.
That's something we forget, too. Our serving is also meant as a means for us to grow closer to God. We serve because we love God. We serve because we love our fellow sinners. But serving is also God's means of loving and growing us. Encouraging us. Showing us His goodness and power to transform us and others.
One of these lessons that serving is teaching me recently, is trust.
In serving, I find that some of my biggest struggles are reconciling my own ideas (of serving, of success) with what actually happens. I want to feel assured and thankful for the people I try to help, to see clearly that I am helping them. I want to see my plans work out. Success. Fulfillment.
Instead, what often happens is that I'm filled with doubts and fears that I'm not helping at all. I'm not wise enough! Strong enough! Selfless and loving enough!
I work hard but it doesn't turn out the way I hoped it would. Afraid it was a bad decision, a silly idea. Should I even be doing this?
I'm burning to get involved in some great and glorious work but all these little insignificant duties get in the way. It's hopeless.
Serving is a major means of learning to trust God. Not my own abilities, or my own ideas of how things should work out. It's taught me that I need to have a heart which is willing to lay aside my own ideas of efficiency, if they clash with what God has providentially placed in my lives (Elisabeth Elliott's 'divine interruptions'.)
It's a humbling experience, as you can guess. But I am slowly seeing that it is a wonderfully uplifting one too. It teaches me not to hope in myself or others or situations (which, since we are all flawed, are bound to inevitably disappoint and fail me.) Instead, the One Who is perfect in goodness, wisdom, and power, becomes your hope and dependence--One who won't fail you.
What kind of effect does the word serving have on you?
Maybe, for some of you, it wrings a tired sigh from a dutiful but burnt-out soul.
Or, it's an uncomfortable topic you'd rather not think too much on.
Or perhaps--and I hope this is the case, if not now, at least some time in your experience--it sparks a little flame of joy and happy fulfilment.
What a great joy it is when your talents and inclinations suit your area of serving with beautiful exactness. You're truly in your element, glorying that your God-given gifts are so well-used, and happy in the knowledge that you are fulfilling this need so well.
But the unfortunate fact is that this is not the case most of the time. You are burning with passion and insight to lead a youth group, but what your church needs right now is a Sunday School teacher for little ones learning about Noah's ark--still fascinated when asked to name all the animals. Or maybe you have great and glorious plans for evangelism, but the current need is for someone to bring homemade soup to a sick church member.
Conversely--you just want to continue your little labours of ministering to a few people, but someone is organising a big gospel outreach event and wants you to--horrors!--lead in public prayer, give a talk, take a discussion group of complete strangers or some other near-lethal big-stage role that requires far too much publicity for your liking. You're secure and happy making a hundred cups of coffee during church refreshments, but shiver at the idea of talking to visitors.
Whether you want to build wells in Africa, not talk to the grumpy recluse next door--or you'd rather stay home and talk to a hundred grumpy neighbours than go to Africa--how can we serve God when we're so badly equipped, so inadequate, so reluctant?
What do we do when the areas of service open to us aren't our areas of skill and passion?
(which is inevitable)
We flinch, knowing that our weaknesses, limitations, and inadequacies are going to be taken out from the little box we locked them safely away in, dusted off, and framed for us and all the world to see.
We reluctantly, grumpily agree. I thought I was done with piano after dutifully surviving Grade 8, now I've got to suffer again, plodding through hymns without inspiration or excitement.
We become very creative with a list of reasons why we can't, shouldn't.
Either we convince ourselves with those reasons which sound so good, and actually get pretty proud of ourselves. No really; let someone else have a chance; I'm just not good enough, you see, I'd rather it wasn't done at all than done badly...Humility, you see. Just being humble.
Or we get defensive and aggrieved. No one else serves as much as I do. Everyone expects me to volunteer...no one's even grateful when I do it...people are just going to criticise me for doing it badly so I might as well let them do it themselves.
At least for me, serving in these less-than-ideal circumstances has taught me a sobering lesson about my heart. I fretted about my insecurities until I realised that my grousing had far too much ME in it. It forced me to look at my heart and the motivations there for serving.
When I was complaining about my lack of musical skills, I was not concerned about it affecting my serving--as I thought--but more that other people would see this lack.
The real problem was that volunteering to serve in this would force me to see my limitations, and confront them.
Yes, I was woefully inadequate for this area of service. That was a truth I had to humbly accept, even if it made me cringe.
Perhaps this was a realisation that I had been serving, not for God as I thought, but to feel good about myself.
I had lost sight of the thought that it was in times like this that God's grace could most clearly shine through. I had forgotten that I could most clearly see His power when the lack of my own was most obvious.
Perhaps this was an opportunity, not just to learn humility and trust, but to experience the goodness of God in His grace.
'...for [His] strength is made perfect'---not in MY strength, though that stems from His, but '--in weakness.'
This doesn't mean you should recklessly charge into whatever area of service you are most misfitted for with a misguided idea of disciplining yourself (eeeurgh I find that vaguely sadistic). It is simply a change of perspective, to see these inevitable occasions not as horribly dutiful, horribly humiliating things to be avoided at all cost, but as opportunities to humbly experience the grace of God in our weakness, as we never could in our strength.
To trust in His strength rather than our own. To realise afresh that we serve, not to feel good about ourselves, or please others/make them think well of us, or even for success, but for GOD--because we love Him.
We are like eager five-year-olds wanting to cook a special birthday meal for Dad. We're woefully inadequate, unlike our Masterchef prodigy friend next door, and we know it when we see the overcooked meat, the undercooked veggies, and the burnt soup. But Dad helps us, patiently and lovingly, to rescue the meal. Even over the burnt soup, He beams at us and tells us He's proud of us. We know He sees beyond the stringy tasteless meat to the love motivating us, and He loves us for it, regardless of how tough the veggies are.
And it is times like this that we realise how good and able He is.
How much we need His help.
How our love for Him is not limited to our strengths and talents.
And most comforting and wonderful of all, how much He loves us.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are