As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
What God has joined together, let no one separate. Jesus, of course, spoke these words in the context of marriage, but we can apply them to almost every area of the Christian life, especially in the area of spiritual formation. As I meet people from around the world, I have come to realize that Christians are unwittingly selective—Reformed people congregate with other Reformed people, charismatics with other charismatics, and the liturgically bent with the same. The outcome is a lopsided Christianity, but awareness of this asymmetry does not register. A tadpole in a school of other tadpoles does not know it is all head.
Cord of Three
I see a cord of three in healthy spiritual formation—an understanding of the flow of Scripture, sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and a missional outlook in life. When these cords are tightly intertwined, the outcome is a rope that is not easily broken, something useful and powerful for any wayfarer in their journey heavenward.
The first cord is an understanding of the Bible. It all starts there because without the counsel of the Bible, we would not know who God is, who we are, and what our chief aim should be. Therefore, for anyone to grow in maturity, disciplines surrounding the Bible are the essential first step: reading, meditating, and doing. The longer we dwell in Scripture and the deeper we go, the better.
Conversing with great theologians of the church is also important. Reading Augustine, Calvin, Bavinck, and more recent authors will build our understanding of God. All of this is time-consuming but well worth the effort because our minds matter—a transformed mind leads to a transformed life. Reading great literature also helps. Sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and historians have important insights, as do ancient and modern authors like Sophocles, Aristotle, Dostoevsky, and Bradbury, to name a few. God’s wisdom is everywhere, and learning from various sources will build our faith. Every square inch of our world has the hallmark of God; we just need eyes to see it.
The second cord is understanding the person of the Holy Spirit. He is more than a comforter and illuminator of truth. He is the tongues of fire at Pentecost who gave explosive power. Gordon Fee said it best when he argued that the Holy Spirit is powerful, personal, and present. So what we want is to keep in step with the Spirit of God.
Israel in the wilderness provides a picture of this point. Israel only moved when the cloud of God’s glory lifted. When the cloud stayed put, Israel encamped around the tabernacle. They learned to keep in synchrony with the Spirit of God in the wilderness. What an example to emulate! When we do the same, we will see power—supernatural things, restorations, accelerations in ministry, and so much more—because we are not operating in the natural but the supernatural. But in order to get there, we need to welcome the person of the Holy Spirit and let go of the desire for control, certainty, and predictability.
More importantly, we need to sense his leading, obey his promptings, and take risks. A habit of following him will lead to power, spiritual coordination, signs, wonders, and more. To hammer home Fee’s point with a few more blows, the Spirit is personal (we can have a relationship with him), he is powerful (we are able to do what we cannot in our own strength), and present (we can partner with him anywhere—coffee shops, subways, gas stations, and the like).
The final cord is an understanding of God’s heart for the world. The hermeneutical key to understanding Christianity is rooted in the great commission. Therefore, to understand Scripture and God’s heart, there is no better step to take than to cultivate a missional heart.
Let me offer an illustration. If we really wanted to study Roman farming practices, then we would pursue a doctorate in classics to read primary sources in Latin and Greek. We would also travel to ancient Roman sites to study the topography, the soil, and water sources. These are bare minimums. However, if we really want to understand Roman agriculture, then we would also become a farmer, at least for a season. Then our training would be complete.
Likewise, if the Bible is a book of the mission of God, then we will understand it rightly only when we engage in the work of the great commission. Missions tie the logic of the Scriptures together, release God’s power, and give practical purpose. Being in missions is arguably the best way to understand the flow of Scripture because we are putting ourselves in the direct current of what God has been doing from the beginning.
Paul, an Example
These three points beam with clarity and frequency in the lives of the saints in the New Testament. The apostle Paul stands out. A thumbnail sketch of Paul will show that he was a man of the word, the Holy Spirit, and missions. When it comes to the word, Paul wrote 13 epistles. Even if we remove four to six of the disputed letters, we still have seven of them. If anything is clear, Paul was a masterful and creative theologian. He knew God and loved him with every breath. Furthermore, we can say that his knowledge of God shaped all he did.
Through Paul’s life, we also learn about the Holy Spirit. We learn about the gifts, power, mission, and ministry of the Spirit. And if we follow his missionary journeys in the book of Acts, we see Paul operating by the power of the Spirit; in fact, Acts is a play-by-play of the Spirit’s work. Acts 13 offers a good example. The Spirit sets apart, sends, and empowers Paul and Barnabas; he also causes the word to spread and gives joy. The Spirit is the engine and conductor of the expansion of the church. It would not be an exaggeration to say that without the Spirit, there would be no acts of the apostles.
When it comes to missions, Paul’s missionary journeys precipitated every letter he wrote. Without these journeys, Paul would have no reason to write, no new greetings, no thanksgivings, and no theology with flesh and bones that helps in the grind of life. From this perspective, praise God that Paul was a missionary; without that calling, impoverished we would all be.
The epistles in a very real sense are a summation of his missional itinerary. We can make the same point about the gospels. Matthew was written as a missionary tract for the Jewish people, Luke for Theophilus and gentiles, John for his beloved community and beyond, and Mark for all people. In a word, the men and women of God always operated through the power of the Holy Spirit to bring the word of God to people.
All people have a difficult time joining what God wants to join. Our understanding of God mimics the compartmentalized and specialized world in which we live. We atomize ad infinitum. We also love to pick and choose because we imagine ourselves to be arbiters of all things excellent. It is now time to bring strands together. The way to bring about spiritual formation is to cultivate simultaneously all three strands at the same time. Be in the word and world by the power of the Spirit.
More practically, I encourage everyone to take a few steps into different traditions for a few seasons with an open heart. Paradigm shifts only take place when we leave our comfort zones and step into something foreign, uncomfortable, and different. God will honor such steps of faith. As an example, a reformed Presbyterian will learn a lot in a Vineyard church, and a Pentecostal would benefit from a Dutch Reformed church. And a wealthy suburban congregation will sharpen their vision by attending an urban storefront church. The outcome will be a greater awareness of our selectivity but, more importantly, a greater vision of God’s abundance.
May the Lord give us grace to overcome our insecurities, desire for familiarity, and pride to learn from the broader body of Christ. How pleased the one we call our father would be when we learn from his other sons and daughters. In time, we will pass through the deep and stand on the sea of glass with the song of Moses on our lips, triumphant, because we have learned from others.