NOTE** The reflection that follows was originally a response to a post by a fellow blogger. Visit Phil’s blog to carefully read the original post. Then read this, my response. Here is the address http://www.thephilfiles.com/ where you may find the post entitled, “Left to Listen.”
The “great company of strugglers” otherwise known as the “great cloud of witnesses”
You are portraying the Scriptures as an exhaustive record of the life of Moses and other characters. Of course they struggled (just like me and you) with “clarity” regarding God’s will and the direction they were to take. The fact that Moses received the revelation of God’s purpose at the burning bush in Midian is a good example. Moses was clueless when he first “heard the voice of God”. It was the fact that he had NO clarity that got him in Midian in the first place! That is part of the point of the story. Moses had to be humbled by God in Midian for a number of years. He had to learn the art of tending sheep (dumb and rebellious creatures) in order to learn the basics of “tending” the Hebrew flock (dumb and rebellious). Not only that, but he was STILL a wimp (just like me, hmmm)… He makes all kinds of excuses when he DOES hear God clearly. He wasn’t “clear,” which includes being on board and willing to act on what he heard clearly, any more than we are most of the time.
And that is just Moses! What about Jeremiah? We are, fortunately, provided with a window into the prophet’s inner struggle with the issues of “clarity” and “commitment to action,” which are two sides of the same coin in my understanding of the dynamic. Perhaps Jeremiah is chosen by God (along with Abram, Jacob, Joseph to name only three) who struggled with clarity. I would submit that the Scriptural record doesn’t include much of the months and months of disciplined struggle with prayer, fasting, vigils, seeking to put the struggle in the context of the sacred narrative, seeking the counsel of trusted others, obedience with repentance when necessary, and last but not least listening/listening/listening…
But, according to your portrayal, they didn’t need to do all of that. They just magically heard with clarity. NOT!
The “Bible folks” do not represent the “golden age of clarity without struggle.” They represent, if we take a look at the whole story, how to faithfully struggle toward “clarity” (by the way, I don’t like that word as a representation of “knowing the will of God for your life”). I prefer the word “confidence”… The word “clarity” at least hints at the concept of “certainty without struggle” which I fear like the plague! Acts of the Apostles is a record of deep and abiding struggle in the area of “clarity.” For example:
· The controversy among the apostles over inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church and whether or not the Gentile men converts need circumcision
· The controversy over to what degree the dietary laws of Judaism apply in the Church
· The need which the new convert Paul had to spend years in the desert being shaped into the kind of person who could hear and know the voice of God in terms of His will
· The initiation of the diaconate to minister to the needs of the widows within the believing community
· The whole Macedonian mission struggle
Giants of the faith – Stephen, Peter, Paul and the like were fairly “unclear” and needed the disciplines. They did not magically possess the ability to “clearly hear and know the will of God.” They acquired the ability over time with much discipline.
There is something positively transformative about the struggle. God would, I believe, have us embrace the need to listen, listen, listen with joy. Being “Left to Listen” is a gift not a problem or second rate shape until we begin to “get it.”
The disciplines as a multifaceted gift for the healthy not remedial class for the hopeless
What is more, you seem to portray the classic spiritual disciplines which, by the way, span the denominational barriers of the “tradition vs. non-tradition” debate, as if they are meant for the “remedial Christian.” I come away from your article with the distinct impression that, “If you can’t hear with clarity, like the really ‘mature’ folks, then you need to do these things.” Spiritual disciplines are the intended context of normal Christian living not the “remedial class.”
The spiritual disciplines have been instituted by God and are administered in the person of the Holy Spirit for three basic purposes:
· Purgation – removal and purification
· Maintenance – strengthen and establish
· Oblation – the shape of our offering or sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving (spirit of gratitude)
Please do not misunderstand. I list the “purgation” facet of the disciplines first for good reason. We need redemption both in our inner life and outer life. There is much in my life that hinders my access that that “confident conviction” (I use that instead of “clarity”) regarding God’s will and ways. The patriarchs and apostles are included in the company (read here “great cloud of witnesses) of all who have the same need. I like to say that the “great cloud of witnesses” might better be termed as the “great company of strugglers.” They needed the disciplines you list as much as we do and for the same reason – purgation.
But I want to add two other reasons for the disciplines. They are not just “remedial” in their function. The disciplines also serve to establish and strengthen that which is conformed to the likeness of Christ in me. Through and by them, God speaks, nourishes, and strengthens. They do not just deal with what gets in the way of hearing God, but are the very instrumentation for His speaking by which He indicates His will. Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Paul and the rest, were men in whose lives, the tradition was a dynamic vehicle through which God indicated “with clarity” His will and ways. Without that tradition, present in an appropriate and lively way, they would not have had the “clarity” you see exhibited to the degree they possessed it. It is my firm belief that much of the “lack of clarity” we experience in the Body of Christ over against the example of the patriarchs and apostles is because we have jettisoned the right and appropriate Holy Tradition. We have, in many segments of the Body of Christ “thrown the baby out with the bath water” and yet expect to hear God with “clarity.” “Clarity” is pretty difficult if most of what fosters and establishes it is missing!
Finally, the disciplines are also oblational. They are “The Way of Life” a disciple (“disciplined-one” or “one who lives under a particular discipline” is the faithful way of comprehending the word “disciple”). The spiritual disciplines resemble Jesus. They, taken as a whole, show forth the person, work, and offices of our Lord. The disciplines are The Way the One Who is The Way lived(s) His Life in us and through us by grace. Jesus embraced the Holy Tradition of Judaism and carries it forward in the Holy Tradition of the Body of Christ. He, therefore, instituted the Holy Tradition to enable Him to continue to live and minister through His people. They are His Way of Life in a literal sense. They are not “optional” therefore. Without them, the will and way of Christ we so intensely desire to know with “clarity” cannot be lived out – ministered in the world “for the life of the world.”
The disciplines, not just the skeletal observance but the content as well, are depositories for the “clarity” you seek. Sometimes, we ask for the Lord to speak regarding something about which He has already spoken. The Holy Tradition – the disciplines with redemptive content – contains many of the “answers” or way of addressing the dilemmas we face. It is like God might be saying in not giving us “clarity,” “If you had listened and treasured what I have already spoken you wouldn’t be asking me about this again and again.”
The spiritual disciplines are the shape of life the disciple offers to God as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We are meant to pray, fast, seek the wisdom of God in the Scriptures, and all of the rest of it out of gratitude, not grim necessity because we can’t hear God! It is BECAUSE I have heard the voice of God that I embrace and live the classic disciplines. I love to fast. I am grateful for the hunger. It reminds me that God is my true bread! I offer to God my fast out of gratitude to Him for the “bread of life.” I don’t live the disciplines to “get something” only but also because I have already been “given something” – a “confident conviction” regarding His will and ways. That is what “oblation” is in the life of a disciple – an offering in gratitude of the very SHAPE of his or her life to God through which He may make Himself more known and obeyed by others.
Jesus, the disciplined man
As regards the spiritual disciplines, we see Jesus as our model. If anyone heard the word of the Father in terms of His will and ways, it was Jesus. And yet, Jesus observes the same disciplines that you say you are somehow reluctantly left to observe. Jesus did not, of course, embrace the disciplines to purge Himself of sin or corruption that would hinder His hearing and knowing of the Father’s will and ways. But, clearly, Jesus embraced the disciplined life to maintain His intimacy with the Father and as the very shape of His life of dynamic gratitude to the Father for knowing His will and ways. Hebrews 12 clearly testifies to the disciplined Jesus.
God’s word to me is God’s word to us and vice versa
The last thing I would like to point out is that Moses’ “thus says the Lord,” is not individualistic but deeply communal. Moses heard the Lord in the context of the community’s life not isolation. Yes, he may have heard in a private setting, but that word from the Lord had to endure the community’s testing either directly and explicitly or indirectly and implicitly. Each and every person in Scripture who really heard the Lord, did so with fear and trembling – humility. The punishment for falsely proclaiming as “the word of the Lord” what was not the “word of the Lord’ was death. I am not, of course, suggesting that we adopt that tactic. However, it would be, I think, a great idea to instill in the hearts of God’s people the sobriety and accountability one must have who presumes to say, “thus says the Lord.” The Holy Tradition is a great aid in this regard. It provides a Living context in which we may listen, discern, and speak with humility. That is why is shy away from the word “clarity” and prefer the phrase “confident conviction.” The word of the Lord is for all of us if it is for any one of us. This is a beautifully ideal statement, I know. But we strive faithfully for just such an ideal to be realized grace by grace in our lives personally and communally. We CAN hear with “confident conviction” just like Moses, Peter, and Paul. There is no reason to slip into grim resignation and begin to portray the “biblical folks” as recipients of an intimacy that we cannot attain. But, let us be “confidently convicted” that God has given what is necessary to hear Him and know it is He who speaks. The question we all need to ask ourselves is, “Will I embrace the fullness of that Way of Life that makes hearing and obeying with joy possible?”
And so, we pray, fast, search the Scriptures, listen, and all the rest not as some lesser fate for the dull but as a rich and wonderful shape of life as the faithful people of God. And most of all, I do all of this not because I have to but because I desire to deep within my heart. Confident conviction of God’s will and ways is the bonus.