Where Do You Go From Here?

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to talk about Christianity to people who don’t understand it.  How to answer questions that naturally come to a 21st century mind when you start talking with them about the idea that everything around us is here because of a all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present deity that can’t be detected by the empirical methodologies that many people assume must be the gold standard for knowledge.  I think this is an important thing to be able to do – to move with someone past the initial reaction that this is ludicrous, to a place where they’re hopefully able to at least see that Christianity addresses some pretty impressive questions of our existence that thus far have not been very compellingly dealt with by the scientific method. 

What I don’t give as much thought to however, is the important next issue of what do you tell someone who earnestly desires to learn about Christianity and the God that it confesses?  Where do you point someone who has been brought to the place where they are willing to say that they think there’s a God out there, and now they want to know Him? 

It’s too easy to assume that people will just sort of figure out what comes next.  Plugging into a community of faith should provide some tangible steps in terms of education and mentoring.  But a lot falls onto the individual’s shoulders.  Where to begin, and how to try and make sense of things between Sunday worship services and whatever education or mentoring opportunities a faith community offers?  What do we do in those moments of spare time?

There are plenty of answers out there.  Walk into a Christian bookstore and you’ll find plenty of resources and programs and approaches.  Some of them have merit, I’m sure.  But ultimately, they’re also all trying to earn your dollar, and I tend to be very jaded about the consumerism that devours Christians.  I tend to suspect that some of the best answers don’t require a special Bible and an accompanying journal and a faith calendar with matching pen.  Probably not a fair caricature, but probably not entirely inaccurate either.

Martin Luther talked about a cycle of activity, a cycle that keeps repeating itself over and over again in the life of a Christian.  Luther’s emphasis was on the development of the life of a theologian.  But I would argue that we are all theologians – some are just better or more intentional at it than others, and some people make it their occupation as well.  If this process is good for a pastor, it’s also valid for housewives, teachers, mechanics – anyone who calls them self a Christian and takes seriously the Biblical encouragements towards deeper lives of faith and trust in God.  And it doesn’t require anything more than a Bible, which is the one investment every Christian ought to make.  Check out your local used bookstore – they’re likely to have quite a few good Bibles at considerably less than the $30 – $100 you’ll pay for a new one. 

Each of the stages in the cycle are related to one another, and flow from one another and into the next cycle. 

The first stage of the cycle is prayer.  We pray for the Holy Spirit to work in us, to activate and stimulate our mind.  To lead us and guide us.  Prayer can take many forms and serve many purposes, but in this cycle, the prayer is specifically to prepare ourselves with the expectation that God can and will lead us and guide our thoughts.  Sort of like tuning ourselves in, setting aside that time and place for that purpose, and not allowing competing distractions and obligations distract us. 

Now that we’ve stilled our minds somewhat, and prepared ourselves, and sought God’s leading, we turn to the Word for meditation.  To Scripture.  The reason for this is simple.  If we’re praying for God’s leading and guidance, we find these things most readily in God’s revealed Word.  The Holy Spirit may act and speak in many ways – but those ways are never in contradiction to or separation from what God tells us in His Word.  The more certain we are that the Holy Spirit might be speaking directly to us, the more important it is that we are grounded in the Word, so we can discern clearly, and make sure that we’re not getting signals crossed. 

Meditation here is not meant in the Eastern sense of the term.  We aren’t trying to clear our minds of any thoughts, but rather to focus our mind on the Word.  Scripture doesn’t advocate emptying ourselves – and even warns about the dangers of trying this (Matthew 12:43-45).  Rather, Scripture advocates that we fill ourselves with God’s Word.  As we spend time in the Word, gradually those things that need to be removed from our lives get pushed out – there isn’t room for them any more. 

Meditation is also anticipated as a spoken act.  While there’s inward consideration, there’s also value to be had in reading Scripture aloud.  Hearing it in your ears as your eyes digest it.  The idea of silent reading is a relatively new innovation, the byproduct of widespread literacy and the ability to print tons of books cheaply, so that everyone can have their own.  Through most of human history, meditation and reading has been an out-loud affair, with one literate person perhaps reading to a room full of people who may or may not have the ability to read the words for themselves.  Luther also envisioned that the focus of meditation would be guided by participation in worship.  In other words, personal meditation would focus on portions of Scripture read and expounded upon the previous week in worship. 

The goal here is to avoid meditation becoming an intensely inward and private affair, and to instead foster meditation as an outward thing, outward in focus on the written Word, outward in terms of being spoken rather than read silently.  Outward in expecting God’s Word to speak to us, rather than placing the emphasis on some sort of internalized emotional response or spiritual experience.

The last stage of the cycle sounds disturbing.  The last stage is temptation.  The more we pray to understand God’s Word to us, and the more time we spend in meditating on that Word and seeking to understand it and apply it, the more likely we are to encounter spiritual counter-attack.  In other words, developing and growing as Christians takes place in a context – which is the broken and sinful world around us and within us.  It is in temptation that the Word and the prayer are put to the test, so to speak.  The experience of faith is not just a mental head game, it’s something that is tested in battle, and we should expect to see the fruits of our prayer and study in the ability to resist temptation.

However temptation sometimes seems overwhelming.  Sometimes the desire to sin is so strong, or the appeal of sin seems almost irresistible.  Beyond our own power to resist.  So what do we do?  Where can we go for reinforcement and backup?

Back to prayer.  Back to seeking actively God’s direction and leading and protection and guidance in the face of overwhelming temptation.  Our reliance is never on ourselves, because alone, we fail.  The last stage of the cycle drives us back to the first stage, and the cycle begins again.  Over and over and over.  Daily.  Perhaps multiple times a day!  In that process of prayer, meditation, and temptation, we see ourselves growing.  Not just intellectually, but experientially.  In our ability to resist temptation, or to avoid it.  In our ability to call Scripture to mind when necessary to resist, or to share with someone else. 

This is a good process that more Christians (myself included!) need to avail themselves of more frequently.  It assumes participation in a body of faith where
the Word of God is being read and taught, providing the basis for further meditation during the week.  It drives our focus outwards rather than inwards, and constantly reminds us that our strength is not ourselves.  Our strength is in the God who has already saved us by His Son, and continues to strengthen and equip us through His Spirit. 

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