| Intimate Faith |
By Jan Winebrenner
Genre: Inspirational & Self-Help
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Dabblers or Disciples?
When I was a little girl, my dearest dream was to own a horse. When my family moved to the Navajo Indian reservation just as I was starting high school, my dad tried to soften the trauma of uprooting me from my friends with this almost promise: "Maybe I?ll buy you a horse." He bought me a motorcyclea tiny Honda Trail 90. It drank cheap gas and could live by the back door; it didn?t need shoes, vet calls, or a trailer for hauling.
I had many great adventures on that Honda, riding over sheep trails and through ravines and canyons that hid secret pools and mysterious rock formations. But my heart was set on owning a horse. Always I pretended I was on horseback, and I never gave up my dream.
The day my husband, Ken, bought me a horse has to be one of my all-time-best days.
I had been taking riding lessons on a chestnut mare named Tess at a little stable in South Carolina. The trainer had mentioned that Tess was for sale, but I never allowed myself to think about buying her. How could we afford her, along with stable costs (we lived in town), farrier and vet bills, not to mention saddles, bits, bridles, and all the rest of the tack I borrowed each time I rode? But every day I fell more in love with this beautiful mare. I learned the basics of caring for her as well as how to walk, trot, and canter, and I pretended she was mine.
Then one afternoon, Ken came home from work and said, "Come take a drive with me."
When we arrived at the barn I asked, "What?s up?"
"We?re buying a horse today," he said, grabbing my hand and pulling me toward Tess?s stall.
I couldn?t breathe. And then I couldn?t see through a blur of tears. I stumbled into Tess?s stall, threw my arms around her neck, and sobbed. Ken stood in the doorway grinning, waiting for me to finally erupt with the laughter of pure joy.
Later that night, I fell asleep with fantasies of the equestrian life galloping through my dreams. I imagined myself riding through fields, jumping Tess over colorful fences, cantering through forests to the accompaniment of baying hounds and squeaking leather.
I never imagined what it would take to make those dreams come true.
Life is often like that, isn?t it? We harbor our dreams, sometimes for years, savoring them, but seldom do we really understand what it will take to make them a reality.
When Ken gave me the gift of a horse, I had no idea what I would have to do to become the kind of rider I dreamed of being. I didn?t know how much I would have to learn to become proficient enough to ride my horse over a three-foot obstacle, land safely, turn and canter toward the next fence, and complete an entire course. All of this, of course, without taking a fence out of order, pulling a rail, or worse, breaking my neck.
As weeks of riding passed and lessons piled upon lessons, reality hit me in the chest like a flailing hoof. This riding thing, the whole equestrian thing, the way I wanted to do it, was a full-time endeavor. It was not something I was going to be able just to "pick up."
I noticed that the good riders at the stable where I rode took lessons all the time. They signed up for clinics with world-class trainers. They arrived at the barn early every morning, worked their horses, then studied videos and watched other classes to learn more. They attended horse shows where they competed and others where they just observed. They read books about riding; they studied their horse?s "way of going"I didn?t know a horse had a "way of going."
I never became the rider I wanted to be. Over time, the demands of family and the limits of budget loomed as more indomitable obstacles than the colorful fences and log jumps that stood in the hunt field. But as I walked away, I took with me some of the most valuable lessons I would ever learn.
The equestrian life I dabbled in for a few years became for me a metaphor of my Christian life.
The Big Five
For many years, I thought that an active, Bible-informed Christian life consisted of the practice of certain daily habits. Every discipleship class I ever attended emphasized the same onesalways five; always the same five: study, prayer, worship, fellowship, and service.
I didn?t confuse the discipleship experience with the salvation experienceI knew the Bible well enough to comprehend the difference. I understood that Jesus? death paid the debt of my sin that I could never pay. I knew it was his overwhelming act of grace and mercy that secured my place in heaven and made me a child of God through faith. But discipleship often confused me.
My faith was fragilethe slightest disturbance in my world could send me tumbling into a field of doubts and uncertainties about God?s goodness. I didn?t have the kind of intimacy with God that my discipleship classes promised. I yearned to know God, to experience his power and presence more fully, yet this kind of relationship eluded me. God seemed distant, strange. I knew his Word, his promises, but for all my knowledge, it seemed I didn?t know God.
I practiced some spiritual disciplinesthe five most commonly recognized ones. No one would argue that these are basic building blocks for a disciple?s life. But I knew I was missing something. Could it be that God wanted to deposit in me vast treasures of grace, if I could only learn to widen my heart? But how? The question haunted me.
Dry, stale, thirsty for God, I began praying that he would show me how to open my heart. I prayed that he would teach me how to move into deeper levels of intimacy with him. I prayed that I would learn how to know God, really know him.
I was tired of living a limp, weak spiritual life. I was tired of saying I loved God, when the truth was that I hardly knew him apart from the facts I read about him. I certainly didn?t trust him as he deserves to be trusted. I was living proof of Brennan Manning?s words: "You will trust God only as much as you love him. And you will love him not because you have studied him; you will love him because you have touched himin response to his touch."
I yearned for the touch of God. I had no idea how it would happen, but I prayed that his fingers would press on my heart and mark me with the certainty of his presence. In almost immediate response to that prayer, I stumbled into a study of the classical spiritual disciplines.
Over the next few years, I discovered there is much more to the life of discipleship than I had ever imagined. I learned that walking with God involves more than merely doing the four or five things a denomination may teach in a six-week discipleship class.
I learned that the spiritual disciplines are God?s means of training us, finite and flawed creatures, to love the invisible, almighty, infinite Creator; they are the means by which we learn to enjoy him; they are the means God uses to nurture our confidence in his goodness and love.
Through the spiritual disciplines God not only touched me, he gripped me hard in a fist that is stronger than a lion?s paw. He pulled me close against his heart and taught me to discern the rhythms of grace.
A Great and Precious Irony
As I studied and experimented with the spiritual disciplines, I was struck by this great and precious irony: it is through discipline that grace is best experienced. The Puritan preacher Robert Leighton understood this three centuries ago when he wrote, "The grace of God in the heart of man is a tender plant in a strange unkindly soil."
Legalism and confusion about the true nature of God had made my heart?s soil unkind toward grace. The truth of his unrelenting compassion toward me found little welcome in my heart. I was unable to live in the reality of that most essential truth that "being the beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence." But as I began to exercise the spiritual disciplines, the soil of my heart became welcoming, receptive to the sweetness of the gifts of grace.
Through doing the spiritual disciplines I began to understand the truth about beingbeing God?s beloved child, being the accepted and cherished bride of Christ.
An Offer of Rest
Even as I write this, I am aware of how little I "do," and how much God does for me and has already done for me in sending Christ to redeem me; and all he will continue to do for me throughout my lifetime and into the aeons of eternity.
On the other side of the discussion of "doing," I am aware that we live in an era when most Christians are so busy with activities and programs and family and work obligations that the mere suggestion of "doing more" can trigger guilt, anger, or even a panic attack. So let me put your mind at ease with this word: the spiritual disciplines are not a rigid set of rules imposing stringent behavior practices on us. Nor do they require more tasks and activities added to already overburdened lives. The great beauty offered by the spiritual disciplines is this: they teach us how to rely on the loving sufficiency of God; they show us how to recognize his presence and revel in his sovereignty; they lead us into ever-deepening levels of intimacy with the God who calls us his "beloved"; they teach us to allow God to work for us, in every situation. In short, they offer us rest.
Relating to an Invisible God
I admit I was surprised to discover that there was so much more to the equestrian sport than learning to mount, walk, trot, canter, and dismount. It was daunting at first to realize all that I had to learn. But it didn?t take me long to see that the new skills I was acquiring (slowly, sometimes awkwardly) increased my delight in riding. I became more comfortable, more competent in the saddle. I had less trouble staying on course, and my body moved more gracefully, more in sync with my horse. I had more tools for guiding Tess and better aids for negotiating challenging situations, both in and out of the jump ring. Every skill I learned enhanced my love of the sport and increased my pleasure.
In much the same way, I?ve discovered that learning and practicing the spiritual disciplines has enhanced my spiritual life and shown me how to enjoy God and trust him more fully. They have become training tools that heighten my awareness of God in my daily, moment-to-moment existence; they train me to participate more fully, more consciously, in the kingdom purposes of God; they teach me how to relate to an invisible God.
I have seen my faith grow stronger, my soul enlarged (slowly and often in only small increments) to receive more of his grace and sweetness.
I have come to understand this reality: if all we are doing as Christians, as disciples of Jesus Christ, is practicing a few habits in order to look like a Christian (whatever that looks like), or to satisfy a denominational standard for behavior, we are doing little more than dabbling with the idea of discipleship. And instead of reveling in the abundant life Jesus promised us, instead of experiencing increasing intimacy with him and an ever-growing confidence in his goodness, we can expect discouragement, disillusionment, and frequent failure.
The Ancient Paths
For most of us, our Christian traditions encouraged the practice of some of the spiritual disciplines, although which disciplines varied from denomination to denomination. Growing up in a very conservative Christian community, I never heard a sermon on the disciplines of silence or simplicity; however, many a pastor preached study and service. I heard sermons on prayer and worship, but never on humility or celebration or solitude.
My friend Marie grew up in Australia in a religious tradition that emphasized church attendancejust show up. Confession was mandatory, but she never learned about private worship or meaningful Bible study. She never heard a sermon on submission or sacrifice.
As we shared our spiritual heritages with each other, we discovered that both of our traditions had ignored, or forgotten, most of the habits that Jesus taught and lived in front of his followers. Neither of us had ever been taught silence as a discipline, or submission, or sacrifice. No one had ever included the disciplines of fasting or meditation in a discipleship class. Yet down through the centuries, faithful, godly individuals have practiced these disciplines and urged others to follow them as well.
Jeremiah the prophet called: "Ask for the ancient paths, / ask where the good way is, and walk in it, / and you will find rest for your souls."
These disciplines, these ancient paths, when embraced in faith with reliance on the Holy Spirit, are the very means that offer us hope for change and the expectation of spiritual growth. They are our promise of rest and peace.
Two dangers lurk in any discussion of the spiritual disciplines. The first, and the most perilous: thinking that exercising the spiritual disciplines will earn us favor with God and make us worthy of a home in heaven. We must never forget that the disciplines are training tools only, aids that enable us to grab hold of God?s promises, to live in the reality of his love and presence, to understand what it means, experientially, to be "in Christ." They do not impart life.
Life comes only through the Son, the Begotten of the Father, who came to show us what grace and truth look like. When we forget this, "the gospel becomes just a pattering of pious platitudes spoken by a Jewish carpenter in the distant past."
John Wesley testified that until he understood grace, the methodical approach through the effort of discipline didn?t make sense. But "his heart was strangely warmed" once he found salvation through faith in Christ. He learned that salvation preceded growth toward discipleship.
The second danger is that, having understood salvation, we would misunderstand the purpose of spiritual disciplines. We would try to make them an end in themselves, rather than a means of encountering God and experiencing his presence. We would treat them like rules we force on ourselves and on others, with no relationship to the pursuit of intimacy with God.
Thomas Merton wrote: "An activity that is based on the frenzies and impulsions of human ambition is a delusion and an obstacle to grace. It gets in the way of God?s will, and it creates more problems than it solves." The problems we create for ourselves are pride and legalism, defeat and despair.
Those problems multiply when we attempt to force others to get busy about the business of being good, without understanding that the only business that matters is that we be God?s. We become guilty of coercion and manipulation; we become unkind usurpers of the Holy Spirit?s work, which is always gentle, courteous, and respectful.
This, then, is our strong reminder: that the bedrock of our faith is Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins, raised on the third day, ever living to intercede for us and bring us into glory. On that foundation we build a life of loving obedience and trust, trained by the spiritual disciplines that Jesus taught and exhibited for us.
Disciplines of Jesus? Life
Even the most casual look at Jesus? life reveals at least fifteen disciplines. Some contemporary scholars as well as some of the classic Christian writers suggest seventeen. We have to ask: if he needed the disciplines of solitude, silence, fasting, meditation, secrecy, and the others we?ve so often and so carelessly ignored, don?t we need them too?
That is what this book is about.
It is about the disciplines that characterized Jesus? lifethe commonly accepted ones, along with the often unheeded and long-neglected spiritual disciplines. All, I?ve discovered, are necessary for us to practice if we are serious about intimacy with God, if we are serious about seeing our faith grow strong and unshakable.
In the chapters that follow, we will study, for example, the discipline of humility. Did you know that it is a discipline that you can aspire to, and actually achieve, through the work of the Holy Spirit? A foundational discipline, humility trains us to allow God to work in our lives. It trains us to bow to his authority and recognize his supremacy. It trains us to live peacefully with mystery, trusting God with the unknowns and uncertainties of our lives. It trains us to live among others with gentleness, without the need to dominate, to control, or to manipulate.
We will also examine the disciplines of abstinence, such as fasting, chastity, simplicity, secrecy, silence, and sacrifice. We will see how God uses these in our lives to prove his sufficiency. We will learn the truth of the statement that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him."
A study of the spiritual disciplines must include the five we most commonly associate with an active spiritual lifethey are important and must not be deleted as other disciplines are added. But their worth to our spiritual lives will be enhanced as we learn to practice the other disciplines as well, disciplines such as celebration and confession and meditation.
The Principle of Immersion
In his great book Seeking the Face of God, Gary Thomas wrote, "The struggle of the Christian life is really a struggle to maintain the centrality of God in our day-to-day lives."
The struggle is perhaps never more real than now. Our world has morphed into a terrifying planet. We live with a level of anxiety and unrest that is unprecedented in our nation?s history. How desperately we need to be able to keep God in first place, central to everything we do. But it isn?t easy. We are distracted by our fears and disillusioned by our defeats. Even if we?ve made the decision to "put God first," we aren?t sure how to go about it.
Jesus invited us to "remain" in him for safety and comfort, but we?re not clear on that either. His call to "abide in me" sounds good, but it too is abstract. We have to wonder: what does "abiding" look like? The spiritual disciplines answer that question. We learn how to keep God central in our day-to-day lives.
Paul wrote, "I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe." The spiritual disciplines open our eyes to the hope of our faith; they act as guides to scenic views where the riches of our inheritance lay before us in majestic panorama. They show us how to avail ourselves of Jesus? resurrection power.
But above all, as we interact with God and see him work on our behalf, we begin to comprehend the truth of our belovedness. We begin to learn how to live in the reality of the invisible truths of the omnipotent God who calls us to share his life and his eternal kingdom.
Dabbling or Dedicated Disciple?
It has been several years since I last rode a horse over a fence. Even today, I can sit very still and summon the feelings that used to overwhelm me when I cantered across a hunt field. I can feel the rush that filled me as Tess and I turned toward a fence. I see her ears prick forward, feel her hooves lift, and then, for one unfathomable instant, gravity submits to us, and horse and rider fly!
Often on Saturday nights, I watch horse shows on the Outdoor Life Channel. Horse and rider enter the arena and the challenges begin as they soar over stone walls and water jumps, over decorated fences and down steep embankments. I watch with the eye of one who has ridden just a little, just enough to recognize some of the small adjustments that make such a big difference in the outcome of a ride.
I see the tiny movement of a hand as it settles higher on the crest, the almost invisible tightening of a leg against the horse?s flank, the little movement on the reins that lessens the pressure on the bit. I see the rider?s eyes as she counts strides to place her mount the perfect distance from the fence for takeoff. These, and a dozen more almost indiscernible movements, preoccupy the mind of the rider who will meet the challenges of the course.
The rider whose skills include only the obvious basicswalk, trot, canter, mount, and dismountwould never be able to keep her seat over the first obstacle. She would never ride with the joy and liberty of a more disciplined rider. The exuberance of flight on horseback would be for her an elusive dream, her reality marked by boredom, disappointment, and danger.
The parallels are obvious.
We cannot put limits on our discipleship, choosing only to exercise four or five familiar habits. If we want to walk with God and experience his power in our lives, and grow in knowledge of him and love for him, our only option is this: full immersion into the life of Christ, through the exercise of all of the spiritual disciplines.
This was Jesus? plan for us. As he was commissioning his disciples he told them to do and to teach others to obey everything he had taught them. It takes only a cursory look at the life of Jesus to see that he built into his life the consistent practice of many habits. He taught them in his sermons, he practiced them before the disciples and in private hours of fellowship with his Father.
Jesus, fully God clothed in human flesh, saw the need for the disciplines of silence, and simplicity, and fasting, and submission, and the other almost forgotten and ignored habits of heart and hand during his incarnation.
As he exercised the disciplines he testified to his "otherworldliness"; he demonstrated the reality of the kingdom of God; he exhibited his unity with the Father, showing us how to "remain in him," how to live in constant awareness of the Father?s deep love.
The practice of the spiritual disciplines does for us what it did for Jesus. The disciplines immerse us in the life of the kingdom. They bring us to the place where we can enjoy intimacy with our Father. They train us to live out the realities of the invisible kingdom Jesus came to display. They strengthen us to withstand temptation. They nurture our spirits here, while we are physically separated from our heavenly Father, and whet our appetites for the things that will truly satisfy usthe things of God, intimacies and realities of fellowship that we will never experience if we only dabble in discipleship.
One Single Duty
These words say it well: "There remains one single duty. It is to keep one?s gaze fixed on the master one has chosen and to be constantly listening so as to understand and hear and immediately obey His will."
This is what it means to be a disciple. The spiritual disciplines train us to listen and to understand, to hear and to obey.
Today, in our culture, many of the "ancient paths" seem to have nearly disappeared, but they are there, still, beckoning us with the offer of intimacy with God, of experiential knowledge of his power and love, and the assurance of soul-deep rest and peace.
In the pages of this book, we will dig through the undergrowth to find the ancient paths. We will examine the disciplines that characterized the lives of Old Testament saints, such as Abraham, Esther, David, and others.
We will study these disciplines that Jesus exhibited for us, disciplines that his disciples exercised and taught in the Epistles. We will trace them through the lives of present-day believers, those who falter and fail along with us, yet whose lives speak eloquently of the love and mercy of God, calling us to learn of his grace and discover the joy of his sufficiency.
To Know That God Is Real
Oswald Chambers wrote, "The one thing for which we are all being disciplined is to know that God is real." Nothing is more important. Nothing is more rewarding than discovering that God is everything he said he is: all-powerful, sovereign, yet tender and compassionate, accepting of us in our fragile state, and desiring with all his heart to bring us to rest in him.
Nothing is more important than learning to live in the reality of God?s invisible presence.
Equally important is a daily discovery of the liberty of grace and victory over besetting sins. This, wrote Stephen Charnock, is "that which glitters in redemption." Through the exercise of the spiritual disciplines we experience the glory of our redemption, here and now. The sparkle of grace lights our hearts; victory shines through the darkness. We celebrate our redemption with every exercise that brings us into closer harmony with the eternal schemes of God.
If the "glitter" of your redemption has dulled; if you are frustrated and confused about what an "abundant life" looks like; if you?re tired of struggling and being defeated; if you?re weary with wondering if God is doing his partjoin me on a journey through the ancient paths. We will, through the pages of this book, travel "good ways" you may have never before explored. Together we will seek God and find him to be all we could ever need, and more than we ever imagined he could be.
Our map into this extraordinary life: the classical spiritual disciplines.
Excerpted from Intimate Faith , by Jan Winebrenner . Copyright (c) 2003 by Jan Winebrenner . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top