Wisdom to Live By
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“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:26) So wrote James, the brother of Jesus. Jesus spoke similarly when he asserted that “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24) With such a firm foundation, no storm could topple the house the wise man built. (Matthew 7:25-27) Those who earnestly seek to follow and obey God greatly desire to be that wise man who puts the words of the Lord into practice and thus erects in himself a strong pillar of faith that will not be blown this way and that by every wind of teaching. (Eph 4:14) Yet, both personal experience and Scripture teach us that we face many obstacles in our quest to put the words of God into practice. One of the primary obstacles faced by the earnest believer is a lack of wisdom. Proverbs claims that wisdom is “more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold” (Proverbs 3:14), for through it one may “walk in the ways of good men and keep to the path of the righteous.” (Proverbs 2:20) James encourages us to ask God for wisdom when we lack it, for the Lord “gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5), One of the primary ways by which God gives wisdom is through the insight gleaned by those who have gone before us, mature believers who have persevered in their faith through many trials. Richard Foster and John White are two such believers and through their books, Celebration of Discipline and The Fight, respectively, they impart wisdom regarding how to live in Christ effectively. As should be expected, when such wisdom truly impacts our ability to walk efficaciously in Christ, we find many parallels between the wisdom of mature believers and that of Scripture.
While White and Foster have different emphases, the two authors focus on the practical applications of Christian living that propel the believer into further growth and both would agree that obedience is both the object of faith and the very thing which makes it grow. Indeed, when speaking of the discipline of worship, Foster cautions that “If worship does not propel us into greater obedience, it has not been worship.” (p. 173) Likewise, White asserts that growth requires food and exercise, with the exercise consisting of “obedience by faith to the commands of God.” (p. 13) Such obedience requires effort and discipline, as Foster asserts when he says, “if we ever expect to grow in grace, we must pay the price of a consciously chosen course of action.” (p. 8) White speaks more bluntly, proclaiming, “War is not something that illustrates aspects of Christian living. [Instead], Christian living is war.” (p. 216) Without obedience, though, our faith is not complete. (James 2:22) Indeed, while White and Foster have different target audiences and express different approaches to the outworking of our faith, both concern themselves with the practical application of faith, i.e., how to be doers of the word. (James 1:22)
In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster describes 12 Spiritual Disciplines that he claims are “essential to experiential Christianity.” (p. 1) Foster emphasize the disciplines as a means of placing us in such a position that God can work to transform us from the inside. His instruction is based on the Scriptural teaching that righteousness is a free gift from God, something that can neither be earned nor attained. So, as Foster says, “the needed change within us is God’s work, not ours.” (p. 6) Yet, he also assures us that we are not left to mere idleness, waiting for the work of God to transform us. Instead, through the application of the 12 Spiritual Disciplines he espouses, we may get ourselves to the position where God may do His work.
Foster uses the analogy given in Galatians 6:8, where Paul says, “he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” As written in Celebration of Discipline, the farmer does not grow the grain; he simply provides the proper conditions in which grain may grow. Similarly, through the proper application of the Disciplines, we may prepare ourselves for God to grow and mature us spiritually. He calls this process “the path of disciplined grace” (p. 7), ‘grace’ because it is free and ‘disciplined’ because we have something to do. The goal of his teaching is inner transformation, so that while at first we have to work hard at being good and kind, in the end, we will not have to work hard at exhibiting virtue, but will instead simply be virtuous. When virtue has settled into our inmost being, Foster claims, refraining from exhibiting goodness and kindness will prove difficult because these virtues are part of our character. Such teaching recalls James assertion that fresh water and salt water cannot arise from the same spring (James 3:12), and Jesus’ instruction that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) Foster describes inner transformation as the ultimate objective, yet a closer look at the Disciplines reveals that the transformation comes about through much practical application of our faith, reminding us of John White’s teaching that obedience is the exercise by which growth occurs.
Celebration of Discipline breaks its 12 Spiritual Disciplines into 3 categories, the Inward Disciplines, the Outward Disciplines, and the Corporate Disciplines. Several of them may fit into multiple categories, such as ‘Guidance’, which he discusses in the context of corporate guidance, but which may also be individual. Nevertheless, the division fits logically and also serves as a heuristic technique to help organize the insight Foster provides into a more easily grasped format. This paper will examine briefly one Discipline from each of the three groups as examples of the wisdom Celebration of Discipline provides, ‘Prayer’ from the Inward Disciplines, ‘Service’ from the Outward Disciplines, and ‘Confession’ from the Corporate Disciplines. Each of these Disciplines serves to describe the characteristics of true faith and shows us how we might acquire the inner transformation that accompanies saving faith. These Disciplines also dovetail nicely with the teaching contained in the book of James and with certain themes of The Fight.
The Inward Discipline of Prayer that Celebration of Discipline describes serves as one of the clearest examples of the wisdom expressed by a mature believer reflection of the wisdom contained in Scripture. Prayer, Foster claims, “catapults us into the frontier of the spiritual life.” (p. 33) He calls it “the most central” of all the Disciplines, one that “’lies at the root of all godliness.’” (p. 33) “To pray,” Foster claims, “is to change.” (p. 33) He also calls it the primary avenue through which God changes us. If we become obstinate, we abandon prayer. Likewise, James asserts the importance of prayer, beginning his epistle with an exhortation to pray for wisdom (James 1:5) and ending it with an extended affirmation of the power of prayer. (James 5:13-18) In the same way, Foster agrees that our prayers are powerful and effective. “The Bible pray-ers,” he writes, “prayed as if their prayers could and would make an objective difference.” (p. 35) Indeed, Moses, he recalls prayed so boldly that he thought he could change God’s mind, and he did. (Exodus 32:14) Though the Bible stresses that God keeps his promises, it also instructs us that God responds to the fervent prayers of righteous men. In striving to faithfully follow our Lord, we would do well to remember this instruction, and to recall that those giants of the faith who are exalted in our teaching, like Elijah, were “mere men.” (James 5:17) God answers prayers, and through our praying, he also transforms our passions that we might ask rightly of Him. (James 4:3)
Likewise, the Outward Discipline of ‘Service’ transforms our inmost parts, bringing into our hearts humility as its greatest reward. Yet, like James, Foster understands that service “it is possible to master the mechanics of service without experiencing the Discipline.” (p. 134) Thus, Celebration of Discipline distinguishes between two types of service, true service and “self-righteous service.” Foster describes several characteristics of self-righteous service, its concern with “making impressive gains on ecclesiastical scoreboards”, its requirement for rewards, its selective nature, and the influence moods and whims exert on it. The main thrust of self-righteous service is to promote the self and to remain in control of the service one renders. These characteristics of self-righteous service, particularly its selective nature, echo the warning James gave concerning favoritism. (James 2:1-4) If we pick and choose whom to treat well based on the rewards its might give us, whether it be to treat the powerful well and received for it concrete rewards, or treat the lowly well to bolster our image of humility, then we have not exhibited true service. Likewise, if our service hinges on moods and whims, then we will more likely wish others well, yet not meet their physical needs. (James 2:14) By contrast, the type of service both Foster and James teach is one that “ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need.” (p. 129) If we give to others as the need arises without waiting for the proper time (Proverbs 3:28), then we are indeed giving up our right to be in charge of the service we render. In this way, we become a true servant in the fashion both Celebration of Discipline and Scripture promote.
As with the Disciplines of Prayer and Service, the wisdom Foster imparts about the Corporate Discipline of Confession agrees strongly with James. Indeed, much of motivation for including confession as a Corporate Discipline arises from James 5:16, “…confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Like James, Foster addresses the sinfulness of sin. He quotes Jeremiah 44:4, where God exhorts the Israelites to not “…do this abominable thing that I hate!” The proper way to deal with that aspect of sin is to approach confession in genuine sorrow. Though sorrow may be accompanied by emotions, it is primarily an act of will, not some feeling we conjure up to make ourselves seem more pious. As Foster writes, sorrow is “an abhorrence at having committed the sin, a deep regret at having offended the heart of God.” (p. 152) In the same way, James calls us on to “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” (James 4:9) Yet, if confession begins in sorrow, it may end in joy, as Foster claims. For, as James writes, if “we humble ourselves before the Lord…he will lift us up.” (James 4:10) Likewise, as our Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) Nevertheless, if confession is not accompanied by “a determination to avoid sin” (p. 152), only sorrow will result. The celebration that comes after confession, as Foster writes, comes from both the forgiveness of sins and the result of a genuinely changed life. (p. 153) Forgiveness itself provides freedom to act, for it reminds us that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy (James 5:11) ,yet if not accompanied by the determination to obey God and to avoid sin, we run the risk of making light of the mercy shown us.
In The Fight, John White offers much wisdom that also agrees with Scripture and imparts to us knowledge of how to live as a Christian faithfully and obediently. One of the closest parallels between the teachings of John White and Richard Foster lies in the area of prayer. White affirms the power of prayer when speaking of the battle against the powers of darkness. He gives an example from Daniel, where an all-out attack in the heavenlies erupted in response to his prayer. (White, p. 223) Likewise, in Revelation 8:5, when an angel hurled the hot coals on which he had mixed the prayers of the saints to earth, “there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” “Such is the explosive might of prayer,” White writes, thereby giving us another example of the axiom that “The prayer of a righteous man in powerful and effective.” (James 5:16) White offers much additional advice on prayer, encouraging us to be open with the Lord about the longings of our heart, yet speaking of the need for transformation that we might know more clearly whether our will conforms to his (James 4:2-3), and beseeching us to ask for wisdom when we lack it, confident because of James 1:5-7 that God will grant us the wisdom we lack. Again, we see the wisdom present in Scripture expounded on by a mature believer with a heart to instruct us in the ways of the Lord.
White also speaks of the key ingredients to Christian fellowship and of those things which prove destructive to the fellowship desired by God. (John 1:3-4) Specifically, he warns against strife and vainglory, the very same “wisdom” James warns against when he writes, “…where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.” (James 3:16) White expounds upon the idea, suggesting that strife in the Biblical context refers to insisting on your way because you resent someone else. When we argue against the ideas of another due to our resentment of them, then we are engaging in strife. Whether or not the other person is operating in the correct spirit, if we oppose that person from the spirit of strife, then we are fighting that person with the wrong spirit. James puts such an attitude in its proper place, calling it “earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” (James 3:15) The Fight argues likewise, suggesting that if we find ourselves indulging in fantasies of triumphing over our “enemies” then we ought to bind our fantasies to the altar, thereby, putting to death our strife. In that way, we fight our true enemy, the “Sower of Discord.” (p. 143) When we put to death our strife and envy, and seek unity, as White recommends, then we become “peacemakers who sow in peace.” (James 3:18)
At the core of each of these aspects of Christian living lies faith. “No aspect of your Christian life is of greater importance,” according to White. Yet, as the discussion by James of faith and death suggests, and White states more explicitly, the issue of faith raises considerable confusion among believers. Faith, The Fight claims, is the response of man to the initiative of God. We see much evidence for this point of view throughout Scripture, for clearly God takes the initiative in drawing man to Himself. He sought out Adam and Eve, appeared to Moses in a burning bush, gave judges to Israel, sent Nathan to restore David, and gave us His Son to restore us to Him permanently. Yet, unless we respond to His actions, we have not faith. We may believe that God has done what He said, but if we do nothing in response to what He says, we have not faith, but mere belief. I think therein lies the essence of James argument. (James 2:17) For us to exhibit true faith may prove difficult, yet “great faith is responding to God when it is hardest to do.” (p. 103) To such faith did James call his readers, when he said “we consider blessed those who have persevered.” (James 5:11) When we show such faith, we learn that “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11) and we shall then “receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)
Thus, we find, truly, that faith without deeds is dead. If faith consists of our response to the Word of God, then if we fail to respond in the correct manner to His Word, we have shown our lack of faith. Yet, we have also seen that wisdom is required to put the words of our Lord into practice. Wisdom may come from many sources, including the experience and insight of mature believers. Through Richard Foster we learn 12 disciplines that help put us in a position where God might work in us, i.e., that we might become the good soil that produces a plentiful crop in response to the Word of God. (Matthew 13:8, 23) In The Fight, the author explicates Scripture specifically to the new believer who might not understand the new kingdom he has entered, but in such a way that it gives breadth to the understanding of even a more mature believer. This paper surveyed three topics from each book that give us greater insight into what it means to live life as a follower of Christ and that ought to propel us into greater obedience to His words. The topics surveyed also parallel and expound upon some of the primary topics discussed by James, thereby illustrating the principle that wisdom gleaned from sources outside Scripture ought not to stand on its own, but instead build on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” (Eph 2:20) For, it is through him that we join together and rise to become a holy temple in the Lord (Eph 2:21), and wisdom that we gain from others needs thorough evaluation in the light of Scripture to glean from it what is good and reject that which is evil. Much wisdom, though, that we encounter is, as James writes, earthly, unspiritual, and of the devil. (James 3:15) Thankfully, we have a Father in heaven who is willing to give His wisdom to us generously without fault, wisdom that enables us to follow Him more faithfully, for, as John White writes, the test of a true servant lies in how well he obeys the words of the Master. (p. 195-196)
White, John. The Fight. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1976.
Foster, Richard . Celebration of Discipline. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher, 1978.
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