The Gospel Discipline of Listening

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18:1-2)

This proverbial couplet expresses a simple wisdom principle: surround yourself with wise people and listen to them. Most of us hear that and say, “Good nugget. Ok, I’m gonna try to listen to people today.”

But Proverbs is designed to do more than give us fortune cookie sayings that we strive hard to apply. Proverbs is still a part of the story. It is an extended, poetic, reflection on what it means to live within the context of God’s redemption. “How might we live in this world in light of who God is and what he has done?” So behind all these wisdom sayings there is a gospel-motivation behind them—a motivation based on the good news that God has worked redemption through Jesus.

What is the motivation for this gospel-discipline of listening? The gospel reveals that “none is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10-11). The gospel reveals that the depth and riches of unsearchable wisdom belong to God, not us (Rom. 11:33). The gospel reveals that our hearts are terribly sick—dead, in fact—and do not have the capacity to produce a sound, wise life (Mark 7:21-23; James 4:1). Simply put: we do not contain the resources within ourself to live the kind of life we ought. That’s reason enough to listen.

I’m not a good listener. Listening is hard for me not because I lack information about quality listening skills. I don’t listen to others because I want to self-justify and self-protect. I want to present myself as one who has all the answers and knows my situation perfectly. When I listen to someone, I submit myself to them. Listening means esteeming someone higher than myself. For me to listen, I admit to the speaker (and others) either that they are more important than I am or, in terms of hearing counsel, that I need them. The speaker becomes “big” and I, as listener, become “small.” Let’s be honest: I don’t like this. So I often resist surrounding myself with others who are willing and able to speak into my life and situation. My heart is deceitful. It tells me, “Seek your own desire! You have all the resources you need to succeed!” It’s deceptive and damning.

My heart is against me here, and so is yours. But that’s not all. So is our culture. It largely whispers (often shouts), “Do not to listen to others! Be yourself. Have it your way. Just do it.” More than marketing slogans though, the general wind of culture blows these words into our faces everyday: You are in charge of yourself and you don’t need other people. This, too, is deceptive and damning.

How do we know when we are slow to listen and “take pleasure in understanding”? When other people talk, we prepare our response in our mind rather than seek to understand in order to articulate a faithful paraphrase of someone’s words back to them. Here’s another way: we do what we want to do even if multiple people have counseled us otherwise. It doesn’t take long to see that this happens more than we’d like to admit.

Yet here’s the good news. The gospel does more than expose our sinfulness and foolishness and our lack of listening. It establishes us in Christ, who is true wisdom and the true speaker of God’s word. Being established in Christ also establishes us in a community of people who belong to Christ. Therefore, when the truth of the gospel takes root in our lives we move out of selfish isolation (i.e. not being a listener) and into community with the tri-unity God and his people. When the gospel takes root, we understand and come to terms with this reality: we don’t know everything, we don’t perfectly apply and obey God’s commands, and so we need help. A gospel-centered life necessarily means we seek to be a listening people.

This is not restrictive. You don’t become a doormat when you live this way. It’s actually freeing. How? The gospel frees us from the damning delusion that we have all the resources necessary to live life as we ought. It calls us to a discipline of listening to God’s Word and his Spirit, and listening to God’s people, of whom we are a part for our upbuilding and encouragement. In the gospel, Jesus calls us to listen to him: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15). In the gospel, we are called out of self-delusion, self-justification, and self-protection and into the safe-confines of a community of that speaks the truth in love so that we might become more like Jesus (Eph. 4:15 et al.).

As gospel people, we aren’t in isolation. We are united to a Trinitarian God and his people. By God’s grace, I don’t want to be a fool who isolates and seeks my own desires, but one who “grows small” as a humble listener. It’s the wisest, best, most freeing to live. Progress is slow, but I’m learning. I want this kind of life. How about you?

Life Ministry

Is Community a Spiritual Discipline?

Most of the resources I come across that emphasize “spiritual formation” or “spiritual disciplines” focus on how I can grow my personal relationship with God. Things like reading the Bible, going to church, journaling, prayer, fasting, giving, and solitude make the list. These are good things. These things simply serve as instruments, or means, of God’s grace in my life. They are essential to my progress in the faith.

Very rarely, however, do I see “community” emphasized in these spiritual formation discussions. On a few occasions, I actually see community or fellowship listed as a “spiritual discipline.” I ran across something like the latter today and it got me thinking: is community a spiritual discipline?

My answer is that community (or fellowship or whatever you want to call it) is not a spiritual discipline. It is not merely one of the things that Christians do in order to become more like Jesus. Why do I say that? We get zero indication from the New Testament writers that community is an item on a checklist. We get very little indication that Christianity is overtly individual and so “community” must be considered an important aspect of my faith. Rather, the picture we get is that community permeates and transcends all the spiritual disciplines. Community is what Christianity, by its very nature, is at its core. Christianity is, of course, personal and individual. Make no mistake. My dad, in another context, always told me, “We don’t go to heaven in pairs.” Yes, but at the same time, Christianity is so much more than personal and individual.

This is because God is, by his very nature, a community of persons, existing eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is not a loner, he is a tri-unity, a Trinity. It’s because God sent his Son to purchase a people for himself and bring them into the community of God through the gospel. Christians are called to image God individually and corporately. The only way an individual can image God, who exists in community, is to exist in community. Bible reading, prayer, worship, service, fasting, and a host of other traditional “spiritual disciplines” are all for naught if they are done in isolation. In fact, done that way, they can breed self-righteousness, legalism, elitism (i.e. varsity and junior varsity Christians). On the other hand, spiritual disciplines are all nurtured and empowered when done in Christian community.

Because I am an American, my environment cultivates individualism. America is home to John Wayne or Lone Ranger spirituality: “I am all I need and I can get the job done.” “Spiritual formation” resources about my relationship with God are therefore appealing, and, to be sure, ego-boosting. They feed the lie inside that says, “I can do this on my own!” Lately, I have been personally challenged and convicted by this. I am not a professional at corporate spirituality. I do not have biblical, gospel-centered community all figured out. But I desire it, I want to grow in it, and I need others to do it with me (I can’t do community alone!). The old cliché, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is true for Christianity, too. As someone has said before, the Christian life is a “community project.” That’s anti-American. But it’s not anti-God or anti-gospel.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now  you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:10).

Life Theology

What Should Family Worship Look Like?

As a father of two daughters (one outside the womb and one inside), I am continually thinking about the gospel-shaped environment of our home. Carly and I want our girls to grow up dazzled by the grace of God in the gospel. As the husband and father, it is my divinely-ordained joy and duty to pray about and plan intentional opportunities to cultivate a “gospel culture” in our home. (If you are a single mom or the wife of an unbeliever, keep reading. I hope this will be helpful to you, too!) The problem is that if I don’t plan now and decide beforehand what we will do as parents to train our children, nothing will happen. Even though our oldest girl is seventeen months old and literally has a fifteen second attention span (if food is involved), it’s never too early (or too late!) to ask, “What should family worship look like?”

By “family worship,” I mean intentional, structured, and systematic times of instruction, reading, praying, and singing together. You may wonder, “Shouldn’t we just make sure our whole lives are about Jesus? Why emphasize this formal stuff?” Yes, we should not just be a Christian family for thirty minutes a night plus an hour on Sunday mornings. In ancient Israel, parents were called to rehearse the glory of God’s redemption in the Exodus during their normal daily rhythms (Deut. 6:7). This, too, is worship, and the same should be true for Christian parents today.

Yet at the same time, God also commanded parents to establish formal times of instruction and worship (Deut. 6:6, 8-9). This would provide opportunities for children to ask questions of their parents and for parents to properly interpret God’s redemption to their children (Deut. 6:20-25). In the New Testament, Paul tells fathers to bring their children up in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), certainly implying structure.

What then should family worship look like? The Bible doesn’t give a prescription, and I don’t have all the answers (after all, my kids are seventeen months and twenty weeks in utero!). But as I reflect on it, here are some major elements of family worship that can help cultivate, by the Spirit’s power, a gospel-shaped home:

  • Reading Scripture. This is essential. At the very least, we need to read Scripture with our children, and teach them how to understand the Bible. We must show them that it is a story of how God rescues his children through Jesus, the Hero of the story. By God’s grace, we use the Bible to expose our children’s sin and help them see how the Hero is the solution to everything they truly need. 
  • Prayer. When we pray, we should pray meaningfully. While good grades, thanks for the sunshine, and requesting good night sleep are important, what we really need to pray for is spiritual renewal and growth. Our kids will pick up whether or not we are shallow pray-ers. They will pray about what we pray about. When we pray together, I want the flavor of Scripture, not scattered thoughts, to saturate my prayers. I want to be quick repent of my sin, exalt Christ, and be bold to ask God to open my kids’ eyes to their need and that he gives them faith in Jesus.
  • Reciting the Apostles’ Creed. Christians have been reciting the Creed since the second century and for good reason. It summarizes the absolute fundamentals of the faith in an easy-to-remember way. (You can sing it, if you’d rather. I usually sing it to our oldest daughter as I’m putting her to bed.) This is a simple way to instruct our kids in what we believe. It is not boring theology! It is about God! If you are not into theology, you are not into God. We never move past belief, and saying, “I believe in God the Father Almighty…” is, indeed, a profoundly theological thing to say. The question is not whether we and our children will be theologians; the question is whether we will be good ones.
  • Catechesis. Don’t freak out! Catechesis (or catechism) simply comes from a Greek word meaning “to teach.” Call it whatever you want, but the point is that to “discipline and instruct” our children in the gospel, we must have a systematic plan. Forging catechesis and Scripture together can make things easier. There are so many resources out there including a new interactive catechism called New City Catechism (with video teaching and settings for child or adult). You can even put it on your iPad. There’s also a number of other books/children’s Bibles that can be used in a catechetical (teaching) manner: The Jesus Storybook Bible, Long Story Shortand Big Truths for Young Hearts
  • Singing. Pick up a hymnal or put in a worship CD and start singing! What matters is not how we sing, but that we sing. Did you realize that the longest book in our Bibles, the Psalms, is a songbook! Right now, we’re singing songs like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” But every now and then we break out “Amazing Grace,” “Thy Mercy My God,” “Jesus Paid It All,” “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” or something else. Singing brings glory to God and joy to our hearts. I want our family to glorify God and be happy doing it.

I don’t have all the answers, and I know there will be frustrating “family worship” times when tempers flare and somebody leaves crying. We can’t control everything, but we can have a plan by God’s grace, be flexible, mix it up, and keep it simple. As parents, let’s lean into God’s grace, walk in the Spirit, get creative, be serious, have fun, and watch God work in the lives of our kids. I know he will.


What Suffering Shows Us About Ourselves

The more I think about trial and suffering, whether great or small (see James 1:2), the more I can’t help but conclude that we don’t like trials because they reveal sin.  When I see more and more of my sin in any particular place or situation, I tend to say, I want to leave.  This is hard.  I don’t like this because (fill in the blank). I fail to realize, however, that the problem is usually me, not other people or things.  Sure, there are other contributing factors to trial, and by no means am I saying that we only experience trial because of a particular sin.  However, in tribulation, we are experiencing divine discipline.  During hard times, my sin will always surface and so I sin yet again by blame-shifting.  I want to learn to realize that God is refining me with fire.  He is bringing all the nasty junk to the surface so that he might burn it away.  Suffering is supposed to produce endurance and holiness and faith.

And the sad part is that most of the time, I don’t like that, because I don’t want to know how bad I really am.

The truth is that there is more nasty corrosion under the surface of my heart than I realize.  The truth is that apart from Christ, there is no good in me (Rom. 7:18).  But, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus is cleansing, redeeming, and healing me.  He is applying his heavenly balm to my sin-sick wounds.  God does this because he loves us, and he only does this to those he loves (Heb. 12:6).  Sometimes that’s nearly impossible to believe.  But there is more good news in the gospel:  Jesus purchased the ability to believe the truth that no matter the situation, he works all things for good if we love him and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).

O Lord, let us embrace suffering, knowing that your desire is for us to glorify you and grow in holiness.  Let your discipline root out all our sin that we might truly be more conformed to the image of Christ, as we were predestined to be (Rom. 8:29).


Automatic Transmissions and the Glory of God

The transmission in my Mazda 626 went out this week.  It still works for the most part, but the odds of it falling out of my engine and lying dead on the road soon are relatively good.  I’m not going to lie, that sucks.  I need a car and God knows that.  However, God has shown me his glory through the process of dropping $1,400 two weeks ago for other problems and getting ready to sell the car in December due to the fact that I’m moving to South Africa.  I can’t put more money into it.  But I can’t afford a new car.  Quite the dilemma.

This isn’t suffering — compared to what Jesus went through before he died on the cross — but in its own unique way, it is discipline.  Some hardcore, eschatology-freak Christians might say that God punishes his children for sins or poor choices we make.  Those people might say, “James, you sinned, so God is punishing you buy breaking your car and causing financial strain.”  Hmm, sorry, no he’s not.

I do think, however, I’m being disciplined.  For those of you who are more gracious and lenient, more of the hippie-Jesus crowd, you might say, “C’mon, James.  Disciplined?  A transmission?  That’s just what happens in life.  Just roll with it, man.”  I disagree with you as well.  God made Mazda 626 transmissions — as shoddy as they are — for their purpose.  I believe God caused my transmission to crap out.  Call me a radical, but listen first.  Proverbs 16:4 says, “The LORD has made everything for its purpose.”  Further, the word “discipline,” in English, comes from the Latin disciplina which means “teaching, learning.”  I’m learning about God’s glory because of my car’s transmission.  Here’s how the author of Hebrews talks about God’s discipline.

It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
– Hebrews 12:7-8

If I am not seeing God’s glory and knowing him more, I am not his son.  I’m just a religious phony who isn’t born again.  When I got the phone call that the transmission’s funeral will be held sometime this month, I was not happy.  But after that moment of frustration, I said, “God, it’s okay.  It’s just a car.  Show me your glory in this.  Help me get through this well.”  God is using this to cause me to endure.  I need to depend on him financially even more than before.  Now, I need to trust God to find a way to get to the gym each day.  I need to trust God that someone will want to buy this car despite it having a bad transmission.  I need to trust God that he knew what he was doing when I bought this car two and a half years ago not knowing how much money I’d invest in it.

Thank God for my transmission.  It’s an opportunity to believe God’s promises and see his glory.  He made everything for it’s purpose.  Even transmissions.