“You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (Matthew 23:26).
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15).
“Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. . . . And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:16-18, 24).
The ultimate concern of those who are born of God is to abide in Christ—to simply and humbly abide in the “I Am” presence, totally surrendered to the will of God; trusting God to work in them both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Christ-like, they wisely say not my will but yours be done (cf. Luke 22:42). We see this same spirit of submission in the letters of St. Paul who at some point writes:
“I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philippians 4:11).
On another occasion, when he felt especially bedeviled by some “thorn in the flesh”, Paul asked the Lord three times to remove the thorn, but in the end accepted the Lord’s answer that, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). Whatever the turn of events, he knew that:
“All things work together for good to them that love the Lord, to them that are the called, according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
The “good” indicated in this verse does not refer to a more favorable turn of events or to some new set of material conditions specifically tailored to the expectations of the carnal mind; nor is it exclusively a reference to Paul’s understanding of the second coming of Christ and the resurrection. It also refers to a present realization of that which is both eternal and at hand – that which is intuited, here and now, by those who have the mind of Christ and the Spirit of God.
Remember that the Spirit of God is described as the earnest of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:14) and is given to guide us into all truth (John 16:13). In a similar vein, Paul writes:
“as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. . . . we have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:9-12, 16).
And thus having the mind of Christ,
“we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (II Corinthians 4:16-18).
By faith, then, we dwell in the kingdom, here and now. This is a living Reality which, as indicated above, is at hand; within us; among us (Matthew 3:2; Luke 17:20-21). This is not a matter of pretense or make believe – it is for real. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we are never tempted by our old way of seeing.
Keeping our eyes on the Lord
The point at which we recognize the “I Am” presence within us TO BE the living Christ and begin to learn what it means to abide in Him is an occasion of great joy. It is the first step in a process through which our self-consciousness (i.e. the carnal mind or egoic mind) begins to decrease and our Christ-consciousness (i.e. the mind of Christ in us) begins to increase. The end of this process, as far as this life is concerned, is to be crucified with Christ and to walk with him in newness of life (cf. Romans 6). In Galatians, Paul writes:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians2:19-20).
Ideally, the time will come when you simply cease trying to tinker with God’s plan for your life, your carnal mind having been effectively crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). But why put it off? Why not submit wholly to His will, here and now? Elaborating on the themes of submission and contentment,touched on earlier, Paul writes:
“I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).
At first, however, it is common to find oneself alternating (more or less frequently) between the carnal mind and the mind of Christ – a kind of oscillation between the perspective of the flesh and the perspective of the Spirit. For in spite of (and perhaps even because of) our new found joy, it is tempting to begin imagining a future in which all will go smoothly – all according to “our” expectations. What we fail to appreciate is that by imagining our future in this way, we are forgetting that the Way of life is also the way of the cross. And by lapsing once again into that mode of thinking which is typical of the carnal mind— imagining ourselves to be separate from the body of Christ as a whole; thinking, once again, in terms of our good and our evil; attempting again to secure our life and our future well-being in a manner unbefitting of a child of God —we temporarily lay aside the cross, so to speak, and place our hope, once again, in fortune and circumstance as we fantasize about this or that turn of events that we think would be more to our liking. From this carnal or egoic standpoint, it is inevitable that the apparent trajectory of our life, as we observe it unfolding in space and time, will come into conflict with one or more of our preferences – i.e. with our personaldesires or expectations with respect to the future (conceived of in isolation from our place in the body of Christ and God’s will for our life). As such, it is inevitable that we will be tempted, once again, to despair. Indeed, at times like these, we can compare ourselves to Peter who – stepping away from the relative security of his boat – walks out on the water toward Jesus:
“Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’ And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ ” (Matthew 14:29-32).
Like Peter in this gospel story, we take our eyes off the Lord – turning away from the living presence which IS Christ in us — and become preoccupied, instead, with the swirling of the wind and waves around us. Perhaps we become obsessed with maintaining complete control over other people in our lives; perhaps we are attempting to anticipate every possible contingency before we trust the Lord’s leading in our circumstances; perhaps we have become consumed, once again with accumulating riches or worldly honors; or perhaps – God forbid! – we are attempting yet again to achieve (what we imagine to be) spiritual goals through the strength of the flesh. Whatever the case may be, the point is that we tend to forget, at times, the futility of looking to anyone (or anything) other than Christ. We fail to remember the admonition of the Psalmist:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
For, indeed, by trusting and abiding in His living presence – here and now – we have access to the water of life itself:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
And as we drink from this eternal spring, which is the living Word of God in us, we become attuned to a level of intelligence which is both deeper and higher and in every respect more profound than “our own insight” (i.e. the cleverness of the carnal mind). Indeed, as we begin to receive that anointing of the Spirit that guides us into all truth (John 16:13), we learn to interact with others as equals, forging relationships founded on mutual respect and consideration, instead of manipulation or coercion. Moreover, in the awareness of Divine presence that is characteristic of the mind of Christ, we tend to be intuitively and optimally aware of our circumstances without becoming fearful and obsessive about things which might possibly go wrong. And insofar as the world continues to appear threatening, we are prepared to take up our cross and embrace God’s will for our lives, whatever the turn of events. Over time, we learn that there is nothing to be gained by taking our eyes off the Lord so as to attend to the wind and waves around us; nothing to be gained by depending on our own efforts instead of the power of the Spirit that is ours through faith in Christ.
Additional Examples of Living by Faith
Part of the beauty of the Judeo-Christian scriptures is that the heroes of faith described therein are as instructive in their failures and shortcomings as they are in their successes. Peter is certainly a case in point, since the gospels record not only his tremendous faith and love for the Lord, but also his doubt and his denial. Later, we will revisit the life of Peter when, in the Book of Acts, we notice his momentary reluctance to trust the leading of the Lord when his traditional allegiance to Jewish dietary law is challenged. But first, let’s consider the reluctant obedience of the prophet Jonah and, then, the way in which Saul of Tarsuskicked against the goads.
Jonah: Reluctant Obedience
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once toNineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:1-3).
The prophet Jonah provides another good example – or, rather, a counterexample – of what it means to live by faith. When the Lord commands him to go to Nineveh, he immediately begins to question and calculate, worrying about all the possible consequences of his actions and second guessing the Lord in his own mind (Jonah 4:2). He quickly decides not to obey the Lord, attempting instead to flee from His presence by boarding a ship bound for Tarshish:
“He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD” (Jonah 1:3).
You can run, as the saying goes, but you cannot hide. The ship that he is on encounters severe storms and the cargo is jettisoned in an attempt to save the ship and passengers(1:4-6). Shipwreck is narrowly avoided, but only after Jonah explains himself to his comrades and persuades them to throw him overboard, as well (1:7-16). He is then swallowed by a great fish and, after calling upon the Lord from within its belly, is spit back up onto dry land (1:17 – 2:10).
The moral of this story— quite clearly —is that much of what we experience as external adversity actually reflects our own inner conflicts—often our own stubborn refusal to submit to the will of God for our life. Jonah’s decision to go to Tarsus was a desperate attempt to evade both his duty and his destiny; to live in deference to his fears instead of his faith; to substitute his short-sighted preferences for God’s perfect will—a desperate attempt to circumvent God’s clear leading in his life. Alas, at the end of the story, Jonah remains very troubled, reluctantly obeying God, to be sure, but still not trusting him wholly (3:10 – 4:8).
In contrast to the problematic example provided by life of Jonah, consider the prophet Isaiah’s description of the life of faith–a description which is echoed, later, in Jesus’ story of the wise man who built his house upon the rock:
“Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace— in peace because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God you have an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:3-4).
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).
These verses also invite comparison to the peace of Jesus described in the fourth gospel:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
Unlike Jonah, those who “trust in the Lord” – who “hear His words” and “act on them” – will avoid unnecessary adversity and will always retain a foothold in His perfect peace, whatever the turn of events. This is the same peace that is described by St. Paul as the peace which surpasses all understanding:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).
In the words of the old hymn, “Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm.” However, that rock is not accessible through mere belief, but is only to be found through an authentic, living faith in the living Word of God—i.e. by trusting in and relying on the “I Am” presence which IS Christ-in-you.
Indeed, as we shall see, not only is that rock not accessible through mere belief, sometimes our attachment to personal and traditional beliefs can prove to be a positive hindrance.
Saul of Tarsus: Kicking Against the Goads
Prior to his conversion, the apostle Paul – then known as Saul of Tarsus – was a Pharisee who was extremely zealous in his beliefs and who was so furiously enraged at those who trusted in Jesus that he persecuted them in every way imaginable. The following is a first person account of his activities as reported in the book of Acts:
“I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee. . . . Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did inJerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:5, 9-11).
His beliefs were very orthodox and, quite clearly, he thought that by persecuting Christians in this way he was offering service to God (cf. John 16:2). But, as it turns out, he was wrong at the top of his voice. His beliefs, together with his righteous indignation, were, in fact, hindering him from discerning God’s will (cf. Romans 12:2). Somewhat like Jonah (only more so), he was working at cross purposes with God. And somewhat like Jonah, he had a rendezvous with destiny:
“With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road . . . I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting'” (Acts 26: 11-15).
Thus, while Saul of Tarsus was very proud of his position and very confident in his beliefs, he did not realize that his obsession with these things was contrary to the living Word of God. Indeed, he received mercy, it is later said, because he had acted ignorantly in unbelief (I Timothy 1:13). That mercy came, on the road to Damascus, when he came to know and trust the living Christ. He received an attitude adjustment, at that point, which not only changed his life, but also changed the course of history:
“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (Philippians 3:4-9).
We have seen, then, that Saul of Tarsus was very confident in the flesh. His egoic mind, as we might refer to it,was very much invested in both his identity as a Pharisee and in his efforts to persecute the fledgling Church. On the road to Damascus, however, he learned that it is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless (cf. John 6:63; II Corintians 3:3-6). From that point forward he is known as the apostle Paul.
Unlike the prophet Jonah, the apostle Paul provides an example of whole hearted obedience to the Lord – not in his own strength, but in the strength and power of the Spirit. But this required that he be willing, when necessary, to rethink his traditional beliefs, as he grew in grace and knowledge of the truth. As we shall see, the apostle Peter – who got to know Jesus very early on – is also called upon to rethink certain aspects of their tradition.
Peter: What God Has Made Clean…
Peter’s reaction to the vision of the unclean animals, as reported in the book of Acts, also provides an example of the way in which the carnal mind or egoic mind may assert itself – or reassert itself – by way of our attachment to various personal and/or traditional beliefs. For, occasionally, such beliefs will be challenged by the clear leading of the Lord. In Peter’s case, it happened like this:
“About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’” (Acts 10:9-15).
Similarly, as we continue to live – faithfully and steadfast – in the presence of the Lord, we may find that our lives begin to unfold in directions that seem to conflict with some of our personal and/or traditional preconceptions as to what is true or good or right or appropriate. And like Peter – who was somewhat notorious in this regard – we may be tempted to say NO to the Lord, imagining that our own preconceptions (or the preconceptions of those around us) should take precedence over His clear leading in our lives. Eventually, however, we learn to test the spirits to see whether they are from God (I John 4:1). And as we continue to sense that a new direction really is in order, we know better than to let the inertia of the past quench the leading of the Spirit, here and now.
NOTE: The intention, here, is not to discuss any particular beliefs or behaviors or possible courses of action that might be contemplated by an individual Christian OR to address any particular vision for social reform or cultural renewal that may be on the agenda of this or that Christian community. The intention, rather, is to encourage YOU to abide – faithfully and steadfast – in the presence of the Lord, trusting Him to work in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure, without imagining that your personal or traditional beliefs or values should never be called into question; and without imagining that God’s leading in the lives of other human beings and other human communities will always be in sync with his leading in your own life or with your own preconceived notions about how things ought to be. Keep in mind the words of the Psalmist:
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved” (Psalm 127:1-2; cf Acts 5:38-39).
And, as indicated above, remember this Proverb:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Moreover, regardless of how the Lord seems to be leading you, in your own life— or the vision of the future that you feel is most appropriate for your own Christian community (or for the nation or the world, for that matter) —realize that there will always be diversity of opinions in the body of Christ and it is not given to one member to comprehend the purpose and function of all the others. It is also worth noting the scriptural admonition that we be considerate of others – and gentle with them – whether they are weaker and may be offended by our liberty (I Corinthians 8; cf. Romans 14) or whether they have gone astray, perhaps, and need to be restored in the spirit of meekness (Galatians 6). In any event, their accountability – and ours – is ultimately to the Lord. Rather than judging one another harshly, let us encourage one another to remain present with the LORD, abiding in Him as he abides in us (John 15:3-5). Insofar as we are able, let us give one another the benefit of the doubt, as we continue to walk in the light that is given to us. From within His presence, that which needs to be done IS done. And by virtue of His peace, we can, together, sort through the topsy-turvy world of our family, community, and political relationships, responding in love to every challenge that presents itself while continuing to live (unconditionally) in the presence of God— here and now —whatever the turn of events (cf. Romans 12:4-18).
–> Chapter 7: Let Us Walk in the Spirit