(Including thoughts from the sermons of Charles Spurgeon)
Holy God, most wonderful One, fill us with You. May our love for You be of the kind that repels falseness--may we love You more than anything we can achieve. May we love glorifying You more than the works of our own hands. Turn our eyes away from the created and towards the Creator, Who is perfect and satisfies us with every good thing. Bless us with wisdom now, that we may look at our lives and know if we are lying to You and to ourselves in any area. In Jesus’ perfectly forgiving name, Amen.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a Christian who read his Bible and spent a half hour or so in prayer with his wife each morning. They were regular churchgoers, active in their fellowship, and each week the man and his wife took turns going with some other members of the church to a prison, where they spoke to some of the people there about God. All in all, he had questions about his faith and sometimes he wondered if he was doing Christianity the way it was supposed to be done (what thoughtful Christian doesn’t?), but he was happy with God.
Now this man loved to play with his kids. He spent all the time he wasn’t at work on his knees growling and chasing his little two-year-old daughter around tables and through chairs and down hallways, and she would scream and giggle and growl back at him like a little lion. When she was playing with someone else, he would throw balls and play video games with his older kids, and they had a wide repertoire of their favorite things to play. Each night they’d laugh as their little cartoon characters were set on fire and died, or eaten by zombies and died, or poked by little venomous slimy circles and died, or blown up by grenades and died, or shot with lasers and died, or blown up by rockets and died, or zapped with lightning and died, or slapped by the hand of a gigantic skeleton boss with fire coming out its eyes and an electric guitar for a tongue and died.
One morning, as the Christian was reading his Bible, a thought occurred to him. “The Bible seems to praise those who spend a lot of time worshipping God. I know I spend time in my life worshipping, but I know I could also spend more. I wonder if God wants me to spend more time with Him so that I’ll be a better Christian. I wonder if God would work more in my life if I always did things that are spiritual.”
That seemed to make sense to the man, so he set his plan in motion. Before, he had enjoyed crosswords, but no more. Before, he had liked to read novels, but now he read nothing but the Bible or devotional books. Before, he had watched sports to unwind, but now, he would only read the Psalms instead.
In the beginning, he enjoyed his new disciplines. He felt happier, and it seemed he was better able to think about God during his days at work or at home, especially when problems came. He was quite peaceful, and his conscience was always at rest.
A week passed, and then another week. But soon a tension started to rise in the man’s heart. It was hard to live in this way! Sometimes he got tired, and sometimes he got bored, but he pushed himself through. “I must walk the narrow way,” he told himself.
He didn’t play as often with his little girl; the people in the Bible didn’t seem to ever play with their kids as he had with his, so it had probably just been a sinful distraction. He also didn’t play sports or video games with his older kids anymore, because they were old enough to entertain themselves without him. The kids needed an example to follow of a man who was willing to focus on the Bible and nothing else in order to seek the privilege of sitting in God’s Presence--after all, it was hard work to be a Christian! They would never be able to bear the burden of Christianity if they didn’t have a good example to follow.
But, slowly, some things in his life started to confuse him. He would often get more frustrated with his kids than he had before, and his tongue would be quicker and sharper against them when he found them in the wrong. Little mistakes made by his wife seemed to him to be a grave consequence of the distracted sort of half-Christian way that she lived—how often did she read the Bible? How often did she pray? Maybe if she were more godly, she wouldn’t make so many mistakes. So he began to speak in a different way to her, to try and point her to what was missing from her life.
In the prison, his words had taken new life, and the inmates had started requesting him to talk to them specifically. He talked often on spending time with God, and discipline, and holiness, and how to beat your body for the sake of following Jesus. Crowds began to gather around him. This all sounded fabulous to them—finally, a Gospel they could understand! He had become quite a popular preacher.
But the issues at home were mounting. He felt something was wrong. Every error of his kids and his wife seemed to him an error of unrepentant sin, an error of eternal consequence, and he began to wonder seriously if his wife particularly, and his kids incidentally, were even Christians at all. This was also true of his friends—how many of them had really given as much as he had to the Gospel? How many of them willingly gave themselves to the love of God like he had? How many of them were really filled with the Spirit? Although he knew these thoughts seemed off somehow, he wasn’t sure how they could be, since it seemed obvious that God blessed those most who gave the most effort for Him.
Well, this continued for a few more months, but nothing a man does can be hidden from his wife--and she was on the move. She let the pastor of their church in on the situation, and he had a series of chats with the man about things like vines, and the fruit of vines, and how much effort vines need to give in order to produce fruit. They also spoke a bit about new and old wineskins, and the danger of loving old wine--because who likes the new? And the pastor made sure to mention that old silly verse about everything not proceeding from faith being sin.
One day, after a few long spiritual retreats, a couple hockey games on the TV, and a few sessions of heartfelt prayer, the man got home from work, threw his things on the entryway table, and dropped to his hands and knees. Once again, he chased his little girl around the house for hours, and she giggled and giggled and giggled, growling back at him like a little lion.
So what we have here, folks, is a classic Pharisee, am I right? Oh, he did such wonderful things! He read the Bible, he prayed like a madman, he evangelized, he preached with marvelous passion--and, in the end, it was all for the purpose of forcing God to move more in the man’s life. You see that? If you remember from the story, all of his efforts were to make God make the man more powerful in the Spirit. That’s what he wanted in the beginning.
Huh. Now, that’s not a terrible thing to want, right? Like, I want God to move through me, sure! I want Cross of Joy to be powerful, I want these teachings to fill you up to the brim with longing and desire to sit in God’s Presence for hours and days, and to awaken a deep hunger and thirst in you for righteousness and the joy of walking in obedience to God--I want that! So what’s the problem here? The man wants a good thing.
Except, and listen to me here, that isn’t a good thing. God working through you to touch other people isn’t a good thing, in an eternal sense. No. There’s only one good thing in all of life, and that is God Himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the holy Presence of God, God’s Person. Everything else, every little thing there is, even God working through you, is not God, and therefore is not eternally good.
As a Christian, your calling is to love God’s Person apart from loving your efforts to please Him. Why? Because if you love God working through you and don’t love God Himself, you love your own glory. You may love the success that comes from the power of God on Earth, or the feeling of self-satisfaction you get when you think you’ve done something well. You heal a guy and get your picture on the Internet. You preach a sermon and it gets ten thousand views on YouTube, and the comments say what a wonderful man of God you are. You write a book about how to raise your kids in a godly way and you get invited to a conference in Seattle, and they set you up in the Hilton.
None of these good things are worth desiring. Do you hear me, child of God? Compared to Jesus, these things are trash. The joy of sitting at the feet of the King, of being enraptured and enthralled by His love, of being satisfied and quieted in His Word and in His love for you--that is worth desiring, and it’s worth cultivating that desire in your life, strengthening your desires to be with God. But your puny little offerings to God, your little efforts to try and show how focused or how disciplined or how acceptable or how useful you are, are not worth a fart in a blizzard.
Now, it’s absolutely guaranteed that as you sit at the feet of God, you will, one day, be filled with a strong and joyful desire to do something to benefit the Kingdom. Maybe you’ll want to write a book, or a song, or develop a Christ-centered video game, or preach a sermon. But you know what? When you seek God first, and then other things get added on to you, those other things are not burdens or snares. Instead, they become new ways of worship, new ways of enjoying God--and so they too serve our original goal of simply loving God rather than earning Him. So if you feel a desire to work for God that flows out of your joy in Who God is and your longing to bring others with you into the joy of God, then by all means, pray hard and get after it! That’s a good, blessed thing. Not all work for God is bad, that’s not what I’m saying--just the opposite, God gives us things to do so that we can love Him more deeply and more fully.
But what I want you to see is that spiritual disciplines do not earn us God’s Presence. I’ll give you a for instance on that: When you wake up in the morning and read your Bible, God doesn’t give you ten brownie points’ worth of delight in Him. When you take a prayer hour, you aren’t a more righteous Christian than if you had spent that time playing dress-up with a mall mannequin. God doesn’t look at you any differently because you did those things--instead, you look at God differently, you feel me? These things are tools for us to taste God again and get our minds set on the Spirit, that’s all. They aren’t meant to earn you anything--you aren’t better when you do them. They are only meant to be drinks of water and meals of Jesus to sustain and satisfy you.
That’s why the man in the story ran into trouble when his spiritual disciplines started to impact what he thought of his worth. He started to believe he was better than others because he had earned a higher spiritual state. It was about ‘doing’ again. It was fleshly.
And, going along with this point, there was something weird in the story, right, where as the man started to flex his muscles at God to show Him how good he was, the prisoners in the jail started to really love his preaching, you remember that? What happened there?
The flesh is always, constantly, endlessly going to pull us towards behavior modification as a way to earn God. I’ll say that another way: The flesh wants you to believe that you can just do good things, and God will accept you. So when we hear a sermon that teaches behavior modification, the flesh in us rejoices--yes, we can earn God! We can do enough to be acceptable! It’s in my control! I can deserve Heaven! This was the message that the man was bringing the inmates: Do enough, and God will welcome you. It’s Islam, wrapped in a Christian fur coat.
But it’s not truth. Efforts do not earn salvation. No, it takes the Spirit of God entering us and causing us to become new people, who willingly and joyfully desire God’s Presence and obedience to God’s law, to be saved. No amount of doing or of behavior modification or of obedience without love will earn you Heaven.
So let’s apply these things. When should you rest from your spiritual disciplines? This answer is going to be stupidly simple, but it’s what I’ve found works in my own life: When you’re tired. Rest when you’re tired. Yes, I see you rolling your eyes, stop it, this is true.
Now let’s talk about what it means to be ‘tired.’ When you first wake up in the morning and you don’t want to read the Bible because it’s boring, you’re not ‘tired,’ okay? You’re fleshly. That happens to me pretty much every single day. My mind gets set on the things of Earth, and the things of God can’t get in. That’s not a time to rest--you’re not tired! You don’t need rest, no, you need to be brainwashed again, you need to earnestly pray with the psalmists that God would incline your heart to His testimonies. You need to love God anew that day.
But, on the other hand, if you’ve just read the Bible for two hours and the Presence of God has poured over you like a fountain, and then for some reason it’s just kinda started to fade, like a switch flipped and now you’re just sitting in a room reading a book where before you were at the feet of God’s throne, well you know what? You may be tired. It may be time to thank God for His gift to you and go do something else, rejoicing and thanking Him that He would allow you to experience Him and also allow you to rest.
Not to say that it takes two hours of reading the Bible before you’re tired--no, it doesn’t. I don’t know when you’ll get tired, it’s different every day. But here’s the general principle: Do your disciplines every single day to enter into the Presence of God, and when you’ve done them and you know you’ve done your human part to enter into God and set your mind on the Spirit, then rest, and be thankful.
Remember that your holiness is 100% a product of your effort, and 100% a product of God’s working. You with me? It’s 100% your job, and 100% His job, both at the same time. So do your 100%, and then rest, and have fun as you rest.
That’s actually another point that I should hit, isn’t it? So let me explain a short situation. I’m a preacher, and all day I sit and think about the Bible and spiritual stuff and how people think and how to touch people in how they think and prayer and whatever. So when I rest, what should I do? I saw that hand fly up, I know what you’re thinking--”Well you should read the Bible! That’s the best way to rest!”
Except that’s my job. You with me? Like, if I rest by working, how am I resting?
Here’s my point: Don’t rest perfectly. Don’t feel like you have to check boxes off the list as you rest, because I know your flesh is gonna pull some of us that way, like “I have to read the Psalms as I watch this TV show or it isn’t holy,” no, get that mess out of there. You should have fun as you rest. Make your rest enjoyable, whatever that means for you. Play a video game (as long as it’s one where the women are clothed), watch a good TV show (as long as it’s one where the women are clothed), draw a picture (as long as it’s one where the women are clothed). Throw yourself into it and let yourself enjoy it, and thank God as you do it that He would give you such a wonderful gift.
And, to the parents of kids, make sure that your spouse is resting. That’s a hard, special, unique season, with a looooot of work, and you need to help each other rest. Provide for one another in that way. No excuses. The command to rest was so important in the Old Testament that Israel founded their societal culture around it, okay? So this isn’t optional. Go home and give your spouse time off tonight.
Now, I’ll say it again, the worst way to take this teaching is to think, “Oh, now I don’t have to read the Bible, because God allows His children to rest.” No. There is a human element in your sanctification, you with me? You need to brainwash yourself, that’s 100% your job. You must fill your life with God if you want to be full of God--it doesn’t just happen accidentally, so pursue that. God will build that in you if you ask Him for it.
That’s all for this one. May the love of God fill you, and may you delight greatly in Him today.