934) Living Faith (pt. 9 of 10)

The best one-volume introduction to the Christian faith I’ve seen is What’s Christianity All About? by John Schwarz.  There is also a condensed version of this book titled Living Faith(containing approximately 25% of the complete content).  John has given me permission to reprint the entire text of Living Faith on this website.  A chapter a day for ten days will be presented here as Meditations #926-#935.  These meditations will be considerably longer than my usual post, but if you take the time to read them you will receive an excellent overview of the basics of Christianity.  For more thorough study of the subjects in the ten chapters, purchase the larger book What’s Christianity All About? (Print and electronic versions available at Amazon.com).

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CHAPTER NINE:  GROWING IN AND SHARING CHRIST

     As Christians, we are called to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 3:17), to be transformed through the discipline of study (Romans 12:2), to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), and to always be willing to share with others the hope we have in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:15).

Growing in Christ through Prayer

     Surveys indicate that a major reason Christians shy away from sharing their faith is that they have, or believe they have, an impoverished faith.  How can we make our faith strong and vibrant?

     The Life of Prayer.  Polls indicate that a majority of Christians are dissatisfied with their prayer life, and this includes clergy as well as laypeople.  One reason is that in our busy world we find it difficult to be quiet before the Lord— to sit and “wait upon the Lord.”  The Westminster Catechism of 1647 asks, “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer is:  “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  We glorify God when we come to him in prayer; we enjoy God when we bask in his presence, like a child sitting on the lap of a parent.

     Forms of Prayer.  There are three principal forms of prayer.  Vocal prayers are spoken prayers.  A helpful, widely used outline for verbal prayer is contained in the acronym ACTS, which stands for the Adoration of God, the Confession of sins and transgressions against God and others, Thanksgiving for God’s blessings and promises and Supplications (petitions or requests) to God for special needs.  God does not care about the correctness or beauty of our words, only that we come to him with a prayerful heart.  Meditative prayer is praying with the mind, usually based on a passage of Scripture or a reading from a daily devotional.  In meditative prayer, the pray-er meditates on the words before him or her.  Contemplative prayer is the most advanced level of prayer.  Contemplative prayer is hungering for a genuine “felt experience” of God, for hearing God’s “still small voice,” for union and intimacy with God.  How do we do this?  By quieting down, called centering— clearing the mind of all distractions— so that we can listen to God, who is everywhere present, like radio waves around us, waiting and wanting to speak to our minds and hearts.

     The Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus taught his disciples how to pray.  The prayer that he taught them is called the Lord’s Prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer has two parts or halves. The first part contains three supplications to God:  that his name—not his name per se but his “essence”— be hallowed, honored, and reverenced; that his kingdom— his rule and reign over the earth— will soon come; and that his will be done– his will that we love him and others.  The second part contains three petitions, which the Scottish commentator William Barclay said can be thought of as present, past and future.  We pray for today— for our “daily bread,” which includes shelter, medical care and other necessities of life.  We pray for yesterday— for God’s forgiveness when we have failed to love him and others around us.  (We don’t confess these things to tell God something he doesn’t already know; we confess them so they maybe forgiven.)  And we pray for tomorrow— for God to be present when we are tempted (see I Corinthians 10:13).  Being tempted is not a sin; everyone is tempted.  It is yielding to temptation that is a sin.

     The Practice of Prayer.  We do not learn how to pray by reading books on prayer; we learn by engaging in the discipline of prayer.  The following are some suggestions from people who have an active, daily prayer life.  First, dedicate a certain time each day to being alone with God, perhaps first thing in the morning before our minds begin racing with all the tasks we have to do.  Second, find a quiet place, with few distractions.  Get comfortable, light a candle to remind you of Christ’s presence and center your mind on God.  Third, keep a spiritual diary to record thoughts and reflections that come to you during these times.  Last, though prayer is an attitude, not a formula, structure is sometimes helpful.  Another acronym for prayer is the word PRAY.  P stands for praise— praising God for his goodness, for our faith and for those whom we love and who love us.  R stands for reflect— reflecting on verses in Scripture or readings in a devotional as they come into our minds.  A stands for ask— asking or petitioning God for personal needs and for the needs of others.  Y stands for yearn— yearning to be “at one” with God, for intimacy with God, to be more in love with God.  Another “help” to prayer is find a good daily devotional that you find meaningful and useful.

     Answers to Prayer.  What about answers to prayer requests and petitions?  Some prayers are answered immediately; others require persistence; and sometimes the answer is no, as in Paul’s prayer to God to remove the thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).  God hears all prayers; we don’t know why he seems to answer some (to our satisfaction) and not others.  Some say the real issue, though, is not too few answers but too few prayers.

Growing in Christ through Study and Service

     Prayer is the inward or interior life of Christian growth.  Next, we need to study to make the Jesus of our heart the Jesus of our mind, and then let our faith issue forth in works of service.  Study will help us give an answer to those who ask about the hope we have in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15).  Service will let others see how this hope expresses itself in the good works spoken of by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (2:10) and by James (2:14-26).

     Growing in Christ through Study. God wants us to grow in knowledge— to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:2).  The following are some suggestions for reading the Bible.  First, get a Bible in a modern translation, preferably a good study Bible.  Start with small, digestible doses of Scripture, reading slowly and carefully and asking what the meaning of the passage was to those to whom it was addressed (you will need a study Bible or a Bible commentary to do this) and what it means today.  Second, be consistent.  Get into the habit of reading the Bible every day.  Third, be systematic.  Stay with something and see it through to the end, rather than jumping from one book of the Bible to another.  A good place to begin would be with one of the four Gospels, perhaps Luke because of the orderliness and completeness of his narrative.  There are more than one hundred literary units (stories, parables and sayings) in Luke’s Gospel; if you read one every day, Dr. Luke will keep you busy for months.  Last, find ways to apply the Bible’s teachings to your life.  The purpose of Bible study is not information but transformation.

     Growing in Christ through Service.  Christians are the best argument for Christianity— and also the worst.  We are at our worst when we fail to reflect in our daily lives the one we profess as Lord and Savior.  If we want others to consider the person, claims and promises of Jesus, we need to be the further incarnation of his message and teachings.  How should we do this?  Jesus tells us, in the story of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-45), that we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the incarcerated.  We also need to champion social justice, speak up and out against immorality, care for the environment and show Christian kindness to everyone who crosses our path.

Christian Apologetics

     The defense of Christianity is called apologetics, which does not mean making an apology, as the name might suggest.  Rather, it means giving reasoned answers to those who challenge the beliefs of Christianity— those whose naturalist worldviews do not allow for the possibility of a supernatural, transcendent being; those who ask why there is evil and suffering in the world if God is all-powerful and all-loving; those who cannot bring themselves to believe in the incarnation and in Jesus’ resurrection and miracles.

     The Existence of God.  It is said that there are two “tracks” to God, one by way of nature, the other by way of revelation— the “works” of God in the world and the “words” of God in Scripture.  Natural theology teaches that it is possible to come to the knowledge of God by reflecting on the world around us, which cannot be explained in terms of a random accident of nature.  The other “track” is Scripture, which is called revealed theology.  If there is a Creator, it seems natural that he would want to reveal his love for us and his will for our lives.  How did God do this?  By calling prophets and apostles to speak and record his Word so that one day all the world would come to know him.  It is said that natural theology tells us of God’s creating will and revealed theology of his saving will.  There is also a third way that we know God:  through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.  There are things that we know are true even though we cannot prove them.  Right now I am working at my word processor, and I am hungry and thinking about lunch.  I cannot “prove” that this is what I am thinking, or even that I am hungry— but I know these things are true, and I know that God is true, even though I cannot “prove” this.

     Evil and Suffering.  There are no satisfactory answers to suffering, especially undeserved suffering, other than to say that free-will human beings often make bad decisions and choices, which result in personal suffering and also in the suffering of others.  The good news is that suffering is not the end of the story.  Joni Eareckson Tada was injured in a diving accident in 1967, when she was a teenager, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down.  Joni said the thing that helped her most was to know that “one day I would have a body that worked, hands that could hug, feet that would run.  It gave me a great deal of comfort to know that I had not been left alone, that God would give me a new body beyond the grave.”  As Paul told the Corinthians, God has prepared something wonderful and beautiful for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9).

 Jesus’ Incarnation and Resurrection.  Non-believers reject the incarnation and the resurrection because neither can be understood in human terms.   But many things cannot be understood in human terms.  Take the brain, for example.  No one can explain how the wiring in the brain allows us to reason, dream, remember the past, create works of art and enjoy vivid colors and fragrant aromas.  Just because we cannot explain how Jesus was conceived and resurrected does not mean that these two “miracles” did not occur.  As for Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels, C. S. Lewis said, “Who, after swallowing the camel of the resurrection, can strain at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes.”

The Message of Evangelism: Jesus Christ

     Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27).  What about today?  Cynics say that Jesus was an imposter, claiming to be someone (the Son of God) whom he was not.  Skeptics say that Jesus was a man about whom his followers developed a legend after his death.  Believers say that Jesus was and is the incarnate, still-living Son of the God of the universe.

     At the end of the day, though, we always come back to the resurrection, about which the following can be said.  First, fifty days after Jesus’ death, his disciples declared on the streets of Jerusalem that he had been raised from the dead (see Acts 2:22-32).  If the Jews had wished to dispute this, they would have needed only to go to the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and produce Jesus’ corpse, which in the dry Palestinian climate would not have decomposed; this would have ended everything.  But there is no record of anyone coming forward to say that Jesus’ body was still in the tomb or that it had been stolen.  Second, if Jesus had not been raised, there would be no Gospels, no New Testament and no church.  Why?  Because a dead, still-in-the-tomb savior would not have been “good news.”  Third, many of those who publicly testified to Jesus’ resurrection were imprisoned, nailed to crosses, thrown to the lions and burned at the stake.  What gave them the strength to endure in the face of persecution, rather than renounce their faith that Jesus had been raised from the dead?  The believable oral and written testimony of those who had seen the risen Christ.

The Mechanics of Evangelism: Sharing the Good News

     It is often said that God has a plan for our lives.  It would be more accurate to say that God has a purpose for our lives:  to know Jesus Christ and to make him known to others.  The following are some suggestions for making him “known” to others.  First, begin where the other person is and ask about his or her beliefs.  This often leads to them asking in return, “What do you believe?” which opens the door for you to share the unique, distinctive beliefs of Christianity.

     Second, focus on the central message, which is having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Don’t get sidetracked trying to explain the mysteries of the faith; or the lifestyles and acts of other Christians, even church leaders (Our trust is in Jesus, not in fallen humanity); or why there is evil and suffering in the world.  Keep to your beliefs and faith and what they mean to you and for your life— that Christ has given you something to live for (his promises) and something to live by (his teachings).

     Third, avoid using Christian in-talk about the Bible being “the inspired Word of God” or being saved “by the blood of Jesus” or the need to be “born again.”…

     Last, remember that our role as witnesses is to be presenters, not persuaders.  We are to present the Good News of Jesus as lovingly as possible— and then let the inner witness of the Holy Spirit work in the hearts and minds of those with whom we have shared the gospel.

Pascal’s Wager

     The French physicist Blaise Pascal died in 1662.  His thoughts on religion were published after his death under the title Pensees (French for “thoughts”), which has become a Christian classic.  One of the best-known sections in Pensees is Pascal’s “wager.” We all make a wager or bet on God, whether we know it or not.  Pascal said that if we bet on God and there is a God, we win everything; if we bet on God and there is no God, we lose nothing because there is nothing to lose; if we bet against God and there is a God, we lose everything.  In the end, the wager comes down to betting everything on Jesus as Lord and Savior.

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