Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Non-Conformist Conformity

I am currently reading a book by Gordon MacDonald entitled, Ordering Your Private World. Over the next few weeks, I am going to reflect on what I believe is the key statement in the book:

"I believe that one of the great battlegrounds of our age is the private world of the individual."

I think that this is a significant observation. Yet I do not think many of us realize it. The Adversary's tactic is one of diversion: placing the scene of the battle where it truly is not. MacDonald talks about sinkholes in our inner lives, which can give way when we accumulate more and more on the surface. It reminded me of my Dad and his garage.

My Dad has a garage behind his house that began to crack and lean. The ground had begun to wash away beneath it. At one point you could actually crawl beneath the garage. I will tell you what Dad didn't do. He didn't repaint it. He didn't try to restructure it to where it looked level. He hired someone to straighten the building, repair the foundation and fill in the gaps.

How easy it is to miss what lies underneath has been slowing eroding and washing away. After all, it is what is beneath the surface that no one notices. In fact, it can be ignored for a large amount of time without any apparent consequence. They fill the garage full of nice cars. They paint it and decorate it and keep accumulating more things in it. Cracks can be merely filled in and painted over to where they are out of sight. It isn't until the something breaks or collapses that you realize how serious a problem there is. The ignored inner life simply cannot withstand.

I have observed that this is the culture in which we live. Our culture prizes the accumulation of success and the symbols of success, such as the fancy cars, the big houses, the designer clothes, and things of this nature. This focus on externals leaves a gaping hole that can often collapse under stress. In fact, I remember reading an article that stated that stress is the number one killer in America. According to this article, 70-80% of all illnesses in medical practice are either caused by or made worse by stress.

I believe that people in general recognize that there is a void in their lives. I have observed that things of a "spiritual" nature have become very popular in the last couple of decades. People have consumed movies, books, items to wear, workshops, and a host of other things of a spiritual nature out of a hunger for something many of them cannot articulate. New Age bookstores and Buddhism have become attractive to many westerners.

One of the things I found strange is that when unbelievers began to crave something spiritual and something transcendent, they didn't go to church. After seeing the wave of books, workshops and classes on spiritual formation in Christian circles in the last five years, I began to understand why. Even believers were craving something deeper than their surface Christian veneer. The emptiness of accumulating more must have plagued Christians, their churches, and their ministers along with the unbelievers around them. Building mega-churches, marketing style ministry, multiple programs and services, the drive and pride of tangible results, and the pressure of the expectation of the minister as C.E.O. produced a large gaping hole beneath the surface of many ministers, churches, and ministries. Many ministers and church leaders were burning out and suffering stress related illnesses just like the unbelievers in the world around them. Marriages in churches were seeing the same divorce rates as the unbelievers in the neighborhoods around them. People in the church were suffering from the same stress related illnesses as people out of the church. Is it any wonder why seekers didn't go to churches? Many churches did not look a whole lot different that what they were trying to escape from, only it was in Christian dress. The veneer was different, but underneath, it seemed to be the same.

No wonder Paul said, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom 12:2). What that means for me is that I need to be transformed inwardly. I need to order my inner self in such a way that I will exert influence on the world around me and not the other way around. I need to spend time on my inner self with God. I like Eugene Peterson's Paraphrase of Romans 12:2 in The Message: "Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out."

"The inside out." What does that mean? It has been much easier for me to deal with the outer world. After all, it is what is most visible and measurable. It consists of my work, possessions, accomplishments, and things such as these. It is what is easy to measure and evaluate. But my inner self…. Well, I was not even quite sure what that means. MacDonald says that this is where "choices and values can be determined, where solitude and reflection might be pursued…a place for conducting worship and confession, a quiet spot where the moral and spiritual pollution of the times need not penetrate."

"Need not penetrate"…that is instructive for me. There should be a place that the world cannot touch. This is a place unaffected by the external circumstances and influences of the world. It is a place that is the source of my life: My directions. My aspirations. My decisions. My thoughts. All of these flow from this place within. Painting over the cracks that form from a hollow inner life will only promote the growth of that hollowness. If it is empty, nothing will flow from within. This is what needs to be transformed rather than conformed. This is the most important part of my life that I need to tend to. This is the place from where true life flows.

Perhaps this is what Proverbs 4:23 is all about: "Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life."

For me, the key word in this proverb is diligence. I need to beware of the barrenness of a busy life. I need to beware of getting caught up in external things only. I need to ensure that my inner spring is not polluted. The true living water originates with God. As long as the spring is okay, then everything is truly in order. Everything is "okay," regardless of external circumstances. I will not be obsessed over the externals. I will not neglect what is truly important. I will not let the world squeeze me into its mold without me being aware of it.

10 comments:

John said...

Testing the Comment Function

Anonymous said...

John,

Sounds good.

A resource you might consider for the Prov. 4 quote is Jennie Bishop's book for children, "The Squire and the Scroll." I think she has a website. She noticed that the verses surrounding "guard your heart" address many of the five senses. Her book, therefore, builds on the idea that the way to guard our heart is by diligently attending to that which we take in via the five senses.

Chris Stewart

Anonymous said...

John T.
Good article.
Americans seem to be drawn to anything with pageantry such as crowns, robes and mysterious ways of some religions. If these new activities does not require them to look inward, thus revealing the sin in their lives and provokes them to change and be held accountable for their actions, then they are all for it. Our walk with God may require from us delayed gratification from the things we really desire.
John Williams

Anonymous said...

One thought immediately came to mind from your statement, "I need to beware of the barrenness of a busy life." Wow, have I been hit by the business of life lately, especially since I took a management position in the company where I have been for four years. The workload is such that I have come to the realization that I cannot get everything done that is being thrown my way. In searching for answers to that dilemma, I found the answer. "I" cannot get it done. In trying to keep up with the demands of the job, I find that "I" am trying to do it myself. Regardless of how much I delegate or try to do on my own, I am getting more and more frustrated. I came to the realization that in the midst of the storm, I had forgotten that God is right there with me reaching out to take my hand. Only, I'm not reaching back. I have forgotten to submit these things to God and let him work his mighty power in my life. My stream had become polluted, if you will. I realize that I haven't been praying as much about this situation as I should be. As of today, it is a daily task on my calendar to start and end each day with a prayer for my job.

This is so relevant to today's hurried world. We get focused on the challenges in our lives and get so intent on succeeding that we forget what really matters. Thanks for the inspiring words.

Glen Green

Craig said...

John,
OYPW is a great book! I like a follow-up of sorts he's done too, "Mid-course correction."

preacherman said...

John,

Great post.

Scott Harris said...

John,

Sorry it has taken me a while to respond. I had several things to say, but will just add this from an update sent by Edward Fudge who has an online question/answer type ministry. I respect his thoughts and ideas. You can check out his gracemails at www.injesus.com. Anyway, when I read this from him that came out about the same time as yours, well at least to me, they connect.

Scott


FOLLOWING JESUS – Too many believers today want to enjoy Jesus’ blessings but don’t really care to follow him as Lord. So writes Cornelius Platinga Jr. in the September 2006 issue of Christianity Today. His article is entitled “Dr. Willard’s Diagnosis,” in which Platinga states the gist of Dallas Willard’s books The Divine Conspiracy, The Spirit of the Disciplines, and The Great Omission (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006). Platinga writes:

“We're afraid to follow Jesus, because then we'd have to die and rise with him. We'd have to mortify our old self with its ‘fondest lusts,’ as Jonathan Edwards described them. Then we'd have to vivify Jesus' excellent virtues in their place. The truth is, we're mildly attracted to his virtues, but we're strongly attracted to our vices. We wouldn't like to lose them because they please us, and the prospect of a significant life with Jesus doesn't so much. Do we expect a new Christian life will just happen without our having to make inconvenient changes in how we live Monday to Sunday? If so, we are like people who want to be solvent and who also max out their credit cards. Or people who want to be sexually pure and who also bookmark porn sites. Or people who want to speak Japanese without all the tiresome study that's normally required. . . .


“Willard shows us how to get this life—eloquently and enduringly. He tells us that learning to enjoy God forever and to participate in his big project is entirely like learning competitive baseball or the violin or Italian. God has put joy inside sports, music-making, and cross-cultural conversation, but the only way to get joy out of them is to work at them. You've got to listen to your teacher, imitate him or her, and then practice a lot. The disciple is not greater than his master. If Jesus needed to learn obedience, so will Jesus' disciples. We will need to train our brain, heart, hand, eye, and tongue to get us in shape for robust Christian living.”

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