June 15, 1999
 Learning to Receive
Staying Encouraged
In Christ and Open
To His Help
    
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One evening when our son Nate was seven years old, our family had dinner at one of those nice restaurants with a bowl of mints at the checkout counter. As we walked up to pay our bill, I told Nate that if he wanted mints he shouldn't put his hand in the bowl, but should use the spoon provided to get them out. Nate followed my instructions precisely. After scooping up several mints with the spoon, he stuck it in his mouth and sucked them off. He then dutifully placed the spoon back in the bowl.

I've thought of this incident often since it happened many years ago, for it was an unforgettable example of how easily one can innocently misread instructions. Nate thought he was doing exactly what I said. But to my embarrassment, and the amusement of those standing around the checkout counter, he missed the point entirely. It certainly can be said that a major part of maturing for a child involves not only overcoming rebelliousness, but learning to interpret the often obscure directions adults give you.

Nate's experience parallels the Christian life in an interesting way. While rebelliousness is often our problem, we stumble at times due not to deliberate disobedience but naivete. We sincerely believe we're doing what God wants us to do, yet we're as mistaken as when Nate stuck the spoon in his mouth. Not that God is purposely obscure in guiding us, or in the direction he has provided us in Scripture. Yet we misinterpret his intent.

Understanding the Challenge

One problem more than any other is at the heart of most of our unintentional stumbling. To put it simply: we try to follow Christ in our own strength rather than his. We think of the Christian life as requirements rather than empowerment.

It's easy enough to understand how this occurs. Scripture presents us with a seemingly endless list of duties for the godly life. There are moral commandments we must not disobey. And there are constant injunctions to spend our life in the most fruitful way for the sake of helping others. Yet all too easily we take these instructions as commands to be carried out in our own energy. By doing so, we miss the point of Scripture entirely. We're like the Galatians, whom Paul admonished with a probing question: "After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (Gal 3:3 NIV).

The ultimate purpose of Scripture is not to saddle us with a compulsive lifestyle, but to liberate us, by putting us in touch with the very Power Source for living triumphantly. As the power of Christ invades our lives, the requirements of the Christian life become natural to fulfill. To this end we see the example of Jesus himself who, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, never seemed in a hurry. His life had a relaxed pace to it which is enviable. And he assured us that this same experience can be ours. "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mt 11:30).

But what can we do to ensure that we are living the Christian life in Christ's strength rather than our own? Some assume the answer lies in becoming as passive as possible. Paul Little writes of a man he knew who, upon graduating from college, made no effort to find work. He assumed that if the Lord wanted him to be employed, he would dump the right job into his lap.

More typically I've known Christians who deeply want to be married, yet are uneasy with taking initiative toward that goal. They assume that faith requires them to wait passively for Christ to provide someone, apart from their making any effort to find a spouse.

Yet clearly the intent of Scripture isn't for us to be inactive. To be merely passive in the name of faith is another case of putting the spoon in the mouth. We see in David, Paul, and other impressive personalities of Scripture, people who took considerable initiative to reach their goals. To use Stephen Covey's term, they were strongly proactive. And they didn't regard being so as inconsistent with a life of faith.

Meeting the Challenge

Actually, I believe that the answer to drawing on Christ's strength is not a single one. Everything that can be said about learning to pace ourselves applies here. God has created each of our lives uniquely, with distinctive gifts, motivational patterns and energy levels. Living within his strength involves respecting his special design of our own life and learning to function within it.

I'm certain, though, that the most significant answer to drawing on Christ's strength lies in our approach to prayer. Prayer is not a magical guarantee of spiritual power, any more than eating three meals a day ensures that we'll be physically healthy. Yet I cannot imagine that very many of us can have an ongoing experience of being empowered by Christ apart from having a regular, carefully-guarded time alone with him.

Such a time fulfills at least three purposes. First, we take our hands off of other things we could be doing at the time, forcing us to a greater dependence on the Lord.

Second, we have the chance to make requests of God. As he answers them, our conviction deepens that he is providing for us.

Finally, and most important, we give Christ an unhindered opportunity to strengthen our faith, rekindle our spiritual passion and clarify his direction for our life.

It's at this third point, however, that our quiet-times too often fail to fulfill the purpose they ought to serve. We get locked into routines which, instead of liberating us, impose additional bondage. We may try to imitate a pattern of devotional life which works well for someone else but is inappropriate for us. Our devotional time then becomes "a work"--a legalistic routine that we carry out in our own strength rather than the Lord's.

We should remind ourselves often that our quiet-time should result in our being encouraged in Christ. George Muller put it perfectly when he said, "I regard it as my first business of the day to get my heart happy in the Lord." We should feel great freedom to experiment and find what approach best opens us personally to Christ's encouragement.

For one person it may mean throwing out prayer lists and preset routines, for another it may mean including them. Muller's faith was stimulated by reading the Psalms. Paul Tournier recommends simply being silent and reflecting on God's work in our life. I know a woman who benefits by singing during her devotional time. For me, fresh heart most often comes through thanking Christ for the events of the previous day, and not allowing myself to make new requests until I've done this.

Find what works for you. Then make it your top priority each day to do what helps you become refreshed in the Lord.

Jesus spoke of our relationship with people when he said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." But when it comes to our relationship with him, he clearly taught that it is more blessed to receive.

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