Blossoming thistle flower as a major storm approaches Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

True mastery from within

What does it mean to master yourself? I’ve read books on self-help and 12-step programs, and none of them really say anything concrete. Because I have a fascination with Japanese culture, I’ve also read a book called the Code of the Samurai, which is a modern-day translation of the Bushido Shoshinshu, a guidebook per se for samurai to study. And while many religions promote self-mastery, none of them really explain how or why.

Some say meditation is how to achieve it. Others say service to others is how to do achieve it. Some even promote self-mutilation to a point. But if you read the Bible, you’ll discover that true self mastery doesn’t come from something that you do; it comes from the inside.

Blossoming thistle flower as a major storm approaches Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Blossoming thistle flower as a major storm approaches Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verses Galatians 5:22-23.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

Throughout May, I’ve been studying the Fruit of the Spirit, and today’s focus is on self-control. In other translations, it’s called temperance. To be honest, I always thought this word meant that a sign of the Holy Spirit in your life meant that you didn’t drink alcohol. But that’s not what the word itself (ἐγκράτεια) actually means. In this context, the word means “true mastery from within” and can only be achieved by the Holy Spirit. And that tells me that we can work all we want to establish good habits, and we should. But when it comes down to mastering ourselves, it takes a power stronger than we are to do it.

Have you ever started to do something you know you shouldn’t do and heard that nagging little voice at the back of your head? It’s the voice that tells you to stop what you’re doing because you’ll be sorry. It’s a still, small, quiet thing, and it’s easy to ignore, at least until you do the thing you’re not supposed to do and the consequences catch up to you. Then, you remember the voice. That’s the way it works with me. I don’t remember that I could have said no until I’m past the point of no return.

I think listening to the Holy Spirit takes practice, like building good habits. None of us are born with good habits. Discipline doesn’t just happen overnight. You have to work to achieve it. Painters don’t wake up creating masterpieces. Musicians aren’t born. And writing a novel doesn’t just happen. Just like building a car or losing weight, achieving anything of significance takes design and planning and dedicated effort and focus.

But listening to the Holy Spirit takes something else: Trust.

You have to trust that when He tells you not to do something, it’s for your own good. You have to trust that the things you think will make you happy actually will just make your life complicated. You have to trust Him.

Once you have the Holy Spirit in your life, God begins to change you from the inside out. Suddenly, the things that seemed so important yesterday don’t matter as much today. The pleasures and successes of today don’t seem to be as vital as storing up treasures in heaven. And when you come face to face with temptation, there’s something inside you that gives you the courage and the strength to fight. That’s not an accident. That’s the Holy Spirit. That’s the Fruit of the Spirit showing up in your life as a result of you choosing to accept Christ.

And while it’s a good idea to build healthy habits, sometimes you just have to rely on God to help you through those moments that you’re too weak to handle on your own. You can’t master yourself without God’s help, not truly. True mastery means that every aspect of who you are–every aspect–is under control. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who have every aspect of their lives under control.

Health gurus are in great physical shape, but their emotional, mental, or spiritual life is a mess. Spiritual people sometimes aren’t healthy. Yes, I’m generalizing,  but you get my point.

I truly believe that part of Spirit-led self-control is balance. It’s not overly focusing on one area of your life. It’s letting God into all of them. It’s doing what Jesus would do in every situation, not just the ones you want to get His advice on. I’m talking every situation, ranging from “Would Jesus help that little old lady carry her groceries?” to “Would Jesus eat a second bowl of ice cream?” Maybe that’s sacrilegious, but who are we to say that the details of our lives don’t matter to God? It’s often the details that trip me up, so if I want God in any part of my life, it’s in the details.

So if you want to achieve true mastery of yourself, stop reading the 12-step books or following the latest fad diets or whatever your particular issue is. The best way to get control of yourself is to get to know Jesus better. Let Him become your best friend. Study how He lived, pattern your life after His, and have conversations with Him about everything. Maybe you think that sounds funny, but I guarantee you aren’t talking to yourself. If you know HIm, He’s listening. And He always answers. Maybe not in the way you expect, but He never fails.

New apricots in the orchard at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Choosing to live by the Spirit

I’m hoping that spring will be here soon. In other parts of the country (maybe the world), spring may have already settled in but not in Kansas. In Kansas, we’ve enjoyed a few days of summer and apparently today winter is coming back for a (hopefully) last hurrah. Spring is a wonderful time of year where life comes back to the world, a beautiful picture of what God does in our lives. Yes, the allergies are awful, but watching the world turn green and smelling the blossoming flowers and feeling the warm breezes is absolutely worth it. Spring reminds us that life doesn’t end when we think it does.

I have an orchard here at my little farm. It’s nothing spectacular, just a few apricot trees and pear trees that give new definition to the concept of organic. But in springtime, after the blossoms have fallen, the fruit starts to appear. And it’s a good reminder for me that trees that don’t look like they’re accomplishing anything are actually working–they’re producing something.

New apricots in the orchard at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

New apricots in the orchard at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are Galatians 5:16-24.

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. But when you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.

What does it mean to live by the Spirit? Some people take it too far, I think, and turn Spirit-filled living into some emotional experience. I’m not saying living by the Spirit is void of emotion; that’s not it at all. But I really think a hallmark of Spirit-filled living is balance. You aren’t ruled by emotion. You aren’t ruled by the law. You’re ruled by the Spirit.

You can be a follower of Christ and have the Spirit of God in you without being filled by Him. You can believe in Christ but not allow the Spirit to work. So how do you live by the Spirit? Well, first of all, you have to know what God wants, and that’s where Bible reading comes in. And then you have to communicate with God, and that’s where prayer comes in. And then you have listen. That’s the hard part for me. Sitting still and listening for God’s voice is difficult when I feel like I need to be rushing around doing ten things at once. But once you can get the point where you learn to recognize God’s voice and obey, you’ll start noticing a difference in your life. And others around you will start noticing too.

Today’s passage is pretty long but it’s one of the best set of verses about living by the Spirit. It’s a good measurement because if you’re living by the Spirit, your life is going to have certain qualities:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These nine qualities are often called the Fruit of the Spirit, and they are what the Holy Spirit will produce in our lives if we listen to God’s voice and obey.

So for the month of May, I want to study the Fruit of the Spirit. I want to know what they are, what they mean, and what they look like in our lives. I want to make sure I have them because I want to live a life that is Spirit-led. And the first step of accomplishing that is to be still and listen.

Just like verses 24 and 25 say above, as a follower of Christ, my sinful nature has been nailed to the cross. It has no power over me anymore, and through God’s power, I can resist. I don’t have to sin. I can choose not to sin through Christ’s strength. But just because sin has no power over me and heaven is my eternal destination doesn’t automatically mean that I am filled with the Spirit. I have the Spirit; He’s a part of my life. But that doesn’t mean I let Him lead. And that’s what I want.

It’s not required to live by the Spirit if you’re a Christ-follower but it’s the kind of life that God desires for us. It’s the kind of life that can make a difference in the world, and the beautiful thing is that we don’t have to do anything. God has already taken care of the truly hard part. We just have to listen and take God at His Word, and while that can be challenging sometimes, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that big of a deal.

So make up your mind. You can be a Christian and cling to your hell insurance or you can choose to let the Spirit lead. The choice is yours, but I say if I’m going to live for Christ, I want to live all out.

Faith is only the beginning

How many people think living the Christian life is easy? How many Christians operate under the delusion that once they’ve given their lives to Christ, everything will work out and be easy and perfect and they’ll never have to struggle with anything again?

I think the Christian community we live in now, in 21st Century America, has communicated that accepting Christ is the hard part and living life with Him (and for Him) is easy.

In a certain light, that’s true. Living for Christ is easy in that it’s easy to know what decisions you need to make; He has told us quite clearly in the Bible what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do. What’s difficult is actually doing it. What’s difficult is waking up every morning and reminding yourself that you have chosen to live for God and that your life needs to reflect that. What’s difficult is staying positive and continuing to believe that God is going to work everything out when you are in the middle of a storm that never seems to end.

So many Christians I have spoken to get the idea that once they accept Christ all their troubles will be over, and that’s not true. Living the Christian life is hard. Doing the right thing is hard.

When we decide to believe in Christ, when we choose to place our faith in Christ, we become a new person, yes. But the old person we used to be is still rattling around inside of us. And the world outside us doesn’t change either. Our faith is all that has changed.

Faith is another thing I think a lot of Christians get confused about. I think people believe that once they decided to trust Christ that everyone gets this magical ability to simply believe everything God says without question. Again. Not true.

Having faith doesn’t mean you don’t question. Having faith means you believe even if you have questions.

Faith is a gift that God gives us, yes. And when we accept Christ, God gives us the faith to believe Him, but that doesn’t mean that our faith is automatically big enough to handle the truly difficult struggles of our lives. No. It needs to grow.

Have you ever met anyone with incredible faith? Someone who God could allow anything — absolutely anything — to come into their lives and they wouldn’t bat an eyelash? I have met many people like this, but I can tell you that they weren’t “born” with that kind of faith. They had to develop it. Their faith was small when they started, but they put God to the test, and He never let them down. And when their faith was tested, they hung on to it and when the trial was over, they came out stronger for it.

The passage today is a long one, and I went ahead and included the beginning verses, too, just for context. 2 Peter 1:3-8 says this:

 3 By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. 4 And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.

5 In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone.

 8 The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 2 Peter says that when we came to faith in Christ, God gave us everything we would need to live a godly life. And not only that, He gave us a way to escape a life of darkness and sadness caused by the world.

But how?

I think it’s interesting how lazy a lot of Christians are (myself included). Maybe it’s the influence of modern-day America. I don’t know. Or maybe it’s a knee-jerk reaction to legalism. That could be.

Let me be very clear so I don’t miscommunicate this. There are nothing we can do that will save us. Works don’t make us right with God. Only belief in Christ allows us to have a relationship with God.

That being said, faith is just the beginning of that relationship. If you don’t work at your faith — if you don’t take steps to help it grow — it will stay small and ineffective and your life as a Christian will not be what God intended it to be.

You must have faith. But according to this verse, to live a godly life, you need to supplement your faith with a few things. And this list is in an order for a reason. If you think about it, you have to have each one in order before you can attain the next one.

Once you have faith, you need to have moral excellence. You need to be aware of what is right and what is wrong, and when you are given the chance to do wrong, you need to choose to do what is right, even if it’s difficult.

Once you have moral excellence, learn. Gain knowledge. About anything and everything that will help you live a godly life, that will help you be effective in ministry. If you can understand morality, you will be able to know what is right and what is wrong and will be able to see what knowledge is beneficial and what isn’t.

Once you have knowledge, you must have self-control. You can’t just walk around spouting off all the facts that you’ve learned. You could confuse other people. You can’t walk around telling people how to live. That’s not your place. So you need to learn to control yourself.

And when you’ve learned to control yourself (the most difficult person to control, and–really–the only person you can control), learn how to endure patiently. It doesn’t matter if it’s people or situtations. God allows them into your life for a reason, and you can learn something from them.

After that, learn godliness. Learn what it means to be truly like God. Know His characteristics and do what you can to incorporate them into your life. Obviously, there are some aspects of God that we can’t ever be like (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc.) but there are qualities that we can share. His creativity (not that we can create anything, but we can come up with new ideas). His love. His joy.

The next step is brotherly affection. Learn to love your fellow Christians. This is hard because oftentimes Christians are the hardest people in the world to love. But if another person believes in Christ, that person is our brother or our sister, and God has commanded that we love each other.

And after you learn how to love fellow Christians, show love to everyone. Love the people around you who aren’t Christians. Love the people around you who think they’re Christians. Love the people who hate you. Love everyone.

Do you see what this is? It’s a process.

When you first come to know Christ, your faith makes you whole. Yes. That’s done. It’s immediate. Have faith in Christ and be saved from your sins.

But the life you live after you decide to have faith is a step-by-step, day-by-day process that will take the rest of your life on Earth. It’s not something that happens overnight, and it’s not easy. And there are good days and there are bad days, but the more you grow in your faith, the more effective you will be as a Christian. The more you live like this, the more useful you will be to God.

Faith is a choice. Living it is a series of choices. But as 2 Peter already said, we already have everything we need to live like this. We just have to look for it. And if we ever get turned around, we have the Bible as our roadmap.