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December 26, 2007

Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace is one of those books that is worth reading slowly and meditatively, pausing often to reflect and, in my case, to write. I rarely dwell too long on a single book, but because of the sheer quantity and quality of Bible-based teaching within this book, I felt compelled to read it slowly and meditatively. It was well worth the effort and the time spent.

One of the areas of that book that has impacted in my life came when I read about the importance of disciplining myself to make choices that glorify God. Bridges says that “the practice of putting off sinful attitudes and actions and putting on Christlike character involves a constant series of choices. We choose in every situation which direction we will go. It is through these choices that we develop Christlike habits of living.” I was intrigued by this. I soon thought back to a time a couple of years ago when I discovered, much to my surprise, that I excelled in the not-too-spiritual gift of discouragement. I realized, through God’s work in my heart, that I was often being a discouragement to other people. I tended towards the pessimistic and sarcastic and seldom sought to bring encouragement. And so I put some effort into cultivating a spirit of encouragement. I initially found this to be a difficult task. One would not think it difficult to be an encourager, but I found that it truly was difficult to reverse course. I would be encouraging for a short time but would soon slip back into old patterns. I continued to be a discourager.

One day it occurred to me that I was going to have to discipline myself to encourage others. And so I took the strange and seemingly-artificial step of calendaring time to encourage others. It sounds strange, I know, but I opened up my Outlook calendar and created a 5-minute appointment recurring every three days. The appointment simply said “Encourage!” And so, every third day, while I was hard at work, a little reminder would flash up on my screen. “Encourage!,” it said. And I would. I would take the opportunity to quickly phone a friend or dash off an email to someone I felt was in need of encouragement. This felt very artificial. I felt like a fraud as I, with a heart of discouragement, attempted to be an encouragement to others. But as time went on, it began to become quite natural. I soon found that I no longer felt the same spirit of discouragement within me. Encouragement slowly became more natural. What had begun as a discipline that felt artificial, soon became a habit that felt natural.

There was a lesson in there for me. I agree with Bridges who often says “discipline without direction is drudgery.” Had I disciplined myself to be encouraging without first being convicted by the Spirit of my sin, and I had I attempted to be an encourager without first setting a direction that honored God, I doubt that He would have blessed my efforts. But I believe that He did bless them. I can still be as discouraging as anyone I know, but I also think that discouragement is no longer as quick to arise as it was before. More and more I find that I tend towards encouragement rather that discouragement. After a couple of months I was able to remove the recurring appointment from my Outlook calendar, for encouragement began to come naturally. Since then I’ve sometimes had to add the appointment back to my calendar just to encourage me to once again encourage others, but it never takes all that much effort anymore to get myself back into the mindset of being an encourager.

Bridges writes, “Habits are developed by repetition, and it is in the arena of moral choices that we develop spiritual habit patterns.” I believe this was proven true in my experience. “It is through righteous actions that we develop holy character. Holiness of character, then, is developed one choice at a time as we choose to act righteously in each and every situation and circumstance we encounter during the day.” I think there are some who feel that discipline brings about holiness. These are men and women who are unbelievably disciplined. They get out of bed at the same time each day, spent 22 minutes praying and 17 minutes reading the Bible. They feel that this discipline leads them closer to God. But I disagree. It is not discipline or commitment or conviction that makes us holy. Rather, “we become more holy by obedience to the Word of God, by choosing to obey His will as revealed in the Scriptures in all the various circumstances of our lives.” Conviction, commitment and discipline are necessary to making the right choices, but true spiritual growth can come only when we choose to obey God’s commandments, one at a time.

Discipline, commitment, conviction and Godly habits are closely related. It is important that we are disciplined, but only after we have been convicted and have set a direction towards godliness. At this time discipline and commitment can be used by God to work in us His holiness. Discipline is but a means to a much higher, more Christ-like end. It is a cruel master but a wonderful servant.

November 05, 2007

It was near the end of the book of Hebrews that I found some verses that have been bouncing around in my head for some time now. With the epistle drawing to a close, the pastor who authored this letter exhorts the believers to remember the men who had once led the church, to consider how these men lived, and to imitate their faith. “Remember your leaders,” he says, “those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

That verse has given me a lot to think about. God, working through the written words of an anonymous pastor who lived 2,000 years ago, challenged me to consider men who once spoke the word of God—men whose lives I should consider that I might imitate their faith. Unlike the recipients of this letter, I do not have a long legacy of being in a church where leaders have served for decades and have finished well. I have been more of a church pilgrim, often moving from one town to the next through my childhood and early years of my marriage. At long last we’ve settled in a town and in a church where we hope to remain for the long haul. But as I considered these verses I thought of a church like Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, a church that has prospered under the long ministries of men like Donald Barnhouse (33 years), James Montgomery Boice (32 years) and Phillip Ryken (12 years and counting). People who attend churches like that and who have been members of such churches for many years will be able to look to the past and to consider how these men lived. From there they can learn about the faith that sustained these pastors and then imitate that faith.

Not all of us have been so privileged. But we have the ability to find heroes in history by reading good biographies. And this is, I think, one of the reasons I am so often drawn to biographies of great Christians. Through these books we are able to read about the faith of Christians who served God through their lives and then finished strong. John Piper says, “This is why dead heroes are more important than living heroes. Living heroes are important, but they might cease to be heroes before they die. They might let you down. Rather, he says, ‘remember’ - that’s a word that reaches into the past. Remember those whose conduct you can survey from beginning to end, and consider all of it - especially how it ended.” It is really only when the final chapter has closed in death that we may know how a man has lived. Dead heroes harbor few surprises.

It is important to note that the exhortation is not to imitate these men—it is not to ponder their lives and then to imitate their conduct. Rather, the author exhorts people to ponder the outcome of these lives, to see how these men finished their races, and, having found worthy examples, to imitate their faith. John Piper sounds an important warning about imitating the conduct of others. “If you try to imitate their conduct, you become a religious fake, a spiritual counterfeit. This is a frightening reality when you see it - people who have learned the forms of godliness and know nothing of the power that comes from genuine faith. Instead he says: look at the whole course of their conduct and how they finished their course, and get the same motor that made them what they were: their faith.”

Verse seven cannot be separated from the verse that follows. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Jesus Christ is the same today as He was when these men led the church and when they encouraged your faith. Jesus was worth serving then and He is worth serving now; Jesus sustained these men even through times of hardship and He can and will sustain you in the same way. Though months and seasons and years come and go, Jesus remains the same—still available, still powerful, still in control. Richard Phillips writes, “The writer’s confidence is not in men of God; it is in the God of men.” Though we are to imitate the faith of these men, we are to see this faith as a gift of God and to place our confidence in God who gives faith, not in men who express it.

By way of conclusion, Richard Phillips says, “This is the greatest legacy any of us can impart from the pattern of our lives, and it is by providing such examples that Christian leaders most powerfully serve the Lord and his church.” The questions I had to ask myself were these: First, whose faith am I imitating? Who are the Christians of days gone by whose faith serves as an example to me. And second, what will my legacy be? Will I leave behind a pattern of trust and faithful service that another person may find worthy of imitation, or will I be fearful and faithless, leaving behind a legacy I’d want no one to imitate?

Perhaps your faith would also be served by pondering those same questions in light of Hebrews 13.