40 Day Devotional Introduction

 A Journey to Easter
March 6-April 21, 2019

The aim of this 40-day devotional is to help us experience the gospel on a deeper and more personal level, so that we can know more of the freedom Jesus secured for us, and have a sweeter sense of being known and loved by Him. The main themes come from the lessons that I have been learning since leaving my old tradition.

God’s love is a passionate pursuing love

The fundamental belief and comfort that motivates the pursuit of godliness is trusting that God lovingly pursues you. What a comfort! He initiates, he stays with you. He gives you desires for him. He offers grace gifts.

God’s faithfulness is the true and comprehensive account of your life. Over against this account of your life is a rival account, a distorted narrative, in which your sense of identity is shaped by, “I have succeeded at this,” or “I have failed at that.”

Yes, your faithfulness matters, but God’s faithfulness matters more! His faithfulness is the basis for yours. If you are his child through Jesus Christ, God pursues you constantly and passionately with His loyal love in all the times and places of your embodied existence. In his faithfulness, God provides for you and protects you, all the while supervising your pain and problems. God’s love is an active pursuit, not a mere abstract concept like “acceptance.” He is for you and wants you. He is in the details of your life.

As God pursues you, he is writing a story—a story of his loyal pursuit of you. This story is a gift of grace rather than a resume of your accomplishments or an indictment of your failures. With his his authorship of your story there is the likelihood of conflict, namely that you at times won’t like or accept the story his is writing—either due to pride or shame. For years I was detached from my own life, not accepting the life I had been given. I gave way to self-pity like the boy Shasta in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy.  He thought, I do think that I am the most unfortunate boy that has ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me.” Shasta believed enemy lions were pursuing him. A voice in the dark said, “I was the lion.” This lion (Aslan) had protected him from dangers that were not visible to him, dangers beyond Shasta’s comprehension.  This story pushed me to rethink my negative interpretation of my life. Like Shasta, I needed to hear my story from a different perspective, from the one in charge, from the one pursuing me in love. I had perceived the Lord as an enemy lion.

The story that I began to hear was from the 23rd Psalm. Known in Hebrew as hesed, it is the story of God’s passionate, pursuing love—a love that flows from his loyalty to his sworn oath to take care of his people. “Goodness and steadfast love (hesed) will pursue me all the day of my life.” One translation reads, “Your beauty and love chase after me.” I realized I have been, and will always be, chased by a shepherd who wants to protect me and provide for me. I instinctively try to protect myself and provide for myself. I hate to feel needy.

Wendell Berry’s moving novel Hannah Coulter is an old woman’s story about how she came to own the life she had rather than regret it. Despite her lonely upbringing, despite the disappearance of her young husband into the mists of war, despite giving birth to their child in the emptiness of his loss—despite all her expectations that never came to fruition, Hannah finds a way to narrate the goodness of her life. Her story, then, is the story of a life and a place she has found deeply good:

This is my story, my giving of thanks… The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives… but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.” I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.” (Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter, 5, 113)

Another story of Berry’s is worth mentioning. In the very short “Dismemberment,[1] he narrates Andy Catlett’s struggle to come to terms with his life after he loses his hand in a farming machine accident. In his anger and shame, he isolated himself from friends and family. He   refused his life, but was gradually brought to see that, even with his deformity, he mattered. He began to own his story even though it was not the story he would have written. I highly recommend reading this 6-page story. It is sort of parable for all of us.

God’s loving pursuit reveals us to ourselves. It brings our real desires and loves to the surface, one of which is the desire to be left alone. Another is the desire to be in control, even to control God.

This guide can help you become more aware of your story by watching for and noticing God’s faithful intrusions in your life, as well as your sometimes startled or resentful reactions to his intrusions.

 

Our loves and desires operate at a deeper level than our thinking

In the last four or five years, I have become acquainted with a different pattern for spiritual growth than what I was reared in. While I once understood spiritual development as mainly informational (correcting lies with theological truths and principles) and activist (attending lots of meetings and serving in many ministries), I am now convinced that spiritual development is formational (having our loves reordered, not just our thinking). Theological knowledge is good, but it does not go deep enough. Our affections and desires drive us more than reason, but we are often unaware or ashamed of our true desires.

Discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God. Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings. His “teaching” doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation; he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. (James K.A. Smith, You are What You Love)

For more go to: https://mosaicgathering.squarespace.com/you-are-what-you-love

Jonathan Edwards makes a helpful distinction between the mind and the “affections.”

God has endued the soul with two faculties: one is that by which it is perceives, discerns, and judges things; which is called the understanding. The other faculty is that by which the soul does not merely perceive things, but is some way inclined with respect to the things it views. The soul does not merely behold things, as an indifferent unaffected spectator. The soul either views things with approval, with pleasure, and with acceptance, or its views things with opposition, with disapproval, with displeasure, and with rejection. It is these more vigorous and sensible exercises of this faculty that are called the affections.

 People are very inactive and lazy unless they are influenced by some affection, either love or hatred, desire, hope, fear, or some other.[2]

For deep and lasting change to occur in our lives, the truth of God needs to seep into our affections.[3]

 

Self-Awareness

Since your desires and loves (“affections”) are so central to spiritual formation, it helps to become more aware of your desires. For decades I believed that my emotions were unimportant, and that trying to be aware of them was “useless and selfish introspection.” I now see that this view was convenient because I was uncomfortable with my emotions. But shame (and avoiding shame) influenced everything I did. Just was I don’t always like the story God is writing in my life, I don’t always like the emotions that wash over me.

Allender and Longman are right that “emotions seem to be one of the least reliable yet most influential forces that guide our lives.” But, we do well to pay attention to these forces:

The reason for looking inside is not to effect direct change of negative emotions to positive emotions. Instead, we are to listen to and ponder what we feel in order to be moved to the far deeper issue of what our hearts are doing with God and others.

Rather than focusing on trying to change our emotions, we are wiser first to listen to them. They are a voice that can tell us how we are dealing with a fallen world, hurtful people, and a quizzical God who seldom seems to be or do what we expect of Him. (The Cry of the Soul, 20-23)

Emotions are often the context for temptations to sin. So, for example, being aware of my shame and fear could help me realize my vulnerability to dishonesty and man-pleasing. In a famous psalm, David prayed:

Search me, O God, and know my heart,
    Try me and know my thoughts.
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23,24)

This is a truly scary prayer for me. I often don’t want to be searched. I fear that I will be overwhelmed by what God will show me—even though he never has given me too much at a time. What has overwhelmed me is secrecy, and imaging being found out and put to shame. But, when I ask God to search me, it always takes a weight off.

As I have progressed in self-awareness and awareness of my true story, I have realized that I am much worse of a person than I ever thought. I have “played the harlot” with many gods. I lived self-righteously and dishonestly. But with all that righteousness, I had no peace. I had to repent of my righteousness because I used it to keep God out, and to excuse not obeying in crucial areas. “I obey this and that, so I am covered.” Mine was a busy, self-willed religious life. And I am still trying to unlearn it. Even when I seek for good, it is with warped motives. But I will tell you this: I have experienced God’s love and grace so much more than I ever did in hiding from myself. I am beginning to gain a sense that I am known and cherished by God. He knows the real me. And even though I am still an immature after forty years as a Christian, I have a lot of hope for the future.

As you open yourself up to God, I ask you to let him open himself up and reveal himself to you. Allow him to deconstruct the god of your imagination who exists to further your agenda. While God is reliable, he is not predictable.  Let him surprise and awe you with his glory.

Truth, goodness, and beauty

For almost forty years, I believed the Christian life was about truth and goodness (or truth and love). But a few years ago, I become aware that the great tradition of Christian thinkers spoke of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Because we are lovers and idolaters, our problem lies deeper than holding false beliefs and living selfishly. We also get enamored and awed with rival forms of beauty. We fall in love and take pleasure in other gods.

God desires to give you encounters with his glory and beauty in worship, which gradually weakens the hold of your inordinate loves (idols).

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
    and to inquire in his temple. (Ps 27:4,6,8) 

God’s glory is his beauty, majesty, weightiness, attractiveness, and radiance—his overwhelming presence as an eternal community who delights in giving.  And Jesus came to invite us into the beauty of the community that is God! With all my rebellion and indifference to him, I am stunned.

The desire to be shown God’s glory is your deepest desire as a Christian. As Peter wrote,  “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory…” (1 Peter 1:8).

Sure, the desire for his glory gets buried under all kinds of other desires. We have developed habits of self-glory and giving glory to created things. And we want God’s glory on our terms. But the fact remains: that deep passion inside you is for God’s glory.

In a classic nineteenth century sermon called “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Thomas Chalmers argues that you can never simply stop desiring wrong things. That would leave an intolerable vacuum. Instead, disordered desires must be replaced with a greater, more engaging and worthy object of desire. What we need is a “setting forth another object, even God, as more worthy of its attachment” by “exchanging an old affection for a new one.”

One of the main ways we “set forth this more worthy attachment” of God’s glory is by meditating, or ruminating patiently on his written word. His word is not only true and defensible, it is also beautiful, glorious, and desirable.  In it, we see God’s glory and are transformed, or “beautified.”

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

The essence of true religious experience is to be overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God, to be drawn to the glory of his perfections and sense his irresistible love. It is something like being overwhelmed by the beauty of a great work of art or music. We become so enthralled by the beauty that we lose consciousness of self and self-interest, and become absorbed by the magnificent object. (Gerald McDermott, The Great Theologians, 117,118) 

God’s glory and beauty awes us as we worship. And as God’s beautiful intrusion disrupts our routine, control, and idolatry, we have an opportunity to be beautified in our brokenness. 

Encountering God’s glory highlights the beauty of virtue—the beauty of real holiness and builds a longing for to be transformed into Christ’s image. The accusing and oppressive feeling that our fallen nature has about virtue becomes a hunger and thirst for righteousness.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue…(2 Peter 1:3-5)

Dane Ortland highlights Jonathan Edwards’ framework of beauty:

Edwards has given us the beauty of the Christian life— first, the beauty of God, beauty that comes to tangible expression in Christ, and second, the beauty of the Christian, who participates in the triune life of divine love.  Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ.  

It is Christ, supremely in his mercy to sinners, who is the magnetic beauty to which we are drawn. Not only Christ, but the gospel is an object of exquisite beauty,  the richest treasure… glorious and excellent, and most pleasant and beautiful. Divine beauty is not only to be apprehended in God. It is to be reflected in us. It’s why we exist. (Dane Ortland, Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God, 26-30)

 

Retraining Our Desires (Engaging in Spiritual Practices)

Habits are a tough subject, and thinking about them often trigger feelings of shame about our secret habits. Before discussing this subject I want to go on record saying that I have been a hedonist and a sensualist as a Christian. I have fallen into habits seemingly without thinking about it. But I have also experienced the joy of now and then gaining a new, healthier habit. When I first started running for exercise it was really hard. But eventually it became enjoyable and gave me more energy. The same was true when I tried to eat more real food—and avoid processed foods with high salt or sugar. The hardest habit to get freedom from was drinking, but I have never had such joy in prayer as during the thirty-day alcohol experiment. At first I just felt needy and uncomfortable, but the neediness became prayer, which at times became joy and peace.

My point here is not about running, eating, or drinking. I just want to say that I was motivated by a potential benefit in gaining a new habit, and it was not imposed on me. I wanted better health. I was not shamed or put “under law.” One of the secrets of spiritual growth is that sometimes freedom and joy come after a period of awkward self-denial. “If you lose you life, you gain it.”

I found these comments helpful regarding habits:

But just because we don’t choose our habits doesn’t mean we don’t have them. On the contrary, it usually means someone else chose them for us, and usually that someone doesn’t have our best interests in mind. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that habits form much more than our schedules: they form our hearts.

When a habit is formed, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making… Because our unconscious choices form us just as much, if not more than, our conscious ones, we can become formed in patterns that we would never consciously choose if we were aware of them. This is the difference between what we call education and formation. Education is what you learn and know—things you are taught. Formation is what you practice and do—things that are caught. The most important things in life, of course, are caught, not taught, and formation is largely about all the unseen habits. (Justin Earley, The Common Rule)

So, if you desire to be closer to God, and gain some freedom from enslaving passions, engaging in spiritual habits will be of great help.[4] For worship to be regular and focused, the liberating power of the classic practices, or “spiritual disciplines” are available to us, and include things like biblical meditation, prayer, worship, solitude, journaling, fasting, and confession. These practices get the truth of God into our bodies! When something gets in you body, it becomes a habit. There is a vast treasure of help from practitioners throughout the history of the church. 

The disciplines can help facilitate an encounter with the glory and beauty of God. They are small self-denying actions that lead to a growing freedom. They can feel difficult and restrictive at first, but if they are repeated for a while, we begin to enjoy them and feel a growing freedom.

 

The Disciplines move us near the fountain of glory

As Richard Foster writes: “By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace.”

The Disciplines help your heart’s desires be reordered to want and enjoy what God wants. Smith is again helpful:

If our loves can be disordered by secular liturgies, it’s also true that our loves need to be reordered (recalibrated) by counterliturgies—embodied, communal practices that are “loaded” with the gospel.

The Lord knows that we are creatures of habit; he created us this way. God knows that we are animated by hungers we aren’t always aware of, that our wants and cravings are inscribed in us by habit-forming practices that teach us to want. If you are a creature of habit whose loves have been deformed by disordered secular liturgies, then the best gift God could give you is Spirit-infused practices that will reform and retrain your loves.

Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts. (James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love, chapter 3) 

Richard Foster refers to the Spiritual Disciplines as “the door to liberation.”

We should not think of the Spiritual Disciplines as some dull drudgery. Joy is the keynote of all the Disciplines. The purpose of the Disciplines is liberation from the stifling slavery to self-interest and fear. When the inner spirit is liberated from all that weighs it down, it can hardly be described as dull drudgery. Singing, dancing, and even shouting characterize the Disciplines of the spiritual life. (Celebration of Discipline, 1,2,7)

I will sprinkle descriptions of the some of the disciplines throughout this guide. Each of the 40 days will suggest some short practices that can move the truth from our head to your heart.

 

Gospel-Centered Lent?

Many Christians through the centuries have engaged in a variety of practices associated with the season of Lent in order to get more focused and lay hold of the freedom Christ secured for us. While you may associate Lent with Roman Catholic penance, many Protestants approach Lent as a season of “gospel repentance” that leads to spiritual renewal and awe at the extravagant grace of God. I do not insist that you refer to Lent or sign on to participate in it. I am only asking that you consider making the coming season one of at least a little more intentionality than you have at present, and that you consider experimenting with some unfamiliar practices.

Consider Tim Keller, one the strongest advocates of the gospel of grace:

Martin Luther opened the Reformation with his “Ninety-five Theses.” The first thesis stated that, “our Lord and Master Jesus Christ . . . willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” 

On the surface this looks a little bleak, but consider how the gospel affects and transforms the act of repentance. In “religion,” the purpose of repentance is basically to keep God happy so he will continue to bless you and answer your prayers. Religious repentance is bitter all the way down. In religion our only hope is to live a life good enough to require God to bless us. Every instance of sin and repentance is therefore traumatic, unnatural, and horribly threatening. Religious individuals have trouble admitting sin, because their only hope is their moral goodness.

In the gospel the knowledge of our acceptance in Christ makes it easier to admit that we are flawed, because we know we won’t be cast off.  Our hope is in Christ’s righteousness, not our own, so it is not as traumatic to admit our weaknesses and lapses. Although there is some bitterness in any repentance, in the gospel there is ultimately a sweetness. The more we see our own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to us. (Tim Keller, “All of Life in Repentance”)

Repentance helps you look at God’s pursuit of you more honestly. You are enabled to see the ways you have resisted God’s initiatives by being good in the ways you like, in ways that allow you to remain in control. Even though repentance involves the pain of facing your sin, it also removes the self-pity. You again see how God pursued you even in your sin, and are able to open yourself to his present pursuit, which tends to melt the shame.

Repentance helps you step out of a story imposed on you by the world (or by your own perfectionism), the story that seeks to enslave you (“I am my career,” “the good life is the comfortable life,” “I must have the approval of others”).

 

Summary

To summarize, this 40-day guide was written to help you grow in awareness of God’s loving pursuit of you, the emotions and desires that motivate you, and the spiritual practices that will bring you more under the influence of God’s glory and beauty—providing opportunities for the grace of repentance and gospel cleansing so you can grow into a more wholehearted and free worshiper of the Lord.

This guide will provide brief passages and questions to ponder, and suggestions for spiritual practice. It is designed as an imagined journey with Jesus, starting with his call to you, his disciples and ending with the week of his sufferings, death and resurrection. Like Peter and the others, you will learn as you accept his invitation to “take his yoke” and follow him. The readings begin on Ash Wednesday, March 6 and ends on Easter Sunday, April 21. Sundays are consider “off-days,” feast days rather than fast days.

During the 40 days, you might consider focusing on things like: simplifying your life; seeking freedom from a distracting or destructive habit and establishing a new habit, fasting from food or an area of indulgence; paying greater attention to an emotion you avoid; clarifying a decision or direction; allowing yourself to be more known to someone; beginning the process of forgiving someone; letting go of a grudge; restraining from boasting or gossiping; learning some new prayers; memorizing and meditating on a passage.  As for fasting, Foster offer this:

More than any other single discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting, these things surface. (Richard Foster)

 

Expectations

Be careful with your expectations about the 40 days. Be careful about your expectations for yourself.  Don’t be surprised if you struggle and find it difficult. Don’t worry if you “get behind.” It is not rules. It is not a list of duties to cross off your list. And be careful about your expectations of God. It is not a deal that give us control over him or puts him in our debt. Let him do what he wants to do in these weeks, whether it be overwhelm you with a sense of your belovedness or to give you an experience of his hiddenness.  Whatever form it takes, God will be constantly pursuing so he can gift you with himself.

Please be flexible with this guide, adapt it to who you are. Add or subtract from it. I will post links on the Mosaic site if you want to explore some things further.

Our sharing together, if you decide to do it, can be as much about our failure as our progress. I pray you find this imperfect guide helpful in your journey toward a deeper yet simpler walk with Jesus, and find a surprising freedom in his seemingly “hard” apprenticeship. This is what I have been asking God:

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    
unite my heart to fear your name.
 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
    and I will glorify your name forever.
 For great is your steadfast love toward me [your pursuit];
    you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheo
l. (Psalm 86:11-13)

 

[1] https://www.threepennyreview.com/samples/berry_su15.html

[2]  Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections, abridged by James M. Houston, 5-6

[3] See the 1st & 10th commandment in Exodus 20 and Israel’s history of idolatry; Ps. 1:2; Ps. 42:1,2; Proverbs 4:23; Mt. 5:6; Romans 6:12-14; Rom. 7:7,8 and “coveting”;  Gal. 5:17; Phil. 1:9-11; 1 Peter 1:8

[4] Luke 9:23; 1 Tim. 4:7,8; 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Titus 2:2,5,6,12 on “self control,” a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23)