As we approach the Christmas season, some of us are going to be awed by the decorations, many will be overwhelmed by the commercialism, and most will be struggling to remain on message as to the real reason for the season.
To me I am quite pleased that this particular article would hit this time of year, especially as each article is never really planned until the previous one is finished. For the past five newsletters, I have been considering what it really means to run the race in the Christian life. I have addressed the various aspects of running this race, from the course to the purpose behind it, recognizing it as a marathon, outlining the hindrances, and seeking the real prize of heaven.
In this article, I am going to deal with the attitude that must be developed in the Christian runner to truly run the race through this world and actually finish the course. Every great athlete will tell you that unless one develops a right attitude in relationship to a steadfast commitment and sticks to putting every bit of their energy, strength, mental faculties, and heart in disciplining and fine tuning their abilities and enlarging their capabilities, the competition will be short-lived, as well as clearly defined by defeat.
Jesus outlined the disciplined life of those who wanted to follow Him. It involved a call to deny or disown self and death to the “old” man, so as His disciples, we could indeed follow Him into a new, sanctified life. As stated in the past, the concept of discipleship comes out of the word “discipline.” Everything about the Christian call to pursue righteousness is in regard to disciplining our steps, thoughts, and ways, as well as bringing our calling to perfection. This all brings us back to attitude.
When we talk about attitude, we are not talking about some moody temperament that can change with circumstances, but a heart attitude. Attitude always determines how we approach something. Through the years I have watched people approach matters, including the kingdom of God, with various attitudes. I have even given such attitudes names. For instance there are the flash-in-the-pan people. These are people who show great zeal toward the latest fads, but are easily bored or distracted by the world around them, causing all excitement towards a particular fad to quickly die (Ephesians 4:14). There are the wait-and-see individuals. These individuals stand back to see if something is going to benefit them in some way before they will commit themselves to anything (John 6:26-27). Then there are those who serve as a type of cheerleader but lack substance in their message and walk (Acts 8:9-24). These people are the motivational speakers who run around and cheer others to greatness by appealing to their emotions. The problem is that when the emotions wane, so does the commitment of the individuals that were swinging high from the branches of emotional hype, thus causing a real emotional downer to occur that must be stirred up again by some type of sensationalism. Finally, there are the stern, pious persons that consider all matters from their take on truth and ideology. These individuals prove rigid in their understanding, immovable in their conclusions, and judgmental in their ways. The problem is such people often prove to lack love for truth, are stiff-necked about what they think they know, and are deficient in any real spiritual discernment because much of their emphasis proves to be dead-letter (Matthew 15:6-9; Romans 7:6; 2 Corinthians 3:6).
Sadly, in much of the visible Church, Christianity has been reduced to a subculture rather than a way of life. The reason for this is that much of the world’s attitude and practices have come into the church. In a way, the church has been rendered into a politically correct position where both the pastors and congregations avoid mentioning truths of God’s Word that would offend those who adhere to a worldly attitude. It has become more about numbers that give an appearance of worldly success rather than about souls that would add to the kingdom of God. It is more about methods than the move of the Spirit.
As I have considered people’s relationship to the world, I have observed four types of people: there are the victims of the world who have been taken captive in some way, the associates of the world who use its various systems to get ahead regardless of who or what they use, the pleasure-seekers who are looking for some fun, and the tourists who are simply passing through while observing the sights.
The number “four” is significant. It has to do with the function of the world. We know there are four seasons, four directions, four elements: fire, water, air and earth, four divisions of mankind, four Gospels, and in 1 Corinthians 15:39 we are reminded that, “All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. (Emphasis added.)
We can see four contrary responses to the Gospel in the book of Acts. There was the indifferent Gallio who was only interested in the legal aspects of the government, the procrastinator Felix who feared the Gospel but failed to respond, the intellectual Festus who rationalized it away, and the unpersuaded Agrippa who would not give up his sin. These contrary responses can be compared to those who were open and receptive to the Gospel such as Lydia, Justus, and Crispus (Acts 16:13-15; 18:7-8, 12-16; 24:11-26; 25:13-27).
We can also see four different responses to the birth of Jesus. There was the humble Mary who submitted herself to the will of God, the insignificant, fearful shepherds who witnessed the glory of God parting the sky as the angels declared the coming of the Holy One, the egotistical Herod who would not share his throne with the true King of Israel, and the seeking wise men (Matthew 2:1-18; Luke 1:27-38; 2:8-29).
When it comes to Jesus calling people to follow Him, there are four reactions to His calling that are represented by animals that reveal four decisive dispositions. There is the wolf who preys on vulnerable and weak sheep who stray from the Shepherd, the swine who prefer their pigpens of the world to following Jesus, the goats who have endless excuses as to why they wander away from the true Shepherd to partake of the garbage of the world, and the hungry sheep who recognize their need for a Shepherd and have learned to recognize His voice so they can follow Him to still waters and green pastures (Psalm 23:1-4; Matthew 7:6, 15; 10:16; 25:32-46; John 10:1-16). The inner disposition of man represents not only the heart attitude but the type of ground that is present when it comes to the Gospel and God’s Word.
This is confirmed by the famous parable of the “Sower and the Seed” in Matthew 13:1-23. How the seed of the Gospel affects or penetrates the ground of our heart comes down to the attitude we have taken on. If the heart is hard towards God’s convicting truths, it cannot receive the seed of the Gospel, if it is full of the rocks of self the seed will never take root, and if the heart possesses a worldly attitude it will choke out the message. The heart must be open to receive the seed of the Gospel and the word of truth. It must be desirous and pure to seek the heart of God in all matters.
I used the parable of the “Sower and the Seed” to wake up four teenagers in a Sunday school class Jeannette and I were teaching to show how the way to heaven is indeed narrow (Matthew 7:13-14). It was a small church and three of the teenagers were the pastor’s grandchildren and the other one was the son of a close friend of the pastor. Like some of our youth that have grown up in Christian homes, they were somewhat complacent towards the matters of God. There was no evidence of any personal understanding of God outside of their religious upbringing. They had the attitude that association with the shirttail of the pastor was enough and they had no real worries.
As a teaching team, Jeannette and I wanted to bring some reality into their lives that would somewhat wake them up to the seriousness of them making sure they had their own relationship with the Lord. I posed a simple question to them after making reference to the parable of the “Sower and the Seed.” “When we consider the implication of this parable in light of it representing the condition of 100 percent of the people who now live, and if you evenly distribute these four heart conditions among the masses, there would only be one quarter or 25 per cent of the world that would have the right heart condition to receive all that the Lord has for them compared to 75 per cent who lack the proper heart, and since there are only four of you in this class, which one of you is assured of finishing the course because of having a right heart condition?.” Needless to say, facial expressions changed as these four young people looked at each other considered the question.
Granted, all four of them could have had a right heart condition. No doubt the emphasis of the leadership of the church would greatly affect the heart conditions of those present, and we know that the odds change in relationship to the number of people that are involved, giving wiggle room for a higher probability as to how many people could fall into the fourth category, but the question remains how many sitting in churches are assuming they fit in the fourth category and are missing the real mark?
I can honestly say I have possessed three of the heart conditions mentioned in the “Sower and the Seed” in my Christian walk. There were three things that clearly told on me as to what heart condition was motivating me. The first indication was the fruits coming out of my life, via my attitudes towards others (Matthew 7:20). When my heart attitude was wrong, I was very judgmental towards those who did not agree with me, superior towards those who did not measure up to what I considered to be acceptable, and arrogant and stubborn about what I believed to be right in spite of the fact I lacked the right spirit and godly love. The Bible is clear that people will know we are Jesus’ disciples because we have love for one another (John 13:35).
The second indication came down to whether there was any real joy present in my life (Galatians 5:21-22). When my heart condition was wrong, I had no joy in regard to my salvation (Psalm 51:12). There was leanness in my spirit, frustration in my soul, pricking of my conscience, and hypocrisy in my walk. It was clear that a battle raged in my spirit as my flesh warred against the spirit within me (Galatians 5:17). This brought me down to the other fruit that was lacking. The reason a person is void of genuine joy is because real peace that results from reconciliation with God is also absent.
This brings me to the third indication: my walk. When my heart condition was wrong, I walked in defeat. There was no real victory to be found in my life. I tried hard to straighten myself up, only to become miserable in my ineptness to change my inward condition. I had to face the fact that there were not only bad inclinations in my ways, but terrible tendencies to excuse away the real core of my problem, the self-life reigning, making me worldly in my attitude and carnal in my ways.
It was when I honestly examined and faced the fruits coming out of my life that God was able to change my heart attitude. Notice, when it comes to changing the inward disposition, only God can bring about such a change. This may surprise some people, but real change only begins when true brokenness has first occurred.
As stated in past articles, brokenness happened in stages for me. I was first broken over sins in my life, second I was broken by the destructive activities of sin around me, and finally I was broken over the sin that reigned in me. The problem with brokenness is that no man can break himself, only God can break the heart of a person to the point that He can actually heal it in order to recreate a new heart attitude.
When it comes to true brokenness I would like to direct your attention towards Leviticus 11:32-33 in light of 2 Corinthians 4:7. In the latter Scripture it says this, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” We are clay vessels that are only made valuable by the treasure we contain, which is Jesus Christ.
Let us now consider the Scriptures in Leviticus. In this chapter, the Lord is dealing with what He deems to be clean and unclean. We must contemplate the principle laid out in Haggai 2:11-14 that the holy cannot make the unholy clean by touching it and the unholy when touching the holy will defile it. It is for this reason that the priests were given specific instructions in Leviticus 11:32-33 about what they were to do with vessels that were touched by that which was considered unclean, “And upon whatsoever any of them, when they are dead, doth fall, it shall be unclean; whether it be any vessel of wood, or raiment, or skin, or sack, whatsoever vessel it be wherein any work is done, it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the even; so it shall be cleansed. And every earthen vessel, whereinto any of them falleth, whatsoever is in it shall be unclean; and ye shall break it.” (Emphasis added.)
It is amazing that all vessels but the earthen vessels could be cleansed when defiled, but the earthen vessel had to be broken. This is a powerful example for us to consider. When sin reigns, whether through influences, activities, or disposition, it defiles the vessel with indelible marks, odors, or other unacceptable associations. God cannot use such a vessel. The only way He can make it useable is to break it and then remake it. It is for this reason such scriptures as Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit,” and Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise,” often resonate with those who are truly broken by their sin and seek forgiveness and restoration.
It is clear that a right heart attitude comes out of true brokenness and repentance. However, there is only one who can break us and that is God. It is only as we see how God looks at a matter that our attitude can be shaken up or broken enough to come into agreement with Him. It is only when we recognize our true need for God to intervene in our present state, that we become open to His take on a matter and broken over the separation between Him and us that will cause us to desperately seek Him.
This brings us back to the result of a broken heart. It actually will translate into a seeking heart. Remember the wise men in Matthew who sought the new King of the Jews? These men spent at least two years searching for Jesus. They were not half-hearted in their search. It was clear that they would not be deterred from their search or settle for good intentions. Although they may have been the last to find the new King, they nevertheless accomplished their mission.
As Christians, it is easy to be deterred from our real mission—to always find Jesus in all matters. We can always settle for less by settling for Biblical knowledge, doctrine, good works, and pious ways, but a seeking heart will always desire to see beyond mere religious attempts and truly find Jesus. In fact, a seeking heart that fails to find Jesus is a heart that not only becomes desperate, but eventually broken.
As we come to this time of celebration, we need to consider if we are like the wise men, truly seeking with our whole heart the real gift of God, Jesus Christ, who is the only hope of glory that we can possess as clay vessels. It is clear that the right attitude of the heart must be that of a seeking heart which will manifest itself in a restless heart when it comes to pursuing the Lord. Next month I will deal more with this subject, but we at Gentle Shepherd Ministries want to take this time to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a wondrous New Year.