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Grace Upon Grace: How James 4 Changed My Life

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you…. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4: 8-10 NRSV

James has been a book of healing for me. It may seem odd to hear that because so many people say, “Oh, James is so intense,” or, “That is a Catholic book because it talks so much about works.” I want to offer a different way to read James, one that I will share through my own personal testimony.

I attended a Christian music school for my undergrad, and when I got there, I had two goals: to learn guitar and to know Jesus for myself. I am a pastor’s kid, and at the end of high school I realized that I had been coasting through life on my parent’s faith. My desire to know Jesus for myself was real, but looking back, I lost view of that second goal pretty quickly. My first goal started to morph into obtaining a certain status with my gifting. I began to idolize individuals who were on stage, and I wanted to be like them. I would follow them on Facebook and Instagram, dress like them, buy the same guitar gear as them, and spend my time trying to obtain what they had accomplished. My heart was set to be that person on stage after I graduated. I set my life vision on that goal and planned on being there for the rest of my life thinking that THAT was what the Lord had led me to. At the time I didn’t know that I had a problem, but I did know I was tired and discouraged, and that I wasn’t excelling to that level of musicianship and status that I had idolized.

My senior year, I was in a worship class and we were praying individually during the class one day. I was tired, discouraged, and becoming angry at myself and, honestly, at the Lord. Why would He lead me to this school to set me up for failure? It was then when I felt Him speak to me. It wasn’t audible or said by someone near me, but I knew the thought or phrase wasn’t my own. He said to me, “Thomas. I didn’t create you to be ‘Adam.’ I don’t need another ‘Adam.’”  At that moment I realized that I was trying to be someone I wasn’t meant to be. I was striving and performing to earn a title, a status, and a reputation that the Lord didn’t design me to have.

This was freeing and heartbreaking at the same time. Four years of trying to be someone I wasn’t–gone. My life plans were crumbling in front of me. I felt lost in my calling, I felt lost in my friendships, and I didn’t know what the Lord was calling me to.  During that season, I found this little book near the end of the Bible named James. As I read this book, I felt like someone had articulated my frustrations, sins, and answers into five sweet chapters. Focusing on chapter 4 for time’s sake, I will share with you what the Lord has been speaking to me.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” – James 4:1. As I read through this book and this chapter, I felt as though I was laying on a counseling couch and the Lord was speaking directly to me. My whole undergrad, my heart was warring with what I could obtain rather than seeking what God wanted me to be. I desired (v.2a) to be something I wasn’t made to be. I coveted (v.2b) what others had, whether that was materials or status. I wanted it to be my identity. I didn’t ask (v.2c) the Lord for what His plans were because I thought I knew them already; however, when I asked (v.3) for these things (talent, ability, and giftedness), I never asked if they were what the Lord had for me.

In the first three verses of chapter four, James listed my sins one by one. I was like, “Oops, guilty of that. Wow, that one too. I hope there is an answer!” And there was an answer in verses 5-10. “God yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” James isn’t referring to the Holy Spirit in this passage; he is talking about the human spirit that we all were created with–our passions, our desires, and our thoughts. James is also not saying God is jealous of us. He is the creator God and the sustainer of life. He doesn’t need anything because He created all things. He is jealous FOR us. His wants us to turn to Him. He wants our passions to be His passions. He wants our desires to be for Him. He wants our thoughts to be of Him. I was desiring to earn something that I wasn’t created to be, and God’s desire was only for me to realize I had nothing to earn. I only needed to realize that everything He had for me was in Himself. I can rest in Him. I can rest by acknowledging and accepting that He is God and He has a purpose for me.

It has taken grace upon grace for me to realize that all I need to do is simply rest in Him. Thankfully, there is grace. Verse 6 says that “He gives more grace.” All I needed to do was to receive it. All I needed to do was submit myself to His love and grace. “Humble yourselves before God and He will exalt you,” says verse 10. “He gives grace to the humble,” states verse 6. All you need to do is draw near to Him. He doesn’t want to stay at arm’s length from you. His desire is to walk with you through life. If He needs to carry you through some seasons, let Him. Don’t fall into the trap that I did. I boasted about who I was going to be and what I was going to do, but it was not what the Lord had for me. God has been so patient with me as I have walked through these past couple of years. I can now see His hand in my life so clearly. Though I am still on a journey toward finding out what the Lord has for me, I feel as though He has calmed the storm in my heart and I am no longer “lost at sea”; rather, His grace has been the wind in my sails, and His heart is my compass toward His will for me.  “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,” says verse 8. This is my testimony. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

 

Thomas Hickey, New City Stories Guest Writer

Idols in our Pockets

“…Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless.” 1 Samuel 12:20b-21

Idolatry doesn’t have to be explicit. In fact, it normally isn’t. When we think of “idol worship” we tend to picture people bowing before an elaborate shrine with some small statue of a foreign god at the center. In a way, this picture of idolatry makes sense. Christians have (rightfully so!) gained their understanding of idol worship from the Old Testament. In Exodus 32 and 1 Kings 12, we read that Israel turned to and trusted a golden calf for their prosperity and salvation. 1 Samuel 7 tells us that the Israelites were worshipping “Baals and Ashtoreths,” which were physical representations of Canaanite deities. In 2 Kings 23, we even read that King Solomon of Israel built places of worship to multiple foreign gods in the heart of the Promised Land itself.

An Asherah Pole was a physical representation of foreign goddess, Asherah.

When surveying the Old Testament stories of idol worship, we modern, Western Christians may be tempted to think that we have successfully avoided such sinful practices. I cannot name a single Christian who has erected a stone altar on the side of a mountain in the wilderness and travels there to offer praise and sacrifice to a foreign god. But just because the form of idolatry may look different, it does not mean that we have kept idolatry at bay. This ancient world with all of its shrines and idols and deities seems so distant from our modern sensibilities. But is it?

James K.A. Smith, in his book You Are What You Love, lays out a kind of thought experiment that has been haunting me lately. He says to imagine an alien ethnographer who is sent to Earth to study human culture and to take the findings back to its home planet. Imagine that this alien gets beamed down to your kitchen table one morning while you are eating your breakfast. The alien sees you, sitting there eating and hunched over a tiny glowing rectangle. The alien, watching intently for nearly half an hour, observes that this glowing box is clearly important to you because the amount of time you spend focused on it as opposed to your spouse or your food or anything else in the room is excessive. The alien concludes that this small, bright rectangle must be an object of religious devotion—a kind of idol that humankind spends many hours each day worshipping.

When I read Smith’s thought experiment, I was immediately stung with conviction. How many times have I mindlessly scrolled through a feed instead of engaging with my family or reflecting on my day? How many times has my iPhone kept me from stewarding my daily responsibilities as a student, friend, husband, and father?  More importantly, how many times have screens kept me from communing with the one true God, the One who is always inviting us into deeper relationship with Him? In our secularized context, where the temptation to worship other gods and bow down to false idols seems so distant, we need to be taking an account of our lives and asking ourselves if we have simply erected new, shinier idols in their place.

At its most basic level, idolatry is the continual engagement with lesser realities that keep us from the worship of and communion with God. As our technological world continues to fashion together objects that are more attractive, more addictive, and more all-consuming of our time and devotion, we as Christians must reflect on our use of these objects so that we can navigate away from idolatry and towards deep friendship with God.

Of course, technology such as smartphones, laptops, smart watches, tablets, and televisions are not the only modern day idols that we have erected in our lives. An idol is simply something that captures your heart that is not God Himself. However, it seems to me that technology, with built in features that are explicitly designed to clamor for our attention and cause addiction, pose a very immediate and grave threat to our spiritual health both as individuals and as body of believers. This is because technology’s very nature is to keep us hopelessly unreflective through endless and addictive distraction.

This is a serious problem for Christians because Scripture teaches that the remedy for idolatry in our lives is a kind of deep remembering of who God is and what He has done on our behalf. By “remember” I do not simply mean a kind of cognitive act where we dust off some old memories, but a kind of engagement with God’s story and our place in it that brings us into deeper communion with Him. This is what worship is. To keep idolatry far from our lives, God calls us to participate in everyday practices that bring about a kind of remembering that anchors our hearts in Him. Communion, Sabbath keeping, prayer, shared meals with fellow believers, praising God through song, and so much more all constitute daily and weekly practices that pull us into remembrance of who God is and what He has done. Through these practices of remembrance, our identities are more fully formed by God and His story as opposed to the false idols of this world.

Are you beginning to see the insidious problem that technology presents? In 2018, all of us have not only a powerful potential idol in our pockets, but this “potential idol” also makes it nearly impossible to engage in the necessary practices that will heal us of our idolatry. In other words, our smartphones not only act as a kind of temporary distraction from God, but their very nature causes them to break in and interrupt our attempts at remembering who God is.  I cannot tell you how many times my phone has kept me from entering into a full posture of worship of God. It happens every day. I attempt to enter into a time of scripture reading and prayer, and I hear my phone buzz or ‘ding’ and I am distracted. Once I am distracted, I pick up my phone and begin to scroll until my attention is no longer on God but on some political Facebook post that I disagree with or a highlight video of my favorite sports team. Now, when I try to re-engage God in prayer, the thoughts of my heart are scattered and are in conflict with one another. Before I know it, I am late for work or class and I have to run out the door.

I did not realize that technology represented an idol in my life until, ironically, I left my phone in the other room one morning and spent some time with God in prayer and in His Word. I was reading through 1 Samuel 12 when Samuel is warning the people against idolatry and he says to “…not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless” (v.20b-21). It struck me in this moment that my phone was an “idol” in the proper sense of the word. It is not only “useless” to “profit” or “save” me, but it actually keeps me from following Christ with all of my heart. I always knew that I spent too much time looking at screens, and I have been constantly trying to put boundaries in place to spend less time doing so; however, it wasn’t until in this moment reading Samuel’s words that I realized that I too was worshipping a false god. The problem because spiritually real to me.

Maybe you don’t have this same tenuous relationship with technology that I describe. If not, praise the Lord and take what I share as a cautionary tale and a reminder to evaluate your life to see what might be keeping you from deeper friendship with God. My hunch is, however, that many of us struggle with this to a certain extent. Whenever I walk into a Starbucks or into a classroom or even to a room full of close friends I see people staring at their screens and not at one another (I am one of them). If we struggle to look up from our phones when we are around friends, how much more are we looking at them in private?

As brothers and sisters, let us be bold and creative in figuring out ways to navigate the terrain of this modern, technological world and know that the glow of this world is but a faint flicker compared to the illuminating glory of the One who calls us to Himself.

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

“Here I Am”: Recovering a Theology of Calling

“We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone.” – Os Guinness, Rising to the Call

The question of calling haunts me. It seems to follow me wherever I go.  It’s a part of every thought about my future, a factor in many of my decisions in the present, and is in nearly every conversation with friends and family. I know I am not alone in this.  I often hear friends talk about where they feel called, what they feel called to do, and how they are going to go about following that call from God.  It can be exciting, overwhelming and anxiety-producing all at once.

In many ways, the centrality of calling in Christian circles makes sense.  The fundamental structure of God’s story involves call and response.  God called creation into existence, it responds by reflecting His beauty, creativity, and even His very image.  God calls Abram out of Ur and he responds in obedience (Gen 12). God calls out to Moses from the burning bush and Moses responds by saying “Here I am” (Exodus 3). Jesus calls fishermen to follow him, they respond by dropping their nets (Matt 4).  And so on.  This rhythm we see in the story of God is even the reason why we structure our worship around call and response; it is the ebb and flow of the Christian story.

It is no wonder then that many in the Church, including myself, have a kind of obsession with figuring out the what, where, and how of God’s call on our lives.

But there are serious dangers here.

I have observed that in my own life and the lives of those around me, when we talk about “calling” we are usually referring to specific things like occupation, location, people groups, and so on.  Again, to a certain degree, this makes sense.  God does call us to specific places, tasks, and people groups.  He called Jonah to Ninevah (Jonah 1), He called Moses to free the Israelites from slavery (Exodus 3), and He even called Philip to one particular person, the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8).  We shouldn’t disregard the specifics of God’s call, but in our attention to them, we should be wary of making them into idols.

If there is one clear theme in scripture, it is that God is pursuing our hearts. Our hearts are the seat of our affections—they contain the throne room of our loves and are the core of our very being.  So, if our hearts are preoccupied with things that are less than God Himself, then there will inevitably be misalignment in who we are.  This misalignment is what scripture calls “idolatry.”

Many of us, including myself, have flirted with (and maybe have even fallen into) this trap of idolatry when pursuing God’s call on our life.  When we think about, talk through, and pray over our call, we find ourselves obsessing over titles, romanticizing places, and maybe even yearning for recognition.  We often mask our misaligned desires in language of “calling” in order to baptize our ambition while all the time God was calling us not to a title or to a place, but to Himself.

But how can we avoid this idolatry when trying to embrace God’s call?  These secondary aspects, the “lower tier” goods of location, position, people groups, etc. are so interwoven into this question of calling that it seems impossible to filter and order them in a healthy way.  How can we grasp a theology of calling that helps us develop rightly ordered loves?

I believe the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 offers us understanding and hope.  But first, some context.

You see, when Abraham was seventy-five years old, he was called out of Ur and told to settle in the land of Canaan.  God promised him that he would be the father, the patriarch of a “great nation” and that this nation would “be a blessing” to the rest of the world (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV).  Abraham obeyed “as the Lord had told him” and traveled as a nomad for decades, moving in and out of the land that he had been promised, waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled (Gen. 12:4 ESV).

This was no easy task. During this period of over twenty-five years of wandering, waiting, and yearning for the “call” on his life to be realized, Abraham did the following things:

  • Abraham lied to Pharaoh and told him that Sarah was not his wife but his sister because he was afraid that the Egyptians would kill him in order to have Sarah (Gen 12:10-20)
  • Abraham was impatient with God and questioned the Lord on when he would give him an heir (Gen 15:2-3)
  • Abraham struggled with how he was to possess the promised land of Canaan (Gen 15:8)
  • Abraham, fearing that Sarah would never be able to bear him a child, decided to take matters into his own hand and had a child with Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant (Gen 16:1-4)
  • Abraham “fell on his face and laughed” at God when He specifically promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah because she was ninety years old (Gen 17:17)
  • Abraham lies again about Sarah’s identity to King Abimelech because he feared for his own life and his own future (Gen 20:11)

If you read the entire story of Abraham carefully, you quickly realize that Abraham struggled to understand and embrace God’s call on his life.  He pleaded with God for clarity, he questioned God on how he was going to fulfill His task, and there were even times when he tried to control his own fate.

But despite all of these missteps along the way we also see in Abraham someone who, by God’s grace, repeatedly returned to God in prayer, who renewed His promises with the Promiser, and ultimately never stopped believing and trusting that God was faithful to his word.  Abraham’s belief in the Lord was “counted to him as righteousness” not because it was perfect, but because despite all his fears and doubts he never let it slip away (Gen 15:6).

All of this fumbling, wrestling, questioning, promising and re-promising leads up to Genesis 22.

In this chapter we have the story of God “testing” Abraham and commanding him to sacrifice his only son who represents the culmination and the fulfillment of God’s call and promises to Abraham. (Gen 22:1-2).  Abraham responds by saying “Here I am” and by doing what God commands (Gen. 22:1).

At this point in the story, most of us are asking: “Why would Abraham agree to such a cruel request?” and more importantly “Why would a perfectly good God command anyone to do such a thing in the first place?” These are understandable questions, but when we locate this story within the entire trajectory of Abraham’s pursuit of God’s call, things come into focus.

You see, in order to understand this story you have to understand what God was after. He was in pursuit of Abraham’s heart, the axis of his affection and desires.  There was the reality, however, that Isaac represented to Abraham the “lower tier” aspects of God’s call such as the title of patriarch, the legacy of a great nation, and the power that comes from being a leader.  If Abraham is more concerned with these secondary aspects of God’s call, they could usurp God’s rightful place on the throne of his heart.

But Abraham trusted God.

Just as he was lifting the knife in order to go through with giving Isaac back to the One who promised him, an angel of the Lord called to Abraham. Abraham responded “Here I am.”  The angel then told Abraham “Do not lay your hand on the boy…for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen 22:12).  Nearby was a ram caught in a bush so Abraham sacrificed the ram to God and named the place “The LORD will provide” (Gen. 22:14).

Abraham, over the span of nearly three decades, was wrestling with and seeking out the Lord.  This continual, faithful struggle cultivated in Abraham a heart that was ready to say “Here I am” when he was asked to give everything. He spoke these words not out of cold indifference, but out of a deep and unshakeable trust that the “Lord will provide.”

Abraham’s story is, in many ways, our story.  We feel a call on our life, but we lack clarity. In this murkiness we begin to question, doubt, and to make our calling our own.  We dream of places and positions and peoples and are tempted to make these things ultimate.  However, if, like Abraham, we receive God’s daily grace to give us the strength to cling to His promises, the Caller will mold and shape our hearts so that we, too, may say “Here I am” when God asks us to give it all back.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor