Friday, August 26, 2016

Exercising the Will - Ephesians 5: 1-2

In our study of spiritual exercises, we have discussed the mind and the heart—two dimensions of our lives that we need to develop to serve Christ with our whole heart.  Today we are going to look at third dimension—the will, or the actions. We can’t just think or feel like Jesus-we must act like Him, too.
Our actions are determined by our will. Willpower is the ability to do what we do not want to do. It is self-control for God’s sake.  If we present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God, we must resist our own desires and to do it consistently.
Psychologists who study willpower have discovered that it works a lot like muscle power. The more we exert our wills, the more tired they get.  If we are already using our willpower for one thing, the less willpower we have to do something else. It’s hard to lose weight, quit smoking, or start daily devotions at the same time.  If a difficult situation requires us to keep our emotions under control, self-discipline is harder to exert.
But like our muscles, if we exercise our will it gets stronger.  If we begin somethings and stick with it, our will gets stronger, so we may use our wills to make other changes.
Even so, doing the right thing consistently takes effort. Fortunately, God has put a mechanism inside the human mind that makes it easier. That mechanism is called habit.
Habits are what we do without thinking or feeling it. Let’s say you have a smoking habit.  You know it’s bad and you feel terrible about it, but it’s hard to stop smoking.  You have a subroutine in your brain that is programmed to smoke in spite of what your mind and heart saying “no”.
There are also good habits. Good habits lead us to do good things without thinking. God wants us to have good habits, not bad habits.  
When Paul talks about “walking in the Spirit”, I believe he is talking about having Spiritual habits.  Following Christ means habitually spending time with God, obeying His commandments, and loving others. We don’t choose to do these things any more, we have already chosen to do them. They have become habits.
Paul understood the connection between public obedience and private habits. If our personal, private habits are bad, it is unlikely that we will long maintain good public behavior.
      Gordon McDonald wrote about a great old oak that stood in his parent’s front yard when he was a boy. From all outer appearances it was healthy. One day, a wind blew it over. Only then did they discover it was hollow inside.  Termites had completely eaten away the interior of the tree. 
Bad habits eat away our insides. To everyone else we seem strong, but if our habits are weak, our faith will fall. Before we try and change the world, we must conquer our personal lives.
People are like icebergs. Seven-eighths of who we are is hidden from view. Only God and ourselves know who we are when no one is looking. This inner life is the life of our inner habits.
Please understand, God does not judge our habits.  He loves us in spite of bad habits, which are already forgiven on the Cross.  God doesn’t give up on us.  If He did, none of us would be in heaven! Eternal life is based on what Christ has done, not on what we do. 
But when we allow our bad habits to run our lives, we are not imitating Christ. Walking like Christ is following a lifestyle of obedience.
Jesus had habits, just as we do. But unlike us, His habits were always goo. It was His habit to pray daily, love others, and help people in need.  The habits Jesus had are the habits we need to develop. 
What habits did Jesus have?  Here are a few of them.
Jesus had a submission habit
In John 14:31, Jesus said I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”  Jesus’ did His Father’s will. 
Submission means building submissive habits. In the army, soldiers express their submission by saluting officers. In court, people express their submission to the judge by saying “your honor.”  Children are taught to say “sir” and “ma’am.” These habits are not just empty rituals, but reinforce submission.
The church also has habits of submission to God. Tithing is one of those habits --a percentage given to God’s work off the top of our income.  The amount of our gifts to God is not as important as the attitude that God comes first in our income.  Sabbath-keeping is another act of submission. Giving one day of the week to worship reminds us that Good is first in our time.  Church attendance is another act of submission.  Daily devotions are another. Respecting God’s name is another. Other actions such as prayer before meals or evening prayers are voluntary acts of submission.  Not everyone keeps every habit, but all of them reinforce our need to bow our hearts before them. These habits continually remind us to keep God first.
We are not required to do any of this. We do it because we want to honor God and keep habits of submission. If we are to be like Christ we must stay in submission to Him.
Jesus had a working/resting habit.
Keeping a Sabbath is an act of practical benefit. If I just keep the Sabbath because someone tells me was supposed to, then I’m submitting to a person, not God. But if I keep the Sabbath out of choice, because I want to keep close to God and honor Him, then it becomes a blessing.
Peter Scazzaro in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality has an interesting take on the Sabbath. The Sabbath, he says, is like a “snow day.” When we were kids, whenever it snowed, people had an excuse for taking off work.  They got to go home, sip hot chocolate and go out and play in the snow. On snow days we were given permission to play hooky from work and enjoy ourselves.
Sabbaths are weekly vacations that give us permission to spend time in recreation an refreshment.  God encourages the habit of rest as well as the habit of work.  It keeps us human and make us realize that life isn’t about what we do, but what we are. It is a spiritual discipline that is also a personal time of refreshment. 
Jesus not only took he regular Sabbath, but He also took time away from the ministry regularly for prayer and refreshment. It was a habit He developed that kept Him sharp before God.
Jesus had a fasting habit
Little is written about Jesus’ habit of fasting, except that we know He began His ministry with a complete forty-day fast. We also know that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not say “if you fast” but “when you fast.” This implies that He expected that His disciples would fast.   The early church fasted regularly two days a week. Hippolytus, one of the earliest Christian writers outside the Bible wrote that the heretics were fasting on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the regular church fasted on Wednesdays and Friday.  Evidently, they believed fasting was a valuable spiritual habit to have. 
But what does fasting look like today?  Traditionally fasting is not just going without food entirely. It was usually simply restricting our intake of food for a set time. We have another term for that today—dieting!  The purpose of fasting was not to lose weight, which is why we usually diet today, but to master our appetites. If our physical appetites possess us, then God does not.  The purpose of regular fasting was to put our bodies in their proper place, as being under the authority of God. 
There are other activities that are similar to fasting in this, and all of them were traditionally part of what it meant to possess our bodies for Christ. Chastity was one of them—refraining from sexual activity until God says the time is right, and with whom God says is right.  If the world practiced chastity today, I believe the majority of poverty would be solved.  Another one is simplicity, not spending more than we need to spend, or owning more than we need to own. Everything we own also owns a piece of us.  We either master our possessions, or our possessions master us.  Today, we should think about electronic fasting as well—disconnecting regularly from the internet and from the electronic media.  We must always be sure that God comes first, above our appetites.
Jesus had a praying habit
We read that Jesus prayed every morning and every evening, that He prayed before every great decision in his life, and that he prayed regularly in the temple and with the Jews, as he celebrated Jewish holy days. Jesus’ life was a regimen of prayer.
Those who have been greatly used by God have all discovered that prayer is the key.  Martin Luther once wrote that his responsibilities were so great that he had to spend four hours a day in prayer.  Paul Yong He Cho, the pastor of the largest church in the world in Soule Korea once said that he had to spend between four and five hours in prayer daily.  Prayer is a habit that we all require, both as a church and as individuals. When we neglect it, we lose our spiritual power.
  All of this talk of personal spirituality may seem to some like legalism and judgment, but it really isn’t.  God doesn’t think ill of us because we don’t do everything right.  What God does in our life is not so much to condemn our failures but affirm our success, and reward that success by building up our bodies, souls and spirits to help us reach our full potential.  We all aren’t Olympic athletes, just as we all are not spiritual giants  (I certainly am not!)  But developing the right habits and breaking the wrong ones will certainly  make us better people. 
Each victory we have helps build our willpower, and helps us to go further in Him.  Not only that, but with each victory, we learn to rely more upon the Spirit of God, which can enable us to reach our goals of becoming more like Him.
As we gain victory in our inner habits, we become blessings to the world around us.  It helps us to develop the habits that will transform us into stars, enlightening the world. Around us. 

More about that, though in the next message.

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