I have a confession to make. I went on a retreat to a Catholic Prayer Centre last Thursday. There, I’ve said it. It’s now out in the open and I’m no longer terrified by the thought of my evangelical peers finding out!
I wouldn’t normally be found within a country mile of all things Roman. I wasn’t made to go. It was voluntary. It wasn’t an Anglican ‘jump through the hoop and try to forget that you’ve compromised like none of the Apostles ever would have done’ requirement either. It was a Co-Mission thing. No really, Andrew Nicholls, Pastor of Christ Church Kingston, sorted it all out. And it was terrific. By now you’re probably wondering whether we’ve gone soft in the head and soft on the gospel. Neither. Our reformed theological credentials remain impeccably in place. Most of us are five pointers! We went because we wanted to pray. And we realised at our annual staff focus that unless we plan to pray, we won’t. I’m not talking about the daily quiet time (though the same principle holds true) or just before you fall asleep sort of praying. I’m talking genuine heart felt pouring out of our concerns to the Lord. It’s hard to make time for that during a busy week. At least it is for me. And I’m assuming that because I wasn’t alone at the Catholic prayer centre, others struggle with it as well.
I went because I needed a shot in the arm. The thing that’s holding back my Christian life at the moment is the shallowness of my adoration and appreciation of Christ. And I wanted to address that. And so I took a book along with me that I thought would help. I took a Bible as well. But I wanted a book that would take the Bible’s teaching and focus it like a magnifying glass into my soul. And so I took ‘Through the Looking Glass‘ by Kris Lungaard. It came recommended and I knew a little about the author’s influences. Lundgaard has doen us a massive favour by putting John Owen’s ‘The Glory of Christ‘ into a form where people like me can benefit from it. Owen wrote in English, but not in any English that we’d recognise. I tried reading Owen on the Sabbath for an essay at College. It made me ill; literally, my head hurt. But Owen’s ‘The Glory of Christ’ is a classic and wonderfully Lundgaard has translated it and summarised it for a mere mortal with limited intellect and an appetite for entertainment.
Anyway, the issue in my Christian life is an inadequate obsession with Christ. All the problems I face can be traced back to that single issue. If I loved Christ with all my heart, soul, mind and strength I wouldn’t find temptation appealing and I wouldn’t sin. And it’s not his fault. It’s not as though he isn’t sufficiently satisfying. He is. I just don’t believe it. And so when temptation comes, he isn’t sufficiently satisfying to me. And so I believe the lies and promises that sin makes that I’ll only be really satisfied if I yield my will to my evil desires. I needed a stronger desire to replace the strong desire for sin. Tim Chester makes this point in ‘You Can Change‘ when he builds on Thomas Chalmers’ sermon ‘The Expulsive Power of a New Affection’. This principle of expelling one desire with a stronger one was brilliantly illustrated on a recent holiday. We’ve been struggling to get our daughter to stop sucking her thumb. I thought we’d tried everything, but nothing was working. And then on holiday I gave her £10 and told her that I’d take 50p away every time I caught her sucking her thumb. She and her brothers are saving up for a Wii and so the promise of money was utterly transformative. She got down to £8.50 before she ‘cured’ herself of the desire to suck her thumb. We’re now dealing with rampant materialistic acquisitiveness. But at least that’s more socially acceptable! But the point is that stronger desires are always the one’s that we seek to fulfil. And I need Christ to be my stronger desire if I’m going to defeat the power of sin in my life.
Trying to cultivate a conscious contemplation of Christ is something I’ve come to pretty late in my Christian life. As I reflect on the influences that the Lord used to bring me to faith, it’s clear to me that the relational heart of the Christian life has been massively underplayed. I think that when I was converted, I bought into a system of thought that I was convinced was true. That system of thought was evangelical Christianity. A friend described it as taking out a heavenly insurance policy to guarantee my safety in the event of judgement. I think that’s fair. And, as he pointed out, once you’ve got the insurance policy in place you don’t pour over the policy documents. But that’s not why we should read the Bible. The Bible isn’t a policy document. It’s a personal word from God about his Son, our Saviour, our Lord and our Treasure. And so the prayer day was a deliberate attempt to force myself to contemplate Christ in the scriptures.
I’m someone who is easily distracted. Very few things hold my attention; I get ‘into the zone’ with cricket and rugby, occasionally with sermon prep and perhaps a good book. I needed to get away from the laptop, the bookshelf and the sermon to get alone with God and a stimulus to meditate on Christ’s all sufficient magnificence. And so I read a chapter, scribbling as I went. Then I’d try and summarise the guts of the chapter to make sure that its’ contents hadn’t simply washed over me. And then I’d pray and appropriate Christ, consciously addressing and adoring him in prayer.
I’d be lying if I suggested that I’ve stopped sinning. But it undoubtedly strengthened my desire to live for Christ. I’m in a better place to engage in conflict with my sinful flesh than I was before. And I’ve resolved to spend a day a term repeating the exercise. My soul, my family and my ministry depend upon it.