Being a disciple is not just a Christian idea. Before and after Jesus, people were and had disciples. Plato was a disciple of Socrates in ancient Greece. Many Jewish teachers (rabbis) had a set of teachings, known as their “yoke”, and disciples whom they would invite to “follow” them.
Most Jewish people saw Jesus as a rabbi, a teacher – the name they give Him 90 times in the gospels – with disciples whom He invited to, “Come, follow me”. Whereas the word ‘Christian’ only appears in the Bible three times (as an insult!), the word disciple is used 268 times.
Right at the beginning of His work the first thing Jesus did was to call disciples to be with Him:
“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. 19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
And right at the end of His work, Jesus told his disciples to “Go and make disciples.”
The call was not to, ‘Believe in Him,’ but to ‘Follow Him.’ To be a disciple of someone is about being someone who “learns as they follow.” It is about having a close relationship with someone in which we are increasingly being with them, becoming like them, and doing the things they do. To be a disciple is to follow, and the nature of that discipleship is defined by the One we follow.
One writer says that, “Being a disciple or apprentice of Jesus is a definite and obvious kind of thing. To make a mystery of it is to misunderstand it. There is no good reason why people should ever be in doubt as to whether they themselves are his students or not.”
Many churches, especially today, emphasise discipleship. Pope Francis says that the church should be a “community of missionary disciples.”
There are five good reasons to be living as a disciple:
We all follow someone.
The examples of superfans might be unusual, but the truth is we are all centring our lives on something or someone. We live in a time when we are being constantly encouraged to put possessions and consumption at the centre of our lives. We are not living in a neutral world. We are potentially all being discipled by advertising, shops, media etc. 24 hours a day. As one writer puts it, “…if we don’t disciple, then the culture sure will, and it’s doing a good job of it. Consumerism is the alternative religion of our day.” Alan Hirsch. The question isn’t “Am I a disciple?” The question is “Who or what is shaping me?”
Christians believe being a disciple leads us to a purpose and calling. As Bear Grylls puts it, “When we pursue an adventurous path through life, inevitably we are going to have moments of hardship, doubt, struggle and pain. It goes with the territory. But for me, my simple faith has so often brought light to a dark path, joy to a cold mountain and strength to a failing body. Believing doesn’t mean we have to suddenly get all religious. I am not. And Jesus certainly wasn’t. It has taken a while in my life to understand that faith is a journey, and as we trust and lean on Him, He leads us to the light – to a freer, more centred existence, free from guilt, free from crippling fear and free to start living.”
Becoming fully human.
Someone once said that Jesus did not come to make us more religious but came to make us fully human. Orthodox Christians have a beautiful understanding of being a disciple called “theosis”. It’s not that we can “become God”, but that as we draw close to God and reflect His love and life more fully, we become alive, more human as humanity was intended to be, because we have allowed God’s life to fill and eventually overwhelm us. Discipleship takes us along this road until eventually the (human) mirror is no longer seen, but only the reflected glory of God.
It’s the best life you can find!
Cyrille Regis was the third black player to be capped by England, and a pioneer in the fight against racism in football. He played 614 matches and scored 158 goals in a 19-year professional career with Coventry, West Brom, Aston Villa and Wolves, which also saw him make five appearances for England. He became a Christian when he discovered that “… the penny drops. It really sinks in that Christ loves me. He died for me and He rose again from the dead and this awesome sense of peace comes over me.” He became a sports agent and remained passionate about sharing his story of faith. He said, “I meet people all the time, some famous, some not who are all looking for hope and peace. I have learned that money cannot buy peace of mind so I simply tell people how I found hope and peace in God. The great thing about it is that anyone can have the peace that I have, you just need to know God.”
Being and making disciples is the Church’s central task.
The writer Robert Warren states, “The best way to grow the church is to grow people.” In the Roman Catholic Church, writer Sherry Weddell says, “…we have seen it happen over and over. The presence of a significant number of disciples changes everything: a parish’s spiritual tone, energy level, attendance, bottom line, and what parishioners ask of the leaders. Disciples pray with passion. Disciples worship. Disciples love the church and serve her with energy and joy. Disciples give lavishly. Disciples hunger to learn more about their faith. Disciples fill every formation class in a parish or diocese. Disciples manifest charisms and discern vocations. They clamour to discern God’s call because they long to live it. Disciples evangelise because they have really good news to share. Disciples share their faith with the children. Disciples care about the poor and bring about issues of justice. Disciples take risks for the kingdom of God.”
So the truth is if we focus on being and making disciples first, the rest will follow. Can we agree with this…? “The best decision anyone can ever make, at any point in life, in any circumstances, whoever they are, wherever they are, is to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Archbishop Justin Welby.
In Christ’s day, and in the early church, disciples would live with and follow their rabbi so closely it was difficult to know where the life of the rabbi ended and the disciple’s life started. Jewish people said, “May you be covered with the dust of your rabbi…” May you be walking so closely with them, listening from them, watching them that at the end of each day you would be covered with the dust they kick up from the road in front of you. Discipleship-following would lead to change – a transformation involving every aspect of who we are, how we think, how we act. The best way of describing what this feels like, is to think of being an apprentice to someone. This would involve three things:
Being with: Obviously if you want to learn from a “teacher” the first thing will be that you spend as much time with them as possible.
Becoming like: Over time you will start to become like them – their character will shape yours, their responses and thoughts become part of the way you tick. Character change is a key part of being a disciple, and in fact, of being more fully human. This is precisely the hope that Paul expresses to the early Christians. “May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation – the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ – for this will bring much glory and praise to God.” Philippians 1:9-11, NLT
Joining in with: The apprentice will gradually take on the work of the teacher, and do things the way the teacher does them. An “important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did.” Dallas Willard.
The aim of discipleship is always about change. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul exclaimed, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5.17). For Christians today, as we consistently and intentionally live every aspect of our daily lives in being apprentices to Christ, we expect change in our lived experience – becoming like Him and doing the things He does.
This is completely at the heart of Anglican Christianity, which, “from its roots in Celtic and Augustinian spirituality and shaped by the European Reformation, has always been a lived-out (not a purely intellectual or spiritualized) faith. It is about following and living the ways of Jesus.” (from: Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making, Anglican Communion)
The Way of Discipleship is helping people to become apprentices, who are being with God, becoming like Christ, and joining in with the Spirit. There is information, but this is much more about changing as we live, and learning as we follow. The four modules are focussed on these three aspects of being an apprentice, and having ‘Bible confidence’ by understanding how the Bible works, how to listen to God through it, and how the story of your life is shaped by God’s story.
If you do the four modules, you will begin to be changed in these ways:
Knowing who you are: growing in your identity in Christ, and in relationship with Him.
Becoming more who God made you to be: Growing more fully human through the transformation of your character in Christ
Being secure in your purpose: Growing more secure in your calling and purpose in Christ
Understanding what you bring: Beginning to discern and understand your gifts so that you might share them with others
Sharing faith: Growing in being able to disciple others.
Taking responsibility: being shaped to walk the way of discipleship for the rest of your life.
It’s easy to see how the early disciples could be ‘with Jesus’, but what do we mean by being with God now, in our daily lives?
Firstly, it’s important to know that God is already with you. While Jesus could only ever be in one place at one time, before He went to His Father he promised, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. … On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. …My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…. “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
God is with us all, everywhere, because He is Spirit. The Spirit is in creation, including in each of us. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Because of the Spirit, Jesus stops being removed from us, and starts being together with us. In the words of James Allison, using God’s voice – ‘we (meaning God as a trinity) will come to them and make our home with them’. (from Knowing Jesus, by James Allison)
Our part every day in being ‘with God’ is to be aware of His Spirit. Making time to ‘abide’ in Jesus (John 15). Dallas Willard puts it this way:
‘The first and most basic thing we can and must do is to keep God before our minds. This is the fundamental secret of caring for our souls… as we take intentional steps toward keeping God before us. Soon our minds will return to God as the needle of a compass constantly returns to the north. If God is the great longing of our souls, He will become the pole star of our inward beings.”
If God is always with us, the first thing an apprentice does is to pay attention. Listening to God and responding to Him IS the heart of being a disciple. Our first module is all about this, and as we journey together, we will always be seeking to help each other pay attention. That’s why Archbishop Rowan Williams believes, being a disciple means to be someone who keeps watching, listening and learning. There’s no magic, or celebrity, or certificates to it. Just watching, listening and learning as an ongoing process.
“From my desk at college,” writes Shane Claiborne, “it looked like some time back we had stopped living Christianity and just started studying it. If we are to make disciples, we must do more than help people acquire biblical and theological information. Our task is not simply to study the Word of God; it’s to get it off the page and into our lives. The Bible itself often tells us this. ‘Don’t read it, eat it,’ God said to the prophet Ezekiel. ‘Don’t speak it, live it,’ he said to Hosea. ‘You claim to know what it says, but you have no understanding of its power,’ Jesus said to the Pharisees. ‘The Word of God is living and active,’ said the writer to the Hebrews; it is meant to change us and change the people around us.”
To grow in this way there are (at least) four important elements.
We need the information and to be taught. Jesus’ method has parallels in the way people learn a new language. Firstly, it obviously involves knowing some vocabulary and grammar. There is a body of information to be absorbed. Similarly, Jesus taught His apprentices in that He gave them information. The Sermon on the Mount, Lord’s Prayer, parables, the greatest commandment. They needed their minds shaped to understand what relationship God wanted with them, and the mission they were invited into.
By and large, we are very good at this in church circles and in society. But what is more helpful in actually being able to use a language is being able to listen to people speaking it, and to imitate them, sometimes with unintended results. Information alone won’t make you a speaker.
Modelling and imitation is at the heart of apprentice-style learning. Jesus inviting his disciples to live life as He lived it. He demonstrated everything He taught – how to pray, to heal, to teach, to love enemies. They learnt by observing Him. Most famously He did this at the last supper, when having washed their feet He said, “ So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” I would say that the people who have had most influence on me are the ones whose lives I have sought to imitate. Discipleship is more caught than taught.
But I’ll tell you how language learning really improves. By living in the country! When you have to actually use your knowledge, improvise, immerse yourself in the culture, down the market, in the college, the words you have read on the page, and repeated after other people, actually start to become a living language.
Jesus taught his apprentices, he demonstrated, but then He sent them out on His mission. They learnt on the way. It’s common educational wisdom in action: as the proverb says, “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.”
Because the aim is transformation, each session combines this mixture of content, modelling, and follow-up action…with some feedback to each other (over time).
Incidentally, the modules are shaped around apprenticeship, but they also reflect how we know God – as Father (Being with God), as Son (Becoming like Christ), as Spirit (Joining in with the Spirit).
The modules shape us in knowledge, character, and skills. All the material is online for you to access, and there is plenty more material on each area should you want to pursue more.
If we are not asking this question sometimes, then we are probably not paying attention…But the answer is, of course! These ideas may help…
The disciples Jesus chose came from the bottom of the social ladder.
God always starts where you are at – you never need to wait until you are ‘ready’.
They were called disciples from day one – learners as they followed.
We come to God, and we grow, in different ways.
There are four stories in the book of Acts which illustrate some of these different journeys Some come because of the influence of a particular person – see Philip and the Ethiopian – Acts 8: 26-39. Some grow up as disciples, inheriting faith from their family – see the Philippian jailer story in Acts 16: 22-34. Some are gradually drawn into church and start the Way of Discipleship step by step – see the life of the early church in Acts 2: 42-47. Some hear a message and the penny drops in a moment – see Paul preaching in to people who have never heard before in Acts 17: 22-34. We go through different stages in life, and on our faith journey.
Finally we change through training, not trying. The Way of Discipleship is about training us in ways of life that help us transform over time.
Peter’s story is helpful – it’s a timeless story of change and growth. He starts his relationship with Jesus as one of his enthusiastic followers, ready to die for Him, and always there with the ‘right’ answers. But He betrays Jesus three times in the dark of night. Yet after Jesus is raised, He reinstates Peter, putting him in charge of His followers, forgiving him, and helping him grow through mistakes. Most apprentices will be similar – times of wild passion, then doubt, or failure…eventually shaping us as we become more like our rabbi. Be encouraged by knowing… Like Peter, most of the disciples had their successes and failures.
Jesus told us to “make disciples”. The call was given to every disciple. The writer Bob Ronglien says, “…followers of Jesus are meant to look like a sheep from the front and a shepherd from the back. They look like a sheep from the front because they are following someone who is helping them learn how to follow Jesus. Likewise, they look like a shepherd from the back because they’re helping others learn how to follow Jesus.”
But we may worry that we don’t have the right to apprentice others, as we either don’t feel worthy, or we don’t want to judge others. There is a balance here. We certainly can’t judge anyone, both because of our own state, and because we can never truly know what is happening in someone’s heart.
But just because we can’t see what’s happening inside, as Sherry Wedell writes, “This does not mean that no fruits of personal faith are observable from the outside. And it certainly does not mean that a dramatic and widespread absence of these fruits in the community overall cannot be recognised and addressed.”
She continues, “…let me stress that we cannot bring anyone to faith through pressure, guilt, argument or cleverness. Conversion and true faith are works of the Holy Spirit. But it is also true that we can, by our responses, help or hinder another’s journey.”
We can help others, or we can hinder them. Paul knew that he was a model for others, so when writing to his disciples in Corinth he said simply: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1)
Bob Ronglien writes, “The call to make disciples is a call to point people towards Jesus by the fallible example of our lives. If people are only imitating us, they will get a degraded version of Jesus. People don’t need a perfect example of Jesus – they just need a living example. Paul would not let Timothy use his age as an excuse for not inviting people to imitate him.”
If you want to grow in being an apprentice – being with God, becoming like Christ, and joining in with the Spirit, there needs to be something intentional about it. As Sherry Wedell writes,
“Discipleship is never unconscious. No one voluntarily sheds his or her job, home, and whole way of life accidentally or unconsciously. Simon Peter’s drop the net decision is what we mean by intentional….Going with Jesus meant visiting places these fishermen, and the women who accompanied them, would probably never have visited otherwise.”
If we make that choice, day by day, He will transform us. The spirit of the Way of Discipleship is to respond to the exciting, life-changing vision that someone like the priest Robert Capon set out:
“If Christianity is simply about being nice, I’m not interested. What happened to radical Christianity, the un-nice brand of Christianity that turned the world upside-down? What happened to the category-smashing, life-threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire and was considered (by those in power) dangerous?
What happened to the kind of Christians whose hearts were on fire, who had no fear, who spoke the truth no matter what the consequence, who made the world uncomfortable, who were willing to follow Jesus wherever He went? What happened to the kind of Christians who were filled with passion and gratitude, and who every day were unable to get over the grace of God?
I’m ready for a Christianity that ‘ruins’ my life, that captures my heart and makes me uncomfortable. I want to be filled with an astonishment which is so captivating that I am considered wild and unpredictable and … well … dangerous. Yes, I want to be ‘dangerous’ to a dull and boring religion. I want a faith that is considered ‘dangerous’ by our predictable and monotonous culture.” (“Dangerous Wonder” by Mike Yaconelli, Hodder & Stoughton 1999)
The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then to love your neighbour as yourself. So before we say anything else about God or ourselves we start here: it’s about love. Note that lots of people believe in God. But the way of discipleship is to grow in being loved by God, and in loving God.
God has made you for the kind of relationship that St Augustine described, when he wrote, “you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Augustine also wrote: “You were with me, and I was not with you…You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. … I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”
John wrote, “We love because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19. So before we can begin to love God, we need to begin to experience the depths of His love. If you think about it, how would we know about love in the first place if God didn’t reveal it?
While there are many things we can say to describe God, the most defining statement about God is in 1 John 4: God IS love. In other words, love is not something God chooses to do. He is love itself – He cannot do anything else except love. God puts aside everything else about Him – His complete power, His complete knowledge, His Lordship – compared to loving His creation, including us. His love always shapes everything else. His love can be defined as self-giving love – love which will always give to others at cost to Himself, even if they don’t receive or want it.
For Christians, as we shall see, the supreme way we know and see this love reaching out to us is through the self-giving coming as a human, death and resurrection of Jesus.
God’s love is revealed more and more through the story of the Bible. For example, in the book of Hosea, God reveals His self-giving love with these words,
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them….My people are determined to turn from me….How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?…My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.”
If God IS love above all else, the kind of relationship He offers us will be
Personal. Throughout the Bible numerous people are recorded as “walking with God.” Jesus told His disciples that there would, “realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
Honest. In Genesis 3, God is pained by the idea that Adam and Eve are hiding from Him. He asks them, “Where are you?” We can feel ashamed and think we have to “hide from God” – that He won’t love us as we are. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before people will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates sin…”
Secure. Because God loves us, we can be completely secure, whatever happens. For example, in John we read, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” In other words, Jesus was able to live out His calling to serve and go to the cross, because He was secure in the love of God His Father.
Julian of Norwich was a medieval Christian who had a vision of the security of God’s love. She wrote, “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’
I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God….In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.” Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
Transforming. When we know God’s love it will begin to change us. This is because the way of discipleship is not just knowing about God’s love – it’s a deeper kind of knowing – like when Adam knew (yada) – Eve, and she conceived. If we are not willing to begin to love God, we will have no chance of understanding Him. Growing in knowing God’s love is less about understanding ideas, and more about touching Him. We can’t split Truth about God from life itself.
“It’s not enough to claim to know the truth as if it can be contained in a mere idea. If I want to claim something to be true in the religious sense particularly then it must have changed my life, or my life itself will be communicating that I don’t really believe it to be true.
As theologian David Tracy says, “There is never an authentic disclosure of truth which is not also transformative.” There is a three minute video on the love of God with Archbishop Justin Welby and others you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvA6hwDnB6Q&t=19s
Very simply – because He is God, and God is love. The more we can love God for who He is, rather than how He answers our prayers or what He does, the more we will be genuinely loving Him. St Bernard put it like this:
“The reason for our loving God is God. God is the initiator of our love and its final goal. He is himself the occasion of human love; he gives us the power to love, and brings our desire to its consummation. God is loveable in himself, and gives himself to us as the object of our love. He desires that our love for him should bring us happiness, and not be arid and barren.
His love for us opens up inside us the way to love, and is the reward of our own reaching out in love. How gently he leads us in love’s way, how generously he returns the love we give, how sweet he is to those who wait for him!” Bernard Of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
One of the greatest themes throughout the Bible is the word Covenant which describes the love-relationship God invites us into. Throughout the Old Testament, God makes covenants again and again – with Noah, with Abraham, with David. Each covenant is God taking the initiative to restore the love relationship with His people. In a covenant, God offers Himself completely in love to His people, in a way that nothing can break, and He invites them to offer themselves to Him. “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
Even when people turn away from Him, God keeps His covenant with them. This defines the relationship He wants with us. It is the deepest relationship of self-giving love, and God always initiates it with us.
It’s like a marriage (in which people say to each other, “All that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.”) In fact, as we read the Bible we find that we are called “God’s Bride”.
As the Bible progresses, there is a pattern. God makes a covenant with His people and gives reminders of the relationship through, for example, temple worship…the people break it…God restores it…until eventually He promises through a prophet, Jeremiah,
“The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel.. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them…This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time…I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
When Jesus came, He lived fully in this covenant relationship with God, and invites disciples into exactly the same relationship: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)
This loving covenant relationship was revealed fully and achieved by Jesus’s death and rising again. God’s commitment to us is forever – it is written in the blood of Jesus. As we share in the “Covenant” meal that Jesus gave, we are reminded of this – the bread and the wine help us remember who He is, and who we are.
Because your identity is defined by the covenant God makes with you through Christ. You are a child of God, “born again” into a new family, given a new name and a new identity. The New Testament teaches that when we are baptized we embrace our new identity. Jesus connects us to God and defines who we are. We share his Name: “Christ-ian”, and everything He has is ours. This means God – our Covenant partner – wants to give us everything He gave Jesus.
Because your motive for loving God is defined by this covenant. The New Covenant means that God’s code of behaviour for his people—”the Law”—is now written in our hearts. Now we are free to love AND obey God because this is truly a reflection of who we are. We choose to obey because this is the most consistent way of expressing our identity. …Obedience is always an act of love.
It is so important that things always start with our covenant identity. If we try and approach God only through obeying Him, rather than recognising who we are, we will fall into the trap of the Pharisees whom Jesus encountered. We will try and “prove” our identity by what we do, and become anxious, driven and insecure before God. We won’t be disciples who are loving God.
We have started with the importance of loving God above all things. But it’s important to ask, as human beings, how much we can really understand or know God, or how we can really say anything about God at all.
From the beginning, God is a God of covenant love. Yet when Moses approached the burning bush in the desert (Exodus 3) and asked to know God’s name he got two replies: 4 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
God is reminding Moses of the covenants He made. But He is also refusing to give His name. The meaning of his name is best translated as I will be there as I will be there. In other words, you can only come so far, know so much about Him – He refuses to be tied down by any human idea. Far from being a problem, this is something which helps us approach God as God. As St Aquinas said, “a comprehended God is no God at all.”
CS Lewis put it this way, “…my idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself.” That is why in Scripture God is often revealed as spirit and fire-things that cannot be contained or easily approached.
For everything we say about God, there will always be more to be said. It is most helpful to see our knowledge of God about trying to point in the right direction, rather than giving a final answer. We can say, “The truth is in this direction, and not that way.” Paul put it like this,
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” This is why we say we believe in God, and have faith, rather than knowledge which comes from complete proof.
So, perhaps a better question to ask is…
We can discover aspects of God’s character in various ways:
By looking at creation – what does the way the world and universe works reveal?
By examining ourselves – what do our longings for beauty, truth, justice and meaning point towards?
By looking at the way God is revealed and acted in Scripture.
And ultimately by looking at Christ, who is the “image of the invisible God.”
Over time, we have come to see that, even without the whole picture, there are aspects of God’s being and character that we can know to be true. Some of these things (attributes) describe God’s powers and some His personality. Or to put it another way, some reflect His greatness, and others His goodness.
And while some describe who God is, some can only describe who He is not (such as, for example, saying He does not change). As we have said, God’s defining attribute is self-giving, covenant love. But a further list might include this definition: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism)
It stops you making God in your own image. The act of “making gods in your own image” i.e. that you can humanly understand, is seen as dangerous in the Bible, and is known as idolatry. It is making gods too small, too human, too much what we need. Not only are idols dangerous because they are a poor reflection, and rejection of God, but those who worship and base their lives on them gradually get changed into slaves, becoming like the thing they worship.
It helps you to keep wondering at and exploring God. Augustine said, “If you understand, it is not God. God is ever greater, always bigger, than anything we think we know of him.” Another writer puts it like this: “God introduces us into this mystery, but not in such a way that it simply stops being mysterious. It cannot be exhausted by being revealed;….Every aspect of God’s mystery that he gives us to understand is surrounded by mystery and opens into greater mystery .” The wonder of God is there is always more to be explored!
It gives you the right balance in your relationship with Him. Solomon wrote in his Proverbs: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. This fear isn’t because we can’t trust in God’s love or goodness, but it’s the kind of awe and deep respect we have for a being who is, “beyond my utmost heights and more inward to me than my inmost depths.” (Augustine).
We are drawn towards God’s wonder, but we cannot fathom Him. Ecclesiastes 3:11 puts it like this: “ He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” God is both holy and completely unapproachable – filling us with awe and wonder – and completely within and around us, closer to us than we can understand. We call these qualities God being transcendent (above everything and mysterious) and immanent (within and alongside us, available at all times). He holds the whole universe and knows every atom. We tremble before Him AND draw close to Him in intimate love.
There are times in our lives as disciples when we need to remember the fear of the Lord. There are times when we need to draw close to His intimate love. Both are true, and both are needed. Different churches emphasise different approaches to God. Some are very aware of His transcendence in the way they worship and live. Others reflect the closeness of God’s love. It’s good to experience both in being with God. This balance is actually in the first words of the Lord’s Prayer. We call God, “Our Father”, a description of trust and love, and then say, “Hallowed be your name.” In other words, this God who is not “tame” has a name which should be honoured and respected.
It gives you humility with others. As a disciple you will find yourself disagreeing with other disciples, and wanting to pray, worship and act in different ways. For example, there are over 25,000 Christian denominations! Understanding that there is always more to be discovered should enable us to listen and learn from each other with humility.
While we are always aware that we cannot possibly know everything, or even much, about God, what we do know makes all the difference. The writer A W Tozer puts it like this,
“What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us…Were we able to extract from any person a complete answer to the question, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?” we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that person.”
There are many false directions and ideas about what God is like that can lead us away from the relationship of covenant love we are made for and towards a destructive fear. Many people, even Christians, either subconsciously, or consciously, might believe that:
God punishes and blesses us according to our actions – this both leads to us feeling unable to please Him all the time and/or raises questions about those who suffer for no reason.
God punishes us eternally for a single sin – this makes God worse than a human parent.
God only loves us according to our behaviour – this leads us to believe that God is not generous, and does not genuinely delight in us.
Early Christians came to experience and understand God in three main ways – as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three distinct persons in one. This understanding is not set out in the Bible as a teaching – the word Trinity is not used – but its reality can be seen through both the Old and New Testaments – God is three-in-one from the beginning.
Jewish people would pray the Shema morning and evening, at the end of each day and at the time of death, saying “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord.” (Deuteronomy 6: 4) But God is also described with various names and as distinct persons:
The Word of God. God’s “Word” exists separately from God, but comes from God, speaking life, guidance, and salvation into being. (e.g. Isaiah 55:10–11). The Word creates.
The Spirit of God. Right at the beginning of Genesis (1:2) the Spirit hovers over creation – God’s presence and power. The Spirit comes upon people at various times and in various ways. The Spirit empowers.
Wisdom (especially in Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) who is described as a female figure, alongside God but dependent on him (e.g. Proverbs 9:1–6) and who acts in the world.
With Jesus, his followers came to understand that God was doing something that was both new – a New Covenant which completed all the promises God had made His people through Jesus – and continuous with what had gone before. They already had categories for understanding God but began to see Him in new ways.
Father: The God Jesus taught His disciples that the God He knew as “Father” was the God of Israel, and He related personally to Him as a distinct being.
Son: Jesus, who was fully human, also acted in ways that only the God of Israel could do – healing, and offering forgiveness of sins. His followers used ways of describing Him that were divine – the glory of God, or the wisdom of God. John described Jesus as being “with God”, but also said He “was God” – one, but also distinct.
Spirit: The Spirit was the presence through which people could be born again, whom Jesus promised to send, and who came at Pentecost. The Spirit is the person through whom the love of the Father and Son can be known. The three persons already described could be known and understood in the life of Jesus, sometimes clearly active in one event, and sometimes in different ways. For example, at the one event of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11), the Spirit comes down on Jesus, and the voice of the Father describes Him as my “beloved Son.”
Romans chapter 8 is full of the language of Father, Son, Spirit. “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God….And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”… Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.”
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14) describes God in a few sentences as, “The Father who chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” The one who, “predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ…(aiming) to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” And that, “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” 2 Corinthians ends with these words, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Loving God as Father, Son and Spirit was a lived reality, in the ways that people worshipped, prayed, baptized, and knew God before it became a teaching. The teaching evolved over a few centuries, and has provided a strong and reliable way of speaking of God – not as a way of “tying God down” or controlling God (who is an eternal mystery”), but as a way of protecting us from some of those false and damaging pictures of God, or ways that we can “make Him in our own image” as an idol:
It protects us against thinking God has multiple or split personalities: the Trinity does not mean that God sometimes shows himself to us as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as Spirit. He is all three at the same time.
It protects us from only knowing God in smaller reduced ways: such as believing that God could only be separate and distant from us, or could only be within us, or could only be a “divine human being”. The Trinity helps us to hold all these things together.
One document says that the Trinity, affirms that God in his own divine self really is such that God can share himself with his creation. God is not only the utterly other, who infinitely transcends creation; God can also be deeply and intimately present within creation, as the Spirit, and God can also be one of us, a genuinely human person, as Jesus Christ the Son. Therefore God can and does open his own life for his creation to share.
The Trinity means God is a relationship of love. In the Trinity, God gives and receives within God’s very being. That is why we began with the truth that God IS love. God is always in relationship – never solitary. As Mike Lloyd puts it, “This is the fundamental fact of all that is. You can divide up a molecule. You can split an atom. But you can never divide up the love that the Father has for the Son, and the Son for the Spirit, and the Spirit for the Father, and the Father for the Spirit, and the Son for the Father, and the Spirit for the Son. That is the surest thing that is. We stand on holy ground and the view from here is stunning.”
Rublev’s icon is an ancient and famous picture of the love that flows within God’s very being. When looking at it, the writer Henri Nouwen said, “Notice the movement from the Father towards the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit towards the Father. There is a circle of love where all relate to one another. Draw an imaginary line from the tree through the Son to the little opening in front of the table. Draw another line linking the heads of the three figures. You now have a cross as well as the circle: the cross becomes the means by which the world can be drawn up into the everlasting circle of the love of God.”
The Trinity means God invites us into this relationship of love. God’s self-giving love does not run out and is not exclusive. In the icon, this is shown by the fact that there is a fourth place at the table, for you, the viewer. The nature of God’s love is that God can share his life even with those created beings, ourselves, who are alienated from God and opposed to God.
Through the Son and Spirit, God enters our reality of evil, suffering and mortality, shares our pain, carries that pain for us and restores us, walks with us in our human everyday struggles and shapes our lives so that we can know the Father as the source and goal of our being. “The point isn’t to understand. The point is to know and be known by this God so that we can participate in his love.”
An early Christian saint called Cyprian wrote this, “Those who have been born again and restored to God through grace say “Father” at the beginning of all prayer because they are already beginning to be his sons and daughters. None of us would presume to do this had not Christ himself taught us to pray in this way.”
Jewish people knew that God is neither male nor female, but spirit without body or gender, but they understood God to have the loving qualities of a parent. Psalm 103 says, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.”
Isaiah 49:15: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”
But Jesus lived and taught that we should, through Him, know God as Father. This was entirely new. The most important relationships we have are our relationship with Jesus as Lord and our relationship with God as our father.
When Jesus addressed God, he used the word “Abba”. Later on, Paul writes in Romans that we cry out to God, “Abba, Father” when we pray. A helpful translation is, “Dear Father.” A term of intimacy and trust, but also holding a sense of obedience. The word Abba shows that Jesus knew God as intimately involved in His life, and not distant. The writer CFD Moule says, “The intimate word conveys not a casual sort of familiarity but the deepest, most trustful reverence.”
For some people calling God Father might be difficult for various reasons, and we need to be sensitive, But, rather than abandoning the word, the writer James Smith offers some helpful advice, “…when Jesus describes God as his father we have to let him define what fatherhood means. Barth is helpful here:
“….it is not that there is first of all human fatherhood and then a so-called divine fatherhood, but just the reverse; true and proper fatherhood resides in God and from this fatherhood what we know as fatherhood among us men is derived. The solution is not to abandon the term father but to let Jesus define it.”
As we journey through the Way of Discipleship the aim is to form us as people who can grow into Being with God in our daily lives and experiencing His love. Two final thoughts can reassure us.
We hide from God – He doesn’t hide from us. While there are things that can get in the way of us experiencing God, and there can be times in our lives when God seems more distant, God is always wanting us to know Him. At the beginning of the Bible, it is human beings who hide from God – not the other way round.
The writer Balthazar said that Scriptures show: “When people seek God, God is long before in search of people, and like the woman looking for her lost coin, God turns the house of man upside down. People may hunt for God like one pursuing a deer with bloodhounds through fire and water, against lance and pike, but God’s hunt for people is even wilder.”
God is always present – we need the eyes to see Him. In Genesis 28: 13-16 Jacob has a dream at night in which God promises him the land. He wakes up and thinks, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” God is above all things, but also within all things. One writer, Barbara Taylor Brown, says how this transformed her experience,
“I could no longer see myself or the least detail of my life in the same way again. When the service was over that day I walked out of it into a God-enchanted world, where I could not wait to find further clues to heaven on earth. Every leaf, every ant, every shiny rock called out to me- begging to be watched, to be listened to, to be handled and examined. I became a detective of divinity, collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks left for me to follow: locusts shedding their hard bodies for soft, new winged ones; prickly pods of milkweed spilling silky white hair; lightning spinning webs of cold fire in the sky, as intricate as the veins in my own wrist. My friend taught me to believe that these were all words in the language of God.”
Whether or not we call ourselves Christians, we are all growing into being certain kinds of people. The ways we are being formed are shaped by
• the things we give most attention to
• the choices we make
• the influence of the relationships we have.
To be a disciple is to welcome God to be the centre of all of these, growing into the people that He desires us to be – being with Him, becoming like Him, and joining in with Him.
On a daily basis how we put God at the centre is shaped by three things:
• What we give attention to: Being open to God’s presence and paying attention to what He is saying, which leads to
• The choices we make in what we do: Responding to what He is saying in loving obedience, which leads to
• The character we are becoming: Enabling God to change me from the inside out to become more like Christ by putting into practice regular ways of living which open me up to the work of His Spirit. (This is the focus of module 2 – Becoming like Christ) This session focusses particularly on the first two: How do we pay attention to God day by day? And what are the best reasons to respond in obedience to what He is saying?
We are constantly paying attention and responding to different voices in life. As we have seen, being a disciple at its most basic is growing in responding to God above all else. Jesus said God’s word is more important than food: “Humans do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)
He had a deep sense that His life was shaped by God’s leading: “”I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. (John 5:19).
One writer put it like this, “We are what we hear from God.” (Emil Brunner.) The meaning of the word “church” is to be people who are “called out” – in other words, those who respond to God’s call.
In Mark 1: 14 we read, “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” When Jesus started His ministry, He began by telling people two important things:
That this was a particular moment to pay attention. This was not just “ordinary”, minute by minute time (chronos), this was a time when God was acting in a new way. When He said, “The time has come” the word for time (Kairos) is a specific time of opportunity. He told them that this moment was a time when, “The kingdom of God has come near.”
All that God wants in the world is now close – His love, His presence, His healing. God is not far from people – and the whole of the gospels are full of people responding to God (as we saw in the story of Jacob from Genesis 28.)
From the beginning, Jesus is showing how at the heart of being a disciple is wanting to be open to His presence by recognising the moments where God is close, and how He is working. In our daily lives, the kingdom of God in God’s world is near.
It may be that certain events – positive or negative become the doorway to us recognising it, and asking, “God, how do you want me to respond?” God may speak through our successes or failures, through things we see, hear or read; large or small happenings, things we do or are done to us. The disciple will be growing in paying attention in all these things.
That this was the time to “Repent” and “Believe” – to respond to what God is doing by Changing their way of thinking – repenting means to “turn our minds” from seeing things our way to seeing things God’s way. Starting to live differently – believing here is deeper than what goes on in our minds.
It is starting to let our choices and relationships be shaped by how God is acting and calling us, demonstrating in our lived experience what we are really trusting in. From the beginning Jesus is describing the heart of being a daily disciple as paying attention to God in moments of opportunity and responding by living in new ways.
It means daily discipleship is a close relationship: In the words of Pope Benedict 16th, “Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him even more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us.”
It reinforces the point that daily discipleship is growing in seeing where God is present in your life: Archbishop Rowan Williams says, “The true disciple is an expectant person, always taking it for granted that there is something about to break through from the master, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is going to open up when you’re in the master’s company and so your awareness … is a little bit like that of a bird-watcher, the experienced bird-watcher, who is sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knowing that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.”
The whole of this module is about helping us be disciples who grow in paying attention to God and responding to Him. As we journey together, our expectation will be that God’s kingdom is near, and that each week He will be giving us the opportunity to respond.
It’s possible to pay attention to God’s presence, and to get to know His teaching, yet for that to make little difference in our lived experience. In a sense that’s like “repenting” (changing the way we think), without believing (changing the way we live.)
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives us a large amount of teaching on what the life of discipleship looks like. But, crucially, immediately after this there comes the parable of the wise and foolish builders. One builds on rock, and when, “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house…yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”
But the other builds on sand. When the storm comes, it “fell with a great crash.” Both builders have heard God’s words and received His teaching. But that is not what makes the difference. The wise person in the parable, whose house remains standing, is the one “who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.”
The Greek word for faith, pisteuo, means putting faith into action. Faith is not having a mental list of beliefs but trusting someone enough to give them control of our lives.
Martin Luther distinguished between belief and faith using the image of a ship. Standing on the seashore, pointing at a ship, and saying that you think it will take you to the other side of the sea is a statement of belief. Your life does not depend upon the ship. Getting on the ship and trusting it to take you to the other side of the sea is an act of faith. This faith is justified when the ship is reliable and takes you safely on your journey.
When Jesus called people to believe, it was with this sense of faith – He was calling them to entrust their whole lives to God in this way. At the heart of a daily life of discipleship is both paying attention to God and learning to put what He is saying into practice.
Because both these things matter, the ‘Way of Discipleship’ offers teaching, but importantly it is also about the ways we put that teaching into practice. (In every module the first sessions focus on the content of teaching, helping us to grow in understanding, and the following sessions are helping us live out that teaching in our daily lives).
As a response to God’s love and grace. We have seen how God is a God of love who calls us into covenant relationship. That we obey God because He is God. But as we go further, it’s crucial that our daily obedience is only about responding to God’s grace. Imagine if you gave someone you love a gift for their birthday and they asked you, “Why did you do this?” Now imagine you reply, “Because I had to.” Or, “Because I was afraid you would be angry if I didn’t.” Wouldn’t you have missed the whole point?
The only good reason for giving a gift is love. Similarly, obedience and response to God which doesn’t come from love is not only destructive for our lives but undermines our sense of God’s great love for us. The first and greatest commandment is to “Love God.” Julian of Norwich put it like this, “The greatest honour we can give to God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of His love.”
It is easy for our “putting God’s teaching into practice” to slip into duty or legalism. This can crush our spirits, make us bitter and judging of others, and as we shall see, fail to transform the heart.
This is why Jesus criticised the Pharisees – not for their lack of obedience, but for their legalism. This is the message of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who becomes embittered, and ends up serving his father, not out of love, but out of duty. But the motive for being a disciple can only because we are loved, forgiven and accepted by God, even before we think about obeying Him. “We love, because He first loved us.”
Scripture calls this undeserved, unconditional love grace. We have explored how God is love. His grace is the quality of love God has for us, and that Jesus’ life and death demonstrated, that gives complete and utter worth to anyone, regardless of who they are or how they live. The starting place for obeying God can only be this: the more we grow in receiving His grace, the more we will want to pay attention and obey.
Responding to God in obedience is therefore effort, but it is never earning. We are already loved, whether we obey or not. As Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
This is the jewel of Christian discipleship. As one writer puts it, “Christians affirm a foundation of identity that is absolutely unique in the marketplace of spiritualties. Whether we realize it or not, our being is grounded in God’s love. Love is our identity and calling.
“Neither knowing God or knowing self can progress very far unless it begins with a knowledge of how deeply we are loved by God….In order for our knowing of God’s love to be truly transformational, it must become the basis for our identity…..And identity grounded in God would mean that when we think of who we are, the first thing that would come to mind is our status as someone who is deeply loved by God.”
Jesus was fully obedient to God His Father, even to death. Scottish theologian Thomas Smail says that the motive for this was “not legal obedience driven by commandment but trusting response to known love.”
We live in a world of conditionality and are trained from childhood that good behaviour leads to reward, while bad behaviour leads to punishment. We can therefore easily slip into experiencing discipleship as religiously trying to build a bridge to God (which is perhaps a little arrogant!). The reality of grace however is that God has, through Christ, built a bridge to us. Christ was clear that it is only those who know they need to receive God’s grace that will truly turn to Him:
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Author Brennan Manning calls this the “revelation bright as the evening star: Jesus comes for sinners, for those as outcast as tax collectors and for those caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams. He comes for corporate executives, street people, superstars, farmers, addicts, IRS agents, and even used car salesmen…”
In a reflection on the parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable which demonstrates God’s unconditional love like nothing else, Rob Parsons says that the message of the story is that you can always come home. Whatever you have done, whoever you are, “There will be a Father waiting, and there will always be a light on.”
Author Kathleen Norris has a moving realization of God’s grace at an airport: “One morning this past spring I noticed a young couple with an infant at an airport departure gate. The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking he would respond with absolute delight. It was beautiful to see.
Our drab departure gate had become the gate of heaven. And as I watched that baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt awe-struck as Jacob, because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature he made and called good, along with the rest of creation. And, as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we’ve done in our lives to the creature made in the divine image.”
It is only God’s grace that can give us the assurance that we are loved, and the motivation to serve Him. As an old man, the preacher Charles Simeon rejoiced in this love, saying, “Soon (my eyes) will behold all the glorified Saints and Angels around the throne of my God and saviour, he has loved me until death, and given himself for me; then I shall see him whom having not seen I have loved; In whom, though now I see him not, yet believing I rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Of the reality of this I am as sure as if I were there this moment.”
As a way of living into our true identity. It’s hard in the contemporary world for people to know “who they are” – I can try and discover identity through “losing myself” or “looking within”. But it’s worth repeating that in daily discipleship, one of the best reasons for responding to God is not to gain an identity but because He has already given us an identity.
In fact, while the world of consumerism might try and seduce into building our own identity through what we own, Christians believe that it is only God who can truly tell us who we are. It’s only by receiving this identity that we will truly change – the more we realize how God sees us, the more we will want to obey Him and to become our true selves. One writer puts it like this, “We are never free until we submit our hearts and minds in obedience to Christ, and we are never so much our true selves as when becoming more like him.”
Most people realize that there is a gap between who they are, and what they could be. There is a chasm between the way we know the world should be, and the way it is. For Christians, this is not just “the way things are”, but the sign that our real condition is a longing to be restored to our true selves.
The Bible reveals how God originally intended us to know who we are and to live in that freedom. The story of Adam and Eve describes how God put His imprint on us. He made us for Himself as covenant-partners. As we have seen, covenant is an agreement that establishes a relationship between two parties. In a covenant we say to each other, “Who I am and what I have I give to you.” (Marriage is one of the few covenant relationships that still exist.)
So our original identity is found in God’s covenant with us. Yet the story of Adam and Eve also describes a very real reality – that as human beings we often don’t accept God’s covenant and instead place ourselves at the centre of life. (This is the root of sin). The result is that we lose the sense of identity and have been searching for it ever since. We cannot find it ourselves – though we may try.
Yet because God is love, and He cannot be untrue to who He is, the story of the Bible reveals how He continues to make covenants with His people at various times, and in various ways. The problem was that these Old Testament covenants failed to recover the identity-producing relationship God had with Adam and Eve in the garden. So God promises a new covenant through Christ, which, if we can receive it, restores our identity completely.
Our true identity is restored to us by being “in Christ”. While human beings fell from our original covenant identity, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, ‘If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.’
The result is that in this final covenant everything that is true of Christ becomes true of us. In the same way that the children in the Narnia books are made kings and queens, and then start to grow into that identity, so as disciples we are crowned with our identity in Christ, and then invited to respond. Among other things, in my daily life, I can have two things:
Restored confidence in obeying: One of the reasons I respond to God is because although I am not divine like Jesus, because I share in the same restored identity revealed in Jesus I do things “in His name” – authorised as a covenant-partner to act on His behalf. This gives me an incredible dignity and motivation. Pete Greig puts it like this: “I am no longer sitting in a world of troubles looking up to God for help; rather, I am seated with Christ, looking down from the same vantage point He has.”
Restored desire to obey: As you live into the identity God gives you as a disciple, there is a freedom in serving God, not out of a sense of duty, but out of love. Paul described this by contrasting a fear-based slave mentality that comes from trying to please God in our own strength, with growing in our desire to God’s will as we realize our identity as His “adopted children”. “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry Abba father.”
In every Way of Discipleship module the first sessions help shape our understanding while the next sessions are much more focused on how we live because of that understanding. We have seen how being a disciple is about staying close to the ‘rabbi’ – being with Him, becoming like Him, joining in with Him. Paying attention to God and responding to Him, putting God’s teaching into practice in our choices.
Being with God means keeping Him before our minds. How does this happen? Put simply, on a day by day basis, we get to experience this being with God by developing the kinds of habits, practices or rhythms that develop this focus. So as we look for the rest of this module at the everyday practices of worship, prayer, Bible reading and a balanced life, we will be learning and experiencing ways of living that help us to ‘Be with God’.
We do not have to make this up from scratch – these habits are ways in which disciples have grown for millennia and are ways of living found in Jesus’ life. Sometimes they have been called “spiritual disciplines”. These days, more people are adopting the language of habits or practices to avoid splitting life up into a “spiritual” and a “non-spiritual” part (God calls us to be with Him in all of our lives), and to avoid making “Being with God” sound like a duty.
We are familiar with the idea of good and bad practices. Things that over time become a natural part of our lives and focus the way we live. These habits are the ones which draw us into a life of love and joy with the God who loves us! The other things practices do is change us. (This is obvious in our physical bodies in terms of our eating, exercising, personal care habits, but it is just as true for our inner person as well). We will explore this in more detail in the Module ‘Becoming like Christ’, but we have already seen if something is genuinely true it will transform us.
As disciples we learn in order to become like our teacher. Paul and other New Testament writers describe this as changing into the image or pattern of Christ. The hope is that everyone can grow to be “mature in Christ”. God doesn’t want us to be people who can just do the right thing in our behaviour. Most people find it hard to keep to every rule!
The picture the Bible gives us is that He wants to do something far deeper – to change our inmost being (the heart). Over time we do the things Christ does because they become things we want to do, and the natural choices we make will be to do what He would do if He were in our situation, in the strength that He gives. Our habitual thoughts, feelings and actions will become more like His.
This isn’t cloning – God made and loves variety. Instead, as each human being becomes more like Him, we become more fully the people God made each of us to be. This is what Paul means when he prays that Christ would be “formed in you”. Daily discipleship is gradually becoming the kind of person who will naturally live a life like the Master. If joining the Way of Discipleship has no impact on shaping us to become more like Christ, then it will not be discipleship.
Most people want to change in some way. But 95% of New Year’s resolutions do not last past the end of January. We can’t change by just saying, “I want to change.” Most people know that while we might be able to tweak our behaviours a little, for the deeper patterns of our personalities to change we need a power beyond ourselves. (See the AA Twelve Step programme). Genuine change is a lifelong journey of letting God transform us.
Very briefly, disciples are changed as two things happen. Our minds are renewed so we see the world and people more and more as God sees them. To have the “mind of Christ”. The Way of Discipleship offers this.
Our innermost selves (hearts) are changed by allowing God’s Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out. In Luke 6, Jesus points out that “there is no good tree which produces bad fruit…. Men do not gather figs from thorn bushes….” (vv. 43-44) It is the inner nature of the tree that determines its outward product. Likewise, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” (v. 45)
Habits and practices are about giving space in our lives for God’s Holy Spirit to shape our minds and our innermost desires, so that over time our natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ. They give us ways of “abiding in Him”, or “walking in the Spirit.” As we do so, as well as knowing what to do, we gradually want to do it. James Smith writes, “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.”
Practices change us indirectly. We do what we can in order to enable us to do what we can’t do directly. We can see this reality in any physical training. The more you train, the easier it becomes to, for example, run a marathon. And the more natural marathon-running will be. As we are being with God through worship, prayer, study and rest, we become the kind of people who want what God wants. Sometimes we get transformed in moments of ‘breakthrough’, like Saul on the road to Damascus. But most of the time it is through the process of living.
Because we are covenant partners, we have a part to play in this. We make ourselves available and open. But it is God who does the work, through His Spirit. “Without Him we can’t, but without us He won’t.” We are making an effort, but we aren’t earning. We are training, but we aren’t trying. Richard Foster calls this ‘the path of disciplined grace.’ It is ‘grace’ because it is free; it is ‘disciplined’ because there is something for us to do.” All the practices create the environment for the Holy Spirit to change us.
Worship is the first practice of any disciple. Maureen Collins is a modern example of a worshipping creature. Her home is a shrine to Barry Manilow, and she is so obsessed that she doesn’t have time for full-time employment. The walls are covered with posters from different parts of Barry’s career. She doesn’t listen to music by any other artist, she has seen him all over the world and written him hundreds of letters. She has a scrapbook filled with newspaper and magazine cuttings, and calls radio stations all over the UK requesting his songs. Her family and friends have long since given up trying to dissuade her from her obsession.
While Maureen may be a somewhat extreme example, she illustrates a point: People from all tribes, cultures and nations worship and have been worshipping someone or something since the beginning of humanity. Some worship out of awe, some out of fear, some to keep their gods happy (or at bay), some out of duty, some out of love. In reality everybody worships something.
The English word ‘worship’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘weorthscipe’ which literally means to ascribe worth to something. You worship what you most love, give attention to, or desire. Worship is how we respond to what we value the most. Who or what we worship is the deepest expression of our humanity.
Who we worship also shapes us. This is why the Bible warns against idolatry so often. Psalm 115 says, “…their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands….Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” The things we base our lives on are the things which make things normal for us. If you worship money, greed becomes normal. If your god is violent, killing becomes normal. Worship expresses what we value, but also shapes it.
God (alone) is worthy of our worship. Throughout the story of the Bible when people encounter God, they worship. Abraham offers a sacrifice. Moses leads the people out of Egypt so they can worship. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, offers a song of praise as she dedicates him. David dances. Forty one psalms say “Sing to the Lord!”. Job praises God in the midst of trials. Mary worships when she becomes pregnant. The wise men worship the child, the disciples worship the Messiah, Peter and John praise God after being flogged, Paul and Silas sing hymns in prison.
Endless crowds in the book of Revelation sing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Worship is the only appropriate relationship we can have when we see God for who He is. As Matt Redman writes, “When we face up to the glory of God, we find ourselves face down in worship.“
In the book of Deuteronomy, God’s people are told, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” and “serve him only and take your oaths in his name. …14 Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you.” The writer to the Hebrews encourages people to , “offer sacrifice of praise to God continually…let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28–29)
Worship is the deepest expression of who we are. As we have seen – everyone worships (gives ultimate worth) in some way. Worship is the practice that makes us most human and reveals our deepest longings. The Christian faith says, “I worship, therefore I am.” We are made for God. The human heart is restless until it finds its rest in God.
When we worship God, we are expressing in the deepest way the relationship we are made for with Him. As the famous statement says, “The chief end of people is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” To worship is a natural response to God which completes our enjoyment of Him.
C.S. Lewis puts it like this. “But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. … The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game. … I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”
Worship is the opposite of sin. Pope Francis has said, “The most dangerous idol is our own selves when we want to occupy the place of God.” The original human problem, and the root of all the brokenness in society, is the way we have replaced God with ourselves, living our lives, and ruling the world, as if He does not exist. To worship God is to reverse this, by placing God at the centre.
When Jesus said we should worship “in spirit and in truth” He wasn’t recommending any method or place, but showing how God was looking for the worshipping people who will truly make Him the centre of their lives. That’s why, William Temple, an archbishop, wrote, “This world can be saved from political chaos and collapse by one thing, and that is worship.”
True worship does not look for any benefit to ourselves (that would be repeating the problem) but worshipping God for Himself. St Augustine explained, “The heart is not pure if it worships God for a reward. What then? Shall we have no reward for the worship of God? Certainly we shall, but the reward will be God himself whom we worship. God’s very self will be our reward.”
Worship is joining in with the activity of earth and heaven, now and forever. To worship God is to join in with a creation which gives glory to God, making us more at home with the rhythms of earth. “All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name.” (Psalm 66:4) “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars.” (Psalm 148:3)
It is also to join in with the unseen parts of creation, ‘the heavens’ God made – spiritual beings such as angels, who are revealed as living lives of worship. “And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.’” (Revelation 7:11-12)
To worship is also to anticipate the time when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” We get glimpses of that future in some Old Testament prophecy, which paints God’s promised new creation as a feast: “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.” (Isaiah 25:6) It will be a time when, “the ransomed of the Lord will return And come with joyful shouting to Zion, And everlasting joy will be on their heads.” (Isaiah 51:11)
In the picture-language of Revelation this worship is never-ending and involves everyone, as God’s glory is seen fully. To worship now is to both join in with this unseen reality, and look forward to its fulfilment.
Worship connects us with God and changes us. When we worship, we seek to give our full attention to God, and to place Him at the centre. As this happens, not only is our love expressed, it is also strengthened, and we open up our lives to the work of God’s Spirit. Worship changes us, as it helps us grow in love for God.
A writer called Baron von Hugel said worship is like kissing his daughter. He kissed his daughter to show he loves her (expressing), but as he kisses her his love grows (strengthening). So while the English word for worship describes how it is about ascribing worth to God, the Greek word in the New Testament describes worship as connecting intimately with God.
The word (proskyneo) literally means to come towards and kiss the back of the hand. It’s a word of intimacy and reverence. Worship connects us to God, aligning what we want with what He wants, submitting who we are to Him. As we draw close in this union, God can change us from the inside out. One writer says, “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.
This is why when people in the Bible worship God, they have an expectancy that His presence will become real to them. There is a sense in which God “delights in and inhabits the praises of His people”. Our worship gives God a ‘place’ to live in our lives. When the early church prayed and worshipped, they experienced the room shaking. They had a deep sense of God’s presence. It is not that God is an egotist who needs our praises, but for all the reasons above God knows we are shaped, completed, and drawn into His love through worship, and He delights in that relationship.
The practice of worshipping God is strongly linked to the practice of celebration and to joy. In a time and culture in which many struggle with anxiety, stress and depression it is important to experience the practice of worship as key to better mental health and well-being. The early church “ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God.” (Acts 2:46/7) Nehemiah tells the people, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
As we explore more fully in ‘Becoming like Christ’ the greatest insight we have into what God is like is through looking at Christ – He is the “image of the invisible God”. To understand God’s character, then, we look at Jesus. A common perception is that Christ has little to say about joy or happiness. Yet, while He was prophesied to be a “man of sorrows”, fully aware of the world’s pain, he was also foretold to be “anointed with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” In other words, the most joyful person alive!
And while Jesus experienced the full force of evil and sadness, it was in the context of knowing that joy was set before Him – that it had the last word. In his life we see the joyful character of God in the extravagance of His first miracle, making water into the best wine. It was in creating this celebration that He ‘revealed God’s glory’. We regularly read about Jesus parties, eating and drinking to the extent that he’s accused of being a “glutton and drunkard” (Mt11: 19).
Of course he wasn’t these things, but the point was He was so celebratory that He created that impression. He told His disciples that His joy would be in them, and that it would be complete – literally “full to the brim”. (John 15). God wants disciples to be as joyful as Him – the God who announced at creation “It is good!” again and again.
Whereas pleasure is responding to something in the moment, and so is temporary, joy is a deeper commitment that comes through ways we live and attitudes we have. So while it’s possible for this joy to come upon us unexpectedly as a gift, there are ways God gives us to cultivate joy in our lives.
In a specific sense, God called His people to worship Him through festivals and celebrations. For example, three times a year they were to celebrate for seven days. They were to spend a tenth of their income on one celebration and make sure it was accompanied by strong drink! (Deuteronomy 14: 22-27). While as Christians we might not obey that joyful command so accurately, there are a number of celebrations and feast days spread throughout each year for the same reason – the most famous being Easter and Christmas. The more important ones have a long period of preparation.
In a general way, God calls us to worship and celebrate by giving thanks in all circumstances, and at all times. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say: rejoice,” Paul wrote from prison.
It’s important to say that some people have a genetically more cheerful character than others. Worship and celebration is not about pretending to be a different person. Nevertheless, numerous writers affirm that worshipping God by choosing to be thankful and to celebrate opens us up to being more joyful.
William Law: “If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness and perfection, he must tell you to make a rule to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you.”
Henry Allen Ironside: “Thanksgiving is the enemy of discontent and dissatisfaction.” Thanksgiving stops us from taking ourselves too seriously and opens up space for God. It reminds us that life is a gift. It helps correct ways in which we see God negatively and instead expresses our trust in God’s goodness. Thanksgiving is the least selfish prayer.
As William Temple wrote, “It is more important to thank God for blessings received than to pray for them beforehand. For that forward-looking prayer, though right as an expression of dependence upon God, is still self-centred in part, at least, in its interest; There is something which we hope to gain by our prayer. The backward-looking act of Thanksgiving is free from this. It is quite selfless. It is akin to love. All our love to God is in response to his love for us.”
We often think of worship as something we do with others in church. But God is present in all of our lives, and can be worshipped through all of our lives. Worship doesn’t split life up. In fact, to worship God in church, but not to offer that worship in the rest of life is a contradiction.
St John Chrysostom (c.347–407) preached, “Do you wish to honour the body of the saviour? Then do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honour it in church with silk vestments while outside you are leaving it numb with cold and naked. He who said, ‘This is my body’, and made it so by his word, is the same that said, ‘You saw me hungry and gave me no food. As you did it not to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it not to me.’ Honour him by sharing your property with the poor. What God needs is not golden cups but golden hearts.”
In Colossians we read, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him….Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” (Colossians 3: 17;23)
To worship God in our everyday tasks is to do it in His name. In other words, for His glory and not ours. At the Glastonbury Festival in 2019, with millions of people watching him, the artist Stormzy said, “Let all the glory go to God.” There is a humility in worshipping God, in which we don’t need recognition, but want others to see Him in what we do. The composer Bach was not widely recognised in His lifetime. Whenever he wrote a piece of music he would always sign it ‘S.D.G.’ “To God alone be the glory.” (Soli Deo Gloria)
To worship God in our daily tasks is to “work for the Lord”. We express God’s worth in our tasks by making obeying Him the priority. The poet George Herbert wrote a poem called ‘The Elixir’ – a potion which changes ordinary things into something wonderful. The ‘elixir’ is worship. He writes that doing things “for Thy sake” can make “drudgery divine”.
Worship will only be our priority if we choose to make it so. God does not force us to worship him. Richard Foster writes, ‘If the Lord is to be Lord, worship must have priority in our lives.” While we often find it hard to control our emotions and feel joyful, feelings generally follow thoughts, and we can make choices about what we set our minds on. We can’t will joy. But we can will a thought life that opens us up to joy. These habits may help:
Focussing our attention on what is good. It is too easy for our minds to be dominated at the beginning and end of the day by negative headlines – news thrives on conflict, difficulty and challenge. But constant bad news is not an accurate picture of the world. While not ignoring difficult things, we can resist letting our news feed set our emotional temperature, Paul writes, “…brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Cultivating this habit above all else will help us be with God in worship.
Slowing down. It can take time to notice the goodness of God. To consciously give Him glory as we go about our tasks.
Being childlike. Matthew writes, “He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Children have humility, but in terms of worship they demonstrate a great capacity for wonder. This wonder is at the heart of gratitude and worship.
Seeing worship as a gift rather than a task. It is easy to experience worship as something we do. Going to church, reading the Bible, praying, helping people, giving. This can burn us out – we are never finished – but also runs the risk of putting ourselves at the centre of worship. A different way of looking at worship is as a gift and a privilege. As C. S. Lewis says, “In commanding us to glorify him, God is inviting us to enjoy him.”
In contrast to a culture which can be about the individual, from the beginning, God calls a people to be the best sign of His presence in the world. This continues through the gospels as Jesus forms a community of disciples. The early Christians clearly had a habit of worshipping together: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God.…” (Acts 2: 46-47)
Paul has a clear expectation that Christians will come together: “In the first place, when you come together as a church…If, therefore, the whole church comes together.” (1 Corinthians 11:18; 14:23) When he encourages Christians to “Rejoice!” he uses a plural verb – in other words he is speaking to them as a community. Among the many good reasons for worshipping God with others, key reasons would be:
As those who are united with Christ, we are a sign and image of Him by being together. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) Jesus’ final prayer was that we may be one. Worshipping together is an expression of this unity, and the fulness of His image in us as His body.
When we worship together it encourages an expectancy of God’s power and presence in our lives. When Moses entered the tabernacle he knew he was entering the presence of God. In the early church when people prayed and worshipped together, sometimes the buildings shook. Coming together can heighten our awareness of God, and help us to focus on Him.
As we worship together, we can encourage each other to continue to worship God in our individual lives. The letter to the Hebrews encourages Christians to worship together with these words: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Worshipping together involves everyone. The word which describes the script or form of group worship is liturgy. The original meaning of the word is “the work of the people.” Paul describes what should happen when Christians worship together by saying, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” (1 Corinthians 14:26)
The more worshipping together includes and involves everyone the more we reflect the fulness of being Jesus’ body. Our ‘Common Worship’ resource echoes this by emphasising, “Holy Communion is celebrated by the whole people of God gathered for worship. The unity of the liturgy is held together by the president, who in presiding over the whole service holds word and sacrament together and draws the congregation into a worshipping community.” (from the General Notes introducing Common Worship Holy Communion).
Worshipping together involves all of who we are. The greatest commandment is to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) In other words, to joyfully use every part of who we are – mind, body, spirit – in worship. For example, Paul says, “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.” (1 Corinthians 14:15) In other words, there may be times when I am worshipping when I allow parts of myself which I don’t understand or control to worship God.
Worshipping together celebrates variety. For this reason there are many different ways to worship God together, which involve different parts of who we are, and are more natural to who we are. Some are more physical, some are more cerebral, extrovert or introvert. It can be easy to be threatened by this, or to feel that other ways of worshipping God are not as valid. For example, Saul’s daughter, Michal, saw King David “leaping and dancing before the Lord” in a worship procession, and “she despised him in her heart”. (2 Samuel 6:16)
It is extremely unlikely that everyone in our church will naturally express worship in exactly the same way. The best group worship would enable people to express their love for God fully without embarrassment or judgment, and to rejoice at variety.
Whether worshipping together by eating round a table, confessing, praying, studying the Bible, singing, or sharing bread and wine, these elements will always be present in some way:
Being gathered – we are coming together as Christ’s body.
Hearing God’s word – we are here to encounter God.
Being at peace with God and each other – we are here to remember who God is, and who we are as His people.
Thanksgiving – we are here to give thanks together.
Being sent out – we come together so that we can be sent out to be with God in the rest of our lives.
While singing in choirs has become more popular in recent years through TV programmes, and people sing at concerts and sports events, regular singing in a group is unusual for most people. Yet worship through singing is shown as a natural expression throughout the Bible, with Paul writing that we should address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord”. (Ephesians 5:19) In an interview (which is available as a handout in the Extra Resources) John Bell explains that we worship God in song
“Because everyone can join in doing it. That sense of being a corporate body comes out in the song of the church more than anything else. We are doing something together for God.
“Congregational singing is an identity-shaping activity. In the past…we defined our communities by the songs that we sang….I think we now are in an era in which communities can be reshaped by what we sing. It will also tell us whether we are male-dominated or whether the body of Christ is made in God’s image as much through its female members as its male members.
“The church’s song also reminds the world that voices are meant to do other than just talk. A repeated phrase in the Psalms is: Sing to God a new song. The expectation is that this directive applies to everyone, not just the choir or the temple musicians.
“You sing primarily to give a gift to God, but you also sing to shape discipleship. If a song is specific about what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the 21st century, it should lead to a change in the way we behave. My frustration is that the church’s singing is full of churchy words. We don’t have songs with a word like economics in them, or a word like kitchen. A substantial amount of biblical witness tells us God is interested in economics. We know that much of Jesus’ time was spent in kitchens. But we are disenfranchised from singing about some realities in his and our lives.”
A significant way of worshipping God, indeed for some Christians the central way of worshipping God, is though sacraments. We can’t see God, or fully understand Him. Sacraments are a way in which, though physical and material realities which we can see and take part in, we can meet with God in worship. They are a gift which reveals God’s love in making it possible for us to worship Him in ways we can understand and relate to. They also remind us that the world God made is good because He is pleased to use material things to be with us and among us.
Jesus would often link His words with actions that showed the reality of those words. For example, having told a paralysed man that his sins were forgiven (which shocked the religious leaders) he demonstrated it by telling him to take up his mat and walk. (Matthew 9:2-5) The action showed that the spiritual change was real. Sacraments are a combination of word, sign and action.
The classic definition of a sacrament is that it is an outward sign of an inward grace. It is more than a symbol (which links to something by having an association or quality similar to what it represents) because through a sacrament a person can meet with God in such a real way that they are changed and equipped as a disciple.
There are many things that are ‘sacramental’ in that they draw us towards God’s presence. But when we worship together there are two main sacraments that focus us on what God is doing – baptism (the sacrament that reveals our covenant identity as God’s children) and regularly sharing in the breaking of bread and wine.
Jesus had a habit of breaking bread and sharing it – two of his disciples at Emmaus recognised Him after His resurrection as He broke bread. But it was at His last supper with His disciples that He associated the bread and the wine with his own death and gave to them a significance that continues to shape us.
The first Christians met regularly in the Temple at Jerusalem, but they also took part in the “breaking of bread”, probably weekly, in their homes. They would have a shared meal, during which they would pass round the bread (probably at the beginning) and the cup (probably at the end). Before passing round the bread and the wine they used a particular form of Jesus’ words and imitated Jesus’ actions remembered from the Last Supper.
They were accused of being cannibals – their defence was that their leader was not dead! In doing this, Paul said, they wanted “to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”. This is very early practice – the description of the meal from 1 Corinthians 11, which quotes the words of Jesus (known as the ‘Words of Institution’) (1 Corinthians 11:26) from the Last Supper was written before the Gospels.
On the night he was arrested, three out of the four gospels say that Jesus was celebrating a Passover meal with His disciples. This was the annual meal in which Jewish people remembered how God had rescued them from slavery. Importantly, through bread and wine they remembered how the blood of a lamb (they ate lamb at the meal, and used bread and wine to act out the story) was used to mark their homes, and save them from death as it ‘passed over’ them.
At the Last Supper, Jesus shockingly reinterpreted the Passover meal to reveal how God’s purposes were being fulfilled in Him. Jesus identified the bread with his body; the cup, his ‘poured out’ blood – pointing to what was going to happen to him on the cross. The words and actions Jesus used to reinterpret the bread and cup became the foundation for the Lord’s Supper in the early Church. The handout ‘Jesus and the Passover’ explores the links more fully.
Jesus told His disciples that now, when they broke bread and drank wine, it would no longer be to remember being rescued from slavery in Egypt, but, through Him, being rescued from death. It was no longer to remember the defeat of their Egyptian enemies, but to remember that through His death God’s victory over evil was going to be achieved. (We will explore this more in module 2.)
He told them, “Do this to remember me.” It is a remembering of what God had done, telling the story again (and it is often good to be reminded), but it is far more than that. It is more than something symbolic like a ring. It is more than a visual aid. It’s more than a sign that points to something different. It is an active remembrance. In the Passover meal everyone who took part was imagining themselves to have personally being part of the rescue from Egypt. People would say you should tell your son that “I am celebrating Passover because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt.”
Remembering like this is taking part in a living way in that same story of being rescued. It is similar to receiving a piece of wedding cake through the post if you were unable to be at the ceremony. As you eat it, you receive more than a reminder of the event – you are able to take part in the experience of it in a tangible way. So remembering Jesus in bread and wine is our way of receiving Christ’s victory in the present. It’s a sacrament that carries with it the living reality of what it signifies.
Over time, the way we share bread and wine has developed in various ways – from simple and informal to more complex and structured. There are common elements to each expression (Word / People – peace / Sacrament / Sending out) but different names have been used which highlight the many gifts of this sacrament.
Breaking bread. As Luke writes in Acts (about A.D. 70) the early Christians used this description. The fact that they celebrated weekly showed that the link with the annual Passover meal was soon replaced. Nevertheless, for Christians the sense of the sacrificial act celebrated through bread and wine is central, with some seeing it as an actual sacrifice. In the Eucharistic Prayer, our worship is called ‘this our sacrifice of thanks and praise’.
Lord’s Supper. Paul used this in his letters from 45-60AD to describe the meal which included a liturgical recital of the words of Jesus.
Eucharist. This comes from a Greek word meaning ‘Thanksgiving’. It is found in an early document known as the Didache (Teachings) from as early as 60 AD. By 90AD this was the usual title being used, and the celebration no longer took place within a shared meal but as an act of worship on the first day of the week. (See the quote from Justin [100-165 AD] with a description of how the eucharist was conducted). It emphasises that at the heart of sharing in it is gratitude to God. We give thanks for all He has done, is doing and will do, and we give thanks to God for all our life experiences as individuals and a community.
Mass. This name was possibly used as early as the 5th century, but definitely by the 7th century. It probably comes from a word meaning sent. It emphasises how gathering to receive bread and wine leads to us being sent out to be with God and be disciples in the world. As Pope Francis says, “Worship is not worship if it doesn’t change us.”
Holy Communion. To be holy is to be set apart, and to commune is to have union with. This emphasises how when we share in the bread and wine that has been set apart, our union with Christ and with each other is strengthened in our lived experience. We are not observing something, but we are guests who are fed spiritually.
Love Feast or ‘Agapé’ (a Greek word meaning ‘love’) meal. By the second century this would be a shared meal, separate from the Eucharist, often linked with providing food for the poor. It died out by the eighth century, but was revived by Methodists in the 18th century. It emphasises the hospitality of God – how in sharing bread and wine we are a family where all are invited in. A table signifies that you are welcome and that there is a place for you. It’s very human and it brings people together.
Through the Eucharist God gives us a sacrament in which we find
Healing. In the broken bread, Jesus’ brokenness is remembered, and we can identify our brokenness with his. But through His brokenness He brings salvation (or wholeness of life) and continues to do so. So, as we identify our brokenness with Christ’s, we can meet with Him through bread and wine in a way that can lead to wholeness again.
Hope. At the last Supper Jesus looked forward to when He would “feast” with His disciples again. A common picture in the Bible of our future hope beyond death is one of a banquet. For example the prophet Isaiah writes that, “the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.” (Isaiah 25:6) In the same way that for Jesus the Last Supper was a way of looking forward to a time when He could drink with His friends “in my father’s kingdom”, sharing bread and wine can point us to our promised future banquet with God. Sacraments should help us imagine the world differently as the creation God is in the process of renewing.
Everyday life is valued. Jesus takes ordinary things like bread and wine, transforms them and gives them out. In the same way the ordinary stuff of our lives is taken up into Jesus and given back to us.
A heightened sense of His presence. God’s presence is everywhere, all the time. So how are sacraments different? They remind us specifically of how He has and is acting in our lives to make us whole. And they can intensify our ‘being with Him’. If God’s presence in creation is like fire, sacraments can perhaps be like the tip of a bunsen burner flame – the same presence, but experienced in a focussed way. (Yet it’s also good to know that the Eucharist doesn’t split life up – the result of encountering God here should be that we become more aware of God’s presence in our everyday lives, not less.)
Christians have different understandings of exactly how God’s presence is known in bread and wine.
For some it is about a heightened sense of memory, and the presence of Christ is known through the whole service, and His people gathered together. The word and the sacrament are linked together. (Luther called the sacrament a ‘visible word’.)
For others, the presence is particularly located in the bread and wine itself in a spiritual sense.
For others, the bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Christ during the thanksgiving prayer.
While this had led to disputes down the centuries, within the Anglican church these perspectives are held together. It is possible to hold all or a combination of these beliefs together. The key thing is that through sharing in the bread and wine we can be with God in a unique way.
The starting point for discipleship is simply what this module says – Being with God. So far, we’ve explored how being with God is about being attentive to Him in our daily lives, and responding to what He is doing.
Prayer is simply the ‘love language’ which helps us to connect with God in this way. There are many aspects to prayer, and various practices that help with this, just as there are many different ways we relate to each other as human beings. This session we start with the simple idea of being in active relationship with God. (We will explore the asking and wrestling aspects of prayer later on).
Prayer is ‘talking with God’, but it’s much more than ‘saying our prayers’ – it’s doing whatever helps us deepen our friendship with God, in a life-giving, regular way. It’s ‘practising the presence of God’.
Brother Lawrence, a monk who came up with that phrase, said, “Think often on God, by day, by night, in your business and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you; leave him not alone.”
Pete Grieg, writer of the Prayer Course, says, “I am convinced….that our constant activity is fruitless without first making that humble act of kneeling to pray. I am convinced that prayer is not only our greatest privilege, but also our greatest source of power.”
Abraham Lincoln put it like this: “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go; my own conviction and that of those around me seemed insufficient for the day.”
Prayer was completely central to Jesus’ life. He prayed by himself, with his disciples, in the synagogue, before big decisions, for his disciples, as part of His ministry, in every kind of situation. He went into the desert to pray, He prayed for long periods and during the night. He taught His disciples to pray.
He battled in prayer. He often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Luke 5:15-16) He prayed honestly and in anguish “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
His last words were a prayer: Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:34) He prayed naturally and out loud: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me….I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42)
He prayed out of deep sense of being loved, and loving, His Father (John 17:13-26). He did nothing without praying – for Him it was neither a duty nor a burden. You can read everything Jesus said about prayer on a handout.
The paradox of prayer for us is that, while it is the most natural thing as people who yearn for God to pray, it is at the same time something that needs to be learnt. That is why His disciples asked, “Teach us to pray.” We might feel we don’t really enjoy prayer, or feel guilty about how little we pray.
We might find it hard to know where to start, or get distracted. The good news is that God delights in our simplest attempts at prayer (much like a parent gets excited about a child’s first steps). Cardinal Basil Hume said, “Trying to pray is prayer and it is very good prayer.”
As disciples, we are all learners, and there is a lot of wisdom and resource we can draw on. This session will give a number of suggestions for growing in Being with God in prayer. At its heart is something very simple, which this story might help us to experience.
A man’s daughter had asked the local vicar to come and pray with her father. When the vicar arrived, he found the man lying in bed with his head propped up on two pillows and an empty chair beside his bed. The vicar assumed that the old fellow had been informed of his visit. “I guess you were expecting me,” he said. “No, who are you?” “I’m the new vicar at your local church,” the vicar replied. “When I saw the empty chair, I figured you knew I was going to show up.” “Oh yes, the chair,” said the bedridden man. “Would you mind closing the door?”
Puzzled, the vicar shut the door. “I’ve never told anyone this, not even my daughter,” said the man. “But all of my life I have never known how to pray. At church I used to hear the vicar talk about prayer, but it always went right over my head.”
“I abandoned any attempt at prayer,” the old man continued, “until one day about four years ago my best friend said to me, ‘Joe, prayer is just a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus. Here’s what I suggest. Sit down on a chair; place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith see Jesus on the chair. It’s not spooky because he promised, ‘I’ll be with you always’. Then just speak to him and listen in the same way you’re doing with me right now.’
“So, I tried it and I’ve liked it so much that I do it a couple of hours every day. I’m careful, though. If my daughter saw me talking to an empty chair, she’d either have a nervous breakdown or send me off to the funny farm.”
The vicar was deeply moved by the story and encouraged the man to continue on the journey. Then he prayed with him, and returned to the church. Two nights later the daughter called to tell the vicar that her father had died that afternoon. “Did he seem to die in peace?” he asked. “Yes, when I left the house around two o’clock, he called me over to his bedside, told me one of his corny jokes, and kissed me on the cheek.
When I got back from the shops an hour later, I found him dead. But there was something strange, in fact, beyond strange—kind of weird. Apparently, just before Daddy died, he leaned over and rested his head on a chair beside the bed.”
This picture is ‘The Creation of Adam’ from Chartres Cathedral in France. How do you think it may help us to understand how God sees us in prayer?
Before we even start to pray, these three perspectives may help.
God cares about our daily needs, and knows every hair on our heads. We can trust in the goodness of God’s character. The Lord’s Prayer shows us something of that goodness in every line (see the two page handout) and encourages us to pray for our “daily bread” – in other words, for the simple things we need every day. (This is also teaching us to pray for “enough” – just what we need for the moment, our real wants as opposed to our wishes. As we grow as disciples who are being with God, our concerns will be much more focussed on what God wants, rather than ‘shopping list’ type praying.)
As we have seen, prayer is much more about a transforming relationship, rather than ‘twisting God’s arm’ to get results. Yet even if we have genuine needs, we do not need to approach God with anything apart from trusting love, as He longs to bless us.
We can be completely ourselves before God without pretence. CS Lewis said that the prayer that comes before all other prayers is, “May it be the real me, speaking with the real You.” We don’t need to pretend to be more holy or pure than we are. We don’t need to wait until our motives are right – God knows the heart. This honest, 1 minute prayer makes the point very plainly:
https://twitter.com/i/status/1250289906967957510 Jesus’ words from Matthew 6 describe the heart attitude we can bring to prayer. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others….And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
He is describing prayer as coming before God without a mask (not like a hypocrite), as being able to pray with the straightforwardness of a child addressing a parent, as losing any sense of having to “impress” God by getting it right, as not having any sense of having to persuade God by performing because we trust He is good
God wants us to pray with total honesty about the things we find hard – we call this lament. You can find a very honest 3 and a half minute video prayer here, in which someone uses Psalm 23 to ask all kinds of questions of God. https://www.facebook.com/100003018377804/posts/2678257242284862/?d=n It is possible to be respectful of God, and yet completely honest about our doubts, fears and anger.
In the book, ‘The Good and Beautiful God’ the writer describes a very honest prayer from an orthodox priest for someone’s two year old daughter who was suffering terribly, “Our thoughts are not Your thoughts O Lord, and our ways are not Your ways. We confess to You that we cannot see Your divine hand in the suffering of Madeline. Help us, we beg You, to see that in this evil there is some purpose, beyond our grasp and comprehension.
“Our minds are confused. Our hearts are in distress. Our wills are lost and weak, and our strength is gone, as we see this innocent creature caught by the sins of the world and the power of the devil, a victim of senseless suffering and pain.
“Have mercy on this child, Lord, have mercy! Do not prolong the agony! Do not allow the pain and suffering to increase! We know not what to ask You; give us the grace only to say, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
“Give us faith, for we believe, O Lord; help our unbelief. Be with Your child Madeline, and suffer with her; heal her and save her, according to Your own saving plan, established before the creation of the world.
“For you are our only hope, O God, and in You we take refuge: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
God is praying in us. Because we are covenant-partners with God, He prays in us. He can take the tangle of thoughts in our heads, or our deepest longings, as prayer. This is the meaning of Romans 8: 26 “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”
God has chosen to make us all different from one another, and doesn’t want us to be clones in the way we pray. Just as there are many different personality types, so there are many ways we can connect with God. There are many different ways people pray in the Bible, and it’s another sign of God’s grace that we may simply start to pray “as we can, not as we can’t.”
The Connecting with God in Prayer Survey will help you to discover which particular ways of praying with God you might find most helpful – it comes from a book called ‘The Nine Sacred Pathways’.
It’s not the only personality-based tool out there, but it is a good start in that it will help you reflect on whether you find it most natural to connect with God in prayer in these ways:
Through appreciating the beauty of God’s creation (Naturalist).
By experiencing God with your physical senses or imagination (Sensate).
By using time-honoured spiritual traditions and practices (Traditionalist).
By abstaining from comforts to make more space for God (Ascetic).
By actively working with others to serve the poor and needy (Activist).
Through offering God’s compassion to those who are hurting or struggling (Caregiver).
By celebrating God’s goodness with thanks and praise (Enthusiast).
By completely focussing on God in silence and solitude (Contemplative).
Through learning and developing insights about God and discipleship (Intellectual).
It’s important to note that exercises like this are not about putting people into boxes – there may be a number of ways we pray – and it’s not about comparing ourselves with others.
Our differences don’t make us better or worse than other people. However, in thinking about your own approaches, it may be that you recognise how people in your own church pray differently and that you have something particular to bring.
Being a disciple is not about becoming less of a physical person, in order to somehow be more ‘spiritual’. Sadly this idea has sometimes been brought into Christianity, as people have seen the body as a burden, or even the enemy, and so flesh and spirit need to be kept apart in prayer. Perhaps this is why pews can be uncomfortable – as a way of emphasising this!
It’s true that we can become enslaved by appetites and addictions, and that the Bible refers to this unhealthy, sinful relationship with the body as “the flesh”. But our bodies are a good gift, and important in our praying. God said that all creation, including bodies, was good.
Jesus became flesh, he didn’t turn away from it. Our bodies will be resurrected. In prayer, God invites us to bring our whole selves – body, mind and spirit. Before we spoke, we expressed ourselves through moving in our mother’s womb – it is our first language.
And when we communicate, only 7% of what we express is through words – gestures, tone, facial expressions, posture make up the rest.
We get distracted in prayer – we are learners. Henri Nouwen, a spiritual writer, said that when we pray, our thoughts can be “like monkeys jumping around in a banana tree”.
Thinking about how we use our bodies can be a help, not a hindrance. We might kneel, lie down, walk, dance, think about how we are sitting, hold out our hands, cross ourselves. This is all part of prayer.
When thoughts come uninvited into our minds when we pray, this is part of prayer too. Rather than being frustrated, we can simply notice the distraction, and ask the Lord to receive it as part of our prayer.
This is more of a “how to” section, in which a number of practices and tools will be offered, drawn from centuries of experience. The idea is not that you do all of them, but some might help. There are handouts and articles available for a number to help you explore. First some principles:
Giving time Thomas Merton wrote, “If we really want prayer, we’ll have to give it time. We must slow down to a human tempo….The reason why we don’t take time is a feeling that we have to keep moving. This is a real sickness. Today, time is a commodity, and for each one of us time is mortgaged…we must approach the whole idea of time in a new way.”
Finding a daily pattern. The fact is, like all practices, prayer needs us to be intentional, and a regular habit is part of ‘training, not trying’. By praying regularly, I become a praying person. Brother Lawrence wrote: “I worshipped him as often as I could, keeping my mind in his holy presence and recalling it back to God as often as I found it had wandered from him… by often repeating these acts they become habitual and the presence of God becomes something that comes naturally to us.”
With a daily routine, it’s important that prayer doesn’t become a transaction with God, but about connection with God. Nevertheless, Jesus taught His disciples to pray for their “daily bread” – anticipating that they would pray every day. Daniel prayed three times a day. In Psalm 119:164 the writer prays seven times a day. The early Christians met for prayer at the Temple regularly at ‘the hour of prayer’. (Acts 3:1)
While some find the mornings difficult, making prayer the first part of the day enables us to have fewer distractions, sets our hearts and minds on God at the beginning, and is also psychologically good for us – the first thing you think about has an impact on the rest of the day.
Jesus often got up early in the morning to pray. A church in Australia encourages its members to #wintheday in prayer. In other words, before looking at any screens, phones, messages, news, emails to begin the day by praying.
Four key practices: silence, solitude, fasting, meditation. We will be exploring these in more detail in later modules, but being silent, being alone (Being with God session 7), reminding ourselves of our dependence on God through fasting (Joining in with the Spirit session 5), and meditating on God and His word (Being with God session 6) can all help create the environment in which we can grow in being with God in prayer.
Praying with others. As covenant-partners, we are always called as a people, as a community. As we have seen, God is a community, and always calls people together.
Throughout the Bible people prayed together – the people of Israel often prayed together, the Psalms are prayers and songs mostly to be used by groups of people. Jesus often prayed in front of others – that’s why we have some of His prayers written down, and why His disciples were prompted to ask, “Teach us to pray.”
Most profoundly, when Jesus gave them His prayer, He began it with the words “Our Father”. It’s a prayer for a community. The early church met together to pray every day, they would often pray together at times of challenge. Praying with others is the best way of learning to pray – God does not intend that we should grow on our own.
Praying with others can increase our awareness of God’s presence. “Where two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20). It can help us because prayer is modelled to us – we learn by doing, and we can model it for others.
Using our own words to be with God. While there are many tools in this section, it’s probably most helpful to think of them as scaffolding to help you pray from the heart. No one else has your personality, your experience, and precisely your relationship with God.
God desires to connect with each of us as we are. Therefore the more these tools can help you be confident in expressing your inner thoughts to God, with your words, the more useful they will be. Some people find writing their prayers a good way of being able to do this.
Some people find firing off short and regular prayers throughout the day helpful. These are sometimes referred to as “arrow” prayers – short, one line prayers which just cry out to God. One writer says there are three prayers she needs, “Thank you. Sorry. And Help!”
Using other people’s words to be with God. Because of the unique relationship God wants with us, some people find the idea of using other written prayers, even as ‘scaffolding’, unhelpful. But, perhaps particularly for Anglican Christians, written prayers have become a resource which forms our identity in significant ways. Here are four types of written prayers which are a gift to us:
The Psalms Jesus prayed the psalms, most significantly using the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) on the cross. They are the most quoted book in the Gospels and Acts. The word probably means ‘a collection of songs’. They were written for particular situations, but can be used by anyone. They are the work of more than one person (including King David), and while they began as separate collections, they were put together as the 150 psalms in the Old Testament, divided into five sections. There is a one page graphic summary of the Psalms from the Bible Project. There are many different kinds:
Psalms in praise of God, about Him, to God from individuals, prayers in times of trouble for individuals or the whole nation.
Psalms for people going up to worship on pilgrimage, psalms about how to live well before God, psalms about the King.
They focussed on themes like God’s concern for the poor, God’s law and God’s grace, the difference between a righteous and a foolish life.
They described God as creator, the way He delivered His people, how it felt to be in exile, and expressed hope for the future.
They express every emotion from joy to despair and doubt, from love to hatred.
One Jewish poet wrote, “We are born with this book in our bellies. It is not a long book: 150 poems, 150 steps between death and life; 150 reflections of our rebellions and our fidelity, our agonies and our resurrections. This is more than a book; it is a living being who speaks, who speaks to you, who suffers and cries out and dies, who is raised again and who sings, on the threshold of eternity.”
Getting to know and use the psalms can give us a vocabulary for prayer, helping us to bring the range of our emotion and experience to God. This is why in a lot of Anglican worship, the psalms continue to be prayed each week or each day.
Liturgy. As we have seen, prayers written by others which give a structure to prayer and worship are “the work of the people”.
Liturgy can be formal or informal, simple or complicated. Some find it liberating, some find it dead. Sometimes the words of liturgy can be seen in opposition to the life of God’s Spirit. Of course, any written, repetitive prayer can become lifeless.
But at its best liturgy gives a framework for the Spirit; and the Spirit gives life to liturgy. A handout “The gifts of liturgy” from David Runcorn’s book “Spirituality Workbook” unpacks how liturgy gives resource
that is not dependent on our various moods,
can broaden our prayer vocabulary,
can free us from the constant need to be making it up,
can give us a good way of praying with the Bible,
can helps us memorise Scripture,
can provide beautiful language and ideas,
and can keep us praying in ordinary life.
Runcorn says liturgy can work with the way people tick – children thrive with repetition which gives space for play, and adults are creatures of routine. He points out how in “heaven” worship is a bit liturgical, with God receiving praise through the words, “’Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come.” (Revelation 4:8)
Liturgy that leads to living prayer, he says, is like jazz music. Liturgy gives the basic melody upon which we can improvise.
There are all kinds of daily structures which can help – there are handouts on various phone apps which can help you pray each day, a handout from 24/7 prayer on how to have a regular quiet time with God, and a Shalom (Wholeness) Prayer, which gives words to bring every part of who we are to God.
Jesus Prayer. This is a very simple prayer which can be used repetitively to help us ‘pray at all times’, and to practise God’s presence – there is a handout on this.
The Lord’s Prayer. When His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, Jesus gave them the attitude of prayer (see above) but He also gave them the words of prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is not a mantra to be prayed mechanically but a journey of prayer which helps us to approach God with love and reverence, and to pray all that needs to be prayed. As a daily way of praying it provides a perfect route, and there is a logic in how it starts and develops. See the handout to give you a simple guide as to how to get the most from praying the Lord’s Prayer.
Icons and pictures. The Greek word ‘eikon’ means image. In a very visual culture, pictures or icons can help us visualise the reality of God’s presence. From the beginning pictures of Christ, the apostles, or saints have been used for public and private prayer. Commonly painted in a Byzantine style, every part of the icon — colours, figures, clothing, hand gestures, objects, and lettering — has a specific meaning.
They are often called ‘windows into Heaven’, and are designed with that goal in mind. The artist does not want the Christian to admire the icon as a beautiful piece of artwork, but to use it to be drawn into prayer, raising the mind and heart to God. This is why icons are not signed by the artist.
Speaking in tongues. The gift of tongues is a heavenly prayer language, given by the Holy Spirit, praying through us in words we cannot understand (though sometimes they can be interpreted as a message if used publicly). When you speak in tongues you surrender control of your prayer to God, praying with your spirit, instead of your mind. Not everyone has this gift (it is not a status symbol), but Paul desired that everyone should be able to have it. In terms of ‘Being with God’ the gift of tongues can be a wonderful way of praying when we don’t have the words to express how we feel. We will explore it more in Module 3 – Joining in with the Spirit.
Singing “…speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts…” Ephesians 5:19. Singing, or listening to songs, can unlock prayer whether on our own, or with others.
At the end of the day: Using the Examen. The idea of being with God as being attentive to God and responding to Him is expressed well in the simple practice called the examen, which can be used at the end of the day to recognise where God has been present, and been at work. A handout gives a way into using this prayer.
At the heart of discipleship is paying attention to God. As we have already explored, in a general way our main focus is to “keep God before our minds”. (Dallas Willard) In a more specific way we are to be “watching, listening, learning” because “The master is going to speak”. (Archbishop Rowan Williams).
“We are what we hear from God” (Emil Brunner), and, as apprentices of Christ, we are those who hear His words and put them into practice day by day. The prophet Samuel is a good model for us – his first real prayer was perhaps, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
As we have seen, God communicates in a general way (general revelation) through His creation and through the qualities within human beings such as conscience or self-awareness which point to His existence. But God’s covenant relationship with us is personal – He calls us to “be with Him”, and He has communicated, and does communicate with us in two very specific ways (specific revelation).
Firstly it is through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we are able to see and understand God’s purposes. And secondly it is through the gift of the Bible that we are able to both keep God before our minds and hear what He says to us personally. Christians understand that the Bible contains the complete foundational content of what God wants His people to know, and so when God uses the Bible to speak to us today He does so not to add anything new to what it reveals, but to enable us to apply it to our lives.
St. Isidore (c. 560-636), the Archbishop of Seville in Spain, said that reading the Bible was the chief way in which God talks to us: “Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. If we want to be always in God’s company, we must pray regularly and read regularly. When we pray, we talk to God; when we read, God talks to us. All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.”
As we shall see, the practices of meditation and study help this to happen. The Bible can become a way in which God can communicate with us personally, and through which our minds can be renewed so that we increasingly see the story of our lives, and the story of the world, as God sees them.
God has always wanted covenant-partners who are ‘being with Him’ in specific, real, personal, and transforming ways, and still does today. The amazing claim is that through feeding on the Bible we have access to the chief way in which He can communicate with us. As Jesus said, the question is, “Do you have eyes to see and ears to hear?”
2 Timothy 3:16 is the perhaps the verse within the Bible which best explains its significance: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…”
The phrase “God-breathed” reveals that the Bible is different because it is divinely inspired. In other words, the many human authors of the various parts of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit in their writing. The early Christians came to accept these writings as uniquely God-given, and drew them together in the form which we have today.
The theologian Calvin put it like this: “This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, that we know that God has spoken to us, and are fully convinced that the prophets did not speak at their own suggestion, but that, being organs of the Holy Spirit, they only uttered what they had been commissioned from heaven to declare.”
In the same way that Christians believe Jesus was fully human and fully God (we shall explore this more in module 2), the Bible is a fully human book (with all the messiness that can mean) and a fully divine one. The creation of the Bible is another way in which God ‘covenant-partners’ with His people, cooperating with those who have been willing to serve Him through writing His story faithfully throughout many centuries.
Because it is uniquely inspired by God, the Scripture is “profitable” for teaching us – showing us how to know God better – rebuking and correcting us – showing us where and how we need to change – and training us in righteousness – helping us to live the ‘Way of Discipleship’.
Even without necessarily believing the Bible was inspired by God, for Gandhi it was far more than just a book: “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.”
Once Jesus was challenged by the Sadducees (a religious grouping) who were trying to trap Him. He replied, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29) For Christ, it is those who “know the Scriptures” who will know how to live. As Tom Wright says, “The Bible is the book of my life. It’s the book I live with, the book I live by, the book I want to die by.”
In 2020, Pope Francis preached, “To follow Jesus, mere good works are not enough; we have to listen daily to his call…He, who alone knows us and who loves us fully, leads us to push out into the depth of life…That is why we need His word: So that we can hear, amid the thousands of other words in our daily lives, that one word that speaks to us not about things, but about life.”
In our life journey of discipleship the Bible can be a foundation through which we can grow in being with God, becoming like Christ, and joining in with the Spirit. Various pictures and images are used throughout Scripture to unpack how it may shape us.
Being with God.
Drawn to God: In an early version of the Bible (1611) the translators emphasised how the Scriptures “can make us wise unto salvation”. They were echoing the letter of 2 Timothy again in which Paul writes, “how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:14–15) God offers a life of covenant love in which we are being forgiven and restored. To be saved ultimately means to be made completely whole again.
For Christians this is through Christ, and particularly through the cross (as we shall unpack in module 2). While God may speak to many people through general revelation, it is uniquely through the Bible people can be brought into a relationship with God through Jesus. It is through the words of Scripture that we can be first drawn to God’s loving offer. They can give us the wisdom to come to faith.
Fed and renewed by God: Jesus said, “People do not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In other words, it is possible to be physically alive, but spiritually dead, lacking the things that give ultimate meaning.
The words of God can feed us spiritually, emotionally and mentally, bringing us into a life-giving sense of God’s presence and purpose. Another image from Psalm 1 offers a picture of someone whose delight is in the law of the Lord, (meditating on it) day and night, as being like a tree with its roots in flowing water. They will always be bearing fruit, staying alive and flourishing.
Spoken to and guided by God: St Augustine described the Scriptures as “our letters from home.” If you have ever had a hand-written letter from someone you love you will know the experience of connecting not just with the words on the page, but having a deeper experience and reminder of their presence. In the same way this session explores how God can speak to us personally through the Bible.
A personal aspect of being with God as a disciple is in being willing to be guided by Him – in our general growth and sometimes in specific moments. In one Psalm the writer experiences God’s word being like a “Lamp to my feet and light to my path”. (Psalm 119:105)
Becoming like Christ.
Discovering who we are: An early Pope, Gregory the Great, described the Bible as “…like a mirror before our mind’s eye. In it we see our inner face. From the Scriptures we can learn our spiritual deformities and beauties. And there too we discover the progress we are making and how far we are from perfection.”
This is because, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
The point here is that anything that can divide “soul and spirit” is capable of being completely precise in how it exposes things. If the first step of becoming like Christ is to have a true understanding of ourselves, though the stories and teachings of Scripture we are offered a way of seeing in what ways and how we can change. As one writer puts it, “I don’t read the Bible. The Bible reads me.”
Discovering how God works in people: As we shall see more in module 4, the Bible is full of stories of real people, with real failures, sin and brokenness. Again and again God works in and through them to bring change. As these stories shape our regular thinking we can be inspired and informed about how God can continue to shape us.
Joining in with the Spirit.
Seeing what God is doing: Everyone has a way of looking at reality (a worldview) even if it is largely subconscious. Our worldview will shape the decisions we make, the things we focus on, the purpose of our lives. It tells us who we are (what kind of creature am I?), where we are (what kind of world is this?), what is wrong and what the solution is. As disciples, the more conscious we are of having a ‘biblical worldview’, in other words, seeing reality as God sees it, the more likely we are to spend our lives doing the things which God desires.
Because our worldview is constantly being shaped by the voices and ideas we focus on, the more we are growing in our understanding and knowledge of God’s story and reality, the more we are likely to have a worldview which is Christian. Paul talks about us “being transformed by the renewing of our minds” – being changed because what we think about is so saturated in God’s life-giving reality.
Being equipped to join in: Similarly, the more we are familiar with the Bible, the more likely it is that we will not only know what God wants in the world, but as we see how He has acted through Jesus and others how He calls us to join in. The verse we quoted at the beginning continues like this: “All Scripture is God-breathed….so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16–17)
The fantastic resource The Bible Project describes the Bible as “a unified story that leads to Jesus.” While the Bible has many parts, and tells a long story, He is at the centre of its meaning and purpose. Any individual section will only be understood through the lens of Christ, and the purpose of any interpretation is to find Him. As Martin Luther put it, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” Or as Hugh of St. Victor expressed it, “…the whole of scripture is one book, and that one book is Christ.”
How do we know this? This was something Christ Himself claimed, saying that all the earlier books of the Bible point to Him: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (John 5:46) After His resurrection, Jesus taught two of His disciples about what had happened in this way: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
In what would have been shocking at the time, Jesus assumed He had authority to replace teachings of the Old Testament with his own. For instance, while the Old Testament commands people to make oaths in God’s name (Deuteronomy 6:13), Jesus forbids it (Matthew 5:33-37).
This approach is confirmed elsewhere. During what is known as the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John see Jesus’s ‘glory’ and Moses and Elijah talking to him. They hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” (Luke 9:33) It is clear that Christ relates to the earlier teachings of the Old Testament, but is greater than them.
In the same way the writer of Hebrews says that while God spoke in a variety of ways in the past, Jesus supersedes all these past revelations (Hebrews 1:1-3). At the end of John’s gospel it is made clear that the purpose of the Scriptures is found in Christ: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)
He is the ‘controlling centre’ how we understand the whole Scripture. This is important because it enables us to both understand how to read the Bible, but also to know how not to read the Bible. The Bible in itself is not the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God. The Bible is a book which is useful only if it helps us grow as disciples who are being with Him. As one writer puts it, we might say that Jesus is “the Word” of the words.
It is possible to become too attached to knowing the Bible and yet lose sight of knowing God. Jesus confronted religious leaders who did exactly that: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)
Jesus wasn’t saying there was anything wrong with their careful study of Scripture or with the correctness of their beliefs. The issue wasn’t about what these leaders believed but the way in which they believed it. He was showing them that knowing and even believing the Bible was fruitless unless it leads to Him. To miss this is to run the risk of turning Bible-knowledge into an idol.
As we have seen, the Bible is a “unified story” told over a long period of time. The word Bible comes from the Greek word biblia meaning books – it is actually a collection of 66 books (39 books in the Old Testament, 27 in the New Testament) written over 1200 years (1100BC to 100AD) by 40 different authors. The Bible is full of different kinds of writing, reflecting all of life.
About 43% of the Bible is made up of stories, from history to parables. Approximately a third of the Bible is poetry and a quarter of the Bible is prose – laws, sermons and letters. We have explored how the Bible uniquely claims that God uses the words of human authors to speak His message, and that through this divine mind speaking through many people in many ways a unified message and story is revealed in history.
There are of course big questions that arise from believing this: How ‘error free’ is the Bible? How can we trust the accounts as being accurate? Why are there different interpretations? Who decided what should be in it and why? How do we make good decisions in today’s world based on what the Bible says? We will look at these in more detail in module 4 “Knowing the Story and having Bible Confidence”, but for now it’s worth noting a key idea which helps us accept the ‘human side’ of the Bible.
Because God loves the people He is in covenant with, He never overrides the free will or humanity of those who wrote, or who were in, the Bible. Because of this genuine relationship and partnership one of the wonderful truths about the love of God is that it always leads Him to work with our weaknesses and mistakes, not despite them.
For example, we see this in the way that God acts through the cross, but also lets Himself be acted upon on the cross. The sometimes challenging aspects of the Bible, in what and how it is written, are a reflection of this loving truth – God has allowed His words to come via imperfect people, and amazingly can still communicate with us.
Some common ideas about how we read the Bible might include seeing it as some kind of mysterious ‘magic book’ giving us answers to things like who we should marry, or as a moral guidebook, or a philosophical text. While there is moral guidance and philosophy in its pages, for disciples the Bible is a way we “listen” to God.
The morning and evening prayer of the people of Israel was called the Shema – a word which means “Hear”. Shema is far more than hearing with the ears – it means paying attention to something with a view to obeying. For disciples, using the Bible is about this kind of listening.
It is possible to read the Bible like any other book as a piece of literature or history. Whole books have been written with this historical-critical approach. While we can gain a lot from this kind of literal knowledge (for example, by studying the archaeology of places in the Bible) as Christians who believe it is divinely inspired we will always also read it to listen for the fuller meaning, and to pay attention to God.
One question is should we read it through our thoughts, or our feelings, or both? Is it ever helpful to bring our feelings into the way we read Scripture? A man called Ignatius believed it was essential to do both. We need to understand God’s story with our minds, but, in order to be able to make a true response to it, we know to also understand our feelings and desires.
In ‘A Spirituality Workbook’ David Runcorn points out how the part of our brain which reacts when we think is actually the same part that is affected by our feelings. In other words, there is no thinking that is not emotional, and no feeling that is not thoughtful. He says it is helpful to know that we have an ’emotional mind’.
Just as the Bible invites us to love God with our “heart (feelings, desires, motives) and our mind (thoughts, ideas, worldview)”, so we will listen well to God through the Scripture if we can do both in the way we read it. The two practices that can train us to ‘be with God’ in Scripture are study (mind) and meditation (heart). It’s good to be able to practise these on our own, but also with others.
Having faith is not about turning off the mind or stopping asking questions. Teaching was at the heart of the life of Israel – God told them to “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates…” (Deuteronomy 11: 18-20)
Jesus’ ministry was marked by teaching crowds and individuals, Paul taught and persuaded people wherever he went, writing in Philippians to guard what they focus their minds on: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
This is the reason why in most of our sessions we use the Discovery Bible Study method. One of the aims of it is to encourages us to engage with our minds and hearts. The other is to learn by doing that studying the Bible is not just for a few people.
To begin growing in the practice of studying the Bible it is good to start by doing it with other people – supporting each other and learning from the way in which others do it. While there are different techniques that can be used (see below) an effective study will always involve regular elements:
A sense of repeating the experience over time to build up knowledge and understanding.
Putting aside time and making effort to concentrate on the Bible.
Finding ways to understand what God is saying.
Always looking for the personal significance of what you are studying (the listening for the fuller meaning).
If you are starting out, these thoughts might help:
It’s important to remember Bible study is not a test of how clever you are – remember the mistake of those who had a lot of knowledge, but missed the point of coming to Jesus.
Not every part of the Bible is equally relevant for every stage of life or situation. You don’t need to start with the more difficult parts. In 1 Corinthians 3:2 Paul wrote, “I fed you with milk, not solid food.” In other words, he knew that different people benefit from studying different things depending on their stage of discipleship.
Some techniques to get you started (most of these are better done with others):
You can use the Discovery Bible Study questions for any passage of Scripture (there is a handout with some suggested passages to get you started).
You can read the same passage using two or three different translations of the Bible to explore different emphases this reveals. Online you can use bibegateway.com to place different translations side by side.
If you are with others, you can read larger chunks, and then try and summarise what they are saying.
You can take individual verses, which might be harder to understand, and try and see whether reading the verses before or after them help make the meaning clearer. Ask: what might this verse mean when I read it on its own and what might it mean if I read the verses before and after it?
You can read books called Commentaries, which are written to explain books of the Bible in more depth, or Bible dictionaries.
The Bible Project gives amazing video introductions to each book of the Bible, as well as studies on some of the Bible’s themes.
To a certain extent it is impossible to read anything without interpreting it, and this is equally true of the Bible. God doesn’t remove our own individual way of reading when we come to the Bible – He meets us where we are. But this means we have to interpret Scripture, and when we do looking through two lenses will help:
How do we understand what the Bible meant in the time and place it was written, to the audience who received it (this is known as exegesis)?
What is God saying to us here and now, with the particular experience and background we have (we call this hermeneutics)?
Being able to pay attention to both these lenses will help us to read well. It enables us to see the way in which the Bible may have had a particular meaning for those who originally read it. But it may also help us to understand how its story and message is relevant for now, and indeed, for eternity.
While we may apply the Bible to situations that the original authors could not have imagined (cars! Robots! The internet!) it is always true that a biblical text can never mean what it never could have meant to the author or her readers. And the fact that the Bible was written into a very different world from ours doesn’t make it irrelevant. In fact, it can be a help in that it helps us to listen to what God is saying beyond our own 21st century experience, and to think about God’s bigger picture through all time.
Here are five ideas which will help us interpret the Bible as well as possible:
We come with humility. Isaiah talks about people “trembling at God’s word”. (Isaiah 66:2) We are not the ones who create the message of Scripture – God is. And, as we have seen, because God is God, we can never know His truth completely. But we can know it enough to live faithfully.
It’s always good to read each part of the Bible through the lens of the whole story. It is a unified story, and the more we can interpret parts by looking at how they relate to others the more balanced our interpretation will be.
It’s good to be aware that the Bible is made up of different kinds of writing – story, poetry, fact, image, letters. When we interpret it’s always good to think about what this particular piece of writing was doing. If we try and interpret a parable of Jesus as a historical fact, for example, we will miss the point because we are looking at it in the wrong way.
The Bible is also an evolving story (called a progressive revelation). The complete picture, which is fulfilled by Jesus, is not given all at once, but was the result of people listening to God over centuries.
Which means that anything we read in the Bible, particularly within the Old Testament, can only be fully understood in the way that they point to Jesus. Difficult passages earlier in this evolving story will be consistent with the direction of the whole story, but may not be the complete picture of God’s character. Whenever we read something which doesn’t resonate with God’s love, the best way to interpret it will always be to find, in whatever way possible, how it points to Christ.
In the Bible the ‘heart’ is the place of real change and connection – it is the centre of our being, from where all our desires come. ‘Heart’ and ‘soul’ are often used as alternatives. Psalm 119 talks about laying up God’s words “in my heart.” The writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that as we allow God’s words to get into our hearts we really change:
“And just as you do not analyse the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all…Do not ask, ‘How shall I pass this one?’ but ‘What does it say to me?’ Then ponder this word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.”
In our culture people can be sceptical about “God speaking to us” personally. We might struggle with the way in which, throughout the Bible, God communicates with those who have the spiritual capacity to hear and see spiritual realities. But throughout the Bible we consistently see an expectation that God will speak to each individual, through the heart.
The practice which helps us to grow in this is meditation. The part of us that helps us to meditate is by using our imagination as we read the Bible. Meditating on the Bible regularly was often seen by early Christians as the normal foundation of a spiritual life.
The aim is not so much to learn about God in the Scriptures, but to meet God through the Scriptures. Through our imaginations we can read the story as if we are present. This is not make-believe – because Jesus is not bound by time the event we are reading about on the page is a living present-tense experience for Him.
Meditating with the Bible starts with us wanting to meet with God – it is hard to meditate well if we don’t have this desire. It’s very important to have enough time to do it in a relaxed way, to be comfortable in our place and in the way we are sitting, kneeling or standing.
A simple technique, which is being widely used today, is known as ‘holy reading’. (Lectio divina in Latin) It’s an old practice of meditation (hence the Latin title!). Regularly learning to use lectio divina can help us read the Bible, and be with God, in our hearts. There is a handout about Lectio divina.
It involves reading the text slowly and repeatedly, using our imaginations and perhaps a number of questions to help us see ourselves, and God in it. We first prepare to meet with God by relaxing our breathing and centring our thoughts on Him. Then we read, reflect with questions, respond to what God is saying to us, and finally rest in His presence.
Before the printing press most Christians could only read the Bible together, and often did so in large chunks. While there are many ways we can read individually, coming to the Bible with other people offers three important advantages. It helps us to build the spiritual practices of studying and meditation.
The fact is that left to our own devices we can often find reading the Bible hard. This is not only because it is long and sometimes hard to understand, but because there can be an element of spiritual struggle involved in even opening it – we will explore that more in module 3.
Reading with others can help us build rhythms of being with God in the Bible. We can learn from each other how to approach the Bible. The best way to learn something is by watching others do it, and then trying yourself.
The more we can read the Bible with those who have more experience, and are willing to empower us, the more we will grow in confidence. We can help each other interpret the Bible well. God always uses people in community, and by reading His word with others we can aid one another in arriving at as faithful an interpretation as possible.
Preaching and teaching are ways in which we explore the Bible in community – they are related but slightly different. Preaching comes from the word herux, which was someone who would come into a town to let everyone know good news (a bit like a town crier). Preachers announce the good news of Christ, particularly to those who might not have heard it before, aiming for a change in their lives.
Teaching is more about explaining things that people might not understand and showing people how to live in the light of it. While a preacher might announce the good news to people that they have been released from prison by the King, a teacher will explain to them how this has happened, when it will happen, where they will live now, what they do next.
There are many suggestions for being with God through Scripture in the practices of study and meditation in this session and in the handouts. The best final advice comes from Bernard of Clairvaux, who suggests we read the Bible regularly, in bits we can manage for the stage we are at, and often with others:
“Think of the word of God in the way you think of your food. When bread is kept in a bin, a thief can steal it, or a mouse can find its way in and gnaw it, and eventually, of course, it goes mouldy. Once you have eaten your bread, you have nothing to fear from thieves, or mice, or mould! In the same way, treasure the word of God….
Feed on it, digest it, allow its goodness to pass into your body so that your affections and whole way of behaviour is nourished and transformed. Do not forget to eat your bread and your heart will not wither. Fill your soul with God’s richness and strength.”
One of the themes that consistently comes through in the Bible is that it is hard for us to imagine just how much God wants each human being to flourish and grow in love. Jesus revealed God’s hope for us when He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
St Irenaeus is famous for saying, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” While it’s a statement that is more than about just ‘being happy’, it celebrates the total goodness of God’s intentions towards us.
Being a disciple is living into this life in all its fullness, a life we can only begin to imagine. But both the story and teaching in the Bible show that life in all its fullness does not necessarily mean a trouble, pain-free existence. (In fact, as we shall see in module 3 sometimes discipleship can lead us into being more aware of suffering). Instead, God has always invited His covenant-partners to be with Him so that we can be fruitful.
We are made for fruitfulness – not just existence. God’s first command in the Bible to human beings is, “Be fruitful.…”In the parable of the servants who are given talents to look after while their master goes away (Matthew 25:14-30) it is the servant who fails to grow his talents that is condemned – he is missing out on life in all its fulness. Human beings are designed for fruitfulness.
In John 15 Jesus uses the image of grapes growing on a vine to give us a picture of what fruitfulness in life means. Talking to His disciples He says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…”
The difference between the fruitfulness that many can chase after through materialism or success is that it is temporary, whereas the fruitfulness God wants to sow in our lives is in things that last forever. As another of Jesus’ parables shows, it is possible to store away our ‘riches’ for ourselves in barns, but our inevitable death makes it all meaningless. Instead Jesus encourages us to store up treasures (i.e. to be fruitful for God) in ways that last eternally. For example,
Fruitfulness in character. Living lives that help us become more like Christ in: Love – growing in self-giving love towards God and others. Joy – a feeling of things being “well with my soul” that is not changed by circumstances. A growing sense that God is in control and therefore I can praise Him. Peace – a non-anxious gift of freedom through knowing I am right before God and others. These are the first three ‘fruits of the Spirit’, a description of the Christlike character God wants to grow in us.
Fruitfulness in work. At the opening of the Bible human beings are given work to do from the very beginning. To be productive is part of God’s imprint on our lives. Just as God worked in creating, so He shares that part of His being with His covenant-partners. Without fruitful work we can fall away from our sense of who we are called to be. Work can become cursed – affecting us in all sorts of negative ways – but, as we shall see, done in the right way daily work can make human beings fruitful.
Fruitfulness in discipling others. According to Jesus, discipleship and fruitfulness go together: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” The fruit Jesus is referring to is not only the results of daily work, but the outworking of His calling for us to be “fishers of people” who will “go and make disciples”.
The practices of worship, prayer, study and meditation we have looked at draw us into “being with God” and also become the “training exercises” which help us give space for God’s Spirit to change us from the inside out. The kind of fruitful life God wants cannot come from us alone – instead it is a partnership with God in which in our daily lives God delights to work in and through us, if we invite Him to.
Speaking of growing disciples, Paul had a deep sense that all true fruitfulness comes from God’s work: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:6) While human beings have a part to play, God is the one who grows fruit.
In His picture of the vine in John 15 Jesus reinforces this by reminding His disciples that their fruitfulness depends on being rooted in Him: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
In fact, the kinds of eternal fruitfulness that we have been looking at are so enormous, that to attempt to grow them ourselves, without being rooted in Him, will inevitably lead to frustration and failure: “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”
As disciples, fruitfulness that doesn’t spring from being with God is impossible. We are not gifted, talented, or eternal enough to be fully fruitful in ourselves. We can see this in our own lives as disciples if we experience ‘religious burn out’.
Instead, God’s partnership with us as disciples is a life of balance – between being with God and doing; between listening and responding; between being active and stopping (for example, none of the fruits in our character like love, joy or peace can be achieved by rushing); between giving out from what we have first received.
This session is about living into simple rhythms in our daily lives and each week which enable this balanced life to be part of our lived experience. They are rhythms which God gave His people throughout Scripture and which we see in the life of Jesus. They are rhythms that not only give God’s Spirit space to make us eternally fruitful, but, in a stressed and anxious culture, help us to live peacefully and be a non-anxious presence in a hurting world.
The writer Evelyn Underhill once said, “The spirit of Joy and the spirit of Hurry cannot live in the same house.” But if it is true that God’s work in us is incompatible with hurry, then it is not surprising if the culture we live in makes the idea of taking time to be with God or to remain in Jesus seem like a mountain to climb.
The world we live in is mentally and spiritually crowded in a way that can work against us being attentive to God, being able to put Him at the forefront of our minds. The screens we watch (4 hours of TV a day if we are over 16), the advertising messages we receive (six hundred a day), the bits of information from disconnected sources we absorb daily (more than at any time in history) and the years of our lives we spend on social media (6 years and 8 months on average) can have a profound effect: unsatisfied desires, FOMO (fear of missing out), anxiety and hurry, workaholism, restlessness and over-busyness.
While monks originally invented the clock to regulate prayer throughout the day, our experience of time can be shaped less by rhythm and more by deadline and speed, making it hard to have good priorities and look after our health. ‘Hurry sickness’ is a recognised phenomenon. This makes a balanced life all the more necessary. But it also makes it all the more difficult.
The practices we will explore in this session are about intentionally making space for being with God in our daily lives. We cannot get more time than we have. But we can make choices to shape time differently around the things that matter for ever. None of us want to experience discipleship as superficial, or to settle for less than God’s offer of life in all its fulness.
But it is worth acknowledging that it can be easy for us to be distracted or over-busy, and that living fruitful lives of being with God will inevitably come up against cultural barriers and call us to make choices about how our time is used.
The Sabbath (meaning rest) is a complete day of rest in Scripture. Today, even Christian disciples might struggle to have a rhythm of a day of rest every week, but the balance we need for fruitfulness is established at the beginning of the Bible where in Genesis, even God rests from His work. Right from the start there is a regular weekly practice in the way the world is that sets out both work and rest.
The Sabbath is first named as an explicit commandment by God – the fourth of ten – after He rescues His covenant-partner people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It is a holy day – to be set apart as vital and important – on which the people specifically remember that they are free – they are not slaves any more. (Deuteronomy 5: 12-15).
Being able to rest on Sabbath is about freedom from slavery – from overwork, from being defined only by being productive, from other people’s expectations or control. It is a gift, as well as a commandment, because it says there are limits on how much is expected of us. (In a consumer society this can be a way of saying, “I am, or I have enough.”)
The word Sabbath can also be translated as to worship or delight. God establishes a regular time when, together, we offer praise to Him. The Sabbath is also a taste of what is to come in our experience of eternal life, when we see God face to face. God gives it as a way of remembering the freedom He has already given us, but also looking forward to our ultimate freedom.
Rest to refresh the whole week. God wants us to ‘be with Him’ more than one day a week, but the Sabbath creates a day which opens us to a different way of living which can spread into the other six days. To symbolise this at the end of the Sabbath Jewish people will practise ‘Havdalah”, in which they light a multi-wick candle (at least 3 strands) and also pass around a small container of sweet spices, which reminds us of the sweetness of Shabbat, to take us through the week. It’s accompanied by prayers for a fruitful and blessed week to come. Sabbath rest, worship, and being with God is being taken into the coming days.
Whereas for some a day off may be a time to escape, or recover after a busy period, for disciples Sabbath as God intended can offer the possibility of working from rest, as opposed to resting from work. We cannot be fruitful without rest. This reflects the first experience of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. As Mike Breen writes, “God created man and woman on the sixth day, setting them in a garden full of wild, wonderful creatures and delicious foods. He gave them instruction on caring for the animals and plants in the garden. He told them to be fruitful. But on the first full day of existence for Adam and Eve, God rested. All of creation took a well-deserved break in activity.
“This was our first full day, a day of rest. Then the work began. From this we see an important principle of life: we are to work from our rest, not rest from our work.” Breen, Mike. Building a Discipling Culture. 3DM. Kindle Edition. Regular Sabbath rest can train us to be more restful every day of the week.
Not having to be in control, and knowing our limits. The writer Marva Dawn says, “A great benefit of Sabbath keeping is that we learn to let God take care of us – not by becoming passive and lazy, but in the freedom of giving up our feeble attempts to be God in our own lives.” Sabbath is taking a day a week to remind ourselves that we did not make the world and that it will continue to exist without our efforts. Stopping in order to be with God reinforces the truth that only God can truly satisfy our desires in a way that our career, possessions or reputation cannot.
It is a way of living into the belief that our reputation is God’s business, when we remember that we are loved just because we exist. It reminds us as well that many of the things we may strive to attain are only loaned to us. When the businessman John D. Rockefeller died his accountant was asked by a curious person, “I know that Mr. Rockefeller was an immensely wealthy man, just how much did he leave behind?” The accountant quickly replied, “Everything.” Through Sabbath we can find out how much of our efforts can be about earning something we already have.
Being re-created. Sabbath can create space so that we can “taste and see that the Lord is good.” One of the translations of the word is ‘to delight’. Part of being with God is being able to slow down to a speed in which we can notice and enjoy His goodness, and do things we enjoy with gratitude. A good way to approach Sabbath might be to list the things that you could do for a day that would bring you joy and make you want to praise God. Sabbath re-creates us because it aims to help us to appreciate and savour the present moment. According to many spiritual writers, and particularly to Jesus, this is the main secret of living without anxiety.
In Matthew 6 Jesus asks His disciples, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” In order to illustrate His point, He points to the birds and the flowers who are here today and gone tomorrow – they have no guarantee of an easy life – and yet are content before God because they live in the present moment. This is the re-creation King David wrote about in Psalm 23 in which, even in the midst of difficulties, God “…makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”
There are four translations of the Hebrew word Sabbath which give a framework for a fruitful Sabbath: stop, rest, delight and worship. It is not necessary to include all these elements in a structured way, but none of them should be completely missing from your lived experience.
Stop. Even if in the midst of busyness Sabbath means stopping from working, and, as much as possible, from all the thinking and worrying that work can mean. This means making choices not to attend to messages and communications that can distract us, perhaps by turning devices off.
Rest. This can be physical – simply enjoying sleep. It can be mental and emotional – giving ourselves time to process things that are happening. It can be spiritual – deliberately resting in a sense of God’s love and closeness. It is worth being aware that at first, if we are not used to it, resting like this can lead us to feeling low, as our mind, body and spirits settle into a different way of being with God.
Delight. Doing unplanned things as they come into your mind or heart. Or doing things that create joy, happiness and gratitude – meals, music, games, fun, friends, nature. Doing something creative that isn’t your job but that needs no justification. Appreciating the beauty God has made. Delight in people by having time for relationships.
Worship. While we can worship God in all the above, Sabbath gives us the opportunity to share in praise and adoration of God, offering our life and the coming week to His glory.
Preparation. The key thing is to seek a 24 hour period every week to practise Sabbath – it doesn’t need to be a particular day of the week. As we have noted, the idea of a full day’s rest to be with God may seem hard, and may be something we have to work towards, rather than arrive at in one go. We may need to acknowledge that there is never a moment when all our work feels done. Sabbath is a day for stopping in the midst of the busyness of our lives, not for when we are no longer busy.
We will have to make choices, perhaps finding it helpful to schedule our rest before we schedule work. If we go on holiday or a trip there is always a lot to do beforehand in getting ready. No one just walks out of their house without packing at least one bag. Similarly, the Jewish people had to have a day of Preparation for the Sabbath. It’s interesting that even in a culture where it was so established, there was a recognition that a full day to stop and be fully present to God and others required effort and choices.
While Jesus practised Sabbath, he would also frequently withdraw from people to be with God on His own at other times, and sometimes for extended periods. This was intentional time to be alone with God, and to listen to His Father. Disciples down the centuries have imitated these two practices of solitude and silence, particularly at times of change or challenge, in order to grow in being with God.
Solitude is being apart from others and from “external noise” with the purpose of being with God. It is not seeking ’emptiness’ which can lead to loneliness. Instead it is time on our own intentionally focussing on God with the aim of leading to being fulfilled by His presence.
Silence is needed for solitude. It is not just ‘not talking’, but waiting for my internal chatter and thoughts to stop so I can be in a better place to receive what God might want to communicate. Both go together.
As we read the accounts of Jesus it is striking how often He would go to a quiet place to be with His Father – at the beginning of His ministry He spent forty days with His Father in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). Before choosing his disciples He spent the night alone (Luke 6:12). There is a regular pattern of seeing Jesus withdraw, sometimes with His disciples, when things got busy.
Even when huge needs were presenting themselves, perhaps especially then, Jesus would find the place of heart solitude with God. This echoes a strong pattern throughout the Bible of God meeting people in the “wilderness” – a place where they encounter Him in more intense ways. The Greek word for such a place is ‘eremos’ and occurs 48 times in the New Testament! The people of Israel wander in the wilderness, recognising their need for food and water. Moses meets God there in a burning bush and receives God’s name alone on a mountain. The prophet Elijah hears God’s “still, small voice”.
As we have seen, in John 15 Jesus tells His disciples that the fruitfulness God wants can only come as we work alongside a rhythm of remaining in Him. He also talks about how times of pruning, being cut back in our activity, or shaped in our character, are part of God’s work in making us fruitful.
Times of solitude and silence are a way in which we “remain in Him”, and in which we can experience being renewed by God, allowing the pain of any pruning experiences we are having to enable new growth in our discipleship.
In solitude we can be strengthened by experiencing the truth that only God matters. The wilderness is not a place of weakness, it is a place of strength. In being alone, we can gain a fresh sense of our own limitations once what we do, who we know and what we own is taken away. We are alone with God and ourselves. We are faced with the question of who we are when things that give us significance are not there – and can realise it is only God who is enough.
We are faced with the question of who will control things when we are not present – and can realise it is only God who is in control. The purpose of solitude is to be able to see and hear what God wants more clearly. We give God space to communicate with us through His Spirit (paying attention to Him is the essence of being a disciple) in the different ways we have explored.
This realisation can only help us to surrender to what God wants more. We become people who are more likely to give out of what we have first received. Being strengthened like this helps us to be fruitful in that our work and service can spring more fully from God’s leading.
The story is told of two woodsmen. One woodsman challenged the other woodsman to an all-day wood-chopping contest. The challenger worked hard all day long, pausing only for a brief lunch. On the other hand, the challengee took several breaks during the course of the day and also took a leisurely lunch. Well, the end came to the all-day wood chopping contest and the challenger was surprised (and annoyed) to find out that the challengee had cut more wood than he! So, the challenger said, “You cut more wood than I did, even though I worked longer.” To which the challengee responded, “What you did not realise is that I was sharpening my axe, every time I sat down to rest.”
In solitude the ways in which we are being pruned can become fruitful. In a way, being alone with God can bring us face to face with new challenges. Jacob wrestled with an angel in the desert. It was in the desert that Jesus had a fierce struggle with the temptations He needed to overcome at the start of His ministry.
Whether our problems are caused by things that happen to us in the sufferings of life, or by our own inner struggles, solitude offers a place where these things can no longer be ignored, but can be brought to God. It is also vital for our emotional well-being that we have windows in our lives in which to process difficulties.
Peter the disciple knew a lot about being pruned. In silence we can follow His advice by taking the unhurried opportunity to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) We all experience hardship of one kind or another. For Jesus, the key question is can we allow these difficulties to become opportunities for pruning for fruitfulness?
In silence we can express and deepen our trust in God. The writer John Main puts it like this, “To be silent with another person is a deep expression of trust and confidence and it is only when we are unconfident that we feel compelled to talk. To be silent with another person is truly to be with that other person.” True communication with God, or with others, can often feel deeper without words, as we rest in trust.
A 19th century French priest once noticed a peasant come in to the church and stay for hours, kneeling in front of a cross with a representation of Jesus on it. The priest asked this man, “What do you say during all that time before Jesus? The peasant replied, “Nothing. I look at Him and He looks at me.” One way into this silent trust before God can simply be to ask yourself the question, “What do you see when you look at God, looking at you?”
Through silence our words and actions can count for more. On a summer scout camp a young man fell out of a tree injuring himself. His friend ran to get the scout leader from the other side of the camp. As the scout leader left his tent, walking slowly towards the site of the accident, the friend began to panic, thinking he hadn’t communicated the urgency of the action. When the scout leader came to the young man he immediately gave mouth to mouth resuscitation, put him in the recovery position and sent for an ambulance.
“After the young man had been taken away, his friend angrily blurted out, “You took so long to walk over to him! Didn’t you realise how serious it was?” The scout leader replied, “I know you are angry because I didn’t rush. But I needed to buy myself a bit of time to remember what I needed to remember. And I knew my first decision had to be the right one. And I can’t give mouth to mouth resuscitation if I’m out of breath.”
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal is famous for saying, “’All of humanity’s problems stem from a human being’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” In silence we can ensure that we have listened before we act, giving ourselves space to slow down and pay attention to God so that our first decisions can be wise. Similarly, if our words are a thermometer of our hearts, they will have more value after silence with God, and may be more wisely chosen.
In solitude we can value and love others more. Thomas Merton said that one of the fruits of solitude can be to increase our sensitivity to and compassion for others because “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers and sisters…Solitude and silence teach me to love them for what they are, not for what they say.”
As well as modelling withdrawing from others to be alone with God, Jesus commended it to His disciples as a normal way of praying: “…when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
As we have seen, learning to do this goes against the grain of much of our cultural experience, and the ways in which most of us live. It also goes without saying that your circumstances and personality will affect the length of time and the way in which you are able to grow in practising this. Nevertheless, if being with God is the foundation of discipleship, these first thoughts may help:
Knowing God wants to draw near to us. Our desire to withdraw to ‘be with God’ is increased when we connect with how much God wants and promises to be with us. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)
Working towards regular times of being silent before God…it is unlikely that we will develop times of solitude with God unless we have an intentional rhythm…but also being aware of the season we are in. In John 15 there is a balance between times of being fruitful and times of remaining in God. In our lives it may be hard to regulate what is necessary in a strict way. It may be more a case of becoming aware of the season we are in. Growth cannot occur without remaining in the vine, or pruning. So, for example, if we are aware that we are not seeing much fruitfulness in our lives, it may be a prompt to us that we need to have a season of withdrawing to be with God.
Using the opportunities we already have. While having a special place and time can be helpful, it is possible to find moments of solitude and silence in the normal run of a day. It is better to start as we are than wait until we change circumstances. Driving more slowly, pausing before meals, taking a brief walk, getting up a few minutes earlier, turning off our devices can all offer opportunities within the structure of our existing lives for a moment of silence in which we pay attention to the present moment, knowing that this kind of daily being with God is, as Christian doctor Paul Tournier said, “mostly about waiting for God’s presence.”
All the practices we have looked at in this module – worship, prayer, studying Scripture, meditation on Scripture, Sabbath, solitude and silence – are tried and tested gifts which enable us to be disciples who are being with God, placing Him at the forefront of our attention. It is through these practices that we can give God space in our lives to change us through His Spirit, and be fruitful by being rooted in Him.
In our covenant-partnership with God, our role is about making the choices in how each day which will grow these practices as life-giving habits, in the same way that we clean our teeth, or eat regular meals. They are the exercises we do directly, in order to grow indirectly.
It is impossible to exercise, or start new exercises, without effort and change. But the way to genuine peace is found in using the time that God has given us in the best way possible to enable the things we really want to happen in our lives. In Luke’s gospel Martha complains that, rather than helping her in the kitchen, her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him. But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Mary had chosen the one thing necessary.
Practices move from idea to reality when we make choices about how to do them in our daily lives. As a closing exercise to this module, you are invited to think about how you experience these practices, and what the next steps might be that God is calling you to do in living them out. To support one another, you are invited to meet up with someone else and share your intentions with them.
The handout ‘Rule of Life’ leads you in doing this. It’s an ancient idea adopted by many Christian communities down the centuries as a way of creating space for discipleship in our lives in a way which echoes our deepest longings and choices. While the word ‘rule’ may seem strict, the word comes from a Latin term meaning ‘supporting scaffold’, like a trellis which lifts a vine off the ground, enabling the fruit to grow. The rule is not an end in itself, it is the means by which we can experience life in all its fullness.
A major source of conflict between Christ and the religious leaders of His time was how commandments, such as the Sabbath, which were meant to bring life to God’s people, had become soul-destroying and lifeless. Rather than leading them into being with God and His grace, religious leaders were applying them as burdens – rules which became burdens which created fear of failure more than joyful obedience.
In contrast Jesus reminded them that God’s commandments are always given for people’s benefit, not restriction: “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) We all have routines and things we do most days which nurture us (or harm us!) The question is not whether to have routines in our lives, but which ones are important? In order to grow in living by any rule in a life-giving way, these final thoughts may help.
Any ‘rule’ is always best motivated by love. In the same way that I don’t adopt the annual practice of remembering to buy my spouse a present for our anniversary, or get a gift for my nephew’s birthday only because I have to as a duty, but because I want to out of love, so any practices of ‘being with God’ will only flourish if they are a response to God’s love. “We love, because He first loved us.”
A good rule is realistic and specific. If I was going to train to do a marathon, and had never done any running before, I wouldn’t attempt to run ten miles on my first day. Instead I would use “Couch to 5k”, or at least ensure my first steps were a mixture of walking and running for a distance I could manage. Unrealistic aims can easily disillusion us.
If you have never spent time in silence, and want to start building that into your day, better to start with five minutes and work from there, than aim for thirty minutes and be almost certain to fail. Again, setting vague aspirations such as “pray more” will not be as helpful as very practical rhythms such as ‘Read a psalm in the morning’.
Many practices can be done with others. God always calls people together. The early Christians did much of their worship, prayer, study and listening in community. Rather than thinking of your rule only in individual terms, many things can be done with others. Not only does this provide support and accountability, but you can learn from, and teach others in the process.
Think about your personality and lifestage. If you are someone who likes people, silence and solitude will be hard for you. Doing the practices with others will be a better place to start. On the other hand if you are an introverted person you will find being on your own more life-giving. Similarly if you have toddlers at home your rule will look very different from a retired or single person. Start with the practices you find come most easily to you, perhaps seeking to grow in just one which you find more difficult. Try and find a balance in your practices which works for you.
Don’t be afraid of being flexible. While practices require some effort, if you consistently are not experiencing fruit in your discipleship, or finding them too hard, don’t be afraid to change. Normally rules are things which don’t alter, but it is more helpful to think of the practices we commit to as being for a season. The way we grow as disciples does not happen in a “straight line” all through our lives. Life circumstances change. God may want to work on some things in us at one point and not others.
The writer Margaret Guenther puts it well when she says, “A good rule can set us free to be our true and best selves. It is a working document, a kind of spiritual budget, not carved in stone but subject to regular review and revision. It should support us, but never constrict us.”