Some secrets are safe—even when you tell them to others—because some secrets must be lived, rather than known.
I found just such a secret buried deep in a stack of letters from a man stuck in prison, the kind of prison where you had to provide your own food and clothing, which was a problem because you were in prison. If you were out of friends you were outta luck. The kind of prison where you sat before you went to trial, wondering if you were going to trial. The man in prison had been beaten, healed, scarred, and beaten again. Shipwrecked three times, and far from home. Still, he had a secret, and he shared it with his friends:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:11-12)
This man, Paul, a follower of Jesus, was falsely accused and in prison awaiting trial for more than a year. He had discovered the secret of contentment. Can you imagine yourself, in the midst of all those circumstances Paul faced, content?
Contentment is perhaps even more of a secret today because the Western world is locked up in its own striving and appetites, wholly unaware of its blessings. Can we hear Paul’s whisper through the clamor of consumerism today? Consider just a few insights into his secret:
§ Contentment does not depend on circumstances: Paul could be content in the midst of plenty or little. In the Western world plenty is not enough: we are a people who cannot be at rest even when we are surrounded by every comfort.
§ Contentment does not mean giving up: Paul still had places to go and things to do. He was not a fatalist who accepted every event in his life as the final word. Yet even when he faced obstacles and frustration he found contentment within.
§ Contentment is not the result of positive thinking: There’s an old story about the child given a pile of horse manure for his birthday: he joyfully grabbed a shovel and said, “there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere!” Not so. Sometimes there is no pony: life simply covers us with dung. The danger of positive thinking is that it comes from our own strength, and eventually that resource runs dry.
The secret of contentment runs deeper. It’s born out of relationship to an unchanging person and his unshakable kingdom. Let’s tune our ears and listen to the man in prison. His words are like a treasure map: hearing the secret is not enough; it must be discovered. It must be lived. At the end of the search we will discover ourselves to be the kind of people so in tune with the Kingdom of God that we can navigate difficult times, supplied not only with strength, but also peace.
From the very first day I started following Jesus, well-meaning Christians gave me this advice: Read your Bible. I tried to act on this advice right away. I read my Bible. I prayed. And within a week I had a shameful secret: I was confused and lost. The Bible was nearly incomprehensible to me. How could such good advice go wrong so quickly? And why was I afraid to tell anyone my dark secret?
Worse still: pastors realize most people in their congregation—Christians new and old—are in the same state. Christians who attend church faithfully know they should read their Bibles, but so few of us do it, and fewer still find life between its pages. Some of us may manage to fill our brains with Bible knowledge, but this much is sure: knowing what to do is not enough. In fact, knowing what to do might be part of the problem. This common bit of advice can be true and deadly at the same time. Deadly, you say? I do, because knowledge without love leads to pride, and pride always leads to death.
Beyond knowing lie greater things: only desire and love can sustain our life with Jesus. Knowing him begins with loving him. Our faith is not a body of knowledge; it’s love that leads us to learn the Belovéd. Learning driven by love conforms us to his image. Jesus understood the human bias toward the knowledge of things, and tried to point the religious experts toward the source of knowing, and the wellspring of life. “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life,” he said. “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Let me never mistake the book for the reality. And yet: what a gift is the Bible when it leads us to Jesus! “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ lies,” said Martin Luther. “As a mother goes to a cradle to find her baby so the Christian goes to the Bible to find Jesus.”
God himself breathed out this inspired book of scripture, and since his every breath is precious, I will attend. His words are the house of revelation, of beauty, and of wisdom.
If I love God properly I will love his book correctly. If I do not love him his book becomes a weapon in my fleshly hands. The Bible can cut me in the most healing way, but apart from the love of God I can use it to wound others through condemnation or pride. The Bible can speak healing to my soul, but apart from the love of God I can demand that others come to me for the medicine. The Bible can whisper grace and peace, but apart from the love of God I will end up shouting judgment and strife.
And it is the whole of the Bible that shapes our soul. The Old Testament is the Bible Jesus read: it shaped Jesus’ spiritual formation, his understanding of Heaven and earth. The Bible lifts up people over principle: in its pages we meet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David; Mary and Martha, John and James, Paul and Timothy, Jesus and everyone. The Bible exalts beauty and song: creation, psalms, parables, and celebration. It can confound and frighten; it can mystify and induce awe; its mystery is better than our deepest reasoning. But all these wonders will fall upon the deaf ears when we search only for knowledge.
Let’s not tell babes in Christ, “Read your Bible” as a command. Let’s invite them into the mystery that has both fed our souls and yet still stirs our hunger, year after year. Let’s tell them their Loving Father has prepared a feast, a banquet filled with tastes we have never before experienced, wine we never imagined, and bread come down fresh from Heaven. His love he bids us come and eat, and that is how I want to read his book.
Discipleship is the great calling of the church, and the only soil that grows disciples is a local church culture of spiritual formation. Every other ministry of the church can (and should) grow from this soil.
But here's the challenge: each church already has an existing culture; any attempt to change the mixture of the “soil” will require the deep, patient work of tilling, fertizing, and weeding. Culture change is neither a tactic nor a strategy: it is a transformation. Peter Drucker famously observed, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” He should have said, “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” because the prevailing culture in any organization is the great unspoken factor in ministry. (Note to church planters: start here, because by the time your church is two years old, church culture is beginning to produce fruit, either good or bad.)
Issues of spiritual formation and discipleship are not questions of planning, method, or even teaching—they are hardly even questions at all. Spiritual formation and discipleship are more like horticulture than education. The ground is prepared, seeds are selected and planted, weeds are tended as they arise, and the harvest can seem like a distant dream. But good soil brings great harvests. Success in making disciples is not (at first) measured quantitatively, but qualitatively.
Here are the kinds of questions we should be asking: Are the people of our church becoming more like Jesus? Do we even think it’s possible to be conformed to the image of Christ? Do our leaders think it's possible? Who should do the work of making disciples? How does spiritual growth interact with the metrics of attendance and finances? Is my church's current cultural model sustainable apart from outside instruction or motivation? If our facilities and resources vanished, could our church continue to exist?
Being a disciple—and making disciples—is where personal growth and church life intersect. So (together) we should all ask these questions. Why not bring them up at your church?
To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. ~ Revelation 2:17
Today I’m intrigued with a smooth white stone, engraved with a name known only to God—and the path to that stone.
The setting for this single verse is the resurrected and glorious Jesus walking among oil-burning lampstands, speaking to believers huddled together against the attacks of a dying world. In every single case (he dictates seven letters) Jesus reminds us that overcoming is a practical, attainable hope. He himself is our example of overcoming—not by winning the next battle or election, but by laying down his life, even for those who hate him.
Our resurrected Lord teaches us that we discover the overcoming life only when the Father raises us again to a new kind of life.
The path to the white stone not only involves overcoming but also a secret supernatural food: the hidden manna, given from the Lord’s own hand. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? I have no firm idea what it means. Perhaps he’s talking about the sustaining life that comes from abiding with Jesus day-by-day, or perhaps yet another miracle wrapped in the wonder of the Eucharist. I know only that it is from him, and I hope to have the good sense to eat the bread he offers.
It is a Kingdom meal, served to those who sit at the banqueting table made possible by his life, death, and resurrection. No worldly connections can gain a seat at this table, but the poor, the sick, the lame, and the sinner will find an engraved place setting.
Finally: here, among the overcomers and the feast of the secret bread, Jesus presents a personal gift. Let the rich and famous have their swag bags. The swag of God is a small white stone, engraved with a name not even you yourself knew, but when you see it for the first time you immediately know it to be your true name, the name only a loving Creator can bestow. All your life you had the feeling that whoever you were, it wasn't really you. Not fully you. Not even you knew you. The name you learned to spell with great block letters as a child, the name that followed you through adolescence and adulthood, the name you handed to others like a business card—that name never fit. Not fully. But there was someone who knew who you really were. Someone who was calling you by that name, and the sound of his voice summoned you to a new identity.
Carl Jung said, “The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.” He was only half right: while the world asks our name, Jesus reveals our name. While the world tries to twist our desires, Jesus serves the true food: food that satisfies and comes only from him. Only in the overcoming do we discover our destiny, and we overcome not by our effort but by his example. In fact, this same book reveals another secret: “They overcame because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.” That's what he demonstrated by his own life; that's what we are called to imitate.
Only then will I know myself. I will find myself when I find him.
I keep a dreadful secret from my friends at church. You see, where I worship, if you think the music’s too loud, you are definitely too old. The drugged-out neighbors near our building call the police to complain about the noise. The Kentucky Academy of Pediatrics has labeled our church the number one threat to children’s hearing in the state. Baby Boomers bring earplugs to church. All the guitar amps go to 11.
But deep in the recesses of my iPhone, where no one can see my music collection, I have a playlist of gentle music. At my desk, I put in the ear buds and secretly dial it down. Because God lives in the still small sounds, too.
We’ve manufactured noise to a breathtaking level. One reason pipe organs and symphony orchestras were the rage during Bach and Mozart’s day was no one had ever heard such sound before—sound so full that patrons' hearts would burst at the fullness. Now, in the 21st century Bach, the Beatles, and Beyoncé all live inside my ear-buds.
Even more radical: sometimes I like no sound at all. Laptops, iPhones, iPads, and Satellite TV are just fine. But their use comes with a price. The price is silence, and in the silence God is speaking: “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing." (Zephaniah 3: 17) Can you imagine? Peace, quietness, confidence, and the chance to hear God Himself singing over you. Have you ever heard His song?
I used to think the silence meant God wasn’t speaking. Now, in the silence, he’s all I hear. As a young man I would look to the stars, overwhelmed by the beauty of the night sky. I knew from Psalm 19 that the heavens declared the glory of God. I could see his greatness, but could not hear his voice. Even in their majesty I would wonder why God was so silent. My prayers, especially at night, were filled with requests and concerns. I would list my needs one by one, unaware that my greatest need was stillness.
Of the many needs of North American believers, silence is among the greatest. Silence is the blank page on which God writes his word. Our noisy world scribbles on the page continually, overlaying sound and word on top of word and sound until the page becomes black. Unless the page is clean we cannot read what God has written.
The pathway of modern life has been hardened, trampled by words. Back in the day you had to visit Times Square; now Times Square visits you. The sower sows the seed but it falls on the path and is carried away by Sports Center, YouTube, NPR, Fox News, and of course our ubiquitous ear buds. Quiet is an aberration Drop any comedian into a monastery and he’ll have the monks doing hip-hop before it’s over. Even our Bibles are cluttered with sidebars and graphics, pictures and celebrity interpretations—Bible apps will read to us out loud.
But what if God is in the silence? He wasn’t in the whirlwind or earthquake for Elijah. The “still, small voice” is still a whisper. Perhaps the Father has his reasons for not raising is voice. I suspect it’s for our good that we find him in the secret place, well away from Times Square.
Why not create a secret place each day and give him just three minutes of blank slate? The Father doesn’t need a podcast to reach our hearts. If we find his presence in the silence it will be enough.
By the way, I’ve noticed that for many North American believers total silence may be too radical for starters. So if you promise to keep my secret from my loud church friends, I’d like to recommend quiet music for quiet times:
§ Chant, The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. These guys have been rockin’ it old-school for 1500 hundred years.
§ Chants of the Russian Orthodox Church. Still quiet music, until the chimes and bells go nuts. These guys get a little rowdy—the Benedictines to the south think of this music as punk.
§ Love Came Down, Brian Johnson. A thousand years and a ten thousand miles from the monks comes an album from the Jesus Culture rockers. Don’t even call it unplugged. It’s sweet and gentle, and a pathway to His presence
For today, I’ll whisper the benediction: “Grace to you, and peace.”