What happens on the inside is far more important than external attractiveness.
In the late spring of 1999, I was the teacher of record for a European tour that offered college academic credit for recent high school grads. The students had just received their diplomas from Ben Lippen, the private Christian school that comes under the umbrella of Columbia International University in South Carolina. (“Ben Lippen” means “mountain of trust.” The school was originally in the mountains of North Carolina.) I want to share with you a reflection I wrote in my journal after we returned home, as well as an update on that reflection. The subject matter is especially pertinent to those of us who serve Christ vocationally or engage in some form of volunteer ministry to others in His name.
June 13, 1999
Rothenburg. Salzburg. Venice. Florence. Colmar. Strasburg.
We visited huge cathedrals with eye-popping murals or stained-glass windows. Sometimes entry into these facilities was free, yet a donation for upkeep was requested. In some instances, hosts charged a fee if you wanted to visit certain sections of the structure, such as climbing to the top inside of the dome.
Not many parishioners attended the official worship services from the local population. Glossy on the outside. Lots of form, but minimal function inside the walls. External beauty with a cold, dark interior (except for the stained-glass windows and artwork). Showy. Lovely shell. Barren of light and life inside, at least when it came to actual worship of the Lord. Constructed in countries where few people claim to follow Christ today, where missionaries consider it a successful year if their efforts yield just one convert to Christ over a 12-month period. Where Protestant witness is anemic. Where prosperity reigns and God has been forgotten by the majority. Where vibrant faith and world-changing leaders who hailed from those countries are only for pages in a history book.
Hmmm…now I’m feeling uneasy as I write this. Why? What are You saying to me, Holy Spirit? You mean….? Surely You don’t think my life parallels those cathedrals?!
(Before I finished the page in my journal, I paused and prayed. Then I completed the entry in the form of a prayer, having been chastened by the Spirit’s whisper.)
Exposed by God’s Spirit
Oh Lord, how much of my Christianity is primarily in external form or tradition? Am I attractive on the outside when I “perform” for You, but hollow and lifeless on the inside? Am I serving You to the point of exhaustion at the expense of seeking You and enjoying intimacy with You in the sanctuary of my heart?
Don’t I spend the vast majority of my time and energy on my “public” Christian world of teaching and writing, with comparatively little expenditure on cultivating my heart, or my “private world”? Am I cold, sterile within even when observers rave about my public ministrations? Are my ministries an attractive ornate shell with little vibrancy on the inside of me? Is my faith as commercialized as those church officials who ask for a donation or a fee to peruse their facility?
Father, forgive me for so many years of emphasis on my public world without balancing it with care over what’s happening inside me. Oh, it isn’t that I seldom pray and read Your Word devotionally, but those times are often a perfunctory duty rather than the outcome of a compelling desire to nurture a relationship. Forgive the professionalism of my faith! Please stoke the fading embers of my affection for You and rekindle a fire in my heart.
Don’t allow me to grow colder as I grow older. Give me passion not just for doing, but for being.
Please don’t let my life become a museum to what once was, instead of a rousing worship center where I regularly celebrate the grace of the gospel.
Almost three decades into my ministry, I’m already sensing a loss of light and warmth inside. My spirit shivers, and it scares me, Lord. I want to be more beautiful in the unseen aspects of my life, the parts that only You can see, the parts behind the external structure of my vocational duties. Please don’t allow me to become showy, no matter how good it looks, without inner substance.
In the name of One whose forwarding address is in the hearts of His people, not in majestic, man-made cathedrals. Amen.
To my chagrin, now and then the cultivation of my inner life with and before God still takes a backseat to my external ministry activities. But over the past two decades, I’ve applied several strategies that have kept my inner life comparatively more robust than during my early adult years. The following grace-motivated efforts have kept my heart from degenerating into a museum for what once was, spiritually speaking. My implementation of the following strategies doesn’t accentuate my lofty spirituality; rather, it exposes my desperate neediness and dependency on God and others.
Most years, I spend several days away from my family and work environment just to pray, to read God’s Word and to listen to whatever He wants to say to me. I’m aware that such a focused time once a year cannot substitute for day-in-and-day-out times with the Lord. Yet when I “declutter” by removing myself from other people, social media, and other typical intrusions that occur on most days, it’s amazing how much easier it is to hear the Lord speak. He both convicts and encourages me. He says things He had been trying to say all along, but my life was too busy and cluttered with noise from other sources to hear Him.
Reading Bible-saturated Books on the Inner Life, or Intimacy with Christ
My heart is massaged by the insights of godly people who enhance my grasp of God’s Word and who share experientially what has enabled them to keep a vibrant faith and a soft heart before God. Here are just three of the more meaningful titles I’ve delved into since that European tour.
John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation. Three of Owen’s classic works in one volume, edited by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor. Oh, what nuggets I gleaned from Owen’s understanding of the human heart, of the nature of temptation and the power of indwelling sin. Owen is not easy reading, but a few pages a day over a long period of time can overhaul how you think about sin. I’ve gone through this volume twice, and I’m feeling a tug to do so again. John Piper calls Owen the greatest of the Puritan devotional writers.
John Ortberg, Soul Keeping. Ortberg gleaned most of his content on cultivating a healthy soul from conversations he had with his friend and mentor, Dallas Willard, not long before Willard died of cancer. I remember this counsel from Willard: “Hurry is the number one enemy of your soul.” Willard wrote highly regarded books such as The Spirit of the Disciplines, Divine Conspiracy, and Renovation of the Heart. One tip from Willard that has been crucial to beautifying my inner life is his counsel to memorize verses and longer passages of Scripture.
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. This refreshing portrait of our Savior’s heart toward me instills a desire to be in His presence more often. Read this book and you, too, will want to be with Him and you will not approach your quiet time as an ought to include in your schedule. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts, where the author describes Jesus’ attitude toward us who know Him: “The posture most natural to him is not a pointed finger but open arms.”
What book other than the Bible has ministered to you?
When you recommend a Christ-centered, biblically saturated book to someone else and the resource helps that person, you have expanded your ministry!
Interview Godly Men and Women You Respect
At the top of my “Spiritual Hero Board” is Robertson McQuilkin, the late missionary statesman, author, and president of Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University). When he was 86, I visited him in his home for an informal discussion on how to finish well in one’s life and ministry. Here is a memorable remark he made to me (not his exact words, but in essence his meaning).
“Terry, when I turned 86, I retired from all speaking and writing ministry. I’ve always reserved early mornings for an hour of time with my Savior, but now that I don’t have a public ministry to do, I’m enjoying Him even more. I have fewer projects and activities of my own to intercede for, and more time just to converse with Him and to worship Him. I’m no longer motivated by a subtle desire to receive His blessing on my ministry tasks each day. It’s a better relationship than ever.”
I vividly recall his final words to me as I stood up to leave. What he said revealed his awareness of my penchant for workaholism and performance orientation. “Terry, remember this: you are a human being, not a human doing.”
Oh, how many godly people I’ve known who entered the presence of the Lord without me tapping into their experience and wisdom! But I’ll be eternally grateful for that hour spent with Robertson.
What older saint do you most respect? Schedule a time to meet with him or her. Prepare a few questions in advance to get this person’s input on intimacy with Christ or personal purity. Don’t keep putting it off. I’m often prompted to act by the “Procrastinator’s Epitaph.” The top of his tombstone reads, Here lies a man who was always “going to.” The bottom of the stone contains these words: Now he’s gone.
I once read Charles Swindoll’s counsel on finishing well, especially in maintaining moral purity. He said it cannot be done unless we are accountable to one or more persons to whom we give the right to ask us hard questions about our priorities, relationships, and use of spiritual disciplines (or means of grace). He went on to say that we are far more vulnerable to temptation if we live in a private manner.
Years ago I gave a close friend a page of personal questions to ask me. We get together by phone or in-person on a regular basis. There is a very real sense in which “men love darkness rather than light.” An accountability partner is in itself no guarantee I’ll stay intimate with the Lord, but it’s one avenue of God’s grace for holiness and right priorities.
Is anyone holding you accountable?
In Europe, I saw exquisite architecture and magnificent art inspired by faith in Christ.
Father, may renovations You keep doing inside of me match the physical beauty of those cathedrals.