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Someone has said that reading the Bible, praying and fellowship with other believers are like three legs of a stool on which we can sit safely. If any one of the legs is missing, the stool becomes very unstable. Certainly we primarily need the presence of God in our life at all times. But it is foolish to think that we will depend entirely on that as if it will be there automatically, and neglect what we need to do from our side to experience it more and more in our life.
The Bible is the written word through which God primarily reveals Himself to us. But this is not the only way God reveals Himself. He uses different means at different times for different people, through visions, dreams, prophetic words, circumstances, speaking directly in our heart, etc. But His word has a prominent position in this revelation. Therefore, whenever we believe God is speaking to us, it is safer for us to check it to see if it agrees with what He has already revealed in the Bible; obviously God will not contradict Himself at different times. There is obviously a level of subjectivity on our side in understanding when God applies some part of the word individually to us. But then we have the advantage of being able to check that out with what is revealed in the rest of the Bible!
I use ‘word’ with small letters when I refer to the words in the Bible as the word of God because neither the Bible nor the words in it are God but only His word. But I use ‘Word’ when it refers to the Jesus, the Son of God, as the Word who became flesh.
We take the Bible as the benchmark when it comes to doctrines about God, His character, His dealings with people from the time of creation and the Fall, the way of salvation that He has prepared for us, His plans for the future, etc. This is needed because our experiences alone are not a sure foundation to build doctrines. The interpretation we give to our experiences may depend on our temperament, our family background, the experiences we have gone through, the philosophies or doctrines that we accepted and followed till now, etc. If there is no reliable standard to which everyone can refer, our interpretations and the resulting doctrines can differ widely. And that is what is happening to many people, resulting in great confusion. Remember that deceitful spirits are also at work, seeking to confuse and lead people away from God (1Tim.4:1). But when we hold that what the Bible reveals is reliable because it is what God has inspired people to write down (2Tim.3:16,17), we can check the authenticity of our experiences with the Bible and see its true nature.
It is very sad that many present day Christians have not read the Bible properly or fully, but they depend mostly on what preachers tell them. And many preachers themselves have not studied the Bible properly! As a result, there is a huge amount of confusion among Christians leading to divisions and strife. So, one of the reasons why each one of us needs to read the Bible personally is to try and get a first-hand knowledge about God and His ways.
If we have been born again by the grace of God and through our faith in Jesus, it is the word of God on which we have to feed in order to grow up in our relationship with Him. Initially it becomes our milk (1Pet.2:1,2) and later on our meat (Heb.5:13,14). Understanding the word of God and reordering our lives according to it brings us into a closer walk with God and helping us to relate to Him as a real Person. We are not thinking here about an intellectual understanding, but about getting to know God personally as the Holy Spirit reveals His truths to us.
Intellectual understanding alone is not sufficient for this, and, in fact, that can even deaden our mind and heart towards God. But when we wait, as it were, sitting at His feet and listening to what He has to tell us as we read His word, our inner ‘eyes’ get opened to see His truths (Eph.1:18). We must remember that the Bible is not an ordinary book which anyone can read and understand, but we need the Holy Spirit who inspired the authors to write it to reveal the truths to us before we can understand it truly. We need to understand spiritual truths spiritually and not merely intellectually. The Bible refers to “knowing as we ought to know” (1Cor.8:2). Sometimes His word ‘becomes alive’ as we read it, but many times it is as we sit and meditate on His word, pondering over it, connecting it with other passages in the Bible, asking God for understanding, that we get to grasp it and it grips our heart (Prov.2:1-5). Then it begins to shape our life.
One secret of getting insight into the truths in word of God is to be clear in our mind that whenever the word convinces us about any truth, we would be willing to change our life to fit in with that truth. God is not interested in satisfying our curiosity about the truth, but that we should know it and it should set us free (Jn.8:32). Therefore He looks to see in our heart whether we are willing to obey Him before He reveals His precious truths to us (Jn.7:17). That is why we see that God was able to show His ways only to Moses while the rest of the people could only see His acts (Psa.103:7).
We can make the mistake of reading the Bible as a duty or a routine when we think we have to read a certain portion every day. Then it becomes boring and a chore. But if we go to it eagerly, waiting to hear what God wants to tell us today, it will profit us even more than physical food (Matt.4:4;Lk.10:41,42).
At the same time it is good to have a regular habit of reading the Bible. Most people do it as the first thing they do when they get up in the morning, but for some people other times of the day may be more convenient. But it is good to make it regular, at the same time of the day, in the same place, so that it becomes a habit.
In addition to this regular time, it is also good to snatch a few minutes of free time whenever they become available, to catch up with the word of God. Carrying a pocket New Testament in the pocket and reading it when we wait for a bus, while travelling, during the lunch break, etc., will produce great results! Now people can also use a smartphone or computer to read the Bible or listen to an audio Bible from a music player!
We will find that there will be days in which we get ‘nothing’ from our reading, because of various reasons, but it is good to keep up the discipline of reading the Bible even then. Sometimes the Holy Spirit brings up what we have read then into our mind later when the need arises! It is also good to keep reading the ‘difficult’ portions and the ‘boring’ parts because one day we see the benefit!
As we keep reading, we will find that the Bible is not only giving us information about God and His ways, but it becomes ‘living’ as God speaks to us personally through it. It comforts, encourages, lifts up, guides, corrects, teaches, trains, warns and exhorts us in relation to our practical situations that we face. It becomes a medium through which we become connected with God in a real way, along with our prayers.
There has been a lot of confusion among Christians because of a misunderstanding about the Bible being ‘the word of God’, and some wrongly assume that this means every single sentence in it is God speaking to us directly. As a whole it is the word that God has given to us people, which comes in the form of historical narratives, teaching, poetry, prophecy, etc. As such every single word there is not God speaking to us directly. Some are words God spoke to specific people, some are words people spoke, some are historical narrations, etc. In order to understand what each passage means to us and how we must apply it, we must understand the actual meaning of the words themselves, and also the context of those words, who spoke it to whom, God’s intentions, the historic background, the cultural context in which the original text was written and addressed to particular readers, etc. If we do not do this carefully, we can misapply many words in ways in which God never intended for us.
The Bible has not been written in a systematic, textbook style with everything explained neatly and unambiguously. Its revelation is given throughout the Bible in a progressive manner from Genesis to Revelation, and in order to understand it properly we must know the whole Bible and see individual passages as parts of the whole. This underlines the need for us to read the Bible again and again till we become familiar with the whole, and then we can get deeper into different passages. It is good to use ‘concordances’, cross references and dictionaries to understand Bible subjects better. When we first begin our study of the Bible we may like to follow some reputed commentary to guide us. But I would suggest that we slowly move towards reading and studying the Bible ourselves and using commentaries only as a source of reference in case of doubt. In this way we can let God speak to us rather than become parrots of what others have said.
As someone has said, the Bible has many treasures hidden there, and every time we read it, we may be able to see things there we have not noticed before! As we read it and understand more of the glory of God, we see how far we are from that because of the Fall, and start seeking God to transform us into His likeness (2Cor.3:18).
The second leg of the stool that represents our spiritual life is prayer. In its simplest form, a prayer is a simple request to God (Php.4:6). As people we are needy in many ways and it is right that we ask God our Father for help for everything. In that sense, prayer is a mark of our dependence on God. Self-sufficient people do not pray; they think they can handle everything. Prayer is also a mark of our faith in God. Those who see their own need and put their trust in God to take care of them pray a lot. In fact, the best place for us to be in is where we pray without ceasing — in a sense non-stop in an attitude of prayer and also without giving up.
The simple practice of keeping in touch with God all the time, talking to Him in all situations, asking Him for His help in whatever we are doing, thanking Him when we are able to do anything well, asking for forgiveness when we fail and for help to do better next time, can define our life. In this way prayer becomes more than merely making requests.
Many Christians seem not to have understood the significance of the life to come — with God in eternity — and they seem to focus only on this life on earth most of the time. Their prayers are only for earthly needs, and for meeting their earthly ambitions. But we must realise that our time on earth is short and temporary, and our real enjoyment is going to come when we are with the Lord in eternity. We must think of our life here more with regards to its impact on eternity. So we are exhorted to set our mind on the things above and not on the things of this world (Col.3:1,2) and live in such a way as to be ready for that life in eternity (2Pet.3:13,14).
This is what Jesus also teaches us through what is generally referred to as the Lord’s Prayer (Matt.6:9-13). This is not a prayer to be repeated or chanted word for word, but it is a model that teaches us certain values. We see that the top priority in that prayer is for God’s name to be glorified and His will to be done on earth in every way. Of course, there is also a place for asking for our needs, but our hearts must be gripped with God, His honour and His will. Then what we ask for ourselves will also be in line with that — we will only ask for things that will glorify His name and accomplish His will.
When more and more of our prayers are taken up with His kingdom and His will, it will show that our thoughts are becoming aligned to His thoughts. When our prayers begin to be more for the blessing of other people rather about ourselves and our family we will see that God begins to entrust to us some service (which is what ‘ministry’ is all about). Just as Jesus is now interceding for us, we also begin to intercede for the others.
We people have a tendency to make everything into a form which we can then easily follow. Missing the point of the Lord’s Prayer and repeating it routinely is an example. There are other forms also which we make of prayer that we need to get rid of and learn to make prayer a heart to heart relationship with God. Only then will we be able to reap the blessing God has intended for us through it.
Some people think that if they prayed for long durations of time it will impress God or earn more points for them with which to bargain with God. Some others think if they can get more people to pray for something there will be better chances of getting it. Another trend is to get some people to ‘agree’ with a prayer so that it will guarantee surer results. These are all a result of misunderstanding God and our relationship with Him. We can never earn anything from God; whatever He gives us is from His unmerited favour towards us. We can never come of a place of bargaining with God, claiming things from Him or demanding that He does certain things for us based on what we have done. Our prayer will always remain as a request to Him. Understanding our relationship to God in this way — as people who are totally dependent on God’s grace making requests to Him — will produce better results and avoid a lot of unnecessary disappointments.
Jesus encourages us to ask Him and the Father anything in His name (Jn.14:14;16:26,27), because of our Father-child relationship. But we must remember that like any father on earth, our Heavenly Father also will not give us everything we ask for, because He knows some of those things are not good for us or according to His plan for our lives. Actually, it should be comforting to us to know that He will filter our prayers and give us only what He knows is good for us. If we trust Him, we will also know that we should not desire anything other than what He wants for our lives. So, every prayer we make should be appended with this phrase, “Not my will, but Yours be done, Lord,” if not in words, but at least in spirit.
John the apostle wrote that just as the first disciples of Jesus had a close fellowship with Him and with one another he would desire the same type of fellowship for us (1Jn.1:3). Fellowship is the third leg of the stool as a metaphor for the stability of our spiritual growth. This word ‘fellowship’ has come to mean these days as nothing more than spending time with other believers and having small talk, perhaps having tea together or going out and doing something together. These kinds of activities can form an opportunity to get to know one another better. But the real purpose of fellowship is to strengthen, encourage, comfort, correct, guide one another as we go on our journey with the Lord and face different challenges on the way.
The Greek word used for ‘fellowship’ in the New Testament refers to ‘partnership, participation, social interaction, benefaction, communication, communion, contribution, distribution’, etc. God does not want us to be loners, and neither can we manage to complete life’s journey alone. Therefore it is God’s plan for us that there should be others to share our burdens and us to share theirs (Gal.6:1,2). If one pilgrim is suffering or lagging behind, the others are there to lend a helping hand. This works out in many different practical ways.
In the early church, some people used to sell off their property and share the money with the others in need and everyone used to consider all things as belonging to all (Acts.2:44,45). Nowadays some groups of Christians try to imitate this and live in communes. But it was obvious that this was not to be the norm for Christians, and soon the early church gave up that practice. But the spirit of movement — valuing one another as brothers and sisters and caring for others — is to continue all the time. Not only joining together in the activities of the church, but also in showing care for other individuals and families that are going through difficult times is to be the mark of true Christian love. In fact, Jesus said that it would be this kind of love for one another that would characterise Christians in the eyes of the world (Jn.13:34,35). In many cases, when this love extends towards those outside the church, it accomplishes evangelism that draws like a magnet.
Fellowship offers its own challenges too. Many people think that they would be all right if they were left to themselves but it is when they have to deal with others who are different from them that problems start! Since we are all from different backgrounds in terms of family, culture and even race, it can happen that even when we desire to be a blessing to the others we can hurt them inadvertently. And we can get hurt too. When this happens we are tempted to withdraw and keep to ourselves. But if we can see that all of us are imperfect in many ways, then we can benefit from the mistakes and hurts. As long as we are in these sinful bodies mistakes are inevitable (Jas.3:2). We can learn to humbly acknowledge our own mistakes and bear with and forgive the others, as well as learn to do things differently in future.
Even though there are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers among us, we are not to be like the hierarchy that is seen in an office, with designations, lines of authority and responsibility. The only One to receive glory among us should be Jesus, and the rest of us should be brothers and sisters in our attitude and behaviour. The old covenant patterns of ‘priests’ and ‘ordinary people’ is not to be carried over to the new covenant because now we are all kings and priests before the Lord (1Pet.2:9). At the same time, God gives different ones responsibilities within the church to lead and take care of the others and there is to be a spirit of respect and submission too. We can see that this calls for the right heart much more than legal delineations of authority.
We see both kinds of abuse in the church — those who lord it over the others and those who place no value for authority. These are challenges to be faced and overcome, rather than excuses to withdraw or give in.
Communication is a big part of fellowship. If we keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves and refrain from expressing them to the concerned people, difficulties can multiply themselves. At the same time our expressions of our thoughts and feelings have to be done with an attitude of humility and love, and with restraint. This restraint has to be there because we should take into account the maturity of those we are dealing with — whether we consider they will be able to handle what we share — and the appropriateness of what we share — whether it is designed to build our fellowship or cause further distance. We all need to grow in wisdom here which will only come as we move forward with prayer to God.
Jesus tells us an approach towards dealing with issues that come up in our interpersonal relationship in the church (Matt.18:15-17). The first step is to talk things over with the other person and see if things can be sorted out there itself. But if it does not succeed, we are to get the help of one or two others who can mediate. If this also does not work out, we can take matters to the leadership of the church who can decide what is to be done.
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