A Guide to Spiritual Formation - Lesson 8

Going On With God in Dark Nights (pt 2)

In a dark night experience, we realize that even though we have good character, we are more filled with ourselves than we are with God. God may be more present to us when he seems absent than when he seems present. It is often helpful to have a mentor to walk with us through dark nights.

John Coe
A Guide to Spiritual Formation
Lesson 8
Watching Now
Going On With God in Dark Nights (pt 2)

c. The experience and signs of being in ongoing dark nights.

d. Temptations in ongoing dark nights.

e. How to experience/What to do in ongoing dark nights.

1. Regarding early dark nights.

2. Regarding ongoing dark nights.

3. Let go of your character as the road map you trust.

4. I want to be diligent to present myself for obedience to the disciplines.

5. Be willing to be open to a new power for ministry.

6. I want to resist ministry as a consolation.

7. Join with others who are on the same journey.

f. Concerns and qualifications about ongoing dark nights.

1. Depression distinguished from dark nights.

2. Dark nights and the need to have a mentor.

3. Dark nights are what it is to be filled with the Spirit.

4. Beware of thinking that sin separates you from God and His holiness.

5. Demons will be involved, but their goal is different than God's.

6. [Number 7 in notes] dark nights and trials can be painful.

g. Questions and answers

  • We become moralists when we try to do good things in order to please God and relieve our guilt.
  • Parenting by guilt and shame encourages a child to do good to avoid consequences and cover their bad, rather than pursuing a relationship with God in order to let Him change their motives by transforming them from the inside.

  • What is in our heart determines how we act. There is more going on in our heart than what shows on the surface. In our hidden heart, we often have negative beliefs and desires that affect our actions.

  • When we sin, it's often the result of sin in our heart that has deep relational and historical roots. God wants us to pursue Him so he can transform us from the inside.

  • When we choose to become committed followers of Christ, we are one spirit with Him, but we still experience times when God seems distant. Sometimes this is a result of going through a developmental stage in our spiritual growth. God gives us the "bottle" of consolation. At first, we seek God in order to get pleasure. God's goal is to make our heart His home. The next stage is the love of God for love's sake.

  • The point of the dark night is to cure us of wanting God on our terms. It is an intensified movement of the indwelling spirit to fill us, rather than to just give us consoling love. When we experience dry times, God is showing us where our treasure really is and is calling us to a journey of the soul. It will often feel more psychological than spiritual.

  • God wants us to move from the love of God for love's sake to the love of God for God's sake. Our training in virtue and character helps us lead a life that is beneficial to ourselves and others. God wants us to rely on the Spirit, not just patterns of behavior we have learned. God sometimes uses the experience of dark nights to help purge us of our virtues as well as our vices.

  • In a dark night experience, we realize that even though we have good character, we are more filled with ourselves than we are with God. God may be more present to us when he seems absent than when he seems present. It is often helpful to have a mentor to walk with us through dark nights.

  • It is important to do spiritual disciplines from the heart in the Spirit. The Christian life is what you do when you realize you can do nothing. In discussing spiritual disciplines, it is helpful to emphasize the importance of how we hear the commands of God.  It is not in our power to change ourselves, but we can choose to practice spiritual regimens and rhythms that help us open up to what God wants to do. Spiritual intentions are how we respond to the Word of God.

  • How do I listen to God's voice? What do I do when I walk away from reading the Word or hearing a sermon? The prayer of recollection is to remind me of who I am in Christ so when I hear the Word, I am open to Him. It's also to help focus my thoughts by detaching from false identities and attaching to my true identity. Lectio divina brings together the commands to "be filled with the Spirit" and "let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly."

The Christian life is not fundamentally about being a moral person, obeying a set of principles, or doing spiritual disciplines. The Christian life is about opening our heart to a relationship with the living God. As we depend on the indwelling Spirit and experience abiding in Christ, we will learn an obedience that comes without the burden of guilt and shame.


c. The Experience and Signs of being in Ongoing Dark Nights

Now what, what I want to get out here is – how would you know if something like this is going on in you? Because someone came up to me in the break and we began talking about this and the question is - I think for a young believer, I’m not trying to ask young believers not to trust in their character and try to build character. I think there are certain signs when this begins to happen and it’s an act of God. And I think the major thing to look for is – Is the Spirit beginning to turn you inwardly to ask the question: “Is there something missing in this?” And sometimes, perhaps, we need to raise the question for people so that they begin to ask this themselves. 

So here are some of the issues if we’re open to it that may be going on. And so that’s why what is crucial in this process is the issue of honesty. As you’re reading the Scriptures, as you’re open in prayer, as you’re hearing the Word, is open to, “God, let it show me what is true in me.” And so as you’re hearing a sermon talking about prayer, remember what I said about feelings? Feelings are very bad leaders. You don’t lead with your feelings. You lead with your body, but you know what feelings are? They’re excellent windows into seeing what’s true, and so as the pastor is speaking on prayer, what I want to know is, “God, I don’t want to bite the bullet and do it. I want to know is this something I really love.” Because if this isn’t something I really love, then you know something? Something’s wrong with me and I shouldn’t be shocked by that because, of course, something’s wrong with me. And now the Spirit wishes to open that to me. And I just want to be open to the truth. So here’s some of the things that may happen during this time.

It’s going to be a deepened sense that when self and one own’s character doesn’t satisfy like it used to. So in number one, it’s this deep sense of one’s own inadequacy of character. Though others benefit from it, you’re beginning to see in your own self deeper vices. You see that there’s more there going on, and this is a sign that God’s saying, “You know, I bless you for the virtue you’ve developed, the church is benefiting and others are, and now I want to take you into whole new places of dependence on Me.”

Or number two. If this is at all going on in your life where there’s a lack of zest from your own character and your former accomplishments, and even future endeavors where you just - You don’t have the same consolation in raising your children, loving your wife, it’s starting to get dry. Yes, you’re an okay parent. You’re an okay spouse. You’re an okay teacher. You’re an okay discipler. But you’re starting to feel that your own character is like an inadequate compass. There’s something more. 

You’re starting to ask yourself, “Is this all there is? Is this what the Christian life is?” You know, and sometimes you need to ask these questions of yourself to discover is this truly going on because I think after a while, after years and years and years of hearing sermons and trying to do good and trying to do what is right, you start falling asleep to looking at what’s really going on. To looking really at the heart and asking the question, “God, is this really what’s driving me or am I just doing it now?” Because the Christian life is about these rivers of living water.

So number three. It’s a general distrust even in life’s promises that seek to satisfy the heart. A new sense that this life is an inadequate home. This is a sign of these dark nights for older ones because, you know, God, isn’t it wonderful to have a good family? But do you know what a nice dark night will show you? That you can’t take your family and stuff them down here. They cannot provide you the rivers of living water. In fact, there is no finite thing that can and dark nights just are little reminders for us of “God, there is a deeper hunger in me now. Yeah, I love my wife, but you know, Greta can’t take away all the pain. She can’t fit into this hole and love me perfectly. God, I’m called to something else.” During those time when you are just greatly satisfied in the Lord with these finite things, that’s cool. But there’s a time to open up, is there something else going on in my soul?

And number four. There’s a renewed sense of loneliness as a result of your good character. You have good character, you’re leading a nice life, you’re kind to others, you’re a good person in the church, you’re doing spiritual disciplines, but, “God, I want You.” You know, goodness can sometimes just isolate you because you are not willing to see yourself and open up to others. And these are wonderful times when the Lord wants to just us open up to us, “God, being good is not enough. Having a good character is not enough. I want You.”

Number five. Ministry may be good and it may be good for others, but it doesn’t satisfy the soul. This is a major – basically a number of these things have been going on in my life for some time. This is a major one. I used to, you know, ten years ago when I would speak, I would speak often at churches, retreats, whatever - I would get really off on that. I loved it. I enjoyed it so much. You know, often now. Often when I am preparing for, you know, teaching and even in the middle of teaching it’s just, “God, I hope this is blessing others because, God, I want You.” I’m coming to a point where even these words, they’re good. I want Him. Having a wonderful time here isn’t enough like it used to be. 

Number six. There’s a deep dissatisfaction that my theological knowledge alone and my wisdom, my life map, my mind map, it’s inadequate. “God, I want You.” I’ve been studying theology for almost 30 years now, and I want Him. My theology is still too small. It’s expanding all the time of what God can and cannot do in our life. I want Him. I want the God who’s behind the text.

Number seven. I know inside - this is a problem with this dark night. There is a fear that we will not be loved in the awareness of the truth of ourselves. We are uncertain if journeying inside is really going to have a pay off in the end. Is that really where I want to go? Do I really want to go inside? Is anything going to be there? That’s a major issue for us.

And number eight. It’s the knowledge that in my will, I’m more filled with myself than with God. That’s just true. That is just the truth. I am generally more filled with John Coe – my hopes, my desires, my urges – than I am with God. And I can tell because of the expectations I have in life when they’re not met. That’s just the truth. And I want to be more filled with Him. I want to be filled with the height and the depth and the length, and the breadth of the love of God, to be filled up with all the fullness of God. That’s what I want. And that’s not the entire truth of my character. I am more filled with myself.

d. Temptations in Ongoing Dark Nights

What are the temptations in the dark night? What’s the temptation that we will have? Again, I think the major temptation is going to be – this is just before I get into number one – I think it’s going to be the deep belief that we’re not sure that we’re really going to be loved entering into that deep place of our character. By opening up and seeing what I really am, I’m not really sure God’s going to be loving me there. 

And you know how you can tell if that’s true in your life? If you don’t like seeing your sin. If you’re sin frustrates you. If your sin is something, then you can tell that this is something you’re not sure if you really open up and let God take you on a journey into those deep places to show you your neediness, you’re not sure if you’re really going to find God. And I have no doubt that there is some here who just have said, “I don’t want to go there. I’m not sure if I should and I’m not sure if God will be there.”

Here’s the temptation in that, number one. It’s to hold onto our goodness and our character. It’s to hold onto this: that it’s good and it might even be, “God, I don’t think I need to get introspective at this point in my life. I’ve lived a pretty long life. I’ve worked hard. I’ve done a lot of stuff. I just don’t think I need to go there now.” This is, what I would say, is the temptation to develop a life of a consciousness of goodness. Consciousness of goodness. This is where people develop families of a consciousness of goodness where they reflect to one another, “We’re good. We’re trying. And in those families there’s not a way to begin to really open up to what’s the truth going on. You know what often cracks families that have this consciousness of goodness who aren’t really willing to enter in and see what’s really is going on in my Christian life? All you have to have is one child who explodes. That’s all you have to have. One child where it didn’t work. And that really sends these families spinning. And there’s hardly anything better in life, but that’s the external trial to do that.

You know what dark nights are? Dark nights are internal trials when the external trials aren’t there. Just as a side note, I’ll just say this. When the ancient spiritual writers talked about this, they said, “You know, the early church didn’t even need dark nights because they had so much external persecution that the trials of life were constantly opening the heart to what do you really believe? What’s driving you? What’s really going on in the heart?” 

But they noticed that during times of peace and prosperity, when everything’s going well, those are times – Like, when I get up in the morning, my biggest decision is what I’m going to eat for breakfast. Am I going to have eggs or cereal? I don’t have a lot of external trials. And so, I have no external motivation to go on that journey inward. And so the Lord, He does, because He wants to fill me. And so dark nights are especially for the church during times of peace and prosperity, because they want to get our attention into, “Would you open up to see what’s inside?”

The second one. The second temptation I think is to despair of these rivers of living water. To just hit that place of middle age and say, “This is, I guess, all it is for me? It’s just the pastor’s got whatever he’s got, but for me, it’s just this. I have my quiet time. I pray to God. It’s not the rivers of living water. I don’t relate to everything Paul the Apostle when he talks about to know the height and the depth of the love of God and to be filled to the fullness of God. I don’t know what that is. 

And so the temptation is this: It’s to continue to present yourself, it’s to continue to be dutiful in your spiritual life, but not then look at what’s going on inside. That is resignation. This is where I’m going to bite the bullet. This is how you create a mature beginner. A mature beginner is the person who continues to be faithful and biting the bullet, doing what the Christian life is, but not opening up to God what really is going on in me. “Do I even want to be here praying? God, I want to love my wife as Christ loved the church, but God what’s really going on in here? Are there parts of me I’m so bugged at her.” Am I willing now to bring this in my relation to God?

You know what I think about this? I think the older generation – As I look at this, especially the church I came to the Lord and was for years – Those people are now often in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s. Elders that I knew. Pastors. Here’s what I think of the older generation, older than me at 50. They led with the body in their spirituality, and rightly so. And they became very diligent and they became a very faithful generation. But you know what was missing? They often didn’t open up to what was going on in the heart. They often didn’t open up the heart and asked, “God, what really is happening to me?” And you know what that led to? They were disciplined, but it led to a little bit of superficiality. Spiritual superficiality and even a little bit of arrogance because they even came to think that their duty, being dutiful and disciplined, was what matured them.

But you know the younger generation is very opposite. My generation and the one behind me. You know what they do? They lead with the heart. That is not what you lead with. Like Pastor Dale said, “Feelings are very bad leaders.” What it did do, it made them very interested in being authentic, being open, being real. But they became very undisciplined, very flaky, very unfaithful. My generation and those behind us were the worst givers the church has known for decades. The older generation was right to distrust the feelings, but let me just say this to you. Feelings are excellent windows into the soul. And that’s where one must begin. Yes, be faithful. Be dutiful. And then ask the real question, “God, what’s really going on in here?” And you open that to God and now you’re on a journey.

Number three. The temptation to defend against opening to the heart’s desire for the rivers of living water due to unrequited love. This is a person who just, you know, “God, I presented myself. I presented myself. I haven’t gotten those rivers of living water, so that’s it.” And you’ve despaired of that.

Or number four: to resist entering dark nights, because you don’t just see the point of it. “I don’t want to go in there.” And now you’ve made a decision almost unconsciously in your middle-age spirituality, “God, this is all it is and I guess now it’s my time to turn around and minister to others.” And that’s a sure way to dryness and burnout because it’ll be then a life of ministering more in the power of your character than what it could be in opening to the rivers of living water.

And number five. Here’s a temptation: It’s to create ministries of consolation. You know what ministries of consolation are? This will be that if leaders are unwilling to enter into their weaknesses and to open up, they will tend to create ministries that mirror this consciousness of goodness. They tend to create ministries of worship and teaching where it’s always up or it’s always, “We’re doing okay.” And we never have a place to frame and open, “If this isn’t true in your life, how good that is to know and enter that now.” And so everything is presented as a goal that I just have to keep going towards and I can never stop and say, “God, where am I?” and open up to Him in that.

e. How to Experience/What to Do in Ongoing Dark Nights

Regarding Early Dark Nights (reminder)

Now how to experience these? How to experience these dark nights? I’m going to skip the first regarding the earlier dark night because I do want to have questions tonight. We talked about that last time, but remember the major things were in the early dark night when God’s turning off central spirituality, give up trying to fix up yourself. That’s what dark nights are trying to cure you of. “God, I can’t fix myself anymore.” Give up trying to generate spiritual experiences. Open to whatever God has to give you. 

And those of you who are leaders – I cannot emphasize enough – resist the temptation to try to generate spiritual experiences for others. Resist the temptation to try to generate something where a person is going to be tempted then to make it work, to focus a little harder so that they’ll get consonant with what they are hearing or what they’re singing. Rather, “God, what’s going on in my life?” So we walked about that, but now regarding these ongoing dark nights.

Regarding Ongoing Dark Nights

The first one is - I say here - learn to sit amongst the weeds, the truth of yourself, with God as the gardener. The temptation that I’m going to have is I open up to these things I’m going to want to pull them. I’m going to want to be my own gardener. I’m going to want to pull, “God, I don’t want those things anymore. I shouldn’t be that way.” I want to move away from that Jiminy Cricket conscience we’ve talked about to really a relational faith, “God, you know what I want? I don’t want to be afraid of seeing myself. I just want to be with You in it. I want You to teach me.” 

Now next week we’re going to talk about a whole list of things that you can do on that basis. I’m going to talk about the spiritual disciplines and I’m going to talk about what it is to put on Christ, but this is the bottom ground, because you know something? Even my desire for transformation is often self-centered. Even that desire to have my sins out, is because I just want to be free of sin. I don’t want to be just free from sin anymore. You know what I want to be? I want to be connected to the Vine. I don’t want to just get the monkey off my back so I don’t have these vices. I want to open it to Him.

Jesus says in Matthew 11:28ff, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me. [That’s what I want to do first before I start doing regimens of how to change, because that’s what we’re going to talk about next time. The first move is, “God, I want to learn from You. I don’t want to just change my vices. You know what I want to do? I want You to teach me about them. I want You to take me on a journey about it. I want to take me on a journey even about my virtues and how I trust in those.] “And learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My load is light.” You know, my yoke, John Coe’s yoke, to change, that’s a heavy burden. My yoke of trying to pull my sins, that’s a heavy burden. I want to learn to sit with Him in my weaknesses.

Number two. Those of you who are middle-aged spiritually, let go of your goodness. I don’t mean go out and be bad, but let go of your goodness as your identity. Stop holding onto your integrity. Stop defending your mind as you hear sermons and you know there’s something not right that you defend yourself of, “Well, I think I’m doing that.” Dog gone it, you have an opportunity to come out of hiding. “God, I don’t think I want to do that. God, I think I’d rather lay home and watch videos today than go to church. My wife’s bugging me right now.” I don’t know what it is. 

When we hold onto our goodness as our identity, you know what happens to you as a person? You become fragile. You crack. You’re not very elastic in life. And you know who really know it? You know who really know it? Your children. Your children will know that you’re full of your goodness. And children sometimes get dog gone tired of it because they’re wondering, is dad real?  Is mom real? And then they see your vices leak out and you never open up deeply to them and the kids say, “They’re not real. They’re not looking at themselves.”

Number three. Let go of your character as the roadmap you trust. Now, that doesn’t mean – I’m still going to retain my character. You know why? Because others will be blessed by it.

But for me, for John Coe, I’m going to let go of my character, my wisdom, as my roadmap for getting around in the world. I want to be open more and more to being dizzy, to asking the question, “God, before I just jump in to fix this problem, I want to make something work. Solve this issue. God, I want You. God, I want You. I want You to be my roadmap. I want You to alter my mind map as You see fit so that I can stand with Job and say, “God, I know that You can do all things. You can do anything with my life You want.”’

Number four. I want to be diligent to present myself for obedience to the disciplines. I want to still do my duty and lead with the body. We’ll talk about that next time, but I want to do it in such a way that it opens my heart. The three elements in obedience are: you lead with the body to open the heart to what the Spirit of God is wanting to teach you. I just don’t want to lead with the body and think that’s enough. That leads to Phariseeism. That leads to dryness. Doing one’s duty without attention to the heart with God is a sure route to spiritual superficiality. It’s a sure route to powerlessness, to lovelessness.

Number five. I want to be willing to be open to a new power for ministry. When I came tonight, my number one prayer was, “God, I know what I want to say. I know what I’m thinking. God, I want to be open to You, though. If You’re doing anything with me and through me, I want to be open to that. I want You to teach me here. I want to be open to anything that You want to do as I’m here. I want to be open to another power source, rather than my own character and cleverness.”

Number six. I want to resist ministries of consolation. That’s for sure. I want to resist ministries of consolation where I’m trying to make it, so that we’re experiencing the up. We’re good. We’re growing. Everything’s fine. No. “God, I want to help in my own soul to this and I want to help open others’ souls in whatever I’m teaching, in whatever worship I’m leading. I want people to experience the truth of themselves in relation to God.”

And then in number seven. I encourage you to join with others who are on the same journey. I encourage you - Doug, this is, I know, Doug’s heart with an ongoing ministry here is that individuals would begin to come together who want to journey this way.

f. Concerns and Qualifications about Ongoing Dark Nights

Now here’s where I want to finish tonight. I just want to finish with some concerns and qualifications and maybe we’ll have some time for questions. These are some things that I have thought in light of the last time that might have come up in your mind about dark nights.

The first one is: I want to make a distinction between depression and dark nights, because there are some people here who struggle with depression tonight. I’m sure of that in this large audience. They’re different. They do come together. From an objective viewpoint, a dark night is a movement of the spirit on behalf of the believer, where clinical depression – I’ve been around psychologists for 18 years – has a more historical or even biological causal history. 

But from its objective viewpoint – This is the important one here - clinical depression may involve no particular object or focus. That is, when you’re clinically depressed you’re not focus on one particular thing. It’s usually a diffused sense of a loss of pleasure, a difficulty in sleep, a generally depressed mood, loss of energy overall. 

But dark nights have a very fine focus, at least initially. What a dark night is focused on is your relation to God, and this is particularly brought out when you practice spiritual disciplines. Let me just summarize that paragraph. A dark night is – you might actually be enjoying everything else. You like watching movies. You like being with your family. You like being with your kids. You’re just not so excited about reading the Word right now. You’re not so excited about prayer. A dark night is a very focused thing. Depression usually moves to all areas of life.

Now, let me just say about depression. Psychologists say that depression is anger turned inward. Well, you can think about that. If depression is anger turned inward, then depression is going to be a very special kind of putting off the old man. And you’re probably going to have to do this with a very wise person to assist you, because if there’s depression, there’s probably going to be pain and anger and sadness that you’ve never dealt with in an open and meaningful way. And someone’s probably going to have to assist you in that. 

Let me also say about a dark night. As a dark night goes on, it can begin to mingle with depression, because as a dark night goes on you’re seeing more and more of your stuff and this is going on and on and on. What can begin to happen is you can begin – If you’re not kind of willing to enter into this, you can begin to get depressed. That is you can get bugged, frustrated and angered. And then stuff it about what’s going on in your spiritual life. And here’s where you really need a mentor to help you begin to deal with what may be happening in your experience.

A second thing. Dark nights and the need to have a mentor. This is crucial. When you’re traveling in this place and you really want to open up to these areas in your life in relation to God, it gets really murky and mucky down there. And this is where it’s very good to be around a wise person, a wise man or woman, to take you on that journey. In therapy it’s a great time, because a good Christian therapist or counselor can help open up pockets of these vices in relation to God or a spiritual director to help you begin to discern, “God, what are You doing in all this? What’s going on in my life?”

And so, I know, Doug is interested in beginning to develop a ministry of spiritual direction where individuals are helping one another kind of navigate in their own life what – How to discern, “What is God doing in my life at any - in any one time?”

Number three I just said. Remember, dark nights are not the absence of God. They’re the presence of God. Dark nights are what it is to be filled with the Spirit when He wants to do His work. And again, during dark nights we think the Spirit is not there.

Number four. Just another little thought. Beware of thinking as you’re being purged, as you’re opening up to your sin, and you see what you really are. Beware of thinking this: That sin separates you from God and His holiness. I hear a lot of Christians say that. I call that a Christian proverb. Beware of Christian proverbs, because that’s true of a nonbeliever. Sin separates them from God, but you’re in Christ now. Nothing, neither death not life, nor sin, whatever – can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That’s Romans. You are pardoned. That means this. Even when you become aware of your sin as a believer now, the Spirit is there. The Spirit is drawing near. Dark nights is when the Spirit – He already knows your stuff. He’s trying to bring it up. And we may be running away from it, and that’s crazy.

Number five. The demonic and dark nights. There’s no doubt in my mind demons will be involved here. Demons will do all kinds of things, but their goal is quite different than God’s. You know what demons want to do in dark nights? Demons want to get you to work harder on your spirituality, to fix yourself, to cover your shame like we’ve talked about by being good. You know what demons also want to do to you older ones who are mature? They want you to say this, “You know, this is all there is. This is all it is. And so, either pack up for a vacation for the rest of your life or just hunker down, bite the bullet, and give yourself to ministry. Because the rivers of living water, I guess, are just not for you.” Those are demonic word whispers. God’s goals are transformation and love. God’s goals for those of you in your 40s and 50s and 60s and 70s is to take you on the journey of a lifetime into a deep love.

I’ll say in number seven, so that we can spend a little time. When dark nights and trials are painful, when they get really painful, especially trials, when there’s depression, dark nights, whatever – This is where having other brothers and sisters is so helpful. And at that time the issue is not necessarily to help relieve the pain but, like God, to model being with them in that so they might learn to carry that to God. But, you know, in some cases, the pain, the struggles, they’re perhaps individuals here where you can bet on Sunday morning, where the pain is so great that it seems that nothing will help. And again, there’s so much to think about this and I know there’s a lot of pain.

I want you to turn back to the very front of this. I want to read Thomas Merton, “No Man Is An Island,” and then we’ll take about ten minutes of questions. This statement has become very meaningful to me as I go on. It says this, “God, who is everywhere. God who is everywhere never leaves us. Yet, He seems sometimes to be present and sometimes absent.” That’s just the truth. If we do not know Him well. If we do not know Him well of what He’s doing, we do not realize that He may be more present to us when He seems absent than when He seems present. God may be doing such a profound work in your life if you’d only be willing to open to that truth.

Pray with me and then we’ll talk for a few minutes. Lord, we come to You. And we open ourselves to You, Lord. And here just opening your heart to God, I just want you to ask this question, have you ever said about your Christian life, “God, is this all there is? Is what I’m experiencing, is this all it is?” Are there some of you here, perhaps, who have just retired from growth and you’re recreating now as a believer? Or are there some of you here who have said, “This is all there is, but I’ll give myself to ministry.” Just ask the Lord if you’re willing and open, “Lord, open to me what this ongoing life of growth might look like. God, do I want to do this?” God, I know in this room right here I can tell there is an incredible potential for releasing the rivers of living water into lives of deep love, of deep prayer, of deep brokenness, of deep ministry. Oh Lord, here am I. Just continue to open my heart in the little things. Watch over us. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Questions and Answers

Okay, we have ten minutes. How about that? What is on your mind? What questions, what thoughts, what comments? Some of you have been in the faith a long time, and I’d love to hear your mind, your thoughts, your agreement or disagreement.

Question: Say what you mean when you talk about leading with the body.

Yeah, and that’s what I’m going to talk about quite a bit next time, so I won’t say too much here. But when I’m called upon in the Scriptures to do something, I’m not asked to think about it or to consider it or, “Well, I don’t know if my heart’s there.” I am required by, you know, by the Lord through Paul to present myself as a living sacrifice. I’m called to present the members of my body as instruments of righteousness so, when we lead with the body, what it means is kind of the Nike commercial. We do it. 

However, in the doing it, I know that that doesn’t transform me. So when I’m called to forgive, when I’m called to love my wife as Christ loved the church, I’m called to do it. Of course, as I’m doing it I will realize, if I’m open to my heart, there are times, “I’m kind of bugged at her.” Or, as I’m doing it I realize, “You know, Lord, I love so weakly. I love so pitifully,” and so, but nevertheless I am called to lead with the body. I’m not called to wait till my heart is ready. If anything, that’s the problem with my generation and with those below me. Yeah?

Question: In the first session you talked about how often we raise our children to be essentially moralists, but I didn’t really get a sense of what we’re supposed to do instead of that. Will you talk more about that later?

I could, but I probably am not going to. I mean I would love to. Parenting is a major issue of my life right now. It’s got me going. Well, here’s what I’m going to do. I’ll just try to make this as quick as I can. I’m going to parent the body of children. And what we mean about parenting the body is I am going to demand that they obey, that they engage in even, you know, trying first time obedience with parents. I am going to demand when I say something, when Greta says something, they’re to obey. And if not, there are consequences. See, that’s good shaping. But again Aristotle and the pagans can talk about that, too, but I am interested in shaping character and because I know there’s folly in their heart and if I just let kids do whatever they want, well, they’re going to unravel. 

And so, I am a parent who believes in corporal discipline. I’m a parent who believes in reinforcement, shaping, consequences, the whole bit, because I want to help my daughters contain their stuff so they can begin – although I know that they’re doing it in the power of themselves. I know they’re becoming, you know, a little legalist, but I want them to benefit from this character shaping. However, I also know that no amount of character shaping will ever open them deeply to the cross and to ultimately the life in the Spirit and to a robust prayer life. And so, what I need to do is I need to take my children on also slow journeys in age appropriate ways into the truth of themselves. 

Let me just say this. As a parent, this has impacted Greta and I so much these last years. If I would have started parenting 20 years ago, 30 years ago, when we got married, I know I would have treated my child more as a fellow disciple and that we’re both facing Jesus and that I would get him to have quiet times and I would get him to read the Word and to memorize the Word. That would be a primary focus. He’s a disciple and we’re together. Ages two, three. We’re going this way. And I came to see that’s not how children experience mom and dad. They experience mom and dad as – like God, and the relationality that I’m building in with them now that is going to dominate their prayer life 20 years from now. 

And so, here was a major move in my childrearing. My fundamental approach to childrearing is I want to parent my girls like God relates to me. That’s fundamental. And so, what I am trying to do is I am trying to relationally establish with them how God is relating to me. What do I want to do in this? Well, I am interested – They have to present their body, so I’m going to shape their body. But I’m interested in their heart. I am interested in their heart and I want them to know that more than anything else. I love their heart and I’m going in there. We’re going to go in together. 

And some of the things that I’m going to do is I’m going to peel – Remember that heart diagram with all those vices and the Lord wants to open that up? That’s what I want to do with my children. And I began doing this with them when they were three and two years old. I remember Ana was about three and one night she was going to bed and she didn’t want to go to bed. And I knew something was in her heart, and so I decided at night time I put them down. I love that. I’m sitting in the darkness and you know what I want to do? I know I need to peel back a little of Ana’s heart because Ana’s a little bugged with me. I can tell that as she was walking away from her little art project. She had to go to bed. She walked away kind of … and I know she’s bugged. I want to know what’s in her heart. 

And so, as we were talking that night I said to her, “You know, Ana, I know you were kind of bothered with Dad tonight. Well, Ana, right there, just like I am 20, you know, as an adult, I don’t know if Dada will really love me if I share what’s true in my heart. “Yes, Daddy, I was a little bugged.” I came back. Talked a little longer. Came back about a minute later. “Ana, you’re really bugged with me tonight.” “Yeah, Daddy.” I went on talking with her and then I finally came back and said, “Ana, in fact, tonight, you were really angry.” You know what I’m doing? I’m peeling her heart. Because if I asked her how she’s feeling. You know what she’ll say? “No, I’m fine.” No. I’ve got to peel her heart. So I said, “Ana, you were really angry with dad tonight.” You know what Ana did? There was this pregnant pause for about a minute and a half. I’m sorry, for about a second and a half. And then .… There was a sigh and “Yes, Daddy. You can do whatever you want. You’re like God. You tell us when to go to bed. You do” 

And Ana for the next four, five minutes, poured out her little heart. And she was saying – And, you know, she was praying to me. She was sharing with Dada her heart. God, I wanted to hear.  I wanted to hear it all. It was so wonderful. And then in opening the heart that she can share with me, then I shared with her why I do this. This is so crucial that we parent the heart of children, and you know what you’re going to have to do? You’re going to have to take them on slow journeys, age-appropriate journeys, into the truth of their badness, because what you want them to come to later in life like when their 19 is that they’ll say this, “God, I’m glad you shaped my body because I’ve got an okay character. And I see my friends at Biola who are just unraveling. But Dad, thank you that you took me on a journey inside where you began to show me how I really am, all the crap in my life, all the fighting between Chris and I, so that I know no amount of being good could ever cover my bad. That’s why I need Jesus.” 

There’s so many kids by the time they come to Biola and they spent so much dog gone time being good Jesus is a bore. Because their parents have just put them in a place of be good, be good, be good, be good, be good. Now we already talked about that. It’s already there in original sin to cover oneself by being good. So here I want to take them on this journey, so that’s pretty crucial but, yeah. There’s much to say here, but that’s a taste.

Another thing. Another question about any of this. Yes?

Question: Can you explain what you mean by rivers of living water?

Yeah. You know, all we mean by that is, you know, Jesus said to the woman at the well, you know, she says, “You want some water?” “I’ve got some water for you. I have water that – that will spring up onto eternal life and when you drink this water you’ll never thirst.” I know what it’s like in the Christian life to experience some of those waters and whoa they’re good. And I know some times in the Christian life where it’s pretty dog gone dry. Where it’s so dry I feel like I’m licking the bottom of a well. Have you ever licked the bottom of a well? Dust. If God wanted He could give us a theophany every time, but He wants to give us the rivers of living water. And what is this? He’s talking there about the ministry of the Spirit that was to come into the human heart that would eventually fill us with all the height and the depth and the breadth of the love of God and all the fullness of God.

And so, I just want us to talk truth. When you hear that text being taught next time you should say, “Is that true of me right now?” That’s truth talking. Because if it’s not, then you have a journey in  prayer with God. And if you’re not talking that way, I think we’re lying to our self. We’re deceiving our self, and we’re biting the bullet and going on. Again, now that I’m 50, other’s 50s, 60s, on, we’re in the grips of a great temptation to do this: To not be honest because we kind of start thinking, “This is it. This is what it is.”


You know, there is something true about that because I think often when we say, “God, where are You?” God’s saying, “I’m right here. I’m right here, John. But John, you’re living in pockets of your virtue and there are vices that hinder this. And John, that’s where you’re living, and so John, I – You know what I’m doing with you right now? I am giving you a taste of where you are at. That’s where you are John. But if you stay there, if you stay there and you just continue to open to me, God – See, see, you know, that’s the issue. 

You know, when you read the Psalm of laments, that’s why they need to be congregational rhythms because you know what the songs of laments are? I cried to you day and night. You weren’t there. This went on forever. But I cried to you day and night. You weren’t there. You weren’t – And I cried to You day and night.” That’s the message of the songs of laments. You persist in prayer because God is there. And He’s got so much to teach us if you’re willing to go to that place. He’s going to begin to expose pockets, again, of your self virtues as well as your vices, but our tendencies in dark nights is not to persist in prayer. It’s like, “Okay, enough of this. Let’s get on.” Sometimes I think we would rather chose to bite the bullet and a life of dry bones than to wait. I really encourage those of you who are worship leaders to bring back the Psalms of lament and to help open hearts. We need to close in prayer, okay? Time.

Father, here we are. We need You. Lord, I thank you that one day I will and everyone here will be so filled with Your presence, that we will finally be free of all of this. Until then, give us courage to open to You, Father, in whatever You give. Great consolation, great love, great openness and then times, Father, when you’re opening new places of my soul where Your Spirit is. God, I love You. God, I need You. Lord, I want You to – I just ask that You would really bless the people here, especially those who are in the middle of their spiritual life. God, be with them. Do something good here. We bless You in Jesus Name. Amen.

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