The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1,2 NIV).
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1,2 NIV).
Do you remember the book, The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne that they also made into a movie? It was really popular for a while and promoted what they called The Law of Attraction which claims that thinking positively about something can make it appear in your life. A dubious idea at best. It was clothed with some religious language (ask, believe, and receive) and fits well into the Prosperity Gospel that has swept through the American churches in recent years. It sold 20 million copies at least and was translated into more than 50 languages. Rhonda Byrne certainly attracted a lot of money and fame into her life. Maybe it does work!
Well, I have a better alternative for you to read. It is called The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith and was first published in 1870. It’s a classic on the spiritual life and well worth reading. It sold only 2 million copies but was also translated into multiple languages. Hannah Whitall Smith was born in Philadelphia from a long line of prominent Quakers. She and her husband were lay speakers for the Holiness movement in the United States and the Higher Life Movement in England. They were the forerunners of the Keswick Conferences and the Deeper Life Movement that have been a blessing to millions.
Hannah didn’t have a perfect life by a long shot. She had seven children but only three lived into adulthood, one marrying the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell. She was quite active in the women’s rights and suffrage movements and her views on the role of women were quite progressive for the times. But her later years were rocked with scandal because of the sexual misconduct of her husband, Robert, and his ongoing temptation with adultery. Hannah died in England in 1911. She lived a modest life and some would say that she ended her life in disgrace.
Sure, she was influenced by Wesley’s view of sanctification and bordered on some dubious Christian mysticism. She even became a Universalist in her later years believing that everyone will ultimately be saved and no one will go to hell. Obviously, there are some things here that we should take with a grain of salt. Many people criticize her view of sanctification by calling it the “Let go and let God” theology of holiness. Just relax and let God do it all. But this is a truly unfair caricature of what she taught. The later Keswick Conferences and the Deeper Life Movement corrected some of the imbalances in her theology and are now considered to be one of the most influential spiritual movements of our time. It is easy to miss the message of her book and that would be a real shame because she got one thing absolutely right. She had found The Secret (and, no, it wasn’t the Law of Attraction).
It really isn’t a secret, I suppose, since the Bible certainly teaches it over and over again, but she put it so well and stayed focused on the one thing that mattered most. We have to recognize that she, indeed, deserves her place as one of the great spiritual writers of the previous generation. She found the Secret and I want to share it with you.
Once you understand what the secret is you will see it everywhere in the gospels as the background to all of the apostolic writings, the disciples efforts, the encouragements, the admonitions, the rebukes. Once you see it, you will recognize it as the heart of the gospel, the focus of the cross, the one experience of the new testament church that makes sense of everything they went through.
It is only a secret to those who are still dallying with sin, still half-hearted in their walk with God, still confused about the Bible’s teaching on holiness as a life set apart to God in full surrender and consecration to his work and purposes.
There, I’ve said it. It just slipped out. It is a secret that the Devil will work hard to keep from your eyes but if you let the Holy Spirit show it to you, it can transform your life and your walk with God. Hannah puts it this way. What she means by the secret is “an entire surrender of the whole being to God – spirit, soul, and body placed under His absolute control, for Him to do with us just what He pleases. We mean that the language of our hearts, under all circumstances and in view of every act, is to be “Thy will be done.” We mean the giving up of all liberty of choice. We mean a life of inevitable obedience” (p. 48). Just like Jesus in his Temptation on the Way to the Cross in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Yes, I know. It isn’t really a secret. We sing songs about it in church (I surrender all) and we hear sermons that call us to repentance as a form of surrender of our wills to the will of God. And yet so few people do it or live in that kind of surrender on an ongoing basis. For Hannah, it was a way of life. It was a place of rest. She could decide once and for all (and then renew that commitment as many times as necessary) that she belonged body and soul to her Lord Jesus Christ and that meant nothing less than absolute obedience to His will. It meant searching her heart to root out any area of secrecy or rebellion or self-will. It meant training in righteousness for the moment of temptation and resorting to the way of the cross when she sinned. But she got back on the path as quickly as she could and she dealt with sin ruthlessly and efficiently. It didn’t all happen at once but the first step still could put you entirely into the abundant life even though you might have to learn and train yourself to deal with your wayward emotions, mind and will.
This is the abundant life. It was a focus on the relationship first of all. Hannah made a big point (and that is the secret) of focusing on the relationship first and in that context deal with the issue of sin and temptation and failings and difficulties. Without prioritizing the relationship first, all of your efforts at holiness are bound to fail since they are rooted in the flesh and not in the Spirit.
We often try to deal with sin and temptation without first making a pledge, a commitment to one hundred percent surrender. That is what Paul meant by trying to obey God in the power of the flesh. Jesus isn’t interested. It doesn’t work. Our walk in holiness is not meant to be our work but rather Christ’s work in us. Our job is to stay in a right relationship with him (and others) through the way of the cross by confessing our sins and then making a pledge, a commitment to a lifestyle of repentance and obedience. We deal with the specific sin, of course, by changing our ways and getting whatever help we need to deal with it but we also need to make a commitment to the overall lifestyle/relationship that we will follow. Just like marriage. We cannot let sin discourage us from this posture of surrender, of loving obedience as a way of life. We cannot let our weaknesses distract us from the relationship that is ours through faith both in terms of justification as well as holiness.
Full surrender and consecration to his purposes and will is the focus and attitude of our hearts in our relationship with God made possible through the cross. Sin cannot stop us from entering into that abundant life. We may commit ourselves one moment and then find ourselves sinning the next. As soon as we are aware of it, we need to act on it. Confess it. Ask for God to help us with it. Deal with it. As one Pastor has so aptly put it, “Sin is the easiest thing to deal with if you take it to the cross.” There are many pitfalls that we must learn to avoid and that is part of the training in righteosness.
Let me give you one example. Sometimes our propensity to sin can discourage us and we think that this is “a righteous grief and disgust at ourselves that such things could be any temptation to us” (p. 125). Hannah goes on to explain, “we are discouraged because we have expected something from ourselves, and have been sorely disappointed not to find that something there” (p.125). But this is nothing but wounded self-love. “True humility can bear to see its own utter weakness and foolishness revealed, because it never expected anything from itself, and knows that its only hope and expectation must be in God” (p. 125).
This kind of training in righteousness will keep our relationship with God right and mortify our flesh so that it cannot interfere with the abundant life. Does that mean that we will never sin? No. It means that we can grow in righteousness. It means that we can become more mature in the relationship (just like human relationships). It means that we can certainly learn how to stay focused and not get distracted from the one thing that matters – staying connected to Jesus so that His life can flow in us and through us.
So what did Hannah mean by “letting go and letting God.” Well, remember that that is a caricature of what she actually meant. Yes, some of her language isn’t as precise as it should be. She was a layperson not a theologian but what she lacked in clarity she made up for in passion. When you look at the work it takes to stay in right relationship with God and the strength of will it needs, the determination it takes, you wonder what part God has to play in all of this. What Hannah believed is that our wills would be strengthened by God and that our determination to follow Him with our whole hearts would be supported by the Holy Spirit but we have to take the step of faith.
We have to believe in faith that the resurrection power of God is there waiting for us to access it and that it is free for whoever wants it badly enough to commit their lives into the hands of God. That full surrender and consecration to his purposes and will is the secret that unlocks the power of the abundant life and brings peace and joy and love beyond measure.
The idea is to let go of our own self-will and to take hold of God by fully committing ourselves to His will for our lives. When we take this step of faith, God will respond and will give us access to that resurrection power that can transform lives. There are literally thousands of testimonies that it happens exactly like that. Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith but we must take hold of him by faith through a complete (not partial) surrender of our wills. If you love me, Jesus said, you will obey my commandments. Period. You can argue all you want that your will isn’t strong enough for that (even if we are only talking about conscious sins) but that is the whole point. Your will (and mine) most certainly isn’t strong enough to maintain that commitment or to keep our promises. We are entirely dependent on Him to give us the power to continue and He has promised that power to us. We need to grab ahold of it by faith.
There is a lot more to say about this secret of the Happy Christian life, not the least of which is that this happiness is really the true joy that comes from surrendering all things into his hands and then seeing his power come alive in you. Are we always able to hold on to this power without falling? Of course not. That’s not the point. Let’s not get all perfectionistic all of a sudden. It isn’t about being perfect in our obedience at every moment of every day but rather it is about fighting to stay in constant contact, in right relationship, in the peace of His presence as much as possible.
And every time we are knocked off the path, we scramble right back up without remorse or shame because He loves us and wants us back in his arms absolutely as fast as possible. That’s why He died on the cross to make it possible for us to sin and repent and sin and repent not seven times but seventy times seven. That means that our desire to get right back on the path, to struggle to stay in that sweet spot, to keep coming back to him without shame is a symbol of our faith in his salvation. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Of course we belong back on the path in his arms. We are one with him. Where else would we be, where else could we go? This is the secret of the abundant life. Walk in it.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God…..
Lord, I want to surrender my life to you fully and completely. I consecrate my life, my resources, my family, my reputation to your work and purposes and will. Please train me in righteousness so that I can deal with sin and rebellion and failure quickly and efficiently through the way of the cross. Help me to live in the joy of the abundant life. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.