Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Beginning with God 1

Worship.jpgA wonderful German scholar once said, “The first and the final thought of Jesus was thought about God.” (I translate.) That theologian, Adolf Schlatter, gets it exactly right: what you think of God matters most.

So I want to begin a new series and we’ll use James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love With the God Jesus Knows (The Apprentice Series), as our launching pad to think more about God, to think more about what we think about God, and to bring our view of God into line more with what Jesus taught us about God. I predict this book, and the two more in the series, will become deeply influential books in evangelical churches that want to deepen spiritual formation.


James Bryan Smith’s focus in this book is on transformation and change. Building on Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, he sees transformation taking place in these ways:

 But first our question: What helps folks change the most in spiritual formation? One more: What do you think is the least helpful idea or practice or suggestion in helping folks change?

Most of us want to change, whether it is changing some bad habit to changing a deeply-ingrained character defect, and Smith’s focus is that for change to occur we have to learn that change does not result from willpower. The “will” has “no power.”

We enter now into a major feature of this book, and I hope the one that will generate great conversations: the power of false narratives in our lives and the power of good narratives that can effect change. The false narrative is that effort and willpower leads to change. Jesus’ narrative is that change occurs through indirection, a word that is important but not the best of words to communicate. Essentially he is speaking of the power of a new narrative that can change us. Here are the elements:


1. Changing the stories in our minds;
2. Engaging in new practices;
3. Reflection and engagement with others on the same path;
4. Shaped by the Holy Spirit.

Here are the narratives at work in our minds that shape us, and these narratives (or stories) are both running and sometimes ruining our lives:

1. Family narratives
2. Cultural narratives
3. Religious narratives
4. Jesus narratives.

Smith also has short interludes about spiritual disciplines and I will not be focusing on those, though I will mention each: at the end of this chp he speaks of the importance of sleep. The number one enemy of spiritual formation and change is exhaustion, so he argues. He’s right. Everywhere I go pastors tell me folks are tired and busy and too booked to do anything more.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 12:39 am

Wow, sounds like a fascinating book! I’ll definitely be checking out the rest of this series.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 1:14 am

Q: “What helps folks change the most in spiritual formation?”
For me, being involved in Christian community and seeing godly behavior modeled by others.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 7:47 am

“What helps folks change the most in spiritual formation?”
Abiding in Him.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 9:01 am

It seems to me there is slight contradiction in the description on how spiritual formation truly happens. In one sense, it doesn’t happen by “willpower” or effort, but 3 of the 4 elements that are listed seem to require some sort of “effort”…Am I missing something?

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Dan Jones

posted July 15, 2009 at 9:43 am

I think the one thing that helps the Christian (already at least minimally attempting to find depth to life in scripture) is to serve others and to specifically serve “the least among” us. Seeing the power of the Kingdom of God heal, restore, revitalize, and redeem is second only to seeing those served by it’s power come to love Jesus.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 9:43 am

Samuel (#4) said: ‘it doesn’t happen by “willpower” or effort’.
Hi Samuel. I agree that lasting faith doesn’t result from willpower, but it does require effort. If we don’t really want something, it won’t happen. The Spirit gives Christians the passion to follow Jesus, but that doesn’t negate our human effort.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 9:47 am

Yes, 3 of the 4 require some effort or cooperation on our part, but the effort is not toward the specific change of character that are generally sought. Meaning the way to obeying the Jesus Creed more, for instance, isn’t to just make it happen by force of will.
Wow. This sounds like a really good book. Looking forward to the series.

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Scott Morizot

posted July 15, 2009 at 10:22 am

And, of course, “really wanting” something means you will it. While we lack the power for true spiritual formation and thus need grace (which is simply to say that we need God himself), any spiritual formation at all requires that we will to be a human who can commune with God and that we exert what effort we can toward that goal, trusting God to bring it to fruition.
You also can’t stand still — or at least I’ve never encountered anyone who did. You are either participating and shaping yourself along the way of life or along the way of death. But we are always in movement somewhere.

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Rob Peterson

posted July 15, 2009 at 11:00 am

I too think Smith’s book will be an important contribution to the many conversations about spiritual formation. I was just at the Renovare conference where Smith presented his book. Two things stood out to me. One, he said he read chapter nine of Willard’s Divine Conspiracy 30 times. Two, he asked Willard many times when he was going to write a practical “curriculum” for the church. Willard kept saying “JIm why don’t you.” Smith’s recent books are his attempt at making chapter nine of Divine Conspiracy understandable. As far as the issue of will power goes I think Smith rightly says it can not change us but he doesn’t say it is irrelevant to the formation process.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 5:25 pm

The question of what causes us to grow is a bit faceted. Here’s my attempt :)
1: The first foundation of belief and spirituality comes only from the regeneration from God. Coming from a Calvinistic perspective here, so the movement of grace is the first thing.
2: After regeneration, there seems to be two main ways that begin to complement one another. The first is that we learn something about theology and then we experience the truth of it in life and thus grow to trust it. This is probably the most common, at least in terms of ways to grow correctly and steadily.
3: The second way, still occurring but less reliable at times, is to come to an inductive view of the world and try to gain theological truth from events that occur. While this can be right, it can be difficult to get anything nuanced in its full glory from inductive thought alone.
Someone may say that these views reflect too great an emphasis on knowledge alone. I will say that knowledge does not necessarily result in maturity (i.e., secular biblical scholars), but I would argue that all maturity must come from knowledge. What is faith, but knowing what God has spoken and believing it? The will to believe comes from God, that which we believe comes from theology.

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Phil M

posted July 15, 2009 at 5:26 pm

The comments about effort and will power remind me of two things:
1) the recent series on Marriage where one of the things that was brought out was that you first take on the behaviour of a lover and the feelings follow.
and related to that
2) Jesus encouragement that all who seek will find
The basis for both of those actions is desire. The desire may not necessarily be for God, but simply the desire to desire God – we want to want to love God. We know sometimes that we don’t desire him, and that is where the effort comes in – not because we desire God, but because we recognise that we don’t and we need to seek him; which we do through the 4 elements of the new narrative.
That may sound a bit like justification by works, but it’s not – it’s just the practical side of seeking Him. Justification is not what we are looking for – we are looking for Him, knowing that justification is His free gift.

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Scott J.

posted September 4, 2009 at 2:04 pm

You asked the question of what is the least effective way of bringing about change.
I would say the obsession with more. More prayer, more scripture reading, more church attendance, more devotional reading. Our prescription for creating change is so often to tell someone what they need to add to their life. Adding things to our already busy lives usually ends with frustration and resignation.
What if we found ways to cut things from our lives? Even important things such as church services, committees, and ministries. Maybe the problem isn’t we don’t have enough religious activities in our lives but we have too much or the wrong kind and it is stifling our transformation.
I have set a schedule for my week. I read scripture three times a week for fifteen minutes, I pray three times a week for fifteen minutes, and I try to memorize one scripture for the week. I won’t be making it through the Bible in a year but I will be able to reflect, consider and thoughtfully meditate on what God is doing in my life. I am avoiding the addiction to accomplishment in favor of a method of creating space for the Holy Spirit to work. We will see.

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