New Testament Christianity by J B Phillips
9. CHRISTIAN MAINTENANCE
In order to live a life of New Testament quality, we shall find it necessary to work out some kind of practical plan to keep us alive and sensitive to the Spirit of the living God, which will keep us supplied day by day with the necessary spiritual reinforcement, and which will help us to grow and develop as sons and daughters of God. It is unfortunately only too easy to slip back into conformity with our immediate surroundings, and to lose sight of the supra‑human way of living, except perhaps as a wistful memory. This does not in the least mean that real Christian living is a kind of spiritual tight‑rope walk, a fantastic and unnatural progress which can only be maintained by intense concentration. On the contrary, the Christian way of living is real living, and it carries all the satisfaction and exhilaration which living in reality can bring. It is quite simply because we are surrounded by unreal and false values, by a pattern of living divorced from and unconscious of spiritual realities, that we have to take time and trouble to maintain supra‑natural life, even though that life is in the truest sense the natural one. Experience shows that Christians whose lives are illuminated by the new quality of living, only maintain that inner radiance by taking certain practical steps. Now, naturally these will vary in individual cases, and there are people who either by temperament or through long years of practice can absorb God through the pores of their being, so to speak, as naturally and easily as most of us can breathe. But for the majority of us who are walking "by faith and not by sight" there are some essentials for the maintenance of real Christian living.
The first essential need is for quiet. The higher the function of the human spirit, the more necessity for quietness. We cannot, for example, solve a difficult mathematical problem, neither can we appreciate good music, nor indeed art in any form, if we are surrounded by noisy distractions. It is imperative that somehow or other we make for ourselves a period of quiet each day. I know how difficult this is for many people in busy households, and for some even the bedroom is not quiet or private enough. But if we see the utter necessity for this period of quiet, our ingenuity will find a way of securing it. Many churches are open for this purpose among others, and there is no reason at all why we should not use the quiet of the reading‑room of the public library. But daily quiet we simply must secure, or the noise and pressure of modem life will quickly smother our longing to live life of the new quality.
What we must do in the period of quiet is to open our lives to God ‑ to perfect understanding, wisdom, and love. Perhaps it seems unnecessary to point this out, yet pastoral experience convinces me that people need to be reminded that we must be completely natural and uninhibited in our approach to the God "in whom we live and move and have our being". Most practising Christians have got beyond feeling that God must be addressed in Elizabethan English in deference to His Majesty, but there still lingers on an idea that we must be spiritually "dressed in our best" as we approach Him. I am far from suggesting that we should ever treat the awe‑inspiring mystery of God with over‑familiarity. Yet we know perfectly well, on the authority of Christ, that He is our heavenly Father and our common sense tells us that, although He respects our individuality and our privacy, yet everything about us is quite open to His eyes. We are not addressing some super‑earthly King, some magnified Boss; we are not even addressing a purified and enlarged image of our own earthly fathers. We are opening our hearts and minds to Love, and we need have no fears, no reticences, and no pretences. Strange as it undoubtedly is, He loves us as we are, and indeed we shall make no sort of progress unless we approach Him as we are.
Prayer has so many aspects that it requires much longer treatment than I can give it here, and I will only mention three which seem to me the most important. The first is the value of worship. For myself, I do not think worship can be forced, nor can I imagine that God wants it so to be. But if we make a habit of associating all that is good, true, lovely, and heart‑warming in our ordinary experience of life and people with Him Who is the Source of every good and perfect gift; if without forcing ourselves to be grateful we quietly recount those things for which we can be truly thankful; if we allow our own dreams and aspirations to lead us upward to the One from Whom they are in fact derived, we shall not infrequently find that the springs of worship begin to flow. Sometimes a consideration of the Character of Christ as revealed in the Gospels, sometimes a consideration of the whole vast Plan for man's redemption, and sometimes a consideration of the immense complexity and wisdom revealed in a dozen different departments by the researches of Science will move us to wonder, admiration, awe, and worship.
The second important point I should
like to make is that in our prayers we should not merely confess our sins and
failures to God, but claim from Him the opposite virtue. If we stress again and
again our own particular failings, we tend to accentuate and even to perpetuate
them. Many of us Christians need to adopt a more positive attitude. We need to
dare to draw upon the inexhaustible riches of Christ, not as though that were
some poetic and metaphorical expression, but as though it were a fact. The
Gospel is not Good News if it simply underlines our own sinfulness. That is
either a foregone conclusion or it is Bad News! But the whole wonder and glory
of the Gospel is that into people who have sinned and failed badly God can pour
not only the healing of forgiveness but the positive reactivating power of
goodness. It is not the mere overcoming of a fault that we should seek from
God, but such an overflowing gift of the opposite virtue that we are
transformed. I cannot believe that the miracles of personality‑transformation,
which undoubtedly occurred in such places as
Thirdly, I should like to stress the value of intercession for other people. I do not pretend to understand the mystery of intercession, though I am sure it is never an attempt to bend the will of a reluctant God to do something good in other people's lives. But somehow in the mysterious spiritual economy in which we live we are required to give love, sympathy, and understanding in our prayers for others, and this releases God's power of love in ways and at depths which would otherwise prove beyond our reach. I confess I stand amazed at the power of intercessory prayer, and not least at what I can only call the "celestial ingenuity" of God. He does not, as a rule, directly intervene; He assaults no man's personality, and He never interferes with the free‑will which He has given to men. Yet, working within these apparently paralysing limitations, God's love, wisdom, and power are released and become operative in response to faithful intercessory prayer. It is all part of the high Purpose, and all true Christians are responsibly involved in such praying.
It is very noticeable in the
New Testament records of the early Church that Christians existed in
fellowship. Of course it may easily be pointed out that a sect which was such a
tiny minority in a pagan world would be forced to close its ranks and stand
together if it were to survive at all. That is perfectly true, but it was
surely more than mere expediency that kept the early Christians together.
Surely part of their extraordinary strength and vitality was due to their being
"of one heart and mind". They worshipped and prayed together, they
shared in "the breaking of bread" (Acts ). Even though, judging from the
evidence of Paul's letters, it was not very long before factions and
"splinter groups" arose, yet the overall picture is of the
Now, since human beings are for the most part gregarious by nature, they tend to join with others who have similar interests. There are clubs, associations, fraternities, and societies without number throughout the whole civilised world to join together in fellowship people whose common interest may be fly‑fishing, stamp-collecting, bird‑watching, hiking, photography, gardening, inter‑planetary travel, or any of a host of widely assorted subjects. Since this is so, it would appear to the casual observer that the fellowship of the Church is simply another organisation, in this case an association of people whose interests lie in the Christian religion. But this is very far from being the case, for the fellowship of Christians is the outward manifestation of a deep spiritual unity. Men and women have discovered through the living Spirit of God what they are meant to be and the Plan with which they are called to co‑operate. They have discovered the reality of the spiritual order, and what is even more important, they have found that Jesus Christ is no mere Figure of history, but a living contemporary Person Whose personality and power cleanses and invigorates their own. They have discovered beneath the surface of different temperaments and backgrounds that they belong to the same family - that they are all sons and daughters of the same Father. They are in a world largely insensitive to the true order of things, "picked representatives" of the new humanity (see Colossians ). In a very real sense they are carrying on the work which Christ began so long ago, not so much in admiration and memory of Him, but as people dedicated to follow the leading of His contemporary Spirit. They form together, as Paul pointed out long ago, "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians ). They are not a human organisation but a supra‑human organism. They are the life of the real world being expressed in human terms in the present temporary set‑up.
Of course all the above may appear a pathetically or even a ridiculously idealistic picture of the modern Church. But surely the words fairly represent what the Church should be and could be, and they at least partly explain why Christian fellowship in the Church is far more essential than any human association for the promotion of this, that, or the other. Because Christians are "members one of another" they must work as an organic whole, different as their individual functions may be. All this means that a very large part of our Christian maintenance will consist of joining in with the fellowship of the Church, in its prayer and worship, in its work and service. Many people who profess to be Christians are very irregular worshippers. I do not think they can possibly realise how they weaken the cause of the Church, and in addition starve themselves of Christian fellowship. Many people appear to be convinced that they can lead good lives without committing themselves to Church attendance or the fellowship of the Church. Of course if the object of Christianity were to produce good, respectable people, quite a fair proportion could go on being good and respectable, and even bringing up good and respectable children, without much aid from the Church. But suppose that is not the point at all; it certainly is not the point in the New Testament. The Church is never regarded as a rallying‑ground for the good and respectable. On the contrary, it is a fellowship of those whose lives have been transformed by Christ, a fellowship of those who have become aware of the vast spiritual struggle which is taking place on the stage of this planet, a fellowship of those who are the actual living instruments of God's Purpose today. If our aim is merely morality, we may very well be able to do without the Church, but if we are being called as sons and daughters of God to co‑operate with His high Purpose in the redemption of mankind, we cannot absent ourselves from the fellowship of other Christians without greatly impoverishing both that fellowship and our own souls. If you had stood as I have stood for so many years in the shoes of a minister of religion, you would see the situation with very different eyes. You would see, as the parson does, that when it is an extra fine day and you say, "I think I will give the Christian fellowship a miss today; let us get out into the country", thousands of others say and do exactly the same thing. The result is not merely that public worship is thinly attended, but we miss more than it is possible to estimate the corporate prayer and the renewal week by week of our common dedication to our unseen Lord. Yes, and on the purely human level we miss the mutual encouragement and warmth that only a full Church fellowship can bring.
Again, if the Church is to make any worth‑while impact on the surrounding community, if it is even to speak with a voice worth hearing, it must have the active committed support of all true Christians. I repeat, I do not think that the many delightful casual Christians whom I know have the slightest idea how they sabotage the power and witness of the Christian fellowship by their haphazard attachment to the Church. Now, we have already admitted that the early Church was compelled to be a close‑knit fellowship in order to survive against all the forces of paganism. The forces of paganism are no less powerful today, although they are not nearly so obviously dangerous. Modern materialism, secularism, abysmal ignorance about God and His Plan for life are very real enemies on the side of darkness, and the lone Christian does less than nothing for the army of light when he remarks: "I find I can be just as good a Christian without ever joining the Church."
This whole question of entering
fully into the worship and work of the Church must be faced by all those who
genuinely desire to serve Christ in this modem age. There is an immense amount
of diffused good‑will and willingness to serve others in countries with a
Christian tradition such as this. Such things are far from valueless to the
community as a whole, but I am convinced they would be far more potent in
coping with mankind's ills and necessities if they were part of the extra‑mural
work of the
Sharing our inward lives, then,
and joining in the fellowship, worship, and service of the Church, are essentials
for Christian maintenance. Very close to them in importance lies the habit of
regular Bible reading. Countless men and women throughout the centuries have
found their inspiration and nourishment for the Christian life in reading the
Word of God. Now, I am not at all sure that our modern way of living is suited
to the old‑fashioned methods of Bible study. It is not really going to
help us to live today if we know, for example, the chronological order of the
This intelligent reading, particularly of the New Testament, will keep alive and alert our inmost spirits. The sacred pages are truly inspired, not, I believe, in any "verbal inspirational" sense, but because they contain the Word of God or, in case that is a meaningless cliché, they contain truths of the Real World in the language of this. Again and again we shall find ourselves challenged, convicted, inspired, or comforted by truths that are not of man's making at all, but which are bright shafts of light breaking through into our darkness.
Closely allied to intelligent
Bible study lies Christian reading. It is a profound mistake to suppose that
the Holy Spirit of God ceased to inspire writers when the New Testament had
been completed. There are many Christians today who from one year's end to
another never read a Christian book. They have little or no idea, for example,
how Christianity is spreading throughout the world, of the triumphs and
disappointments of the
on to 10. Christian Service