ONLY THE BEGINNING


 
Some people want to know God's will for their lives so they can weigh in advance whether to do it. God, however, reveals His will only to those who are committed to follow, whatever the cost. (Jamie Buckingham - Bible People Like Me, 1988)

 
We all want to arrive, but Christian life on earth is about the journey. We'd like to be the complete "new creation" that we're supposed to be, but God keeps on working on us, relentlessly. We don't want to be beginners, but there is so much to learn that we will, in the words of Thomas Merton, "never be anything else but beginners all our life". Only when we occasionally glance backwards do we realise how far we've come, until we look forward again and realise this is still "only the beginning"!
 
 
WHAT'S IN A WORD?
 
Beginning: The Old Testament begins with the words "in the beginning", and the root Hebrew word carries the idea of "at the start' or "at the head of (things)" - so we can translate Genesis 1: 1 to read "At the head of all things God created...". In the New Testament the Greek word carries the idea further to indicate the first, the origin, the active cause, whether a person or a thing. The verb means literally to be first, and the noun indicates a ruler. In both Testaments the "beginning" is clearly more than a temporal marker in a narrative - it indicates importance, worth, pre-eminence. In Colossians 1: 18 Paul writes of the Son of God that "He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead", and it doesn't get any more important than that!
 
Any beginning is more than just the starting point in time - what happens in that moment of beginning could be, and normally is, of crucial importance. Scientists tell us that the first infinitely short moment of the Big Bang determined all the parameters of our universe; if anything was in the least different, there probably would not have been a universe, and most definitely not one in which we could marvel at the wonder of God's creation.
 
Beginning is even more important in the spirit world. In this first study, therefore, we will spend some time analysing the beginning of your new journey, and from it deduce some guidelines for the future.
 
 
"THE LONGEST JOURNEY STARTS WITH A SINGLE STEP"
 
My daughter and son-in-law gave me a t-shirt which reads "The longest journey starts with a single step". It is so basic, yet we often forget that nothing can happen without a beginning. When I was a student there was a joke going around about sparrows:
Ten sparrows sat on a wire. One decides to fly away. How many remain?
The instinctive answer is "nine"; the correct answer is "ten" - he has only made a decision, he hasn't moved a single feather!
 
We often make spritual decisions that leads to nothing, unless we take that first step. Sometimes we take that step, sometimes God pushes us so we do not have a choice but take the step, and in most cases it is virtually impossible to figure out who started it - the important thing is that the journey has to start!
 
I assume that you are at this point in this study because you have taken that first step, either voluntarily or by reflex, to leave the grasshopper behind and take to the sky. There's an infinite number of ways to get to this point, but behind the individual details we can discern some general principles, beautifully set out in Downhere's song "Only The Beginning".
 
"It's only beginning, it's true"
 
Never mistake the starting blocks for the finish line. When God lifts us out of the grey into the colour of his world, we have a tendency to want to hang around and enjoy the view. Don't. His calling is to run the race, not to enjoy the spectacle of the arena (Hebrews 12:1). Furthermore, don't think that you are seeing everything that He is calling you to. His calling is always to a deeper, more real, walk with Him, but hidden inside that master calling is a very specific individual calling (or callings) for you alone, and you'll only uncover the details as you start walking with Him. It's great to look at the world through new eyes; what we really need is to see the details, and that only comes as we travel on the road marked out for each of us. You may think you know where all this is going, but God is offering much more than you can see at the start. Don't hunker down - start walking. Or in the imagery we're using, keep flying!
 
But, starting the new journey with God always happens in His time. And His time only begins when we give up on our feeble efforts and abandon ourselves to the wind of His Spirit.
 
"Just when I thought my time was through"
 
If you haven't reached the point of giving up on yourself, you are not ready for God to move sovereignly. And He won't move until you give up. It's as simple as that, for God will not share His glory with anyone.
 
Somebody once said that what sets Christianity apart as a religion, is that it is the only religion that totally gives up on mankind. It is the only religion that says "if God doesn't step in and do something, we are doomed for eternity". We need to get to the point of totally giving up on ourselves, and in desperation throw ourselves under His mercy, knowing that it's only the God who saved us who can keep us saved and on the road. Or in the air!
 
Look at your recent attempts to change aspects of your life by yourself. In all honesty, before God, did it work?
 
Have you really and truly come to the end of yourself? Are you ready to let God take over?
 
Once you get to the point of KNOWING that you can't do a thing, ADMIT it to God. Officially and formally acknowledge your inability and your total dependence on Him.
No human can bring you to this point, but God demands more than intellectual agreement from you. He will push you until you break, until you cry out in desperation and let go. Until you admit your utter inability and total dependence on his grace. Until you allow Him to take you beyond your own control.
 
I'm assuming that you have reached, and passed, that point, and have experienced how God can move when we give up on our own abilities. Just remember, at every step of your journey, never to take back control - the biggest temptation for every growing believer is to start of in total dependence on God, and then slowly drift back into human effort. The church in Galatia thought they could finish by human endeavour what started by means of the Spirit alone - Paul disagreed, calling them "foolish" and "bewitched"!
 
"Oh the stirring I feel inside / is the Voice I cannot deny"
 
When God start moving in you, it is hard to deny that something is happening. But how do we know that it is God and not our own delusions? How do we know that God is guiding us, and not our own dreams and desires?
 
Much has been said and written about divine guidance, but the only real answer is that you will know when God leads you... Like a baby getting to know its own mother's voice and eventually understand what she says, so we learn to discern God's voice in the mad noisiness of our lives. Yes, we may make mistakes, but learn from the mistake and move on!
 
Generally speaking, God uses three avenues of communication with us: The Bible, our circumstances (which can include input from other people), and His direct voice (not necessarily an audible voice -- it includes visions, dreams, sudden insights, anything where God is the direct source); the more these three line up the surer we can be that we are on the right track. The Bible, the revealed will of God, lays down the outer limits: God will never lead you contrary to His truth as revealed in Scripture. Circumstances usually act to narrow down your options, excluding certain allowable choices and funneling you in a more specific direction. God's direct voice is what takes us "the last mile" to the final decision, or act, or understanding. We can see this operating clearly in the way Paul ended up taking the gospel to Greece: He knew the revealed will of God for him was to preach the gospel, and so he tried to go one direction, but was hindered from it. Then he tried another direction, but "the Spirit of Jesus" would not allow it. Finally he ended up in Troas, where God gave him the vision of the Macedonian man, and "we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them". (See Acts 16: 6-10)
 
God speaks through:
Circumstances
His Word
His direct voice
 
We talk back through
prayer
One of my favourite science fiction writers of a few years ago coined a phrase that stuck in my head. Referring to an alien being communicating with him telepathically, the hero of the story refers to "little icebergs" drifting in his mind, something so out of place and different from what he is and know that there is absolutely no doubt about its source. Trust me, if we work at it we can get to knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that God is speaking to us, leading us in His perfect plan for our lives. Keep learning to identify those icebergs.

 
A crucial part of that learning is to check your guidance! Just because we hear something does not mean that God is speaking to us - it could have many sources, from our own desires to the enemy of our souls. Check everything with God, then double-check. Our main channel of communicating back to God is prayer, and prayer is more than presenting a wishlist! When talking about guidance, prayer obviously means asking God to guide us, but it specifically offers us a way to tell God what we think He's saying to us - and that is crucial, not only to open the door for Him to correct our understanding, but for us to formulate clearly what we hear from Him. (This is a favourite technique of therapists all over the world: "I hear you saying....", forcing the counselee to order their thoughts on a topic, thereby gaining an understanding of the problem.) Telling God what you understand is a vital step in the process of guidance, and one we often neglect. If you are seeking God's direction for anything in your life, talk it over with Him until everything is clear to you. (But don't use prayer as a stalling technique if you don't want to obey - that's normally when He doesn't reply!)
 
Allow me a few words on the importance of knowing the Bible.
 
Most Christians know parts of the Bible, but not the Bible. Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, Jacob deceiving his father and cheating his brother, David and Goliath, the stories and parables of Jesus, Psalm 23, John 1, the Sermon on the Mount - we all have our favourites. But few of us know the grand flow of the Bible, how everything fits into God's master-plan, how God's strategy is playing out in human history - how to make sense of all the loose pieces. And exactly because we approach the Scriptures as loose pieces we are incapable of collecting the dots.
 
If you want to walk with God, to hear His voice, to find your place in His world, you need to know the Bible. The whole Bible. And before you say it's impossible, you're just a regular person in a regular job, not a trained minister, please hear me out. The disciples were not trained ministers. They didn't even have the New Testament - they lived it and wrote it. But from childhood they were taught the Old Testament Scriptures, they learned it by heart, the whole thing, and when the Spirit came He had a lot of Word to make alive to these simple fishermen.

 
You do not need theological training to know the Bible - you need to read it! Again and again.
 
Arthur C Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my favourite books of all time, and I read it over and over and over. After the first read I had the general idea of the story, by the end of the second read I knew the storyline, by the third I could remember key phrases, by the time I stopped reading I knew large sections off by heart, without actively memorizing it - simply reading it over and over made it, in a very real sense, a part of me.
 
Why an unmarked Bible?
 
So you won't be distracted by your notes or markings. The idea is just to read, not to get sidetracked by previous experiences. Any insights gained during reading can be transferred to your study Bible after the reading session, when you can also further explore specific verses or insights.
Do exactly the same with the Bible! Get yourself a new unmarked printed Bible, start reading at the beginning, and don't stop. When you get to the last words of Revelation ("The grace ofthe Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen."), return to Genesis 1:1 ("In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth") and repeat the process. And repeat. Indefinitely. Very soon you'll start getting the big picture, the historical flow of God's dealings with humanity, where different things fit in. You'll begin to see the grand design, the sweeping flow of redemptive history, the step-by-step way in which God reveals himself. You'll begin to know the Bible!
 
Don't worry if you don't understand everything. Nobody does. Keep reading. Any good novel has lots of early parts that make no sense until later in the book, and something similar is at work in the Bible. "Scripture interprets Scripture", the Reformers taught, and indeed it does! The more you read, the more you know. The more you know, the more connections you make.
 
Even if you struggle with understanding, there's a more subtle result of just reading the Scriptures. In Ephesians 5: 25-26 Paul says that Christ gave himself up for the church to make her holy, "cleansing her by the washing with water through the word" (italics added), to present her to himself, holy and blameless. Just as the application of water cleanses whatever is in it, so the word flowing through your mind cleanses your mind, eventually changing your very though patterns,transforming you by renewing your mind to know God's "good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12: 1 and 2). Trust me, I've been there, and I'm still experiencing it every day: The more the Word flows through my mind, the cleaner my thoughts get, and the more I begin to think in accordance with God's revealed will. And the results are not dependent on my efforts, but on the wordsof God that will "achieve the purpose for which I sent it". (See Isaiah 50: 10 and 11)
 
Yes, by all means carry on with your more formal study of the Scriptures, but first and foremost just read it. Get into the habit of reading at least a chapter a day, and the results will amaze you!
 
In any situation where you are looking for God's guidance, or experiencing Him moving in your life, the Bible sets the "outer limits" - or maybe we can say it supplies the canvas on which God paints his more detailed, personalized, message to you. And these brushstrokes of the Great Artist comes with certain spiritual and even emotional markings.
 
"A surge of hope, and full acceptance / Freedom deep as the blue"
 
When God deals with us, it always brings hope. Even when He is disciplining us, there is always the expectation, the hope, that it will be for our good, "in order that we might share in his holiness" (See Hebrews 12: 7-11, especially verses 10b and 11.) In Romans 15: 13 Paul expresses a prayer for the church: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit"; hope is more than a wishy-washy holding thumbs that everything will turn out OK - Biblical hope is close to faith, because it is anchored in the "God of hope", and it is "the power of the Holy Spirit" that makes hope "overflow" in us.
 
This hope can sometimes be accompanied by emotional feelings, but at its truest it manifests itself in us as a solid conviction that all is well, that something good is happening even when we don't see it, that we are in a process moderated by God. We may be beyond our own control, being swept along by the Spirit, but we are firmly in His control.
 
Anything that does not engender hope in us - even in the midst of pain and struggle - needs to be looked at closely. The God of hope never pushes his children into a dark cupboard!
 
A few verses earlier in Romans 15 Paul alludes to another "mark" of God's activity in our lives: Acceptance. In fact, his command to us to accept one another is founded on the fact that "Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (v. 7). Peter started his first sermon to non-Jews by acknowledging that God "accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right" (Acts 10: 35). Jesus himself promises to accept everyone who comes to Him (John 6: 35-37). Acceptance is the heart of the gospel: In Christ God has accepted all who are "in Christ", and his acceptance is based solely on what Christ has done on Calvary.
 
When God is active in your life and you follow after Him, that sense of acceptance generally intensifies. Not because of what we do - the simple fact that He chooses to get involved with us should underline our acceptance in red! Any "move" of God, every so-called "word" we receive, should be viewed with suspicion if it casts doubt on your acceptance as a child of God.
 
As an aside, there's a difference between conviction and condemnation: Conviction comes when God puts His finger on a specific issue or sin we need to deal with, and according to Hebrews 12: 6 is proof or our acceptance. Condemnation is that vague feeling that we've done something wrong somewhere, sometime, in some way...it never leads to repentance or change in us, it only drives a wedge between us and God. (See Romans 8:1)
 
One of the great redemption promises of God, found in various forms throught the Bible right up until Revelation 21, is that He will be our God, and we will be his people (Paul translates it in 2 Corinthians 6: 18 as "you will be my sons and daughters"). The first occurence of this promise is in Leviticus 26:12, and God places it squarely in the context of freedom: "I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with your heads held high."
 
Salvation is about freedom: Freedom first and foremost from sin and its consequences;
Some "in-the-spirit" marks of God's activity in our lives:
 
Hope
Acceptance
Freedom
but this freedom progressively manifests itself in all areas of our lives. Paul expresses it as a tautolgy in Galatians 5:1: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm,then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again". And in 2 Corinthians 3: 17 and 18 becoming like Jesus is once again put in the context of freedom, for "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom".
 
Everything God does in us brings freedom. If it doesn't, you should question its source.
 
Two things not mentioned in the song is a desire for God (Psalm 84:2, 10)) and a hunger for His Word (John 5: 39, Colossians 3:16, 1 Peter 2:2). The more He moves in us, the more we desire His presence, and that invariably drives us back to the Word, which is essentially God's revelation of Himself and His ways.
 
 
THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING
 
I think it was Bilbo Baggins, the intrepid adventurer of J R R Tolkien's "The Hobbit", who wrote that "the road goes ever on" - probably in one of his many homesick moments, longing for the comforts of his home. This is one of the great truths, sometimes an uncomfortable one, of the Christian life: We never arrive at the end of the road. But if our faith, at its most basic, is about knowing God, this should come as no surprise. If God is infinite, we will never be able to know Him completely - not in this life, nor in the new life to come.
 
We will grow, from first steps, the "milk" of the elementary truths (Hebrews 5: 12-14), to maturity of the faith, but even then we'll be only at the beginning!
 
"Press ahead, forget what's behind, forget what's behind"
 
Forgive me for stating the obvious: "You can't go forward when you keep lookin' back." Jesus said it (Luke 9:62), Paul said it (Philippians 3:13), Christian rocker John Schlitt sang it, and yet a large percentage of Christians allow their past to define them. You are not your past - leave it behind and move on. If you are a follower of Jesus, "born of God...not of natural descent" (John 1: 13), you have been forgiven once and for all, and your past is exactly that: Your past. Yes, things you have done can have consequences that you live with for a long time, but you are no longer defined by your past. What defines you is that you are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5: 17, Galatians 6:15).
 
The apostle Paul never forgot his past and often referred to it with shame, yet he wrote: "Forgetting what is behind (I am) straining towards what is ahead...to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (Philippians 3: 13 and 12). And what is that goal? "I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participating in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3: 10& 11).
 
In a later study we'll deal in depth with resolving the issues of the past, but for now know this: Your past does not shape your present, unless you allow it. Learn the lessons, and move ahead.
 
"Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us," the author of Hebrews write in chapter 12, "fixing our eyes on Jesus,the pioneer and perfecter of faith" (verse 1). Focus on Jesus, not your past. Put effort into it: Paul says he is "straining", that he presses on, and Hebrews puts all of this in the context of a race to be run with perseverance. It's a tough race, and the only way to keep going is to fix your eyes on Jesus, to "consider him...so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (verse 3).
 
"and the good work, He is still perfecting"
 
 

 
 

 
ONLY THE BEGINNING
 
(From the Downhere album
"On The Altar Of Love")

 
It's only beginning it's true
Just when I thought my time was through
Oh the stirring I feel inside
Is the voice I know I cannot deny
The surge of hope and full acceptance
Freedom deep as the blue
 
This is only the beginning
Press ahead forget what's behind, forget what's behind
And the good work, He is still perfecting
A new name, a new dream, a new life
And this is only the beginning
This is only the beginning
 
The stream is swift when I step in
So I brace myself the adventure begins
I've seen things I never thought I'd believe
The hand of God brings about mysteries
Rolling waves, rushing wind and water
Swept away and dripping with wonder
 
This is only the beginning
Press ahead forget what's behind, forget what's behind
And the good work, He is still perfecting
A new name, a new dream, a new life
And this is only the beginning
This is only the beginning
 
Rolling waves, rushing wind and water
Swept away and dripping with wonder
It's His calling, it's His fire
This dream is real, it's His Spirit inside me
 
This is only the beginning
Press ahead forget what's behind, forget what's behind
And the good work, He is still perfecting
A new name, a new dream, a new life
And this is only the beginning
This is only the beginning
 
Written by Jason Germain and Marc Martel
2011 Centricity Music Publishing (ASCAP) / Germain and Martel Publishing (ASCAP) / Used by permission. All rights reserved.