Read an Excerpt
Back to Square One
Let me tell you about an intriguing idea that came to me one day. I had a picture in my mind of a game, a table game something like Monopoly.
Each player had a token. Everyone started off on Square 1, but you couldn't move off Square 1 until a little Red Bird came along and sat down on Square 1 while your token was there. Then you could go.
The game got under way. The players moved out and landed on different places at the spin of a dial. Eventually the Red Bird settled down next to me, so I got off Square l.
Going around the board, you land on some squares where you have to pick up a card from the middle of the table. Every time I picked up one of those cards it told me, Go Back to Square 1. Then I had to sit and wait for the little Red Bird to come along again. It was rather frustrating.
I thought about that a bit, musing to myself, This is a picture of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit's purpose for me is to get me back to Square l. And that is His purpose for the church.
The key to living the Christian life is to go back to Square 1, and continually to move out only from Square 1.
What is "Square 1"? That is the place where we cannot do or initiate anything by ourselves. We have to wait for the little Red Bird to come along. We can spin the dial as much as we please, but it does not produce any real progress until the little Red Bird comes along to release us.
This makes sense when you think of how the Christian life begins. It begins on Square 1. God forgives and saves us out of sheer mercy when we put our trust in Christ and His atoning death. We cannot do anything to gain salvation. God puts us on Square 1 and brings to a standstill every effort we make toward earning or achieving our own salvation. We cannot begin to move until the Holy Spirit settles down next to us and releases us into life in Christ. That is salvation; in theological terms, justification.
"By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of Godnot because of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 289).
So now you are "saved." The game of life is on! You spin the dial and take off, landing on some of those other squares out there on the playing board.
You may not realize it at first, but little by little it dawns on you that the cards seem to be stacked against you. Every time you land on one of those squares that says, "Take a card," the card tells you, Go back to Square 1. After this happens two or three times, you begin to get a little frustrated.
"Look at all those big important squares down the line, Lord insights into Scripture, charismatic gifts, holiness, Spirit-filled ministry, miracles, visions, Christian communities, winning souls for Jesus, making disciples of all nations! Why can't I move ahead to one of those? How am I ever going to get around this board if you keep sending me back to Square 1 all the time?"
When you ask these kind of questions (however you might phrase them), you are coming to grips with the real purpose of the game. There is no moving ahead in the Christian life until we realize that we cannot do it ourselves. We cannot take over and run this life that God has given us. Every step forward begins with a return to Square 1, where we receive a fresh release of the Holy Spirit.
Our imaginary game has five main features
The Playing Board
The Stack of Cards
The DialThe dial has a pointer that tells the player where to go on the next move. But it doesn't do any good to spin the dial until the little Red Bird comes along and lights on Square 1 while the player's token is there.
That is how progress in the Christian life gets under way. God brings to an end our ceaseless twirling of the dials of human activitythings we initiate and then piously ask God to bless. He puts us back on Square 1 where we learn to wait for the initiative of the Holy Spirit.
"In my flesh nothing good dwells" (Romans 718 nkjv). I have no human knack, no power of my own to live the Christian life. Time and again I am brought back to the place where I realize afresh that I cannot live this life out of my own resources. I have to go back to Square 1 until it comes home to me in a new and vivid way that only the Holy Spirit can move me forward in this life.
Oh, I can spin the dial and take off on my own. But you know what that is like! How many projects have nosedived because we got nervous waiting for the Red Bird to come and started off on our own?
A woman whose husband had been converted was all fired up to tell everyone about it. "We lost most of our friends that first year," she said. When it comes to sharing a testimony of our faith, we need to train our spiritual eyes to glance sideward to see whether the Red Bird has settled down beside us. Otherwise our testimony may just turn people off.
This seems to be especially true with those closest to us, members of our own family or congregation. With them our testimony often must first be translated into the language of loving service. If a man is filled with the Spirit and the next Saturday morning his wife comes in to find him fixing the washing machine that has been on the blink for a month, or if gloomy Nellie has a deep experience with the Lord and her pastor walks by the church kitchen and sees her hanging up some bright, ruffly curtains around those dismal windowsa message about life in Christ comes across before a word is spoken.
The Holy Spirit may be quite ready to release us from Square 1 if we are pointed in the right direction physically, mentally, and spiritually. But if our mind is locked in on some particular thing that is not on the Holy Spirit's agenda for us at this time, we may have to cool our heels until we loosen up and become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit's initiatives.
Whatever the calling or ministrybe it witnessing, prayer, teaching, social action, givingthere is no fruitful work except that which is released by the Holy Spirit. The dial might point to a tremendous work that we think would build the kingdom of God. But if it is our own work done in our own way, we will be building with wood, hay, and stubble. On the other hand, even though a work may seem insignificant, if the little Red Bird comes along and releases us into it, it will be a building of gold, silver, and precious stonessomething that will endure (see 1 Corinthians 31115).
The TokenThe token represents a player's progress around the board. Every token is distinctive; they are not interchangeable. The moves of one token cannot be copied by other tokens.
The life in Christ is a given life from beginning to end. Many Christians have to come to a clear-cut awareness that we can add nothing to our salvation. It is a gift; grace, all grace. We need to see the corollary to that truth with equal clarity the life that issues from salvationwhat we call sanctificationis also of grace. It depends completely upon the working of the Holy Spirit.
When God puts us back on Square 1, He is trying to develop in us a grace-oriented mentality, an awareness that we cannot do it, God must do it. This is what the Bible calls a renewed mind.
The desire to do things is a natural human tendency. When we receive spiritual life we want to do spiritual things. But God says, "No, you cannot do anything except what the Holy Spirit empowers you to do." When the Spirit initiates something, then real growth, true spiritual progress, can be made.
A deep yearning in many Christians is the desire to grow in the Spirit, to mature. The Bible urges us to "go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits" (Hebrews 613).
All too often we urge one another to spiritual activity with scarcely a thought given to the work of the Holy Spirit. "Witness! Tithe! Obey! Love your wife! Get your family in order! Be concerned! Get involved! On to maturity! Grow!"
How different the Bible's call to maturity "This we will do, if God permits." While we urge one another to get our tokens moving down the board in a flurry of fleshly activity, God quietly sends us back to Square 1, until we realize, "I cannot love my wife just because someone urges me to do it. I must ask God to permit me to love my wife." This may sound strange but it is true. I cannot love my wife as Christ loved the church unless the Holy Spirit releases me to do it. My loving my wife is a work of the living God.
What we ought to be doing is earnestly urging God "Lord, please permit me. Permit me to love my wife. Permit me to obey you. Let that little Red Bird settle down next to me here on Square l. I know I can't do anything until He comes and releases me. Lord, permit it!"
Square 1 is where the Lord brings our self-effort to a standstill. That is what it means to become a new creature in Christwe move out into life not under our own power, but by His gracious permission. "It is no longer I who live"no longer I who love, no longer I who obey, no longer I who serve"but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 220). I have been crucified with Christ.
This is contrary to our natural mind. It is normal for us as human beings to think in terms of what we can do or ought to do. It is all too easyindeed, it is a continual temptationto reduce the Christian life to a duty. "Come on! Get that token moving. Look at all those obligations out there waiting to be fulfilled!" Even if we get our thinking straight about salvationthat it is all by gracewe still think that living the Christian life is basically a duty. That it is something we do in order to show God how thankful we are that He saved us.
God continually puts us back on Square 1, to bring home to us the beautiful truth that living the Christian life is a privilege that He graciously permits us to do. It is not by duty, but by the grace of God, that we move our tokens out onto the board and progress in the Christian life.
The Playing BoardAlways having to wait for that Red Bird can be frustrating. It seems so restrictive. I can only do the things God lets me do. Look at all the opportunities, all the things out there that ought to be done! Why can't I be out there doing them? But God quietly insists, "Wait, the Red Bird hasn't come along yet. Stay on Square l."
At first it is restrictive. God has to do that. He does not want us out on the playing board with nothing but our own strength and our own resources. He wants every step we take to be at the initiative and in the power of the Holy Spirit. When He gets that through to us, whole new vistas of the playing board open up.
Looking at the Christian life simply as a duty is like wearing blinders. We see only one possibility to plod ahead in something we have grown accustomed to doing, or what makes sense to our natural reason. The Spirit has a whole range of possibilities He is waiting to open up to us if we are willing to enter into them only and always at His initiative.
When we get rid of the blinders, people around us sometimes get a little disturbed or annoyed or surprised; they may see us entering into things that they did not even realize were on the playing board.
A man once told me about the experience of his five-year-old niece. She was in an evangelistic service with her mother. When the altar call was given, she tugged at her mother's dress and said, "Mommie, can I go up?"
The mother answered, "You wait now, dear. In a few years you'll be able to do that. You're too young."
A little later came another tug at the dress. "Mommie, I want to go up and be saved."
"You wait a few years, dear. About the age of twelve that kind of thing happens."
"But I want to give my heart to Jesus."
The mother patted her on the head. Then the girl tugged one last time on the mother's dress. Looking down she saw tears streaming down the daughter's face. "Mama, Jesus just saved me."
Mama was going to hold her on Square 1 until the church, according to tradition, said it was all right for her to move. But the Holy Spirit doesn't always go along with our traditions. He sometimes releases us into things that stretch the traditions.
Something like this happened when the charismatic renewal broke in on the church in the last decades of the twentieth century. The "little children" said, "Mama, can I have some of those gifts that I read about in the Bible?"
"Be quiet, dear. Those were for the early church. You don't need them. They were only necessary to get the church started."
But the children kept tugging. "I really want those gifts, Mama. I'd like to pray for the sick. I'd even like to speak in tongues."
"Child, we don't do that! It ... it isn't our tradition!"
And then one day the children came home and reported, "Mommy, I got healed! Mama, I'm speaking in tongues!"
When the blinders of a duty-oriented religion begin to drop away, we catch sight of the tremendous potential of the Spirit. In one sense it is restrictive because we can't do a thing unless the Holy Spirit releases us into it. Yet at the same time it is liberating because the Spirit releases us into things we never dreamed would happen.
Here we ought to insert a word about faith. How do we know when the little Red Bird settles down on Square 1?
Is it because of a certain feeling? Not necessarily. Feelings are a natural and wonderful part of human life. But they are something like the keys of a piano They are meant to be used in a variety of ways and combinations. You don't say, "E-flat is for classical music. Whenever I hear E-flat I know something classical is being played." You may come in some morning and find your kids including Eflat in a rendition of chopsticks.
The coming of the Spirit may evoke a particular feeling, but a similar feeling might accompany some other experience as well. And sometimes the Spirit's coming may not evoke any feeling at all. Our feelings are not a reliable monitor of everything that goes on around us.
How then do you know when the Spirit comes? Do you take a promise out of the Bible? We sing the chorus, "Every Promise in the Book Is Mine." The Holy Spirit may indeed come in connection with a particular Bible promise. But we cannot casually pick up the Bible and randomly choose a promise simply on the basis of desire or hope.
Mary did not open a scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read, "A virgin shall conceive and bear a son ..." and comment, "Now there is a wonderful promise. I'll claim that for myself!" That promise came to her through the Lord's messenger. She was personally invited to step off Square 1, believing the word that had been given to her personally. More than a word in her head, it was a faith quickened in her heart.
Faith is not a feeling. Nor is faith simply an idea in my head that I accept as true. Faith is the living God himself entering into my innermost being. The Holy Spirit comes down and puts the living Christ in union with me and me with Him. To "step out in faith" means to step out in the company of the Lord Jesus Christ whose life has been joined to my life.
Sometimes it can be a faltering step, one of fear and trembling. You wonder, "Did the Red Bird really come, or was it only my imagination?"
Faith is planted by the Holy Spirit at the deepest level of our being. Our feelings and ideas may not at once realize what has happened. The mind and emotions may even throw out countersignals of uncertainty and doubt when we step out in faith. It does not matter. In time our mind and our feelings will learn that the plays in this game are being called by Someone higher and deeper than our feelings and ideas. The living God himself is the moving impulse behind the moves.
The impulse of the Holy Spirit, however, is not utterly mysterious. It has certain characteristic marks. Jesus said, "When the Spirit of truth [the Holy Spirit] comes ... he will glorify me" (John 161314). If you believe the Red Bird is about to bring you into some particular new area, ask yourself, "Is God's glory at the center here? Is that my number-one concern?" Don't be afraid to probe your motives a little. Oftentimes, under a veneer of concern for God's glory, you may run up against a solid chunk of self-interest. A strong signal that you are moving in genuine faith is when concern for God's glory edges out self-interest.
Jesus also said to judge a plant by its fruit (Matthew 720). Will this new step bear good fruit? Will it build up the body of Christ? When the Holy Spirit calls us to take a step of faith, the fruit of faith will be produced.
The Stack of CardsWe began by referring to the stack of cards in the middle of the playing board. Every so often the player lands on a square that instructs him to take one of those cards. And every time it sends him back to Square 1.
From the outside, the victorious Christian life may look like nothing but joy and power. But that is a one-sided view. Those looking on do not realize how often the card turns up telling you, "Go back to Square 1." Time and time again God sends His people back to that place of utter dependence on Him, the place where they must wait on the Spirit.
A sainted old Bible teacher once said, "Everybody sees me teaching, sees people listening and crowding around afterward; they think it's all up in the heavenly places. What they don't see is that when the meeting is over, I go home and die." What did he mean by that? He meant that to minister in the power of the Spirit, to be a channel of the gifts of the Spirit, is in a profound sense a crucifixion.
A priest made this keen observation about spiritual gifts "The gifts are a humiliation because they take you beyond yourself to where God himself is at work. The gifts are a calling to service. The greater the gift, the less my life is my own."
To minister in the Spirit is to be moved by the Spirit out where we do not have anything to give and yet we must minister. Like Paul we are "in weakness and much fear and trembling," and yet the power of God is ministered through us.
To the onlooker, the power and glory may look marvelous and inviting. Recall Simon the Sorcerer's envious observation of Peter's ministry (Acts 8424) He was ready to pay money to get the same kind of power for himself. God halts that kind of attitude in its tracks. He sovereignly sends us back to Square 1 where we learn again to wait on Him. This may never show outwardly, but in the inward depths God strips us down to the point where we have nothing. Then He says, "Be released into what I have planned for you to do."
And this brings another kind of frustration. At first we are frustrated because He keeps sending us back to Square 1. But just about the time we get comfortable on Square 1, along comes the little Red Bird and tells us to move out. You don't even get a chance to enjoy being a Square 1 martyr for a little while! When you feel strong you get shipped back to Square 1, and when you feel weak, along comes the Red Bird.
It is this mixture of life and death that is hard. By nature we would choose to be completely one or the othereither miracle worker or martyr, but not both at the same time. To be set down on Square 1 when we are all fired up, and then to be released into ministry when we feel weak and helplessthat is the frustration and the glory of the Spirit-led life. "Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (2 Corinthians 410).
Do you see the issue in all this? Do you see the central question behind every move on the playing board? It is this Who is going to be Lord? Who is sovereign in the church? Who has the authority to determine the moves?
Most games simply state a set of rules. It is up to each player to determine the moves, just as long as they keep within the rules. A lot of people look at the Christian life this way. As long as the Christian does not break the rules, he is free to call the shots.
But the Bible describes a different kind of game. Jesus did not leave His disciples a set of rules. He said, "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" (John 1613).
We are not free to arrange our lives any way we want to, just as long as we keep the rules. That is living under the lawa bondage from which Christ has set us free.
The freedom of the gospel is the freedom to move with the Spirit. It is the circumscribed liberty of knowing that until the little Red Bird comes along, nothing is possible for me; and when He does come, nothing is impossible.
The GoalWhat have we learned about this game so far?
First we looked at the dial. The dial points out our next move. Who is going to determine the timing and direction of that movethe individual Christian or the Holy Spirit?
Then we looked at the token. It represents our progress around the board. We cannot move on to maturity by our own will and effort. We move only as the Holy Spirit graciously permits and empowers us to do so.
We saw that the playing board spreads out before us the possibilities of our life in Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can open up to us the full range and potential of that life.
The stack of cards in the middle of the board continually sends us back to the place we began. Again and again we must return to that place where we recognize our total dependency on the Spirit.
Now we conclude our overview by considering the goal of the game. What is the point of a game where the player keeps going back to Square 1?
Square 1 is the "Square of Remembrance." Martin Luther said, "We must continually remind people of the gospel, because they forget it." Though we may be able to recite it perfectly as a memorized doctrine, in the everyday affairs of life we too easily fall back to reliance on self. "O foolish Galatians! Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" (Galatians 31, 3).
When God puts me back on Square 1, my flesh cries out, "I'm not getting anywhere!" And that is just the pointthat is the point of the whole game. We can move forward in the Spirit only as our flesh dies. One man put it beautifully this way "Christian growth refers to the growth of the Spirit's work in our lives. The Spirit grows and moves forward. We die and move backward. Christ lives, we die. That's Christian growth."
"The Spirit grows and moves forward. We die and move backward ..."back to Square 1.
The Lord doesn't put us there to do the same work in us over and over. He puts us there as a reminder that every step forward in the Christian life bears the marks of its origin. "As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him" (Colossians 26). How did you receive Christ Jesus? By giving up reliance on yourself and relying on Christ. How are you going to live in Him? The same way.
So the goal of the game is not to grow and become something in ourselves, but continually to return to the place where Christ can become something in us. Luther put it this way "Progress in the Christian life is losing all that is our own and starting anew again and again."
The Spirit is continually opening up new sections of the playing board, new dimensions of our life in Christ. Each experience is unique. The experience of repentance is not the same as the experience of prophesying; interpreting a vision is not the same as tithing; meditation is not the same as works of mercy. But every experience, no matter how different, and no matter how far along the road of Christian maturity, starts from the same placeSquare 1, the place of dependence upon the Spirit.
When the Lord sends you back to Square 1, you can be certain He is planning the next step forward in your Christian walk!
1. Of the following words or phrases, which ones best describe what this chapter is about?
b. depending on the Holy Spirit
c. learning how to pray
e. overcoming discouragement
2. List some areas of the Christian life where "gaps" exist between what we are and what we want or ought to be.
3. This chapter uses the figure of a "game" to illustrate certain truths about the Christian life. Five features of the game are listed below. Each one is associated with a particular word that is a clue to its spiritual meaning. Describe or explain the significance of each feature of the game and of the word associated with it.
a. The Dialinitiative
b. The Tokenprogress
c. The Playing Boardpossibilities
d. The Stack of Cardsdirection
e. The Goalremembrance
4. What basic theme or teaching runs through all five of the features listed above?
5. How would you describe OUR part or responsibility in this "game" of life?
6. Further thought and discussion In what part of your life do you find it easiest to apply the theme of this chapter? Hardest?
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