I had one goal when starting out this series of posts - to end the Catholic love affair with suffering, at least in the minds of some. I'm convinced that there is a great overemphasis on suffering in popular Catholic theology that is preventing many from experiencing the victory of Christ in their lives.
Up to now I've been naming the problem (part 1 | part 2 | part 3). In this final post, I want to focus on how to live a victorious Christian lifestyle. This is not a formula - all of this must flow out of a living, breathing relationship with Christ - but is meant to provide certain guideposts for pursuing the victory that Jesus has already won and wishes to extend to us.
1. Get clear about what is and is not from God
Our highest pursuit and single aim ought to be God Himself, growing in intimacy with Him and desiring Him above all else. To pursue victory for its own sake is to get our priorities misaligned. But Scripture also reveals that those who belong to Christ can expect certain fruits. They are, in fact, the birthright of every Christian. Furthermore, being made sons and daughters of the Most High, Jesus teaches us that the Father delights in giving good gifts to His children, for He is far more good than earthly fathers who know how to give good gifts to their children (Mt 7:11, Lk 11:13).
So step number one in pursuing victory is getting clear about what is from God and what is from another source - the world, the flesh, and the devil. Here is just a sampling of some of the contrasts that Scripture draws out between what comes from God and what comes from these enemies to our souls:
- God gives you a future full of hope. The enemy sows doubt and despair.
- God bestows abundant life.The enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy.
- God instills a sense of identity.The enemy undercuts identity with lies.
- God speaks with love.The enemy speaks with accusation.
- God works through kindness to lead us to repentance.The enemy works through shame, guilt, and condemnation to keep us in chains.
- The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. The works of the flesh are immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.
Everything in bold above is something that every Christian can and should expect to be part of their lives in ever-increasing measure, while everything in italics is fair game for removal, things we are meant to overcome and leave behind. Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy kingdom come...on earth as in heaven." This is perhaps the simplest litmus test for getting clear about what is and is not from God - if it doesn't belong in heaven, then it doesn't belong in the life of a Christian.
2. Stand fast on the victory of Christ
All victory in the Christian life is rooted in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. It was through the Cross that Jesus triumphed over the estrangement caused by sin and reconciled us to the Father. It is by the stripes he received from being whipped and beaten that we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). By his Resurrection he triumphed over death, and in baptism we are raised to new life along with him (Colossians 2:12).
Everything that is needed for victory has already been accomplished by Jesus, and there is nothing we need to do, nor that we can do, to earn it or achieve it by our own efforts. It is by standing on his victory that we begin to experience victory in our own life. One of the great paradoxes of our faith is that victory comes through surrender - surrender to Jesus and to allowing his victory to be manifested in our lives. This is the heart of the Divine Mercy prayer: "For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world." If we ever point to our own efforts or good behavior rather than to Christ as the justification for why God's blessings should be in our life, we've missed the point.
Standing fast on the victory of Christ means surrender, but it also means claiming his victory for ourselves, declaring his victory over our lives. Rather than living from our problems toward some future victory, we live from the victory of Christ toward our problems. This is the grounding for us being able to...
3. Pray with confidence and authority
If we are clear about what is and is not from God, if we are clear about what God does and does not intend to be a part of our lives, then prayer begins to look more like engaging in battle than begging for favors. Asking for a favor presumes that we are asking for an exception, but in Christ we have an inheritance and the ability to assert our rights as sons. Not that we assert our rights to God, but we can assert them against outside forces that attempt to rob us of our inheritance! As the father says to the prodigal's elder brother, "My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours" (Luke 15:31), so our heavenly Father says to us that we have access to "every spiritual blessing in the heavens" through the victory of Jesus (Ephesians 1:3).
Jesus modeled for us praying with authority. He did not beg God for favors, but stood in God's favor and commanded the kingdom of darkness to yield to the Kingdom of God. After modeling this, he taught his disciples to do the same, and after being sent out they returned to him rejoicing and saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name!" (Luke 10:17). Despite their early success, the disciples also went through a growth process in learning to pray with authority, as when they were unable to cast out a particular demon (Mark 9:18). Once, in Acts, some non-Christians attempted to imitate the way the disciples prayed but with no effect (Acts 19:13-15). Praying with authority is therefore not a magic formula, but springs from a living, vital relationship with Christ.
A starting point for learning to pray with confidence and authority is to take up declaratory prayer, which aims primarily at claiming one's identity in Christ as a beloved son or daughter of the Most High. It was precisely in the place of identity that Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, saying, "If you are the son of God..." So too, Satan attempts to undercut our authority by attacking our identity. Rooting yourself in your Christian identity is what positions you to do battle with whatever opposes God's intentions for your life.
Grounded in your identity, you can then pray prayers of command over what clearly does not come from God, whether for yourself or for another. "I command shame to go in Jesus' name." "I break the power of fear in Jesus' name." "I declare healing over you in Jesus' name." Jesus invited us to pray in his name, saying, "If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it" (John 14:13). Peter further modeled this for us in Acts 3:6, saying to a man who was crippled, "In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk."
4. Live as though you're on the verge of breakthrough
On more than one occasion, Jesus taught on the importance of being persistent in prayer. The implication is that, even when we are praying for the right things, there will be times when we do not experience immediate victory. I am comforted by the fact that the Gospels tell of an episode where even Jesus had to pray more than once to fully heal a blind man (Mark 8:24)! But as was stated above, persevering in prayer is NOT to be confused with begging God for favors. Rather, persistence in prayer means refusing to allow your circumstances to dictate to you what you believe about God's character. It is an ongoing expression of faith in the face of an onslaught of hell's opposition. As one speaker put it, "Faith isn't denying a problem's existence, but denying it a place of influence."
To be sure, persevering in prayer is difficult. Praying repeatedly with no results can easily give way to discouragement. To combat this discouragement, it is important to understand the nature of kingdom breakthrough. Natural pursuits follow the law of incremental change: if you exercise every day and watch what you eat, then little by little you will see the number on the scale go down until you achieve your weight loss goal. By contrast, supernatural pursuits are not subject to the law of incremental change; kingdom breakthrough is possible at any moment!
Consider the Israelites' victory at Jericho. God told them to walk around the city once a day for six days, then seven times on the seventh day. It is not as if the walls lowered by a few feet with every lap. The Israelites had to maintain faith despite the lack of any visible signs of progress. But on the seventh day, breakthrough came and the walls crumbled in an instant.
Just so, an apparent lack of progress in the natural, visible sphere has no correlation to how close you may be to the kingdom breakthrough God has in store for you. Therefore, live at every moment as though you're one the verge of breakthrough. Or, as one of my favorite preachers puts it, "Don't stop on 6!"
5. Give thanks in every circumstance
Finally, it is important to keep one's eyes fixed on what God IS doing rather than on what He ISN'T doing at any particular moment, and to give thanks in every circumstance. Do not allow an as-yet unfulfilled breakthrough to hold ransom the other blessings God wants to pour out on you. Paul writes, "Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). I do not think it coincidence that Paul sandwiches his admonition to "pray without ceasing" between these other two instructions. They are the fuel for persevering in prayer. We "rejoice always" by remaining mindful of our identity, knowing that we belong to God as His beloved sons and daughters. And by keeping our eyes fixed on the ways God is blessing us here and now, we can give thanks in every circumstance.
On a personal note, I want to share that my own spiritual life has leaped forward by embracing this kind of prayer. Many things that I once considered to be simply a normal part of the ups and downs of life or embraced as my particular cross to bear, I have now learned to do battle with and to overcome by God's grace. Experiencing breakthrough and freedom in these areas of my life has encouraged me to dream about what other ways I might invite the victory of Jesus into my life, and has led me into new adventures in pursuing and manifesting the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.