The healthiest model of the spiritual dynamics of those following Jesus Christ I know of comes from Dr. Chuck Miller in his book The Spiritual Formation of Leaders. Also, buy this book. It is worth $100.
This model is called “Pitcher, Cup, Saucer, Plate.”
The Pitcher represents God and it is filled with all His infinite resources, His infinite power, His infinite love, His infinite forgiveness, etc. The Cup is the follower of Jesus. The Saucer is that follower’s immediate relationships and context (your work environment, Brian from the gym, Susan your friend from college, etc.). The Plate is the wider world and the larger systems and issues in this life (war, the city you live in, pollution, child slavery, government, etc.).
The way it is supposed to work is that God, with all His infinite resources, pours into us His love and His power, His forgiveness, His Spirit, and all His infinite resources. He never stops and He never runs out. We, the Cups, are positioned to receive and are easily filled up to the brim. The Cups do not have to try, they do not have to strive, they do not have to earn this filling. Cups simply receive and keep their hearts always tuned to receiving because that is what they were made for.The thing is after we are filled, God does not stop pouring out into us and we cannot help but overflow with the love and power of God that we continue to receive. The Saucers, those in relationship with us, are the first to receive this overflow as they are touched and directly impacted by the love and power of God that naturally and continually overflows out of one of the Cups in their life and onto them. The Plate, the wider world, is then impacted as the Cup and the Saucers continue to overflow with the love and power of God. This whole process truly transforms people, places, and institutions.
This is an ideal picture. While I admit in this fallen world things will not go as smoothly and we Cups are bound to sin and mess it up from time to time, I believe this is possible to achieve and should be normal for followers of Jesus. Where this is not the case there is a problem that should be identified and dealt with, preferably sooner rather than later.
Many times where there are problems with this whole paradigm, it is with the Cups, the followers of Jesus. If we are not firmly rooted in our identity as the beloved of God our focus tends to shift from receiving from God to the impact we are having in our relationships and the wider world. The world is obsessed with production and results and we can grow concerned if we do not see “enough” fruit in our lives. Maybe if there is no fruit God is not pouring out? Maybe we are not doing enough for God to keep Him pleased with us? Maybe we could be doing more? Often in a desire to “help God out” and make our own fruit we pour ourselves out onto our relationships and ministries. We give away from our finite resources, and usually do so way beyond what was ever asked of us and far more than we have.
Christians often call this “ministry” or “service.”
The problem is that when we pour ourselves out, we are no longer in a posture to receive and this prevents us from being filled up by God. What God wants to give us is lost in the shuffle of our busyness and striving to serve Him. When we have poured ourselves out so completely, and are not receiving from God, we feel taken advantage of, we feel used, we feel empty, we feel burnt out. Serving God was never meant to feel like this, even in the midst of severe trials!
The solution to this is often as simple as changing your thinking from aligning with the wordly preoccupation with results and success to the teachings of God. John 15 promises us that if we abide in Christ the fruit will come. God is the one doing the heavy lifting, not us. God thoroughly has things under control and while we are to do our part we are not responsible for the vast majority of things we often think we are responsible for. John 15 also promises that apart from God we can do nothing, yet we often try very hard to make things happen through our plans, our ministries, our service and our effort. People who spend time abiding in Christ are often written off as lazy, or loafers, or “mystics” who serve no real purpose. This is an old problem. In the Bible we find the story of Mary and Martha which captures it well. We must live in the tension of having things to do, but not getting caught up in the pre-occupation with results that the human hearts appears bent towards.
Another common problem is that we Cups have been so broken by past hurts that our hearts are like a sieve that cannot receive what God is lavishing on us. While those around us might experience the love of God through us, we ourselves never get filled up, are never happy, never feel secure in our identity, and are never fulfilled in following God. The need then is for healing, often of deep emotional, psychological and spiritual wounds. The cure for this is not a two-week retreat or some more spiritual disciplines (which may just be another burden) but stopping and figuring out what is broken and bringing the healing power of Jesus into the situation! The journey to inner healing will probably be very different for everyone who is in need, but it is worth it and it is necessary to receive all that God has for you.
This type of spirituality is also not possible if a follower of Jesus is stuck in the identity of a sinner or a slave. Someone stuck there will perpetually wonder why God would want to pour out on them and is always looking for the fruit they think they are responsible to make happen through obedience. This type of spirituality is possible when followers of Jesus understanding their friendship with God, their adoption by God and ultimately their identity as a lover of God who are called Beloved by their Creator.
While a follower of Jesus should acknowledge their sin and where they came from, and also humbly and honestly admit that they still do fail, their identity should that of an adopted son or daughter of Christ. They should see themselves as someone who is loved by God, part of the family of God, and a co-heir with Christ, whom God wants to lavish all of His infinite resources of love and power upon. We are princes and princesses in the Kingdom of God and we should live and act from that identity. If we do not feel like this, we need to press in through prayer for a deeper understanding of the heart of the Father towards us. Most likely this will also involve dealing with past emotional, psychological and spiritual wounds that hinder our understanding of God’s love for us. To put it another way we need to move from having Romans 3:23 as our life verse to having Romans 8:18-19 as our life verses.
I know to some followers of Jesus this might sound like the cliché advice, “Just have your identity in Christ and that will solve your problems.” I write this post knowing full well the challenges of knowing this advice, believing it to be true, but not knowing how to ever “have my identity in Christ.” A few months ago I wrote posts on this very issue and suggested I identified more with dogs that were intentionally shocked with electrodes to test out theories regarding helplessness than with Jesus Christ. It is often not often a journey that is easy and it is often very difficult to even know where to start, but if you do not feel like you are a beloved son or daughter of God in His Kingdom something is wrong and it needs to be corrected. Seek the face of God in this matter candidly, sit in silence and invite God to share with you how He sees you on a daily basis and talk to people who seem to “get it” about your struggles. This is a reality even when we do not behave like it. Even the messed up members of the church in Corinth, where a man was sleeping with his step-mom and they were boasting about it, were called Holy Saints by Paul. The more we believe it the more we behave like it…naturally…without striving, and our new behave reinforces our new identity.
I firmly believe understanding God’s love for us is the most powerful thing a follower of Jesus can come to understand. It transforms how we live in this world like nothing else can. This is why Paul prays for the Ephesians to get it. He does not pray for them to understand the best practices for their ministry or how exactly to deal with conflict, he prays for them to know the fullness of the love Jesus has for them, so they can receive all of God. This is why the only disciple who made it to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the only disciple who risked all by showing up, was John, the disciple who is known famously for referring to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” or “the Beloved Disciple.” I do not think this was an arrogant statement, I think John just “got it” like none of the other disciples did. The sons of thunder abandoned Jesus. Simon Peter who would have fought Jesus’ captors abandoned Jesus and denied Jesus three times. But the disciple who got how much Jesus loved him showed up, risking everything.
Do not let this identity that is your birthright as a believer in Jesus Christ be seen as a lofty ideal that others have been able to achieve. It is for every follower of Jesus!
When followers of Jesus “get” this reality they become rooted in knowing God’s love for them, the spirituality outlined above flows through them and they change the world. Such followers know they are accepted, are secure in their identity, acknowledge their strengths and destiny and from this place they are launched into world changing action.