Saturday, February 27, 2010

Keys to Spiritual Growth

Earlier version posted 21 Feb 2010 8:50AM; this version revises item #3 in the list below
What do you and I do to grow spiritually? We go to Bible studies, we attend worship services, we do service projects; we pray and memorize Scripture.

How's that working? Are we more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, etc., than we were last year? Do we have a clearer sense that our sins are washed away? Do we forgive others more easily? Or do we just know more about the Bible?

Getting more specific, which of our activities contribute to our growth? What makes each one more (or less) effective in nurturing spiritual growth?

These are Hard Questions. And they want answers: if not universally, then at least for me in my situation. If I'm leading a small group, I need to know if part of our meetings are a waste of everyone's time, and which parts if so, in order to stop doing them. If I'm involved in any decisions about what we do in worship services, I need a sense of what activities are useful to people.

And even if I'm not, I need an idea of which activities are more and less helpful because something is going to happen that'll interrupt my life -- whether it's something wonderful like my children visiting or something irritating like my computer breaking. When that happens, what activities should I give up? What should I make sure to keep doing?

These questions would be a lot easier to answer if we could gauge spiritual growth with some sort of instant-read spiritual growth-o-meter. A yardstick or scale would be great, a blood-pressure gauge, though less convenient, could still give us immediate feedback. I'd even be willing to take a drop of blood from my fingertip.

wind-swept tree from

All that's silly, though, because for the most part it takes a while for this sort of growth to be visible, like the effect of wind blowing on a tree: from one week to the next -- or one year to the next -- we can hardly see the difference. But over a few decades it's quite clear something's been happening. (The photo is from

Sure, once in a while we might experience a dramatic change -- like the day I decided to follow Jesus and call him "Lord" (or "Boss" or "King"). But at least for me the typical scenario is more like this: 20 years after I became aware of being impatient and sort of edgy, someone told me I was patient and kind and accepting.

Nice to see some progress, I tell myself. But which practices helped me? What habits exposed me to the Lord's grace? What, in other words, did God use to change me?

Maybe this is a cop-out, but I don't think we'll find a scientific, mathematical, engineering kind of answer. My approximate answer would include (in no particular order):

  1. Exposure to godly men and women, and I don't mean just seeing video clips -- I mean knowing how they make decisions, what they struggle with, how they trusted God. This isn't limited to pastors and conference speakers; I include "ordinary" brothers and sisters who walk the walk, who take steps of faith and bet their lives on God's promises. The idea here is to emulate the twelve, who were with Jesus (Mark 3:14). I hope this isn't a proof-text, but if I can't see Jesus in the flesh, I want to be near people who are like him.

    I think of a family that sold everything and moved overseas to encounter debilitating illness; they moved back to the US, recovered, and continued serving. Or someone whose spouse went to seminary then deserted the family and the faith; the remaining parent trusts God, avoids bitterness, raises the kids in the nurture and instruction of the Lord.

  2. Reading and studying the Scriptures, with the aim of applying them to my life. (1 Thessalonians 2:13 says that the word of God's message performs its work in us.) Sometimes this means developing an "obvious" application from a verse like "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25).

    But it can also mean taking an insight and changing the way I think -- I read in Ephesians 4:29, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth..." and looked up the word translated "unwholesome" (what does that mean, anyway?). As it turns out, this word connotes speech that is intrinsically rotten, as distinct from something innocent but easily misunderstood. When I learned this, it hit me that some of my speech really was unwholesome, and I had to think about why it was that way.

  3. Taking a step of obedience, even if we don't always feel like it. This is sometimes called "acting «as if»." There's classic advice for husbands who don't feel in love any more: act as if you were. Ephesians 5 doesn't command a certain kind of feeling; it commands a husband to act in a loving manner toward his wife, to give her a high position on his list of priorities, to sacrifice himself for her. If a husband doesn't feel that way, that's OK! He doesn't have to feel that way; he just has to do it. And the good news is that by doing those things -- going out of his way to bless her, behaving affectionately toward her, really attending to her needs, those deeds become more pleasant to the husband; the feelings will sometimes follow.
    NOTE: While this may be good and important for husbands, there's a danger in applying this advice inappropriately, as one may become a hypocrite -- if I act for example as though I'm more committed to a task or cause or organization than I actually am.

    If there is a command from God (as there is for husbands to love their wives) we should obey it in faith; if there's a promise from God (such as one finds in John 3:16 or John 5:24), then we should apply our faith to it, and acting «as if» may be appropriate. If I'm not sure I have the faith for it, but I'm willing to take a step of obedience, that's great.

    But absent a promise or a command of the Lord, acting «as if» may bring trouble.

    It's important when trying to do this that we have a correct understanding of what the Scriptures (and thus the Lord) are telling us what to do. If we look at James 1:2, "Count it all joy when you meet various trials" and we think it means we ought to deny our honest feelings or turn a blind eye toward our own limitations (see under "Confession" below), we're also headed for trouble.

    We can do this with steps of faith, whether we're just starting out or have been following Jesus for some time. A classic piece of advice, if one isn't sure about Jesus, is to act as if we believe him. If we know a little about how Jesus wants us to approach life, we can "pretend" that we think it's a good idea. In other words, do it! If we're not sure Jesus is listening but we'd like to believe it, then go ahead and call out to him when we want guidance or mercy or whatever. And so on. When I take a step in the direction I know God wants me to go, he'll show up for me.

    Following another promise from God, Isaiah 58:10 says that if we extend ourselves on behalf of the needy, then he will make our gloom like the noonday and do all kinds of other good stuff for us. I remember a time when I was feeling depressed, I think a girl had dumped me or something, and this guy gave me that passage. I didn't appreciate it very much, but I did what it suggested and it actually worked for me; reaching out and serving somebody did lift me out of my self-pity. It did more than that, actually; as Isaiah says, all kinds of rewards came out of that.

  4. Embracing mediocrity. John Ortberg reports that according various experts, it takes some 36 hours a day to "get by" in the areas of physical exercise, career development, eating, sleeping, and so on. So there is no way to get all As or even all Bs; we need to choose a C-minus here and there, or we'll end up with an F somewhere else. Nobody says on his deathbed, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office" (attributed to Tsongas, Iacocca, and maybe others). More on this here.
  5. Confession. This doesn't necessarily mean going to a church official in a booth, or even another mortal, but when I go astray ("accidentally" or on purpose) I need to agree with God that I've been wrong. This doesn't come naturally, as my usual tendency is to think of an excuse for my badness. But really, it's better to be forgiven than excused.

    I want to combine this with some previous items and say that as we try to take those steps of faith, as Clint Eastwood said, "A man's got to know his limitations." So for example if I think it's important to think daily about God or his word, how will I do that? Do I think I can just remember? I don't know about you, but that doesn't come naturally to me. I need a plan of some kind, and the easier the better. I used to have people who would always ask me what verse I'd memorized lately. This brings its own set of problems, but "I stopped memorizing Scripture" was not one of them.

    So I know a young lady who writes a word or phrase on her hand; when she sees it during the day it reminds her of something. It might be simply "Mt 5:6" or "God loves you", something like this.

    In a completely different direction, there once was a young preacher named William. He worked with a small group of young men, and he promised them in the early days of the ministry that he would never be alone with a woman other than his wife. They all promised the same thing. Did they miss some opportunities for ministry that way? Probably. Did they avoid an entire class of problems? Absolutely!

  6. Destroying the power of idols, which we do by taking steps of faith and obedience. More about this is in a 2006 blog post, but the short version is: if I'm too concerned about money, one way to reduce anxiety is with the defiant act of giving some to the poor, which I already knew God wanted me to do. And so on for time, "success," reputation, etc.

    This is counterintuitive; it's more natural to serve idols than to defy them. But as with Marines under fire, the counterintuitive thing is the only way to make progress.

No comments: