Sketches: Spiritual Maturity

Mature

Gentle Reader,

I’ve needed to bump up my weights (for exercise) for awhile. Finally did so. Heavier dumbbells. The tortures of a new resistance band. I’m sure it’s good for me, but I can barely feel my arms right now.

So, let’s talk: spiritual maturity. (Prompt submitted by longtime reader and encourager Jodi. Thank you, Jodi).

I’ve sat and pondered this for awhile, for what, exactly, is spiritual maturity? Ultimately, I believe that it is the process of becoming more like Christ, also known as sanctification. In simple terms, this means to be set apart. To be different. To have all the distractions removed and rough edges smoothed so we can be the people that God wants us to be.

We cannot naturally achieve sanctification. While every human has the capacity to do good things, our nature is warped at a fundamental level. When, through the beauty of God’s prevenient grace (the grace that “goes before,” the action of God drawing all people to Himself) we come to the crisis of repentance and cry out to Christ for forgiveness, the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us. He begins to “unwarp” our nature. In both a moment and across a lifetime, which is a mystery and I am nowhere near smart enough to explain to you, He purifies and completes us. I suppose we could think of it as a prisoner being set free, but taking a really long time to figure out that he has been freed. He needs help in learning to drop old patterns and habits, to learn to live as a new person, in a new way.

John Wesley loved the topic of sanctification. Really loooooooooved it. ‘Twas his jam. In the opening paragraph of the sermon Circumcision of the Heart, he wrote:

…he is only preaching to them “Jesus and the resurrection,” with the necessary consequence of it, — If Christ be risen, ye ought then to die unto the world, and to live wholly unto God.

He went on:

 That “circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter;” — that the distinguishing mark of a true follower of Christ, of one who is in a state of acceptance with God, is not either outward circumcision, or baptism, or any other outward form, but a right state of soul, a mind and spirit renewed after the image of Him that created it…

And so one does not have to be in vocational ministry or in possession of a theological degree in order to be spiritually mature. Growth in grace and Christlikeness is a natural consequence of right relationship with God. We don’t always get it right. We stumble. We fall. It can take a long time for us to let go of wrong beliefs and cherished sins. In the end, though, God will have His way in us. Through the gentle yet at the same time head-walloping conviction of the Spirit, He will enable us to pry our white-knuckled hands off of those things He wants us to release (that is, if we aren’t consistently refusing to listen to Him and hardening our hearts, which is always a danger).

When talking to His disciples about false teachers, Jesus said:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

– Matthew 7:15-20 (NKJV, emphasis mine)

God, the Master Gardener, is in the business of resurrecting bad trees. He waters, feeds and prunes. If we submit to the process – because we always have choices – we will produce the good fruit of:

…love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

– Galatians 5:22b (NKJV)

These traits are ours in an instant, yet they take a lifetime to develop. The Spirit has to train our minds to think differently and teach our hearts to feel differently. We start off as cranky little babies, focused only on ourselves. In time, with His patience and mercy, we move toward becoming the light-bearing, Gospel-breathing people He wants us to be.

Spiritual maturity has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude. It all boils down to a simple question: Do I want to submit to God in this thing or not? Sometimes it’s a “two steps forward, one step back” dance. I freely confess to you that there are days when my answer is “no.” Then I get to learn things the hard way. I get a rough lesson in the necessity of not responding to people and life like a squawking toddler. Thankfully, there is grace.

In short, spiritual maturity means that we grow up.

And boy, do we ever need to grow up.

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Why Does This Need to be Said?

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

I had a different post in mind for today but, after participating in a Facebook discussion (always a wise idea, right?), we’re heading in another direction.

Apparently, there are people – Christian people – who think that slavery is probably okay. Because Philemon and stuff.

In 2017.

Yeah.

The argument goes that because passages like 1 Peter 2:18 and Ephesians 6:5 tell slaves to obey their masters, God must be okay with slavery. Since Paul sent Onesiumus back to Philemon, his owner, God must be okay with slavery. The Law found in Exodus-Deuteronomy outlines the way in which the Isrealities are to treat their slaves, God must be okay with slavery. Thus abolitionists of the past centuries and the anti-trafficking forces of today practice shoddy interpretation and have no business meddling in this area. Sure, owners should treat their slaves with kindness, so probably the “mean ones” should be disciplined in some way, but, you know, most people who owned other people in the past really weren’t that bad, nor are modern-day traffickers (and those who make use of the traffickers’ services).

We’ve got to drop our eighteenth-century mindset and stay true to the Bible, don’t you know.

I’m left sputtering in amazement that anyone actually believes any of this.

So I’m going to quote some people much smarter than me and let you decide:

The regulation of slavery should therefore be seen as a practical step to deal with the realities of the day resulting from human fall. The aberrations that lead to alienation among individuals, races, and nations are the result of a fundamental broken relationship between humankind and God. Within this tragic scenario, Scripture comes as a breath of fresh air as it seeks to redeem the situation and sets us on a path of ever-increasing amelioration of our predicament. While the Bible does not reject slavery outright, the conclusion that it actually favours slavery is patently wrong. Scripture does reveal that slavery is not ideal, both in Old Testament laws forbidding the enslavement of fellow Israelites, the law of jubilee, and in New Testament applications of Christ. In fact, the Bible teaches that the feeling of superiority in general is sin (Philippians 2:1-8)! The abolition of slavery is thus not only permissible by biblical standards, but demanded by biblical principles. The pre-fall statement that should guide and ultimately abolish such (and any) practices of superiority is the declaration that all humans—men and women—are made in the image of God.

Zacharias Trust

 

The book of Onesimus (Philemon) is the book that is brought forward most often—and rightly, I think—to show that Paul was sowing the seeds to explode the whole situation of slavery. Onesimus himself was a slave when he got converted. Paul sent him back to Philemon who had been his master, and he said, “I am sending him back as a brother. Honor him.” I think that kind of spiritual dynamic is intended to explode the system.

Another thing to explode the system is when Paul says to masters, “Do not threaten them, remembering that you too have a master.” So he puts the command of neighbor-love—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—in the place of the right of the master to threaten. And if you don’t threaten, what do you do? You win by love, and that transforms slavery into employment.

John Piper

 

The grand plea is, “They are authorized by law.” But can law, human law, change the nature of things? Can it turn darkness into light, or evil into good? By no means. Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right, and wrong is wrong still. There must still remain an essential difference between justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy. So that I still ask, Who can reconcile this treatment of the negroes, first and last, with either mercy or justice.

Where is the justice of inflicting the severest evils, on those who have done us no wrong? Of depriving those that never injured us in word or deed, of every comfort of life? Of tearing them from their native country, and depriving them of liberty itself? To which an Angolan, has the same natural right as an Englishman, and on which he sets as high a value? Yea where is the justice of taking away the lives of innocent, inoffensive men? Murdering thousands of them in their own land, by the hands of their own countrymen: Many thousands, year after year, on shipboard, and then casting them like dung into the sea! And tens of thousands in that cruel slavery, to which they are so unjustly reduced?

But waving, for the present, all other considerations, I strike at the root of this complicated villainy. I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of even natural justice.

I cannot place this in a clearer light, than that great ornament of his profession, judge Blackstone has already done. Part of his words are as follows:

“The three origins of the right of slavery assigned by Justinian, are all built upon false foundations. 1. Slavery is said to arise from captivity in war. The conqueror having a right to the life of his captive, if he spares that, has then a right to deal with him as he pleases. But this is untrue, if taken generally, That by the law of nations, a man has a right to kill his enemy. He has only a right to kill him in particular cases in cases of absolute necessity for self-defence. And it is plain, this absolute necessity did not subsist, since he did not kill him, but made him prisoner. War itself is justifiable only on principles of self-preservation. Therefore it gives us no right over prisoners, but to hinder their hurting us by confining them. Much less can it give a right to torture, or kill, or even to enslave an enemy when the war is over. Since therefore the right of making our prisoners slaves, depends on a supposed right of slaughter, that foundation failing, the consequence which is drawn from it must fail likewise.”

“It is said, Secondly, slavery may begin, by one man’s selling himself to another. And it is true, a man may sell himself to work for another: But he cannot sell himself to be a slave, as above defined. Every sale implies an equivalent given to the seller, in lieu of what he transfers to the buyer. But what equivalent can be given for life or liberty? His property likewise, with the very price which he seems to receive, devolves ipso facto to his master, the instant he becomes his slave: In this case therefore the buyer gives nothing, and the seller receives nothing. Of what validity then can a sale be, which destroys the very principle upon which all sales are founded?”

“We are told, Thirdly, that men may be born slaves, by being the children of slaves. But this being built on the two former rights, must fall together with them. If neither captivity, nor contract can by the plain law of nature and reason, reduce the parent to a state of slavery, much less can they reduce the offspring.” It clearly follows, that all slavery is as irreconcileable to justice as to mercy.

That slave-holding is utterly inconsistent with mercy, is almost too plain to need a proof. Indeed it is said, “That these negroes being prisoners of war, our captains and factors buy them merely to save them from being put to death. And is not this mercy?” I answer, 1. Did Sir John Hawkins, and many others, seize upon men, women and children, who were at peace in their own fields or houses, merely to save them from death? 2. Was it to save them from death, that they knock’d out the brains of those they could not bring away? 3. Who occasioned and fomented those wars, wherein these poor creatures were taken prisoners? Who excited them by money, by drink, by every possible means, to fall upon one another? Was it not themselves? They know in their own conscience it was, if they have any conscience left. But 4. To bring the matter to a short issue. Can they say before GOD, That they ever took a single voyage, or bought a single negro from this motive? They cannot. They well know, to get money, not to save lives, was the whole and sole spring of their motions.

But if this manner of Procuring and treating negroes is not consistent either with mercy or justice, yet there is a plea for it which every man of business will acknowledge to be quite sufficient. Fifty years ago, one meeting an eminent statesman in the lobby of the house of commons, aid, “You have been long talking about justice and equity. Pray which is this bill? Equity or justice?” He answered, very short, and plain, “D–n justice: It is necessity.” Here also the slave-holder fixes his foot: Here he rests the strength of his cause. “If it is not quite right, yet it must be so: There is an absolute necessity for it. It is necessary we should procure slaves: And when we have procured them, it is necessary to use them with severity, considering their stupidity, stubbornness and wickedness.”

I answer, You stumble at the threshold: I deny that villany is ever necessary. It is impossible that it should ever be necessary, for any reasonable creature to violate all the laws of justice, mercy and truth. No circumstances can make it necessary for a man to burst in sunder all the ties of humanity. It can never be necessary for a rational being to sink himself below a brute. A man can be under no necessity, of degrading himself into a wolf. The absurdity of the supposition is so glaring, that one would wonder any one can help seeing it.

John Wesley

I was told that we must not take stands on things in the “gray areas” that God doesn’t appear to take a stand on as revealed through Scripture. What a poor argument. The Bible says nothing about the effects of chemical waste being poured into the water supply, but we know without citing chapter and verse that such a thing lies far outside the bounds of good stewardship. The Bible says nothing about the addictive nature of many of technologies, but we know without citing chapter and verse that this addiction – a struggle for many of us – is hardly part of His good design. The Bible says nothing about having surgery when a tumor is discovered, but we know without citing chaoter and verse that only a great idiot would tell a dying man to forgo the scalpel because it’s a “gray area.”

God didn’t strike down David even though he had many wives, so is polygamy okay?

Come on.

Surely we are smarter than this.

Slavery is not okay. It is not morally neutral or morally good.

If you think it is, then let me ask you this: Do the women in your church wear headcoverings? Because if you’re going to treat the text of Scripture in such a flippantly literal way, then they’d better be. Anything else is inconsistent.

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Photo credit: Katie Chase

Heartbroken

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

God has seen fit to bless me with several wonderful, loyal canine companions throughout my life. Yesterday, at approximately 2:15 p.m., my little Shih Tzu Bugsy went Home to be with Him.

We came home after church to find that Bugsy had dug his way out under the fence. This was completely abnormal behavior, and, when a neighbor brought him back to us, it was obvious that he was not himself. For the last month, Bugsy had been steadily declining in health and mental acuity; it no longer seemed right to continue pumping him full of drugs. He was suffering and couldn’t do anything about it.

I thank God that He knows me well enough to understand that I could not have handled it if Bugsy had been lost. It would have torn me to pieces to think of him alone and cold, left to drift away in a snowbank. In His mercy, He brought Bugsy back. We debated for about an hour before making the terrible drive to the emergency vet.

We held him and told him that we loved him. We reminded him that he was a good dog and that we didn’t want him to suffer anymore. The vet told us that he likely had cancer because the medication that we had been giving him would have helped him if it was anything else. He’d lost a pound over the course of a month because he wasn’t eating. She told us that it would be kinder to easy his suffering.

Choking back sobs, that what we did. He didn’t fight it and went very quickly. I have to think that he was ready for his pain and sickness to be over. I don’t know what kind of reasoning or understanding animals have, but I know that it must be terrible to feel so bad and not be able to communicate anything about it.

I believe that Bugsy is in Heaven. There are many who disagree with me, and to them I say, “Why not?” There is no good logical reason, let alone anything in the Bible, that says that animals are not part of the eternal plan. The Lord who knows when a sparrow falls to the earth saw my poor, old, confused, sick little doggy and cared for him enough to bring him back to us so that we could say goodbye. Bugsy fulfilled his purpose on earth, which was to bring a smile to our faces and just love us in the way that only dogs can. I believe that He was welcomed into the arms of Christ the moment that we released him.

Again, why not? The common objection is that animals can’t make a decision to accept salvation. So what? Jesus died for responsible humanity, yes, but also to bring all of creation back into alignment with the original plan. Last time I checked, animals were in Eden. When the world is restored at the end of all things, animals will be there.

We limit God in saying that only humans will enjoy eternal rest and harmony. Where is our imagination? Where is our recognition of the fact that it tears at our hearts when our beloved pets die? No, animals and humans are not the same. But animals are important. Theologians down through the ages, and especially C.S. Lewis, Randy Alcorn, and my hero John Wesley, believed this. Who amongst us will mock these devoted, intellectual giants for having such a view?

Dr. Peter Kreeft has this to say:

Are there animals in Heaven? The simplest answer is: Why not? How irrational is the prejudice that would allow plants (green fields and flowers), but not animals into Heaven.” Regarding pets, he writes: “Would the same animals be in Heaven as on earth? ‘Is my dead cat in Heaven?’ Again, why not? God can raise up the very grass; why not cats? Though the blessed have better things to do than play with pets, the better does not exclude the lesser.

The better does not exclude the lesser. Can we not worship the Creator by enjoying His blessings of animal companionship? I think so.

Bugsy is Heaven now, with Petey, Skippy, Tramp, Bella and Rags, all dogs who have passed through my family. He is there with Dusty, Amy’s horse. He is there with Benson. And you know what? They enjoy the comfort and joy of being in the presence of God Himself.

I miss him terribly. I’ll always miss him, just as I miss the others. All these little holes in my heart draw together to create a insatiable need of God’s healing. I am sick of this place. I long for the day when things are made new and right.

Until then…I’ll just keep on loving these little doggies, and learn the lessons they have for me. To love anyone and everyone, no matter who they are and what they look like. To take the time to play. To enjoy a good snack. To be happy in the simply things.

If that’s not a reminder from Jesus for our lives, then I don’t know what is.

I wish someone had given Jesus a dog
As loyal and loving as mine
To sleep by His manger and gaze in His eyes
And adore Him for being divine.

As our Lord grew to manhood His faithful dog
Would have followed Him all through the day
While He preached to the crowds and made the sick well
And knelt in the garden to pray.
It is sad to remember that Christ went away
To face death alone and apart
With no tender dog following close behind
To comfort its Master’s Heart.
And when Jesus rose on that Easter morn
How happy He would have been
As His dog kissed His hands and barked its delight
For The One who died for all men.

Well, the Lord has a dog now, I just sent Him mine
The old pal so dear to me
And I smile through my tears on this first day alone
Knowing they’re in eternity.
Day after day, the whole day through
Wherever my road inclined
Four feet said, “I am coming with you!”
And trotted along behind. – Rudyard Kipling

My journey to faith. (15)