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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The Valley is Where we Live

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

…He climbed the mountain to pray, taking Peter, John, and James along. While He was in prayer, the appearance of His face changed and His clothes became blinding white. At once two men were there talking with Him. They turned out to be Moses and Elijah—and what a glorious appearance they made! They talked over His exodus, the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Peter and those with him were slumped over in sleep. When they came to, rubbing their eyes, they saw Jesus in His glory and the two men standing with him. When Moses and Elijah had left, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking.

While he was babbling on like this, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them. As they found themselves buried in the cloud, they became deeply aware of God. Then there was a voice out of the cloud: “This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him.”

– Luke 9:28b-35 (MSG)

Today my pastor preached on the Transfiguration.

I listened from my bed, the ache in my side threatening to ruin all efforts at concentration.

The lesson lived out in real time, for the passage goes on:

When they came down off the mountain the next day, a big crowd was there to meet them. A man called from out of the crowd, “Please, please, Teacher, take a look at my son. He’s my only child. Often a spirit seizes him. Suddenly he’s screaming, thrown into convulsions, his mouth foaming. And then it beats him black-and-blue before it leaves. I asked Your disciples to deliver him but they couldn’t.”

Jesus said, “What a generation! No sense of God! No focus to your lives! How many times do I have to go over these things? How much longer do I have to put up with this? Bring your son here.”

While he was coming, the demon slammed him to the ground and threw him into convulsions. Jesus stepped in, ordered the vile spirit gone, healed the boy, and handed him back to his father.

– Luke 9:37-42 (MSG)

The mountain top is not where we live.

Our homes are made in the valley.

We have trouble accepting this. We think that giving our lives over to God somehow means that we’ll hang out on the heights. All will be rainbows and unicorns. Even if we consciously and strongly reject the “health-and-wealth” non-gospel, in the back of our minds we cling to its precepts. We cannot reconcile how obedience and suffering, faith and frailty, go together.

Yet they do.

In the High Priestly Prayer of John 17, Jesus specifically says that He doesn’t desire for His people to be taken out of the world. He works instead for our protection. This doesn’t mean life on easy street, for just a chapter previously He guaranteed that we would have trouble (John 16:33). So what on earth does He protect us from, if not from trouble?

He protects us from losing heart.

From losing faith.

Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus is both the “author and finisher” of faith. It’s not something we cook up ourselves. The ability to go on in this midst of trouble, to trust that He is going to complete the plan set in motion before the world began, is a gift straight from God. He pours it out on His people, even when we don’t have sense enough to ask.

Overall, it’snot about protection from storms, though there are times when He does keep us from them. It’s more about protection through storms.

You are going to have trouble. You are. No matter how blissful your life might be at this moment, problems are going to arise. Someone will make you angry. You’ll say something stupid. Loved ones will die. The bank account could dry up, the house could burn down, the diagnosis could rock your world. Someone might hold a gun to your head or beat you senseless. Your car, purse, wallet might get stolen. You may not be able to have children, your boss could be a real jerk, you might have to move to a new city and grapple with loneliness.

Because you live in the valley.

The mountain top hours, the moments of wonder, give us little tastes of the world to come. They remind us that God is indeed real and more wonderful than we could ever imagine. They’re little bubbles of pure, unadulterated happiness.

But they are only moments. Passing quickly.

Back to the valley we go. Plodding and crawling.

God is good and present even then. Do you realize that when you’re laying in bed and the pain just won’t stop that He’s right there, stroking your brow and soothing your soul? When your spouse does the unthinkable and you’re curled up in a sobbing ball, He lifts you onto His lap? When there’s no more money and the bill comes in, He provides? God, the Fantastic Lord of All, gets down in the mud and muck with you and me and urges us on.

God is present in suffering. Present. All too often we choose to ignore that. We spit in His face in the grandest of temper tantrums, angry that He isn’t giving us what we think we deserve.

It’s a wonder we’re not all struck by lightning.

We have to get over this. We have to ask Him to root out all assumptions of ease and materialism. Following Jesus isn’t about any of that. Yes, there are blessings. Yes, there is joy. Yes, there is wonder. But not one of those things is dependent upon a nice house or a wad of cash or a functioning body. The blessings and the joy and the wonder are found in God Himself, not in anything He can give.

Suffering is our reality. We are post-Genesis 3 people, groaning along with the rest of creation (Romans 8:18-25). We have been saved from the eternal consequences of the Curse, but we still live in the dailyness of it. We are already-and-not-yet people, longing for the release we know is ours but striving to accept His will, His timing.

We have to stop demanding things.

We have to stop being spiritual toddlers who fuss and fume.

 

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

– James 1:2-4 (MSG)

These words, we must return to them over and over again. For where is God most glorified in our lives? Where does the light shine the brightest?

In the darkness. When we stake everything on Him, knowing, with steel in our souls, that He is good and true – no matter what.

My journey to faith. (15)

Photo Credit: Pablo Garcia Saldana

Not An Expert

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Gentle Reader,

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around why many discussions are so emotionally charged these days. It just doesn’t compute. I suppose I should blame my parents for raising me to ask questions respectfully and consider differing views rationally. Or maybe I could blame my journalism instructors for pounding into my head the importance of listening.

Or maybe I’m just a Vulcan.

In this desire to understand, I came across an article by Tom Nichols over at the Federalist,The Death of Expertise.” I recommend you go and take a look, for it speaks to our society’s current love-affair with heated argument. It sheds some light on why every issue under the sun is a controversial hotbed these days.

We all have different ways of approaching life. There isn’t a “wrong” or a “right” way to tackle things like housecleaning, keeping up with work emails, exercising, etc. There is, however, a difference between areas that we all participate in at an equal level and areas that require specialized, specific knowledge. We’ve lost sight of that.

Nobody should be blindly trusted, but we as a society seem to think that all points of view on every topic are equally valid, and that’s simply not true. It takes expertise to be a lawyer, a physics professor, a doctor, a true librarian (someone with an Masters of Library Science, which I don’t have), a professional chef, a speech therapist. This doesn’t mean that people without expertise in a certain field are dumb or that their ideas or questions are invalid, but it does mean that the layperson should respect the fact that those who can answer the questions know more. That they have a better understanding.

That we’re not always on that equal level, and that’s okay.

When making decisions that require input from someone with expertise, there are several questions that must be considered: Do I recognize that I need someone with expertise to address this? If not, there’s probably some level of self-delusion. Do I think, despite the disparity in education/experience/training between myself and _______, that I possess expertise? If the answer is yes, there’s probably some arrogance or a problem with authority. If I am angry with the answer, is it because I simply do not like the answer? That’s okay – for a time. A refusal to move beyond that anger is just sheer stubbornness. If I’m talking only to people who agree with me, or only reading things that affirm what I already think, am I truly looking for an answer? This is important, for nothing good can come from surrounding ourselves with “yes men.”

If accepting the fact that there’s a smarter person in the room is an impossibility, then we’re in trouble. This applies especially to Christians. The road of faith is supposed to mean a progression in maturity and humility, and where we are on that journey will show in all areas of life. If we go ballistic when someone dares to correct us, that’s a big ol’ red flag. If we ask a question and then go into a snit when we don’t hear what we want to hear, that’s a humongous stop sign. If we cry “hate speech” when someone disagrees (I’ve seen this one flying around a lot lately), that’s a flashing red light. If we sit around and smugly think that nobody else really knows what they’re talking about, that’s a call for a kick in the pants.

This hits me in a very real way. It is because I believe that this blog is part of God’s call on my life that I also believe that the ideas of expertise, maturity and humility are so important. I do not take to this public platform flippantly. The fact that anyone at all comes here to read is…daunting. A responsibility. I want to remain teachable and open to correction. I want to be able to admit to having limited knowledge and own my mistakes.

That’s something we should all strive for, really. Pride is sneaky. And deadly.

So allow me to declare that I’m not an expert. In anything. There are so many people who are far smarter, wiser, more experienced than I can ever hope to be.

And I’m grateful for that.

My journey to faith. (15)