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 Beast, the Tiger

Tiger

Gentle Reader,

Thunk.

Thunk.

Thunk.

Tears leak from my eyes. I’m not fully awake yet. Beads of sweat stand on my brow. Palms clutch the blanket. Ribs feel as though they will break. Not enough air in my lungs. Feet tingle. Goosebumps everywhere.

I can’t do this. I can’t do this. It’s too much. It’s too much.

Panic attacks are not logical. They can’t be rationalized away. The brain decides to flip the “fight or flight” switch and it’s off to the races. The neurons and chemicals and whatever else hangs out in the gray matter fly around, making faulty connections, ones that must sound like a car backfiring. The result: Me, on the couch, stiff, waiting for the terror to pass.

It does.

It always does.

The rest of the day, the anxiety is high. By “high,” I mean “would send a person who doesn’t live with an anxiety disorder to the emergency room, convinced she’s dying.” My hands shake. The bottoms of my feet tingle. My lips go numb. I talk to myself.

“Okay, you have to get up and shower now.”

“Okay, time to make some lunch.”

“How about you vacuum? You can do that.”

When completed, these simple tasks become victories. I celebrate them. I ask God if He notices that I braided my hair. Of course He does; He misses nothing. But I like to invite Him to the party. I take comfort in knowing that He paces around the house with me, laughing at sitcoms I’ve seen a thousand times, working to burn off the excess energy that leaves me both restless and drained. He knows that it’s not my fault. He knows that I didn’t wake up and think, “You know what would be fun today? An episode of the crazies.”

We’re not supposed to use the word “crazy” when discussing mental illness, but I feel crazy when the panic hits. I was 19 the first time the terror tiger sank its claws into my brain. I’d always been anxious, but this…it was new. Strange. Surreal. I’d been hanging out with friends. Nothing unusual. Went home, put on my blue plaid flannel pajamas and crawled into bed.

Sometime before sunrise, I don’t remember the hour, I sat in a room at the hospital, feet encased in purple Volkswagon Beetle slippers, adrenaline pumping. The doctor asked my parents if I was on drugs.

Anything I do, I do afraid. I do it with the thought that it won’t be good enough. That I’m not good enough. That failure is inevitable. The times I’ve seriously considered no longer writing, I can’t count. Any Bible study group I’ve led, I’ve been sure that someone else could do it better. Going to a party or get-together, even with people I’ve known for years, requires pumping myself up as if I am about to step into a boxing ring.

And most people are never able to tell, because I have a poker face to rival the best of card sharks.

God knows, though. As I said, He sees it all.

We misunderstand passages like:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.

– Joshua 1:9 (NKJV)

And forget:

Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You.

– Psalm 56:3 (NKJV, emphasis mine)

Trusting God isn’t a one-and-done deal. Conquering fear isn’t an easy win.

The Hebrew yôm used in the psalm is a word that is used to denote any length of time. It can be a day. It can be yesterday. It can be tomorrow. It can be a lifetime.

Yesterday, I was afraid. I trusted God.

Today, I am afraid. I trust God.

Tomorrow, I will be afraid. I will trust God.

My lifetime is marked by an anxiety rooted in faulty biology, the result of the Fall and Curse of Genesis 3. I will keep on trusting God. And when I forget, when I fail to act in wisdom and cry out for His help, I believe that He holds me in the palm of His hand. I believe that He does not and will not cast me aside for being frail. He knows the dust from where I came and the dust to which I shall return.

I plant my feet on the Rock.

Whatever winds roar.

Be encouraged today, dear reader. The fact that you have not destroyed the beast that weighs upon your back doesn’t mean that you don’t belong to God. It doesn’t mean that you don’t believe. It doesn’t mean that He hates you. Keep fighting, one moment at a time. This is the working out of your salvation, the wrestling that is part and parcel of sanctification. The beast may always be there, pulling at you until you reach Eternity. This is no sign of failure. Instead, take its presence as a reminder of the great grace you need each moment, as a prompting to raise your hands to the Lord who knows.

He is with you.

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Unconditional Love, Conditional Relationship

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Gentle Reader,

I’ve been hearing a lot about love and acceptance lately, from conversations with friends to articles in magazines to snippets on the radio.

It’s got me thinking.

Does unconditional love equal unconditional acceptance? Can relationships be healthy if they do not have boundaries?

Let us consider the parent-child relationship. Healthy parents (healthy, not perfect) love their kids because the kids are theirs. The kids don’t have to do anything; this love is based on who they are. Sonship and daughtership are unique, strong bonds. These bonds move the parents to declare, “I love you because you are mine.” And yet healthy parents don’t let their kids do whatever they want. They don’t say, “Oh, sure. Go play in the street because that will make you happy.” Parents know more than kids. They have access to greater knowledge and a better understanding of life.

So, a healthy parent makes the rules and follows the breaking of them with consequences. That’s part of the process of raising children. And let’s be honest: We’ve all been in the grocery store with kids whose parents let them run wild. It’s irritating. We wonder what the parents are thinking.

Love with no boundaries doesn’t work. When parents do that, we see them as doormats, allowing pint-size tyrants to control the situation. There are even occasions when this kind of thing crosses over into outright neglect. In adult-to-adult relationships, whether romantic, platonic or collegial, boundaries, rules and consequences function to protect the participants from abuse. If I thought that unconditional love meant that I had to accept Chris beating me (he doesn’t! don’t call the cops!), you’d be right look at me like I was nuts. Or at least massively co-dependent.

Love is based on who someone is. Acceptance is based on what someone does. Looking back at the parenting example, as kids grow into adults and their relationship with their parents changes, the parent may very well have to say, “I love you, but I can’t be around you because of your choices.” I see this all the time at the shelter. Many of the ladies and children who live there do have some familial connection; someone loves them. They bring the residents clothes, food, money, presents. But there is a line. There is a point at which the family has had to say, “I love you, but we can’t have a deeper connection until you make better choices.”

If I was a betting woman, I’d wager that all of this sounds like common sense to you.

So, tell me why we don’t apply this line of thinking to how we relate to God?

Some stamp their feet and demand to be let into Heaven whether or not they’ve ever even thought of God. It’s only “fair.” Others live as they please but try to  hide under grace. Cheap grace, it’s called, when people want God but also want to do whatever they please. Pray a prayer and go on their merry way. Because God loves me unconditionally.

Yes.

But does He accept us unconditionally?

Anyone who truly wants to know God has to start by saying that God is greatest. God is over and above. There has to be an acknowledgment that God is the Ruler, and therefore He gets to define the terms of relationship. Without that premise, we try to pursue God on our own terms, and that’s not how this works. It’s just reality. Any god that we can have a relationship with in our way, on our own terms, is no god at all.

That kind of god? It’s called an idol. A god made in man’s image, if you will. And they all suck. They disappoint every single time because man disappoints every single time. We desperately need something, Someone, better than ourselves.

Starting with God as the In Charge One, we then seek to know what His terms are. Happily, He spells them out for us:

1. God does, indeed, love us unconditionally…

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son… – John 3:16a (NKJV)

Since God is love (1 John 4:8) and He made everyone and everything (Genesis 1-3, Colossians 1:16 – and, no, we’re not talking about the mechanisms by which He made everyone and everything, so don’t even go there), He can’t not love people. It’s Who He is. Sure, there are places in Scripture that talk about God hating (Romans 9:13), but these places, in the original, talk about God loving someone less, not loathing them, as we understand the term “hate” to mean. (Unpacking this more is beyond the scope of this post, but please do some reading, starting with the above linked article). So it is quite correct to say that God loves each person unconditionally, because it is based on Who He is – and also on who we are, His creation.

2. …but He does not accept us unconditionally.

…that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. – John 3:17b (NKJV)

God’s love for humanity means that He knew our pathetic condition and sent us a Savior. He offers salvation to everyone. It’s a free gift that anyone can take at any time this side of Eternity. But not everyone takes it. So, though salvation is universally offered, salvation is not universal. Everyone doesn’t go to Heaven. Everyone is not right with God.

Those are the basic terms. The passage goes on:

For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God. – John 3:17-21 (NKJV)

Jesus’ job during His time on earth wasn’t to condemn. His job was to live perfectly (or “fulfill the Law”) and offer Himself as the once-and-for-all, without blemish sacrifice. Yet make no mistake. Refusing to submit to the Lordship of Christ carries with it condemnation. It means choosing your own way over God’s way, which He will allow you to do, but that choice means you reject God. You thumb your nose at Him and tell Him that you want to live separately. He will allow that. What He will not allow is any attempt to force Him to do things our way. He won’t. He doesn’t have to.

We come to God by walking the road paved with His Son’s spilled blood.

Or we don’t come at all.

3. We can’t “sprinkle a little Jesus” on our lives.

Here we move from the “before and during” stage of coming to Christ and into the “after.” Faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Learning to obey God is a life-long process that we never do complete this side of Heaven, but it’s an insult to Holy God to ask Jesus to save you and then keep doing whatever you want to do. Just as God isn’t going to be acquiesce to our terms in coming to Him, neither is He going to say, “Oh, okay! You prayed and asked Me to save you, so you’re good! Do whatever you want!”

I’ve heard that called fire insurance.

Let me be blunt: If that’s what you think the Christian life amounts to, you are extremely immature. Get your sweet little behind settled on a comfy couch and read the Gospels. Take some time to actually dwell on what Jesus went through. If the intensity of His sacrifice doesn’t compel you to love Him and serve Him, then I think you have to question whether or not you truly believe.

Don’t be frightened by such considerations. Better to uncover a lie and replace it with truth than go on living with the lie.

4. God gives us a multitude of opportunities to submit to Him, but eventually those opportunities are going to stop coming.

I’m not talking about death here, though that certainly does mean the opportunities have ceased (Hebrews 9:27). What I refer to is the end of all things. Time is racing toward the Second Advent, the return of Christ. And when He does set foot on this sod once more:

…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed. – 2 Thessalonians 1:7b-10 (NKJV)

God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth,  and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:9-11 (NKJV)

Bow willingly now or bow unwillingly then. Either way, we’re all going to bow.

…behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written:

KING OF KINGS AND
LORD OF LORDS. – Revelation 19:11-16 (NKJV)

I realize that this is all a bit fire-and-brimstoney, but I think we need that every once in awhile. We need to be shaken out of stupor. This is God we are talking about.

The thing about these four points? Not one of them is unfair. Stamp your feet and wave your fists if you like. Doesn’t change reality. God did absolutely everything to save us. He literally wrapped it up (John 19:40) and then put a bow on it three days later (Luke 24:1-12). All we have to do is repent, believe and obey, and God even goes so far as to give us the ability to do all three.

This is the God you want. This is the God who will meet all your needs and even grant you many of your wants. He loves you unconditionally but won’t accept you unconditionally – and you don’t want Him to. Any god who isn’t truly interested in your life, who is only there to serve you, who plays into your selfishness, jealousy, greed…that’s a worthless god. That’s a stupid god. That’s a god without any power.

Ultimately, that god looks an awful lot like the person you see in the mirror.

My journey to faith. (15)

The Real Deal

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Gentle Reader,

There’s nothing like Easter.

After the horrible betrayal. After the mocking trials. After the bruises, the wounds, the spitting, the torture. After the crown of thorns. After the agony of the Cross. After it was finished. After the dreadful silence of the tomb.

Easter.

PAR-TAY!

I say that with all seriousness. If there is ever a day when Christians should celebrate with abandon, Easter is it. Jesus is alive! The Evil One is defeated! Death couldn’t claim Him! The grave couldn’t hold Him! He is wrapped not in moldy, decaying funeral rags, but in a glorified, perfect body. And yet a body that still bears the marks. Our names carved upon His hands.

God became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

I love seeing the little girls in their frilly dresses and the boys in their bright shirts. I love seeing extended family come together for church and a good meal. I love seeing the budding trees and new flowers. The sense of hope and promise hangs thick in the air.

A new season.

A new life.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t understand how people live without Jesus. Looking at the state of the world, from wars to human trafficking to poverty to hunger, makes me cling to Him all the more. I am desperate for what only God can provide. On my own, I say and do stupid, stupid things. Selfish things. Mean things.

I am a sinner.

I need grace.

I need a miracle.

Jesus’ resurrection is that miracle. He takes all that ugliness, all that sin, and washes it in His blood. He sends His Spirit to live in me and make me into the person I was meant to be. No amount of self-help or positive thinking can do what He does. He pokes and prods at all the deep, secret, dark places. He brings things to the surface, things I want to keep buried, and teaches me how to look at them in His light. He teaches me how to walk the right path. He teaches me how to worship Him as the True and Forever Lord.

He teaches me how to be real.

And God? He’s the complete real deal. He is totally honest, totally Himself. He doesn’t have a messed-up side. He doesn’t try to manipulate or guilt-trip anyone. He just lays out the facts. He says, “This is Who I Am and this is how it is.” Then He lets us decide. Empty or whole. Heaven or Hell. New or old. Together or alone.

When Jesus left the tomb that glorious morning, the way was made clear for each of us. The great enemies of sin and death were slain by the only One Who could do it. We don’t have to live in the pit. We can cry out, “Jesus, save me!” And He will. He’ll reach in and pull us out. And we see the Great King with eyes that blaze with the fire of holiness. We are bathed in the beauty of His love and the fantastic mystery of mercy. Draped in the robes of His righteousness, we realize how small and shriveled we are, and how glowing and healthy we can become in Him. Because of Him.

We approach the Throne of the Holy One, welcomed as His beloved children.

Because of Jesus.

Because of Easter.

My journey to faith. (15)