Thursday, January 20, 2011

Growing Spiritually

What is the key to spiritual growth? I get asked this a lot and really my own life experience has focused much on this question. According to Psalm 119 and especially noting verses 9 and 11, the answer to the question of purity is ultimately "heeding", reading, memorizing, yielding to and obeying the word of God. So obviously that can be called a summary of the answer. However, there are many passages of Scripture that tell us more about "how to" do this. For example, Hebrews 13:7 commands us to "imitate" the faith of those who have taught the word of God to us.

Evidently a part of "heeding" the word of God is heeding to the word of God preached, and the word of God lived out in leaders examples. We might find other examples such as "prayer" and "spiritual disciplines" and "fellowship" and so forth. I decided in this post, just to talk in brief and general terms about what became most important to me in a certain period of my own wrestling with sin, as their was really one key thing that in my life, really jump started my spiritual growth.

The Reaction Trap

We all have a tendency to react to our circumstances. The baby cries, so you pick her up and sooth her with one of a handful solutions, perhaps touch, perhaps a bottle, perhaps a burping, or a changed diaper. The phone rings, so you answer it. A client gives an order, so we fill it. Facebook updates us, so we check our news feed. The common experiences of life have a very simple rhythm. We just fall into them, and go about our business.

When that pattern is disturbed it stresses us out. We are certainly capable of being flexible. But this introduction of new circumstances can be troubling. If we cannot comfort, the baby, we worry she is sick. We eventually may go to the doctor. We are worried. When a client is unsatisfied, it is stressful to try and come up with a solution that satisfies them, and protects the company.

The same kind of thing so often happens in our spiritual lives. We get into certain patterns, of going to church, praying here and there and so forth. When something difficult comes into our lives, it throws us for a loop. Suddenly we begin to doubt God, or to doubt our faith.
It is an issue of preparedness. The well-trained employee is much less stressed when a dissatisfied client calls, and knows what to offer and how to offer it in such a way as to come to a mutually successful conclusion to the conflict. An experienced parent no longer freaks out when little changes happen with their child.

At the back of all this is the assumption that people should indeed, be both knowledgeable and experienced in handling challenges. Every believer must expect to face faith and life challenges. It is critical that we be prepared. We are unprepared so often, because we have fallen into these patterns, these ruts.

A Life in Review

I have been in various roles of pastoral ministry now for around 7 years. I have around 8 years of ministry training, plus almost three years in which I had active mentorship in ministry (a part of that total of 7). In my experiences I have made many mistakes. I wish I could say I had not. My life would have been far less painful if I had avoided certain mistakes.

I have also succeed, sometimes through circumstances that seemed very difficult. I have grown. Again, I could say that I wished I had grown more. Who couldn’t say that? But there are particular areas, I believe could have been significantly more successful, if I have been quicker to learn.

My Key Lesson

Without a shadow of a doubt, the number one lesson of my failures and of my successes has been never to let myself live, according to natural rhythms. Whenever I begin to float along through life, I seem to be shook out of it by providential circumstances. Every sin I have grown casual too, has suddenly been exposed by a timely sermon, or embarrassing circumstance. When I have lacked knowledge in some area of knowledge, my growth has been forced by circumstance. For instance, I once had no idea had to change a diaper. I also once would have not had the foggiest idea of what to do when someone came to me and said, “I am struggling with a pornography addiction”. As live has happened, I have gained more and more knowledge in things like this. But, not everyone takes the opportunity to learn. One woman I know and respect, has had the life circumstance of needing gas in her car many times over. In her younger years, her father filled it. In her later years, her husband. Over decades of driving, she has yet to fill her car, and has told me that she still hasn’t any idea how one would do so.

Now there are places in life where this is no big deal. But what if we begin to slide into this trap in our spiritual lives? What if we get use to our father, and then our husband perhaps, or pastor just giving us the answers to the spiritual questions we have? What happens to our spiritual lives in a crises, when none of the above are available?

As an athlete, I learned that if you just do the required practices, and play your sport, you can easily fall in a rhythm that prevent you from moving forward. One of the early lessons of my life, was to learn of the real commitment physically and mentally it takes to succeed in sports. There are a lot of “good” hockey players in the world. There are very few “outstanding” ones.
Of course this is sometimes the lottery of genetics, sometimes the luck of circumstances, to a certain extent. But I have never studied the career of a great athlete without being impressed with their drive. Wayne Gretzky reportedly practiced more than any of his teammates. Of anyone couldn’t he rest on his laurels? But through his career he was the first one on and the last one off the ice. Sydney Crosby sets training goals for himself. He’s done okay for himself with MVP trophies and a Stanley Cup under his belt already. But after all that, he spent an entire summer with special training in faceoffs and then last season became one of the NHL’s leading faceoff men. Great athletes are perhaps great because they are always challenging themselves to improve and change and learn and to be better.

I don’t believe that our spiritual lives are any different. How many Christians are there in the world, which just go through the motions. D.L. Moody, the famous evangelist, was as “ordinary” as any other Christian. He made a commitment however to see “What God could do through one man wholly committed to him”. The answer was world shaking.

We must be fully committed, and we must fully prepare. The primary way we prepare is through the study of God’s word, along side a study of the best interpreters of that word. John Wesley instructed his Methodist ministers to spend “at least five hours per day reading the best books”. He often provided them, from Calvin’s Institutes, (yes Wesley recommended Calvin… hmmm, food for thought) to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The reason is, as John MacArthur has said, “If a Christian does not read, he will not grow”.

Now, not all of us have the opportunity, nor the faculty to read five hours of the best books each day. But let no one say he hasn’t the taste. Taste can be developed.

In my own life, years ago now, I used to rely often on my father. He always had a reasonable answer to every bible and spiritual question I had. Then I went to College. I faced all sorts of challenges. Eventually, I came to see my need to do more of the research and discover satisfying answers for myself. (Though I used my father and others as resources to point me in the right direction). At the same time, though, I was busy. How was I to read? How was I to read on everything that was coming up in my spiritual life, while being a full time student, working part-time, playing on a school sports team, having an active social life and of course the relentless pursuit of impressing the young ladies that went along with being a healthy young male.

I came up with a solution. I generally watched an hour of TV, or a movie in the dorms with my friends 3 or four nights a week. I made a plan to cut out a single television episode, in favour of studying my bible. That gave me ½ hour, three or four days a week, which I did not have before, and which did not effect my social life, my work life, or family life. The more I read the more I wanted to read, until, I simply skipped the next show, from time to time, because I was too interested in what I was reading. I began to read as a went to bed, and first thing as I got up... sometimes, for a while there was very little time between the two. I still have the bible I used in that time. It is a hard cover NKJV bible. It was brand new at the start of that year. I filled it with highlights, notes and book summaries. The pages are worn and tattered, tape is holding the spine together. It takes a lot of reading to wreck your bible. A good sign of spiritual life, is to look at the condition of a man's bible. Unless he just bought a new one, you should expect to see some wear and tear.

A few years ago, an older man I respected for his consistent walk, came to church with one of those high quality leather bibles. The ones that "last a lifetime". His was toast. It was literally held together by a rubber band, which her removed during sermon and study!

I began to read other books along side my bible, to answer the biblical questions I was beginning to have. Was the Bible reliable? I read McDowell. Was the Bible a unified message? I read Wilmington. Did I have the gospel right? I read MacArthur's Gospel According to Jesus. What is Reformed theology? I read R.C. Sproul. What was this Dispensational stuff? I read Ryrie.

It took time to read all these books. Some I looked at and couldn't figure out, and then found another one I understood. But later, when I picked it up again, I had read about the theologies they referenced, and I had studied the bible passages they asked questions about. The more difficult book suddenly made sense. I graduated from novels to simple devotional books and author’s who usually wrote on a popular level (Church Swindoll, Ken Ham, Charles Ryrie, etc.) to a more in depth study level (John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Harold Wilmington, etc.). Then I made an academic jump (Josh MacDowell, and Commentaries on the Bible, Systematic Theologies, etc.), to a class of ‘difficult’ writers, (Cornelius Van Til, Jonathan Edwards, etc.). If I had tried to read Van Til during my freshman year at college, I would have given up. But after years of training, my tastes, and my faculties grew and grew. It took hard work and persistence sometimes. It still takes those things when I read Jonathan Edwards, but persistence has constantly paid off.

And I grew. I grew to understand how to ask the question "What is the Will of God". I grew to then actually ask, "What is the will of God, for me?" I changed my life direction. In many ways, I grew more in that year than I ever would in a short period again, though I believe I may have "learned more" in later years.

This last week, after a friend in our church began to read Edwards "On the Freedom of the Will", I thought to myself, hmm, I should read that too. I am now being reminded again of the awesome mind straining, and soul stretching power of careful thinking about God, myself and faith. Growth must never stop. Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy must hand in hand be found to be ever increasing, if we are to be found pleasing to God. We must labour, by faith, in the power of the Spirit, to rightly understand the word (2 Timothy 2:15) and then labour to live it out "so that in everything [we] may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior" (Titus 2:10b).

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