How Spiritual Growth Happens

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This past weekend, in my message “A Crash Course in Christlike Living,” I explored Ephesians 4:17-5:20. One part of my message that I had to drop because of time was a discussion of how spiritual growth toward Christlike living occurs.

Many times, when we want to become more like Christ, we simply read the Bible and then work up our gumption – our own effort – so that we try to live like Jesus. Much of Christian spiritual transformation aims at curbing sin and working hard at doing what Jesus would do. Now, God uses that, but oftentimes that approach to spiritual transformation leads more toward frustration with ourselves than Christlike living.

Christlike living flows from a different sort of place. In his book, Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard talks about three necessary elements for spiritual growth to happen. They are: Vision – Intention – Means.

Vision is what we need to have clear understanding, particularly about Christ and His kingdom. A key question about vision is: do we have a vision for the will of God in our lives?

Intention relates to the values we must commit to for growth to happen. A key question about intention is: do we really want to live according to the will of God?

Means are the ways or practices that foster transformation. A key question about means is: what specific means, or practices, do we need to engage with in order for spiritual transformation occur?

Willard’s framework is helpful because it brings clarity on how different elements fit together so that, under God we might grow toward Christlikeness by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So as we turn to a section of Ephesians that is all about the practicalities of Christlike living, we need to understand that Paul is putting a vision for Christlike living in front of us, and calling believers toward intentional living toward that, while also suggesting specific means – or practices – that help us move in that direction.

While it is all grace, from start to finish, there is a calling toward not stopping up the flow of God’s grace in our lives, but opening the channels of our lives to His transforming grace. Christlike living flows from Christ-bought salvation.  It is birthed from grace, requires intentional activity, and is fueled by the Holy Spirit.

Freed from the Fear of Death

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It was sadly ironic to read about the terrible church bombings yesterday morning even as I prepared as a pastor for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Recent times have seen not only church bombings but church buildings burning, whether in Louisiana or Paris. Every Christian knows that the word ‘church’ means people and not buildings.  Even so, it is beyond unsettling to see our houses of worship violated in such harsh ways. Still, the hope of the resurrection sets us free from fear, both in our physical circumstances and against the ultimate enemy, that is death. Here is an excerpt from my message at Eastbrook Church this weekend that reflected on the freedom Jesus brings us from the fear of death.


 

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Some of the most striking stories of the early church after the time of the New Testament come from the persecution under the Roman Empire. In contemporary Tunisia, in North Africa, the church was strong, but suffered greatly. Perhaps the most famous story from the early 3rd century comes when a noblewoman, Perpetua, who was a Christian, and refused to take the oath of allegiance to the emperor. That oath implied allegiance to the emperor over any other being, but also acknowledge him as a kind of god. Perpetua’s commitment to Jesus as Lord and God led her to a radical decision, which came at the price of her life. She and her household servant, Felicitas, ended up in the gladiatorial ring with wild animals, which rent them to pieces. They chose that fate rather than to forsake the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

How could these women be so unafraid of death? When we largely seem motivated by avoidance of death and suffering, what was it that could set them free from the fear of death?

I don’t believe it was because death was less scary to them, or that they were so much more courageous than the average person. Rather, there was a greater reality overpowering the all-consuming fear of death. And that overpowering reality is found in Jesus’ resurrection.

So many of us live our lives afraid of pain and the finality that is death. Others of us scurry through life knowing we won’t get another chance, feeling the urgency of our days. We all live under a universal death-sentence where the question is not “if” we’re going to die, but “when” will we die. Death tries to keep us in its grip, apart from God’s best for us as human beings.

But it is not the end of the story.

The resurrection of Jesus tells us that not only the power of evil and the prison of sin have been overcome, but also the sting of death has been destroyed by Jesus Christ at the Cross. Paul the Apostle, wrote about that in this way in a letter to an early church in the city of Corinth:

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

The empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection tell us there is hope in the midst of death. We do not have to live in fear of death because Jesus could not be held back by death. It is not His Master, but rather He is the Master of all things.

Death is not the end of Jesus’ story. And death does not have to be the end of our story.

Live in Peace

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Have you ever felt worried, distressed, or anxious?

Yes, I know that might seem like a ridiculous question. In one way or another, we have all experienced worry, distress, or anxiety. These real experiences of our lives are the sort of things we encounter throughout the Scripture. In fact, the writer of Psalm 4 expresses thoughts we all likely relate to:

Answer me when I call to You, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer. (Psalm 4:1)

Where do you turn to find peace in these times? Often, we turn to friends or family for support, or look to distractions like television or reading a book. In themselves, none of these things are bad. However, within Psalm 4, we are directed in another way. The psalmist instructs us in the way we should turn in our distress.

God’s Strong Presence
First of all, the psalmist shows us to whom we should turn. “Of course,” you might say, “you are going to say that I should turn to God.” Yes, that is true, but it is not enough of the truth in this case. The psalmist says Read More »

The Learning Journey of Discipleship

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When I was in second grade I began taking piano lessons. My teacher helped me understand that effectiveness in playing the piano takes practice, learning through one-on-one lessons, more practice, playing in front of others at recitals, learning more through lessons, more practice, growing through listening to great performers, learning more through lessons, and more practice. You probably get the idea: learning an instrument takes effort. Learning an instrument well takes a lot of effort. Becoming a master at one’s instrument takes strenuous effort.

All through that, a great teacher, who knows more than you do, will help you see develop and improve, even as you practice and practice until certain skills become infused with muscle memory.

Discipleship is similar to this. We learn from the greatest of all teachers, Jesus the Messiah, and then put His lessons into practice daily in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit until we naturally respond to our circumstances like Jesus would. It is learning journey that takes a lot of practice.

At the end of His mission on earth, after the cross and resurrection and just before His ascension to the Father, Jesus said to His disciples:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)

In the midst of this Great Commission, Jesus invites His disciples to become disciple-makers, just as He has done with them. Discipleship is truly a learning and growing process. It is an intentional journey of growth, like a student learning from a teacher or an apprentice learning from a master.

A disciple is someone who follows Jesus, is being changed by Jesus, and is committed to the mission of Jesus. It takes effort on our part, but it is all the grace of God from start to finish.

The first time I played at a recital in front of my fellow students as an eight-year-old, I fumbled through my music and cried afterwards. By the time I stopped taking piano lessons at the age of sixteen, I was playing with adult jazz musicians and, much to my surprise, holding my own. Unfortunately, my skills have faded a lot since then because I have not kept learning, growing, and practicing.

When we begin the journey of discipleship, we may fumble our way through things with God. Sometimes, we may even want to cry out our inabilities or failures. Yet, as we stick with Christ daily, and allow Him bring His life into our life, over time we may be surprised at how we have grown.

Paul writes to the Philippian believers: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). Let’s take those words to heart and carry forward on the learning journey of discipleship.

The Unselfish Way of Jesus

 

No one should seek their own good, but the good of others….I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:24, 33; 11:1)

The Apostle Paul’s theme in this section is the importance of thoughtfully seeking the good of others in our actions. We are not to selfishly pursue an individualistic good in what we do or how we live. This is Paul’s example, which he learned from Christ. The way of Jesus is the unselfish way.

Jesus’ Selfless Example
First, it is important to grasp Jesus’ selfless example. He endured the Cross for the joy set before Him, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God’s throne (Hebrews 12:2). He did this so that He could bring many people into the glorious family of God. Jesus’ aim was to lead many to Himself by laying down His life. He aimed for a greater, selfless goal and we, too, should live selflessly for the greater aim of God’s purposes in this world and our lives.

Letting Go of Individualistic Good
At times this means, secondarily, that we must forego some apparent ‘goods’ that come into conflict with the good of others. For the believers in Corinth this meant considering certain freedoms they enjoyed, such as the eating of meals, in light of how those freedoms would effect others and their life of faith. When we see that certain actions or ways of living that we enjoy are inhibiting others from experiencing God, then we must reconsider what we are doing or how we are living. With that consideration in view, we may even need to let go of those actions or ways of life either temporarily or permanently. This, of course, flies in the face of self-actualization or the pursuit of total freedom so strongly promoted in our world today. In God, our grace-given freedom is a liberation from sin into a new sort of life characterized by God’s truth and righteousness. That way in God does not release us from all the demands of others but intricately binds us together with others under God.

Should We Seek Ill for Ourselves?
Third, we must understand that seeking the good of others does not mean seeking ill for ourselves. Pursuing ill for ourselves is not helpful for anyone. Without a doubt we may face trials and endure hardship in life, but seeking the good of others must also include good for ourselves. Paul’s words here are aimed at a sort of godless selfishness which does not take into account the lives of others. He is not asking the Corinthians – or us – to set aside helpful self-awareness or self-care. It is important that we move beyond guilt-ridden lies from the evil one that say any thought of ourselves is selfish and not honoring to God. It is important to note that the interpersonal element of the ‘Great Commandment’ given by Jesus reads: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

The equation here means acknowledging what we would like to seek for ourselves, yet placing it on the table of consideration with the needs of others before God’s caring and purposeful eye. Ultimately, we must say with our Savior, “Lord, not my will, but Yours be done.” Then we move forward, like Jesus, for the joy set before us in obedience to God with appropriate love for others in the unselfish way.

Attention as a Key to Wisdom

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The distractions of our lives slowly become the purpose of our lives when inattention and lack of focus reign within our souls.

The more information we have, the less true knowledge we attain. The less knowledge we attain, the more confusing our life experiences become.

Lacking knowledge and meaningful experience in a whirlpool of information, the more improbable becomes the development of wisdom in our lives.

One key toward gaining wisdom in our engagement with the world around us is attention.

Attention involves an extension of the self into the world, so that the world is more powerfully received into the self. It is the essential and necessary means of our growth in knowledge and of any progress that we make on the path toward wisdom. Attention shapes what we know and value, and therefore determines who we are and can become. – Christopher O. Blum and Joshua P. Hochschild,  A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Manchester, NH: Sophie Institute Press, 2017), 120 [italics mine].

Without attention, we lack the ability to focus in our growth into true knowledge. Without attention, knowledge will not mix with our experience to become wisdom. While not the only key to wisdom, without the ability to attend to people, objects, and experiences around us, we will never move forward in gaining true wisdom.

Our Lives a Journey of Joy

In the midst of our pursuit of God, we can sometimes focus so much on the seriousness of discipleship that we miss out on the joy of our life with God. For me personally, there are times when I emphasize the challenges or trials on this earth to the point that I ignore or unwittingly downplay the gracious gift of our joyful life with God.

Of course, it is true that we are citizens of a heavenly home, who are, in a sense, just passing through this land of earth for a limited time. The writer of Hebrews makes this clear as he rehearses the faith-filled pursuers of God in the Bible. We read:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. (Hebrews 11:13)

Our sense of displacement is an unavoidable aspect of our life on earth. As the old song says: “I am a pilgrim and a stranger traveling through this wearisome land.”

Yet it is also true that God is the creator of joy, who longs Read More »