Category: Spiritual Maturity


SwordI have a confession. Often when I am reading the Bible and I come across a particularly powerful passage, I immediately think of the people I know who need to read it. In fact, I suspect that sometimes I find a passage so compelling because it reminds me of other people’s problems, their wrong attitudes and actions. Now, I don’t intentionally read the Bible looking for ammunition against others. But it’s easy for me to see the relevance of certain passages to real-life problems.

But I’m not ashamed to make that confession for two reasons. First, I know that most of you do the same thing when you read the Bible, so I have plenty of company. And second, it’s not always wrong to read a passage of Scripture and apply it to someone else’s situation. Sometimes that’s a necessary and helpful response. But we’ll get to that later. Right now I want to focus on the first reason.

Be honest—you do this, too. You read the Bible and think of all the people who need to hear what you’ve just read. Maybe you even think of passive-aggressive ways you could covertly tell them—say, a Facebook status update. This method even has its own term: vaguebooking, posting an ambiguous status update designed to elicit sympathetic response from friends but also conceal the real reason behind the post. That way if the person you’re directing it at confronts you, you can claim it wasn’t about them personally. It’s a digital deniable op.

The problem with reading the Bible this way is that it short-circuits the true purpose of God’s word. Scripture was not given to us so we could use it to bludgeon others when they screw up. It was given to convict us personally of our sin so that we can right our own wrongs first. Jesus was dealing with this very issue in Matthew 7 when He taught us not to judge others. Before I go picking at the speck in my brother’s eye, I first must remove the plank in my own eye. The Spirit who inspired the Scriptures is the one who convicts us of sin, and conviction is always personal.

Paul called the word of God the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). But he didn’t mean we should use it to cut each other. He meant we should use it to fend off Satan when he attacks us. It’s not nearly as fun to apply Scripture to my own sins as it is to point fingers at someone else. I don’t usually like feeling convicted. It’s an uncomfortable feeling because it calls me to change, and none of us really like change. Not personally, anyway; I’m more than happy to point out where others need to change. Perhaps that’s why we turn the sword against each other. When we feel the cut, we shrink back from the discomfort and attempt to direct it toward others. Have you ever noticed that the faults we most often criticize in others are the ones with which we struggle the most?

In Hebrews, the author describes the sword this way: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible must always first and foremost convict me personally—my thoughts, my attitudes, my heart. Only after it has cut me to the heart can I understand what it means and then apply it to others. If I don’t let it cut me first, I have no right to cut others with it. There is a time and a place to use Scripture to encourage, comfort, and even rebuke others. But I cannot rightly do that unless I have applied the Bible to myself first. The next time you read a verse and start thinking about who needs to hear it, listen to it yourself. You may be surprised by how relevant it is to your life.

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The Truth Shall Make You Free“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:15).

What does it mean to speak the truth in love? How do we confront people with the convicting testimony of God’s Word while remaining compassionate and caring? Is it a matter of somehow balancing truth and love (as if they’re competing concepts)? Is it a matter of presenting truth in the most loving way possible? Are there times we hold back the truth in order to be loving?

Some will insist that the most loving thing to do is to tell the “straight testimony” without pulling any punches. If people have a desire to know and follow the truth, then it won’t matter if our presentation is a little rough around the edges. We shouldn’t be concerned with pleasing the masses. Truth confronts and convicts, so just let ‘em have it, and let the chips fall where they may.

Truth does indeed confront and convict; there’s no doubt about that. But there’s a question that has been nagging in my mind for a little while now. It comes from putting together a couple of fundamental biblical principles. The first is found in John 14:6: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” Truth is actually a Person—Jesus Christ—and not merely a set of facts. So if I really want to tell people the truth, I have to introduce them to Jesus.

The second biblical principle comes from 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Not only is Jesus the truth, He is also love. So here’s the question: If I speak the truth, but not in love, is it still the truth? In other words, if my presentation of the truth fails to convey the love of Jesus, then I’ve left out a fundamental aspect of God’s character. And if I’ve misrepresented God’s character, then have I really communicated the truth, since Jesus, and not mere facts, is the truth?

Now, the “straight testimony” folks would probably argue that we could take this love thing to an extreme and never really confront sin because we’re too busy trying not to offend. They have a point—but only because we humans have a hard time understanding what love really means. Loving someone does not mean enabling them to continue doing what’s wrong. We don’t need to counterbalance love with truth, or vice versa; rather, we need a right understanding of God’s love.

So the question remains. My belief right now is that if I merely present a set of facts but I don’t demonstrate the love of Jesus, then I haven’t actually spoken the truth at all. I’ve only misrepresented the truth, because I’ve reduced it to mere propositions. Those things don’t cease to be true if I don’t speak them in love. But I haven’t actually spoken the whole truth if I don’t speak it in love.

Believing in facts will not save us; believing in Jesus will. I challenge you to consider how you speak the truth to others. Are you presenting truth the Person, or truth the proposition? Look at the last part of Ephesians 4:15, the verse I quoted in the beginning. It says that the goal of speaking the truth in love is for all of us together to mature into the body of Christ. We will become like Jesus! Let’s imitate His example. That’s the best way to ensure that we’re always speaking the truth in love.

We’re over halfway through the first month of 2014. How are your New Year’s resolutions going? Still staying true to them? I’m not big on making New Year’s resolutions. I just think it’s unhelpful to put so much pressure on yourself at the beginning of a year, as if that’s the only time to accomplish anything meaningful. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing people who set goals and strive to improve themselves. I believe in setting goals; I just prefer to do it throughout the year.

If I did make New Year’s resolutions for self-improvement, like many people do, I’d have a wide variety of options to choose from. I’m sure there are many failures and flaws of which I am blissfully ignorant, but the ones I do know about really bother me. I want to improve. I want to do what is right and good, and stop doing what is wrong and bad. I’m sure most of us have that desire. That’s a good thing, right? Those of us who are Christians should be especially concerned about doing good and shunning evil.

But I wonder sometimes: Is that what Christianity is really about? Is this just a religion of self-improvement that helps me overcome my annoying flaws so I can feel a bit more self-satisfied? Is this all that Jesus came to do, to enable me to make New Year’s resolutions and set goals for being a better, nicer, fitter, smarter me?

Maybe there’s more to it than that. The Jesus I read about in the Bible is not concerned with correcting a few character flaws so that people can live reasonably at peace with themselves. He is deeply interested in bringing about total life transformation—a complete paradigm shift that changes the very core of our being. What’s more, He wants a deep personal relationship with us. He wants to be more than a life coach that we visit every now and then when we need a pep talk. He wants to be our best friend, someone we talk to all the time.

So now I’m thinking about my life, my desire to do what’s right, and my relationship with Jesus. I’m a perfectionist by nature, so this is a serious issue. Am I focused on correcting my flaws, instead of pursuing Jesus? What would satisfy me more: to know that I have ridded myself of one more annoying bad habit, or to know that I am daily living in the presence of a friend who loves me despite all of my flaws?

What if the secret to bettering ourselves is not found in trying harder and harder every year to be “good?” What if instead the secret is pursuing a deep friendship with a Man called God-with-us, and by beholding His perfection we ourselves become changed, and not just into the better version of ourselves that we envisioned, but into a perfect representation of His flawless character? Think about it. If you’re a perfectionist like me, would you rather be good, or be perfect?

Is it possible that sometimes we hate sin more than we love Jesus? That maybe for us Christianity is more about overcoming the bad habits that bother us than it is about a love relationship with Jesus? Maybe we appreciate Jesus as Savior because He promises to set us free from our enslavement to evil. But we struggle with Jesus as Lord because, honestly, we’d like to be set free to do our own thing—good things instead of bad things, yes, but still our own agenda, not His.

What we need are not more New Year’s resolutions to do bigger and better things. What we need is a New Year’s revolution: a complete transformation of our entire life that radically restructures our priorities. Jesus comes first, not me. Improving myself is not what’s most important; following Jesus is. And guess what: the great thing about following Jesus is that you will improve. In fact, you’ll have much more success than if you focus on making yourself better. The thing about sin is that it’s like a hydra: chop off one problem and three more grow out of it. We can waste an entire lifetime futilely chopping away at our sin problem, or we can spend a lifetime following Jesus and let Him kill the heart of the beast within us. It’s our choice.

My choice is to have a New Year’s revolution, not just in January, but in every month, week, day, hour, minute, and second of the year. I may not always be completely true to this goal, but thankfully I know Jesus will still love me anyway. That’s why I want to follow Him. I love Him because He first loved me. And as I follow Him, He will show me the way—not to accomplish my own agenda, but to fulfill His will.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

This blog was originally published on Facebook on Sept. 5, 2010.

 

Lifted Hands Silhouette

The other day I was reading Ephesians 3:14-19. I was struck by the last part of verse 19. Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is that they would “be filled with all the fullness of God.” It seems as though Paul is referring here to the believers’ spiritual maturity. He wants them to be able to understand just how big God’s love is (v. 18), and not just in an intellectual way. He wants them to experience it, to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (v. 19). The result is that they will be filled with all the fullness of God. This got me to thinking about my own life and the way I’ve thought about spiritual maturity in the past.

I was raised in the Adventist church. I grew up hearing Bible stories, going to church every week, and learning the doctrines of the church. I’ve always known that spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study are important in the life of the Christian. I knew I was supposed to do those things every day, and that if I did so, I would become spiritually mature. But maybe I didn’t really understand the purpose of those spiritual disciplines. I viewed Bible study as a way to learn about God, and indeed it is. But maybe it’s more than that.

In Ephesians 3:19, Paul indicates that spiritual maturity is knowing God’s love. To turn that phrase around: knowing God’s love is the way that we become spiritually mature. I’ve tended to think of spiritual maturity in terms of being “good,” and in terms of knowledge. In other words, I’m spiritually mature when I become a “good” person, when I read my Bible and pray a lot, and when I know a lot about the Bible and about God. But maybe that’s a bad approach. Maybe I should focus on knowing and experiencing God’s love, and being good will happen as a result. Spiritual maturity isn’t knowing a lot about God; it’s knowing God! Spiritual maturity isn’t about what I know; it’s about Who I know. And it’s not even so much about what I do as it is about why I do it.

Here I am, a recent college graduate with a degree in theology. I’m currently studying at the seminary to earn a Master of Divinity degree. I’m trying to “be good.” I’m trying to “be a pastor.” I’m trying to figure out how I can have a deeper relationship with God. I want to be spiritually mature. But now I’m wondering: maybe it’s not just about studying the Bible more, praying more, doing more good things. Maybe it’s about connecting with God through all of the above. Maybe, despite my best intentions, I’ve been self-centered in my attempts to grow spiritually. Maybe I need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and refocus, reminding myself that this is not about me. If I want to grow spiritually, I need to live a God-centered life. Reading the Bible isn’t about me becoming smarter, filling my head full of theological facts; it’s about getting to know God and His amazing love. Praying isn’t about me being pious; it’s about talking to Jesus, my best friend.

As I read that passage in Ephesians, I felt God calling to me and saying, “Get to know Me! Stop trying to be a good person; come sit at My feet, like Mary did, and learn to be a godly person. Stop trying to perfect yourself by becoming better and smarter; instead, learn to follow Me, the only Perfect One, and along the journey you will come to reflect My character.”

If you’ve ever had similar thoughts about your own spiritual journey, I encourage you to take a good look at how you view your relationship with God. Do you study and pray because it’s the right thing, the good thing to do? Do you study and pray because it makes you better and smarter? Or do you study and pray because you want to know Jesus more, because when you’re digging deep into the Scriptures, or when you’re kneeling beside your bed at night, it’s like hanging out with your best friend? Are you trying to be a good person, or are you trying to be a godly person? Someone has pointed out that the two really aren’t different. To be truly good is to be godly, and vice versa. But it’s a matter of focus. If we’re striving to be good, if we’re reading the Bible to become smarter, then our focus can easily shift to self. But if we’re striving to be godly, if we’re reading the Bible to know God, then our focus is on Him.

As we continue to hang out with Jesus day after day, we’re going to become more like Him. We’re going to become good. It won’t happen because we tried really hard to become good. It will happen because we spent a lot of time with a Good Person, and by beholding Jesus we became like Him.