image by Frances Gunn from Unsplash
Wet sand between my toes, committing ravages on my nail polish. The grumbling roar of the sea and the waves torpid from a recent downpour, dull and heavy like folds of carpet. A buried beer can, dented in half. The lightest drizzle of rain every time the wind changed. Wading into the water, squinting, feeling the sand shifting uneasily under your feet, roiling around your toes and heaving like a living animal. The silence as you stand there, waiting, tense yet calm, keenly alive to the wetness of the water soaking into your clothes, the blurred faces watching you on the shore. The words, sounding strangely distant and hollow with the sea pounding in the background, and the quick gulp of air before you go under, feeling the water gush upwards to meet you...
I had the honour of attending a friend's baptism yesterday.
When I was sitting down writing a note for her, I found myself thinking. What was the one thing I wanted to tell her based on my own experience, all these years since I was first converted, since my own baptism nine years ago?
As a new believer--if my own experience isn't unique--you'd be full of enthusiasm and determination. I'm going to do my best to please God! I feel immature and ignorant about many things but I'm going to improve myself, and grow spiritually at a tremendous rate, put myself on a regime like one of those straining guys working the benchpress in the gymn like his life depends on it. I'm going to go for all the prayer meetings and Bible studies and talks, and show everyone that even though I'm young and inexperienced, I'm going to do everything that I can, I'm going to do everything right, I'm going to do my best.
I think we're so hung up on spiritual growth because we feel our need for it so acutely, at this point of time particularly. We feel so unworthy and unprepared compared to the other more mature Christians we know, we feel that even though we've taken the big step to ask for baptism it truly is just the beginning.
And we go about dealing with this in the only way we're used to, the way we use for everything else in life. Work hard! Make a list of things you need to do in order to get there, and make sure the heck you plough your way down that list like a steamroller. Keep doing it and you're bound to get somewhere someday. Practice makes perfect and all that. And everyone around you encourages that, gives you endless lists of must-read Christian books, theology courses, Bible study plans, Bible study apps, devotional material, talks to attend, and so on.
These are good things. They are indeed tools to help us grow spiritually. But if we attack them with the same formulaic mentality that we have when we attack practice papers, drills, and mock exams, we're misusing them.
As a new believer, you face a dizzying spread of all the things you could do, all the helpful, useful, and most of all reassuringly concrete things which seem to promise direct spiritual growth, like protein powder or a shampoo advertisement or the latest teeth whitening product. Use this consistently for ____ time and see the results!
Looking back at myself, I remember how I pushed myself to accomplish many things with a mentality like this, and proud of my success, lapsed into complacency that belied a lack of real spiritual growth. It was the things which I didn't take pride in, the things which I didn't see as earning me any merit, which most helped me grow spiritually. A Christian book which I read because I felt drawn to the topic, not because it was one of those "must-reads for Christians" on my list. A random talk with a friend. Hearing about someone's conversion. Seeing someone's relationship with Christ. Having someone tell me they had been praying for me for years. Going through several of the greatest hurts and heartaches I'd experienced as yet. Thinking through things which had troubled and disturbed me, despite being afraid to. Finding that the sources I had always relied on for comfort and peace failed me, being forced to rethink what it meant to find those things in God. Realizing more and more what it meant--practically--specifically--personally--to live out faith, to live out in application who God was. The connection between His attributes and my life.
These things were what helped me grow. Understanding Him better, finding new reasons to love Him more, learning to love Him more--learning, because that requires putting away the idols which make this so difficult...
Don't get too caught up in the "do." Our purpose is not proving to God that we're worthy of our salvation. Not giving Him new reasons to love us. Not making ourselves more like the image of the ideal Christian in our mind. We're trying so hard to grow spiritually, but we often fall into the trap of doing things for--about--Him, rather than actually knowing Him. Though "do's" are important and helpful, we need to be careful about the attitude with which we approach them. It's so easy to make them our idol. To focus on doing as many of them as we can, under the mistaken assumption that they give us some sort of merit in God's eyes, or somehow automatically improve our spiritual state.
When we get to heaven, how much of that matters? What is heaven, anyway? Being with God, in perfect unity and reconciliation. Are we, therefore, preparing ourselves for that--in the best, happiest way--? We think we know, but it's so easy to get increasingly narrow-minded, to lose focus...
It's so hard to discern that line, however.
Like someone with their significant other--
you don't take her shopping to make her happy, you do it because you want to see what styles she likes, and what colours she prefers.
You don't watch a soccer match with him because you feel obliged to show some token interest, but because you want to see why he loves it so much.
You do it because you want to know them better, so you can love them better.
Let's take this mentality instead towards all those "do" things.
image from Unsplash
What does it actually mean to be like the Bereans?
(cf Acts 17:11)
The Bereans are often held up to us an examples of how we should receive the Word, of how we should thoughtfully respond to preaching and teaching.
This is a difficult challenge, especially nowadays when there is so much information available--we've become desensitized, complacent, jaded.
From a Christian angle--how many Bible devotional apps, lists of "must-read important Christian books," theology courses, and catechisms are out there making you feel guilty? How many books are sitting on your shelf waiting to be read some day, some forcefully lent to you by a zealous friend? (please don't force books on people, no matter how excited you are and how convinced you are that it will change your life. Rave about it but do not hand the book to them unless you're prepared to never get it back, and make them permanently awkward and uncomfortable around you. Nothing sets the irrational side of human nature more stubbornly than being forced to do something "good for you.")
By far the most natural reaction is that of jaded complacency, passive acceptance. We absorb, we don't consider and question. Just coming up with the energy to absorb is enough for us, since there's so (overwhelmingly) much more to absorb.
We read books, take note of one or two phrases, and move on.
We listen to sermons, dutifully make notes, and go back to everyday life.
We read an online article and nod assent, then click back to Facebook.
I don't know about you, but whenever I read "spiritual books" my guard actually tends to be down. I'm complacent in the fact that I'm actually reading a spiritual book, making the effort to do so, so that's pretty good already! I just need to absorb the wisdom laid out here for me, as trustingly as if it's from the Bible. We get uncomfortable when we're challenged to meditate on, to think over, to break down what we're passively absorbing (not actually processing;) we feel that it's vaguely unfair to expect us to do more than make the effort to read/listen.
We need to realize that pastors, book writers, theologians, are human. Just because one book you read was helpful doesn't mean you might agree with everything that author says, with every other book he or she writes. We tend to think, "everything by this author should be ok"--or "everything on this website should be fine", not realizing that the Bereans questioned what Paul the apostle himself preached, using only the Bible as their benchmark.
Not Calvin, or John Piper, or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, or your favourite Christian writer, or that devotional app or that Christian classic that everyone seems to agree is blessing incarnate.
Are we hiding behind labels, complacent readers with lazy minds who want to passively absorb truth, who assume that we can get it in pure unadulterated form with the minimum effort on our own part?
We become more and more afraid of using our mind, of asking questions, of considering implications--we lapse into the comfortable, easy conformity of accepting whatever we're told to accept, whatever we're told is right, a pack mentality that is deadening EVEN IF (note!) what we are being fed is the truth. In that case, we are relying solely on our church leaders or pastors to make choices for us--a dangerously man-centric move.
We are regressing, like Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians, to settle for bottle-fed milk instead of moving on to spiritual solid food.
What does it actually mean to be like the Bereans?
To recognize and apply the belief that all men are fallible, even those with great gifts, even those who have been used greatly to bless already. To realize that all books, and sermons, may be influenced by the contexts and personal experiences of the men or women who write them. To realize that having written one great Christian classic doesn't necessarily mean all the other books by the same author automatically are "good". To realize that we don't have to accept 100% of what is presented to us but can still be helped and blessed--to pick out, with discernment, since books, like people, don't fall easily into the binary of "all good" or "all bad." To realize that rather than taking a judgmental "Paul vs Apollo" stance, where we blindly follow certain names and figures that have been stamped for approval by some authority figure for us, and boycott or avoid others, we are called to use our minds. To think over and question, if necessary. To qualify. To decide whether a syntax, context, or content issue is at stake.
And ultimately, as I've realized, to better appreciate the Bible, as the one infallible word, our benchmark amid all this confusion and chaos.
For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and of a sound mind.
2 Timothy 1:7
image by Fabian Bazanegue from Unsplash
"Divine Interruptions"--Elisabeth Elliott's term for learning to understand (and respond to) events, people, needs, etc which are not part of what we might have planned--and in fact might actually get in the way of the nice, neat plan we made for ourselves.
It's tempting to see them otherwise. As hindrances. As interruptions. To get frustrated when they prevent us from getting things done in the quick, straightforward way we had planned to. Trust me, I know all about that.
I had planned for a productive afternoon at my desk, ploughing my way through a to-do list, hammering at the keyboard and hitting wordcounts. I find myself playing Monopoly with a child in need of babysitting, scribbling essay drafts and doing speed reading in between turns.
I planned to sleep early, wake up early, go for a morning jog, have my devotions, all before I had to leave the house to teach. I found myself staying up past midnight listening to someone's struggles, and waking up barely in time to scramble out of the house.
I was looking forward to a leisurely lazy weekend after a hectic week, catching up on what the Singapore Army calls "personal admin time;" doing laundry, clearing my cupboard, and other small tasks that make a "down day" so productive. By lunchtime I found myself in the busiest part of town (on a weekend at that!) for some social event that I didn't see coming but didn't have much choice over ("your introvert is showing" moment)
Divine Interruptions, I reminded myself, drawing a deep breath. Don't get impatient. Don't feel frustrated. Thwarted. Resentfully fixated on just how productive your original plan would have been if people and life would just leave you alone (ha what naivety.)
This is not just a strategy, a coping mechanism. Accepting that God uses everyday people, experiences, etc to aid us in our spiritual growth is central to how we see the whole concept of "spiritual growth" and in fact the whole understanding of living as a Christian.
Perhaps this was just something I went through as a new believer, but I think that many of us tend to understand spiritual growth in the same way we typically understand, say, university education. (having just went through a graduation ceremony!) Concrete, specific, demarcated classes; a certain number of hours put in, of quantifiable efforts--enough of that and you get a degree.
Spiritual growth doesn't work the same way. You may start a year-long theology course, become an expert on church history and denominational doctrinal differences, embark on a study of the whole Bible. Those are good things. I should like to grow in those aspects, myself. But those are also concrete, specific, purposeful decisions and actions which by their very nature tend to cultivate a sense of false complacency. The same way that we can comfortably tell people "I've graduated," and both we--and them--immediately assume that we've reached a certain level of progress based on that self-sufficient statement.
But did you learn more about yourself?
Did you learn more about people, at their best and their worst?
Were you challenged to think more about your assumptions and perspective on life?
Were you moved to think more deeply on what makes life and work meaningful?
Did you form friendships or meet people who left their mark on you--for better or worse?
Ask anyone about their university experience and what most often comes out is the things like the friends they made. The lecturers, good or bad. Or certain concepts that changed the way they looked at things or thought about life. Self-realizations. Those are the things that actually change you, that actually matter in the long run.
The degree itself is possibly the least important part of that. It doesn't reflect the extent of what those few years meant to you.
Likewise, spiritual growth, and God's goal for His sovereignty over our lives, goes so much beyond the quantifiable hours we put in doing "spiritual" things, and those things in themselves. Just as our relationship with God and our understanding of Him goes so much beyond simply being there every Sunday in church, ready to say Amen at the right time with everyone else, to go through the little ritual of sit--stand--sing--close-your-eyes-when-praying...
The rest of the week is the real thing. Every day. Every boring, lonely, difficult, lazy, self-centred, complacent, painful, productive, hectic day.
Whether trials, unpleasant people, realizations about ourselves, unpleasant things other people said/did etc... they are also "divine interruptions," things we might not like to see as spiritual growth, but exactly the means that God uses to bring about spiritual growth. Often not in the neat, quantifiable, tidy way we'd like it to be, like in a college transcript.
Those seemingly small things which bother you, which seem like interruptions in the grand course of your life--the needy people, the unpleasant poky corners of relationships, the unexpected--and your response to them, matter. See each of them as part of the process of growing spiritually.
Spiritual growth doesn't just wait for great, life-changing events or tragedies to happen--it is continually before us, in the little things which make up each day and together form the substance of our lives and who we are. It reflects how, as a Christian, our understanding of God's sovereignty and Person has a direct impact on our whole perspective on life--with its unexpected, unanswerable nature, with all its terrifying capacity for overwhelming pain, for overwhelming beauty; for overwhelming proof that we were made for more than this.
photo by Josh Post from Unsplash
Your spiritual growth is your personal responsibility.
We might accept this statement in every other area of our lives--replace "spiritual growth" with education, career, happiness, success--but we tend to leave the responsibility of growing spiritually to our pastors, to our parents, to our church.
It's an unpleasant truth but no matter how many churches we try, how "godly" the youth group is, how great of a pastor/preacher/Sunday School teacher we have, we can't expect ourselves or our children to grow spiritually without realizing that the real game changer is ourselves. With the Spirit's help.
It's tempting to think otherwise--that we just need the sermons to be more insightful, to stir us up; the Bible studies to be more inspiring; the Sunday School teachers, to engage our children more, and that everything will work out naturally.
Thinking that changing to a "better" church with "better teaching" or "better Christians" will be the answer is a mindset that is heavily influenced by the consumerism mentality of our culture--if it doesn't fit, change the brand, try another product, buy something else that seems to promise that outcome we want. We, the consumer, passively wait for it to solve our problems, and if it doesn't, we switch to the next available option out there. To paraphrase an old saying--cliched as it is--we're good at moving on, throwing away instead of trying to figure out why it didn't "work" the way we wanted it to.
Because if we did take some time to consider, we might realize that the whole point of spiritual growth is really not about finding that one perfect church or conducive youth group, however much either might help us--and I'm not denying that they can.
In heaven, where we're looking expectantly to, where all of this right now on Earth ultimately leads to, there are no longer any churches or youth groups or any of these means we're given during our time here to help us. What ultimately matters is our relationship with God. Our one-on-one relationship with Him. Our love. This is what endures, what actually matters. Talk about perspective.
The tools/means we were given to help us should not become our qualification for growing spiritually, or our excuse not to.
We end up fatalistically lamenting where God placed us, blaming our situations, becoming increasingly short-sighted and crippled by our discontent and yes, perhaps even entitled mentality.
God, I can't grow because You didn't give me the right conditions or means or people. None of this is my fault, in fact if anything it's Yours.
We need to think why God--with Whom all things are possible--chose to let us struggle in our corners. Why He chose to withhold what seems so clearly to us as good, even necessary.
Sometimes, my violin students complain that their instrument is lousy, the quality isn't good enough, their parents ought to have bought them a better instrument. I tell them that they just need to practice more. Maybe they have a point, but their progress isn't dependent on their instrument's quality. Ownership. This is a fact they vitally need to grasp if they are to have any drive or motivation to practice and improve at all: knowing that the sole factor of whether they improve or not is themselves. I remember the switch from a good quality violin given by a friend which I'd outgrown, to a larger, but cheaper instrument with a less mellow, scratchier tone. It was depressing at first--mainly because I realized my playing wasn't actually that good after all. It forced me to really buckle down and practice harder in order to improve my sound quality. Later on, when I moved on to the next size up, I switched to a better instrument once more.This time, that change was sweet.
Come on, guys. Imagine the early Christians in Rome having to listen to our excuses. You know, I was literally set on fire for what I believed. If we go by conditions, I had plenty of reasons for backsliding, or blaming my lack of growth on my environment. Being eaten by wild beasts wasn't exactly conducive after all.
I used to struggle with this thought when I was younger, and unhappy that there was virtually no one of my age group in my church. I would envy friends I saw who had big, close-knit youth groups of what apparently seemed like peers all "on fire for Jesus"; I would tell myself, there was so much I could do, so much I could grow, "if only."
I spent several years during that period of my life mucking around in discontent, envy, and self-pity, feeling sorry for myself and not having the maturity to recognize all the means and opportunities God had already given me to grow in, all the areas I could have made a difference in, instead of waiting for someone to step in and do it for me. I am not proud of it but I stagnated like this without any real growth until thankfully by God's grace, I woke up one day with the idea of seeing things differently.
So I unfortunately speak from first-hand experience. I won't bore you any more with my entitled immaturity (what's new?)
For a more balanced perspective on spiritual growth, however, it's more than just accepting responsibility. Being someone who tends to extremes, unfortunately, I came out of this rut only to fall into another one, this time the inverse.
I realized that:
I am primarily responsible for my own spiritual growth.
However, I need to be open to and consciously embrace how God will use external means (people, experiences, books, etc) to help me in my spiritual growth.
Likewise, I also need to be aware that my spiritual growth--even though it may be a primarily personal matter between God and I--inevitably has an impact on those around me.
(continued in part 2)
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
Click to set custom HTML
ALL IMAGES FROM PINTEREST UNLESS OTHERWISE SPECIFIED. THANKS, PINTEREST!