How Do We Grow Spiritually?
Is it primarily something we do, or something we experience?
“Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into the thing that has them. … They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry” (CS Lewis).
"Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me" (Jn 15:4).
"Now this is eternal life that they may KNOW ... Jesus Christ" (Jn 17:3).
How are we Changed?
How do we bring about healthy change in our lives? It seems like it should be fairly straightforward. Simply put your mind to making better choices. However, when we begin to work on ourselves it most likely becomes an effort in futility. The problem stems from the fact that we naturally begin that work in the wrong way. We take the direct approach I just spoke of, working on our actions, trying to do the right thing and find ourselves failing. As stated in Romans 7, That which I want to do, I don't do, and what I don't want to do, I do. I'm not saying that we shouldn't seek to make good choices, but that the foundation for those choices must lie somewhere other than in simply trying to do right. It is that foundation that is the key to success or failure.
Let me expand on this. On one side you have those who think working on their flaws will result in goodness. On the other side there are those who have seen the failure of working on their bad behavior and have begun to turn to God for the answer. This is spoken of in the Bible as being born again. Seeking a connection with God as the answer.
The conundrum of Romans 7 (summarized above) is the result of failing to work from the inside out. If we don't begin at the heart, our inner values and motivation, we will always fail because it involves more than wanting to change. Trying to work on our outer issues, as if that were the solution, only leads to other problems.
So how do we work on our inner self, our heart? First we must understand what it is that impacts the heart and motivates healthy change. The answer is love. If there is to be healthy change, our heart must be impacted by kindness and love.
The famous counselor, Carl Rogers, found that if he could create an environment where his clients experienced compassion, acceptance (forgiveness) and understanding ; qualities of love, it would facilitate an environment where the client could grow and heal. If the client was given the freedom to explore his life without condemnation (Rm 8:1), while experiencing those qualities of love, especially as it relates to our choices, it created an environment where they could confront their issues without sabotaging the process through guilt and moral pressure.
Roger's "unconditional positive regard" is similar to the moral atmosphere that a healthy Christian should experience when they are under grace (Rm 6:14). Jesus said, abide in me, experience life living under my grace, and you will bear fruit, good actions (Jn 15). Connecting with God in that life altering atmosphere of grace creates an environment that heals.
Resting in God's love (grace) and care should be the christian's foundation. However, that rest can be thwarted unless we surrender our lives to God for we would be foolish to suppose that He can care for us unless we are willing to cooperate with that process. Having done that we can take hold of God's promise to work all things (our circumstances) together for good (Rm 8:28). Speaking of those circumstances, in "God of all Comfort", Hannah Smith states; "He may not have ordered them, but He is in them somewhere, and He is in them to compel, even the most grievous, to work together for our good. The "second causes" of the wrong may be full of malice and wickedness, but faith never sees second causes. It sees only the hand of God behind the second causes. They are all under His control, and not one of them can touch us except with His knowledge and permission. The thing itself that happens cannot perhaps be said to be the will of God, but by the time its effects reach us they have become God's will for us, and must be accepted as from His hands." Seeing our circumstances in this light changes everything. It allows us to see our problems in a positive light as we trust them into God's hands.
We still have to deal with choices. However, this leads to another critical issue, beginning to learn what it means to be under grace rather than under law (Rm 6). Our choices point us to the question, what is it like to follow God. Is He authoritarian, dogmatic and judgmental, qualities of being under law or is He kind, compassionate, accepting, supportive and understanding, qualities of grace. Seeing God correctly is critical if we are going to grow in a healthy manner.
There are things we need to change in our lives. This however, can create a problem where the standards of Christianity can be seen as requirements or expectations, which then take away our freedom. This is one of the reasons why God has based Christianity on faith. We tend to default to a legalistic relationship to our performance. We experience approval when we do right but condemnation when we don't. So the decision to follow God can easily result in a performance orientation where we become preoccupied with our actions. However God puts the emphasis on faith as the necessary attitude in contrast to a performance focus. Faith becomes the foundation, the cause for our actions starting with faith in God's love.
Believing in God's love naturally extends to faith in the goodness of what He says and does. Faith motivates us to want to cooperate with God rather than feeling we have to. Through faith we follow Him because we believe that following Him is the best thing we can do for ourselves. If we believe in God's love we will be motivated to follow Him from within. If we have come to trust God, that faith "allows Him" to give us the freedom we need to process and internalize good choices. We find that freedom, when given in the context of a loving relationship, inspires our choices and gives us the spiritual power to carry them out. Our choices become the natural result of faith. Grace causes the narrative to change from "having to" obey or follow God, too freely "wanting to" follow Him. Having the right perspective is the key to everything. Jesus said, "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest" (Matt 11:28). The fruit of this rest, the fruit of the spirit (Gal 5:22), is peace, joy and love. This is what motivates the christian and it comes from within in response to the freedom we experience in our relationship with God.
Obedience and freedom seem to be at two ends of the spectrum in relationships. We need to understand why God uses the term obedience and how we should see it from a new covenant perspective, for the issue of obedience in the Bible, can easily create a distortion in how we experience our relationship with God. There are two major themes in the Bible with regards to our performance, the old covenant of law and the new covenant of grace. These correlate with being under law or grace (Rm 6). We need to understand the biblical use of the covenants for it will determine whether or not we will find moral freedom, without which we will never find peace.
In the old covenant we are called to obey God. This covenant involves a reward and punishment perspective in order to maintain personal and social order. It functions much like our judicial system with its laws, judges and police (Gal 3:23). Though it is necessary for those who don't trust God, it is not what God wants for those who have come to trust in Him. It may bring about a type of morality or order, but not goodness.
In the new covenant (Jer 31:31-33) we see that faith in the goodness of God allows for a different relationship to obedience, a healing one. Faith allows the implementation of the new covenant relationship. Here all God needs is for us to have faith in His love and care. Lack of faith is where the problem started in Eden, where man chose to believe, have faith in, the serpent rather than God (Gen 3). In the new covenant, trusting in God's love inspires faith that then motivates a desire to follow Him.
This new covenant is what God has always intended but which is impossible without faith in His goodness. Faith motivates a desire to freely follow Him. Faith or trust then is the new covenant "obedience". This then grows into doing things right without that feeling pressured or forced. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as obedience or righteousness (Rm 4:3). That makes sense. Believing in something motivates us to want to incorporate it into our lives. Faith motivates a free choice to follow God so the old covenant authoritarian obedience is no longer necessary (Her 8:13, Rm 7:1,2).
It is the atmosphere of grace; experiencing faith, freedom, acceptance and understanding in our relationship with God that should motivate our choices. However, far too many are motivated by should's, aught's and musts, an authoritarian perspective. This is actually counter productive. It results in legalism (spiritual bondage), bigotry and narrow mindedness, the fruit of a forced obedience.
I'm not saying that right and wrong should be ignored. I'm simply saying that it must all be freely inspired from within. The religiously minded person goes about trying to do the right thing, driven by the demands of conscience, enforced by guilt and moral pressure. The spiritual person goes about abiding in God's love and care with the result being faith/trust and love which then motivate good behavior.
There are many who go about seeking to justify themselves by their good behavior.
They have become little Pharisees, proud of their goodness. These are the people that are often used as poster boys by those seeking to discredit christianity. This is the exact opposite of what should take place. The Bible talks about the law, right and wrong, being a pedagogue or tutor to bring us to need God's grace. One of the purposes of the law is to show us our inability to truly do right (Romans 7) without that being inspired from within due to a connection with God's grace.
So how do we live under grace? We must take the time to connect with God's love, seeking to understand its nature especially the issue of freedom (Eph 3:16-19). We must then freely trust our lives into His care believing that He is working all things in our lives together for good. This creates an optimistic perspective. This inner state of mind, the result of trusting in God's promises, changes us. Our actions are simply the fruit of that inner state.
Sure, there are choices that we must deal with however this should not be a preoccupation. As choices come they should lead us to ask the question, how would God's love relate to me here (Gal 3:23, 24). If we deal with them in the new covenant atmosphere of grace we will grow in a healthy manner, if not, we will tend to become frustrated, always coming short of the peace we need.
Our conscience (tree of knowledge of good and evil - Gen 3) is the mediator of the old covenant of law. We must refuse its authority to impose guilt, demands and pressure, allowing instead for our relationship with God to inject the atmosphere of grace into the equation inspiring a response of love and the desire to follow Him. Each choice is an opportunity to define the nature of God's love, then living in that atmosphere. We must take hold of God's grace with the will, refusing to let feelings of guilt and moral pressure rule. The conscience was never meant to be the moral mediator in our relationship with God. That mediator is meant to be God's love/grace. I'm not saying we should ignore objective truth but that our focus must be on God's grace as the power to change our lives. That truth must be experienced under grace or it will become an impediment to our growing in grace.
The last church in Revelation is lukewarm (Rev 3:14). It is lukewarm due to the fact that they are not truly living under grace and therefore they do not have the warm loving relationship with God that makes it all work.
When the woman caught in adultery was thrown at the feet of Jesus and those religious men asked Him for a verdict, His heart felt the words He would soon speak as He entered Jerusalem. "“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!"” Those religious men were blind to God's grace but she got it. She saw grace etched on Jesus face and it broke her heart. She was changed, not by some standard of goodness, but by the mercy and compassion she experienced from Jesus.
Sure, we have a lot of choices every day and we need the guidance of truth to keep us from error but it is not that that truly changes us. Our choices must come from a confrontation with grace, a confrontation with the mercy, acceptance and compassion of God that fits our personal problems and circumstances.
C.S. Lewis states it rather well. “Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry.” Will you allow God to drench you with the water of His grace or will you remain dry?
Patrick Fagenstrom MD,MPH
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Copyright Patrick Fagenstrom 2/22