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 turned 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 first be impacted by the love of God.
The famous counselor, Carl Rogers, found that if he could create an environment where his clients experienced compassion, acceptance/freedom 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 the qualities of love in that relationship, 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). Adding to that the promises of God to protect and provide for us allows us to REST, trust, IN GOD'S LOVE AND CARE.
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 the 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.
However we still have to deal with choices. Here is where we need to learn how to live under grace rather than under law (Rm 6). Paul said that dealing with the issues of right and wrong point us to the question, what is it like to follow, or be under the authority of 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.
In that context we need to look at this issue of obedience. Obedience and freedom seem to be at two ends of the relationship spectrum. We need to understand why God uses the term obedience and how we should see it from a new covenant perspective. The issue of obedience in the Bible, can easily create a distortion in how we experience our relationship with God. The standards of Christianity can be seen as requirements and expectations which take away our freedom.
There are two major themes in the Bible with regards to our performance, the old covenant of law and the new covenant of grace (Gal 3&4). 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 find freedom in our relationship with God. Freedom is critical, for it is a central quality of love.
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, to keep us in line, it is not what God wants for those who have come to TRST Him. It may bring about a type of morality or order, but not real 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. 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 in, or trust the serpent's lies 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. Trusting God's goodness motivates a desire to freely follow Him. Faith or trust is the new covenant "obedience". This then grows into doing things right without feeling forced or pressured. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as obedience or righteousness (Rm 4:3). That makes sense. Believing in the goodness of 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).
In the world we tend to default to a legalistic relationship to our performance. We experience approval when we do right and 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 in contrast to our performance. FAITH in the goodness of God now motivates our actions.
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 that we have to. Through faith we follow Him because we believe it is the best thing we can do for ourselves. Trusting God, "allows Him" to give us the freedom and time we need to process and internalize good choices. We find that freedom, when given in the context of a loving relationship, now inspires our choices. Our choices become the natural result, or fruit, 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 (II Cor 5:14). It comes from within in response to the freedom we experience in our relationship with God.
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.
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 trust our lives into His care believing that He is working all things in our lives together for good. This creates an optimistic perspective.
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 our choices in the new covenant atmosphere of grace, letting those attitudes allow us to choose freely, we will grow in a healthy manner. If not, we will tend to become frustrated, always coming short of peace, joy and love.
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 (Rm 8:1), allowing instead for our relationship with God to inject the atmosphere of grace into the equation inspiring a response of love and creating 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 grace. I'm not saying we should simply ignore our conscience but that our focus must be on how God's grace deals with us with respect to the issues the conscience brings to our attention. That truth must be experienced under grace or it will actually become an impediment to our spiritual growth.
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, the sentiment of the words He would soon speak as he entered Jerusalem must have entered His mind. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that kills the prophets, and stones them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Those religious men were blind to God's grace but she got it. They came to Him demanding the justice of the law. She, however, 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. That grace does not lead to lax behavior but touches the heart in a profound manner that then impacts the life.
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 truth that 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