How Do We Grow Spiritually?
It is an experience, not primarily something we do.
“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).
Christianity is having a problem with relevancy today. Is the Christianity we see today what Christianity is really all about? Read on if you want answers.
The best place to start is probably at the beginning, the book of Genesis (ch 3). Here we see a brief story that is too often skimmed over without understanding the issues involved. Originally man lived in a perfect relationship with God where faith and love motivated their actions. They were free to do what they wanted, and because love was in their hearts, they wanted to do right. However, right and wrong were not issues for them. In fact, they were told to avoid the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. They were free as birds and loved their garden home and they loved God.
Why did they love God? Because they had every reason to. Everything He did was a blessing to them. They loved God because of who they thought He was: good, kind and giving. We are wired to love good people, and they loved God who was very good. This is the essence of the new covenant.
Then one day, Eve wandered near the “tree of knowledge”. A serpent beckoned her from its branches who asked her a question. “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?’”. Eve said, “We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden, but not this tree, lest we die”. The serpent responded, “you shall not die”, implying God was a liar. In fact, he said, “your consciousness will be expanded to be like God’s, knowing good and evil”.
Remember, everything was perfect until that moment. Why? Because they believed God was what he professed to be. Now the seed of doubt and the evidence of her senses made Eve question her understanding of God. She wanted to expand her consciousness. She ate the fruit. Then she gave some to Adam.
They did not fall over dead, whatever that was. However, they did die. They died spiritually. The life giving relationship with God, founded in love and trust had been fractured. They no longer experienced the joy and happiness found in loving and trusting Him. In fact, they feared Him. They hid from Him.
And what happened to their relationships? When confronted with their actions, Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent and both, by implication, blamed God for allowing this to happen. From loving and trusting, they moved to fear, distrust and blame. How can something seemingly so small, produce such drastic consequences?
Enter the Old Covenant, the covenant of law. This is the relationship we have with God and our fellow man when we aren’t in a loving and trusting relationship with Him. Rather than living in the loving, freeing, patient, understanding and compassionate relational atmosphere God provides, we are now born separated from God. The conscience, which was simply meant to provide moral discrimination, now acts to motivate and enforce right actions through guilt and moral pressure. Right and wrong, now becomes the realm of the conscience which it dominates.
In the New covenant, the covenant of grace, we aren’t meant to be preoccupied with right and wrong. We are meant to be preoccupied with the love and security we find in our relationship with God. We are meant to abide (Jn 15) in that atmosphere, for it is the attitudes inspired by that atmosphere that motivate goodness and love, just as it did in Eden. “But this is the covenant I will make in those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33).
When we rest in the love and care of God, peace, joy and love result. “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28). “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace” (Gal 5:22). The new covenant is primarily about God and our understanding of Him. If we get that right, we will love God and freely and naturally want to follow Him.
Something else happened that day in the garden. They sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. Somehow they hadn’t needed that sort of covering before. They had a new sense of inadequacy. They needed to cover that. They needed to hide their sense of shame. And so we are forever seeking to be more than, better than, smarter than, prettier than, richer than. We have to fake it, cover it, hide from it. We often don’t see what we’re doing. We just keep seeking that something that is missing in us.
Self righteousness, playing games, creating walls, defensiveness, get in the way of us truly living our lives. It most importantly gets in the way of our seeing our need for God. Separated from God, our hearts can never be truly right (Rm 8:7). There will always be a root of selfishness to spoil our motives. Without God, who is going to look out for me?
However, we try and hide our self-centeredness from ourselves and others. God addresses this self deception in a rather counterintuitive manner. He leads with the law (right and wrong). This serves to restraint our selfishness (ITim 1:9), but it can also help bring us insight into our flawed state.
The Bible speaks of this when it talks about the law being a “pedagogue” to lead us to see our need for Christ (Gal 3:24). The law (right and wrong) shows us, if we are honest, that we aren’t really living as we ought. If we accept this insight, it opens the door for us to accept God’s grace rather then continuing on with our self-deception.
God wants to restore our relationship with Him to the way it was originally meant to be, for it is His love that inspires our goodness. If we’ve seen our need for God, the first step is to accept His forgiveness. This is a free gift and establishes the foundation for all else. God wants us to understand that He does not want us to have to perform for Him. His acceptance is conditional only on the fact that we accept His gift by faith for what it is, free.
Christianity, however, has too often turned things around to emphasize the need to obey. It would seem that God is speaking out of both sides of His mouth. On the one hand, He says that we are free. On the other, there is the call to submission and obedience. This can be confusing. We need to understand what’s going on here.
God calls us to obedience to catalyze the process of switching covenants from the performance based old covenant to where the focus is on experiencing God’s love and care in the new covenant. So the call to obedience requires us to ask, and begin to answer the question, what is it like to follow God? It is a type of “reparenting”. We were born into an old covenant relationship, reward and punishment, with the law (right and wrong) and are being “born again” into a new covenant relationship that functions according to much different principles.
We are not changed by doing right. We are changed as we experience what it’s like to walk with God. It is His love, or the loving manner in which He relates to us that changes us. In order for that to happen we must get past the old covenant principles of reward and punishment. That means that we have to deal with our conscience by putting it back in its place of moral discrimination and refuse to accept its role as motivator through pressure and guilt.
There are a number of parental styles of rearing children. Understanding two of them, authoritative and authoritarian, can help us see what is going on here. God is authoritative. That means that He has the answers. He can be counted on to know what’s what. He is not authoritarian, lording it over those over which He has authority. He does not boss us around any more than you should boss around your spouse or children.
Authoritarian relationships are one of the reasons that PKs, preacher’s kids, are often rebellious or troubled. They always feel under pressure, either from their father or from the church society in which they live, to behave. They haven’t the freedom to grow in a healthy fashion.
The term obedience is used to make the point that this is not, do your own thing. You are coming under God’s authority. However, we need to begin the process of learning what it is like to follow Him. The more we know God the freer we become. “Obedience”, wanting to follow God, is the natural response to grace.
Yes, some need a heavier hand, just like some children need more discipline than others. However, we must offer the freeing alternative so those who are ready can move forward.
So how do we follow God? Just as in healthy human relationships, we are not to be preoccupied with doing right. We are, instead, meant to abide in the sense of God’s love and care, being secure in Him. That allows us to rest in Him.
Now we can simply deal with the choices that come to us each day. However, now we are to experience those choices in the context of the new covenant where the focus is on the relational qualities of God’s love. We must therefore resist the pressuring and badgering of our conscience. If it brings up an issue, we can address that issue, but not on the concience’s terms. God wants us to be free. He wants us to GROW into maturity. That takes time.
God gives us all the room we need to make free choices without pressure or manipulation. That means that when we feel pressure to do right, it is not coming from God. We can then resist the moral pressure without feeling guilt because we know that God wants us to be motivated by different motives.
Remember, obedience means different things depending on the covenant within which it takes place. In the old covenant obedience means doing everything right, in the new covenant it means trusting God’s love. Seeking to do everything right makes you neurotic (Rm 4:15). It’s simply the wrong focus. Trusting God’s love inspires our faith or trust (Heb 12:2). Trust then, inspires good behavior.
Faith takes hold of God’s truth and sees it as the best thing we can do for ourselves. It’s like finding a treasure map. No one has to pressure you to seek the place where the treasure is hidden. You are naturally motivated to do so. God sets us free, allowing love and faith, in the goodness of His way, to motivate us to follow Him.
In the new covenant it’s the nature of God’s freeing love that makes it possible to both submit and be free at the same time. It’s like two lovers who are bound to each other, while feeling completely free. That is the nature of real love. It values the others freedom and respects their boundaries in such a way as to win their devotion without any inkling of pressure or manipulation whatsoever.
This requires us to take time with God, sorting out what He is really like. We must keep our connection with God open.
I don’t mean to discount our choices. Following God provides positive feedback as we experience the good results of cooperating with Him. Our choices may not always be easy. At times we may need to ponder the nature of an issue until we see its value. However, without the foundation of God’s love and care, we simply become religious, without peace, joy and love.
All things in the spiritual life have their foundation in faith. We need to understand what faith is. We too often try to make faith a feeling. However, faith is simply believing what God says. Many times we have to take hold of God’s truth with our wills, ignoring our contrary feelings until they fade away.
We must avoid getting bogged down with worries and cares. Talk to God then let go. He has pledged to work all things for our good. Do that which you can do in peace, trusting in Him to provide.
Click here to see the practical application of this.
Copyright Patrick Fagenstrom 5/2017