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).
Christianity is having a problem with relevance? Read on if you want answers.
Humans were originally connected with God through a love/grace based relationship. That relationship was changed when man chose to DISTRUST God. That resulted in separation. That’s what distrust does.
Mans goodness is not intrinsic, it is based on our seeing ourselves as loved and secure. This creates a safe place that then inspires, or produces the fruit of peace, joy and love which then motivate good actions. In other words, our goodness is based on our seeing God’s goodness and feeling safe in His care. We must, however, take the time to connect with God’s love as that fuels all else.
Being connected to God should create a very positive perspective IF WE SEE HIM CORRECTLY. It also creates a place of safety because God can take care of our needs. Conversely, separation from God results in the obvious alternative. Our needs are now our responsibility. Seeking to deal with our needs, in that context, results in a selfish perspective, the foundation for sin.
Sin is the result of being disconnected from God and seeing the provision for our needs as our responsibility. That disconnection also results in our feeling needy and vulnerable. We seek to deal with that feeling by various means seeking to satisfy our needs and prop up our self image. This causes us to be phony, as well as resistant to seeing the truth about our self-centeredness.
To deal with our disconnected state and the resultant self justification, God uses the law, authoritarian right and wrong to establish a standard that:
1 We feel responsible too.
2 Provides guidance and social structure
3 Is part of the process that brings us insight into our need for God and a new way to grow in a healthy manner. This is referred to in Galatians as the law functioning as a pedagogue.
Most people believe that they can become better if they only try a little harder. However, the fact is that we don’t become good by trying to do good. This brings up the issue of whether goodness is simply something we can do or whether it involves something we are. Does it result from doing or experiencing that changes us at a deeper level.
Christianity says the we become good as we connect with God’s love and learn to trust in His care. This brings us peace and causes us to reflect God’s goodness. We don’t have the ability to create that on our own. We can only become loving by first connecting with God’s love. This may be indirectly, but God’s love is the ultimate source of all real love.
If we have not seen our need for a different approach to goodness, we are left with the need to justify our selfish perspective, creating an image that makes us feel better about ourselves. That creates a wall between who we really are and how we want to be seen. However, for healing to take place it is important that we address ourselves honestly. That requires that our self-justification is exposed or broken down. Grace (unmerited love) is only for the person who sees their need.
The law, right and wrong, creates a conundrum wherein we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we seek to become better, we become mired in the impossibility of ever getting that equation right. If you have any moral sense it should become obvious that we can never do it all right or find a place where we find a comfortable equilibrium, a comfort zone, where we can be content with good enough. There never is a “good enough” for a person who is seeking to find goodness by doing right. It’s simply THE WRONG FOCUS.
I’m not saying that there is no right, but as Paul put it in Roman’s 7, we can never seem to get to goodness by trying to do right. However, we must be convinced that the “doing right” focus doesn’t work before we will look for a proper alternative. Paul called the law here a “pedagogue” to lead us to Christ. Though one definition of a pedagogue is a teacher, here, Paul is referring to a slave who’s job it was was to take the children in his care to school and making sure they learned their lessons. He did not teach.
What does that mean? If we seek the Christian path, we see the call to follow God. As we seek to follow Him there are two questions we need to ask. What does He want us to do and what is it like to follow Him. Most get bogged down in the former and fail to see that the latter is the the key to real growth.
Most of us have a distorted picture or understanding of the nature of God. We think that He is a kind dictator or moral policeman. Every time we come to a choice where right and wrong is involved, we need to ask the question, what is it like to follow God. How would He relate to me with regard to that choice. Is He pressing me to do the right thing? Is He standing there with arms folded and a look of expectation on His face? Or maybe He actually loves us. Maybe we are not simply tools in His heavenly shed to fix this world. Maybe the nature of our relationship with Him is the most important thing. Maybe He simply loves to love us and knows that as we sort out what that means the rest will fall into place.
Goodness must be inspired or caught. We must be infected with the nature of God’s love and how He deals with us. I’m not saying our choices are unimportant. I’m simply saying that they are the tip of the ice burg. It is the nature of our relationship with God, with respect to our choices, that supports all else. “You are not under law, but under grace.” (Rm 6:14)
Love is the center and power source of God. He rules by love, not laws. His goodness inspires our free allegiance. Knowing what is right, law, is simply the scaffolding that helps support a functional reality. However, it was never meant to be the focus for finding goodness or doing right. It is simply meant to be the necessary structure supporting our intent, goodness and love, which is inspired as we experience God’s love. However, love is not enough to build a bridge. Love needs direction. Law, “how things work”, serves that function.
Here is where the issue of the covenants of law and grace come in. The covenants are two ways of relating to law and “obedience”. The old covenant (OC) was given as structure for society and as a pedagogue for those who see the need for more. It empowers the conscience and is accomplished through the will. The new covenant (NC) was given to CHANGE OUR HEARTS. It fulfills the law in principle rather than through the letter (II Cor 3:6). It is the core motivation that must be behind all choices for them to be right. Knowing right and wrong, is insufficient (Gal 3:21), we must first know God and the nature of His love as the motivation for our choices.
As we go through life, our choices should lead to the question, what is it like to follow God? Does God really want us to be free, or is that simply a celestial bait and switch. If free, then why would we follow Him? Freedom is integral to good relationships. It is love that should be the driving force behind relationships. Love (NC) binds hearts, law (OC) binds hands.
Now faith begins to make a lot more sense. Faith takes hold of GOD’S LOVE WHICH INSPIRES MORE FAITH in His goodness and the wisdom behind what He says. Seeing that God desires our freedom creates an atmosphere that gives us all the time we need to work through issues. God lets us change as we abide in His love and learn to trust in His way.
Look at God’s relationship to the people of the old testament. It took many years for them to understand what God is like and begin to relate to Him correctly. Only then were they able to relate to their situations appropriately. Samson muddled along for forty years as Israel’s judge while God worked with him. Jacob was a deceiver, yet God worked with Him until he learned to really trust. David was a man after God’s own heart while at the same time, seriously flawed. On and on it goes, God gently and patiently working with His sheep, dealing with them in love.
I talked earlier about connecting with God. Our relationship with God is the center of Christian spirituality. It is this atmosphere that must pervade our thinking. We must take the time to connect with the invisible, taking to Him everything that concerns us and letting Him touch it with His love. We need to get real here. God accepts us just as we are. We do ourselves a great injustice when we get religious here. Get down and dirty where needed. God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway.
I love this quote regarding this issue.
Keep your wants, your joys, your sorrows, your cares, and your fears before God. You cannot burden Him; you cannot weary Him. He who numbers the hairs of your head is not indifferent to the wants of His children. "The Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy" His heart of love is touched by our sorrows and even by our utterances of them. Take to Him everything that perplexes the mind. Nothing that in any way concerns our peace is too small for Him to notice. There is no chapter in our experience too dark for Him to read, there is no perplexity too difficult for Him to unravel. No calamity can befall the least of His children, no anxiety harass the soul, no joy cheer, no sincere prayer escape the lips, of which our heavenly father in unobservant, or in which He takes no immediate interest. "He health the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds" The relations between God and each soul are as distinct and full as though there were not another soul upon the earth to share His watch care, not another soul for whom He gave his beloved Son.
I think we have failed to really understand what grace is. Too often it is simply seen as God’s love reaching out to save us from our sins without seeing the implications of that. Grace does not act like we act. It isn’t trying to get us to change so much as it is trying to get us to see the nature of grace, the nature of God’s love which then changes us.
Too often we see God as a moral teacher, watching and grading our performance rather than one who accepts and appreciates us as we are, offering understanding, comfort and support. I’m not saying there is no place for the former. I am simply saying the more fundamental need is for grace that then establishes the atmosphere in which teaching can do the most good. Grace heals the soul that is then free to fly bound only by love.
If we believe that our connection with God’s love is where the power in our lives comes from then we will take the time needed to connect with Him. This requires that we quiet our lives enough to see how God wants to relate to us now, in our present circumstances, and how His love will impact our situation. James tells us to “draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (Jms 4:8) Jesus said, “Abide in Me … abide in My love” (Jn 15: 4 & 9)) That is the center.
The covenants characterize two ways of bringing about change. The old covenant pressures and prods. The conscience is dominant. Doing right tends to be the focus. I’m not saying the conscience is wrong or that we should not do right, I’m saying that it simply promotes the wrong attitudes and atmosphere for healthy change.
Love sets us free to experience life in the context of God’s love. We will still have choices to make however, if we are abiding in God’s love, the right motivation will be there and faith in the goodness of God’s way will inspire us to do it His way. However, we must avoid focusing on doing. Those choices come. Let them. Live your life with God’s love. That makes all else work.
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Copyright Patrick Fagenstrom 9/20