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).
Making positive changes in our lives is not as easy as it sounds. If we really commit to living up to our standards, a funny thing can happen. We find that the pursuit of goodness can itself become a problem, creating issues such as guilt, rigidity, legalism, bigotry and pride.
We tend to think that change simply involves right choices, but there is more to it than that. Healthy change must take place at a deeper level. It has to do with our heart, the place of our attitudes and motives. In other words, true goodness must come from the heart and changing the heart is not simply an act of the will.
So how do we change our heart? It involves the two great issues addressed on this web site: 1) the moral atmosphere or covenant (moral policeman or people whisperer) in which we make our choices, 2) and the practical application of trust that allows us to let go of our needs and concerns, trusting them to God. Understanding and appropriately addressing these issues will cause us to experience the fruit of the spirit, peace, joy, and love.
Though psychology has its faults, it has appropriately pointed out some basic principles regarding how we change. These are actually Biblical principles. Many studies have found that the nature of the client therapist RELATIONSHIP is the most important factor in bringing about positive change in counseling. When qualities and attitudes such as freedom, acceptance, support and compassionate understanding are present, healing takes place. Restated: loving attitudes and support create the atmosphere in which healing and growth takes place.
This brings us to the issue of our spirituality, our connection with God. I know, many are turned off by religion. It frequently misrepresents God, focusing us on what we should do, rather than on how we can do it. In contrast, spirituality involves connecting with God's love and care, through faith, which changes the way we see things. This, then, inspires peace, joy and love which leads to healthy growth. Trusting in God’s love and care replaces our negative emotions of frustration, lack of fulfillment, anxiety and fear, with peace.
Since it is our understanding of God that inspires our trust, our picture of God, the way we see Him relating to us, is critical for this shift in perspective to occur. However, most of us have inherited a distorted picture of God. We must replace this distortion with a proper understanding of God’s love, or grace. Only then can we effectively connect with Him.
To change our distorted picture of God we must learn to appropriately deal with our "moral policeman" (conscience). A healthy relationship with our conscience was lost at the fall of man. The conscience now tends to pressure and prod us into change. This robs us of our freedom while it distorts how we see God, for our conscience is often thought to be His voice. The conscience also creates the wrong focus and methodology for change. Though the issues our conscience raises may be valid, its performance orientation and rigidity are counterproductive.
I’m not saying that we should ignore the conscience. What I am saying is that our conscience must bow to the superiority of grace, the "people whisperer". Here we see that grace is far more than simply forgiveness, it defines the characteristics of our relationship with God.
Goodness is a quality, not simply an action. It must come from the heart, it can’t simply be learned or coerced. For right choices to be genuine, they must be free. Only then can the issues involved be addressed on their own merits. God’s grace offers us freedom, acceptance and understanding as we deal with the our issues in. It creates a safe place to explore our choices rather than being “guilted” or pressured into action.
Grace softens the rigidity of our conscience by dealing with our issues relationally, offering acceptance rather than judgment, communication rather than demands, freedom rather than pressure, and understanding rather than condemnation. Grace creates a new atmosphere within which our choices are made. This atmosphere wins our hearts and changes us as we experience its gentle power.
Changing our hearts also involves dealing with our "need life". That endless pursuit of more or different, that we suppose will bring us happiness, is the source of so much of our frustration and discontent. Our need life must be surrendered, or trusted into God's hands. Only then can we be free. What we won't trust to God will rule over us causing stress, frustration and pain.
In order to let go of our need life we must take hold of the fact that God is big enough to deal with our needs and concerns. We must trust His promise to provide for our needs, using all our circumstances to bless us. Yes, we may experience painful situations, but knowing they are being used for a positive purpose changes everything. We can now trust that God is working through these situations for our good. Learning to trust our lives to God’s gentle care brings freedom and peace. It creates an OPTIMISTIC point of view that inspires us.
We can either seek change by focusing on doing right or by turning our minds to God and resting is His love and care. Choosing to live in the light of God's grace changes our heart. As we learn to experience grace; peace, joy and love will be the result, or fruit, as the Bible puts it. These attitudes will then motivate, right (lawful) choices without those choices being the focus or a preoccupation.
Let me clarify this. Our tendency is to default to directly working on our choices through rules, shoulds, oughts, and musts. Even if we suppose we are tapping into some sort of heavenly power, it amounts to the same thing, a performance orientation. However, spirituality turns our thoughts to God's grace, which touches our hearts, and thereby transforms our lives.
Walking in the atmosphere of God's grace becomes the necessary alternative to the rigidity of our conscience. As we confront our choices we must ask ourselves the question, how would God's love relate to me here? The freedom, acceptance, mercy and understanding we experience through God's grace motivates healthy choices and allows us to incorporate right into our lives freely, at our own pace. With grace, God lets us change. There is no need for the counterproductive motivation of guilt or moral pressure.
Sure, there are other choices to be made. Once we have connected with God's love, we need to deal with today's challenges. Appropriate efforts will need to be made. In fact, moving forward is one of the most effective things we can do to deal with our "funks". However, 90% (trusting in God's love and care) of the battle is already won or lost by then. It is the state of your heart that defines your actions.
Our lives are like mirrors, reflecting what we experience. If we turn our mirrors toward the problems and cares of life, that which is negative or violent, or even our own actions, we will reflect that. In contrast, if we turn our thoughts toward God’s love, we will reflect that.
The Bible characterizes our spiritual life as a vine or tree (Jn 15). The gardener does not beg, plead or pressure fruit to grow. He simply cooperates with the principles that facilitate growing a healthy plant. He waters, fertilizes and makes sure the tree gets enough light. Fruit is the byproduct of those efforts. As with fruit, true goodness can’t be forced. Like all things in the spiritual life, it must come naturally. If we nourish our spiritual life by contemplating the love and care of God, as it relates to us, good fruit will result.
Click here to see the practical application of this.
Copyright Patrick Fagenstrom 12/2011 (edited 5/16)