Are You Growing Spiritually?

If you’ve ever been to Chincoteague Island in southeastern Virginia, you’ve probably seen these chairs – people down there seem mildly obsessed with them (in a good way!). They’re also a really good reminder for us as we evaluate our own spiritual growth.

Now the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.

1 Timothy 1:5 (CSB)

Paul was pretty clear that the goal of his preaching, pastoring, and church planting was to help people grow into the image and likeness of the God who is love. In other words, spiritual maturity is not measured primarily in terms of biblical knowledge acquired, dollars given, or hours served. All of those are important components of our discipleship but anything in our lives that is not rooted in love is not from God.

If I speak human or angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (CSB)

So, when you’re trying to figure out if you’re growing spiritually or not, make love the litmus test. If you’re becoming a more loving person (in ways defined by and motivated by the love of God as revealed in the gospel), you’re growing. If people aren’t experiencing you as a more loving person, you’re not growing. And we don’t need to figure out what love looks like. Paul’s got that one covered as well.

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (CSB)

If we want to get a handle on our level of spiritual growth, we need to start asking each other better questions. Wouldn’t it be great to sit down with a trusted friend and process some of these questions that help us assess if we’re becoming more loving people?

  • Am I becoming more patient with_______ (spouse, kids, co-workers, hard to love people, parents?)
  • Am I increasingly able to celebrate the success of others?
  • Where am I unwilling to forgive? Why am I still holding that person’s sin against them?
  • Am I tempted to give up on a friendship just because things have gotten hard?
  • Am I finding enough joy in Christ to fight the fleeting pleasures of sin?

Stand Out From The Crowd

In last Sunday’s sermon, I shared a quote from RT France that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since I first read it. In his commentary on Matthew, France calls us to adopt “the distinctive lifestyle of disciples.” This phrase is a wonderful reminder that, as followers of Jesus, we’re meant to stand out from the crowd – not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, as Paul would say it. (Romans 12:1) Our lives should be visibly different because we’ve been brought from spiritual death to spiritual life by the grace of God. (Ephesians 2:5) And this distinctiveness should be a lifestyle for us, not just an occasional moment of spiritual courage.

It’s a beautiful vision for our lives but living it out is really hard; in fact, it’s impossible without the power of the Spirit in our lives. But we need to rely on that Spirit in different ways in different seasons of our lives. While we’re all in different places and have different needs, here’s how I’ve seen this play out in the seasons of my life and in the lives of the people I pastor.

Courage

From our late teens to our mid 30’s, it takes a lot of courage to adopt the distinctive lifestyle of a disciple. It feels like the teachings of Jesus and your friend’s plans for the weekend are in constant conflict. People think you’re weird because you don’t live with your girlfriend, aren’t diving into the hookup scene, and stay under control at happy hour. And they’re more than happy to share their opinions about you and your distinct lifestyle, sometimes with you and sometimes behind your back. Some days you wonder if following Jesus is worth it. Would life be better if you eased up on the Jesus stuff and just went with the flow? I get it. I’ve been there. And I’ve given in to the temptation. But I was always left with the sense that I had traded true joy for fleeting pleasure, that I had turned my back on the life I wanted, and the One who gave me life.

Creativity

Somewhere around our mid-30’s, we start to chill out a bit, follower of Christ or not. Admittedly, this is more true for some than others but we all agree that a 40 year old trying to live like a 20 year old is a sad sight. Along the way, those of us who follow Jesus start to notice that the distinction between our lives and the lives of our non-Christian friends is a little less clear. Both single and married adults experience this but it seems to be most prevalent in married adults with children. Don’t get me wrong, the distinct lifestyle of a disciple still takes courage but it also takes a lot of creativity. Here are some questions I’m wrestling with as someone right in the middle of this season of life:

  • How does the gospel shape the way I honor and care for my body?
  • Am I showing my kids that the best things in life aren’t watched on a screen?
  • Are we willing to say no to the onslaught of playdates, birthday parties, activities, practices, and games that can dominate this season of life? More importantly, are we giving our kids a compelling why for the choices we’re making – time with family, time to rest, time for church?
  • Am I open to new experiences and different points of view? Am I still learning?
  • When was the last time we decided not to purchase something so that we could use the money to fund ministry?
  • How do we keep the romance in marriage so that our kids grow up wanting to be married, not afraid of it?
  • Are we still willing to take risks as a family? Especially with our finances – do we settle for the safety of giving or reach for the risk of generosity?
  • Do my neighbors see me as the kind of guy who is available for a meaningful conversation if they wanted to have one?
  • How do I treat my kid’s teachers, coaches, and the volunteers at RCCKids? Do I come off as entitled and disappointed or grateful?

Honestly, I love this season. But I also know how easy it is to drift into complacency. After all, I’m not doing anything all that bad! Fight that, stay fresh, get creative!

Love

Somewhere in our mid-50’s, we start to turn another corner. From what I can tell, this one is about love – whether or not love is the controlling motivation of our hearts. This season is all about what you chose to do when you don’t have to do anything. You’re less controlled by kids schedules, boss’ expectations, and financial pressure (ideally…I know that’s not true for everyone). So, what are you going to do with your life now that you don’t have to do anything with your life?

The distinctive lifestyle of a disciple is never easy. Courage, creativity, and love are always going to be in the mix, just to varying degrees. And Jesus is always going to be worth it, not in varying degrees but infinitely so.

Matt, Savannah, You, Me & The Hope Of Grace

Today Show

I can’t remember exactly when but at some point during high school, I started watching The Today Show.  That was back before Katie Couric said goodbye to Bryant Gumble and started breaking in this young upstart named Matt Lauer.  And, when I say I watched The Today Show, I mean, I watched it every single day.  “But, first this is Today on NBC” anchored my morning routine as much as anything else for years.  Maybe that’s why I was so shocked to hear that Matt Lauer has joined the long list of cultural figures to fall in the two months since The New York Times’ first reports on Harvey Weinstein.

To be honest, I’m usually skeptical of Christian authors, bloggers and pastors who use the controversy or news of the day as fodder for a quick blog post.  I’m always concerned those who write such posts are silently grateful for a topic that could generate a lot of interest.  The last thing I want to do is be that guy but I do want to respond to a massive question Savannah Guthrie asked as she shared the new about her friend Matt Lauer, “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?”  It’s such a significant question because most of our culture’s attempts to reconcile those two thoughts leave our souls deeply unsatisfied.

All too often, we resolve the tension by cutting the person who has behaved badly out of our lives.  Maybe it’s because we don’t know what to say and saying nothing seems easier and safer.  Maybe it’s because we feel so hurt and betrayed that a friend let us down.  Whatever our motivation, cutting someone out always reveals that we never really loved them, only what they could do for us.  Love doesn’t see friends as assets or liabilities but so much of what we call friendship does.

At other times, we careen off in the other direction and ignore, excuse, minimize or laugh off their behavior.  We don’t love our friends enough to tell them they were wrong, instead we help them rationalize their failings.  We pretend what they did doesn’t matter, we defend what is indefensible, and in so doing we tarnish our integrity and betray our own expectations for ourselves.

We’ve lost the ability to say, “I love you even though you’ve behaved very badly.”  It’s an ability we desperately need if we’re every going to have healthy, enduring relationships.  And it’s an ability we’ll only develop when we realize that’s exactly what God has already said to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  It’s an ability that calls on us to embrace three complementary truths:

Uncompromising Standards

Nobody wins when we lower our moral standards to the basest levels of human depravity.  Sexual harassment is wrong; it violates the dignity of a person who is made in the image and likeness of God.  And to sexual harassment we can add a long list of other things that our culture has become far too permissive of in an attempt to answer Savannah’s question.  But mornings like today reveal that we all really do know better; some things are just wrong.  Sex is a sacred gift from God, not a weapon to be used in exerting power over someone else.

Deep Humility

In our assessment of others, we would do well to consider the words of 19th century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “The seed of every sin known to man is in my heart.”  As much as I want to fight that conclusion for myself, I know it’s true.  Apart from God’s grace, I’m capable of doing whatever Lauer did and even worse.  It’s dangerously prideful to live without that kind of self awareness and it reflects a willful ignorance of our own failures.  What if your biggest regret, greatest sin and deepest source of shame was being thrown all over the internet today?  How would you be feeling if that moment was the topic of conversation all over the country today?  That thought alone should be enough to lead us into deep levels of humility.

Radical Grace

It’s only humble souls that can deal in the economy of grace.  Grace is the unique contribution of Christianity to the human experience – the ability to say that my love for you isn’t based on what you do but on who you are.  It’s the ability to stand with both the sinner and the sinned against.  It’s the ability to separate love from performance.

It’s what God has done for us in Jesus.  On the cross, we see the fury of God’s hatred for sin but we also see God’s deep love for sinners.  The fury of God’s wrath fell on His Son so that it could pass over us.  God made a way for sinners to become sons and for rebels to find peace.  God doesn’t love us because we deserve it.  He loves us because it’s who He is.

And that’s how he calls us to love one another.  Not sweeping sin or sinners under the carpet but showing a grace that melts the hardest of hearts and gives life in the most hopeless situations.

Oh, how I long to love people the way Jesus has loved me.  Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could all take a step closer to that this Christmas?  A baby Boy was born to show us that grace and truth flow together and change everything they touch.

Learning To Love

A photo by Asaf R. unsplash.com/photos/UalImdHGjGUFor years, I missed the boat when it came to love.  And, no, I’m not talking about my dating life as a younger guy!  I’m talking about the fact that I thought love was a personality trait.  Some people had it, some people didn’t, and there wasn’t much you could do about it.  It was like being an introvert or an extrovert.  Sure, you could learn some techniques to be a little more loving, but it wasn’t like you were going to become a whole new person.

Maybe I struggled because our culture has such a cheap view of love.  We reduce it to nothing more than butterflies in our stomachs, warm fuzzies and something, if I’m being totally honest, that’s very feminine.  It’s all bubbly emotion, all the time.  And I just wasn’t into it. Turns out God has a different definition; read 1 Corinthians 13 for more on what robust, biblical love looks like.

But the more I read the Bible, the more problematic my view of “love as personality trait” became.  Two things became incredibly clear to me:

1. Love is an evidence of salvation.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.

-1 John 4:7-9

All of the sudden, love wasn’t so peripheral any more.  It was essential.  If I didn’t have it, what did that say about my relationship with God?  If I did have a relationship with God, why wasn’t my heart more characterized by love?

To be honest, that didn’t comfort me very much.  In fact, it scared the crud out of me.  I had long seen myself as someone who was low on the love meter.  My heart just wasn’t some warm, bubbling sea of affection for God and others.  It was often cold, indifferent or even hostile.  I realized that what I had always accepted about myself was something God was very intent on changing.

2. Love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

The Holy Spirit lives in the heart of every Christ follower and He produces love inside of us.  As surely as an apple tree brings forth apples, the Spirit of God brings forth love.  Newsflash: love isn’t a personality trait and it is something we can grow in.  It’s something God produces inside of us.

The more I reflected on God’s love for me in Jesus, the more I found myself loving other people.  In fairness, I still experience love through the lens of my personality.  Love for me is a steady, even keeled commitment to do whatever I can for you.  It doesn’t come out in poetry.  It comes out in prose.  But it does come out.  It’s there and, by God’s grace, it’s growing.

Don’t you dare believe you are condemned to a loveless life.  Jesus died to free you from that, to place His love on you so firmly that you find love rising up from the depths of your heart.  The more you walk with Him, the more you’ll learn to love.

Love & Obedience

We don’t normally link love with obedience. We certainly don’t do it the way Jesus does when He says, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Excuse me?!?! If that doesn’t sound a little strange to you, here’s what you should do: take your best friend out for coffee and suggest this as the new organizing principle for your friendship. My guess is that isn’t going to go so well! But we don’t have the luxury of dismissing something as crazy when Jesus is the One talking. We need to understand this link between love and obedience. John 14 shows these ideas are linked in at least two different ways.

Link #1: Love Precedes Obedience

Jesus spends the first 14 verses of the chapter giving His followers reasons to love Him deeply. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Belief in Jesus combats anxiety. (Verse 1)
  • Jesus is preparing a place for us in His Father’s eternal house. (Verse 2)
  • Jesus is coming again. (Verse 3)
  • Belief in Jesus is the only way to enter the Father’s house. (Verse 6)
  • When we see Jesus, we see the Father. (Verse 9)
  • Jesus’ miracles testify to His divinity. (Verse 11)
  • Jesus hears and answers our prayers. (Verse 13-14)

All of that lays the foundation for three simple words in verse 12, “believe in Me.” Jesus isn’t trying to crush His followers into submission. He wants to capture their hearts. He wants them to see Him for who He really is and fall in love with Him.

Jesus is concerned about love before He ever gets to obedience. That’s the essence of the gospel. Jesus never tells spiritually dead people to clean their life up and then come to Him. He awakens dead hearts to His glory and leads people who once hated Him to delight in Him.

So much of our evangelism looses sight of this truth. We want to convert people to the Christian lifestyle before they are converted to Jesus. But that’s not how Jesus does it. Love precedes obedience.

Link #2: Love Produces Obedience

That’s verse 15. And 21, 23 and 24. A heart that has truly been captured by the glory of God will joyfully obey Him and submit to Him. Why? Because we know He is good, wise, faithful and will never lead us astray. We know our hearts are deceptive, our emotions are unreliable, we lack wisdom and we’re plagued by a horrid selfishness that clouds our judgment.

Somewhere along the line, people started to peddle a version of Christianity that divorced love and obedience. It’s a version of Christianity that goes something like this: Jesus just wants to be your buddy and you can live life however you want; in fact, He’s a useful antidote to guilt. That’s not the Jesus of the Bible. He’s not a beggar hoping you’ll let Him into your heart. He’s a Sovereign King who is infinitely worthy of worship.

If we love Him, our hearts will be marked by an increasing desire to obey Him.

It’s easy to focus on obedience. We get really good at keeping score in our lives and in the lives of others. But all of our score keeping yields little change. True change comes when we shift our focus to loving Jesus. As we fall more in love with Him, obedience will by the inevitable by product.