Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Category: Spiritual Growth (Page 1 of 4)

Deep Roots

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
But he who hates reproof is stupid. 
A good man will obtain favor from the LORD,
But He will condemn a man who devises evil. 
A man will not be established by wickedness,
But the root of the righteous will not be moved.

Proverbs 12.1-3

Have you ever tried to get rid of a stubborn weed or a sapling or a bush that has sprung up in the wrong place? No matter how hard you try, it seems to win. You cut it; it grows back. You spray it; it comes back. 

Why do weeds so often win? Simple. They have deep roots. If you don’t kill the roots, you won’t kill the plant, and if you don’t kill the plant, it’ll always come back. 

However, the same thing is true of desirable grasses and flowers and shrubs and trees. If they have well developed root systems, they’ll also persist. 

The third verse of the above text suggests that righteousness, by the Lord’s design, is intended to operate the same way. The first three sayings in Proverbs Chapter 12 contrast various manifestations of righteousness and wisdom against various manifestations of wickedness. The righteous love discipline and knowledge, but the evil is too lazy to learn. The righteous are blessed while the wicked are cursed. 

Then in verse three Solomon unexpectedly reverses the order: The wicked person will not be established, whereas the righteous person has a firm root. This reads much like Psalm 1.3-4 with its imagery of the righteous as a well-planted, well-watered tree, and the wicked as chaff to be blown away by the wind. By reversing the order, I think Solomon wishes to emphasize the permanence of the righteous in God’s economy. 

During the spring and summer, many of us are thinking about stubborn weeds, and with good reason. Solomon suggests that we should also think of stubborn righteousness, also with good reason. Not obstinate righteousness, but resolute righteousness. The righteous simply never give up in their righteousness, and in that righteousness, they lay deep roots.

How deep is your righteousness?

Pen & Paper

A fellow-preacher and friend of mine is currently vacationing in Ireland. While in Dublin, he visited the Chester Beatty, a library and museum which houses a document called “p46,” the oldest known manuscript of the apostle Paul’s letters. It’s a collection of most of Paul’s letters dating to the middle of the second century, discovered in Cairo Egypt in the 1930s. 

The earliest reference to a collection of the apostle Paul’s letters is in the New Testament itself in 2 Peter 3.15-16. There, Peter says to “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” 

Peter was writing to an audience in Asia Minor (what we call Turkey) that was already acquainted with Paul’s writings. Peter equated Paul’s letters with “Scripture” (v. 16). So then, by about AD 64, Paul’s letters were already being collected and circulated in Asia Minor. The existence of manuscript p46 means that within a century, Paul’s letters were being published and distributed across the Roman Empire at least as far away as Egypt.

One interesting feature of manuscript p46 is the presence of reader’s marks – strokes and dots – written with a different ink than in the original text. Apparently, whoever owned this document made notations in it. They appear to be efforts to divide the text into smaller units (much like our chapter and verse divisions). Marking in your Bible is not a modern invention, it appears to be a long-held tradition for serious Bible students.

One of my great fears about modern publishing is the disappearance of physical documents. These days, everything is “virtual” – real documents, but only in electronic form. Much of what we know about ancient Christianity and Judaism comes in the form of physically written documents preserved over time. Once an electronic document is destroyed, they’re almost impossible to recover. At least with pen and ink, fragments are often left behind for us.

I’m thankful that God in his providence used pen and ink to preserve His Word in a permanent form. I’m thankful that ancient brothers and sisters in Christ loved their Bibles enough to mark in them. I’m thankful that something as simple as a stick with some ink at one end can be such a powerful instrument in God’s eternal plans.

I encourage you to do two things. First, don’t be afraid to write in your Bibles. It’s a great memory and study tool. Many electronic Bibles allow you to do this. Second, the next time you’re in your Bible, take a moment to thank God for preserving it for us to read today.

Forward Progress

Two men were riding up a long, steep hill on a tandem bicycle. It was required a huge effort, and when they finally reached the top, the man in front said, “I honestly didn’t think we were going to make it! I was afraid we were about to go backward!”

The man in back said, “Me either! That’s why I had my foot on the brake the whole time!”

It’s a humorous reminder that if we want to move forward, we must first stop moving backward. That’s especially true in our spiritual lives.

1 Peter 2.1-3 says, “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”

Peter gives us an insight into the nature of spiritual growth. The main idea in this sentence is that they grow in respect to salvation. Let’s look at four things Peter says about it.

First, spiritual growth requires that we get rid of some old habits. Peter gives us a short sampling of them here: malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander. It’s interesting that all of these involve sinful attitudes or behavior against others. Not only do these things stand between us and other people, but also between us and God, between us and our pursuit of growth.

Second, spiritual growth requires that we’re hungry. Here, Peter says our hunger should be for God’s word. We need the intensity of a baby’s appetite. At a practical level, we regularly study the Bible and look for opportunities to do so. Only God’s word can fill us and nourish us. 

Third, it requires that we look forward. Here, salvation is future (our final salvation with God in heaven). It’s also something toward which we grow. We should be getting further and further from this world while drawing closer and closer to the world above and beyond.

Finally, Peter tells us that the motivation is God’s kindness. The kindness of God is the sum of his grace, love, is mercy, and care for us. If we have experienced the kindness of God to any degree, we owe it to him to pursue spiritual growth.

Where are you in this process?

When Your Feet Hit the Floor

“Be the kind of woman who, when her feet hit the floor in the morning, causes the Devil to say, ‘Oh no – she’s up!’”

Joanne Clancy, Irish Author

I don’t have any context for this quotation, so I’m not sure if it’s meant in a positive way or a negative way. 

On the one hand, it could be referring to some women who are so thoroughly bad, that even the Devil trembles. Biblically, I think of King Ahab’s evil wife, Queen Jezebel. I think of their daughter Athaliah, who killed her own grandchildren so she could become queen. I think of Herodias, who engineered the beheading of John the Baptist. Some folks are so bad that they can give Satan a run for his money. 

I prefer to think of it in a good way, and not just about women. I’d like to think that when we Christians arise each day – when our feet hit the floor – we’re prepared to do battle with Satan. 

On one hand, that’s a scary proposition. In Ephesians 6.12, Paul said “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Satan has power and lots of help.

On the other hand, we have God’s power and weaponry available. In this same text, Paul goes on to describe in detail the armor of God, which is at our disposal. He says in verse 13 “Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”

Elsewhere, in 2 Corinthians 10.4, Paul also said that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” Christians have the most potent arsenal available. Each day presents an opportunity to war mightily against Satan and his forces.

Finally, we need the assurance that Satan can be withstood. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” was James’ counsel (James 4.7). Ultimately Satan prefers battles he knows he can win. He has little interest in a battle he knows he will lose. Stand firm, and Satan will run.

For today and every day, make the Devil regret that you ever got out of bed! When your feet hit the floor, be ready for a fight!

Your Happy Place

“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. 
Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute 
with love, grace and gratitude.”

Denis Waitley

Waitley is a popular, long-time motivational speaker and writer. I remember attending a “Seeds of Greatness” seminar in college sponsored by his organization. If memory serves me correctly, I think his Seeds of Greatness was the first motivational book I ever bought.

His quotation is a good starting point for thinking about happiness. First, happiness isn’t a thing. It’s not something apart from us that we go and get. It’s not something to be purchased or acquired or traded. 

Second, as Waitley says, it’s a “spiritual experience”. Happiness is the melding of our experiences and our beliefs. Whatever we experience: good things or bad, success or failure, sickness or health, wealth or poverty, good relationships or bad, all of these are shaped by our belief system. Happiness is looking at our experiences in a biblical and constructive way.

Third, Waitley notes that happiness requires “love, grace and gratitude.” Biblically speaking, we are recipients of the first two, and cultivators of the last one. Regarding love and grace, the apostle Paul said, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13.14). If we receive love and grace, we must learn to extend love and grace if we want to find this thing called happiness.

Regarding gratitude, Paul also said, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18). In other words, gratitude is a choice, and an action, and a frame of mind that’s cultivated by means of our relationship to God in Christ. 

We often speak of our “happy place.” Happiness isn’t so much a place as it is a way of thinking. With the right frame of mind, you can be in your “happy place” no matter where you are.

Roots

This time of year, many of us are already gardening, planting, fertilizing, weeding, landscaping, spraying, pruning, and all kinds of other springtime agricultural rituals.

The key to growing anything – grass, flowers, vegetables, shrubs, trees – is developing a good root system. Plants depend upon the nutrients and moisture provided by the soil. The deeper and more extensive a plant’s root system, the more it will be able to survive drought, wind, disease, and pests. 

So it is with our growth as Christians. We can’t grow without deep, healthy roots. The apostle Paul prayed for the saints in Ephesus “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3.17-19). Before they can grow upward, they need to first grow downward.

Paul had a similar exhortation for the Christians in Colossae. “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude” (Colossians 2.6-7). Growth, gratitude, and a deep faith are impossible without a deep root system. 

That’s why regular spiritual disciplines and practices are so essential to the formation of our faith. Bible reading, meditation, memorization, and study are building blocks of spiritual maturity. We need the daily challenge of personal Bible study as well as the weekly opportunity to study with other Christians. Prayer is an opportunity to expand our root system by expressing gratitude and praise to God, as well as offering our petitions to him. Worship keeps us vital and strong. It provides nourishment and refreshment from the harsh realities of life. It gets us in the presence of God and in the presence of his people. It puts our minds on a higher plane awhile each week. 

So, while you’re thinking about taking care of your lawn and garden, take a bit of time to nourish your soul. Get some water and feed, pull some weeds, and get ready to grow. 

In the Moment

“The thing is to rely on God. The time will come when you will regard all this misery as a small price to pay for having been brought to that dependence. Meanwhile, the trouble is that relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing has yet been done.”  

C. S. Lewis

Lewis was warning against the tendency to rely on God only when we’re in trouble, only when some urgent need arises. As he noted, relying on God is a daily discipline that we exercise moment-by-moment.

I don’t know about anybody else, but it’s hard for me to live in the moment. Some days I spend too much time looking backward with regret at something I wish I’d done better. Other days I spend too much time looking forward with anxiety about what needs to be done this week or next. The reality is that all I have is today, this very moment. I need to learn the art of living in the moment.

What should help me in this daily reliance upon God is to remember his daily provisions. Jeremiah said, 

The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3.23-24

Jeremiah wrote these words while surveying the ruins of Jerusalem after King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the city. Looking backward only served to remind him of the nation’s past failures. Looking forward only frustrated him because there were no resources with which to rebuild. Jeremiah could only look at each day as gift from God, a reminder that God hadn’t abandoned his people.

The challenge for us is to see each day’s situation as a gift from God. In each day do we see God’s provisions? Do we see God’s help in temptation? Do we see God’s forgiveness? Do we see his mercy and grace? Do we see his comfort and hope? We see them only to the extent that we look for them. THAT is how we learn to rely upon God.

It would be too much to say that we should never look backward, because we should always be ready to learn from past mistakes. It would be equally foolish to say that we should never look forward, because we should always be aware of where our past and present decisions point us. However, properly evaluating the past and the future depend upon how we look at God in the present, in the moment.

Jars

Growing up, my Mom had all kinds of jars around the house. She used most of them for canning vegetables in the summer. But she had other jars for other purposes: her spare button jar, her loose change jar, her spice tea jar, her sun tea jar, her jars for drinking sun tea, her cotton ball jar, and lots of other jars. 

Jars are useful for holding things. They’re designed to be filled. They’re functional. And even though Pinterest probably has all kinds of decorative ideas for jars, they’re primarily utilitarian. 

The apostle Paul compared Christians to jars: “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Timothy 2.20-21).

I suspect that most of us don’t spend our days contemplating the nature of being jar-like. Nonetheless, the analogy is useful. By way of application, I’d like for you to think about three things that can help you be, in Paul’s words, “a vessel of honor”.

First, jars come in all sizes, shapes, and materials. Different jars have different qualities and uses. That’s to be expected because that’s what makes them so incredibly useful. In the same way, Christians have different qualities and uses. No two Christians are exactly alike. Each of us brings different gifts, abilities, experiences, knowledge levels, maturity, and insight to the kingdom. Each of us has a place in the body of Christ. As the apostle Paul said elsewhere, “For the body is not one member, but many” (1 Corinthians 12.14).

Second, jars exist to be filled. The Bible speaks of being filled by God with many things. We’re to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5.18). Filled with joy (2 Timothy 1.4). Filled with knowledge (Colossians 1.9). Filled with righteousness (Philippians 1.11). Filled with comfort (2 Corinthians 7.4). Filled with the fullness of God himself (Ephesians 3.19). These are the things God gives to us in our relationship to him. We can’t achieve them ourselves, we can’t buy them, and we really can’t even control them. 

Third, and most importantly, jars must first be empty before they can be filled. When we’re full our ourselves, there’s no room to be filled with God or by God. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9.23). We must empty ourselves of pride, worry, materialism, worldly ambition, busyness, doubt, lust, greed, anger. All the sinful things that occupy space in our hearts, we must empty.

God does the filling, but we do the emptying. If you want to be filled, start with an empty jar.

The Joy of the Lord

Then [Nehemiah] said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8.10)

When you have nothing else, you have the Lord. In this is joy.

When Nehemiah gave this admonition to the Israelites, it was after 70 years of exile. It was after generations of disobedience against the Lord. It was after their holy city had been razed, their homes destroyed, their dignity crushed, their humiliation complete. When all was taken away, they still had the Lord. This was their joy.

It was by sheer grace that the Lord allowed them to return to the land and restore their national life. Granted, there were some who were still dissatisfied. The prophet Haggai cautioned those who pined for “the good old days” (Haggai 2.3). He promised that whatever glory they thought they remembered would be eclipsed by an even greater glory from the Lord (Haggai 2.9). The text in Nehemiah showed a people overwhelmed by fresh memories of their sins. But even more they were overwhelmed by fresh compassion from the Lord.

The noun “joy” occurs about 180 times in the Bible. The verb “rejoice” occurs about 230 times in the Bible. Joy isn’t just something we have, it’s something we do. When God tells us to rejoice, it’s not a suggestion, it’s a command! This tells us that joy and rejoicing are choices we make about our lives. We choose whether or not we’ll have joy.

I might have expected Nehemiah to say that the strength of God is our joy, but he reversed that: the joy of the Lord is our strength. What Nehemiah was saying is that grace precedes strength. We draw strength as we contemplate and appreciate the good things God has done for us. 

So, if you have been blessed by God, rejoice! If God has taken care of your needs, rejoice! If God has helped you through a hard place, rejoice! If God has comforted you when nothing else could, rejoice! If God has chastened you to bring you back to him, rejoice! 

And as you rejoice, you’ll be stronger for whatever obstacles and challenges ahead of you. 

God’s people have every reason for joy every day. So, for today, do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!

Thinking & Doing

Laurence J. Peter (who formulated the famous “Peter Principle”) said, “There are two kinds of failures: those who thought and never did, and those who did and never thought.”

I suspect most of us had failed in both ways. We’ve all had times when we rushed into action to solve a problem, only to realize that our instincts were misguided. We acted without thinking and created a bigger mess than when we started.

At other times, we ponder a problem to death. We think, we research, we think some more, we look it up on YouTube, Wikipedia, and Amazon trying to find the perfect solution. But by the time we find a solution, either the problem went away, or somebody else fixed it.

We often think without acting, and act without thinking.

Christianity is a religion of both thought and action. Obviously, there’s much about our faith that must be done. As the book of James said, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1.22). It’s not enough to listen to a good sermon or a good Bible class, we must act upon what we hear. James reminds us that it’s not the teacher’s responsibility or the preacher’s, but the listener’s responsibility to act.

I may feel strongly that my congregation needs to be more friendly. But if I never speak to anyone outside my circle of acquaintances, or if I never invite someone into my home, nothing will ever change. I’m thinking about something but doing nothing about it. 

But Christianity is also a thoughtful religion. We must think about certain things and cultivate certain attitudes. The apostle Paul said, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, [let your mind] dwell on these things” (Philippians 4.8). In biblical thought, attitudes precede actions. If you want to do the right kind of things, you need to think the right kind of thoughts. 

When I was a volunteer fireman, I learned about scene safety. Rather than just jumping in to rescue a potential victim, I was taught to look at the situation and determine the safest, most effective way to respond. Jumping into a dangerous situation without looking may make for great movies, but in real life it creates potential disasters. 

So, what God wants from us each and every day is to think about what we’re doing, and act upon what we’re thinking.

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