Posts Tagged With: spiritual growth

Abiding in the Vine: III. Pruning and Cleansing

The previous article in this series mentioned that it is important for Christians to remain connected to other branches of the vine—other Christians, particularly the Church—to strengthen our connection with the Vine, Jesus. Some might say that they do not need church. They say they have been hurt by other Christians, and they think they fare better if they keep to themselves.

It is true that the Church is an imperfect reflection of Christ. Christians fail to live up to the full measure of Jesus Christ sometimes. Some of us can look more like nonbelievers or children of the devil than like children of God. We have to grow. We have to mature. Branches require regular maintenance.

“Every branch in me that does not bear fruit {God the Father} takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

A farmer tending to his vine. From pixnio.com (public domain).

We can imagine a vinedresser examining his plant. It has some lifeless branches; they have not produced any fruit for a while. These branches are simply taking up space. They need to be cut off. Perhaps fresh, living, fruitful branches will grow in their place.

There are some other branches, though, that are bearing some fruit. To increase the amount of fruit, the vinedresser might clip away the ends of some branches, beyond where buds, leaves, and fruit are growing. This way, the plant’s sap is not wasted nourishing empty space. Nourishment is maximized. Growth is enhanced. Life springs forth.

There are some people in the church who do not have the life of Christ in them. They may attend worship on Sunday. Some of them might even look really spiritual. But, the life of Christ—the fruit of the Spirit—is not present. The Holy Spirit does not dwell within them. At some point, they will be cut off. Matthew 13:24–30 indicates that this final cutting off will occur at the end of the age. In the meantime, God does not waste His time sanctifying the unsaved. He may still offer them repentance, but they should not mistake themselves for being Christian merely because they are surrounded by disciples of Jesus. In the words of Christian contemporary-music pioneer Keith Green, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.”

Meanwhile, the follower of Jesus undergoes the pruning process of sanctification. Perhaps the dead wood is sin that remains in the believer’s life. God wants to cut it off and set you free so that you can bear fruit. Sometimes, the dead wood is not really sin; it is just excess baggage that holds us back from fully serving Him. Monks throughout church history have made many sacrifices in Jesus’ name. At times, they gave up things that most of us would consider good: relationships with family and friends; careers; a few luxuries; opportunity to enjoy entertainment or engage in casual conversation (some monks take vows to say nothing unless it is in prayer and praise to God).

They gave up good morally-acceptable things to devote themselves to the will of God. What about us? Are there good things holding us back from doing the better things God has planned for us? Are we watching TV, playing sports, reading books, or surfing the Internet, but cannot find time for prayer or fellowship? God may need to do some pruning in your life. It is part of your growth as a Christian and your fruitfulness as a branch on His Vine.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” (Hebrews 12:1).

Sometimes, commitment to Christ will mean more than giving up sin. It may involve giving up every weight that limits are faithfulness and fruitfulness. It will require us allowing God to cut off the fruitless ends of healthy branches along with the dead wood.

Let us remember that the believer in Jesus Christ is saved because he already believes. We do not become Christians, or become “more Christian” or “better Christians,” because we let God prune us. If you are a believer in Christ, you are already cleaned, forgiven, and saved. Shortly before He was arrested, Jesus said:

“Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).

Earlier that evening, He had already introduced this concept. While washing the disciples’ feet, He came to Peter:

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean…’” (John 13:6–10).

The child of God is already clean through the Word of God. We are already saved and forgiven. However, as we live our lives, we collect junk. We face temptation. We give in to temptation and sin. We may be wounded by the attacks of Satan, the mistreatment of others, or the misfortune of daily living. We need to be wiped clean every now and then through confession and renewed repentance. This process does not make us Christians. It merely preserves us so that we can continue to grow in Christlikeness and fruitfulness.

We do not get to decide how God will prune us. Since God is doing the work and we are merely the branches, He is in control. If you sense that the Holy Spirit is convicting you to give something up, do what He says. Do not bargain or offer alternatives. To obey God is better than offering your own self-selected sacrifices (1 Samuel 15:22).

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that we need to be in fellowship with the church, even if we feel that we have been hurt by other Christians. Dealing with their imperfections is one of the ways we grow and are pruned and cleansed. People will hurt us. They will give us reasons to forgive them. They will irritate us, thereby revealing our weaknesses. It is all part of the spiritual growth process. If we avoid church because we have been hurt, we are only hurting ourselves.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Abiding in the Vine, Bible meditations | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Milking Spiritual Maturity: I. All or Nothing

“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:1–3; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

What does spiritual maturity look like? This term appears frequently in some corners of the church, and this blog has occasionally addressed it. A search on this site’s homepage currently lists 11 articles, including this, this, and this.

Spiritual maturity can be easily misunderstood. Some think a spiritually mature person attends church often, reads the Bible every day, prays a lot, and listens to Christian music. However, Peter associates maturity—“growing up into salvation”—with a lack of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. It is related with what flows from your heart and mind, radiating the love of God, not religious activity.

Peter told his readers to long for pure spiritual milk. Picture a baby at its mother’s breast. For the first few months of his or her life, a baby will live on nothing but milk, which provided complete nutrition until the baby is old enough to eat and drink more complex things. Eventually, the baby can eat soft foods, then meat, and so on.

Elsewhere in Scripture, we read that the milk is the word of God:

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12–14; emphasis added).

The pure spiritual milk Peter speaks of is the basic principles of the oracles of God, the essentials of salvation. Peter does not trivialize this, and neither should we: He addresses his instruction to all of his readers, drawing no distinction between church leaders and the people who were baptized one week earlier. All of us should drink the pure spiritual milk every now and then.

However, our faith should look different after 10 or 20 years of walking with Christ. As we abide in Christ and His Word, we grow to maturity. After a while, we should look different. We should train our powers of discernment to distinguish good from evil. We should move beyond spiritual milk to spiritual meat, solid food, the word of righteousness.

However, many of us are eager to master the “deeper truths” without first allowing the Word of God to master our hearts. We want to become experts in Bible trivia, biblical studies, and systematic theology without having purified hearts. We think right doctrine or Scripture memorization are the marks of a mature Christian. Yet, as we see above, this is not the case.

Christian maturity is revealed by the nature of Christ in our lives and a thorough renewal of the mind that rejects sins of the heart. Peter tells us to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” He says all several times. What part of “all” do we not understand?

Put away all malice. This includes people from the opposing political party, Muslims, illegal immigrants, or homosexuals. We may disagree with them. We may think they are wrong, deceived, or misguided. But we should put away all malice—even against “those people.”

Put away all slander. For some reason, many Christians think God does not see or care about the internet or social media. We see a meme or link to an online article that justifies our opinion and accuses our “enemies” or horrible things, so we share it. We do not check to see if it is true. (I am not endorsing Snopes; most of us do not even do a simple web search to see if the post can be verified by independent, trustworthy, at-least-partially-fair-and-balanced sources.) Many people do not care whether an online post is true or false. If we want it to be true, we share it. We are willing to justify our hatred, malice, gossip, slander, deceit, etc., in the name of a religious, political, or social agenda. In this regard, many Christians are as guilty (or even more so) than non-believers.

Since Scripture says that we should put away “all” such sin, the presence or absence of such sins of the heart and mind are the true indications of our degree of spiritual maturity or immaturity. Sinful attitudes are destructive to our souls.

As long as any sinful attitudes remain, let us continue to seek spiritual growth. Let us not become satisfied with a little sin, a little righteousness, and a little bit of God’s presence in our lives.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hungering and Thirsting for Righteousness

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

Photo by Len Rizzi, National Cancer Institute, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Why do I still struggle with this sin?” “Maybe you are not hungry enough to be set free.”

“Why can’t I find time to read the Bible and pray?” “Maybe you are not hungry enough to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’”

“Why do I always find time for TV or the internet or music, but never find time to worship God?” “Perhaps those are the things you really crave.”

One factor which will determine how you grow in your relationship with God is your desire. Are you hungry for God? Do you want to know Him better and live in such a way that you bring glory to Him? Perhaps many of us live defeated lives because we are not hungry enough to serve Him. God desires it: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). God wants you to have a close relationship with Him. Do you want it?

Hunger and thirst are two very strong natural desires, which explains why Jesus used these words to describe a believer’s spiritual desire for righteousness. They are necessary for survival. As I am writing this article, the temperature outside is over 90 degrees. The “real-feel” temperature was over 100 degrees most of the day. I have spent most of the day with water or Pepsi close by. My body keeps telling me, “We need more water!”

I do not eat only because I like food (although taste all too frequently affects my dietary decisions). I eat because, without proper nutrition, I will die. The human body can survive only a few weeks without food. It survives only about three days without water. Under normal circumstances, your body will keep sending you signals if it does not receive the nutrients it needed.

Likewise, Christians should expect the Holy Spirit to produce a craving for the things of God in our lives. He draws us. He produces a desire within us, and then He equips us to seek satisfaction. Without filling that craving for God’s presence in our lives, we will starve spiritually.

While we may hunger and thirst for righteousness, we may not be filled immediately. As with many things in life, satisfaction often takes time. A few years ago, my pastor laid out the following four steps on a men’s retreat:

  1. Desire—We recognize a goal that we want to achieve.
  2. Decision—Some people never get beyond the desire stage. They may say, “I should pray more,” but it does not happen. We must make a decision that we will do what we need to do to achieve that goal. This usually includes figuring out a plan for pursuing that goal.
  3. Discipline—This is the hard part. After making a decision and forging a plan, we have to take the time and make the effort to pursue that goal. It might take years of doing your part. This is where most people fail in anything they try to achieve.
  4. Delight—If you are faithful in your discipline, you get to delight in achieving your goals.
Image created using the YouVersion Bible app.

Here is a natural example. You go to the doctor for an annual checkup. He tells you, “You are 40 pounds overweight. You have high cholesterol and high blood pressure. You are at high risk for a heart attack.” You desire to be healthy. Some people stop there. “I want to be healthy, but I do not want to exercise and Big Macs are delicious.” Perhaps your desire leads you to make a decision to make a few lifestyle changes; you will cut a few unhealthy foods from your diet, replace most junk food with raw vegetables and fruit, and work out at a gym three times per week. This will require discipline; it will only work if you stick with it. Most people fall back into old habits within a few weeks of the decision, because they lack the discipline necessary to achieve their goals; perhaps the desire was not strong enough. However, if you stick with your lifestyle changes for one year, you will most likely enjoy the delight: At your next physical, the doctor reports that you lost 25 pounds, you cholesterol levels are going down, and your blood pressure is normal. The desire alone did not do the trick. Making a decision and remaining disciplined brought the delight.

Now, let’s apply this to the growing Christian. Maybe you say, “I desire to know the Bible better.” That is a great first step. Is it a real hunger, though? If it is a hunger, make a decision to read and study it. Find a good Bible-reading plan and stick with it. Join a Bible study group. You will not turn into a Bible scholar overnight. In fact, you may find some discouragement early on as you come across passages that make no sense to you. Do not lose hope; keep going; remain disciplined. After a few months, you will begin to notice that Scripture verses pop into your mind when you face a certain problem, or you might start noticing how the passage you read today reminds you of something you read a few months ago. Delight will come.

So, if you are not growing spiritually, what do you really desire? What are you willing to discipline yourself to do? Does your desire to know Jesus better exceed your desire to play video games, surf the internet, or watch television? Are you really hungry and thirsty for the things of God, or would you rather munch on some emotional junk food?

The choice is yours. God is hungry and thirsty to draw close to you. Do you hunger and thirst for Him and His righteousness?

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Merely Human?—1 Corinthians 3:1–4

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Corinthians 3:1–4).

In my last two posts (here and here), I discussed the need for Christians to grow up and become mature in our thinking and living. When we are born again, we become “babes in Christ,” but we should eventually grow up. Unfortunately, many Christians remain in a “condition of protracted infancy” (to use the words of nineteenth century pastor Andrew Murray).

The divisiveness we see in the body of Christ is a dangerous symptom of this rampant spiritual immaturity. According to St. Paul, it shows that we are not aware of our identity as children of God and co-heirs with Christ. We act like ordinary people. We forget that we are children of God. Instead, we act like we are “merely human.”

What is your spiritual identity? Are you a child of God, made in His image and filled with the Holy Spirit? Or, are you merely human, trying to follow a set of religious teachings in your own strength?

Andrew_Murray

Andrew Murray

Too often, we justify our sins and shortcomings by saying, “Well, nobody’s perfect. I’m only human.” God calls His children to something greater. We are called to be partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). God’s seed abides in us (1 John 3:9); in other words, we should look like our heavenly Father, especially in our actions. We are filled with the Holy Spirit and therefore can (and should) bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). We have been adopted as fellow heirs with Jesus (Romans 8:17; see here for more on this subject). Despite the clear teaching of the New Testament, many Christians think of ourselves as “only human” and do not experience the full power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives. As Andrew Murray says in “Spiritual or Carnal”:

There are thus three states in which a man may be found. The unregenerate is still the natural man, not having the Spirit of God. The regenerate, who is still a babe in Christ, whether because he is only lately converted, or because he has stood still and not advanced, is the carnal man, giving way to the power of the flesh. The believer in whom the Spirit has obtained full supremacy, is the spiritual man.…

All that is carnal and sinful, all the works of the flesh, must be given up and cast out. But no less must all that is carnal, however religious it appears, all confidence in the flesh, all self-effort and self-struggling be rooted out. The soul, with its power, must be brought into the captivity and subjection of Jesus Christ. In deep and daily dependence on God must the Holy Spirit be accepted, waited for, and followed.

This is not a call to perfectionism. We all have our good and bad days. These three groups are a helpful guide, but many of us waver between being carnal and spiritual. We also may be stronger in some areas of our lives than others. I have been commended by some for showing a lot of patience in some circumstances and with some people, only to show that I really lack that fruit when dealing with other circumstances and people.

However, we should stop accepting a lower standard for ourselves than God offers. Are we merely human, or are we filled with the Holy Spirit? If we are filled with the Holy Spirit, are we willing to allow Him to work in our lives, or will we continue to use our humanity as an excuse to live in defeat or worldliness.

We often think a carnal or worldly Christian is one who fails to follow a few rules. We may think carnal or weak Christians are the ones who drink alcohol, smoke, have sex outside of marriage, and listen to rock music. However, Scripture points out some other marks of a carnal Christian.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (James 4:1–5)

According to James, the brother of Jesus, the marks of a worldly carnal Christian are quarrels, fighting, covetousness, selfishness, etc. Other sins grow out of those. In 1 Corinthians 3:1–4, Paul lists jealousy, strife, and divisions as a few marks of spiritual immaturity. We often overlook those. Many Christians seem to think these sins are moral or spiritual virtues (“he has strong convictions and he’s passionate about the truth!”).

Throughout First Corinthians, Paul addresses a lot of problems that grew out of this carnal state. A major one was arguing over favorite preachers. The church was being divided by people who bragged that they followed Paul, Apollos (a particularly eloquent teacher), Cephas (Simon Peter), or some other leader. There was even a faction that said, “I follow Christ.” While that sounds most noble, they do not seem to get Paul’s seal of approval. It is possible that they merely boasted, “I do not need to listen to any of the apostles or teachers. I will just follow the spirit of Christ within me. You can’t tell me what to do or think!”

We may not drive around with bumper stickers that say, “I follow Paul”; or wear tee shirts reading, “I follow Apollos” or “Cephas.” But, the church remains divided. We argue over denominations. Some refuse to fellowship with people who say they believe in Jesus, but do not share their views about end-time prophecy, sacraments, or eternal security. We no longer about Paul, Apollos, or Peter (I know some who cling to “my-idea-of-Jesus-and-I-will-listen-to-nobody-else”). Instead, we follow John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Joel Osteen, John MacArthur, or some other prominent preacher. Whenever we place a human teacher over God’s word, and create division in that person’s name, we have accepted carnal worldly Christianity. We have chosen to be merely human. It is time to grow up.

Growing in Christ is a lifetime commitment. However, God has given us His Holy Spirit. We do not have to accept “merely human” as our standard. We do not have to live the Christian life in our own strength. Let us move beyond being merely human to live as children of God.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Growing Up in Christ. II: Maturity in Christ—1 Corinthians 14:20

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature (I Corinthians 14:20).

jesus_blessing_the_children1In the preceding post, we introduced the subject of carnal Christianity and saw that Jesus calls us to grow into spiritual maturity. This is a life-long journey for us. We begin as babes in Christ; we grow up to become mature men and women of God. The previous article showed that many Christians remain mired in a state of prolonged spiritual infancy, seeking self-gratification instead of thinking and living like mature believers.

To truly achieve spiritual maturity, we must avoid the temptation to stay focused on ourselves and our desires. Many Christians fail to grow up because they bounce from church to church. When asked why they are leaving Church A to find a new congregation, they often complain that “I’m not being fed there.” This is usually a shallow attempt to sound spiritual, when you really mean, “I do not like what the pastor is saying or how the worship band plays. The church is not entertaining me.” (Remember in the preceding article, how infants need to be fed, but adults learn to feed others.)

There is a simple message for those who approach the Christian life like this: It’s time to grow up. For those who think the gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit are for personal amusement or to show off how spiritual and holy you are: It’s time to grow up. For those who approach their Christian walk as a way to build up your own ego, and not as an opportunity to advance the kingdom of God for Jesus’ glory: It’s time to grow up.

What are some of the marks of spiritual maturity? How do we know we have moved beyond spiritual infancy to maturity in Christ? A few questions will help us answer that question for ourselves:

  • Am I guided by Godly wisdom or the wisdom of the world? (See James 3:13–18.)
  • Am I motivated by the love of God or a desire to put myself first? (See 1 Corinthians 13.)
  • Am I guided by the Word of God or my own opinions? As I wrote several weeks ago, “One of the great marks of Christian spiritual maturity is this: Are we willing to accept biblical truth even if it goes against our personal preferences or biases?” When confronted by one of the “hard teachings” of the Bible, is the Word of God true, or do I know better than He does?
  • Are my values centered around Christ, or are they driven by the culture around me or my own desires?
  • Most importantly, do I make decisions seeking to build others up and draw them closer to Jesus, or am I driven by desires for self-gratification or self-glorification? Do I get excited when I see other people come to know Jesus or grow in their walk with Him? Or, do I try to do things that merely make me feel good? Am I most concerned that I look good to others? Who am I most trying to impress? Myself? God? The people in my church? Or, the unsaved people around me?

Spiritual growth and renewal of the mind is a process. It takes years for a human baby to mature from birth until he or she can effectively nurture his or her own children. Likewise, it may take years from the time you surrender your life to Christ until you achieve spiritual maturity. Indeed, full spiritual maturity—perfection—is a feature of the next life, not this world.

In Ephesians 4, St. Paul describes the purpose of the ministry. It is a good summary of any church’s ministry goals and a guide for measuring our own spiritual growth:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:11–16).

God is calling us to think like adults and live like mature men and women of God. What steps can you take to move closer to that goal today?

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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