An Encouraging Word For Those Who Still Struggle With Temptation and Sin.
Drunk again. Jeff had just returned from a fishing trip with some non-Christian friends. His wife took one disgusted look at his bleary eyes, slammed the front door, and locked him out of the house. Then she called me, their pastor. This wasn’t supposed to happen again, now that Jeff was a Christian!
Since his conversion, Jeff and his wife had been attending my church regularly. When I arrived at their home, Jeff was asleep in the back seat of his car. I drove him to a nearby motel, carried him to a room, and started getting him ready for bed. As I was brushing the sand off his feet, he awoke long enough to see me cleaning him up. “Oh, no!” he said with a groan and plunged his face into the pillow.
The next morning I went to see him. Jeff began to realize I hadn’t come to berate him for his behavior. He wanted to know why. “You don’t need any more punishment than what you’ve already given yourself,” I said. “Your conscience has been worked on by an expert – the Holy Spirit. What you need is to know God has forgiven you and today is the beginning of a whole new life for you.”
He stared at me in bewilderment. “I know I’m not what God wants me to be,” he said, “And I suspect I’m not what you want me to be, either. But I think you’ll both be glad to know you’ve taken all the fun out of sin for me!”
When we, like Jeff, reach the point in our Christian lives where we despise sin, and the fun has gone out of it, it’s a good indication we’ve started to mature spiritually. Why, then, when we despise sin, is it still so easy to sin? So often, it seems, there are areas of our lives which we thought were cleaned up and turned over to God, yet we still find ourselves giving in to temptation.
And then the guilt and questions come. “Why haven’t I changed more? Why do I still have such a problem with temptation? Why does my spiritual growth seem so slow?”
Most Christians, including leaders, don’t realize that spiritual maturity is a developmental process and requires time. They agree on what brings spiritual maturity: serious Bible study, obedience to God’s Word, a living relationship with God through prayer and worship, regularly sharing your faith, and involvement in a Bible group. But often even when all these things are done, growth seems minimal. By failing to address spiritual maturity as a developmental process, the church has been unable to solve what I believe is THE unspoken problem of most Christians – the agony of slow spiritual growth.
THE GREAT INVASION
Because of our lack of understanding about the process, we attempt to develop shortcuts and our spiritual growth suffers. Receiving Christ as our Savior is like an invasion, but the Christian life resembles the whole war. Let me illustrate.
During the early part of World War II, the United States and her allies developed a technique to regain the Pacific to protect Hawaii, Alaska, and California from an expected Japanese invasion. The islands important enough to regain were photographed in detail to locate the fortifications. Several areas of an island were targeted for rockets, bombs and strafing so that the exact place of invasion would not be revealed. This process weakened the fortifications.
Eventually, the United States Marines would invade a beach and secure a fragment of the island. Then they would radio the combat information center that the situation was well in hand. Even though they held only a tiny piece of the total island, the situation was well in hand. Never during the war in the Pacific were the Marines ever pushed off an island.
After the beachhead was secured, heavy equipment such as tanks and artillery was landed. When enough weapons were on the beach, the Marines would launch an offensive. Their intention was to bite off chunk after chunk of enemy-held territory and secure it, until the entire island was captured.
This is a picture of Christian conversion and the Christian life. The initial reception of Jesus Christ brings an invasion of the human personality by God Himself. John 1:12 says “But as many as received Him, to them gave He the right to become the children of God…” The beachhead God establishes is the beginning and is instantaneous at salvation. The battle for the island called “you” is the long-range process of maturing. Moving toward maturity involves the Word of God helping us expose and eradicate the garbage in our unconscious minds. This is the new territory that God desires to occupy through the power of his Holy Spirit.
SHORTCUTS TO MATURITY
Too often we try to shortcut the process. We know we ought to move toward spiritual maturity, but not many of us realize how long it takes to get there: In a world of instant coffee and fast foods, it seems logical that we can have instant spiritual maturity, too. But there are no real shortcuts. The shortcuts that appear to offer instant maturity are actually deceptive traps which can squelch true spiritual growth. Let’s look at some of these popular pitfalls.
1. The first shortcut is legalism.
Legalism measures spiritual maturity by the things we don’t do. If we avoid certain habits, activities, places or substances, we’re spiritually mature, godly individuals.
Rules for behavior may seem good at first – they show strong devotion and are easily measured. But rules can never change our hearts or conquer our thoughts and desires.
There are other problems with using legalistic “don’ts” to measure spiritual maturity. Legalism is a geographical concept. If we travel a few hundred miles, the rules change because they aren’t Scriptural absolutes.
Legalism can make us proud. It’s easy to know when we have “arrived” because we’ve kept all the rules, and if Christians around us aren’t following the rules as well as we are, we may feel spiritually superior. Legalistic people tend to look down on others.
Legalism can backfire and actually promote the kind of behavior it hopes to prevent. Lists of rules are designed to be “gotten around,” because of the devious nature of our minds. Solomon said, “Stolen water is sweet; and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Prov. 9:17). Following man-made rules is not the mark of Christian maturity.
2. Another shortcut is believing a Christian education produces maturity.
We tend to think that if enough Bible facts and theology can be crammed into a person’s skull, maturity will result.
For example, a seminary education usually takes three years to complete. Upon graduation it’s assumed a person is mature enough to lead a congregation spiritually, even though its members may be older and have known the Lord longer than the new pastor.
A concentrated education can actually create frustration and guilt because we know so much more than we can put into practice all at once. A cram course in Christian information is not the solution to slow spiritual growth. Education needs to be balanced with the ability to use that knowledge in our lives.
Solomon, who knew far more than he practiced, said, “Because in much wisdom is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain” (Eccles. 1:18).
3. The third shortcut is to seek a spiritual experience similar to one other Christians have had.
This shortcut infers that a special experience can solve our spiritual problems. At best, an experience will reveal a new area of our lives that needs to come under the Holy Spirit’s control. But it can never produce spiritual maturity.
The danger of pursuing a special experience is that it can lead us to base our faith – even the reality of our salvation – on our feelings instead of the never-changing Word of God. We become spiritual yo-yos, at the mercy of our subjective, ever-changing feelings and emotions.
Faith is rational. Faith is believing what God said in His Word in spite of what we feel. Paul said, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” Because sight is a sense perception, I like to paraphrase this verse: “For we walk by faith and not by feelings” (2 Cor. 5:7).
4. The church has promoted the final shortcut, which is to make new believers with bizarre backgrounds into overnight sensations on the evangelical testimony circuit.
Many of us have been pushed beyond our depth in the Christian life because we have the ability to colorfully tell our conversion story and the Gospel.
Most leaders who vault spiritual babies into prominence have sincere motives. However, few can handle heavy publicity when we are so spiritually immature. This shortcut has caused a high drop-out rate among new Christians. They couldn’t stand to participate in the hypocrisy being thrust on them – that of outwardly meeting expectations of maturity, while knowing that inside they were still babies. They saw their leaders’ high expectations and shattered under the pressure.
THE LONG BATTLE
Maturing is a process. A process suggests time, which is the missing element in the church’s understanding and teaching about spiritual maturity. Not taking this element, time, into account has led Christians to follow shortcuts and to experience excruciating frustration as continual sin problems stare them in the face.
For many years as a pastor, I told the story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion and indicated that he immediately went out and turned the world upside down for Jesus Christ. But I’ve learned this isn’t true.
One day as I was studying the Bible, I read two verses where Paul said that his life was an example of the unlimited patience of God (1 Tim. 1:15-16). Patience requires the passage of time. I was surprised. I’d always imagined that Paul, the spiritual giant who wrote most of our New Testament, was spiritually mature immediately after his conversion by some special act of God. But apparently my assumptions were wrong. I decided to examine Paul’s life and see how long it had taken him to arrive at the point of maturity where he could bear big responsibility.
I discovered that the time gap between Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and God’s call to a big responsibility was close to 18 years. He had some startling failures in his first efforts to share Jesus Christ. The audience tried to kill him after his first public preaching in Damascus and Jerusalem. Christian friends saved him from death. By his own admission in Galatians, Paul seasoned for 14 years in his home town of Tarsus. Add that to the three years he spent in the desert before he went to Tarsus and the year of training under Barnabas at Antioch following his conversion, and I come up with 18 years. Eighteen years passed after Paul’s conversion before the Holy Spirit commissioned him to be a missionary to the Gentiles. He was nearly 50 years old.
This doesn’t mean Paul wasn’t busy witnessing for Christ during those first 18 years as a Christian. But at least in the early years, his effectiveness as a communicator was not spectacular.
It was probably from his own personal experience that Paul said to Timothy, a young pastor, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily” (1 Tim. 5:22). Paul knew it had taken him years to reach the point of maturity which could bear responsibility.
Today, we consider a young man old enough to fight in a war if he’s 18. Perhaps Paul’s life shows us that it takes just as long to grow from a spiritual baby to a reasonably mature Christian. Even at the end of his life, Paul wrestled with sin. In Romans 7:18 he said, “I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned.”
Paul’s life can be a guide to us in the maturing process. It is painful to repeatedly face ourselves, to get in touch with our sinful ugliness and put it under the Holy Spirit’s domination. We’d like to permanently get rid of all the evil within us once and for all. But that doesn’t seem to be possible. Maturing is a long process. It takes time.
When you feel discouraged in your spiritual journey and maturity appears to be a distant mirage, take heart. The One who started the good work in your life can be trusted to bring it to completion in His time.
Dr. Lane Adams, Spirit!