How does one pursue a God-centered faith?
I read the final page of Madame Guyon’s autobiography, in awe at this great woman’s faith. She had known great struggle: an abusive husband, death of her children, personal disfigurement from smallpox, and 10 years in prison for her faith. Yet almost every page radiated a sense of wonder at God’s hand in her life. She penned her final words from the Bastille – one of the most inhumane prisons ever known to man:
The stones of my prison looked in my eyes like rubies; I esteemed them more than all the gaudy brilliances of a vain world. My heart was full of that joy which Thou givest to them who love Thee, in the midst of their greatest crosses.
I closed the book with a sense of melancholy. I had been a Christian for nearly 30 years, yet I could not imagine responding to such heart-wrenching trials as Madame Guyon did. I found myself wondering just how much spiritual growth had really taken place in my life.
Have you ever felt like that? Then be encouraged! A sense of frustration can be healthy – a sign that complacency isn’t deadening your spiritual life. Yet spiritual growth requires more than desire – we must learn to participate actively in God’s plan to make us more like Jesus.
Spiritual growth takes place in a cycle. The cycle is repeated over and over again as we grow and mature. The cycle is broken when our faith is focused on self instead of God. Let’s examine the cycle of growth and how we can move from self-centered to God-centered faith.
The Cycle of Christian Growth
This cycle of growth always begins with God pursuing us. Jesus said: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44). Before we were saved, God drew us to Himself. As His children, He never stops calling us to a deeper walk with Him.
When God calls, we must respond. David said: “When You said, ‘Seek My face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your face, O Lord, I shall seek’” (Psa. 27:8). God longs for us to cry out like Isaiah: “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa. 6:8). Or Mary: “May it be to me as you have said” (Lk. 1:38).
Once we answer God’s call, the discipline process begins. God puts His finger on an area of our life. Paul makes it clear that the right response goes beyond words. “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted” (Rom. 6:17). As we grow as disciples, God takes us from the warm comfort of His sheltering presence to the burning flame of His consuming fire.
At some point during this process, we discover our hearts are beginning to change. We are working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, and realize that God is at work within us both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13). We rejoice that something deep within is being transformed.
Once this happens, God pursues us anew, challenging us to deeper commitment. The cycle is one of continual growth, until one day we say with passion: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Hindered by Self-centered Faith
Growing closer to God is not always an easy process. Sometimes I do not respond well to His initiatives in my life. I seem to slip most often in the discipline arena. God pursues me and my heart responds, but when the hard work of discipline must begin, my desire wanes. It’s much more comfortable to stay where I am.
Why do we resist personal discipline? I believe we resist because we’ve embraced a self-centered faith without even knowing it. Self-centered faith relates to God based on what He can do for us. When I relate to God with self-centered faith, I am most concerned about receiving what I want. My relationship with God can become just a means to an end.
Self-centered faith either catapults us off the cycle of Christian growth or slowly drags us away from it. It prevents us from responding to God’s initiatives in our lives because we are more concerned with what we want than with hearing what God is saying to us.
None of us plans for this to happen. We long to live godly lives. How does our faith in the living God become saturated with self?
Every day our minds are bombarded by a culture that has no place for a Holy God. Its values inundate us in insidious ways, immersing us in a worldview that glorifies the individual and relegates God to the sidelines of life. What do I want? How do I feel? What do I need? Who am I? Our own needs and desires dominate our thinking.
Without realizing it, we begin to carry our culture in our hearts instead of bearing the cross of Christ. If we are to grow, we must look long and hard at the way we live and the choices we make. The world’s influence causes us to embrace several dangerous myths about what our Christian lives should look like.
MYTH 1 – A strong relationship with God should come easily.
We live in comfort. On any given day, if we want a loaf of bread, we grab the change from our pockets and run to the grocery store. Many of us have mistakenly assumed that living a life pleasing to God should be as painless and convenient as picking up fast food at the drive-thru. We want growth with minimal effort.
Yet Paul says that a life of obedience is not without high cost: “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:26-27).
Recently I saw a television special about miraculous changes in children with certain mental disorders. The commitment of one autistic child’s mother struck me. She moved to a clinic where for eight months, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, she worked with her son, retraining his brain. In the end, he was completely cured of autism and is now a healthy three-year-old boy.
God tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is not easy. We are spiritually autistic. It takes every fiber of our being exacting strenuous effort to retrain our minds. Change is possible – but it doesn’t come easily.
MYTH 2 – My faith must make me feel good.
Our culture says, “If it feels good, do it.” We shy away from anything that brings struggle or pain. Addiction runs rampant as we seek to escape the harsh realities of normal life. We believe we should feel good all the time. The church often inadvertently reinforces this lie. We preach pop psychology and call for vague commitments, assuring naive seekers that “something good is going to happen to you.”
While pages could be written about all the wonderful things we do have in Christ, Peter tells us that the Christian life is also about suffering and sacrifice. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). We are never promised that the Christian life will feel good. Yet, we lose our fervor when faith isn’t fun anymore.
MYTH 3 – I have to have it now.
We can have what we want when we want it. If we want a better car, we take out a loan. If our house seems too small, we buy a bigger one. Our culture of credit ensures that we will not have to wait on anything. Clothes, furniture, food, fun – whatever we want, we can have.
What we can see with our eyes and hold in our hands becomes the treasure we value most. We are satiated with material possessions, drunk with the giddy glee they produce. But Paul said: “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it … I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).
The Christian life is not about what we hold in our hands, but what eternity holds for us. The treasures with which the world entices us must fade from our vision as we look away from things that are seen, to things that are not seen. “For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). Still we believe we have to have it now.
MYTH 4 – God wants me (happy, healthy, wealthy, etc.).
Self-centered faith concerned with receiving things from God has crept into our theology as well. From this point of view, God exists to grant our every wish. He owes it to us.
Christianity is seen as the ticket to health, wealth, happiness, or anything we feel will enhance our lives. Some even justify blatant sin such as adultery or greed, concluding: “Surely God wants me happy … Surely He wants me healthy … Surely He wants me to have someone to love … Surely He wants me to succeed in business.”
But God does not call us to pursue happiness – He calls us to holiness. “But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:15-16).
We insist on physical comfort, while Jesus was beaten, bruised, and put to death. We pursue human adulation, yet Jesus was scorned by the pillars of society. We believe prosperity should be ours, yet the Son of Man had no place to lay His head. We demand that we have it all, but Jesus gave up everything.
Many of us have taken up our culture instead of our cross. We are stuck in endless patterns of self-centered faith. Those who seek to “die daily” are viewed as super-saints. They possess a spirituality most of us long for, but feel incapable of living day in and day out. But Christ espoused a God-centered faith. He calls every one of us to take up our cross. There are no exceptions. What then can we do?
One of the most challenging things God has asked of me in recent months is to simplify my lifestyle. I fought His gentle conviction for a long time because I measured my life in light of how others lived. My house is modest, my car older, I only buy clothes on sale – these were my justifications. But one day God spoke clearly to me that eternity held little sway in the way I used my material possessions. While I professed that all I had belonged to Him, my lifestyle revealed deep-seated self-centeredness.
Only God’s Holy Spirit can expose the cultural conditions that have shaped our lives. We must strip off the pretense of obedience, confess our sins, and reject self-serving lies.
Is God challenging you to spend more time in His presence through prayer and Bible study? Why do you resist? Because it isn’t easy to get out of a warm bed? Because it doesn’t always feel good?
Is God calling you to share your faith more boldly? Why do you resist? Because it is uncomfortable or someone might reject you, and you believe God wants you to feel good about yourself?
Is God directing you to venture out into ministry? Why do you resist? Because it is different? Scary? Does your comfort zone determine the degree to which you’ll obey? Do you try for a while, but drop out because it requires too much work?
Is God convicting you to give sacrificially? Why do you resist? Because a new sofa or pair of shoes makes you feel good? Because everyone you know is going on vacation, and surely God wants you to have fun, too, even at the risk of disobedience?
These are just some examples of cultural conditions ruling our spiritual lives. We must bring our hearts before God, asking Him to show us why we resist discipline, why we reject the cross He calls us to carry. His Holy Spirit will speak if we are ready to hear.
To change our lives, we must change our minds. The lies of our culture are so deeply rooted within us that we are incapable of recognizing them. We must read, study, meditate, memorize, and pray over passages on priorities until God’s light begins to tear the cultural cobwebs from our hearts.
Inner change did not take place in my life until I began to internalize God’s Word. I memorized Matt. 6:19-33 and meditated on it for months. Snatches of it attacked my thinking throughout … no one can serve two masters – he will love one and hate the other … don’t lay up treasures on earth … your heavenly Father knows what you need.
When God told me that I had enough clothes to last a long time, I was devastated. Because I grew up wearing hand-me-downs and thrift-store bargains, I had determined as a teenager to wear only the latest styles. All my life, I’ve enjoyed buying beautiful things to wear. Giving this up was only one of many things God called me to do. It has been a more difficult struggle than I would have guessed beforehand.
Bearing our cross in the power of the Holy Spirit, we must take action. Each of us can respond with steps of obedience, depending on what God is calling us to personally. The discipline process requires that we do something. As we are faithful in small steps, God will draw us deeper enabling us to obey in ways we never dreamed possible.
My battle for simplicity is ongoing. If left to myself, I would slowly slip into old habits. I am thankful for the people God has put in my life to probe, question, and encourage me. God never intended for us to walk alone in faith. We need relationships where we are honest about our struggles, where we will be held accountable to do what we have said we will do. We need those who will pray fervently for us, fighting spiritual battles on our behalf when we don’t know what to do.
If we begin to slip, we need those who know us best to pull us back into the cycle of growth, challenging us to renew our commitment to obedience. We need to do the same for others in the body of Christ.
by Tricia McCary Rhodes
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