To grow in integrity over a lifetime, we need to cultivate certain disciplines. For example, we must have consistent exposure to God’s Word through personal study and listening to preaching. We need to worship corporately and pray. But is competency in a variety of spiritual disciplines sufficient? Is the Christian life like a spiritual checklist: “I’ve learned how to share my faith, how to study my Bible, and how to be selfless in my relationship with my spouse”? What happens to our competencies in all these areas when we face new challenges? What happens to our morning prayer time when we have an infant who wakes at 5 AM every morning? How do we learn to love a new coworker who seems to be so different from the person he or she replaced? How do we adjust to these new circumstances?
As we discussed in our session on the Spirit, many Christians want to make the spiritual life a simple, step-by-step process. We live in a culture obsessed with quick fixes and instant gratification, and this obsession can easily affect the way we approach the spiritual life. But when we reflect on our growth in the Christian life, we recognize that growth in integrity rarely comes quickly or painlessly. Rather, God works in us over extended periods of time and through diverse circumstances. Each season provides new challenges and new resources for growth in integrity. How would you describe the season of life you are in right now? What unique opportunities for growth does this season provide?
Consider, for example, the apostle Paul’s experience in learning contentment. He claimed he had learned to be content “in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:11-12). In order to fully develop contentment, he had to learn how to be content in seasons when he had plenty as well as in seasons when he had little. Each of these seasons provided unique challenges and unique opportunities for growth.
In a time of want we may struggle with the temptation to envy others who are better off materially. Wanting more may be a basic desire to have adequate food, shelter, and coverings, or it could be the desire to change our social status. In a season of poverty we face a unique challenge for contentment.
In contrast, material excess presents us with a different challenge to contentment. We may be tempted to exceed the material success of others for the social distinction it can provide. Or we may become obsessed with seeking more material wealth in order to attain financial security for the future. In either case, we might lose a sense of contentment.
Though it may be possible for us to learn the virtue of contentment through experience in only one season of life, such as in a state of poverty, it develops more fully when learned in a variety of circumstances. When we apply this principle to the whole of our pursuit of biblical integrity, we realize that God constantly uses new life circumstances to develop in us a more complete image of Christ. In the many seasons of life, we will inevitably see times when we struggle in some area of our faith, even an area that we had previously considered a strength. This often occurs when we face an entirely new set of circumstances.
For instance, dealing with failure requires a consistent experience of God’s forgiveness and the perseverance to press on. Obviously, failure is not God’s desire for us, but He uses new circumstances, including failure, to develop our godly character.
That’s what happened to the apostle Peter. He experienced special revelation after Christ’s ascension that convinced him to take the gospel to the Gentiles (see Acts 10). He clearly understood that no dividing wall should stand between believing Jews and Gentiles. He even responded to the revelation by welcoming Gentiles into the young church (see Acts 11:118). However, when Peter was later in Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, he failed to live what he had learned. Some other Jewish believers came to town from Jerusalem, and Peter withdrew from Gentile believers in order to avoid offending these visitors (see Galatians 2:11-14).
Paul had to confront Peter. Peter had failed when he faced a new set of circumstances with a new form of temptation. Even though Peter had learned the principle that Jew and Gentile are one in Christ, he chose to live contrary to that principle when put under pressure. We cannot know from the text (Galatians 2) exactly what his reasoning was at that time, but he needed a brother to confront him, a fresh experience of the forgiveness of God, and an attitude of diligence to press on in his Christian walk.
God has us on a journey to transform our entire lives from how we are at our initial salvation to a life marked by Christian maturity. If we expect to learn to live out godly character the way we learn concepts in a book, we foolishly ignore the crucial truth that the fruit of the Spirit must develop over time amidst various life circumstances. By His grace, God works in us throughout the seasons of our lives, in successes and failures, teaching us crucial lessons about ourselves and about Himself, conforming us to the image of His Son.
Throughout our lives, we must (1) remain alert to the temptations that play into our weaknesses, (2) experience grace in Christ when we fail, and (3) maintain the attitude of a diligent learner, so that the Lord may continue to mold us into His image for the rest of our lives.