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Lesson 1: Nurturing Our Spiritual and Emotional Growth

When God created us in His image, that image included our emotions. God gives us all things to enjoy, and healthy emotions bring color and zest to our lives. His Word says, "God . . . richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (1 Tim. 6:17). We're also told in Scripture to enjoy our work, our mates, our children, our good health, our material blessings, and our God. Without emotions, that would be impossible.

We enjoy God. We enjoy our families and our friends. We enjoy the opportunities God gives us to use our abilities to serve others. Life has purpose and fulfillment. Our spiritual life matures and deepens as we appreciate God's blessings.

When everything is working out—when we move into a new home, when our children finish college and find a good job, when they marry the right woman or man, when we have a good report from the doctor, when we actually have money left over at the end of the month—these occurrences make us happy. Our emotions respond and react to our physical circumstances.

Our emotions also react to our spiritual circumstances. When a person, overwhelmed with guilt, finds forgiveness by trusting in Jesus Christ, he or she feels cleansed and free. We often see this happen in women who have carried the guilt and pain of abortion for years; they tell us they have found emotional and spiritual healing through Christ's forgiveness, particularly within the context of a support group for abortion recovery. After immorality has destroyed their self-worth, I've seen women renounce their unhealthy lifestyles and find joy in obedience to the Lord.

But what if our emotions become a runaway train we can't control? Perhaps you often feel overwhelmed by your emotions and you see yourself in the following descriptions:

  • Have you experienced rejection or been treated unfairly, or are you struggling with emotional devastation from the past—were you molested or neglected?
  • Are you in a marriage that has soured and you feel hopeless?
  • Do others say you seem to "have it all together," but underneath the surface you are seething with anger and bitterness, unable to forgive things that were done to you?
  • Are you overwhelmed with guilt and regret for things
    you have done and you just can't forgive yourself?

When we face uncertain, painful, or tragic circumstances in life, we feel sorrow, confusion, anger, and pain. These emotions are also God-given; our Father uses these feelings to push us closer to Him. Just as physical pain tells us something is wrong with our bodies, so emotional pain may be God's way of telling us all is not well with our spiritual relationship with Him.1

When emotions become destructive, they can make us miserable, ruin our relationships with others, and stunt our spiritual growth. They build a solid wall between us and God, and between us and other people.

In our misery, we can't help but feel that God is somehow to blame for the tragic events of our past or the unhappiness of our present, and it's hard for us to trust a God who allows such tragedy to happen to His children. So we keep our distance from Him. We do just enough to keep our membership in His "club," but there's no sense of connection, no real enjoyment of God's presence, and not a lot of honest fellowship with other believers.

In the pages ahead, we'll see how these untempered, destructive emotions—selfishness, guilt, fear, worry, inability to forgive, anger, envy, rejection, greed, pride, feelings of inferiority, disappointment, discontentment, grief, and loneliness—can hinder our spiritual growth and keep us from having a close, trusting relationship with our Creator. By studying biblical characters who also endured these emotions and by applying God's holy Word, we'll also see how we can face these feelings, overcome these emotional obstacles, and proceed with strength and courage on the walk the Lord planned for us. And in the end, we'll gain a new appreciation for friendship and see how Christian friends can stimulate each other's emotional growth and emotional maturity.

Maybe you're thinking no one could ever understand the misery your emotions have led you to feel right now. Maybe you secretly think your situation is past healing. If so, please remember what the prophet Jeremiah prayed as he watched his world crumble before his eyes: "Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you" (Jer. 32:17 emphasis mine).

God's clearly stated purpose for all of His children is that we grow into spiritual maturity. He can take us around, over, or through any obstacle that has retarded our spiritual growth. Nothing from our past or in our present is too hard for Him to handle. God created our emotions, and He is able to stop their destructive effect on our lives. He can make our emotions work for us, giving us peace and joy as we learn to respond to our relationship with our Lord rather than react to our circumstances.

The task may seem great, but with God's help it's really not all that hard. In this book, we'll work through the challenge together, and by the time you've reached the epilogue, I hope you'll be well on your way to dealing effectively with any emotional obstacles that block your progress toward spiritual maturity. But here in the beginning, we'll "start small," moving toward the goal of spiritual maturity with baby steps . . .

Measuring Spiritual growth

To our great delight, our granddaughter Adrian visited us recently. Nearly a year ago when she was staying in our home, my husband had marked her height and the date on the doorframe in the kitchen. Leading her to that same mark on the doorway, I smiled at her and said, "Let's see how tall you are now!"

She stood straight and tall as I marked the molding with a pencil point, level with the top of her head. She had grown three inches! I hugged her and told her how wonderful it was that she was getting so big.

Meanwhile, our family has joyfully welcomed another baby. When my daughter Helene gave birth to Alexandra, we held the newborn in our arms and loved her lavishly. Although little Alexandra was a tiny baby, she was fully human. Nothing will ever be added to make her more so. At birth, all the potential of her life was wrapped up in a seven-pound-three-ounce bundle.

When Alexandra came home from the hospital, nothing was expected of her. Her parents took full responsibility for her. Mother's milk was her only source of physical nourishment, and for the first few months, Helene's entire life revolved around the needs of her infant daughter. As weeks went by, we saw the baby filling out, following us with her eyes, smiling real smiles. She was changing and maturing.

Both Adrian and Alexandra are growing, but there's a big difference in our expectations for each of them. Adrian is three years older. She can talk and understand. She knows what it means to obey and to disobey. She knows why she is being disciplined. She can eat by herself and dress herself. Alexandra will have a lot of growing to do before she catches up with Adrian. We love both the children equally, but each one is at a different level of growth.

There is an exact parallel between physical growth and spiritual growth—except perhaps that spiritual growth is less measurable. Spiritual growth cannot be demonstrated by marks on a doorframe. Still, there are many similarities. When we come to know Jesus Christ as our Savior, we receive a new nature, and we become God's children—spiritual infants. All the potential for our spiritual life is given to us at the moment we trust Christ, because the Holy Spirit comes to live within us, never to leave us.

Knowing God's Word

But that is only the beginning. From that time on, we are intended to mature in our spiritual lives. And the first food we need is milk: "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you tasted that the Lord is good" (1 Pet. 2:2).

We initially taste the goodness of the Lord when we realize He will forgive our sins and make us His children. We come to understand that He does these things, not because of anything good we have done, but solely because of His mercy and grace toward us. He loves us so much He came to earth Himself as a human being and took the punishment we deserve for our sins. Therefore, when we receive God's gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, we taste God's goodness.

But we are babies, and we need spiritual milk to grow. That milk is God's Word. We also need other essential "nutrients" to help us grow toward spiritual maturity. Those essentials are prayer, fellowship, and obedience.

When we say that God's Word is our "milk," we imply that someone must help us understand it and must feed it to us in a way that helps us assimilate it. We need nurturing and mentoring. Maybe you have not grown as you should have because you didn't have someone to help you when you were a spiritual baby. That happens more than it should. But it's not too late—you can still go on to spiritual maturity.

However, this "bottle-feeding" is not supposed to go on for a lifetime. As you grow in your understanding, you will become able to digest and assimilate the meat of God's Word on your own. You'll be able to study and apply the Scripture for yourself. God's goal for each of His children is maturity. Paul wrote, "Prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:12-13).

Prayer to Our Father

God's Word is the first essential for spiritual growth. But, as I said earlier, there are other necessities as well. Just as a human baby needs her mother, she also needs intimacy with her father. As new believers, we develop that intimacy with our heavenly Father through prayer. In fact, He has given us a wonderful promise when we pray to Him: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7).

God doesn't ask us to pray because He doesn't know our needs. He knows everything! We don't pray for His sake, but for ours. How else can we experience the reality of His love unless we tell Him our heartaches, needs, longings, and joys? How else can we feel His comfort and see His answers?

Have you ever prayed about a situation and felt God's presence and peace even though nothing had changed? Praying makes us spend time with our Father. Prayer makes us depend on Him. Prayer strengthens our faith. Prayer is essential to our spiritual growth. But there's more.

Fellowship with Other Believers

In addition to nourishing ourselves with God's Word and spending time in prayer, we also need the nourishment that comes from spending time with other believers. As

Paul wrote, "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another" (Heb. 10:24-25).

When Christians talk about fellowship, we don't simply mean attending church on Sunday morning. It isn't enough to hear the sermon and walk out with no connection to anyone. It's important to plan into our schedules regular times of meeting with other believers, to encourage and build each other up, to share love, laughter, pain, and sorrow.

I had lunch recently with a friend. We always enjoy being together, but this time we found that we were having similar problems in a particular relationship. We were able to express how confused we felt and how hurt. We were able to suggest an approach to each other that might work. After we parted, I had a great feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment. In fact, we both did. Just to be able to talk about things and encourage and challenge one another helped lift an emotional burden from each of us. Fellowship is vital to spiritual maturity. King Solomon wrote, "As iron sharpens iron, so one [person] sharpens another" (Prov. 27:27).

Obedience to God's Word

Fellowship is essential to spiritual maturity, and so is spiritual exercise. Just as a little baby must use its arms and legs and lift its head up to make its muscles develop and become stronger, spiritual growth requires exercise too.

Think of how a child learns to walk. At first it can only take one or two steps at a time. Then gradually, as its muscles become stronger, the child can walk effortlessly for the rest of its life. As we exercise the muscles of obedience to God's Word, we will find it easier to obey; sin loses its appeal, and our discernment increases. Scripture teaches us, "Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" (Heb. 5:13-14).

Failure to Thrive

If it were possible to measure your spiritual growth, how much do you think it would indicate you have grown in the last year or five years or ten? Some of us never seem to get past the infant stage. We accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Savior years ago, but our lives haven't been transformed all that much. We do a lot of the right things, but we don't feel a great connection with God. We are not overflowing with joy the way we thought we would be. There's no excitement or adventure in our spiritual journey. It's all rather ho-hum.

You may be thinking, "I'm not very mature. I don't feel close to God. Even when I pray I don't really expect an answer. I'm going through the motions, but it's not working. When I'm with other Christians I feel like a hypocrite."

I believe this happens, at least in part, due to another condition that parallels what happens in some babies. It's called "failure to thrive," and I think it can be a spiritual condition as well as a physical problem.

What keeps us from thriving? What stunts our spiritual lives and frustrates our development? Why are we disappointed in the Christian life? Why does God seem far away, not intimate or near?

Sometimes this failure to thrive is caused by emotional obstacles that have crippled us, given us a wrong concept of God, or made us devalue our worth. When it comes to emotional health, there are two extremes we must avoid. The first is ignoring or denying our feelings. "Stuffing" emotions causes them to smolder beneath the surface and affect our entire personalities.

On the other hand, we can't make our feelings the focus of our attention, as society today seems to have done with the motto, "If it feels good, do it." Our world has denied moral absolutes and traditional values, and instead the prevailing attitude seems to advocate doing whatever we feel like.

There are many examples of this "feel-good" attitude. For one thing, sex is viewed as nothing but an animal instinct, divorced from the protective framework of marriage and devoid of intimacy and commitment. I don't have to draw a picture of the harvest we are reaping as a result!

Other examples are plentiful: Selfishness is applauded and encouraged. Men and women walk out of marriages. Children are aborted, neglected, abused, and often left to raise themselves. Aged parents are abandoned, sometimes left helpless and starving, because their needs intrude on the self-centeredness of their adult children. Uncontrolled anger is exploding in random violence unparalleled in our history as a nation. All of this and more are the results of blindly following our feelings without respecting God-given moral restraints.

Principles of Emotional Health

Neither denial of our emotions nor blind obedience to them will result in well-developed personalities. We must go back to the Bible for some important facts and principles about how to handle our emotions in a godly manner,2 beginning with the idea that:

God has emotions and created us in His image with a similar emotional capacity.

God loves, is joyful, feels compassion, sorrow, and anger. Jesus Christ, as a human being, revealed to us the heart of God. He expressed sorrow, anger, frustration (Luke 9:41), disappointment and amazement (Luke 7:9), grief (John 12:39), and joy (Heb. 12:2). Our emotional makeup is one of the ways God's image is seen in us.

Next, we need to remember:

Human beings are physical, spiritual, and emotional unities.

We relate to our environment with our bodies, and we relate to God through our spirits. Our emotions are affected by both relationships. We simply cannot separate the different components of our natures into watertight compartments. "Just as we are able to experience physical pain or pleasure, so we have the capacity to experience emotional pain or pleasure."3

Emotions Powerfully Affect Our Lives

Imagine what it would be like to be intelligent, volitional beings without emotions. We'd be like computers, machines with no sensitivity, no ability to relate, no sorrows, and no joys. That doesn't sound very appealing to me! Our emotions were given not to control us but to enable us to enjoy life.

We often think we can solve our spiritual needs with a change in our physical circumstances. We take a little vacation. We go to the mall and buy a whole new wardrobe. For some, escape involves dependence on alcohol or other drugs—uppers and downers. For others, it's living for pleasure. But those remedies are just Band-Aids or temporary anesthetics. We are simply treating symptoms—and often making our circumstances even worse in the process. The truth is:

God wants to heal our emotions by working through our spirits rather than by adjusting our circumstances.

Escape never touches the root cause, which lies much deeper. God wants to heal the cause, not just relieve the symptoms of our emotional pain. And most importantly:

God wants our emotional stability to be based on our relationship with Him rather than on physical or chemical stimuli.

In the pages that follow, we'll study what the Bible says about God as our great Healer. We'll learn from biblical characters who experienced difficult emotions—selfishness, guilt, fear, worry, inability to forgive, anger, envy, rejection, greed, pride, feelings of inferiority, disappointment, discontentment, grief, and loneliness. We'll find the solution God offers to help us deal with these emotions effectively, and we'll study how to encourage each other. Finally, we will learn to do what we must do so that God can perform His miracles in the fragile network of our emotions as "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" (Ps. 147:3).

1 Erwin Lutzer, Managing Your Emotions (Chappaqua, N.Y.: Christian Herald Books, 1981), 17.

2 I'm grateful to Erwin Lutzer for some of the insights that follow, which I found in his book Managing Your Emotions, published in 1981 by Christian Herald Books.

3 Lutzer, Managing Your Emotions, 11.

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