10. Flourishing in the Spirit
Purpose: The purpose of this reading is to help the disciple know better how to practice spirituality.
1. The disciple will understand what abundant life is.
2. The disciple will see more clearly the difference between spiritual maturity and walking in the Spirit.
3. The disciple will understand the results of walking in the Spirit.
4. The disciple will see the impact of walking in the Spirit on our lives psychologically.
During his days the godly will flourish; peace will prevail as long as the moon remains in the sky.
1. Mutual sharing, accountability, and prayer.
2. Discuss the reading
3. Discuss any new terms.
4. Share of Scripture memory.
Flourishing (In The Spirit)
"In his days may the righteous flourish."
Jim is a young, single youth minister. He is a graduate of a prestigious western university and became a Christian four years ago. His life is dedicated to self-discipline and rigorous efforts to achieve excellence in his walk with Christ.
The time and diligence Jim spends in Bible study and prayer far exceeds the devotional and Bible study habits of many much older and more mature men of God. Jim is sincere, dedicated, self-disciplined, and committed to the attainment of a life that is superior. Jim simply cannot—he must not fail in anything he does. He controls everything in his environment in order to ensure there will be no failure or imperfection.
Lately, Jim has been unable to sleep. He will lie awake and pray, questioning God about his life. Pleading for what is missing in his life characterizes his periods of nocturnal alertness. And a month ago, Jim began seeing a psychiatrist. What a contradiction this seems to be! We might think that Jim's efforts would produce a life superior to the average life characterized by mediocrity—that he would know and experience truly abundant life. But this has not been so, and Jim has finally decided to seek help from one who understands life even less clearly than he.
In many ways Beth's story is pretty much the same. She was the daughter of missionaries. She attended a Christian school to train for ministry and there met a young man also dedicated to God and ministry. Their lives were soon entwined in love, and after marriage, they began their ministry together. Before long God gave them a little son. But Beth more and more found the reality of her drab life little more than religious drudgery. And she ultimately abandoned her husband and son to find a better life. Her new life excludes her husband and son, and she has also ultimately excluded the Savior.
These stories can be told over and over again with only slight variations. Multitudes of people in the church are disillusioned and weighted down with efforts to live lives that produce little more than their experience prior to coming to Christ. And there can be little wonder when there is such inadequate teaching about spiritual life—life with the Holy Spirit in control.
Of course, no one in his right mind would undercut the need for self-discipline. The "fruit of the Spirit" includes self-discipline. But Jim saw self-control in the Christian life as something he could produce in himself—not something produced through divine means through the Holy Spirit's control. In fact, when presented with the idea that it was the Spirit that produced proper self-control, he confessed that this was new to him. Nor did he understand how to pursue this. Indeed, though sincerely committed, Jim had fallen into the trap of the Galatians—"...having begun by the Spirit" he was now trying to be perfected through the flesh, Galatians 3:3. This is legalism in its most common and subtle form—living life through self-effort and with some kind of external dynamic. And sadly, many Christians live their lives like Jim, with no superior bases or motivators.
For Beth, she just could not find the superiority in the Christian life. It simply involved too many sacrifices—too many things she could never reach. She married a wealthy man who could give her the things she had always hoped would make her life different and continues her now futile quest for satisfaction.
In many ways, the writings of this section become central to the whole concept of quality life. This superior life must, of course, begin with new life in Jesus. Unless we experience new birth, our hearts will forever remain in darkness. And quality life is most possible only with processes that lead to maturity. But new life and maturing do not bring quality life in themselves. This life is most possible only with the processes that lead to spirituality. New life and maturity, by themselves, do not result in quality life. I can positionally be in Christ—justified—and experiencing exceptional appropriation of my growing knowledge to everyday situations of pressure and resulting stress, and still not know quality life. I may yet be struggling as did Paul when he cried "wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?" This agonized cry of despair is one that will be experienced by anyone, believer or unbeliever alike, who seeks to pursue life in Christ through legalistic patterns. Only grace—inwardness—life controlled and motivated by the Holy Spirit will cause us to flourish, to experience life with genuine quality, to find relief from our "binding" self-efforts to walk with Christ.
Concepts of Spirituality
There is much confusion surrounding how to live the Christian life. Few areas are as unclear and fraught with controversy as Pneumatology—the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. This confusion runs the gamut of error. Some deny His existence—His personality. Others fear excesses and ignore His work in their lives. Some people build their entire doctrinal systems around certain aspects of His work and ministry in their lives and that of the church. Perhaps this is one reason so very little is understood and taught about the Holy Spirit's place in daily living and quality life.
During recent years I have directed questions about spirituality to groups of evangelical believers from many orientations, including my own particular denomination. Almost without exception, I have found little agreement in the responses that have come from people. The responses suggest little understanding of what represents true spirituality.
Inasmuch as most of the work I do as a psychotherapist is with those who profess relationship with God, I will often ask clients, "How does your practice of spirituality help you with this particular problem in your life?" Responses are often confused and vague. Sometimes they will be in the form of a question asking me what I mean. (I do believe the most effective tool in the hands of a Christian psychotherapist is in helping one learn to practice spirituality.)
Perhaps this lack of understanding explains why the Christian life is often no more effective than life apart from Christ. And because the expectations were higher to begin with, there is not only ineffectiveness, but disillusionment.
Spirituality and Maturity; How They Differ
Because of widespread confusion in understanding spirituality, certain comparisons need to be made. Understanding of this subject should be as clear as possible. And this understanding of differences can be one of the chief allies in thinking clearly about the issues that follow.
Maturity, you will remember, was discussed in the previous section. Let me again state that growth is a process that is experienced by Christians and non-Christians alike. We usually refer to emotional maturity when we talk of maturity in general. To the basic ever-present dimensions of maturity all humans experience, we add spiritual maturity. This includes unique aspects of maturation that are experienced by believers—those whose lives are positionally related to Jesus Christ. Both Christians and non-Christians can mature emotionally.
Such is not the case with spirituality. As used in this text, spirituality is experienced—practiced only by those who have life in Christ. Spirituality is the possibility in life of those indwelt by the Spirit of God...those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the practice of spirituality brings quality life now. Without life in the Spirit, our lives bear striking resemblance to life outside of Christ, except for the possession of eternal life.
Again, a comparison can be made between the relative nature of the maturation process, as opposed to the absolute nature of spirituality. By this, I mean simply that maturing is always a matter of being more or less mature. On the other hand, spirituality is all or nothing. I am either totally spiritual, or not spiritual at all. An additional elaboration might proceed in this way. In terms of my growth processes, I am somewhere along a line representing a constant movement from immaturity to maturity. I may be in spiritual infancy, childhood, young adulthood, or a spiritual senior citizen. However, in this process of growth, at a given moment, I am either totally carnal or totally spiritual. I am simply one or the other, not a little bit of each.
Yet another comparison can relate to health or non-wellness. Draw a parallel from life and physical maturation. At any point in my growth processes, I can be healthy or sick. And at irregular intervals, I move from one condition to the other. Or perhaps it is usually true of some that health persists, while with others they are characteristically ill and seldom enjoy the blessings of good health.
Jerry is an example of one who never quite seemed to be healthy spiritually. He had lived a rather meaningless life prior to his conversion. But the reality of eternal life gave him a future he had never dreamed possible. As time passed, he wondered about that life—he longed for that life! But it never seemed to be within his grasp. Actually the quality of his life changed little from how it was before he found Christ. But he did not belong to a church where the Scriptures were expounded with clarity and authority. Grace and its practical applications to everyday life were never mentioned. Jerry never has learned important Scriptural truth relating to pressure and stress, and he lives much of his life "under the pile". He tenaciously clings to his awareness of eternal life, but his life is characterized by immaturity and lack of quality.
As I remember Gwen, her life was very different from Jerry's. She illustrates one whose life is characteristically healthy. Her church provides systematic Bible studies for those who attend, and after she came to Christ she grew very quickly in her ability to handle the Scriptures. There was great awareness of the importance of a proper relationship with the Word of God and the necessity for obedience to the truths found therein. In such an atmosphere, one could grow rapidly, and this was true of Gwen. And there was another dimension that must be added. In a setting where the Scripture is honored, there is understanding of spiritual life. Gwen not only experienced rapid growth, but also experienced health and quality life as she learned to efficiently practice spirituality. This does not mean that her life ever reached perfection. She does fail the Lord from time to time. But she has learned to walk with efficiency! And this is characteristic of growth and health. These are typical of the truths we wish to illustrate in this session.
Non-Biblical Approaches to Spirituality
In spite of much writing on subjects related to spirituality, I have observed that there are rather common misconceptions when thinking of "what spirituality is." It would therefore seem helpful to approach this subject from both the position of what it is not, as well as what it is. Some concepts are so prevalent in the thinking of Christians that they seem to be transmitted through some sort of a "spiritual osmosis.” Perhaps it will help in clarifying our thinking if in our descriptions of spirituality and what it is, we can first eliminate or brush aside some of these long-festered thorns of misunderstanding.
Spirituality by Tabooism
One of the most common ways to view spirituality relates to tabooism. I am spiritual because of what I don't do. I become spiritual when I conform to a particular set of standards that fit the specific culture or subculture in which I live.
I well remember my experience as a young pastor in North Carolina—a Westerner, a swimmer—and the judgment leveled at me when I would go to the lake and swim. I never thought about the fact that I was "mixed-bathing," whatever that was! The local denominational ministerial association publicly labeled me as unspiritual. This was especially interesting to me inasmuch as my "chief investigator," another local pastor, would do his investigations of me from the shoreline while smoking a big black cigar. And at that point in time, I viewed spirituality to include refraining from the use of such. And so the church here and there has from time on end had its particular set of standards that must be adhered to tenaciously if one is to be spiritual, and geographic and cultural differences have played a large part in the particular makeup of that list.
So lists of taboos vary. Some include certain things and exclude others. Some are lengthy and laborious to conform to. None give any satisfaction as to what true spirituality really is. Nevertheless, multitudes of Christians see spirituality as just this—refraining from various behaviors dictated by others as wrong and sinful behavior. One can, however, exclude all kinds of behavior from his life and yet not be spiritual even one little bit. Those who are physically dead have every kind of behavior missing from their lives. Cemeteries are filled with people who do none of the things on these particular lists. But none qualify as spiritual because of their total inactivity.
On the other hand, we are not saying that various excluded things ought necessarily to be included in the behavior of Christians. I knew a man who wouldn't eat peanut butter and jelly on bread because he felt there was a prohibition in Scripture against "mixing seed." Too much of this delight would certainly contribute to weight gain which may be bad for one's health. Nicotine and cholesterol are related to heart disease, and alcohol is the most destructive of all drugs abused today. Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit Who lives within us, and we are not to defile them. But to be nonindulgent, a nonsmoker, and an abstainer really has little to do with whether or not I am spiritual. I am simply not spiritual if I practice tabooism.
Spirituality by Comparison
Let's consider another commonly practiced procedure involved by many in determining spirituality. This practice involves the flawed procedure of putting the spiritual binoculars on another Christian. I study him carefully. My personal scrutiny enables me to find defects or strengths in this person. I then make a very important and personally destructive judgment. I am more or less spiritual than this person. I have accomplished spirituality by "comparison".
Jerry has done this a good deal of his Christian life. And the practice has led him to despair. It seemed to him that so many others have been much more successful than he. He has a particular problem in his life that seems to drag him down continually. Others do not get as hostile as he, and try as he may, he is unable to control the aggressive outbursts that come with regularity. Looking around, he observes others who do not have this problem and he ultimately feels "less spiritual".
This is a common flaw in our thinking about spirituality. At some time in our lives we all put ourselves alongside of others and do some comparing. This is not the proper way to evaluate spirituality. The Apostle Paul has something to say about this:
"We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise." 2 Corinthians 10:12 NIV.
Does it sound familiar? Spirituality by comparison is deeply implanted into the thinking of all of us. We make statements like "He is a spiritual giant." This implies spirituality by comparison and the existence of spiritual pygmies. Or who has not said "he is really a spiritual person," again implying that there are those who are less spiritual? Yet these are only measures we make of each other and really have no actual or true bearing upon the subject of spirituality. Truly, spirituality by comparison is an erroneous approach to the issues involved in life in the Spirit. The practice of comparing needs to be banished to the rubbish heap of antiquated, non-Biblical concepts involved in the understanding of spirituality.
Spirituality by Withdrawal from the World
Nor is spirituality withdrawal from the real world which we see and in which we live. There are those who champion this position, feeling that the further we are removed from the mainstream of the movement of mankind, the more we move toward spirituality.
This is just another plank in the platform of teaching that presents spirituality as relative and related to certain specified neurotic forms of behavior. Withdrawal from the real world has nothing to do with spirituality, or unspiritual behavior. Movement among men in a lost world, on the other hand, was practiced by the Lord Jesus Himself. This resulted in His condemnation, of course. For this He was labeled a wine-bibber and a friend of publicans. And for those of us who follow Him, He has left us an example with regard to mingling with the world. We need to learn how to be "in the world," but not "of the world." We must move among publicans and sinners. We must learn to eat with sinners, accept them, allow ourselves to be touched by those whose lives are deeply stained and even wrecked by sin. A "spirituality" that turns us from functioning in the world, is really no spirituality at all. "Lifestyle" evangelism requires that we move in the world with those who are less fortunate than we who know God. We do not become spiritual when we withdraw and have little or nothing to do with the world. Should we love it? Of course not. John makes this clear in 1 John 2:15. But neither can I withdraw and be right.
Spirituality by Prayer
And finally, I will mention the negative which of all things discussed is most difficult. So deeply is this entrenched in our thinking about spirituality that rooting it out and discarding it is certain to be an impossibility.
History is replete with men and women who have been given to prayer and who have left examples of intercession and communion that have challenged us all. James, known as "old camel knees" from the days of early Christianity has been upheld as an example of one who had a superior prayer life. But James was never more spiritual because he prayed. "Praying" Hyde is a more contemporary example, but neither was he spiritual because of his prayer life. David Brainard spent hours before the altar of God as he poured out his life for the people of his parish. But alas, this didn't make him more spiritual. And then there was George, my roommate in seminary whom I would find asleep on his knees in the corner when I would wake up in the morning. George wanted "more of God" (as if God could be obtained in pieces through the agony of long prayers). He was certainly sincere. I don't know anyone I have ever known who was so in earnest as George. He longed for more of what he had—to be "more spiritual". And he persisted until finally his seeking led him into cultish spiritist beliefs that are cross-current to Christianity itself. James, Praying Hyde, David Brainard and George, though their lives seemed to have been given to prayer, were not spiritual because of this. If these men were spiritual, it was because they knew life, and experienced life in the Spirit. The practice of Biblical spirituality can be aided by prayer, but praying does not make one spiritual.
What Is Biblical Spirituality?
Having spent time focusing on incorrect notions related to spirituality, we'll now consider some positive statements that will enable our understanding to be more clear.
A good way to begin is to state that just as Christianity is relationship with Jesus Christ, so spirituality is relationship with the Holy Spirit. There is no special blessing necessary, no unique baptism restricted to a privileged few, but simply relationship with the Holy Spirit. And it shouldn't be surprising to understand that this is the purpose for our being Christians—to be controlled by the Holy Spirit. For this I have been left in this world.
Three New Testament passages best illustrate spirituality from a Biblical standpoint. The first of these is Ephesians 5:18, which says, "be filled with the Spirit." This is a command that indicates the need for continual filling. The filling of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience that we never need give attention to again. The action of the verb translated "filled" suggests that I need to be continually filled...I need to practice spirituality. For this reason I use the term "practice spirituality", which we need to understand and incorporate into our style of Christian living in this world. The same implications or suggestions can be derived from the following verses in which "spirituality" is further described. The second verse is found in Romans 8:14: "For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God." Obviously one who is "filled with the Spirit" will also be led by the Spirit. This is true of all who practice spirituality. A third passage is found in Galatians 5:16: "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh." Each of these Biblical references is related to the practice of spirituality and say basically the same thing.
Spirituality, in the teaching of these three verses, speaks of my life being so adjusted to the inner presence of the Holy Spirit, and His control, that His filling, leading, and energizing me becomes a natural condition of my life. It is learning to live in ways that will enable His control to be constant.
The Holy Spirit indwells every believer: Romans 8:9, "...if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him." John 14:16, "I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever." And the explicit purpose of this indwelling is to control us. This is why I was brought to life—why He works in me and controls me. I am an epistle in the world "known and read of all men." It is important that as the Holy Spirit is in me, I learn to live my life in a way that enhances His control of me so I can fulfill my purpose in the world.
If I correctly refer to one as being "spiritual," therefore, I am describing one who has relationship with the Holy Spirit as God has meant that relationship to be. This means that one is meeting the criteria for the Holy Spirit's control of his life. And because these criteria are met, he is filled with the Spirit, walking in the Spirit, and led of the Spirit. This person has learned to live in concert with the desires of the Holy Spirit for the management of his life.
The Biblical Basis for Spirituality--the Kenosis
The truths that form the basis for an understanding of spirituality are found in the central doctrine of the kenosis. This teaching is expounded upon in Philippians 2:5-8:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself taking the form of a bond- servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
This passage is commonly made practical through emphasizing the need to control our thinking, without the central and most important aspects of this truth being made practical in our lives. We are to imitate the example of Jesus in the kenosis. But before we can do this, we must understand our Lord's example as set forth in this particular Scripture.
As we seek to do this, consider Jesus before His Incarnation! Just Who was this unusual Person who came from Nazareth proclaiming the Gospel, and in three short years left His mark upon the world for the rest of time? He was God the Son—equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit! This One possessed all of the attributes of deity and exercised them independently from all eternity.
Indeed, the writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was the active agent in the creation of the universe, Hebrews 1:2. John tells us in his Gospel that "Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made," John 1:3. Yet this One, so full of glory, so radiant, possessing attributes only possessed by deity and exercised independently from other members of the Godhead, did not consider such glory and majesty something He had to retain. We behold in wonder the Incarnation—He was God Himself conceived by the Holy Spirit, taking the form of human beings. We marvel that One Who was yet omnipresent could be compressed into the body of a tiny babe—filling all space, yet confined in a body of a mortal man of flesh, bones and blood.
But the greatest marvel was really not this. We look more carefully at the Incarnation and the teaching of Philippians 2 and we begin to enter an understanding of a phenomenon that defies our logic. Jesus was willing to become a servant—a servant of course to men, but a servant also to another Member of the Godhead. He surrendered Himself to the absolute control of the Holy Spirit. He would not exercise His divine attributes apart from the Holy Spirit's control. As He walked among and mingled with the wrecks of mankind, He felt their frustrations, anguish, and broken-heartedness. And although He ministered to them, He never once called upon His ability as God to turn their suffering into joy apart from His submission to the Holy Spirit. Hear Him as He speaks in Luke 11:20, "But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." In this instance the "finger of God" is a type of the Holy Spirit. Give ear to Him as He says in John 5:19, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself..." And again in John 5:30, "I can do nothing on My own initiative." These are words that speak of Christ's complete submission to the Holy Spirit during His earthly sojourn. And it is in this way we who are mortal men need to imitate Him. Indeed, it is in this manner alone we can imitate Him.
We therefore see a new way to live: to have the mind of Christ in surrendering to the control of One Who longs to be in our lives with significance. Having the mind of Christ is to learn to live without exercising my own independence—my own initiative. I let the mind of Christ be mine when I live my life in concert with His presence and control. Learning how to do this is learning to practice spirituality...to experience "life in the Spirit"...to flourish as a Christian.
This way of life is contrary to popular psychological thinking in many ways, but not all ways. Secular psychology and psychiatry tells us we need to be independent...to function apart from the whims and expectations of others. "Question authority" was a popular phrase found on bumper stickers. This speaks of independence. But quality life as a Christian does not come from "bumper sticker" theology. Nor does it come from a completely dependent position that openly welcomes neurosis and immaturity.
Quality life rises from the matrix of known union with the Holy Spirit and a voluntary lifestyle that permits Him, through an act of my will, to control me and my choices every moment of every day. And this way of life permits emotional health at its highest level in each one who practices spirituality.
Spirituality and Emotional Health
Books on general psychological subjects say nothing about the need to integrate practical concepts of the "kenosis" into my life if I am to experience quality life. Yet there are abundant descriptions of the "good life." These books contain much information on how one must live in order to experience adequate mental health.
This author contends that of all systems available to mankind today, the practice of spirituality as a lifestyle is the most helpful of those related to mental health. I will elaborate on this in the following discussion.
It seems "other-directed" kinds of behavior are truly negative in relation to positive emotional health. Yet there is an almost universal movement in Christian circles to live up to the expectations of others. And many of these expectations are based upon sick motivations to manipulate others, or to conform to extra-Biblical standards of behavior preempted by teachings that come from "who knows where?" The practice of spirituality enables one to know inner-directed life as the Holy Spirit and my human spirit work in concert, and my direction and decision-making come from within.
There is also much written in secular writings on "doing as I feel." A few years ago, I sat at a breakfast table with a group of psychologists on the final day of a seminar we were attending in Berkeley, California. One person at the table needed to eat his breakfast hurriedly so he could catch a flight home. But his breakfast was late in coming. He was somewhat openly agitated and complained about the service. Then, looking toward the kitchen, he somehow saw his breakfast waiting to be picked up. He left the table to retrieve his belated meal, and coming back to the table began to hurriedly devour it. The little waitress, probably no older than 18, and the chef saw what had transpired. The girl came back to the table and began to speak saying, "Sir, the chef..." With a burst of anger, the psychologist lashed out at her and said, "Tell the chef to go to hell!" The young girl recoiled and with haste left the table, at which point the psychologist glowed with pleasure and said, "I could not have done that a year ago." This man was walking down the road that says "do and say what you please" believing it would lead to health. I could not help but feel some of the anguish felt by the young lady who became the brunt of the unleashed hostility of this man who was a representative of my "helping" profession. I experienced some personal shame that day!
This man was a victim of thinking that says "health is doing as you please." Yet this statement is not entirely wrong. There is health in being real in expressing what I feel. The problem is simply that if one does not know Jesus Christ, if one is not indwelt and controlled by the Holy Spirit, this is a very hurtful and unhealthy practice. On the other hand, when the Spirit of God in my life is controlling me, congruence is a means to move me toward health. Doing and saying what I feel is safe when I practice spirituality. To state otherwise is to deny the ability of redemptive grace to have feelings under its transforming and cleansing efficacy. The Holy Spirit is able to exercise control over my inner life and help me desire to do and feel what is consistent with the will of the Father, and I can be real. The Holy Spirit exercises control over my attitudes, words and desires—and I can be me! And as I learn to live this way, I develop and mature most efficiently and in the direction of divine purposes for my life. I can achieve optimum mental health.
A third area involving spirituality and mental health is that which relates to interpersonal relationships. There will be an enlargement of this subject later in this session. Suffice it to say now that most problems in mental health are somehow related to the quality of the interpersonal relationships in my specific social milieu. When I imitate the example of Jesus in the kenosis—the emptying of Himself of His independent use of His attributes—when I allow the Holy Spirit to control my life and practice life with Him in control, the result will be such that my interpersonal relationships will be enhanced and my mental health will experience growth in positive directions. Therefore, I cannot find a lifestyle more compatible with mental health than that experienced in the practice of spirituality—learning to live my life controlled by the Holy Spirit.
In summary, we have seen that spirituality is absolutely necessary for abundant life as a believer. It is an aspect of our spiritual experience quite different from maturity, although maturity aids in the practice of spirituality. It is simply living my life in a way that facilitates the control of the Holy Spirit Who lives within me, and it is the result of that control. It is firmly based in the humbling of Christ when He came to earth—His complete surrender to the Holy Spirit and His control. And there is in spirituality a context for the development of superior mental health and life.
How to Practice Spirituality
Perhaps the most basic thing in the practice of spirituality is learning how to choose to not sin. If I could learn this, practicing spirituality would be done with ease. Sin is, of course, the major problem and chief hindrance in learning to live life controlled by the Spirit of God. Though redeemed by the blood of Christ through grace, I yet have a bent to sin. I can choose to disobey, to transgress the commandments of my Father. And I do...and choices hinder my practice of walking in the Spirit. Indeed, sinning leaves me carnal. I take control of my life. I am now in charge and in control and find myself in the same place I was in prior to coming to Christ (as far as living my life is concerned). I am running my own life! And this is antithetical to spirituality.
The effects of choosing to not sin are always positive! Not only do I grow stronger in my walk. I help accelerate my growth to maturity because I develop a lifestyle that is consistent with the Father's will. And I demonstrate my commitment to God's will and purposes for my life. I exercise faith and confidence in His directives through my obedience. Above all else, I do not break the Holy Spirit's control of my life. He continues to control me. Commitment to obedience is not only a demonstration of love for God, John 14:21, but it is also a lifestyle that assures efficient practice of spirituality. If one is going to be compulsive about any area of life, obedience to God is the area that can best be involved in compulsive behavior. I need to see its importance, learn ways to be more consistently obedient, and find joy in always doing God's will.
Daniel is an example of dedicated obedience. He perhaps appears to be somewhat compulsive about many things in his life, and did his best to always please Jehovah of Israel. And at any possible inference that might be construed as disobedience, he absolutely turned from it! It seems that Daniel's dedication to be always obedient to the Father might be something worth imitating if we are truly interested in practicing spirituality. When I am obedient, His control is natural. I choose obedience, and He exercises unbroken control. And my life moves in the direction of His will for me.
As I have stated, sin interferes with the Holy Spirit's control of my life. It is therefore obvious that I must learn to recognize sin—know what it is. I need to recognize behaviors that are apart from the will of God, to know what is right and wrong. This, of course, makes my ability to make right choices more efficient. Knowing the Scripture is the primary endeavor we can be committed to that gives us knowledge of what sin is. This understanding is taught in the Bible, both by direct statement and through principle. But it seems that one way of looking at sins that becomes helpful in the practice of spirituality is to see them as violations of direct commands in Scripture, and as behavior that contradicts the Holy Spirit's internal control—His leadership of my life. Two passages of Scripture deal with these two ways of sinning.
I am not to grieve the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 4:30, "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption."
This passage is couched in the midst of several statements that are explicit and ring with clarity. These include "laying aside the old self," "being renewed in the spirit of your mind," "putting on the new self," "laying aside falsehood, speaking truth," "being angry and not sinning." Also included are "not giving the devil an opportunity," "no longer stealing,,” "letting no unwholesome word proceed from my mouth," and other sins and misuses of the tongue, with malice. And then there is the commandment to be kind to each other, tenderhearted and forgiving.
These and other commandments are clearly given to us who are believers under grace. We are not without commandments, and the Holy Spirit is dependent upon our careful adherence to the commands of the Scripture if He is to control us. When we disobey or ignore what He has said in the Scriptures, He is grieved. What a descriptive word! One cannot grieve someone who does not love him. I am loved by the Spirit of God Who indwells me and seeks to control me. When I disobey a known command, He is grieved. And His control is broken, of course. I can develop a consciousness of the Personality and an awareness of Who is in me to control me, and seek not to grieve the Holy Spirit. And this, of course, puts me in a place of learning to love Him more deeply as discussed in the previous section involved with maturity.
The second basic way I sin is to quench the Spirit, 1 Thessalonians 5:19. "Do not quench the Spirit." Quenching the Spirit seems to be a way of sinning, broadly defined, which simply involves not following the inner leadership provided by the Holy Spirit. Leadership, in this sense, is that which is experienced on a day-by-day basis in situations which involve my interaction with my environment. For instance, I may not feel right about a certain situation. Can I not recognize this feeling as being from God the Holy Spirit, working through my cognitive abilities? There may be no specific passage of Scripture involved in what I am experiencing—I just do not feel right about it.
Years ago, I worked for Youth for Christ in a small North Carolina town. My coworker was a former master sergeant who still perceived himself in the role of commander. He threw his weight around regularly. He and I were on the platform during the preaching one Saturday evening, when a young sailor in uniform came into the service. During the invitation, my former sergeant friend began to push me to speak to this young sailor about his relation- ship with God. I resisted this for a while—I didn't feel led to do that at all. But finally, there was so much pressure put on me by my friend, that I finally left my seat and proceeded to go down into the congregation where I could talk with the sailor. I had only spoken a few words when this young man turned around and hurriedly left. He was obviously embarrassed and felt "put on the spot." And I was left standing with the proverbial "egg on my face." I was embarrassed, too. I should have trusted my feelings...the Holy Spirit telling me I should not do what I had done.
Again, think of Philip who was traveling on the road to Gaza when a court official of Candace, queen of Ethiopia, came by. He was reading the book of Isaiah while traveling. Listen to the account (Acts 8:29-31:) The Spirit told Philip, "Go up and join this chariot." Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" and he said, “Well how could I unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
This account certainly speaks of the inner direction of Philip by the Holy Spirit, apart from specific Scripture. This was inner movement by the Holy Spirit that could have been quenched by Philip, had he not been willing to follow what he felt within himself. The two illustrations are only two examples of a multitude of ways we can quench the Spirit. This is sin that involves not following the inner direction that the Holy Spirit provides as He controls us. Such leadership involves our being in subjection to Him. Our following perfectly is perhaps more difficult because most of us don't understand our feelings very well. This is, nevertheless, an area in which we sin and we need to be aware of it so that we will choose to be obedient!
The area of "quenching the Spirit" is the area in which sins of omission are perhaps most frequently committed. James 4:17 says: “To one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
This does not involve violating a commandment. Rather, it is choosing not to do something I feel is right for me. It seems, therefore, that feelings are a factor involved in sinning or not sinning, and that as I come to understand my inner life more clearly, and as I integrate Scripture into my life, I can become more efficient in recognizing sin and choosing to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit on a moment-by-moment basis.
Of course, the area of feelings is one that many have great difficulty with. As a young pastor, I learned that I shouldn't "fly by the seat of my pants", or trust my feelings. That advice is both good and bad. Certainly my salvation is based on more than "shifting feelings," more than upon how I happen to feel on a particular day. But there is an inner awareness that comes from the Holy Spirit's control that is followed in practice by most Christians. We tend to feel that what we feel about something is important. I will say, "I just don't feel good about that," "I really want to do this," or "this sort of thing is not consistent with my ultimate goals for life." What more is this than following the direction of the Holy Spirit in my life, if I am actively concerned about and practicing spirituality?
Therefore, in summary, it's important that I learn not to sin...to choose not to follow the dictates of my flesh or the temptations motivated by intelligence not related to the Father. Ways to personally become more efficient in choosing obedience when tempted will be discussed in another part of this reading. It is enough to say that God doesn't ask us to be obedient and leave us short on resources that will enable us to obey Him.
But obedience may yet be a problem. I find it difficult to choose to be obedient if a certain behavior has an abundance of positive reinforcement associated with it, or if its long-ranged value is difficult for me to see at the moment. God has given us resources, however, and in the next part of this session some of these will be elaborated.
Learning how to be obedient—to say no when situations that may involve sin occur—is something that is ultimately important in the practice of spirituality. The Father has provided resources for me whereby I can resist temptation from both my "flesh" and the intelligentsia of the present world system.
When I sin, I take control of my life and become a "man of the flesh", or carnal! At this point, I am no longer spiritual. "Practicing" spirituality involves learning to say no to sin (which I'll not do with absolute perfection). It also involves confessing "on the run" confessing when I realize I have sinned. Because of the tendencies yet in me—even though I've been regenerated—I can find myself in sin almost without thinking. But there are Biblical admonitions that can assist me in making choices and recognizing more efficiently certain entrapments or times of weakness when I may be more susceptible to such temptations.
The first helpful principle is suggested in Ephesians 4:27:
"And do not give the devil an opportunity."
The teaching of this passage is explicit and crucial for the practice of spirituality. There are ways we can arrange our lives that make obedience easier for us. Obviously all sin is not the result of Satan's direct efforts to entrap us. Temptation will sometimes result from a casual involvement with my environment. I will be in a particular place or involved in a particular way with something that will give the devil an opportunity to bring temptation into my life and lead me into sin.
Mary has a drinking problem. She has even considered committing herself to a hospital treatment program for alcoholism. She seems to do fine when she is not with those who drink. Recently she came to know the Lord personally. Her new life has given her hope for ultimately overcoming this problem. But she senses her fragile hold on her ability to reject this deceitful panacea. Mary would be a fool to put herself back into a position where her craving for alcohol might become so strong that she would again be overwhelmed by its power. And she would lose the freedom she has experienced in Christ. To return to such a place would be "giving place to the devil!” This illustration could vary and include all kinds of situations involving temptation. It is sufficient to say that we are told to be ever so careful and "give no opportunity" to our enemy. This will take commitment on my part.
Commitment to the whole idea of obedience is essential for me to effectively choose to not sin. If spirituality is not a priority in my life--my supreme and ultimate goal—I'm not going to successfully live with the Holy Spirit controlling my life. There is no "laissez-faire" way to live with Him in control. This brings quality life. His yoke is easy—His burden light. But there is no magical way-—no special baptism or ecstatic experience—that will keep me from carnality. If I'm not committed to the practice of obedience, I'm going to be carnal. There is no need to read any further. I may as well accept the reality that my life is going to continue as is.
The Whole Armor of God
When I consider the sources of temptation, I find that most generally, Satan and his agents are considered the culprits. I certainly will not deny that Satan can be actively involved in situations involving my temptations—that he loves to kick me when I'm down! As discussed in a previous section in this text, he will take advantage of my weak moments and utilize situations in my environment to cause me to consider—even to want—to sin. And for such situations involving temptation from an intelligent source, I must put on the whole armor of God, Ephesians 6:13-18:
"Therefore take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the Gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. With all prayer and petition, pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints.”
Paul's direction concerning these provisions of armor need to be considered carefully. The Father has given us instructions concerning how we can successfully resist Satan's attempts to lead us into sin. I want to elaborate on these provisions and say that utilizing them is one of the chief ways we learn to choose not to sin.
Let us observe that the apostle refers to these items as the "full armor of God." These are provisions divinely determined and are just what we need to resist the devil's schemes. They constitute the "full armor of God." The implication is that this full armor is enough. It is complete and sufficient. When I utilize these pieces of armor, I can resist Satan's temptation. With such a promise as this, we might expect people everywhere to be excited and clamoring to put into use this protective armor. Such is probably not the case, however. We are quick to blame the devil when we sin, but slow to capture for our own use those things divinely provided in order to resist him.
So let's look closely at the pieces of equipment that constitute our armor—our first line of defense. The first piece of armor is truth. The apostle says, "Stand firm then, having girded your loins with truth” (with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, NIV)" In the imagery of this writer, truth is basic in the whole schema of defense. And this seems to be consistent with the entire body of Scripture. The Roman warrior of Paul's day had a basic sash or strap (belt) to which all of his armor was attached. One way to relieve the goliath of his armor and leave him totally vulnerable was to cut the sash. This would cause the rest of the armor to be useless and the fighter would be totally exposed—without armor and ability to defend himself. The apostle is apparently thinking of this when he mentions truth. How is this practical? Truth is the characteristic that is most descriptive of the Father. We are most God-like when we practice truth. And without truth, our entire system of defense crumbles and falls into a heap. How can I most strongly resist the wiles of the evil one? I can by being characterized by truth and not being entrapped in untruths—lies, or even little "white lies." Otherwise all other pieces of my armor will be nullified. I will fall ready victim to Satan's assaults.
The "breastplate of righteousness" is also a crucial item in my ability to ward off temptation. I am instructed to "put on the breastplate of righteousness". This is something I must do. How do I put this on? What is this piece of armor? Perhaps the best understanding is found in the reality of what a breastplate covers and what righteousness is. If I have a covering over my breast, my heart is covered. It seems that this piece of warrior's equipment involves my learning how to protect or guard my heart.
We have already discussed in a previous section how we are to give no opportunity to Satan to tempt us—to keep ourselves from any environmental situation that might be conducive to temptation. Somewhat the same idea is involved in putting on the "breastplate of righteousness." It is important that I guard my heart. The great concern for my heart is important. This speaks of that which is central and preeminent in my life. Putting on the "breastplate of righteousness"—guarding my heart—keeps the yearnings of the seat of my emotions consistent with my calling and enables me to practice spirituality more efficiently.
It would be good at this point to reemphasize the importance of having one's goals clearly in mind . There is much in this world that glitters and is attractive. It is easy to be led astray. The Christian who has not carefully thought through his goals, and what is really important to him, will have more difficulty with this than one who is firmly committed to goals that glorify Christ.
The third piece of armor discussed is that which has to do with our feet. "And having shod your feet with the preparation of the Gospel of peace." This seems to relate to letting everyone, wherever I am, know exactly where I stand. This doesn't mean indiscriminate witnessing, but rather that I am not a muffled witness. When it is appropriate and natural for me to speak, I will speak.
Silence never becomes a way of life for me, ultimately causing me to be more susceptible to temptation. There is just something about maintaining silence when I could speak that causes me to cease to be the "salt" of the earth. It is important that I be ready always to give an answer to any man who asks me a reason for the hope that is in me. This is having shod our feet with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace" and it will help keep us from the "evil one."
The "shield of faith" is an additional significant piece of armor. This doesn't mean faith on its own, or faith standing alone. Faith must be grounded in the proper person to produce anything significant. Nor does it seem that a significant amount of faith is crucial. It is not "how much faith I have" but who is the object of my faith. That is crucial! In whom do I believe? What do I believe? The life that I now have in Jesus is life that I entered by grace through faith. In the same way, I must live my new life through the constant exercise of faith in the Lord Jesus and His Word. And as I practice this, the shield of faith will extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. Faith enters when I confess sin. Faith is a factor when I choose to be obedient. Faith enters my prayer life, if it is to be successful. Faith enables me to enter into rest. Therefore, the shield of faith becomes a significant way to defend against temptation involving Satan. It literally is the means by which I live my life, and without which I surely will fail.
The "helmet of salvation" is the fifth piece of armor. If I am to be successful in my resistance of the devil, my thinking needs to be right. The helmet of salvation guards my thinking. I am to view everything that transpires in my environment through the grid of my personal experience of salvation. For example, I was tempted to withhold the extra change given me by my grocer last Saturday night. After all, he would never know it, and probably—indeed assuredly—I've been overcharged or shortchanged many times. This will only help make up for some of those times. That approach, of course, is rationalization. Keeping the change when I know it's too much is nothing but sin. I am rationalizing a wrong-doing. But rather than such rationalization, I "put on the helmet of salvation." I see my proposed decision to keep the money within the context of my experience with the Father. I am a Christian, and this is wrong. It is inconsistent with my experience with God. I have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, remembering who I am is a way of defending against Satan. The breastplate of righteousness guards my heart, and the helmet of salvation guards my thinking.
And finally, there is the "sword of the Spirit", which is the Word of God. Perhaps this is the least ambiguous of all pieces of armor. What I do with the Scripture in my personal life will greatly influence my ability to resist temptations. A clear example of this is given us by the Lord Himself when He was tempted. Because He had no sin in Him, His temptation could only be from Satan himself. It is interesting to see that in response to each temptation, the Lord Jesus quoted Scripture and threw it into the face of the tempter. Although He was God the Son, He relied upon the sword of the Spirit—the Old Testament Scriptures—to defeat or successfully resist the enemy. There was no logic of His own, although He could have thought circles around Satan if He had wished to—He could have argued him into the ground. The Word of God is a sharp two-edged sword that vanquishes the enemy.
These are specific helps in our battle with the wicked one. When I am tempted by him, I will find these means of resisting within my grasp. I am to wear them as armor. It's not that I evaluate the source of temptation and decide to put on a particular piece of armor when I conclude that my temptation is from the devil. Rather, I put them on and wear them customarily in my walk as I seek to practice spirituality. They become a part of me and my ultimate lifestyle as a Christian. And I am guarded continuously and enabled to choose obedience as the significant mode of my functioning in the world.
A major source of temptation comes from within me. It is crucial to my victory that I never forget that I am a sinner, and that I can be tempted without any outside influence either from another person or from Satan himself. James 1:13-16 says:
“Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren”
This passage of Scripture makes it clear that I don't need any external influence to sin. I am a sinner. I confess this when I accept the work of the cross in my behalf. The bent to sin remains in me as long as I continue in this life. This reality looms as perhaps the most major influence in my ability to sin in any situation.
Several years ago I heard a man tell this story about a pastor friend of his. He said this pastor announced a Sunday evening sermon topic that brought havoc and fear not only throughout the church, but also the neighborhood where the church was located. The topic announced was the following: "The Man in This Church That Has Caused Me the Most Trouble." On the Sunday night the sermon was to be delivered, people came with "sheepish" looks on their faces. A couple of the deacons brought their attorneys. And several stayed away. They simply couldn't face being exposed. But when the pastor announced his text from Romans 7:24, it was apparent that all had misjudged this pastor. The text read, "Oh wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" If I am honest, I must confess that I am my own worst enemy, and in reality I don't need the devil to tempt me to sin. Just leave me alone, and I'll get into all kinds of difficulty on my own. And if this is not something you are aware of, you are very vulnerable.
With this reality in mind, let me introduce the second important principle related to choosing obedience. This principle has to do with overcoming the sin bent that is within me. Romans 6 gives us some of the principles we need in overcoming the deceitfulness of our hearts. Verses 5-6, 11-13 seem to be central in the teaching of this chapter:
“For if we have been become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin;” 11) “Even so consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.”
Let us first observe that according to verses 5 and 6, I have died to sin and I need to accept this as a reality. How then can I make a reasonable choice to sin? I am dead to sin, and the most reasonable thing for me to do is to choose to not sin. Yet sin resides within me. What can I do? Looking on to verse 11, I understand that I am to consider myself dead to sin, this sin, any sin! I must realize it to be so. And verse 13 tells me that I must offer the parts of my body to God—I must yield myself to God. These are the basic principles involved in being able to resist sin.
With the "full armor of God" we can make commitments to obedience that will be characterized as successful. This does not mean that I will never sin. But it does mean that I can successfully practice spirituality.
Two realities are involved in what I have been saying in these pages. The first, let me repeat, is the reality that I can have victory—I can choose to be obedient. The second seems paradoxical, but it isn’t. It is simply a fact also. Sin will sometimes overtake me, and sometimes I will overtake a sin. I say this because there is no such thing as sin that is not willful sin. When I sin, I choose to sin. At this point in time I am carnal, and I must take action that will put me again in the place where the Holy Spirit can control me. This action involves the confession of sin—the way to begin practicing spirituality again, 1 John 1:9.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
These words are spoken in instruction to believers—Christians alone. They are not words for unbelievers who have not made commitments to Jesus. One who has never trusted Christ need not confess sin—he only needs to confess his need for the Savior and His redemptive work, and acknowledge it was for him. Confession of sin is my move for restoration that again puts me in a position to be controlled by the Holy Spirit...to practice spirituality.
There is some confusion over the nature of confession. Some feel it is saying "I am sorry". And sorrow may indeed be involved when I confess, but saying "I am sorry" is really not the same as confession. There may be many reasons for sorrow that are really not involved in the reality of my sin and how I have hurt the Father's heart. Perhaps I am sorry because my sin has been discovered, or because I am feeling the results of my behavior in some other way. We do tend to reap what we sow. Then there are others who emphasize that confession is "repentance." And although repentance is part of the involvement of confession, it is not necessarily the essence. Confession in the original is from the word "homologeo," which literally means to "say the same thing". It could also be translated literally, "to agree with." So when I confess a particular sin, I name it! I say, "This is sin!" I agree with the Father and how He sees it.
I remember a student years ago who was in love with a man who was simply using her in the relationship. Although she knew nothing would ever come of the relationship but sorrow and heartache, she persisted over many months and clung to it as if it were her only hope for something special. We talked much about fellowship with God and other aspects of her life that would be hurt if she continued in the relationship. We also talked about the way to restoration which of course is genuine confession. Weeks seemed to go by with nothing happening except a continuance of the relationship. Then one day I received a letter from her with only one statement. "Dr. Nester, That is sin!" It was not my job to forgive her. She had not sinned against me. But this was in essence what confession is, and directed toward God, these words bring forgiveness. This is confession in its purest form. When I confess sin to God, I agree with Him that the behavior is sin. I bring my thinking in line with His thinking. And in reality, this is also repentance.
King David is another example of confession and forgiveness. Having sinned with Bathsheba, he was confronted by Nathan the prophet. When he was fully aware that he was "caught red-handed," he said, "I have sinned." And in confessing, he simply brought his thinking in line with the Father's thinking. There are, in confession, implications of sorrow and a desire to no longer transgress the Father's will, but confession is simply admitting the sin to the Father.
Immediate confession is also important in the efficient practice of spirituality. I should not delay for one moment my confession or acknowledgment of sin. Hesitating or putting off only prolongs the time when I will not be bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Until confession is made, whatever I do will never be more than human goodness at best.
One of the greatest hindrances in the practice of spirituality is the act of introspection at a particular set time on a daily basis. Assume this period to be sometime toward the end of the day, or possibly just before I go to bed. At this time, I not only read the Word and listen to the Father speak to me, I take time to look into my life and see if I need to confess any sin. Perhaps I recall times during the day when I sinned, and I carefully confess each of these. I am forgiven and go to bed spiritual and I am spiritual all night.
Early the next day, however, I "dump" on a family member, exceed the speed limit going to work, and imply many things that are not true. I have clearly ceased to walk in the Spirit. I have become a "man of the flesh." My life, as far as the Father is concerned, is clearly lived in vain. In fact, it would be accurate to say, "I am spiritual all night—carnal all day." And this is simply not the way to live the life effectively. This is surely not quality life—abundant life as promised by Jesus. And we wouldn't expect such a life to impact the world in a truly significant way.
It is important, therefore, to learn to "confess on the run." To immediately acknowledge sin in my life is extremely important. Confessing is the way of beginning again. Having confessed the sin involved, I am forgiven. With this, the Father also cleanses me from "all unrighteousness." This statement apparently refers to sins I have committed unknowingly, or those I do not recognize as sin. This is particularly true of a new Christian who works at practicing spirituality. Having grown little, and just beginning the maturing process, there is little understanding of what is and is not sin. God in His grace has provided for that, and when I do acknowledge what I know to be sin, He forgives me for the rest of my sins of which I am not aware. Now I am again in a position where the Holy Spirit will control my life.
The final involvement on my part is to believe that I am forgiven. Such faith is part of the process of living my life by faith. Paul says in Col. 2:6:
“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.”
I have received Him by faith, and faith needs to characterize my everyday walk with Him. If in the process of this living I am unable to believe I am forgiven when I confess sin, then I disrupt my walk of faith and leave myself in a position that denies me the privilege of a peaceful heart with regard to sin in my life. And this, in turn, effects my ability to practice spirituality.
Why some are unable to feel forgiven or accept forgiveness is not altogether clear. The matter of clarity of understanding is of course important in some cases. Not everyone understands confession and forgiveness sufficiently to accept forgiveness. Perhaps some simply do not understand the sacrifice of Christ adequately. For others, legalism is a problem. There is the feeling that we must do penance, or that we must contribute something, or even suffer a certain number of "lashes," for forgiveness to be real.
Some probably doubt because of different or unusual circumstances involved in their sin. Sometimes, for instance, sins committed against a close family member are more difficult to deal with—harder to accept forgiveness for. Or sins that are repeated often—problem sins we find especially difficult to let go of. We might reach a place in sinning where we feel God just can't continue to forgive and restore though we honestly confess.
Sue was such a person with a problem sin she seemingly could not get rid of, and she despaired when she brought it to God over and over again. One day as she was talking of this during a session, she was elaborating on the difficulty she had encountered with this "problem" sin...how she had brought it to the Lord in sorrow time and again. Then as she talked of this, she said something as profound as anything I have ever heard concerning the Lord's willingness to forgive unendingly. She said concerning the sin, "I bring it to Him again and again, and I know each time it's as if it were the first time..." That just about blew me away. I knew that! But I had never thought of it in quite those terms. I never need be concerned about the Father keeping records. He is omniscient, yes. He is also able, because of Who He is, to blot from His memory whatever He chooses. And each time I come with a sin—even a problem sin that presents more difficulty—He will forgive me. It's as if it were the first time I had brought it to Him.
And then there are those who are affected in these areas by their relationships with their parents (more often fathers) and transfer concepts of forgiveness that find their source, in parental patterns relating to God. The usual result is to feel that God does not really find Himself willing to forgive them, and forgiveness, for them becomes difficult.
Sometimes there are those who feel that a particular type of sin is unforgivable. Some—perhaps a sexual sin—are more gross than others and are excluded from grace. Again, these have nothing to do with God's ability or willingness to forgive us. Our conditioning is much more a factor in these cases. Let me reaffirm, as Scripture reaffirms, the Father is able because of Who He is and what He purposes, to forgive any sin at any time confession is made. And our Heavenly Father's forgiveness has no limits. His promises are true. We are forgiven!
One particular problem disorder involving non-acceptance of forgiveness is found in the obsessive-compulsive individual. The perfectionist perhaps will need help through counseling, if feelings of lack of forgiveness and its assurance is an ongoing problem. The obsessive-compulsive personality disorder is often rooted in faulty ways of handling guilt. These problems are more psychological in nature.
Special Problems that Hinder Practicing Spirituality
There are certain specific things in our personal lives that can be a problem for us. These will be discussed under two main headings or categories. Some of these are more spiritually oriented, while others would bear the psychological label. Some are more difficult to remedy, although there is help for each type of problem. Our Father desires us to be able to practice spirituality with increasing efficiency.
Spiritually Oriented Hindrances to Spirituality
Consider with me those problems that are more spiritually oriented. This does not mean that there is no overlap with psychological principles, but rather that the basic characteristics involved seem related more to spiritual principles.
Basic to the practice of spirituality is an understanding of the principles involved in this way of life or lifestyle. Obviously I will never be able to know life with the Holy Spirit in control if I do not understand the example left by Jesus in His humiliation. Therefore, a study and understanding of the kenosis, and a willingness to follow the example of Jesus and His mind-set is of inestimable importance.
I also need to know the Scriptures well enough to be fairly sensitive to the nature of sin. I need to know sin and recognize it when I have sinned. It is also important to understand biblical principles that should influence my behavior in ambiguous situations, and how to appropriate the resources that are mine as a child of God. So I emphasize, basic lack of pursuit of understanding this life will be a basic hindrance to the practice of spirituality. I need to work to set into motion those processes that will cause me to mature spiritually since spiritual maturity is associated with the efficient practice of spirituality. None will be successful if there is a laissez-faire attitude.
Closely related to the preceding hindrance is a lack of specific commitment to experiencing quality life. It is possible that one is merely interested in being assured that his eternal destiny is in safe keeping...that he has eternal life. There is no commitment to spirituality as a lifestyle. While this is a problem closely related to "lordship", and Scripture does imply that lordship and salvation are closely related, there probably are many who never take "life in the Spirit" seriously. To be successful in the practice of spirituality, there must be a commitment to it as a lifestyle. There is a story from another era that illustrates tenacity that needs to characterize our commitment to spirituality. It is said that Churchill once asked a high ranking German this question. "Why does an English bulldog's nose slant backward?" When there was no answer, Churchill said, "Because when he gets hold of something, he never plans to let go, and he still needs to breathe!" Our approach to spirituality and its practice will fail without this kind of tenacity.
Lack of continual growth in Scripture is another problem. While every new Christian who is sufficiently instructed in the basics involved in the practice of spirituality can begin to practice walking in the Spirit, the process can ultimately be hindered if there is not continual growth in the Scriptures. None of us can have understanding and growing success in this process without a continual growth in the Scriptures. Therefore, sloven and haphazard involvement with the Word of God can be a profound hindrance. Each of us needs to make specific plans to systematically involve ourselves in regular in-depth study of the Bible. Without this, there will never be much efficiency in this practice and we may give it up completely.
And finally, a spiritually-oriented problem hindering the practice of spirituality—one that we have already mentioned—is failing to confess at the moment of sinning and failing to recognize my behavior as sin. I must develop sharp discernment of my behavior and confess immediately. Otherwise my spirituality will be sporadic at best, and I will never have the consistency of quality life as promised by Jesus when He spoke of "life abundant!" We need to learn to practice "confession on the run." Only then can one experience abundant life as promised by Jesus.
Psychological Problems Related to the Practice of Spirituality
This is an area that makes Christians extremely nervous. We are sensitive about being told that psychological problems might override our practice of spirituality. Indeed, the majority of us have believed that if one is spiritual, there would be no psychological problems at all. It has become increasingly apparent to me, however, that such is not the case. Indeed, psychological problems can be a major hindrance in the practice of walking in the Spirit. Nor can I necessarily expect the Father to miraculously lift these problems from me. It is not that He is not able. But often the problems discussed in this section in the following paragraphs are those that need the help of the special "paraclete"...a counselor instructed in psychological principles as well as spiritual principles.
First, there are problems that relate to general immaturity. These have been discussed in an earlier section in this paper, but it is important to mention them again at this point. Certain aspects of immaturity become real impediments to spirituality. The first of these is a relatively negative self-concept—generally feeling poorly about myself. If I tend to see myself in ways that are not positive, I will make determinations about situations involving my interaction in my environment that can make sin easier and therefore I can become carnal. Jim has never felt good about himself. He has been told that as a Christian appropriating the adequacy of Christ, this should not be true. But Jim has never learned the secret of a good self-concept, and this in turn has seriously affected his interpersonal relationships and allowed him to sin. Because of his relatively poor self-concept, Jim is defensive. And his defensiveness causes him to make erroneous judgments about others who interact with him. He often misinterprets their statements and is blaming, aggressive, and punitive. And these things are sin! So Jim lives a good deal of his life as a Christian confessing his sin, or neglecting to confess and continuing in a state of carnality. Self-concept deficiencies are the culprits. Mark this truth! A negative self-concept will cause me to make more errors in my personal judgments of things related to my environment. And these judgments will leave me more prone to sin.
Again, if my general stance in life is one of dependencies rather than autonomy, this can be somewhat of a hindrance to the free-flowing practice of spirituality. By dependence, I mean that condition in my makeup that causes me to be heavily reliant upon others. In ordinary interpersonal relationships a dependent person draws upon others for the meeting of his needs. A relatively autonomous person is able to be more self-sufficient and self-reliant. A general observation related to dependence and sin is to be seen in the common relationship between dependence and much hostility. If one's needs are not met, he will very likely direct much hostility toward the one he expects to meet those needs.
Such may also be involved in my relationship with my Father. A person who is generally heavily dependent may have difficulty understanding God's dealings in his life. This person would have the Father arrange his life as he wishes, and in the end, doubt and even become bitter toward Him. Many are walking their own way because of their circumstances. They are simply dependent persons who have not seen events of life go their way and have turned from a simple path of trust and acceptance to the rocky and thorny trail of disbelief. As such, then, dependence can be a hindrance to the practice of spirituality.
Poor self-concept and dependence are psychological variables of a more general nature that affect spirituality. There are those that are more specific, and these we will discuss in the following resumes of difficulties. The situations that are involved in the descriptions that follow are certainly to be considered sin. They are, however, special kinds of situations that have bases, not only in the sinful nature of fallen man and Adam's sin, but also in disorganized psychological processes. These are special psychological problems that often need attention as such, if one is to be delivered from them. Again, the human paraclete—the counselor trained in psychological processes—can often be most helpful.
Al is an example of one of these. He has an explosive personality disorder. For several years he has been troubled by sudden outbursts of violent temper and anger. Relationships with other people are at best precarious. He is often violent on the freeways, and once observed another motorist "tailgating" him at high speed. While anger boiled inside him, Al suddenly braked his vehicle to an abrupt stop. This cause his "tailgater" to ram violently the rear of Al's car. Stopping at the side of the road and with both cars quite severely damaged, Al pulled the stunned motorist out of his car and beat him up. This disorder has deep-seated aberrant bases that probably will take much more than prayer to sort out. And these bases are beyond the understanding of the individual. Al needs a special kind of help. His personality disorder can cause him to fail in his practicing spirituality and can nullify quality life.
Conrad is one who typifies another disorder and deep-seated problem. He has been promiscuous for years. He will have an affair, feel guilty, manage to get himself caught so others will be aware, confess to his wife and God, and is forgiven. Certainly no one who understands grace as a Bible doctrine would say Conrad is not forgiven. But, alas, it happens again and again. Conrad seems to feel that simply confessing the sin takes care of all aspects of the problem. He is forgiven—the problem is no longer there. But what makes his problem occur again and again? He has not considered that he may be deeply angry with his wife, or that he dislikes women in general and his wife in particular. And that through his behavior he is seeking to degrade or exploit them. Nor does he understand that research indicates that one involved in this kind of behavior has little chance, apart from the grace of God and divine intervention, of ever changing this behavior. And this would hinder the practice of spirituality and needs the assistance of that special paraclete in order that deeper bases of difficulties can be understood and worked through. Otherwise, Conrad probably will stumble to his grave, leaving innumerable trophies of infamy.
And then there is Jane...the punctual, meticulous, obsessive-compulsive who demands so much of herself. Jane completely rejects her imperfections and is self-centered and despairing. She continually feels guilty because she has equated quality in her life with doing rather than being. She has been instructed well by her pastor and other knowing friends who understand that her style can be her undoing. But try as she may, she has been unable to change. Jane needs special help in learning how to deal with guilt at levels where her awareness is unclear. She needs psychotherapy as well as practicing spirituality effectively. Unless she finds such help, her practice of spirituality will be greatly hindered. She will probably continue to be guilty of the error of the Galatians addressed by Paul in Galatians 3:2, 3:
“This is one thing I would like to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
One with Jane's personality disorder tends to live the Christian life by raw, rote discipline, rather than by the Holy Spirit and His gentle control. Again, this would plainly affect her practice of spirituality.
I have attempted, with these illustrations, to point out different kinds of hindrances to the practice of spirituality. These can be both theological and psychological. Spirituality brings quality life, but other things must often be dealt with to make this practice more efficient. I repeat again... these may require the help of a paraclete who will walk with a person and help eliminate his special impediments in his quest for "quality life."
The Results of the Practice of Spirituality and Other Approved Behaviors
When I became a Christian by faith in Jesus Christ more than 50 years ago, I was tired of life as I had known it for my first nineteen years. My life had been characterized by failure, despair, hopelessness, and helplessness. I hurt terribly! Especially at night as I stood the 12-4 watch in the North Atlantic, the darkness and turmoil of that mighty ocean seemed to speak to me of my life. I was tossed about. I did not know where I was heading—I had no goals, and very little hope of anything being different. I don't suppose I would have thought "quality life" then—only life that somehow could be different—better! I longed for peace. I was tired, confused, and despairing at the tender age of nineteen. But there was Jesus, the Lamb of God's providing! And through the years I have found the answer to those demanding needs as I have learned something of "life in the Spirit". Practicing spirituality introduced me to quality life—to a life in which I "flourish as the palm tree", as the Psalmist says.
Quality life then relates not only to the reality that my life in Christ will endure forever, but also to its superior quality as compared with life experienced by others who live in this world now. Not only does my life have endurance, but it has unusual qualities not experienced by men in general. I do not live life in the same way—it is totally different than my former struggle. During these 50+ years there has not been one year that the Lord Jesus and my life for Him have not been my major concern. And during these years, I have found quality to be related to the practice of spirituality.
Perhaps the most basic result of spirituality is the "fruit" that is born in my life. The Scripture says this is the "fruit of the Spirit," Galatians 5:22, 23:
“But he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
These verses clearly state that one of the chief results of practicing spirituality is a number of graces that will be characteristic of the life. I will bear the "fruit of the Spirit". The results are not power...special gifts...ecstatic experiences, but primarily fruit—the "fruit of the Spirit". For the moment, let's consider in more detail certain aspects of this "fruit" that make our lives practical and with higher quality.
I am a "Christian" in this world. I am a little Christ! I am an epistle—a letter to an unbelieving world which when read will help men understand what Jesus was like. He returned to heaven some 2,000 years ago, and I am on earth in His place. When men look at me, how much of Jesus do they see in me? Certainly, nothing that I can imitate in my own strength or on my own initiative. Only the "fruit of the Spirit" produced in my life will cause Christ to be seen in me. Note! It is not my imitating His characteristics, his virtues. It is the Holy Spirit producing these virtues as fruit through the life of a sinful man that will alert the world—cause it to stop, look, and listen to the message of love from Jesus. It is as someone somewhere has said, "The greatest miracle of time is not the incarnation—God taking on human flesh and becoming one of us. The greatest miracle is God reproducing Himself in the bodies and personalities of sinful men." And this is the basic result of the practice of spirituality.
It is significant to note that this is the fruit of the Spirit. It is not what I learn to produce in me through discipline or self-effort. Many years ago I heard a prominent Christian psychologist read a paper entitled "Behavior Modification and the Fruit of the Spirit". His basic thesis was that one could produce the fruit of the Spirit through manipulative means that related to natural law—through behavior modification! Now perhaps he was referring to "human goodnesses" or virtues that can be learned by believer and nonbeliever alike. These can surely be produced by psychological means as well as through sheer discipline. But these are never the "fruit of the Spirit". This fruit is always produced by the Third Person of the Godhead—the Holy Spirit. Human goodnesses and the fruit of the Spirit are not the same. Lack of distinctions at this point are partly responsible for lack of quality in the life we experience so often after becoming Christians. Many of us struggle and live our lives exactly as we did prior to coming to Christ. We develop love, patience, goodness, peace, etc. It is the same kind of effort we experienced in trying to live a good life prior to coming to Christ—and with pretty much the same lack of success.
Another significant observation is that this is the Fruit of the Spirit. Fruit in the text is singular, not plural. It is a collective noun. This conveys the reality that the potential for all fruit to be present when spirituality is practiced is certainly there. Of course, there must be an environmental situation in which love, patience, or goodness, as such, is in order. Should a situation arise—one in which all nine of these representative virtues would be God's response—then they would all simply just be there.
I have also just alluded to a thought that I believe is true. It would seem that the list of virtues—nine in number—is only representative, and any other virtue or behavior the Holy Spirit should desire to produce can be His own business. The list in Galatians 5 need not be the conclusive list. It is important for me to believe this inasmuch as the fruit is all I need for any situation in life. Life in the Spirit is life in which His fruit is produced.
Ordinary fruit—lemons, apples, papaya, guava and whatever the kind—is fruit that is born without effort. So life in the Spirit is life without effort. Perhaps this is why Jesus said, "My yoke is easy and my burden light." Quality life requires adjustment on our part, rather then effort! When I begin to make an effort to live the life, I am in danger of falling from grace. Life in Christ lived by human effort is described by Paul in Galatians 5:4:
“You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”
This verse certainly is not teaching that I lose my salvation when I seek to live the life in my own strength, but rather that any legalistic approach to this new life is an approach that reduces my standard of living from grace to a life of self-effort and this cannot be a yoke that is easy, or a burden that is light.
Perhaps the most beautiful, large delicious apples in the world are grown in the Pacific Northwestern regions of the United States. As a boy growing up, I never observed an apple tree struggling to bear apples. Certainly there were conditions that needed to be fulfilled. The warmth and rain in the spring would bring out the blossoms. As summer progressed, the sunshine caused the fruit to grow in size, and then the chilling blasts of fall would bring their color and final maturity, ready to be picked and eaten. They were just there by virtue of the relationship they had with the tree itself.
And so it is with spirituality. Practicing life with the Holy Spirit in control brings forward all of the graces in natural ways that involve no effort. Simple adjustment—abiding—the fruit is there! This is open to all who have positional relationship with Jesus. Its a life of simply learning to live with the Holy Spirit in control of me. This fulfills my basic purpose for being in the world—to be like Jesus.
Yet another word about the "fruit of the Spirit" seems to be in order. Richard Halverson states in his little book Christian Maturity that the test of whether or not a behavior is the "fruit of the Spirit", or merely "human goodness," is whether or not it is my reaction before I get myself under control. If patience is my reaction, if goodness is my reaction, if self-control is my reaction, rather than each of these being my response after I manage to control myself, then it is probably the "fruit of the Spirit".
A second result of the practice of spirituality will be my increased efficiency in "not fulfilling the lusts of the flesh". Galatians 5:16 says: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh.”
As stated earlier in this text on spirituality, learning to practice spirituality is learning to choose obedience in the face of temptation. Inasmuch as yielding to temptation (sinning) is fulfilling the desires of the flesh, I grow in efficiency in obedience—in not fulfilling fleshly (carnal) desires as I learn to practice walking in the Spirit.
Involved in this efficient practice is learning to recognize sin more clearly. Learning to utilize my armor provided by the Father and coming to terms with my own sinful self will help protect me when otherwise I would be vulnerable. I also learn to use the basic principles involved in my life that help me in situations that are ambiguous. These principles—laws—the law of love, the law of liberty, and the law of expediency, (session 32) are utilized efficiently in the practice of spirituality. Each of these practices will enable me to walk in a way that will keep me from fulfilling the "lusts of the flesh". If we walk in the Spirit, this will be true of each of us as a natural product of that walk.
Related Topics: Discipleship