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New Years [2012]: Growing Spiritually in the New Year (Various Scriptures)

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January 1, 2012

You’ve probably heard the familiar adage, “Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time.” Often the reason that we do not grow spiritually is that while we say we want to grow, we do not aim to grow. So we drift from day to day and year to year without experiencing significant growth in the Lord.

So for this New Year’s Day, I’m going to give you some practical counsel on how to grow spiritually in the coming year. I’m going to depart from my usual approach of explaining and applying a single paragraph or verse of Scripture and use many different verses, with an emphasis on application. For some of you, this will be very basic. You’ve been doing most of these things for years. I would encourage you to find a younger believer and help him (or her) put these things in place in his daily life. For others, this message may uncover a few areas that you need to focus on this year. And yet for others, this message may be like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. There is so much to take in that it will overwhelm you. I’d advise you to prayerfully focus on two or three goals at first to get going. Once those are in place, move on to one or two more. Remember, growth is a process!

My theme verse is 1 Timothy 4:7,

“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”

This was Paul’s inspired counsel to his younger disciple, Timothy. (I have a sermon on 1 Timothy 4:6-10 on the church web site, along with some notes under the “Resources” tab on developing self-control.) Paul uses an athletic metaphor: discipline comes from a Greek word from which we get our word, gymnasium. We can sit on our couch watching some sports event and think, “I wish I could play that sport like that!” But all the wishing in the world won’t make it happen.

While we no doubt lack the natural ability that those athletes possess, it is also true that they are not just doing what comes naturally. Any professional athlete spends hours every day working out and developing his or her skills. When they hit a home run or sink a three-point basket or hit a receiver downfield with a perfect pass, you know that they have worked hard and practiced repeatedly to be able to do that. They have disciplined themselves for the goal of being proficient in their sport. There are no shortcuts. Paul tells us to do that spiritually for the purpose of godliness.

I need to warn you that there are many spiritual hucksters out there offering easy, quick fixes toward godliness. We’re all prone to fall for quick and easy solutions to problems that require long, hard discipline to conquer. Why do people play the lottery? They don’t want the hard work and discipline of living within their means and saying no to instant gratification. It takes discipline to stay within your budget, get out of debt and save for future needs. You can avoid all that hard work by winning the jackpot! Or, more likely, you will lose a lot of money buying lottery tickets!

Or, why do people fall for diet scams? “Just take this pill and you’ll lose 50 pounds!” They want a quick, easy shortcut around the hard work of a daily diet and regular exercise.

Spiritually, people want an easy way to solve their marriage problems or to rear their kids or to succeed in life. And there are plenty of self-help books or spiritual experiences that promise to solve all your problems. But real, lasting change only comes through disciplining yourself for the purpose of godliness.

Note that the aim is godliness, not personal success. To be godly is to be like God, which comes through knowing Him more deeply. And so the reason you should want to grow spiritually is not just to solve your problems and make life happier. You should want to grow spiritually so that you know the living God in a deeper way, so that your life will glorify the Savior who gave Himself for you on the cross. In the seven areas where I’m going to encourage you to grow, I’m assuming that you know Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord and that your motive for wanting to grow is to glorify Him.

1. Prayerfully write a one-sentence purpose statement for your life and write down a few long and short range goals in light of it.

I’m not going to argue that men in biblical times wrote out a one-sentence purpose statement for their lives, but it’s obvious that they clearly knew where they were going in life. In addition to Paul’s counsel (1 Tim. 4:7), “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness,” he also wrote (1 Cor. 9:23-27):

I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

So while perhaps Paul did not write down his purpose statement (maybe he did, we don’t know), in light of his clear focus and direction, it is evident that he had thought carefully about what he wanted to accomplish for the Lord and organized his life around that purpose. Also, Moses prayed (Ps. 90:12), “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” So even Moses, living in 1400 B.C., was aware of the shortness of life and the need to use his time wisely in light of eternity.

Years ago I wrote out a purpose statement for my life, which I have modified slightly over the years: “To glorify God by being a godly husband, father, and grandfather and by using my gift of pastor-teacher for the building up of the body of Christ and the furtherance of the gospel.” Your statement will be different depending on your gifts and calling. Glorifying God is the chief aim for each of us. Also, the two Great Commandments, to love God and to love others (Matt. 22:37-40), apply equally to us all. In light of those overarching purposes, write out your own statement.

Then, in light of that statement, write out a few goals, beginning with the most important, that will help you to be a better steward in the following areas: spiritual (including morals and character development); relationships (family, extended family, those without Christ, etc.); ministry (how does God want you to serve Him?); career; finances (providing for your family’s needs; giving); intellectual (developing your mind through reading, thinking, the arts, etc.); and, physical (being a good steward of your body through proper diet, exercise, rest, and recreation).

Don’t attempt too much at once or you won’t do anything! Rather, focus on which two or three goals would most help you to be more pleasing to God and put them into your schedule. Read them over each week. Then evaluate how you’re doing every few months. For example, if you’re not spending consistent time in the Word and prayer, set a goal of one-half hour per day, at least five days per week. Pick the best time of the day to do it and get started. If it isn’t working, figure out why and readjust as needed.

2. Put in place a regular, daily time in the Word and prayer, including some time to memorize Scripture.

Many verses support this practice. All of Psalm 119, but especially verse 11, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” Or, Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” 1 Peter 2:2-3, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” It is evident that the Lord Jesus memorized Scripture, because when Satan tempted Him, He quoted from Deuteronomy to defeat him (Matt. 4:1-7).

If you’ve never done so, I recommend reading through the Bible in a year. There are many plans available online, with apps for your smart phone. To read through the Bible in one year takes about 15-20 minutes a day (about 4 chapters). I usually read a Psalm, read some from the Old Testament, and some from the New Testament. You might want to keep a notebook and jot down what you read and how God spoke to you through it. Aim at applying the Word beginning on the heart or thought level (Mark 7:6-8, 21-23). Proverbs 4:23 tells us, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”

Regarding Scripture memory, the younger you start the easier it is and the longer you will retain it. I can remember many verses that I learned as a child, but I struggle to memorize and retain verses that I’m working on now. Repetition and review are the keys. Experiment with what works best for you. Some find it more helpful to recite verses over and over out loud. Others find it better to write the verses over and over. I’ve never been able to do it, but many memorize whole chapters or books of the Bible. But one thing is certain: God can’t use His Word to keep you from sin if you don’t even know what it says. When temptation hits, you normally aren’t going to have a concordance and Bible at hand to look up the relevant verses! You need it in your heart!

Regarding prayer, it is a constant battle. If you find it difficult, welcome to the club! There are some excellent books on prayer to help you get going. Paul Miller’s The Praying Life [NavPress] is very practical. You can get it for your Kindle or as an audio-book. I’ve listed many other books on prayer on my recommended reading list on the church web site, which also has many of my sermons on prayer. Or, you can benefit by the sermons of other pastors such as John Piper and John MacArthur.

One other practical suggestion on prayer: Make a list of your family members and others that you often have contact with that do not know Christ and begin to pray for their salvation. Just the fact that you are praying for them will make you more alert to opportunities to share the gospel with them.

3. Work on developing godly character qualities, especially in areas where you are weak.

Start with the fruit of the Spirit (memorize these verses: Gal. 5:22-23): “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” If you’re not sure what love looks like in practice, memorize 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Also, since pride is at the root of all of our sins and relational difficulties, work on developing humility. There are many verses on this, but it’s helpful to keep in mind Paul’s rebuke (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” There is a list of biblical character qualities and life skills under the Resources tab on the church web site.

4. Develop a habit of reading solid Christian books that help you grow spiritually.

Paul was an old man in a cold Roman prison cell, about to die. Timothy was hoping to visit him one last time. Paul wrote to him (2 Tim. 4:13), “When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments.” Charles Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 9:668) commented on that verse:

He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books!

Puritan Richard Baxter wrote (from the Banner of Truth, Issue 11, June, 1958, p.1),

Make careful choice of the books which you read: let the holy scriptures ever have the pre-eminence, and, next to them, those solid, lively, heavenly treatises which best expound and apply the scriptures, and next, credible histories, especially of the Church … but take heed of false teachers who would corrupt your understandings.

I’ve shared with you before that when I was 18, I was not a reader. I had a friend who was 23 who asked me, “What have you been reading lately?” When I told him that I only read the minimum to get through school, he looked me in the eye and said, “If you don’t read good Christian books, you won’t grow.” I blinked, thought about it, and started reading. I haven’t quit since.

Your first step here may be to sharpen your axe by signing up for a course or working through a tutorial or book on how to read better and faster. I have two book lists on the church web site to help you get going. One is general with various categories and the other is exclusively on Christian biographies, from which I have gained much help. I mark the margins of my books and write notes in them. I almost always have several types of books going at the same time, so that I can read according to my mood: theological or doctrinal books (I have to be alert to read these!); devotional books; biographies; and practical books (on Christian marriage and family, finances, time management, etc.). I don’t read much fiction, partly because when I get into a novel, it requires that I focus on it so that I can remember all that’s happening, which prevents me from reading other books. I read some secular humor for recreation when my brain is too fried for serious reading (P. G. Wodehouse, Tom Bodett, Garrison Keillor, Dave Barry, etc.).

I always take something to read when I go shopping with Marla or have to wait at a doctor’s office. I aim to read 36 books each year (although this year I only read 30), and I keep a brief written record with my comments on the book. If you currently don’t read at all, aim for two or three books this year. Also, I’m now re-reading some of the better books that I first read many years ago, to come at them from the perspective that I’ve gained over the years. If you want to grow spiritually, turn off the tube and start reading!

5. Get into a small group where you can deepen relationships, encourage others, and be encouraged in the Lord.

Hebrews 10:24-25 exhorts, “… and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” In my last year of seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks told us, “The things that will most determine where you’re at ten years from now will be the books you read and the friends that you make. Guard them both very carefully!”

The Bible is clear that God has not called us to be Christians in isolation, but in relationship. The analogy of the body of Christ makes this clear. Your hand can’t function if it is cut off from your arm. Every part is necessary and contributes to the health and proper functioning of the whole. If a relationship is enticing you to go back into the world or to engage in sinful activities, cut it off. Ask God for friends who will encourage and stimulate you to grow in Christ.

You need one or two close trusted friends who can ask you hard questions to hold you accountable. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” Your friend should be able to ask,

  • Have you spent time daily in the Word and in prayer this week?
  • Have you judged all sinful thoughts and resisted the temptation to look at pornography?
  • Have you given adequate time to your family?
  • Have you cleared up all sins toward your wife (or husband) by acknowledging your wrong and asking forgiveness?
  • Have you done anything or gone anywhere this week where you’d be ashamed to have Jesus Christ along with you?
  • Have you been honest and faithful in financial matters?
  • Have you been a witness in behavior and in word (as opportunities arise) at work or school?

6. Ask God how He wants you to be serving Him in light of your gifts and start serving somewhere.

Get rid of the idea that you’re free to volunteer to serve in the church if you have the time. That notion is not in the Bible. You’re not a volunteer—you’re a slave of Jesus Christ. Slaves don’t volunteer. They do what their master commands them to do. Peter puts all service in one of two categories: Speaking or serving (1 Pet. 4:11). He writes (1 Pet. 4:10), “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” This may include serving in some ministry at church or it may include reaching out to your neighbors or colleagues at work to build relationships where you can share Christ.

7. Set some financial goals to help you become a better steward of the resources that God has entrusted to you.

Jesus said (Matt. 6:19-21), “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He goes on to tell us not to seek after all the stuff that pagans seek after, but rather to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. Jesus had a lot to say about money!

Paul wrote (1 Tim. 5:8), “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” He also said (1 Tim. 6:17-19), “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”

Get out of debt. Kill impulse spending. Construct and live within a budget. Give more percentage-wise than you’re currently giving. Build a savings account for future emergencies or planned expenses (car replacement; insurance bills; home and auto repairs; etc.). Begin a retirement fund with a view to how you would like to serve the Lord once you’re freed up from providing a living. Sign up for the Dave Ramsey “Financial Peace” course that we offer.


Again, if this message hits you like a fire hose, don’t let it bowl you over. Ask God to show you the main two or three things that you need to focus on. I pray that all of us will look back on 2012 as a year of growth in the Lord.

Application Questions

  1. Which of these areas do you most need to focus on? How will you begin?
  2. What do you need to eliminate from your normal day in order to begin to implement these principles?
  3. Some might think that following these principles is legalistic. Is it? How can this be avoided?
  4. How can a person who is not motivated to grow get motivated? Where should he begin?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Discipline, New Year's, Spiritual Life

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