How To Fertilize Your Spiritual Garden

Last week, I wrote quite a lengthy post about why it’s so important to tend our spiritual lives as we would a carefully cultivated garden. God desires growth from us, and we need to put effort into that if we want to stay in a close relationship with Him. It’s important to know how highly God values growth, for Jesus warns if we don’t use the gifts He has given us there’s a very real chance they’ll be taken away. Knowing God wants and expects us to grow isn’t much use, though, unless we also talk about how to make growth happen.

Abide in Jesus

When Paul talks about people in ministry “planting” and “watering” spiritual gardens, he also makes very clear that it is God who “gives the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6-9). Growth and fruitfulness happen because of God’s work in our lives. We’re involved, but we don’t make it happen.

“Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5, all quotes from WEB translation)

This is the first principle of spiritual growth. There are things we can and should be doing to grow God’s gifts and bear fruit for His glory. But the best efforts on our part will accomplish nothing if we are not firmly attached to Christ. Without Him, we’re like plants that have no root system. We can’t grow unless we’re abiding in Him. “Being filled with the fruits of righteousness” only comes “through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11). Read more

The Need to Tend Our Spiritual Gardens

Suppose you and your neighbor were to plant a vegetable garden. One of you put the plants and seeds in, watered them once, then stepped back to let it all grow naturally. The other watered and weeded diligently, trimmed where needed, staked up the vines, and poured time and attention into the garden. The first will have a small harvest, if any, from plants choked by weeds and eaten by bugs. The second will enjoy a bountiful harvest of tasty, healthy vegetables. That’s the analogy Gary Thomas uses in his book Sacred Pathways to talk about growth in the Christian life.

“Some of us live with the mistaken impression that our faith needs only to be planted, not tended. Becoming a mature Christian, some think, is like becoming six feet tall — it either happens or it doesn’t. This is not the view of those who have written the classics of our faith or the view of the writers of scriptures (see, for example, Philippians 2:12-13; 1 Timothy 4:15-16; James 1:4; 2 Peter 1:5-11).” — Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways, p. 232

The Bible is full of talk about spiritual growth and fruitfulness. We can’t do anything to earn salvation or accomplish reconciliation with God on our own — that only happens through the work of Jesus Christ. But once He gives us the precious gift of salvation He expects us to do something with it. That “something” can be summarized as “grow.”

Growing Your Gift

Examples of God’s expectation for growth are found in the parables of the talents and of the ten pounds. A lord goes to a far country, entrusting great wealth to his servants. When he returns, every servant who increased their gift (no matter by how much) is praised as “good and faithful,” and welcomed into the lord’s kingdom. There’s one servant, though, who did nothing with their gift except hide it. It sat in the ground, useless. This servant is the only one who is not praised. The lord actually takes their gift away and then casts them out (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27).

I honestly don’t see how people can read the Bible and still teach “once saved, always saved.” It is true that no one has the power to take you away from God (John 10:28-29), but you can reject God’s gift, or continue in sin without repenting, or neglect to use and grow what He’s given you (Heb. 10:26-31; Gal. 5:16-21; Matt. 18:21-35). Even the Apostle Paul didn’t think he could sit back and relax, assured that he’d get eternal life no matter what he did post-conversion (Phil. 3:11-14; 1 Cor. 9:27).

If we choose to do things that separate us from God and don’t then come back to Him and ask for forgiveness, we could miss out on the kingdom. God tells us how to get there and He even died to make it possible. He very much wants us to accept, use, and grow the gift He’s given us. But He won’t force us to.

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Tending To Your Salvation

Talking about how God can take back gifts which He gives (a Biblical idea that’s found right there in the Jesus’s parables) is not designed to make us live in a state of uncertainty and terror, wondering if we’re “really saved.” Paul clearly didn’t think he should live in despair and doubt because he hadn’t yet attained the end goal of a Christian life. On the contrary, it motivated him to keep growing and striving to follow God.

God doesn’t really ask much of us when you boil it all down. Just the things needed for a good relationship. Love Him. Respect Him. Abide by the boundaries He sets. Apologize if you do something to wrong Him. Use the gifts He’s given you instead of setting them aside like they don’t matter.

So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13, all quotes from WEB translation)

Salvation is something Jesus accomplished once for all humanity, and He is the only path to eternal life (Heb. 9:12; 10:11-12; Acts 4:12). Salvation is also a life-long process that we’re involved with as God works in and through us.

Be diligent in these things. Give yourself wholly to them, that your progress may be revealed to all. Pay attention to yourself and to your teaching. Continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (1 Tim. 4:15-16)

Paul isn’t telling Timothy that he can save himself or his congregants in the same sense that Christ saved us. But he is pointing out that we are involved in the ongoing aspects of salvation. To return to the garden analogy, people can plant and water spiritual gardens but only God can make them grow (1 Cor. 3:6-9). We’re expected to work on growing, but God’s the one who makes all that growth possible.

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Producing Fruit to Glorify God

Paul describes us in 1 Corinthians as “God’s farming.” In Romans, he uses another agricultural analogy by describing the people of God as trees with grafted branches. Israel is God’s olive tree, and when He opened salvation up to a wider group of people it was like He “grafted in” branches from wild olive trees. As the farmer, God is allowed to graft in or prune out as He pleases. He can even graft people back in after they’ve been cut out so long as they repent and turn back to Him in sincerer belief (Rom. 11:16-24). And we get to play a role in whether or not we stay grafted in.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. … I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned.  … In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples. (John 15:1-2, 5-6, 8)

In another place, Jesus tells us that we will know false prophets by their fruits. We can discern whether or not someone is trustworthy by how they live and the fruits they produce. God applies the same logic to us; He knows us by our fruits (Matt. 7:17-23). And we are warned, like the people John the Baptist preached to, “every tree therefore that doesn’t produce good fruit” (e.g. “fruits worthy of repentance”) “is cut down, and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9).

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God Is Eager To Help Us Grow

Now, don’t go thinking all this talk of pruning and burning is happening because God doesn’t like us or wants to terrify us. He’s not up there waiting for any excuse to wack us out of the Vine. On the contrary, these things serve as a warning so that we’ll understand exactly how important it is that we stay close to Jesus Christ (the source of our life, as the roots that feed a plant) and commit to living in a Godly way (having a character that produces spiritual fruit). So long as we make even the tiniest effort, God is ready and eager to facilitate our growth.

Consider the lilies, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. … Don’t seek what you will eat or what you will drink; neither be anxious. … But seek God’s Kingdom, and all these things will be added to you. Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. (Luke 12:27, 29, 31-32)

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One of the key characteristics of God’s kingdom is that it grows (Luke 13:18-21). And we’re invited to be a part of that. Seek Him. Grow with Him. Keep adding to your faith moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Pet. 1:5-8). Produce fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

One of the most encouraging studies I’ve ever done (for me at least) was on how God talks about human perfection. So long as we’re growing toward the goal of being perfect, as He is perfect, He treats us as if we’re already there. We don’t have to get everything right all the time or worry we’re not good enough. The only way to fail is to not even try. So long as we put effort into tending our spiritual gardens and do not neglect the gifts He has given us, God will make certain that we live abundant, fruitful lives that lead to the best eternal outcome.

 

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Fighting on the Battlefield of Forgiveness

Last week’s post was about how much God wants to forgive us. This week’s is about how much we need to forgive each other. There are plenty of Bible verses about this topic and so, like most Christians, I knew how important forgiveness is before writing this post. But something Paul said in one of his letters made me want to take a closer look at the subject.

The reasons Paul gives for forgiving someone in the Corinthian church provide us with a compelling reason for forgiving others. I’d never thought about forgiveness being a key part of spiritual warfare before, but I do now. Whether or not we choose to forgive is one of the things that determines whether Satan gets an advantage over us, or we get an advantage over him by drawing closer to God.

Don’t Give an Advantage to Satan

For background, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he told them they needed to put a man out of their church who was actively engaging in sexual sin (1 Cor. 5). Now, in the second letter, Paul has heard that this man repented and Paul tells the church to forgive him and accept him back.

This punishment which was inflicted by the many is sufficient for such a one; so that on the contrary you should rather forgive him and comfort him, lest by any means such a one should be swallowed up with his excessive sorrow. Therefore I beg you to confirm your love toward him. … Now I also forgive whomever you forgive anything. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, that no advantage may be gained over us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes. (2 Cor. 2:6-8, 10-11, all quotes from WEB translation)

Choosing to withhold forgiveness– even when someone has sinned so egregiously they were put out of the church; even when you’ve heard about their repentance from someone else instead of seeing it for yourself — would give an advantage to Satan. The Greek word pleonekteo (G4122) carries the idea of taking advantage of or  defrauding someone. The word for “covetousness” comes from this word (The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: New Testament, by Spiros Zodhiates Th.D.).

Talk of Satan (which means “adversary”) gaining an advantage over us also brings to mind the idea that we’re in a spiritual battle. If you don’t forgive, you’re giving the adversary a foothold in your life. And that ought to be a terrifying thought. However, it is something we can prevent because, as Paul says, we’re not ignorant of his schemes.

Armor Up With God’s Help

We are part of a spiritual battle. The adversary (ha Satan in Hebrew) is fighting against God’s family, and we’re part of that family. Every human being has the potential to become part of God’s family and those of us in covenant with God are already adopted as His children.

Beloved, now we are children of God. It is not yet revealed what we will be; but we know that when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is. Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)

God’s adversary hates what God loves. Satan accuses us before our God day and night (Rev. 12:10; Job is also an example). He tries to use his wiles against us, and he’s behind the “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” that we wrestle against (Eph. 6:10-13). The last thing we should want to do is give Satan an advantage over us in this fight. Rather, we want to stay close to God, put on His armor, stand, and resist the devil.

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Avoid Things That Separate You From God

The reason that unforgiveness is so very dangerous (I think) is connected to the wedge it drives between us and God. We’re more vulnerable to the adversary’s attacks when we are not sticking close to the source of our armor and strength. There are certain things that separate us from God, and we need forgiveness and reconciliation to heal the breach of relationship that sin causes. But we don’t get forgiveness if we’re not willing to give it.

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. 6:14-15)

Jesus’s parable in Matthew 18:21-35 puts this in even more chilling language. In this parable, forgiveness that has already been given by a master to an indebted servant is withdrawn because that servant refuses to forgive someone who owes him a much smaller debt. Jesus caps this parable off by saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.” That’s quite a sobering statement.

God is merciful and good. He knows forgiveness can be so hard that sometimes it feels like fighting a battle. He doesn’t abandon us just because we’re struggling. But He does expect us to make an effort to deliberately, consistently forgive other people. Carrying bitterness, grudges, anger, and judgmental attitudes around will not help our Christian walk and can, in fact, hinder it.

Consider Jesus’s Example

Therefore let’s also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Heb. 12:1-2)

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Whenever it becomes difficult to lay aside the weight of unforgiveness, look to Jesus. The book of Hebrews tells us to “consider him who has endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, that you don’t grow weary, fainting in your souls” Heb. 12:3). When we consider the example He set us, we see Him forgiving even in the worst of circumstances.

When they came to the place that is called “The Skull”, they crucified him there with the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:33-34)

If Jesus could forgive the people who tortured and killed him while He was hanging on the cross, surely we can forgive whatever it is that people have done to us. Especially because God has given us warnings and instructions through His Bible and help through His holy spirit. We know the dangers of unforgiveness and we have what we need to follow Christ’s example. Let’s resolve to forgive, and to keep forgiving as often as need be, following the example of Christ and resisting the adversary’s influence so “that no advantage may be gained over us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.”

 

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Learning From Others’ Spiritual Temperaments: Book Review of “Sacred Pathways” by Gary Thomas

A couple weeks ago, in an article titled “Psychology Isn’t Enough, but It Sure Helps: The Need for Personal, Spiritual Growth in Christianity” I talked about a book by Gary Thomas called Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path To God. I originally read it back in 2017 and I’d planned to write about it here on the blog but for some reason (which I don’t remember now) I never got around to it. So I reread it, and now I’d like to share some thoughts.

Book Overview

Thomas proposes nine “sacred pathways” — spiritual temperaments that describe how we’re most inclined to worship God. In the first chapter, he discusses that in the Christian churches we often expect everyone to worship God the same way. The example he uses is the “quiet time” that became a staple of church training and discipleship programs in the 1970s and ’80s. It involved spending 30 to 60 minutes each morning in prayer, personal worship, and Bible study, then having an accountability partner to check-in that you were keeping up with your routine. Prayer, worship, and study are all good things, but it’s not good if we reduce worship to “rote exercise” or assume everyone has to worship in the exact same way all the time (p. 14-15).

I’ve heard the idea that everyone else should worship “our way” voiced more or less directly by a variety of people in churches I’ve attended. Some think churches that don’t encourage dance are not worshiping Biblically; others worry about the people who aren’t committed enough to follow their example of reading the Bible through every year. I’ve voiced my own frustration with song services that have all the enthusiasm of a funeral dirge, saying we need more life in our worship to make it meaningful. Complaining about those who don’t  worship the way we think they ought is a common thing. But perhaps it betrays a wrong attitude. Read more

Psychology Isn’t Enough, but It Sure Helps: The Need for Personal, Spiritual Growth in Christianity

Someone once asked me if there are any aspects of Myers-Briggs® theory that I disagree with. I told them that my main issues have to do with ways it can be misused rather than with the actual theory. But as much as I like this type theory, I also acknowledge that it’s not a complete system for personal growth or even personality. Myers-Briggs® theory just describes how your mind works by talking about the psychological functions that you use most comfortably.

You can use type theory to help you develop those psychological functions, but they’re still not the whole story of your personality. There are other things we layer on top of that like personality traits, lived experiences, and personal beliefs. The functions are like a canvas we paint on; a foundation for building. They’re not the only things that make us who we are.

One of the dimensions that a system of psychological type does not cover is spirituality. That’s not to say that psychologists like Jung (whose work Myers-Briggs® theory is based on) would have denied there’s an essential spiritual component to humans. Far from it! It’s just that type psychology wasn’t designed to be a path in and of itself for spiritual growth. For that, we need something else.

A Connection Between Psychology and Spirituality

I had the idea to write this post last week, when I was listening to a podcast from Joel Mark Witt and Antonia Dodge of Personality Hacker. They’d recently attended an Enneagram workshop where one of the hosts, Uranio Pae, made the statement, “Spiritual work without psychological work is dangerous. Psychological work without spiritual work is incomplete.”

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The Central Question of Job: A Broader Perspective On Suffering

Suffering, and questions about why God allows it, are the main thing Job and his friends talk about through the majority of the Bible book that bears Job’s name. We often say that it is a book about suffering. Since reading Philip Yancey’s book The Bible Jesus Readhowever, I’ve realized Job’s story is actually about a whole lot more than suffering.

Yancey says that if you’d asked him what Job was about, he would have once said, “It’s the Bible’s most comprehensive look at the problem of pain and suffering” (p. 46). But then he took a closer look. Job asks all the questions we want God to answer about suffering, but then the book points us to a completely different way of looking at the problem.

The Stage Is Set

The book of Job begins by setting the stage for a dramatic story. We’re introduced to Job, a man who “was blameless and upright, and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1, quotes from WEB translation unless otherwise noted). He had ten children and exceedingly great wealth, as we’d expect such a good man to have in light of God’s promises to bless those who follow Him. And then something happened.

Unbeknownst to Job, he becomes the central figure in a wager between Yahweh (God’s proper name, see Ex. 3:14-15) and Satan (which means adversary). The “god of this world,” who actively opposes all Yahweh’s plans, comes before Yahweh and issues a challenge in response to a question.

Yahweh said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant, Job? For there is no one like him in the earth, a blameless and an upright man, one who fears God, and turns away from evil.”

Then Satan answered Yahweh, and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Haven’t you made a hedge around him, and around his house, and around all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will renounce you to your face.” (Job 1:8-11)

God holds up Job as an example of a faithful person. Satan challenges that Job only follows God because he gets something out of it. This begins what Yancey calls “a cosmic drama in heaven — the contest over Job’s faith” (p. 49). Satan has attacked God’s character, alleging that He basically bribes people to follow Him. God gives Job the opportunity to prove otherwise (p. 52). Read more