There are days when I feel I’ve made remarkable strides in my journey with Jesus. Other days it seems I’m stuck in Christian babyhood, still learning how to sit up, and I wish I wasn’t such a slow learner. I guess it’s somewhat like time-lapse photography of a seed sprout breaking through topsoil and then quickly proceeding to grow into a healthy plant that suddenly explodes in a beautiful spray of eye-dazzling flowers. The entire process takes about ten seconds to view. But, though it’s certainly exciting to watch, it’s a gross distortion of reality. If you wanted to observe the event unfold in real time you’d have to camp out in the garden for weeks on end. At some point you’d probably get bored and seek something more entertaining because it would appear nothing much was happening.
In the same way, our development as followers of Jesus can seem so slow-paced we can easily become discouraged. Especially in this day and age when everybody expects to get results right this minute “on-demand.” But that’s when Christians should take a moment to pause and reflect on what’s transpired in their life since they became born again as an adopted child of the Father in heaven. It’s then we’ll see that growth has occurred. In almost imperceptible increments we’ve become a little kinder, more understanding, quicker to forgive and considerably more loving. The Bible has become our favorite book. Prayer is now a part of our daily routine. We look forward to church. The lyrics to the hymns and praise songs put a lump in our throat. We don’t hesitate to unashamedly identify ourselves as a bona fide Christian. All these changes come about ever so gradually but rest assured, they do come about. Perspective is vital but I’m here to confess I don’t always have it. I want perfection now, by golly. But it’s as Billy Graham wrote, “You never will reach that point of full maturity in Christ until you see Him face to face in heaven.”
Some believers mature by leaps and bounds but they’re the rare exception, not the rule. Most of us change over longer spans of time. When we become reborn we sorta start over from the beginning, if you will. Though the “new creation” being nurtured by the indwelling Holy Spirit possesses all the ingredients needed to grow up spiritually and morally, like everything of lasting value, it doesn’t happen overnight. As infants in the faith we must learn to crawl, then stand, then toddle around, then walk, and eventually we’ll be able to run. Maturing takes effort, study, patience, discipline and, most of all, trust. Brennan Manning wrote, “The basic premise of biblical trust is the conviction that God wants us to grow, to unfold, and to experience fullness of life. However, this kind of trust is acquired only gradually and most often through a series of crises and trials.” In other words, there’s no shortcut to holiness. Some may try to speed up God’s plan by assuming control of their own advancement but all they end up doing is donning the translucent mask of a “religious” type that fools very few. They unwisely build their house on shifting sand and when troubles come they fall apart. True Christian growth can only come from God’s positive influence and He always reconstructs us from the inside out. The person who attends church in order to impress others in the community but is secretly agnostic has yet to receive the Holy Spirit and, therefore, the transformation they see in believers and desire for themselves eludes them. Until they let go of the things of this world, give up their old life and become born again permanent change is impossible. They’ll be burdened with their flawed selves forever.
That kind of person won’t dupe many Christians and they’ll never fake out God. Graham tells the story of a group of Harvard students who tried to pull a fast one on the famous zoologist, Louis Agassiz. They gathered parts from a variety of different insects and painstakingly attached them together. The idea was to trick their teacher into thinking they’d discovered a new species. When they were satisfied with their Frankenstein-ish creation they brought it to class one day and asked their esteemed professor to identify it. He took his time and inspected it with great care, leading the students to assume their prank was going to be a resounding success. Finally Agassiz stood back and announced, “I’ve identified it.” Doing their best to control their glee, they asked its name. The professor replied, “It’s a humbug.” Those who have the Holy Spirit residing in them will know counterfeit Christians when they see them and recognize them for what they really are – phonies. They’ll give themselves away. 1 John 2:4 states, “The one who says ‘I have come to know God’ and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person.” (As followers of Christ it’s our duty to inform them they’re playing with hellfire and need to repent ASAP.) All who put their faith in Jesus, no matter their age, begin their new life in the nursery ward where they can be carefully fed the Word of God and protected from Satan who wants to destroy them. At this stage they’re particularly vulnerable to becoming confused or frustrated by what they read in the Bible. So it’s important they receive support from members of the body of Christ who can help them digest God’s Holy Word and encourage them to immerse their mind in the Scriptures as often as possible. In our role as Christian mentors we must be patient with their impatience. Graham said, “At the time of birth the child of God is born into great riches, and has a marvelous inheritance, but it takes some time to find out about all his wealth.”
Guiding someone along the path to righteous living is both a huge responsibility and a wonderful blessing bestowed upon us by our Heavenly Father. I sponsor several men in the Celebrate Recovery ministry and I can testify that my own spirituality has been strengthened immensely simply by listening to them confess their faults and by consistently urging them to keep their focus on the source of all healing and hope, Jesus Christ. Every time God assigns me another broken soul to accompany on the road to recovery I feel I’ve been entrusted with something my Lord deemed precious enough to die for so I try to stick with emphasizing the basics – the Bible, prayer and fellowship. You just can’t go wrong with promoting that power-packed trio.
For most of my life I held the opinion I could believe in Jesus and not believe in the Bible. It was convenient to do that because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of holding myself accountable for my actions. But when I made the monumental decision to turn my life over to Christ almost seven years ago the Holy Spirit instilled a yearning in me to finally investigate the Word of God from cover to cover with an open mind. I haven’t stopped consulting and learning from its wisdom since. Now I can’t imagine it not being a part of my daily agenda. When I encounter someone who’s struggling to live a life that’s pleasing to the Lord I always ask them if they’re remaining “in the Word.” More often than not they hang their head and admit they’ve neglected the Scriptures. Not spending quality time with one’s Bible is like trying to build a bridge over troubled waters without the architect’s master blueprints. Modern technology has made the Word of God accessible free of charge to anyone with a smartphone or computer so there’s no longer a valid excuse to hide behind. And don’t be deceived about translations. The myriad available aren’t there to complicate the message. Rather, they provide even more ways to apply God’s teachings to our lives. Reading the King James Version can be akin to slogging through Shakespeare so I always recommend new converts get ahold of one that employs a more modern vernacular. I’m not worried about the “sanctity” of the text getting corrupted. I trust that God is in control and any translation that distorts or perverts His Word will be exposed for the bogus document it is and it won’t gain wide acceptance in the Christian community.
I’ve heard some complain that, while they do know how to read, they just aren’t the “reading type.” Sorry, but that’s nothing but blatant laziness asserting itself. The Creator of the universe gave us an infallible book that can educate us on everything we need to know about how to conduct ourselves on this planet and yet there are Christians who don’t bother to read it? How disrespectful! Get with the program already. Google “read the Bible in a year” and you’ll quickly realize that by spending less than ten minutes a day you can work your way through all the Scriptures in 12 months. Don’t fret about fully understanding every passage because you won’t. That’s normal. Just keep at it because the Holy Spirit is arranging God’s truth inside your mind to fit your individual needs. The Word can plunge pretty deep sometimes and connecting the dots isn’t always simple but every verse has a purpose for being included. Paul wrote in Romans 15:4, “For everything that was written in former times was written for our instruction, so that through endurance and through encouragement of the scriptures we may have hope.” Memorizing verses that are so enlightening it’s as if they were written just for you (not a coincidence, by the way) is also an efficient way to transform your thought processes and bolster your resolve. David wrote, “In my heart I store up your words, so I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). I’m not amiss in labeling the Bible a fully-stocked arsenal we can use against the devil. Scripture is powerful. As an offensive weapon it’s the demon-maiming “…sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). On the defensive side of the ball it’s “…the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). Never forget when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan He thwarted him by quoting Scripture, prefacing each poignant passage with “It is written…” (Matthew 4). If Bible verses were good enough for the Son of God then surely they’re good enough for us.
Prayer is essential to Christian maturity. It’s like a river that flows from the believer’s heart straight into God’s. But since prayer is a personal, one-on-one communication between a created being and his/her Creator there’s no set-in-stone, one-size-fits-all method to conform to. Developing a prayer life can be a frustrating experience for a new Christian but if they’ll simply relax, open up and reverently converse with God about their victories and defeats of the day they’ll always succeed in getting His undivided attention. In Luke 18:1Jesus told His disciples they “…should always pray and not lose heart” and Paul encouraged all believers to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) so its importance is obvious. Yet I still consider my prayer life to be the weakest facet of my walk with the Lord because too often I feel like I’m talking to a dial tone. I’m not connecting. Understand the problem’s not on His end, it’s definitely on mine. I wish there was some sure-fire formula I could adhere to but there’s not. Dr. Larry Crabb, in his very helpful book, “The PAPA Prayer,” wrote, “There are no techniques in good conversation with God. There are no means to manipulate Him, no ways to persuade Him to do things our way. He’s not open to input on how best to run my life.” He suggests the real purpose of being faithful to pray, even when we’re not in the mood, is so we can discover our “own way to relate to God that lets us hear Him speak.” Prayer, by its very nature, is highly subjective so counseling someone on how to go about praying must be done delicately. It might be reassuring for them to know some of the most respected Christian writers throughout history admitted to having a hard time with prayer. That’s why Paul taught that just getting on our knees is sufficient. “…The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26). In other words, sometimes we convey the most to our Father in heaven when we say the least.
Then there’s fellowship. Christ didn’t trek through this world alone and neither should we. One of the core reasons Celebrate Recovery works so well for so many is that it provides a safe place where even the most broken of sinners can find solace and non-judgmental companionship. When I went there initially I thought the only hang-up I had was my lack of sexual integrity but then God revealed to me other deficiencies that needed to be addressed. One was the fact that I had very few close friends. I had plenty of acquaintances and buddies from the “good old days” I’d call up every once in a while but I realized that if not for my wife I’d be a miserable loner. Recognizing that that gaping hole in my existence was negatively reinforcing my introverted personality led me to join a local Bible-based church where I could worship the Lord alongside grateful believers just like me. I had foolishly overlooked the spiritual necessity of being refreshed and invigorated by spirit-lifting fellowship for decades. In my ignorance I used to scoff at those who chose to spend their Sunday mornings in a steeple-topped building but since getting born again I don’t want to miss a single service because there’s no substitute for the warmth of a crowd of Christians. A new convert needs the support of a church because without it their enthusiasm will wilt and eventually their faith will, too. Hebrews 10:24-25 states, “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other…” The brothers and sisters in Christ I’ve grown to love and cherish in the last seven years have turned my fast-approaching “golden years” from something to dread into something I look forward to.
A gifted pastor and music minister I know, Donny Parrish, often shares a rather embarrassing statistic. He tells his congregation surveys of secular folks reliably reveal that up to 80% of people would seriously consider attending a church service if they were merely invited. Isn’t that sad? There are so many hurting in this fallen world, seeking to find meaning and purpose in their lives and the answer, Jesus Christ and his body of believers, is only a few blocks away. All we have to do is ask them to come along one Sunday. Your neighbors are probably ‘hungrier’ and ‘thirstier’ than you ever imagined. All they’ve needed is for someone to take the initiative. What they’ll find is amazing grace in amazing abundance. They’ll also be awakened to the fact they don’t have to be lonely or feel trapped by their troubles and shortcomings any more. Graham wrote, “The fatherhood of God forms the true brotherhood of man, an ideal which the philosophers and moralists have sought from the beginning of time.” Parrish also likes to point out the church isn’t a fixed spot on a map; it’s a vibrant, living entity that extends into the community its members have been commissioned to serve. Christ’s love is infectious. If you’re a Christian you’ve most likely experienced firsthand the joy of meeting a fellow believer in an unexpected place. It might be someone in a waiting room. The lady next to you on a plane. The customer service representative on the phone. You bond instantly with that person because no lengthy intros are necessary. You’re both redeemed children of God and you share a kinship with them stronger than anything else on earth. It’s a blessing.
So how can we know if our Christianity is maturing? Easy. If we’re actively testifying to what Christ has done in our life and trying our best to bring others to the foot of the cross by inviting them to come check out the Lord’s church for themselves we’ll know we’re growing. Remember, all we need do is be God’s seed-sowers. He’ll take care of the gentle watering, fertilizing and pruning necessary to produce the rich harvest that’s to come.