I caught myself the other day saying this: “This is taking absolutely forever!” And what was I referring to? The few seconds it was taking to open a new web page on my computer! Such a silly reaction tells us at least two things: just how impatient I am, and what an instant-everything culture we now live in.
We are so used to living in an instant age that we expect everything to come our way without the slightest of delays, and with the least expenditure of effort. And sadly we expect that of our spirituality as well. Of course by that I am specifically referring to Christian growth and discipleship. The truth is, there is no magic pill, no instant fix, no special formula, and no shortcut to Christian maturity.
Instead, it is a long, daily walk, stepping out in obedience through the mundane things of life. It involves millions of little steps along the way, moment by moment choosing to put Christ first and self last. That is the stuff of how we are to be Christ’s disciples.
But we not only live in an age which demands instant this and instant that, but we live in an age of gimmicks and spiritual hucksterism. All sort of preachers have come along, tickling our ears, telling us what we want to hear but not what we need to hear.
They promise if we do these three steps, or read this book, or take that course, or donate this amount of money, all our spiritual problems will disappear, and we can become super saints overnight. Sorry but it just does not work that way – never has and never will.
Growth in grace is a life-long process, one that involves above all else the exercise of our will. It means making right decisions on a regular basis. Whether getting up in the morning when we don’t feel like it, refraining from criticising a family member, or avoiding a website we know we should stay clear of, the Christian life is one of countless small steps of obedience, and countless denials of self.
But far too many believers still hope they can just take a pill to obtain the deeper life. “But there isn’t any such thing,” as A. W. Tozer reminds us. “There is a cross. There is a gallows. There is a man with bleeding stripes on his back. There is an apostle with no property, with a tradition of loneliness and weariness and rejection and glory – but there are no pills!”
It does no good to pray to be spiritual if we will not set our wills to obey. As Tozer has said, “We have been trying to substitute praying for obeying, and it simply won’t work.” Prayer and obedience, however, is a recipe for spiritual success.
Of course in saying all this we must safeguard and maintain the biblical balance here. Am I saying that spiritual growth is all a matter of self-effort and human striving? No. It is all of grace. Getting saved was God’s work, not ours, and growing in grace is the same.
However, as always, this is a cooperative effort. While it is God who gets the credit for anything good about our spiritual life, we are nonetheless asked to play our part. He will certainly do his part, but we are called to do ours. That is why there are hundreds of commands, orders, and imperatives found in the New Testament.
In one sense, God has already done everything for us (that is the indicative we find throughout Scripture). But the indicative is always followed by the imperative. This is repeated time and time again throughout the NT. Consider just one example. In Col 3:3 we are presented with this indicative, something God has already done for us: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God”. But this is immediately followed with the imperative in 3:5: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
I have written up the indicative/imperative theme more fully elsewhere: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/06/27/on-emergents-and-false-dilemmas/
God is more than able and willing to do his bit. But we have a real responsibility here as well. Seen in this light, Tozer is quite right when he says, “Every man is as close to God as he wants to be; he is as holy and as full of the Spirit as he wills to be.”
Too many of us are sitting back and waiting for God to zap us, transforming us from a self-centred slob into a selfless saint. Sorry, but this is in many ways our job. We are told to die to self, to carry our cross, and daily put to death our carnal appetites.
Again, we must seek the biblical balance here. I am not talking about legalism or self-improvement. Nor am I subscribing to the view that we simply ‘let go and let God’. As Paul put it in Phil 2:12-13: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
There you have it. It may seem paradoxical, but that is always the biblical way: God is fully at work, but we must cooperate with him in this business. Once again Tozer offers wise counsel here:
“The work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart is not an unconscious or automatic thing. Human will and intelligence must yield to and cooperate with the benign intentions of God. I think it is here that we go astray. Either we try to make ourselves holy and fail miserably, as we certainly must; or we seek to achieve a state of spiritual passivity and wait for God to perfect our natures in holiness as one might wait for a robin egg to hatch or a rose to burst into bloom. . . . The New Testament knows nothing of the working of the Spirit in us apart from our own moral responses. Watchfulness, prayer, self-discipline and acquiescence in the purposes of God are indispensable to any real progress of holiness!”
Spirituality then is in fact a lifelong process, one that involves the full use of the will, and one in which obedience is crucial. There can never be a shortcut to Christian maturity. It is always the stuff of right choices, desperation for God, and willingness to daily say no to self and yes to the Spirit. Tozer again provides serious food for thought:
“The idea of cultivation and exercise, so dear to the saints of old, has now no place in our total religious picture. It is too slow, too common. We now demand glamour and fast-flowing dramatic action. A generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines is impatient of slower and less direct methods of reaching their goals. We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relations with God. We read our chapter, have our short devotions and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar. The tragic results of this spirit are all about us: shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit. These and such as these are symptoms of an evil disease, a deep and serious malady of the soul.”
Quite so. We must press on to know God, remembering that God rewards the serious seeker, not the casual inquirer. Do we seek him as Jesus asked of us? Recall his parables about the hidden treasure and the pearl (Matt. 13:44-45). That is what he rewards, the one who lays aside everything to obtain what God has for us.
Martyred missionary Jim Elliot put this so very well when he said: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.”