Crossways Concepts

Because it is all about the cross...

Insights from the scripture as lead by the Holy Spirit

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How Ya' Doin'?

Imagine yourself standing on the lake shore staring out at the expanse of water between you and the opposite shore.  You know that you are ready to swim across the lake for the first time.  You have swam much further when doing laps at the pool, but this somehow seems much different.  So, you buck up your courage, jump in and and begin swimming.  You concentrate on making each stroke count.  You assure that each of your limbs are doing exactly what they need to do to be an efficient swimming machine.  You swim, and you swim, and you swim.  You keep expecting to touch solid ground as you approach your goal, but, instead, you find yourself getting tired, when this shouldn't be so difficult.  So, you look up and find that you are no longer headed the short-way “across” the lake, but are now headed the impossibly long way “down” the lake!  Luckily the shore isn't too far away, but it is sideways from the direction you were going.

In virtually all things in our life we need to periodically stop looking at the detail level and see how we are doing in making progress toward the goal.  This can apply to a short-term project (stop painting for a moment to see how the wall is looking) or a life-long endeavor (like a career or a marriage).  These moments of self-evaluation give us a chance to make minor course corrections before we get completely turned around from where we should be.

This need for self-evaluation applies equally to our spiritual life as it does with our physical endeavors.  In some ways, it is even easier to get off-track spiritually than it is to get off-track physically.  There are always many forces that want to influence our walk with Christ, but only some of them are beneficial.  It is altogether too easy to become off-target spiritually.

The problem lies in the fact that the people of our world are imperfect.  Whether the people we encounter are professing Christians or not, their areas of imperfection can influence us.  Associating with imperfect people in unavoidable, we even find them in our mirror.  While we would like to believe that we are immune to the other people's influence over our walk with Christ, their influence is like the effect of water currents on a swimmer.  It can produce a gentle nudge that, over time, can push a person right off-course.

These influences include social expectations, slanted information and distractions from what is truly important.  Sadly, the influences that would push us off-track are not only in the world, they also show up in our churches.  On every side we are under pressure to fit-in.  We are being assaulted by all variety of information and misinformation about what it means to be Christian.  Moreover, our world has an entirely different set of priorities than those laid out in the Gospel.

So, it is very difficult to stay on spiritual track amid all the many distractions and sources of misinformation.  To aggravate the spiritual navigation problem, our culture has made it socially unacceptable to even consider that there might be anything wrong with any person's spiritual walk, not even your own walk.  Spiritual health has become a taboo subject.  People are more open to talk about their sex lives than their spiritual life and are, therefore, avoiding an incredibly important question.

God calls us to perform a spiritual self-examination.  The Bible tells us, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith.  Examine yourselves.” (2 Corinthians 13:5)  We are told that we must look critically at our spiritual life to see if Jesus Christ is in us.  Without this evaluation, we are subject to being lead off in a direction that is contrary to God's will.

The challenge of determining whether we are heading in the right direction, comes in determining what we should be using for our spiritual “compass”.

When we seek to examine ourselves, our typical first response is to compare ourselves to other people.  We like this kind of self-evaluation because we can always find people that make us look good.  The Bible doesn't say, “Thou shalt have a righteousness that exceeds that of a few select individuals around you.”  Instead it says that we are to “walk worthy of the calling we have received” (Ephesians 4:1) and yet that calling is a gift from a God who is perfect in holiness and righteousness.  How can we ever be worthy of that?

This initial response of comparing ourselves to others is all part of our natural skill for self-deception.  I personally know that it is possible to be convinced of one's good standing with God while being up-to-my-neck in unrighteousness.  This is because we can convince ourselves of almost anything.  The invisible nature of righteousness makes it a perfect breeding ground for self-deception.

Instead of looking at other people to determine our spiritual condition, we need to take inventory of our Christian life without using what we see in the world as our point of reference.  When we examine ourselves against God's standard, we will always find ourselves falling short.  This is not a point of despair.  We must remember the words Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).  God will make us perfect and complete, but that process doesn't finish on this side of heaven.  In the mean time, we are a work-in-progress that is meant to struggle, learn and be molded as we work our way through this life.

So, exactly how can a person assess their spiritual walk?  The first step is to look at the basis of what it is to be Christian.  Faith is the foundation on which our relationship with Christ is based.  The scriptures, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6) and “everything that is not from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23) highlight how critical it is to possess real faith.  Yet, as master self-deceivers, it is easy to confuse lip-service or faith-by-association with real faith.

God intimately knows our hearts and minds.  While we might fool people around us or even ourselves, we can never fool God.  He sees right through all the compartmentalizing and mental contradictions to know the true nature of the faith at our core.  He won't be impressed by actions that we take just because they seem “Christian”, he sees past those things and looks at our true heart.  All the Christ-like actions in the world don't make a bit of difference to God if faith isn't there. 

Faith is so critically important, that we need to be sure of the faith we possess.  It should be remembered that having faith isn't the opposite of having doubts.  No person on this earth is immune from having Satan inject doubts into their minds.  Real faith can exist even in the same person that has doubts float through their mind from time-to-time.

It is extremely slippery to attempt to evaluate one's faith directly because it is too easy to say, “Of course I have faith!”  Instead it is beneficial to evaluate how that belief-structure affects our thinking and actions (“They profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works” Titus 1:16).  Here are some hard questions that we can use to evaluate our faith:
--How do we feel about dying?  If we truly accept that Christ has prepared a better place for us, then we should actually look forward to going to heaven.  On a related note, are we able to trust God with our unfinished business (like raising children, etc.)?
--Do we treat the Lord as our king?  Who is at the steering wheel of our life?  Is our life one that goes where we want it to go, or are we sincerely seeking to lead the life that God has planned for us, even when that may be the uncomfortable option?  Do we actively seek his guidance and are we open to wherever He might lead us?
--Psalm 121:1 asks, “Where does our help come from?”  Do we acknowledge Him as the true source of power to make a difference when things go bad?  When things go wrong, do we go to the phone or to the throne?  Do we really expect Him to act in our lives when we take our troubles to Him?

In addition to these questions that examine the reality of our faith, we also can look at the depth of change that Christ produces in us.  As Christians, we have the Holy Spirit residing within us.  This aspect of the trinity serves as a communication conduit between our unholy hearts and the perfectly holy God.  It is through this satellite of the almighty God that we are guided and grown. Because this “nugget” of God lives inside us, we cannot help be be affected by it.

Scripture is very clear about what effects we can expect from having God's Holy Spirit living inside us, guiding us:

I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance—as I told you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. (Galatians 5:16-25)

It is clear from the scripture that without the Holy Spirit's influence, our human-ness will lead us in completely different directions than the Holy Spirit would have us go.  This scripture passage presents us with a 'bad list' of the sorts of things that will come out of a life led by the flesh.  In contrast, it also presents us with a list of attributes of the Spirit led life.  The 'bad list' is a list of some of the many things that may show up, but the 'good list' is not the same sort of list.  The 'good list' is described as the (singular) “fruit of the spirit” – when a person hangs out with the Holy Spirit, then all of these things will be increased.

For example, people in our world are typically very short of peace, hope and joy.  When the Holy Spirit resides in you and isn't blocked (“Don't stifle the Spirit”, 1 Thessalonians 5:19), then you see a building of peace, hope and joy.  While all of the many aspects of the fruit of the spirit will increase, these 3 characteristics can be used as a good barometer of the influence of God's Spirit, just because the world doesn't encourage their growth.

As God's peace increases, it should be easier to deal calmly with the bumps in the road of life.  Life should be characterized by less worry, less stress and less anger.  God's peace comes out of trusting Him to a greater degree, and in more areas of your life.  When we really know God has our situation in His capable hands, then stressing over life becomes unnecessary.

Hope and peace go hand-in-hand.  When we have the hope that can only come from our Lord, the we will find pessimism and cynicism fading away.  With God's hope we will find ourselves actually looking forward to whatever God has in store for us, even our own death.  While we live in a world that focuses on dire predictions, fear-mongering, scandal and seeing the worst in all people, God's hope is an antidote for these negative attitudes.

Real joy is almost foreign to our culture.  The joy that God's spirit generates, is a deep down experience that will be unaffected by the winds of daily life.  This sort of joy never leaves, even in the midst of horrid tribulation.  This joy flows from God as He loves us and His love doesn't ever stop.  In a world that thinks joy is found in buying stuff, it is clear that they don't have a clue about what real joy consists of.

As we progress through life we should expect to see that the Lord is making progress at enhancing these characteristics in our life.  In the short-term, the changes may not appear evident, but the hope is that as we compare ourselves to previous versions of ourselves, that we will see changes.  For example, we may encounter a challenge and suddenly see ourselves handle it is a way that would have never happened in years past.

The gradual change that the Lord grows in us can be compared to our children's growth during the summer.  We may not notice the gradual growth, but when school starts and we attempt to put the kids in long pants, we can see how much they have grown.  Going through our normal day-to-day, it may be very hard to identify whether we are being changed without taking the time to compare how we are now, to how we were in the past.

There is one more tool that is important in the evaluation of our spiritual condition.  The scripture says, “Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in Him” (Colossians 2:6)  Throughout Scripture is this concept that we are to walk with Him as we go through our lives.  It is such a temptation to leave Him behind as we enter into our busy days, then to pick Him up when things slow down again, but this isn't in accordance with God's plan for our relationship.  He wants to be involved in every aspect of our lives, always ready to provide His blessings of guidance, strength and wisdom in every situation.  Abandoning Him when we enter the world is like a soldier that wears his body armor, except when he goes into battle.

We should each look at our lives and see the role that we allow Jesus in our hour-by-hour lives.  Are we walking with Jesus or just visiting Him from time-to-time as it suits us?  Is He an active participant in our lives or a last-resort?  Is our awareness of Him continuous or occasional?  Is he involved in everything that happens in our life or just “the big things”?

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have the relationship with the Lord that we read about in the Bible? When Moses had a question, he would take it to God and God would talk to him about it.  Elijah was able to raise the dead and to bring demonstrations of God's power to the masses.  David enjoyed an intense love relationship with the Lord.  Paul enjoyed God-given insights into His perfect plan.

These things are what God is able to do through regular humans.  He might choose to do these things through you or me, but in order to experience the potential God sees in us, we need to nurture our relationship with Him.  This is a life-long journey.

There are so many of the self-examinations described here that sting my soul.  Every Christian that walks on the face of this planet has room for improvement in their spiritual walk.  As quickly as we try to improve, the world tries to break us down, distract us or push us off-track, but the Lord always wants better for us.  He seeks to grow us into the person He knows we can be.

Our goal should always be to please the Lord.  While He doesn't require perfection, He does ask that we are fully His.  When He is our God and we are His people, then He will build us up into instruments that He can use to further His kingdom.  We cannot allow ourselves to be drawn off of His perfect path.  In order to assure that we stay on His path, we must periodically stop to re-evaluate, self-examine and re-assess to see where we are heading.

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