God’s Word and God’s Spirit

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I was thinking about something I said in a previous blog about God’s Spirit using God’s Word. It’s interesting to see the parallels. I find pretty often, God’s Spirit will bring to mind something I’ve read in Scripture as a way to guide or correct me. Check these out sometime and reflect on the importance of both following God’s Spirit and knowing God’s Word:

Both the Spirit and Word search the heart: Romans 8:27, Hebrews 4:12

We are indwelt by both: 1 Corinthians 3:16, Colossians 3:16

We are to be filled with both: Ephesians 5:18, Colossians 1:9-12

We are born again by both: John 3:5-7, 1 Peter 1:22-25

We are washed clean by both: Titus 3:5-6, Ephesians 5:25-27

We are sanctified (grown up spiritually) by both: 1 Peter 1:2, John 17:17

We are set free by both: Romans 8:2, John 8:31-36

We are made competent by both: 2 Corinthians 3:5-6, 2 Timothy 3:16

We find hope in both: Romans 15:13, Romans 15:4

We overcome by both: 1 John 4:4, 1 John 2:14

We find joy through both: Ephesians 5:18-19, Colossians 3:16

We stay connected, abiding in Christ by both: 1 John 3:24

Seasons of Faith 4

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The past three posts, I’ve been reflecting on Seasons of Faith and where I am currently. The greatest phase of faith peaks in the Love Phase. The Love Phase integrates all that we’ve learned about God, about ourselves, about the value of doing right things for right reasons, but most importantly about loving others in a broken, messed up world. We find renewed Honeymoon Phase love for God in this season. We don’t throw out the practices and disciples of the Growth Phase, but we’re not rigidly bound by them.  They are not the end, but the means. They serve us instead of us serving them (Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath”).  We no longer childishly do these things to prove we’re “good,” but instead we embrace disciplines to help us “love”—God first, then others.  There is a new sense of freedom and peace and a joy that comes from within because the Desert Phase pried open our hands to help us hold loosely to things which we have no control over, yet cling tightly to the God of hope who alone can create good in us, even out of every evil (Romans 8:28-29). This sets us free in ways we never imagined.  And the outcome of this phase is that we want to help others.  Not out of motivation to be “good,” but out of an experience of “being loved by God” and feeling secure. We have more to give, and we want to serve others out of compassion.

So where am I right now? After reflecting on the Honeymoon, Growth, Desert, and Love Phases of spiritual growth, where am I?  Here’s the weird thing—I’ve found myself in at least three of the four places this year alone!  I’ve felt let down by God, and I was forced into a more accurate view of life with God. I’ve gotten more disciplined at times, and I’ve felt that First Love excitement renewed. That’s why I contend these phases are not really linear where you do step 1, then 2, then 3, then 4.  But more of a spiraling upward, cycling through these phases over the years, sometimes in one season for a short time, sometimes for years. What do you see as you reflect on your season of faith?

Seasons of Faith 3

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The Desert Phase is inevitable and important, but never welcomed. After the Honeymoon Phase and Growth Phase (and sometimes right in the middle of one of these phases that I talked about in the past two posts), God allows the evil, broken world we live in to affect us just like it affects everyone.  It’s a time of disequilibrium. God lets us down because he doesn’t do what we wanted or expected. Inevitably, we had a “deal” with God that He didn’t agree to: “If I do good, God will keep me from suffering.” Then we realize that was never the deal God agreed to. Death or disease, betrayals, trials or sufferings enter our lives—just as it entered the life of God demonstrated in Jesus! We don’t “feel” close to God.  We “feel” like He’s just not there and we’re stumbling in the dark alone.  Jesus himself went through this, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  What we are learning is how God overcomes an evil world, not by removing all evil, but by overcoming it by faith. “And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.” (Romans 8:17)

This is probably the most important time of growth in a person’s life, yet if that person doesn’t have the support of spiritually wise friends or enough growth in faith to know that every writer of Scripture went through the Desert and emerged stronger, she might walk away from God for years (usually until the pain and hopelessness of life without God drive us back to Him).

The reason God allows us to go through this phase is it forms us into truly compassionate, loving people if we allow it to work its truth into our lives.  This is the painful birth canal through which every spiritually alive person must eventually pass. (Romans 8: 22-23)  Instead of seeing only a black and white world of “good people who think and do like I’ve learned to do” and “bad people who don’t,” we learn to grieve a broken, evil world where people created good in God’s image get hurt and deceived and then hurt and deceive each other. We realize that “I’m no different—I need God’s forgiveness and leadership just as much as everyone else.”

Jesus pointed out the difference between the Religious Pharisee who prayed, “God thank you I’m not like that Tax Collector Sinner over there,” and the Tax Collector who prayed, “God have mercy on me, help me.” We realize the line between good and evil isn’t “out there,” it runs right through my heart. That’s why I need what Jesus did to count for me, and it’s why I need God (and usually this realization at a deeper level creates in us compassion and empathy for those who struggle or hurt, and even those trapped doing hurtful, evil things). Jesus told the Religious people stuck in the growth phase, “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”  As we allow God to change our hearts, we emerge from this Desert Phase with a far deeper experience of God’s love and a far greater capacity to love others.  This is a truly maturing faith.

My own experience is on the backside of these Desert times, which I went through an incredibly intense one this year, and two years ago—on the backside there’s an internal joy and depth of life that’s just amazing.  It makes no sense, I can’t really even explain it. It’s the experience of that Living Water Jesus talked about that comes from your innermost being—it’s a gift from God that refreshes after the parched dryness of the Desert. Only after experiencing this multiple times have I come to understand a verse that always perplexed me:  “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.” (Romans 5:3-5)  I now “get this” experientially. I’m convinced God doesn’t cause the sufferings (any more than God caused the sufferings of Jesus). But God allows them for a time and uses them to form willing people into truly compassionate, loving people who can be His Body serving a broken, hurting world.  Studies on spiritual growth show that people identify times of trials and suffering as the greatest catalyst to forming who they are today.

Something to reflect on this New Year is the question, “Does my view of spiritual growth include seasons of trials and suffering?” “If not, why not?”  “Am I prepared to endure so that God can birth something strong in me through it—or will it all be for nothing?”

Seasons of Faith 2

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Last blog, I reflected on the first Season of Faith: The Honeymoon Phase. After this comes the Growth Phase if faith is truly to survive the test that will inevitably come.  This phase is marked by more rules and boundaries and black and whites. It’s a time of learning and putting new practices in place to reorient our old habits into new ones that help us live life with God at the center. It’s a time of learning, of trying new things, of developing a more disciplined spiritual life. Usually, we need more structure in this phase, and we often become a bit rigid and even judgmental of those not “getting serious” about God like we are.

When I was in this phase (before going through the next two phases) I was definitely feeling that “better than” or “good boy” sense of accomplishment from having regular (cannot miss) “quiet times” or “prayer times” or diligently studying or memorizing.  This is actually good and important (we need to feel good about our diligence to persevere), but if we get stuck here, it can also lead to a kind of Religious Piety that is judged only by rules and outward appearances and looking-down-the-nose at those less inclined (Many of the Pharisees of Jesus day seemed to be stuck here).

I’ve seen people come to faith at Gateway who entered into this phase and became so black and white, they started feeling judgmental toward the very approach that helped them find faith, and left our church condemning us as heretical.  I’ve since come to see that the first time we enter this phase (because these phases are not linear, but more cyclical in a spiraling upward kind of way), we need well defined paths and boundaries—it actually gives security to our faith.  It’s okay for people to be more black and white first growing through this season.

It’s almost like the way children need rules and boundaries to feel secure, when they don’t have the maturity to see the deeper principles that govern the rules or boundaries.  But that’s okay, it’s a phase.  This is why we’ve clearly defined a spiritual formation path called Morph that helps people get intentional about growth (whether new to faith or those who have been “at it” for years, but who still do not have regular practices in place or a good working knowledge of the Scriptures).  If the first growth phase is successful, we now understand more about who God is, who we are, and how life really works, so that the next phase does not sink our ship (though it almost always feels like it will!).

For me, I’ve realized that some of the practices I used to do almost legalistically, I have not done in years—like memorizing Scripture. I got a group of guys who I recently challenged to start memorizing, and it reminded me of how beneficial this has been over the years. Having God’s promises on your mind throughout the day—so I’m returning to that practice with them.  What season are you in?  Does this need to be a year of increased structure and discipline?  Or have those structures become a legalistic act by which you judge yourself and others—is it time to give yourself permission to “chill” and pursue life with God outside the boundaries of the play-pen?

Seasons of Faith 1

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I’ve been reflecting on where I am spiritually right now. Usually, I do this each year on the backside of Christmas. But we ended up driving 36 hours with a carload of teenagers from Gateway on The Uprising snowboarding trip (can you say, “bruised tailbone”?). I learned to snowboard (which I discovered is nothing like wakeboarding, surfing, or skating) and tried my best to keep up with my son (who after three days was rippin’ it up—he’s in the orange suit!). So I’m just now reflecting on the year, which in the past might have caused guilt that I didn’t stick with my yearly discipline. This made me think back to seasons of faith that we typically all go through if we stick with it long enough. The next four posts, I’m gonna reflect on each season. People have called them different names; I call them the Honeymoon Phase, the Growth Phase, the Desert Phase, and the Love Phase. One thing to note, the seasons are not linear. I see them more as a spiraling up as we pass through different seasons again and again, but in “higher” more mature ways as we grow.

The Honeymoon Phase is that time when we first really get it that God is real and good and wants us!  It’s the beginning of seeing the world as a place of hope and possibility now that Someone Bigger is in the picture.  Everything’s new—prayer is new and fresh, reading the Scriptures is new–we’ve stopped being the accuser and cynic and instead seek to really learn—this opens us to see God and life in new ways.  It’s like a honeymoon as you start a new life with God.  I remember for me, though I didn’t have lots of warm-fuzzy feelings or any wild “experiences” this time was very hopeful and full of promise.  Ironically, I remember my first ski trip was on a retreat right after I came to faith.  Being in the mountains reminds me of this time of first love—for the first time, seeing the God behind everything good and beautiful and fun. Do you remember this time—do you remember your “First Love?”  In Revelation, Jesus tells us to remember and return to this season of our “First Love” (Rev. 2:4-5).  Those feelings come and go, like in any relationship, but we can rekindle the light of that first love for God by remembering and doing some of things we did before in this season.