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Spiritual Disciplines for the New Year

Spiritual growth

Does anyone make meaningful annual resolutions anymore?  There are important resolutions to make, physically, socially, economically, etc. Most resolutions feel like emotional reactions to all the mistakes we made the previous years.  In an effort to correct our bulging waistlines, our broken relationships, or our beleaguered balance sheets, we determine to "do better," or at least different, than the previous year.  While it feels good to set goals, without a concerted commitment to fulfill them, they function more like wishful coins thrown into a well we’ll never see again. Even if we don’t fulfill our earthly resolutions, it seems like every year we still make them--the same cannot be said about us spiritually 

When was the last time you set a "spiritual goal" of any kind?  Some of us might wonder what is even meant such a question.  Is this about how much I pray? How much I read the Bible?  How much I evangelize?  Maybe.  At the very least it is a an invitation to curiosity about your priorities.  Most people's priorities are set by what is most urgent becuase its emergent.  In his famous pamphlet Tyranny of the Urgent, Charles Hummel wrote: “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.”  Before you can set a "spiritual goal" of any kind, you must first determine what is most important to you. If spiritual growth is not a important in your heart than spiritual goals will never eclipse what is urgent in your life.

What is spiritual growth?  Good question.  There are probably all kinds of different answers to this question depending on who you ask.  For my purposes, I will make it simple.  Spiritual growth is becoming more like the one who loves you most--namely, Jesus. How does this happen?  Another good question.  The short answer is...it doesn't "just happen."  Becoming more like Jesus requires knowing Him,more, which requires listening to him more, talking to him more, and simply being with him more.  Something "MORE" is usually accompanied by something else "LESS", which means we are gointg to have some decisions to make.

Let us consider what Paul writes a young pastor in 1Timothy 4.7-10

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.  For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. 

First, spiritual growth requires saying no

In calling Timothy to pursue godliness, the first thing he tells him to do is to say no. This young man is told to focus, to avoid, to have nothing to do with any silly myths that might distract him from what is most important.  Our world is full of silly distractions, cyber-arguments, easy-indulgences, more accessible than any other time in history.  Our lives are surrounded with destructive time wasters and tasty waist destroyers.  We don’t have to go looking for l distractions, they come looking for us wherever we go.  Simply stated, there are a lot of unimportant things we must resolve to have “NOTHING TO DO WITH” so that we can have SOMETHING do with what is important.

Second, saying no requires saying yes

Paul talks about training a lot in his letters.  He often describes Christians as athletes and Christianity as a race.  Some of us are “runners.”  I am not. Personally, I disdain running for no other reason than to stop; more than that, I dread the amount of training required to run something like a marathon.  It sounds agonizing.  Did you know that the English word for AGONY comes from this Greek word for STRIVING, which another athletic term for TRAINING? Training is most agonizing because the first aspect of any good regimine is self-denial—athletes have to say NO to some things, many things. 

In order to succeed, that same athlete must also say YES to some things that will not be easy, convenient, tasty, or painfree.  Paul admits that there is some value in doing this physically--it is good for your life on earth.  Spiritual traububg, however, promises value for this life and the next!  But just as getting in physical shape doesn't "just happen", neither does getting in spiritual shape. Spiritual growth requires the same level of discipline and, dare I say, agonizing training. The word for training comes from gymnazo which is where we get our word gymnasium.  Simply, if we are going to grow in godliness we are going to have to work hard at work atgodliness—it doesn’t just happen. Work is not antithetical to the gospel. The gospel is opposed to earning, not effort.

In his book titled GROWTH, author and pastor Jon Ortberg writes that developing spiritual disciplines is about “training not trying.” Trying is an experience—a short obedience in a new direction.  Training is a lifestyle—a long obedience in the same direction.  But, as Ortberg writes: “Training is essential for almost any significant endeavor in life—running a marathon, becoming a surgeon, learning how to play the piano.”  What about following Jesus? Is there intentionally? Is there sacrifice? Is there investment? Yes. Training is not merely doing something; training is the discipline of learning something, then practicing that something, in order to become something. 

Third, saying yes requires a new perspective

This “becoming’ requires much more than a moment of thought where we write down a goal, put it in an envelope, and hope for change.  Becoming requires rearranging the priorities of our lives; sacrificing lesser things in order to obtain greater things. Again, even a cursory examination of our current priorities--where we spend most of our time, money, and energy willl reveal what we value and even where we find our ultimate hope. Our hearts and minds are prone to wander which is why more than once, the Word of God calls us to "seek" and "set our minds" on the things above--which cannot be taken away by time or tragedy.  More than once the Bible reminds us that we are exiles, sojourners, and citizens of a better country and a heavenly kingdom that cannot be shaken,.  More than once we are promised a future grace, an invaluable inheritance, and a glory yet to come that is immeasurable and cannot be lost.    

Paul doesn’t try and minimize the difficulty of training for godliness.  Instead, he focuses his attention on the motivation behind why he is training at all—Christians have their supreme hope set on the living God. That does not mean that God doesn't want us to enjoy this life, rather, it means that we keep this life in the right perspective. And because of that, we will strive--even agnonize--in the pursuit of godliiness believing that the fullness of joy is found in the presence God. Training for godliness is not becoming moral or wise, but becoming all that God has designed us to be in Christ. Obedience to Jesus is designed to produce the fullness of joy in this life in preparation for an even greater joy in the next. 

Fourth, a new perspective requires clear direction

But even the right perspective to see fails without a clear direction to walk.  Paul tells Timothy: Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.  Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.  Even after we accept our need to work out, even desire it, we can remain confused as to what is next.  Where should we start? It feels like walking into a gym not knowing what machine to use or how.  Paul gives us five basic "muscle" groups to focus on in terms of spiritual maturity.  He tells Timothy to train himself in: 1) SPEECH (word) – Speak like Jesus  2) CONDUCT (action) – Act Like Jesus. 3) LOVE (attitude) – Compassion like Jesus  4) FAITH (commitment) – Trust God like Jesus 5) PURITY (self-control) – Deny yourself like Jesus

Our pursuit of godliness needs a direction; goals to aim for; things to pursue. These five areas certainly give us a direction to walk, but they do not describe every step we might take.  And although different methods might be best employed by different people to develop one area or another, they are ALL connected with Jesus.  If nothing else, this means that our spiritual growth requires spending more time with Jesus.  Speaking like Jesus requires listening to Jesus (reading the Word).  Acting like Jesus requires serving like Jesus (being the body).  Loving like Jesus requires sharing Jesus (evangelizing).  Trusting like Jesus requires knowing the Father like Jesus (prayer)...you get the idea.  The pursuit of godiness means nothing if we don't become godly.  All of our self-denying, all of our training, all of our focus, all of our community should conform us more to the image of the Son of God.

Lastly, staying the course requires community

Admittedly, it takes discipine to spend time with Jesus.  And even when we do, growth in these areas are hard to measure perfectly.  But it will be even harder to measure if you only dabble with training all alone.  Paul writes: Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.  We will never become more like Christ unless we immerse ourselves in the things of Christ. Resolutions that last a week, reading plans that fizzle out after a month, mean we have dabbled.  We touch rather than embrace.  We hear rather than listen. We taste rather than feast. Earlier, Paul had charged Timothy to DEVOTE HIMSELF to the word.  Now he says, IMMERSE YOURSELF in these things, PRACTICE THEM. Contrary to culture, practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes permanent. 

Most strikingly, Paul writes thatthis immersion and this practice should be done in such a way that ALL MAY SEE YOUR PROGRESS.  This kind of spiritual growth must take place in community.  Everyone needs accountability.  Everyone needs encouragement.  Everyone needs a work out partner(s).  In his letter to Ephesus, the same church that Timothy is pastoring, Paul wrote that the church was being "built up together" and that it actually grew as the parts "worked [out] together". We need to make spiritual resolutions for the self, but we need more than the self to help keep them.