M for Mature:
Living beyond the Virtual
Jeff Jones, Senior Pastor
January 9/11, 2008
If God gave a rating to your spiritual life like we do video games, what would it be? Would it be M for Mature, or something else? That’s what this new series is about that we are starting today, about spiritual maturity, the process of growing closer to God and becoming more like his Son. This series is about spiritual growth, and really a challenge for our church to commit to growing spiritually together, wherever we are to grow deeper in our relationship with God, to really progress.
Speaking of progress, I have my golf clubs up here because about 4 years ago I stood on the stage of our previous building and shot golf balls out into the crowd. Some of you remember that? I can’t believe I did that now, because I only started playing golf a couple of months before. What was I thinking?! I’ve shot or thrown various things out to the crowd over the years, and one thing I have to confess is that three times I have hit the same lady in our church, right in the head…once with a golf ball, another time with a football, and another time with a _____. What are the chances of that? She is an older lady and probably the sweetest lady in our church, but she has some physical challenges that slow down her reaction time. The last time it happened, I remember seeing it in slow motion. I threw it out, and saw it in the air going straight for her. I gasped, said “Noooooooo”…then boom, hit her. I felt terrible. She is always so gracious about it. But now I’ve been playing golf about 4.5 years, and I’m confident in my progress. I really am, and I hope you are, too. And pray I don’t hit that same lady. Let me hit a couple into the crowd. You get to keep the ball if it hits you.
See, I’ve made some progress. But progress doesn’t just happen, that’s true with just about anything, but certainly true of the Christian life. Today we are going to kick off the series by focusing on our responsibility in the Christian life. I say that because God also has responsibility for our spiritual growth. He is committed to our growth, to our “sanctification” the Bible says, as in
Slide: _______________) 1 Thess. 5:23
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can only grow spiritually by his work in our lives, which means that the first and most important step to growing in our relationship with God is beginning one through faith in Christ. You can become a better person, but you’ll never become close to God without his presence in your life. God is active in our spiritual growth, but he also gives us responsibility for our growth. That’s why two Christians, both with God’s presence in their lives, can have very different trajectories in their spiritual lives. One grows great guns, and the other goes almost nowhere. Same God in their lives, but different activities by the two people leading to different results. That’s why in the book of Hebrews, the writer to those Christians chides them:
Slide: _______________) Hebrews 5:11-12
511 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! He is saying to these Christians, “You should be shaving by now! You should be way farther down the road. Take some responsibility for your own spiritual growth. Grow up!”
God expects you to grow, and is committed to your growth. You have to understand that God has a plan. Involved in that plan is his yearning to redeem the world out of its lostness, and he can only involve mature Christians in strategic positions of responsibility to really make that happen.
In other words, God is just waiting patiently for large numbers of us, or let's just make it more personal -- God is waiting right now for you, for you, to grow further than you have grown before because he has a plan that involves you strategically in his redemptive effort in the world.
But he can't hand over strategic kingdom responsibility to a child, to a spiritual infant. You don't take car keys and give them to your junior high student. You just do that when they get a little older, and then you say, 'Now I think you can handle this.' God has a plan for every one of you that he can't put in your lap until you reach a point of spiritual maturity. He wants you to be involved in the most exciting endeavor on the face of the earth, but you can't get there until you grow.
And what a great thing to grow closer to God, to feel more aware of his presence in your life now than six months ago, to sense God using you to impact his world in ways that you never even dreamed could happen, to know a greater and greater sense of his empowerment in your life! We all want that, or we wouldn’t be here. I know that you want to grow, but that means that you have some responsibility to help make that happen. God will do his part, but we must be responsible for ours.
So today we are going to look at the life of the apostle Paul, in a passage of Scripture where he describes his own perspective about his own growth spiritually, to learn our responsibility. If you want to know what separates Paul from the rest of us, the men from the boys, the ladies from the girls, then let’s turn to
Slide: _______________) Philippians 3:7-15
Listen to his perspective: 7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. 15 All of us who are mature should take such a view of things.
A lot of passion there, which brings me to my first point of responsibility, the first factor that separates people who really grow and those who don’t:
Slide: _______________) Desire
Did you hear his passion? His focused desire? He says that he considers every other competing desire in his life as “rubbish,” which sounds like some British person trying to make a strong point. That’s rubbish! But the word translated rubbish gave the translators from Greek to English a significant challenge because the Greek word, skubala, was a cuss word. There is an English equivalent, and if I said it some of you would be entertained and the rest of you would be upset, so we’ll just leave it at “rubbish.” But Paul was making a very strong point. The readers of this letter would have been as shocked when he said skubala as if I said the English equivalent of skubala…but he is braver than me. It wasn’t that everything else in Paul’s life was evil, but in comparison to his growing to know God better it was just dog poop.
That’s focused intensity, and the first element of Paul’s Christian life that makes him stand out: desire. As I said before, I’m convinced that all of us want to grow and mature in Christ; the problem is that there are too many competing desires. We want to focus on Christ, knowing and serving him, but that desire just gets shoved to the back of the desire pile. We have career, other relationships, hobbies, entertainment, the new episodes of Lost, lots of other desires that compete. I really think that the biggest problem most of us have is distraction. What separates believers with good intentions and those who put those intentions to work is largely focus.
So, let’s put ourselves to the test. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being distracted and 10 being highly focused on your relationship to and service of God, where are you right now? What is your desire quotient? Could people look at your life and say, “He or she has other commitments and interests, but they seem like skubala, like dog poop, in comparison.” Focused desire is incredibly important, but there is still this huge gap between desire and actuality, that can only be filled in by this next component:
Slide: _______________) Discipline
Paul’s desire fueled his every day decisions to be disciplined, and there is no substitute for discipline in the Christian life. The constant pressing on in the Christian life that he talks about in Philippians 3 is spelled out further in another passage where he describes his own Christian life,
Slide: _______________) 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul translated desire into discipline, comparing the Christian life to a marathon. I’ve never tried a marathon before, but I know enough to know that you can’t just be casually prepared to run one. You can’t just go out and buy the running shoes, buy little shorts, and expect to finish. That’s true of lots of things. How many of us are on diets right now, starting the new year? Terrible, isn’t it! I want carbs so bad I could cuss, say the word that is a good translation of skubala. Anybody else in a bad mood when you diet? Grumpy! Diets take discipline. I wish I could just will the pounds away…concentrate really hard on desiring weight loss, but desire without discipline does nothing. Exercise is like that. Probably a few of us want to exercise more. To encourage you, let me share a quote from Winston Churchill. Once he was asked if he ever exercises, to which he replied, “The only exercise I get is serving as a pallbearer for my friends who died while exercising.” Just to encourage you. Exercise plans are all about discipline. The Christian life is the same way. To grow spiritually, there are certain practices, experiences, and relationships that move us on to maturity that are indispensable. You can’t just want to grow spiritually; you have to engage certain disciplines.
Last week Drew talked about Vertical, a Bible reading plan taking us through the books about Jesus’ life for us to read through as a church this year. It is going to be great, but guess what. It takes more than desire. It takes discipline. Today is an introductory sermon to this new series, M for Mature, and in the series we will take a fresh look at those experiences, practices, and relationships that are necessary disciplines for spiritual growth. Without these disciplines, growth just isn’t going to happen, and all we are left with is excuses about our stalled Christian lives.
Such excuses are endless: "My life group leader is not very good. I could grow a lot spiritually, but he doesn't have his act together;" "My schedule is too busy. When things settle down, I'll pursue spiritual growth;" "I’ve never been a good reader;" or, "My husband doesn't give me the spiritual leadership I need to grow spiritually." All those are just excuses. To move beyond excuses, you must be disciplined. So, let’s rate ourselves on this one. On a scale of 1-10, how disciplined are you in your spiritual life right now? Is there an area where you know you need to be more disciplined, whether prayer, time in the Bible, serving God, or life group involvement? How disciplined are you?
Paul was a highly effective Christian because he had incredible desire and discipline. He was kind of the Tiger Woods of the Christian life. Yet, he wasn’t perfect, and he often messed up like the rest of us, which leads me to the last element of our responsibility in the Christian life that separates the men from the boys and the ladies from the girls:
Slide: _______________) Perseverance
Perseverance is the choice to keep taking step after step with God, but that gets difficult when discouragement invades the Christian life. Walking with God is not easy. In fact, it can be very discouraging and slow and difficult. We make big commitments and have great desires and even try to be disciplined, and we fail. We fall, and when we do we feel like giving up and many people do, they fall out of the race.
(Use Chart) A lot of us assume that the Christian life works like this chart…a steady linear progression of up and to the right. Every day we grow closer to God and feel closer to God. Many Christians, perhaps you included, start out well but then get discouraged when either life gets difficult or they themselves have some setback, some sin or failure or disappointment, and discouragement sets in. The real problem is our assumption about the Christian life. Christian growth doesn’t look like this chart for anybody, but more like this (draw chart). A few steps forward and one or two back. Some days we feel really close to God, other times not so much. But we keep going.
Just listen to Paul in
Slide: _______________) Romans 7: 15-24 (note gap) (NLT)
15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate…I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. 21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? He says, I want to do the right thing, but I keep having these setbacks. The Christian life is hard because we fail. It is also hard because we have an enemy, Satan, who does not want us to grow, does not want us to be a difference maker. He will discourage us any way he can. Setbacks and discouragements are going to happen.
But what kept Paul on track was that he persevered. Hear the perseverance in our main passage today,
Slide: _______________) Philippians 3:12-14
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
What do you do when you fail, when you get discouraged—you move on. You don’t dwell on the past, you do what Paul did, who said, I forget what is behind and keep moving to what is ahead. I don’t let my past struggles and disappointments weigh me down. I keep moving.
But that is easier said than done, because I know I should be further along than I am, and yet I can forget that spiritual growth takes time. I mean, we are talking about character change, deep changes, not just surface changes, and those take time. As you grow spiritually, it doesn’t get easier because you just end up facing issues in your life that are deeper and more sinful and more ugly than you knew could even be there. Sometimes we are open to seeing those things, and sometimes we recoil and have a setback. Real spiritual growth is not easy, but it is not impossible either. Don't get discouraged. Spiritual growth is not impossible.
Just two weeks ago in anger something came out of my mouth that I thought would never come out of my mouth. I said something terrible. I thought somehow I was beyond saying something like that, but I said it. And I was so discouraged afterwards. I thought I was farther along, and I’m just not. Sometimes some temptation seems overwhelming, and it just stays there, and I struggle. I’m saying all this because I know some of you right now feel like a spiritual failure, and you just want to give up. I want you to know that I am often right there with you, and so was the apostle Paul.
What I want you to understand is all that is normal. That’s just the way the Christian life is, but the great news is that there is an answer to Paul’s question when he says, “Who will deliver me?” The answer in the next verse is Jesus Christ, who comes to us with his grace and forgives and strengthens and encourages. He knows that we are prone to fall, and when we do, he isn’t there to chastise us or shame us but to forgive us and get us going again just like a good coach encouragers his or her players.
God coaches and loves us toward growth. He warns us along the way about potholes and rabbit trails. He affirms us when we take courageous steps of growth. He says, 'Good job! Now you're doing it!' When we fail, he doesn’t come at us with a club, but stretches out his hand and say, “Step back up. Let’s get started again.”
The picture I get of God is of a loving dad teaching his son or daughter to ride a bike. Any of you experience that? You start your child out on a bike with no training wheels, and what happens? Inevitably he or she goes for a little while, but then loses balance and falls. What do you do? You go and pick them up, put them back on the bike, and say, “You can do this! I’ll help you. Let’s do this again.” And after a time, the kid learns how to ride and you cheer him or her on. God is your biggest cheerleader in your spiritual growth, and he is telling you not to get bogged down about the past. Get back on the bike, press on and keep peddling. Don’t let discouragement keep you from growing. Paul didn’t. He didn’t look backwards. He looked ahead and kept moving.
Discouragement is a deadly enemy to spiritual growth, but for those of us who have been Christians a long time, there is a far more deadly one: complacency. Complacency is most dangerous to those of us who have known Christ the longest. After a while, we just stop peddling because we feel pretty good about where we are already at.
A couple of years ago I was encouraging a couple of younger Christians in their growth, who are very new to Christianity and do happen to have a number of struggles that are obvious ones, like drug use, partying and profanity. Again, it is about momentum, so my encouragement to them was to get rid of the drug use and partying, and focus on the profanity problem later. There were a few other more minor vices I just didn’t worry about. Again, Christianity is about momentum. Are we closer to God and to his will today than yesterday? One day I was praying for one of these friends, and it was like God spoke to me. I’m always very careful about that kind of thing, but here’s the thought that came to me as I prayed for one of these guy’s struggles. I really think it was God that challenged me and said, “Look at you, on your perch, judging your friend who is struggling with something you don’t. Guess what? He is moving forward, and what are you doing on your perch looking down on him? You are staying still. You are stuck.” And I realized that I was stuck. I felt pretty good about myself, and was stuck in my own complacency. Some of you are stuck right now. You aren’t really making new ground in your Christian life. You are just doing the same old stuff and staying the same old person you’ve been for a while. Some of you need to be unstuck.
So, let’s rate ourselves on this element of perseverance. Are you stuck? Are you discouraged? Have you given up? Do you need an injection of hope, of momentum? Need to get back on the bike, or start peddling again?
The start of 2009 is a great opportunity to grow, and as a church I want to challenge all of us to grow together, and we can do that as we intensify our focused desire, as we choose increase our discipline, and persevere when moving ahead gets difficult. Over the next few weeks, we are going to be looking at some of the more significant practices and experiences that God uses to grow us in our Christian lives. I’m going to ask you to commit to come each week with an open heart. If you are new in your Christian life, you will be guided in how to take next steps. If you’ve been a Christian for a while, this will be a fresh look so don’t come with complacent arrogance. Come open.
We also want you to know that as a church we are committed to doing all we can to cheer on spiritual growth, and we want to know how we are doing, which areas we need to be emphasizing. So, today we are going to do a brief survey to find out where we are. This survey is anonymous, and I encourage you to do it whether you’ve been here for 20 years or today is your first day.
Thank you for doing that. That will really help us know where we are as a church and where we can do better. We have a responsibility as a church to do that. And what we’ve talked about today is that you have primary responsibility for your own spiritual growth and health. God is the one who causes growth and is committed it, you and I do have responsibility as well. He responds to our desire, discipline, and perseverance. He doesn’t want us to stay where we are and can only grow our usefulness to His purposes as we grow in our maturity. So, let’s go to God right now and commit to the process of maturity and open up our lives once again to him for these next few weeks.