Some of us may be disappointed with ourselves, like my brother Matt. Not so much with particular things he has done, as with aspects of the person he has become. Matt lives in Colorado, and we met and talked at a family wedding recently.
I did not know much about Matt's private life, but after a few wedding toasts he was willing to talk freely about his pain in not becoming the person he had always thought he would become.
I told Matt boldly that we are called to become the person God had in mind when he originally designed us. Matt listened politely. I asked Matt if perhaps he had removed God from the central role God longs to play in our lives. I told Matt, "Perhaps you have refused to let God be God, and have appointed yourself in His place."
Later, we had a chance to talk, away from the distractions of the wedding reception. I told Matt that perhaps what he was missing was some of the mysterious process called "spiritual growth." The goal of spiritual growth, I told him, is to live as if Jesus held unhindered sway over us. Of course, it is still we who are doing the living. We are called by God, I said, to make daily life choices as the uniquely created selves which each of us is ---- using our own particular temperament, our own gene pool, our own unique family history. But to grow spiritually means to make those choices increasingly as Jesus would have us do.
John Ortberg, a teacher, writer and the pastor of Menlo Park (CA) Presbyterian Church, agrees that we may be missing the life that we were appointed by God to live. Too often, says Ortberg, people think about their "spiritual lives" as just one more aspect of their existence, alongside and largely separate from their "financial" lives or their "vocational" lives. Periodically they may try to get their spiritual lives "together" by praying more regularly or trying to master some other formal spiritual discipline. It is the religious equivalent of going on a diet, or trying to stick to a budget, Ortberg says.
The term "spiritual life" is simply a way of referring to one's complete life, says Ortberg, every moment and every facet of it ---- but from God's perspective. "Another way of saying it," continues Ortberg, "is that God is not interested merely in our "religious" life ---- God is really interested in our lives as a whole. He intends to redeem our whole lives!"
As Pastor Ortberg sees it, God holds out the possibility of transformation, and the possibility of our transformation generates hope in us. Hope is the primary goal of spiritual life." The goal of spiritual transformation can and should be pursued full-time, he says. Often we reduce our "tools for spiritual growth" to a few activities, such as prayer and Bible study, or a few periods of the day called "quiet time." However, every moment of our lives can be an opportunity to learn from God how to live like Jesus tells us to live.
Getting clear on what the "spiritual life" looks like is not a casual affair. How do we know if we are settling for false transformation instead of the real thing? Here are a few warning signs offered by John Ortberg:
1.) Am I spiritually authentic? One would be "inauthentic" if preoccupied with merely appearing to be spiritual. Sometimes we may work harder at making people think we are a loving person than we do in actually loving them.
2.) Am I becoming judgmental or exclusive or proud? Pride is a problem for anyone who takes spiritual growth seriously. As soon as we start to pursue virtue, we begin to wonder why others are not as virtuous as we are.
3.) Am I becoming more approachable, or less? In Jesus's day, rabbis had the mistaken notion that their spirituality required them to distance themselves from people. The irony is that the only rabbi that outcasts could touch was Jesus ---- he was the most approachable religious person they had ever seen. The other religious leaders had a kind of awkwardness that pushed people away.
4.) Am I growing weary of pursuing spiritual growth? Conventional religious goodness manages to be both intimidating and unchallenging at the same time, and this is tiresome. Intimidating because, for example, it might involve 39 separate rules about Sabbath-keeping alone. Unchallenging because we may devote our lives to observing all the rules and never open our hearts to love or joy. Conforming to some particular religious subculture may simply not be a compelling enough vision to cultivate the human spirit,
5.) Am I measuring my spiritual life in superficial ways? God's primary assessment of our lives is not going to be a measure of the number of our prayers, Scripture readings or meditations. Rather, the question is whether we are growing in love for God and for other people. The real issue is what kind of person are we becoming? Practices such as reading Scripture and praying are important ---- not because they prove how spiritual we are ---- but because God can use them to lead us into the life He desires for us.
Pastor Ortberg summarizes these thoughts by saying that spirituality has to do with having our inner person (our mind, our will our desires and intentions) formed and shaped by the words of Jesus, into a character that will honor God, not simply honor ourselves.
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage your pursuit of personal spiritual growth this summer at CPC.