September marks the end of summer vacations with Labor Day and the beginning of school (although most schools today jump the gun and start before August ends!). Teachers and students have returned to the classroom and adjust once more to the school-year schedule. Back-to-school shopping is finished and while Mom isn’t surprised, Dad is astounded at how much shoes cost today and Grandparents make a fuss over how tall their little Johnny is now.
The point is, we all have to make adjustments because we live in a dynamic, ever-changing world. Nor is it just the world around us that is not the same, we can’t remain the same either! We are to grow, to mature, to make progress in godliness and holiness. The various circumstances that God brings us through are opportunities to react in God-honoring ways more and more consistently. Whether it is adjusting to the first day of third grade in a new elementary school or the twenty-third year of retirement in a new assisted living facility, things are not the same as they were last year. So we must ask ourselves how we are doing: Are we making progress to become more Christ-like in the midst of big and small changes? Are we even expecting positive spiritual changes in our lives? Are we looking for progress?
As we enter this September, let me suggest two helps in tracking your spiritual progress. First, look around and be aware of what I call “Mile Markers” in your spiritual life. You know those wonderfully helpful little green signs that they place along the side of the highway? When one of my children asks, “How much longer?!” during our 1,300 mile trip, I can say, “Just 38 more miles until we are in Ohio!” and point out those little green markers so that he can track our progress. Similarly, there are some aspects of our love for God that evidence themselves in tangible, even measurable ways. And we can be on the lookout for them to chart our progress.
Yes, there is a danger of focusing exclusively on external religious duties. We must guard against that and make sure we are not simply going through the motions, without any heart-engagement; but there is an equal danger of making our faith solely internal and a matter of feeling without any outward obedience or change. Spiritual growth and sanctification – this change comes by the powerful and gracious work of the Holy Spirit, but we are not totally passive. God ordinarily works through the means of grace, i.e. the Word, sacraments, and prayer. And we are to use these as instruments to cultivate our hearts and weed out sin. And the traditional spiritual disciplines, such as fasting and keeping a journal, utilize God’s Word and prayer to assist us as well.
Allow me as your pastor to offer several diagnostic questions to help you probe your spiritual health and growth. How would you answer if you were asked
- Do you thirst for God?
- Are you more like Christ in your love for others now than you were last year? What examples can you give?
- Are you increasingly governed by God’s Word, His revealed will?
Perhaps part of your response might be, Yes! I do thirst for God! Sunday worship is the highlight of my week, I really look forward to gathering with God’s people. I can remember a time when I had to drag myself out of bed and I didn’t care if I was a little bit late. Sunday school was totally optional, no, make that not even an option; but now, I want to take advantage of every opportunity to grow in grace and knowledge of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!”
Or, again, you might say, “You know, I hadn’t thought of it before, but just the other day, someone said something that really made me spitting mad; but instead of reacting as I normally would have, I stopped and prayed for them and for my heart’s reaction! I remembered how Jesus must have heard many things much worse, and yet he had compassion on people. Rather than wanting to hurt that person, I found myself wanting to help them! Praise God!
Change is a process and we should rejoice to see any kind of progress, even if it is incremental. Our culture of instant gratification and gross overstatements in advertising tend to make us less than content with gradual change!
Perhaps you reply that you have been able to follow your daily Bible reading plan much more faithfully than ever before and it’s very exciting because God’s Word is coming alive to you in ways it simply hasn’t before. You are able to make sense of the big picture, God’s awesome plan of redemption. You see how the Old Testament pictures Jesus in all sorts of different ways. You find yourself convicted by God’s righteous commands, not in a depressing way, instead you are glad to know the way of blessing! And the promises are so comforting now!
Well, I’ve spent most of my time on the first point, but I trust that you will be looking for those “mile markers” in your Christian walk and pray that God grants you the joy of seeing progress.
The second thing to observe with regard to making progress in our Christian lives is that change is a process and we should rejoice to see any kind of progress, even if it is incremental. Our culture of instant gratification and gross overstatements in advertising tend to make us less than content with gradual change! We are trained to expect the Best Ever vacation Every Time! Or we give up on something because we don’t get it exactly right the first time. Many folks are so used to popping dinner in the microwave or getting our order filled in 2 minutes at the fast food drive thru that we have little to no tolerance for things that take time. We forget how the farmer plants the seed and has to wait to harvest the corn. We forget that most growth is almost unnoticeable at the time, and it is only after we gain some perspective of time, that we see how much change has happened. This is certainly true of growing children: one day we turn around and they are as tall as we are (or taller) and ready to move out of the house!
So then, may we persevere in our quest for godliness. Let us pursue the spiritual discipline of daily Bible reading and prayer with tenacity. Prepare your hearts on Saturday night for the Lord’s Day corporate worship, and feed your soul by meditating upon and memorizing Scripture. Plead with God for help and look eagerly for growth in your spiritual life. Grab hold of every blessing and recognize that it is a good gift from God. Understand and believe that even trials (what one has called a “frowning providence” are opportunities for growth and used by God for our good and His glory. Incremental growth is still growth and small blessings are still blessings.
Samuel Miller, an early American pastor and the second professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote a letter about a day spent at the ocean. Pay attention to the last sentence, please, and ask yourself if you would be able to give this testimony of thanks after a vacation. AOn Wednesday week last, I went down with a large party of gentlemen, (twenty-six in number,) to amuse myself with fishing on the sea-bass banks. These banks are in the ocean, about twelve or fifteen miles to the southward of Sandy Hook, and nearly opposite Long Branch. The company was pleasant, the fishing delightful, the bathing highly refreshing . . . . We returned the next evening; and I think I felt ten per cent, at least, better for the jaunt.
The question is, will we give thanks for a small measure of progress? Do we recognize that even a step forward is a step in the right direction? Are we alarmed at our perpetual tendency to backslide? Shall we despise a 10% increase in godliness? Of course not!
May God grant us all an increasing awareness of the mile markers and the percentage points of progress in our spiritual journey!