Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Watch Your Language!

I received these excellent thoughts from my friend Brooke, which include a needed reminder that we should be careful in selecting words (and he makes some great points about spiritual growth, too):

Your reader used a key phrase, “Since I am in Christ…” “In Christ” captures the meaning of the Christian life. John the Apostle uses the term “abiding” much. I think when it comes to the question of goals or submission, I would say that may be the wrong question. The question for me is, how do I stay “In Christ?”

By posing that question, I’m not trying to get into an Armenian/Calvinistic debate. I think we all agree that there is a measure of effort that must be put forward by us in order for God’s grace to continually flow into our lives. We just need to be cautious that we don’t fall into a works mentality. We can never earn God’s merit by meeting our spiritual goals or by simply submitting to God’s will. We are saved by grace AND we grow spiritually through God’s grace.

I like your relational analogy. I like to talk about spiritual disciplines or holy habits as opposed to goals. I tend to shy away from the concept of goals when it comes to my own spirituality. Reaching a goal is a pass/fail endeavor. You either meet your goal or not. When we reach a goal, it can be easy to kind of pat ourselves on the back and get a little puffed up with spiritual pride. When we fail, it is easy to become self-condemning. Neither of those extremes helps in spiritual progress.

For the same reason, I tend to shy away from “submission” talk. The idea that on my own, I can submit my will to God’s is preposterous. That is simply relying on my own will power. Real submission comes from trust in God’s love and goodness.

Going back to a relational analogy, I may set a goal to spend at least one quality evening a week with my wife. When that happens, I don’t pat myself on the back and say to myself, “Good job.” When circumstances come up that prevent me from reaching this goal (and when you have young children, believe me, there are a lot of circumstances that come up), I don’t beat myself up and say to myself, “You are the worst husband in the world.” When I am able to reach my “goal” the reward comes in terms of the benefits to the strength of our relationship. When I “fail” it has the opposite effect and so I try to get back on track as soon as possible. So instead of looking at it in terms of goals or submission, I try to foster habits that will produce desired results. The end is not to reach a goal but to have a more loving, trusting relationship with my wife in which we are naturally more inclined to submit to one another.

John Wesley referred to habits that lead to being “in Christ,” as “means of grace.” The term, “means” is important. The means of grace are simply means and not an end in of themselves. The end of course is growth in grace or being “In Christ.” I would say that the only goal is to abide. Holy habits are a great means to that end.

Holly sez:
Excellent point: "Habits" would have been a better word for me to use. Thanks for sending me your thoughts; this made me realize I need to be careful when I'm using a theme word. The way I define it isn't necessarily the way most people define it.

I've never made goals that have "termination" points, and now that you mention it, I imagine that's how most folk draw up lists of goals. For example, when my doctor told me I needed to lower my cholesterol by at least 30 points, I didn't think to myself, "I'm going to lower my cholesterol by 30 points." Instead, I thought, "OK, I need to stop using butter to fry stuff. I need to stop eating the pastries at church every Sunday. And I need to start eating a lot of fiber." It never occurred to me that I was supposed to be shooting for 30 points--I simply figured that my cholesterol levels would improve by the amount of effort I was putting into the task. And I suppose it would have been pointless to shoot for 30 points, then to get there without thinking about the effort that was required (and pretty soon, I'd be back where I started).

My cholesterol has been decreasing over the past few years. At my recent doctor's appointment, I was delighted to hear it has dropped 36 points since the doc issued the warning. Thing is, I don't have to worry about keeping my cholesterol down, since I now have the habits in place. But I do have to keep those original "goals" in place for the rest of my life, along with adding new ones to continue improving my cholesterol levels.

I'm not sure how the reader interpreted my language about goals. While I'm not sure I interpreted her words as she'd intended them, it reminded me of people who've said, "I'm going to let God do the work of changing me because he'll make me into the person he desires me to be." One of my professors gave this illustration: Would we sit down and expect God to levitate our Bible into our lap, cause the pages to open to a certain section, and tilt our head at just an angle to read the words he wanted us to see? Do we really expect that God is going to do all the work of spiritual growth for us?

Thanks again for your thoughts, Brooke, and for giving me some better language.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Q&A: Why Set Spiritual Goals? Isn't Submission Enough?

In response to my most recent Today’s Christian Woman post, “Spiritual Resolutions: Do you stick with your spiritual goals?”, a reader writes:

I do not make goals for myself—at least, not the kind you list in this article. Since I am in Christ, and most importantly, His Spirit is in me, I only work on submitting to Him and let Him set the goals. I find that much easier to do. It makes my life's resolution—not a yearly one—simple: submit my will to His will and I will never fail to achieve my goal. Not only that, I am no longer trying to figure out which goals are the right ones, and I can be sure that I am not working on the goal alone. Now make no mistake about it: that is a tall order. My will is rarely His will. It's always His will in the easy stuff. Back in 1999, right after I had just bought a new television and gotten a contract with Charter Cable, He told me to quit watching TV. That was a shock! I knew that was His idea because I'd just purchase all I needed to do just the opposite. But He made a way. That one turned out to be easy. I quickly acquiesced, and said to the Lord, that if this is of You, I should not expect to receive any more Charter Cable bills—and I haven't since that day. In fact, Charter sales' people came to my place twice trying to sell me cable because they happen to be in the area and could offer me a deal. But He doesn't always make it that easy. I have to struggle with some things so that when I achieve the goal, my character will be in tune with the goal He has set. So I flounder around for a while, but I still let Him set the goals, because I know that in Him, all of me will be complete.

Holly says: Your attitude of obedience and submission to God's will is inspiring.

I do have to restate that I think we do benefit from making specific spiritual goals. You likely have several that you actively work toward, even though you haven’t used the word "goals" to label them. Let me explain.

Consider how we have to be intentional in every relationship: We make plans to get together with friends at specific days/times; we call family members on their birthdays; we buy gifts and do special things for our spouses on our anniversaries.

You offered the example of doing what the Holy Spirit asks you to do. That’s a good start, but I think part of loving God with our minds is to deeply think about ways in which to love him.

Here’s an illustration: Say I decided to start only doing the things my husband specifically asked me to do for him. The first night I wouldn't make dinner for him because he didn't ask me. The next day, I wouldn't kiss him goodbye in the morning because he didn't ask me. And on the weekend, when he asked me to wash his shirts AND pants AND unders, I wouldn’t wash his socks, since he hadn’t asked for that particular item!

My husband would likely have a couple thoughts: (1) Why do I have to ask my wife to do the simplest, most obvious things for me? and (2) Why does my wife make such a minimal effort to love me? (since I certainly wouldn’t do special things like slipping a love note into his pocket, or buying him a book that I know he’d appreciate, or baking cookies for him). Perhaps he’d question why he married me in the first place.

Aren’t we blessed that God doesn’t act like a human—that God puts up with our all-too-often minimal love?

The point is: Relationships require us to be intentional. Having a relationship with God requires planning and effort. We need to schedule devotional time (i.e. planning it and then actually doing it, as opposed to merely thinking about doing it). We need to plan how to read the Bible (as opposed to the "open-it-up-and-see-where-my-finger-points" method). We need to worship with real love and emotion behind our songs/words/actions (as opposed to singing or saying the words without thinking about their meaning—i.e. the words “I love you, Lord” shouldn’t have the same emotional depth as “I had cereal for breakfast”). We need to be intentional in thought, emotion, and deed.

I can see that you're deeply committed to strengthening your relationship with God, as evidenced by your amazing commitment to get rid of TV. We should all be praying, as you do, "Father, I want you to change me. I want you to make me more like your Son, Jesus, through the work of your Holy Spirit." And then we should be intentional about identifying and implementing ways to strengthen our relationship with God—and with other Christians, as we’re instructed by God to do this.

One of my spiritual goals is to recognize my personal need for Christian community. I often think about what I give to the body of Christ, but honestly, sometimes I overlook how much I receive. So I’ve been looking for opportunities to receive the spiritual gifts of other Christians.

One way I do this is to be alert for things I need or couldn't do on my own. I then try to be intentional about thanking the person who met my need. This is an ongoing goal, and the more I look for ways to receive the gifts of others, the more I recognize that I'm part of the body of Christ. I feel more connected, more supported, and stronger. I've been amazed to find that dependence on other Christians makes me feel stronger than my independence!

I love that God is specific in calling us to love him with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind. This combination tells me that God wants every part of me: I need to express emotional surrender and a willingness to submit/obey. I need to make a mental effort to think about God's character, to contemplate his Word, and to plan my efforts to get closer to him. I need to physically carry out those plans, to do what I've said I’m going to do.

In setting spiritual goals, I think about a couple questions: What does it mean to love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind? and What do I currently do to show my love to God? In which areas am I lacking effort? (e.g. Perhaps I have the desire to love God but don’t take the time to plan how I will worship him. Or perhaps I make a plan, but don’t follow it through. Or perhaps I go through the actions, but my heart isn’t in it.) We need to regularly evaluate ourselves—and to receive accountability from other Christians—to monitor whether our efforts to love God are complete and consistent.