1. Introduction to Growth

Lessons in Growth  Meditations: 1. Introduction to Growth

Luke 8:14,15 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

Two Goals: A little while ago, in another set of studies, I came across these two verses that stuck with me because Luke, in his version of the parable of the sower, adds a few significant words that grabbed my attention and I have highlighted them above. There is an implication here that we are to grow and develop and mature but it is possible that things in life can hinder or frustrate us and we fail to do those things. It is only by ‘persevering’, by pressing on despite the hindrances, that we are able to go on and mature and be fruitful.

Do you see the two goals there? To mature or come to a greater sense of completion or development, and to bear fruit.  Gardeners know that when growing vegetables you have to wait for a plant to grow and mature before fruit occurs. Fortunately in the kingdom of God, we can start bearing fruit immediately, but nevertheless maturity and fruit bearing do go together.

Vineyard Fruit: In the Old Testament Isaiah composed a song about the Lord’s vineyard as a prophecy: He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” (Isa 5:2) It was clear that the Lord expected His vineyard (Israel) to bear fruit  and was disappointed that it failed to do so, so much so that He was going to remove it. In the New Testament, Jesus taught his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (Jn 15:1,2) Again it is clear that he expects fruit from us and in the same way, any branch (believer) that does not bear fruit will be cut off from him.

Jesus Parallels: Now those are strong warnings but the parable of the Sower indicates that there are specific things or specific reasons why we may not mature and why we may not bear fruit in our Christian lives. As I have started to ponder on this and pray about it, I have found myself seeing these things in the context of something Jesus said: “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (Jn 12:32). Now Jesus speaks about being lifted up three times in John’s Gospel but as I have pondered on this, I believe there are, three applications that correspond with different phases of Jesus’ life.

Three Phases: As I have thought on that, it seems to me that those three phases can also be seen to be three phases of the Christian life or, I should add, three phases of the Christian life that goes on to mature and bear fruit. We should acknowledge that according to Jesus’ teaching in the Parable of the Sower, not everyone hearing God’s word, goes on to mature and bear fruit. So, as we ponder those three phases, I hope to also face up to the things that we can fail to deal with or the things we can fail to appropriate in each phase and thus fail to reach maturity and bear fruit. I have not been down this path before, and so some of the areas seem presently cloudy but I am sure that as we meditate on these things they will become clear.

We all grow: Now it is possible that some of us may feel either fearful or perhaps wary about talk of growth, so let me put your mind at rest. Growth is something that takes place in some measure in every Christian life, even though we may not be very aware of it. When we came to Christ, we knew very little, we understood few spiritual realities and we perhaps were wondering what we had done. As the days pass we are taught – we hear sermons, we go to Bible Studies, or we perhaps have a mentor – and our knowledge of the Bible and of what has happened to us increases. We grow in understanding. But then there can be two problems.

Limited by Environment: The first is that our ‘teaching environment’ is limited and so the extent of out teaching is limited. I have grown up in a period of church history and in a country where the teaching that was available was extensive. I am grateful that through the circumstances I found myself in as a young Christian, I encountered the Brethren, the Pentecostals, the Baptists, the early charismatics and even the Restoration Movement, as well as the occasional teacher from the Anglican Church or from other ‘free’ streams. It was a very wide spectrum of teaching for which I am very grateful. One of my grown up sons said to me some time back, “You know Dad, your generation received so much more teaching than mine is receiving.” That was his perception at least. But I also had opportunities to teach and to evangelize and go on missions, both at home and abroad, and all these things work for growth, which I must admit, sitting in one church in one denomination rarely does.

Personal Blockages: That is what I meant when I referred to our ‘teaching environment’ above.  But there is also a second problem and that can be a personal and individual one. It is the fact of the circumstances of our lives, the pressures we encounter, the problems that beset us and the crises that drop on us – and the way we respond to them! All of these things have the potential for bringing our spiritual development to a halt, and the trouble is, we don’t just come to a halt at a high, we plummet.

When Jesus spoke to the church at Ephesus, he said, “You have forsaken your first love.” (Rev 2:4) They had reached great spiritual heights, but now they had fallen. They had done great things in their early years but now they had given up on them. He had been very positive about them: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance.” (v.2) but nevertheless, despite that, they were not what they had been once. Jesus doesn’t say what it was that had caused their fall, and perhaps we need to think about such things.

Deal with Past Issues: There is, in fact, a third problem that can arise, and it is that, for a variety of reasons, we failed to deal with issues in our lives that were there before we came to Christ, and so we perhaps also need to ponder those things as well, for each of these thing can be the things that stop us growing.

Maybe if we can eyeball such things, becoming aware of them may be the first step in dealing with them. These are the sorts of areas I believe we  need to consider, the barren areas we need to wander in to see their reality and their effect. I hope by walking these paths we may find this series not only helpful, but also a means of enabling our growth to proceed and our fruit-bearing to increase. May it be so.

25. Aspiring to Maturity

Aspiring Meditations: 25.  Aspiring to Maturity

Heb 6:1    let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity

Col 4:12   He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.

I have come to the end of various ‘lists’ of things that the scriptures speak of, things to which we need to aspire, but I find there are one or two other words lurking in the back of my mind that we need to consider before we finish this particular series. The first of these words is ‘mature’ or ‘maturity’. Maturity only comes up once and mature not a lot of times, but they are there and they are significant in this search.

To speak about maturity means something or someone that is, ‘fully grown, fully developed, having reached initial potential.’  It is a state of being and it is something, I have observed over the years, that does not happen automatically; it does need our cooperation. Surprisingly the words crops us (sorry for the pun) in the parable of the sower: “The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” (Lk 8:14,15)

Now that is interesting on two levels. First, it shows us that a person can fail to go on to spiritual maturity if they let worries and concerns about living in this materialistic world dominate their lives. When the apostle Paul starts off virtually every one of his letter with something like, “Grace and peace to you” you can be pretty sure that a) we need grace to cope with life and b) the end result of having grace is a state of peace. Maturity involves learning to receive God’s grace and living in a state of peace.

Second, it shows that whereas that person does not mature, the person who does is revealed by the fruit that he or she bring forth in their life. i.e. their life will change and their life will impact this world. How have you and I changed? Are the fruit of the Spirit developing in us?  How have we or do we impact the world? Are other people, or the world generally, changed because of us. Signs of maturity!

But then maturity is the end goal of the gifts of ministries to the church that the apostle Paul speaks about in that famous Eph 4 passage. He says their works is, “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:12,13) Now note that the end result is that ‘the body of Christ’ is brought to unity, “as each part does its work.” (v.16) The role of those ministries is to encourage each of us to become the person God has designed us to be (see Eph 2:10) and when that happens we will work in harmony with and in conjunction with the rest of the body.

But that is the corporate expression of maturity. What other signs are there for us individually? Well, the writer to the Hebrews said, “solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14) and there he was referring to us moving beyond the basics of the faith in our understanding. I despair of those house groups who constantly do Bible Studies of the most elementary things of the scriptures, the easy parts if you like. I prefer the approach that says, “OK what are the things about the faith over which you have questions, or which parts of the Bible do you find the hardest? Right, let’s start there!” The more we study God’s word (all of it!) and the more we study the elements of the Faith, the more we will find ourselves being trained as the writer said, “to distinguish good from evil.”

We might add here, that the mature person doesn’t read the word, they put it into operation. That was the point of Jesus’ parable of the two house builders in Matt 7, and the point of the ‘Great Commission’: “go and make disciples from all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20) That is maturity – doing it.

While on the subject of teaching, after his teaching about maturity coming from the work of the ministry gifts, he explains, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” (Eph 4:14) A sign of maturity is that we don’t get carried away by false teaching or false teachers; we are no longer ‘infants’.

Stick-ability is thus a characteristic of the mature and we see this is two other teachings: “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Jas 1:4) and “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (Jas 1:6) The mature person learns to hang on in there and not give up. Some people are good starters but are not good on following through. That is a sign of immaturity. The mature person is also mature in their relationship with the Lord and therefore has an assurance in Him that does not doubt when we come asking Him for things (wisdom in this case). We know the Lord, we know His goodness, we know His heart towards us, we know His will.

Are we there with these things? If not, then we still have something to which we are yet to aspire – maturity. If we are not there with these things, keep working to grow and get there. Will we ever fully get there? Almost certainly not (and having the occasional bad day is not a sign of immaturity, merely that we are still human beings!) but we can work on these things and we can see changes and so, yes, we can grow. Perhaps we should aspire to growing in these things rather than achieving some slightly intangible end goal. May it be so.

Addendum: if you want a motivation to grow, find yourself something to DO that places demands on you. Those demands will drive you to the Lord where you will have to receive from Him more grace and the rest will follow. More in the next study.

63. Self Control

Meditations in 1 Peter : 63: Self Control

1 Pet 5:8a Be self-controlled and alert.

Now if you are alert and can remember some of the things we’ve previously covered, you may remember that back in chapter 4 Peter said, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” (1 Pet 4:7) and so there we briefly considered this matter of self control – but it was only briefly!

In the world in which we live, we have had a number of instances over recent years of people who have broken loose and lost all control. Recently there was a man in the north of England who came out of prison, shot his girl friend’s new boyfriend – and her – and then went on to shoot a policeman sitting quietly in his police car. Now any one in their right mind would know that you are not going to get away with that, so why do it? You know it must have a bad ending. It did – he ended up shooting himself when cornered by the police after a massive manhunt. The end was predictable, so why start out down that path? The answer is loss of self-control.

Little children round about 2 or 3 lose self control when they throw a tantrum. We expect them to grow up and develop self-control. Elderly people are often noted to speak without care; they put aside the social niceties that they have lived by and speak what their minds think. It seems in old age we sometimes lose self control. Comedians sometimes produce routines that are funny and the humour comes in saying what is not expected, because mostly there are certain norms in society that we seek to conform to. In a comedy routine it can be funny to face the removal of those. Self-control is something that we expect of mature and responsible human beings. For example, when an individual hurts themselves, we don’t expect them to break loose with a bunch of obscenities – but sadly in modern society that is often not so – for that is a sign of lack of self-control. I purposefully determined many years ago that if I even hit my hand with a hammer while working, I would simply respond with an “Ow!” and nothing more.

Lack of self-control is demeaning. Civilised society puts a premium on it and perhaps the English “stiff upper lip” is the classic example of that which, no doubt, went over the top. Showing emotion is not a bad thing but there is a fine line between showing emotion and breaking lose. A classic example of that was Joseph who, in love, could no longer hide himself from his brothers: Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.” (Gen 45:1,2) That was a legitimate loss of control.

An example of bad loss of control is seen in Aaron and the golden calf incident, where we read, “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.” (Ex 32:25). Now that is interesting because it shows that self-control was conforming to God’s will, the Law. Various times in the Old Testament period there were references to the land being brought under the control of Israel. Being in control meant not letting the enemy have control, so control there meant resisting the enemy’s activity – again to bring the land under the rule of God.

Self control is thus seen in these instances as being necessary to resist sin and Satan and to allow God’s will to prevail. Solomon wrote, “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” (Prov 29:11) There are times when restraint (self-control) is the wiser course of action to resist the temptation to respond without restraint and open the way up for worse to happen.

Now another way of speaking of ‘self-control’ is ‘self-discipline’ which is why modern versions no longer speak of self-control but self-discipline when Paul was speaking to Timothy: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim 1:7). Self-control or self-discipline are there seen as strong character things, indications of a mature person. Self-control, being one of the things set over and against timidity or lack of confidence, is thus seen as a sign of strength in an individual, something that enables them to feel good about themselves.

There seems a sort of circular thing here. People who feel bad about themselves often seem to exhibit lack of self-control – listen to the language of the person with low self-esteem, often bolstered by expletives which they think will make them look hard or strong. We know differently! But the person who knows they are not in control of themselves then feels badly about it. For example, the person who wants to give up smoking but can’t feels, deep down, bad about themselves. In fact any one of us who are dominated by a bad habit, feels bad about ourselves. With the presence and help of the Holy Spirit, the Lord wants us to be in control of ourselves.

The person who can’t control their eating, their drinking or looking at pornography, is out of control and each one of these things leads to self-destruction. Perhaps an essential thing is to note why people act out of control. The gunman in my earlier illustration allowed anger to develop into revenge and soon a whole downward spiral of bad attitudes were taking over that meant eventual self-destruction. The person who overeats or over-drinks or has a yearning to view pornography, needs to face their own needs and realise that the means they are using to satisfy them are destructive. Jesus has to be the answer to all our needs, and that means submitting to Him as both Saviour and Lord.

With the presence of God in us, we are called to lives of freedom and freedom, strangely, means being able to be in control of oneself. May we know His power and His presence releasing us into self-control!

 

37. Right Asking

Meditations in James: 37 : Right Asking

Jas 4:2,3    You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

Something goes wrong. What do you do? Do you struggle to cope with it, or do you go down under it, or do you turn to the Lord to ask for His help. A measure of spiritual maturity, I believe, is how fast we turn to the Lord for help. The spiritually wise and mature will place their day into the Lord’s hands at the beginning of every day, I believe. There are some people who say, “Oh, I’m an evening person so I have my quiet time in the evening.” It’s not a case of whether you are a morning or an evening person. It is a case of whether you think you can get through the day without the Lord, and coming to Him in prayer, as brief as that may be, is a sign of your acknowledgement  that you need His help, you need His blessing in the hours ahead of you. Wise people don’t wait for a crisis before they talk to the Lord.

Now our verses today need to be seen in context: You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Do you see the connection between the beginning and end of this quote from verse 2? You want something but don’t get it…… You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Do you remember yesterday, as we examined the process that James was speaking about? It starts with insecurity and insecure people struggle to achieve, struggle to get, struggle to make themselves feel they are somebody. They want things but don’t get them, so they get frustrated and more stressed. Their overall problem is that they are being godless. The have not sought the Lord and they have not come into a position of Sonship where they can come and ask their heavenly Father for all their needs.

We all of us lack. That’s what Sin does for us. We have great big needs which are only satisfied in God. He alone can bring the sense of fulfilment to us that we so long for. He alone can enable us to achieve in such a manner that we are feeling satisfied with who we are. You could say that the main lesson in living in this Fallen World is learning to turn to God. Many don’t and so struggle on and get deeper and deeper into the mire of unfulfillment and frustration.  It’s a hard world without God.  But He’s there and He longs for us to come to Him like little children; He longs to bless us, if only we will come. So here is James’ starting point in these verses: You do not have, because you do not ask God. But note that it is only the starting point.

When we start coming to God and asking Him for help, we are embarking on a major learning exercise, because as we ask we often find that either we’re not happy asking for some things, or we simply don’t seem to get answers for some of the things we do ask for.  James uses a very basic idea to explain why this so often is: When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. Yes, when we come to God, we learn that motivation is a key issue in God’s mind. Suddenly we realise that God is concerned with WHY we are asking.  Much of the time we ask simply for our own comfort or well-being.  In other words we ask selfishly. Now Jesus addressed this in the Sermon on the Mount: So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6:31-33). What he is saying is, don’t worry about the mundane things of provision of daily life, for God will look after them for you and will provide them. Instead be more concerned with what His will is. Yes, it is right to ask for daily provisions: Give us today our daily bread.” (Mt 6:11) but pray that as a sign of your reliance upon the Lord. Don’t let worry overwhelm you for that is a sign of lack of trust.

No, the key thing about asking God is this: your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10). The key question is, what does God want for my life? When you have found that answer, then ask for it. Read the prophets in the Old Testament and you will see they declared God’s will – and then prayed for it! But of course, that will is not something objective, it is what affects us. So yes, we will find ourselves praying for our needs, but it will now be so that we can fulfil God’s will. So it may be quite legitimate to pray for the provision of a car, say, if a car is needful for you to work out God’s declared will for your life. But if it’s just a case of, “I’d like this…. or that,” then that’s simply selfish asking and, as James says, you won’t get it.

Spiritual maturity learns what to ask for. It learns what God’s will is for my life and then prays it out, and if that will includes material things, then ask for material things, but that is very different from self-centred, godless desires. Think on these things, and then get praying!

28. Stumbling Christians

Meditations in James: 28 : Stumbling Christians?

Jas 3:2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.

Have you ever wondered why all the pastoral letters of the New Testament were written?  The simple, short answer is because people aren’t perfect.  Once we can accept that simple truth, the Christian life becomes so much more simple.  If you haven’t realised that, then when you do fail you will feel guilty and the guilt will cling and keep on making you feel bad.  When James says We all stumble in many ways he is saying it to both reassure and to challenge.  When I was a younger Christian I encountered those who preached perfection, and because I knew I was not perfect, I felt really bad about myself. I didn’t realize that when Jesus said, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48) he was giving us a target to aim for, something to work for.

Now theologians sometimes refer to ‘imputed righteousness’ and ‘imparted righteousness’.  Imputed righteousness is the righteousness that God imputes or credits to us when we receive Christ’s salvation.  He declares us righteous in His sight on the basis of the work of Christ.  When we receive Christ we are ‘justified’ or, as some have said, God makes it so it is “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned.  In His sight we are declared righteous.  But any honest Christian knows that from time to time they get it wrong, and there are character imperfections in us that need working on, and this is where ‘imparted righteousness’ comes in.  He has given us His Holy Spirit who is totally righteous, and as we learn to let Him lead us and express Jesus through us, so His righteousness is imparted to us and expressed through us.

John in his first letter also alluded to this: I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1). In other words sin, or getting it wrong, should not be a common thing in our lives now, but the reality is that we will stumble, we will trip over our feet and get it wrong sometimes.  John gives two answers to that.  Answer number one: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness(1 Jn 1:9). That is our side of it. Answer number two: if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence–Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 2:1). That is God’s side of it, Jesus speaking up in our defence, reminding the Father that he has died for all our sins.  The challenge that comes with all this, is can we aim to keep sin out of our lives as much as possible?

But then James says something that seems both an impossibility but at the same time a challenge: If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. The person who is careful in what they say and is never at fault in speaking, is a perfect person and that ability to speak righteously reveals the heart that is within and that heart enables us to control our whole life.  Now is it possible to be perfect?  Well, we’ve already covered that above in the first paragraph.  Maturity is certainly something that the Bible suggests we can achieve.  The writer to the Hebrews commented,solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:14).  There are therefore mature people.  Paul also said, We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature.” (1 Cor 2:6) implying the same thing.  James said earlier, Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Jas 1:4).  There he linked it with being complete or whole. Jesus’ call to perfection in Matthew 5 is actually a call to wholeness or completeness. So, rather than worrying about being ‘perfect’, and constantly feeling bad when we spot things that are less than perfect, can we instead aim for maturity, for wholeness and completion? This then becomes a goal to work for rather than a means of condemnation. Recognize that you have some way to go, but actually set yourself the goal of letting God change you, like his word says (2 Cor 3:18), to become more and more like Jesus.

There are two things we can do to facilitate this process of change. The first thing is to let the Holy Spirit search you and help you face up to how you fall short. This is similar to the assessing that Paul says should go on in us when we come to take Communion: A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.” (1 Cor 11:28). There are some things that will be obvious and we need to confess them and deal with them.  Some things we may feel we need the Lord’s help to overcome.  Ask Him.  The second thing is simply to develop your relationship with the Lord.  As we do that, His presence will change us.  Now there are basic disciplines that Christians through the ages have found build and change us – reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, fellowshipping with other Christians, being a witness to others – all these things work in the process of changing us.

So, to summarise, recognize that sometimes you will get it wrong but there are two things to help us there (see above).  Don’t be content with those imperfections: confess them, seek God’s help to overcome them, and at the same time work positively to develop your relationship with Him.  Be changed!

4. Maturity

Meditations in James: 4 :  Steps to Maturity

Jas 1:4     Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Vitamins DO things for you. Antibiotics DO things in you. When you take antibiotics, the doctor tells you to keep taking them until they have finished their course. They need to build up in your system until they overcome whatever it is you are suffering from. They must finish their work. In a similar sort of way, an author must ‘finish their work’. I’m told that those who write books, regularly often come to a point where their ‘creative juices’ seem to dry up for a while and the book comes to a grinding halt. Getting out, getting some fresh air, going walking; all these sorts of things I’m told help stir life and creativity and enable the author to persevere until the work is complete and the manuscript is ready to go to the publisher.

Some people age but never mature. Why is that? What is maturity? What is it that is missing from them? Well it’s not a physical thing because they look the same as anyone else and can do all the physical things that everyone else can do. No, maturity involves ways of thinking, ways of coping with emotions. There are probably dozens of criteria for measuring when a person is fully mature and they cover physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of their life.

The writer to the Hebrews wrote, let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity(Heb 6:1) He saw that there were basic teachings that all new Christians should be taught, but there was deeper understanding of the Faith that should also be brought. Jesus warned in one of his parables about not going onto maturity: The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.” (Lk 8:14). Jesus was thus teaching that maturity was not letting worries of life, or seeking after material pleasures, hinder spiritual development, hinder coming to a deeper and deeper knowledge of God, a relationship that was fruitful. That was what that part of the parable of the Sower was all about. Paul, describing one of the Colossians, said, He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” (Col 4:12). There he says that maturity is being able to stand firm in God’s will, being fully assured of who you are, someone loved by God, cared for by God and provided for by God. A mature person knows all these things.

Paul described the role of spiritual leadership ministries as, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:12,13). For Paul the work of the church was to raise up people to full development (maturity), so that the body (the church) could act fully as Christ on the earth, expressing his ongoing ministry. A mature church is one where each person is operating as God designed them to be:From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Eph 4:16)

Thus a ‘mature’ Christian is one who understands their faith, understands God’s love for them, is secure in it, has their heart set with right priorities on doing the will of God, not being distracted by materialism, working out their gifting in harmony with others in the church to create an instrument in the hand of God that brings blessing to this world and glory to God.

But how do we reach this maturity? Is it simply by reading God’s word, and receiving teaching in the church? Well those things are certainly important, but James is focusing on a crucial ingredient in these verses – trials! We can agree in our minds to the fact that God loves us and His grace is there for us, but it is only when we go through trials that we prove it. It is only in those times that we truly come to ‘know’ that he is there for us on a daily basis, and His grace is what keeps us going. It is only when we face such a trial that we suddenly find within us a determination to keep going.

It is the Holy Spirit within us, linked with our spirit encouraging us. Suddenly we ‘know’ we want to fight our way through this trial with all the ability that God gives us. Suddenly it seems important. We’ve got to get through this. We’ve got to keep going. This is perseverance at work! Perseverance, a dictionary says, is the act of keeping going. But it is more than the physical act; it is the act of will, the determination not to give up.  As this works in us so it brings us into maturity, so let’s repeat what we said about, so that you really take it in: a ‘mature’ Christian is one who understands their faith, understands God’s love for them, is secure in it, has their heart set with right priorities on doing the will of God, not being distracted by materialism, working out their gifting in harmony with others in the church to create an instrument in the hand of God that brings blessing to this world and glory to God. Be mature! Let perseverance work and work in you to bring you to full development (maturity).

3. Testing

Meditations in James: 3 :  Joyful Testing

Jas 1:2,3    Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.

Living in the West in the early part of the twenty-first century, we are more affluent and have more technology than any people who have ever existed before us. Life should, therefore, be easy and pleasant, but so often it isn’t. If you asked most people, they would pause, reflect and then say something like, “Life is tough!” Why is that? It is, I suggest, because we live in a Fallen World where sin prevails and therefore things go wrong and people are nasty. As a dispersed people (see yesterday) we are out there in the world, largely alone, having to learn to cope with the less-than-perfect life that rolls out before us. A lot of the time it may be humdrum, ordinary with no particular problems, but then suddenly something happens, something goes wrong and we are in conflict or stress and anxiety, or we are struggling with illness or infirmity. That’s what life in this Fallen World is like. The staggeringly wonderful news for Christians, of course, is that we are not alone; we have the Lord with us. Moses was able to encourage Israel with, Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut 31:6) and the writer to the Hebrews was able to take that and apply it to us when he wrote,be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”  So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Heb 13:5,6).

So the first thing to note from our verses today is that we live in a world where things go wrong, things that James calls ‘trials’. The second thing to keep in mind, which isn’t in this verse, is that whatever happens the Lord is with us in it. Perhaps we would to well to remember a third thing,  that however difficult the trial seems to be, the Lord will be there seeking to bring good out of it for us: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28). Bear those two things in mind: the Lord is with us and He will be working to bring good out of what otherwise might be a bad situation!

But then James says something about what is going on. He says God is testing your faith. Our education system, at the government’s direction, seems paranoid about testing. Our children constantly seem to be getting tested. Why do the government want teachers to do this? They do it because they want to check a child’s progress and ensure that they are learning. That is exactly why God tests us. There is a clear indication in Scripture that God expects us to mature – we’ll see that tomorrow. The writer to the Hebrews chided them saying, 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! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Heb 5:12-14).

There he indicates he expects us to grow up, understand the truth and live it. God’s testing, however, doesn’t merely monitor our position; it acts like a work-out in the gym and strengthens us. Whereas a physical workout brings strength to our muscles, God’s work-out develops perseverance in us, that ability to just plug on when life seems difficult. Yes, there are times when life seems glorious and wonderful and easy, and at those times you don’t need any special resources, (and that is a danger for we forget our need of the Lord), but we’ve been saying that in this Fallen World life is sometimes difficult and the enemy would want us to give up on our faith, and so perseverance is something the Lord builds in to us. How does He do that? By allowing us trying times!

It’s not only James; Paul says the same thing: And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance(Rom 5:2,3). It’s not only James and Paul; Peter says the same thing: In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Pet 1:6,7)

So there it is; these trials, these tests, work to bring perseverance which we need to handle the dark side of life, and as we do, our faith is seen to be genuine and all the angels looking on give a mighty applause because they see it is the work of Jesus and so when he returns, and every knee bows to acknowledge his wonder, this will be part of the reason for all the praise he receives. Our lives have the means of glorifying Jesus!

Which brings us to the first part of the verse that most Christians struggle with and focus upon: Count it pure joywhen these things happen to you. Why? For the reasons we have been seeing: because we are taking part in God’s strategy which strengthens us, reveals us for who we are, encourages us as we realise that we can cope with His grace. It also brings great glory to Jesus as we triumph as he, standing alongside us is working out the Father’s purposes and bringing good out of every situation for us. Wow!  Rejoicing in whatever life is holding for you at the moment? Go for it!

33. Growing in Christ

Ephesians Meditations No.33

Eph  4:14,15 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

Imagine you go to a garden centre and buy a small plant which, the attached label tells you, should grow into a large bush. You faithfully tend it and water it and do everything you should to it – but it doesn’t grow one bit. I think you would be disappointed or even annoyed. Why hasn’t it grown? Yet when we come to the Christian life, do we opt for no change? If we stopped every person going into every church in your area and asked them, “Excuse me, can you tell me how you have changed and grown as a Christian in the past three years,” I wonder what sort of answers you would get. I’m sure there would be some just bemused at the thought, and others defensive and others even angry at the thought that they needed to change!

Many years ago I started preaching what I believe the Bible teaches: God loves you just like you are, but He also loves you so much that He has something better for you than what you are. Why am I saying this? Because the objective of the verses that we considered in the previous meditation ultimately take us towards maturity and these verses today speak of us growing up! Growing up is all about change.

This idea of us growing up comes in a variety of places in the New Testament: “Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand,” (2 Cor 10:15) i.e. Paul expected their faith to grow. He also spoke about “the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” (Col 2:19). He expected the Lord to help the body (church) to grow.

The apostle Peter taught the same thing: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” (1 Pet 2:2)) and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 3:18). The same idea was there when Paul spoke about us when he said, “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory,” (2 Cor 3:18) again indicating the expectation of us changing. The Christian life as something that is passive and unchanging is not a New Testament concept!

What are the alternatives to this ‘growing up’? Paul tells us: “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” Of course if you look at the verses above you will see that this is part of his call that he starts off with no longer be…” He doesn’t want us to be like this, but this is what it is like when you don’t ‘grow up’. If we don’t ‘grow up’ we remain spiritual infants! He says we will be tossed back and forwards. What does that mean? It means in our thinking we will be unstable and we’ll think one thing one week and something else the next, because we haven’t been grounded in the truth and so we don’t know what to believe when new fanciful teachings appear on the scene or people come and try and put us off our faith. Satan’s original unsettling words – “Did God really say…” (Gen 3:1) are still heard today in a variety of guises – and of course the untaught spiritual infant doesn’t know what to believe, and so it is no surprise that they are blown one way and another.

This is especially true when the enemy demeans us and says such things as, “You’re rubbish, you’re a failure,” or “You’re a nobody and nobody loves you”. At such times the spiritual infant doesn’t know the truth and doesn’t know what to answer. What is the answer? That we grow up!

Yes, the alternative to remaining spiritual infants is spelled out: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” But what is the reference to speaking the truth in love’ about? Maturity comes through teaching and teaching takes different forms. Consider Paul’s famous description of the word of God: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, (2 Tim 3:16). Often we see this as a list of four different things the Bible is useful for, but in reality teaching involves the other three. Teaching involves rebuking (pointing out error), correcting (showing the right way) and training in righteousness (showing the way to live according to God’s ways). Becoming mature involves bringing our minds, our thinking and our lives in line with God’s will and that means change and to help that change come about, we need teachers who will speak the truth to us in love.

When that is a regular process in our lives, “we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” i.e. we grow in our union with Christ and although we remain separate and distinct from Christ himself, we will harmonise with him in our thinking and our feeling and our actions more and more or, even as we noted above, we are being transformed into his likeness.” (2 Cor 3:18). Maturity thus involves becoming more Christ-like as we grow.

So, to summarise, Paul is indirectly warning us against remaining as vulnerable spiritual infants, and exhorts us to grow up as we receive correction and training and become more and more Christ-like. It’s a challenge. May we rise to it!