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How to Be Absolutely Certain & Completely Clueless at the Same Time

seems like i'm always leaving by Unfurled via flickr

It’s been said that life is like driving down a road at night. That’s what I was thinking as I was driving home last night, seeing that white line stretching out in front of me.  I suddenly realized that I was both absolutely certain & completely clueless, at the same time, about my drive, and about my life.

I realized that when I’m driving at night, I’m ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN about what I need to do RIGHT NOW, in the moment.  That white line tells me whether I need to veer right, veer left, or keep it straight.  A red light ahead tells me to stop; a green light tells me to go.  As long as I keep my headlights on, the guidance I need for the present moment will always be there.

That’s just like my life.  In my moment to moment living, I have “headlights” that infallibly guide me. As long as I’m walking in step with God, listening to Him, being mindful of myself, my circumstances, & others, I can be confident that I will know what to do RIGHT NOW, in the moment.  God won’t fail me.  He never has.

I also thought of the Biblical story of Joseph.  Throughout his life, he was always guided as to what he needed to say & do at the right moment:  he knew he had to refuse his master’s wife; he knew what to say to the imprisoned butler & baker; he knew how to save Egypt from starvation.

But even though I’m absolutely certain about driving in the present moment, I’m also COMPLETELY CLUELESS about WHAT LIES AHEAD. If you ask me if the road will head northeast or southeast, whether in the next mile I’ll go up a mountain or go across a bridge, whether there’s a lake up ahead or a desert— I’m (literally) in the dark.  I’ve never traveled this road before.

Isn’t life like that too? I’ve never traveled the road of my life before, so I don’t know what lies ahead. I don’t know whether my job will prosper or end; don’t know whether I’ll live to 100 or die while typing this post; don’t know what joys or sorrows, victories or defeats I will face tomorrow.  And guess what?  If I try too hard to control my destiny, to make sure my life doesn’t take a sharp turn or go into a dark tunnel, I’m liable to run off the road completely.

The same was true of Joseph.  Even though he saw visions and interpreted dreams, he never saw his own brothers trying to murder him, never saw being sold as a slave in a foreign country, never saw spending years in a prison.  But he also never envisioned being the regent of the richest country in his world, having wealth and power beyond his comprehension, and being responsible for not only saving his family, but an entire country, from starvation.

That’s where faith comes in, for Joseph and for me.  When I’m driving an unfamiliar road at night, I may be clueless about what’s around the bend, but I remain confident that I will reach my destination.  I know the road was built to take me there, and I know I can trust my map.

Life’s the same way.  I know that the path that God has lovingly chosen for me will succeed.  Although there is much about it I can’t understand right now, and I’m completely clueless about what’s around the bend, I know that my final destination is secure, and that it ends with the One who loves me more than I can possibly imagine.

Are You Still Growing?

Do you remember backing up against a wall as a child to see how tall you were growing?  It was the visual proof that you really were growing up and becoming someone you had not been before.  You felt the excitement of realizing that you were becoming bigger, taller, & stronger. You remember the joy of someone who loved you bragging what a big boy or girl you were growing up to be.

Well, those days are long gone.

Or are they?

While all of us have reached the full measure of our physical height and maturity, none of us have reached the full potential of our spiritual maturity. No matter who you are or how old you are physically, you still have the capacity to grow spiritually, every day.

But are you?

Is your soul actually growing? How do you know? How do you measure it? How does it grow?

Those are important questions, because our soul is pretty important. As Jesus once said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

Writing about matters of the soul has forced me to take a hard look in the mirror at my own soul. Am I growing as a soul? What helps my soul to grow? What doesn’t? How can I tell?

The answers to those questions could easily take up a whole book, but let’s briefly look at three things:

Lies to Reject About Soul Growth
Truths to Embrace About Soul Growth
A Way to Measure Soul Growth

Lies to Reject About Soul Growth

Let me start by looking at four common misconceptions about the growth of the soul. I see people making these same mistakes over and over. I’ve caught myself in them too. Why? Because they’re appealing, they seem to make sense, and they are commonly taught in one form or another. But if you are going to make any progress in the growth of your soul, you must recognize all of these falsehoods and reject them:

Soul growth is not automatic. That would be great if it were true, but it’s not. I’d like to think I can just lay back and let the lessons of life or church sermons or being baptized or being a good person somehow mature me. But they won’t. I think we all know people who are eighty and have attended church all their lives, but yet frankly have made no progress in the growth of their soul. If you just let life pass you by you will one day suffer the same fate. The real truth: you must take purposeful action to grow your soul.

Soul growth can’t take place overnight. True soul growth is no different than physical growth: it takes time. The journey to true maturity is joyful but long: there are no secret shortcuts. Any person or book or seminar that tells you there is a secret or principle that will unlock overnight success, that will put you on the fast track to being a spiritual giant is LYING to you. Walk away. The real truth: you must be in it for the long haul.

You can’t choose your own path to soul growth. This lie is everywhere in our culture today. Walk into any bookstore or tune in to Oprah and you will find a smorgasbord of different “paths” to spiritual maturity. But trying to choose our own path is as old as the Garden of Eden: Eve wanted to become wise, and she chose her own path. But every path save one, no matter how attractive or how it seems to bring results, ultimately ends in destruction. The real truth is as Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

Knowledge is not the same as soul growth. For people who love to seek knowledge like myself, it is all too easy to confuse accumulating more knowledge with actual spiritual growth. But let me make it crystal clear: while you cannot grow without knowledge, knowledge by itself will never result in the growth of a soul. Why not? The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1 states that knowledge by itself only results in pride, and pride will never grow a soul. The real truth: knowledge is only one part of soul growth.

Truths to Embrace About Soul Growth

I am totally inadequate to say in a few words what many who are so much farther along the path to God have taken books to say. But here are a few “essential ingredients” that I know that no one can achieve true, lasting soul growth without. Here are six truths that we all can confidently embrace about spiritual growth:

God is the first “essential ingredient” to soul growth. Although most of us would acknowledge this truth, I mention it for three reasons. One: anyone who is pursuing soul growth while leaving God out of the equation will ultimately fail. Two: All soul growth that includes God but does not put him as the center and focus will likewise be incomplete. Finally, we have to realize that ultimately it is God who works in us to change us, and no soul growth is possible unless He is at work within us.

Humility is the next essential ingredient in the growth of our souls. As I said before, pride and spiritual growth are fundamentally incompatible. True humility is not feeling “bad” about yourself, but knowing and embracing who you are and who God is. This is why Jesus said the first step to receive the blessing of God and the kingdom of heaven was to be poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3).

After we see God for who He is and see ourselves for who we are, we will desire a cleansed soul. True humility before God includes recognizing that our souls are by nature in rebellion against Him and stained with evil. We see the blackness in our heart and see that it will forever block our communion with God. We realize that any effort to grow spiritually will be useless unless our hearts are cleansed and the penalty for our rebellion is paid. This is what Christ did for us by His death.

The other result of true humility is seeing that we are actually spiritually dead and need spiritual life. A spirit who is not connected with God is dead, and Jesus made it clear that no matter how a person believes or feels about God, that He is the only path to connection to God. Only by loving and embracing Christ through faith will we be brought from spiritual death to life.

Once we are spiritually alive, we cannot grow without spiritual nourishment. The most important spiritual nourishment is to behold the glory of Christ. What do I mean by that? I mean to focus our mind and heart on all the glorious things about Christ: His love, His power, His justice, His dying for us, His rule over all. Why do I say that grows the soul? Because the Bible says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that as Christians we are, “beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image.” There are many other things that God has given us, from singing to hiking in a forest to seeing children at play, that all nourish our soul. But none of these good things can take the place of focusing on Christ.

Just like a child’s physical body needs both food and exercise to grow, our souls need both spiritual food and spiritual exercise to grow. That is why Jesus commanded us in Luke 10:27 to love God and love others. His commandments were not meant to have us simply think loving thoughts, but to take loving actions. Only as we live purposeful lives to love God and others will our souls reach full spiritual maturity.

A Way to Measure Soul Growth

But how do we know whether we are on the right path with our soul? How do we measure the growth of a soul? Although there are doubtless many useful ways, I would suggest starting with the way Jesus recommended over & over: examining the fruit of our lives. The way for us to truly know the growth of what’s inside is measuring what’s on the outside— our actions.

Here’s one example for you to try: use Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit in Ephesians 5:22-23, and then ask yourself these questions—

Compared to five years ago, am I more loving toward people who are difficult for me to love?

Do my words and my actions express a deeper sense of joy day to day?

Do my actions show that I am at peace even in the midst of stormy situations?

Am I known for my kindness more than five years ago?

Are my actions becoming more soaked every day in goodness?

Am I being more faithful to my family, my friends, and my God?

Is harshness and anger fading from my life and being replaced by more gentleness?

Is my life marked more and more by self-control?

Let these questions be your “wall” that you back up to see your soul’s growth. Better yet, give this list to someone who knows you and who will give you some honest feedback.

Don’t let your soul slip away in the everyday business of life. Take the time to do the only thing for yourself that will survive into eternity: take the time to grow your soul.

The Measure of Success

It has been several weeks since the Wall Street Journal article on Bruce Wilkinson’s departure from his ministry in Africa, and every blog on the theological spectrum from Boar’s Head Tavern to Master’s Seminary Alumni has taken a turn on commentary.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Dr. Bruce Wilkinson of Prayer of Jabez fame decided a few years ago to move to South Africa and devote his ministry to the crisis in that country, kinda like Bono without sunglasses.  After several plans didn’t pan out, he somewhat abruptly decided to move back to the United States.

 Although different pundits give different reasons why, most have basically labeled this a “failure”, even Wilkinson himself.  But why?  Are we so caught up in the form of the world that we have forgotten how God defines success?

What would the blogs be writing about Job after the death of his children and the eradication of his earthly goods?  (Maybe Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were the first bloggers!)  Would some of us get the same reprove from God?

God calls us to be faithful, not to have all our plans work out.  God tests our faith by things not going our way (James 1), and warns us not to boast about tomorrow (James 4).  Yes, there are questions of correct theology and correct common sense regarding Dr. Wilkinson’s venture, but had his venture succeeded those questions wouldn’t have been asked, now, would they?

I think the question to ask is how we are all viewing our measure of success. How are we measuring “success” in our career or ministry or marriage or web site? Whether God grants “a dream” to succeed or fail is up entirely to God, and the failure of Dr. Wilkinson’s “dream” was ultimately in God’s hands.  The real question is whether Dr. Wilkinson understood that, and whether we understand it.