"When I first became a Christian everything was fresh and exciting. I loved Jesus, wanted to live for him and serve him and felt like I was really growing. Now things no longer feel as fresh, I do things more out of duty than delight, and the Christian life seems like more of a struggle."
It's said in such a way as to say that this "progression" in the Christian life is normal, to be expected and not to be questioned. Perhaps it's not quite as extreme as described above, but I'm sure you recognise it?
Why is it that we get like that? As we grow in knowledge of God, surely we should see him more clearly and love him more? I'm sure that there are lots of reasons, but here is one or two, and some thoughts on how to avoid it.
Christian service can quickly become what we love, rather than the God that we serve. Increasing commitments and demands on our time lead to exhaustion, and as you do more, more people look up to you and, knowing your heart, you realise that you're not one to be looked up to and you get worn down. Slowly you stop following Jesus and direction in life is defined by other things.
- Your drive is to achieve and perform - you get status through what you do.
- You want to be perfect because you want to please others.
- You want to feel and be seen as strong, to be always be trying harder and doing more.
Many of these are good desires, but not when they're the desires that drive you, the desires that give direction and determine the speed of life.
All of this begins to wear you down and soon you are tired, you've lost perspective on life, joy and hope. It means that the desire to impress others or prove ourselves by our activities ends up damaging the relationships that we value the most. When identity is in what we do, personal criticism rocks our sense of worth and we become unable to separate who we are from what we do. Any sort of achievement becomes only a momentary relief.
Look at this diagram to summarise what I'm saying:
So how do we break in to this joy-sapping, hope-stealing, perspective-warping cycle?
The answer is to start the cycle not from achievement, but from acceptance. We are adopted into the family of God as one of God's children based not on worthiness, but purely on grace. My identity is not found in what I do or what I have achieved, but rather on who I am - a child of God. I am a child of God because he decided to love me, not because of what I've done, not in any way down to my merits, but because he loves me. So I get my identity from that. I don't need to prove my worth to myself or to others, because my worth is found not in what I achieve, but rather in the fact that I'm an accepted child of God.
I then look to his strength to work for him, and from this identity can then flow our activity and achievement. We serve, live for God and follow him by his strength, out of gratitude and obedience, not to define who we are and our worth.
We see this at work when Jesus is baptised. He hears his Father say, 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased'... These words commission Jesus for what he is to do. The combination of words from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 points Jesus to the path of the shepherd leader and the suffering servant. They also confirm Jesus in who he is. He is God's dearly loved child, the one in whom the plan for the salvation of humankind resides. Over the years leading up to this event, Jesus has been growing in his understanding of who he is. Now, at this moment of 'going public', God chooses to confirm his identity...
... It was from this place of secure identity as God's chosen child that Jesus 'began his ministry' (Luke 3:23). The foundation of his public ministry is his relationship with God as father. That's why, when challenged by Satan in the desert, 'If you are the Son of God...', Jesus was able to resist the temptation to confirm his identity through performance... That's why he could challenge the assumptions of religious leaders (Luke 11:37-54), speak with authority (Mark 1:27-28), embrace the outcast, despised, rejected, and associate with undesirables... He knew who he was... [Christians] too, need that fundamental knowledge of who they are in Christ. When we lose this we begin to work for God's love rather than from God's love, and start to travel around that cycle of grief.
Ok, you say, I understand that, but it's easier said than done. How do we put it into practice? Here are a few ideas:
- - Live by Jesus' words. Think about Jesus' words in John 15. 'Without me you can do nothing'. We may be good at producing counterfeit fruit that looks good to others, but it wont be Jesus' fruit. The cost? A diminishing relationship with Christ. 'As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you'. We may tell other people that, but do we act as though it's true or do we strive after his love by trying to prove ourselves? 'Obey my commands'. To remain in Jesus means obeying his commands, the practical way of continuing as Christians - repentance and faith, as we started. 'My joy... in you'. A lack of joy isn't a result of difficult circumstances. As we wander from Jesus' love, his joy is not in us and so we don't have joy. We could go on... 'You are my friends, if you do what I command', you did not chose me, but I chose you' Remain in him!
If we lived by Jesus' words - taking him at his word that if we're not depending on him our work will be pointless, that we're loved unconditionally, that we need to obey him if we're goign to remain in him, that joy is found only in him - then we'd find ourselves leaning on him and loving him more. Live by his words: remain in him. To remain in him, however, is a concept that needs grounding somehow. To do it, we need to be obedient and intentional, and the single greatest help for that is to:
- Exercise spiritual disciplines. That's just not cool. We live in a world of instant satisfaction, but holiness and an increased dependence on and love for Jesus doesn't come instantly. We're part of a church that desires to break away from the legalism that we sometimes see in older generations, yet we throw out the baby with the bathwater... or are we really just accepting the licentiousness of our era?
Godly living doesn't just happen, in the same way that running a marathon doesn't just happen. You train long and hard. Trying harder isn't the answer. You can try hard as you like to run a marathon, but without training you are unlikely to succeed. Spiritual disciplines are the training manual for the marathon of Christian discipleship with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
More thoughts on Spiritual disciplines in another post some time!
- Resolve internal issues. If there's something inside - some sin or whatever - that affects how you relate to God, work and others, then get it sorted! Don't just bury them - they sap energy and spiritual life. Pray, talk to a close friend, or seek professional help. But don't let them eat away at your relationship with Jesus.
- Know what you're aiming for. Remember that the first goal of the Christian life is faithfulness to God. It's possible to do God's work but not in God's way. We want to serve him as best we can and want to see fruit, but don't let that sort of fruit be what brings identity, or the idea that we are only successful if we've converted a million people. Look for fruit in your own character - am I becoming more like Christ, am I loving people more or am I just pretending to love them?
Doing these things help us to be constantly reminded and liberated into working from acceptance not for acceptance, help us to grow closer to God and love him more. It frees us from feeling we need to serve him to death for identity and acceptance (of ourselves, from others and from God) and so experiencing the growing exhaustion and guilt associated with such feelings.
As you've probably guessed by now, these are some of the ideas brought out in Part 2 of 'Growing Leaders'. See Part 1 here and here. Quotations and the illustration are from the book!