“I don’t feel like I’m growing in my relationship with Christ.” That’s what I said to my youth pastor, Darrell, one night after small group at Panera Bread. I struggled with various idolatries and sins. I hardly ever read my Bible.
He had just the right response. “Are your feelings what indicate what is true about you, or does God’s word? Your eyes are on yourself. You need to turn your eyes to God’s word.”
The idea that God’s word trumped my feelings immediately brought relief. I didn’t need to gear my efforts toward figuring me out. I needed to start figuring God’s word out. The look of discouragement left my face in but a few moments (unfortunately the pimples wouldn’t for a few years).
Darrell probably doesn’t remember that conversation. But 13 years later, when I don’t feel so spiritual, it still points me back to the word of God, the promises we have in Christ, and the sanctifying work of the Spirit. As I look back, I can see lots of ways I was growing during my last couple years of high school, even if I didn’t “feel” it.
The need to keep turning back to the gospel
I’d be lying, however, if I said that I’ve never slipped back into that mindset since walking out of Panera that Sunday night. Being a pastor and hanging a couple of Bible degrees on my office wall has not exempted me from using my feelings as a yardstick to measure my growth. That means I’ve had a lot of practice turning back toward the Bible and the gospel as my measurement of, and means for, spiritual growth.
That practice has taught me a couple things. First, I’ve learned that instead of aiming to “feel” spiritual, I should aim to actually be spiritual (rocket science, I know). Based on my reading of Scripture, faith, hope, and love have risen to be three things I markers of spirituality I shoot for. Second, analyzing my current spiritual state doesn’t motivate me to grow. Rather, the more I dwell on what God has done for me, the more I grow in faith, hope, and love toward him. Allow me to explain how this works.
1. Meditate on “Gospel Past” to Grow in Faith. By “gospel past,” I mean the good news of salvation that has already happened. Jesus fulfilled the law in your place. He died on the cross for your justification. He rose again three days later, conquering death forever. He sent his Spirit, so that his resurrection life and all the other blessings of his work might be given to us.
The more we dwell on what God has done for us in Christ, the more we grow in our faith. As we ruminate over how God has already worked to conquer our sin and redeem us back to himself, our doubts evaporate. God has been faithful in the past, so we can believe that he is true, and will stay true to his promises even now.
2. Meditate on “Gospel Present” to Grow in Love. It’s incredible that we who have been so loved by God fail to love him, and fail to love others. I’ve sinned in ways that, looking back on it, I think to myself, “How could I ever have done/said/thought that?”
How do we who have been forgiven of our sin make the change from loving ourselves to loving God and neighbor? We mediate on “gospel present.”
“Gospel present” refers to how God continues to work in us, for us, and through us after he has saved us. He does this by his Spirit. God does not only forgive our sins; he also enables us to turn away from them. The Spirit helps us in our weakness (Rom. 8:26) and bears in us the fruit of the Spirit, the first of happens to be love (Gal. 5:22).
If you are dissatisfied with your level of sanctification, the answer is not simply trying harder to sin less. We are not justified by works of the flesh, nor are we sanctified by works of the flesh. Rather, meditate on all that God has promised to do for you by his Spirit. He will help you grow in love as you sow to the Spirit, and not to the flesh (Gal. 6:8).
3. Meditate on “Gospel Future” to Grow in Hope. I still struggle with some of the same sins and idols that I did when I was in high school. They manifest themselves in different ways now that I’m an adult, have a family, and make more than minimum wage. But they are still there.
Will these sins that so easily entangle me ever go away? Is there hope?
“Gospel future” answers with a resounding, yes! “Gospel future” refers to all the promises we are waiting to receive when Christ returns. He will wipe away our tears, he will cause death to vanish, and he will give us a body that is glorified and sinless, just like his (Phil 3:21).
The hard part is that we have to wait for these promises. “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:25). The more we meditate on the promises that await us, the more we will hope for them. The more we hope for it, the more patient we will be for it, because our hope will grow strong and certain.
“Gospel past” reminds us that our sin is paid for, and we no longer bear the penalty for it because Christ bore it on our behalf. The cross and resurrection are the content of, and fuel for, our faith. The more we meditate on what God has done for us, the more our faith will grow.
“Gospel present” reminds us that the Spirit continues to cleanse us from indwelling sin and that it no longer holds absolute power over us. As we trust the Spirit to do his sanctifying work – not apart from our activity, but in it (Phil. 2:12-13) – we will love ourselves less, and love God and others more.
“Gospel future” reminds us that Christ is returning, and, when he does, he will make an end to the presence of sin. With the barrier of sin finally completely done away with, we will worship God face-to-face (Rev. 22:3-4).
Do you want to grow in your faith, hope, and love? The gospel is the fertilizer you’re looking for.
This is a guest post by Eric McKiddie. Eric blogs at pastoralized.com about doing pastoral work with theological rigor and practical efficiency. He serves as the Junior High Pastor at College Church in Wheaton, IL.