Scriptures: Acts 2:14, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
One of the biggest miracles of human life is that our physical bodies grow and mature all on their own. We don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to plan it out ahead of time. In fact, we don’t have understand how it happens or why it’s this way. All on its own, from the moment of conception to the moment of death, our bodies develop and mature apart from anything we do—with the exception of feeding them.
I’m not sure the same can be said about mental cognition and emotional and spiritual morality. It seems to me that God has designed us in such a way that these non-physical aspects of human potential require intentional effort on our part. Yes, the natural ability to process information at deeper levels naturally develops over time, but actually employing that natural ability only happens when we consciously and intentionally work at it.
Consider humor. The ability to understand the nuances of humor comes with age, but still has to be learned. For example, ask a 4-year old to make up a knock-knock joke. It’ll probably go something like this:
I like oranges.
If you laugh at the child’s joke, then you’re probably laughing at the obscurity of it, because it’s clear to you that the punchline fails to meet the specifications of a knock-knock joke. Eventually, however, that 4-year old will become an 8-year old, and they’ll be able to make up an appropriate knock-knock joke because their cognition has naturally developed. But what does it take to get to that place? It takes actually immersing children in the hearing and telling of knock-knock jokes for many years. And then, after hearing and telling them over a long enough period of time, they begin to unconsciously understand the nuances of that kind of humor. In other words, development comes from doing and practicing it.
Another example would be the difference between the being born with the natural ability to create and play complicated music and acquiring the theoretical understanding of that same music. In the world of jazz and pop music, lots of songs have been composed and played by persons who couldn’t tell you the difference between a quarter note and a quarterback, or a bass clef and baseball. These folks were born with a natural ability to write and play songs by ear. But the capacity to deconstruct those songs and describe the theory behind them is learned. And that skill is developed over time by applying those learned music theory systems over time. This is just how it is when it comes to cognitive development.
I believe the same is true when it comes to matters of the heart (and I’m using the term “heart” to cover a broad swath of non-cognitive capacities). Let’s consider the issue of prejudice. While I’m aware of studies that show that there tends to be a natural inclination to be drawn to people who look similar to you, there is nevertheless a lot of truth to the notion that hate is learned. It’s more nurture than nature. If you’re familiar with the musical, South Pacific, then you know it contains a song which gets at this very point. Written in 1949, the musical garnered quite of bit of controversy because it addressed racism head-on. The Song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” sung by the character Lieutenant Cable, is preceded by a line saying racism is “not born in you; it happens after you’re born.”
Wouldn’t you agree with me that once we reach a certain age, after having internalized some level of bigoted thinking over time—even if unconsciously so—it take conscious effort to not think and behave in a bigoted fashion? If hate or bigotry is learned, then if we don’t want to live and think according to that worldview, it has to be consciously unlearned. And then practiced.
Or consider the ability to share your stuff with others. As far as I can tell, this is not an aptitude we’re born with. Anyone who’s raised a child knows that not sharing is what comes naturally. We literally have to teach our children to share by forcing them to do it! And we all know what generally happens later on when that life skill isn’t taught at a young age.
Becoming spiritually mature, and reaping the benefits thereof, happens only when we take matters into our own hands and intentionally do what it takes to grow in grace
How about the ability to show compassion? Or even more to the point, the ability to feel compassion for those who are hurting? How about possessing an overall life attitude of thanksgiving? How about being generally content with what you have or with your station in life? Or the capacity to forgive? The biblical witness is that these “abilities” don’t come naturally, but are instead learned. And to develop and mature in these areas of human expression takes conscious doing and practice on our part.
I believe this is one of the points St. Paul is trying to make when he tells us to “work out your salvation” in Philippians 2:12. In essence, he’s saying By faith you’ve been saved. Now demonstrate that salvation through a changed life. Jesus did the work of making you right with God. Now you do the hard work of living out that faith in Jesus. Why does Paul feel the need to instruct us to do this? Because he knows that on account of living in a broken world, we mortals won’t develop and mature spiritually apart from doing the daily work of walking with Jesus—consciously and intentionally.
Here’s what it all comes down to: spiritual maturity doesn’t happen automatically, nor by way of osmosis—hanging out with spiritually mature Christians. Rather, becoming spiritually mature, and reaping the benefits thereof, happens only when we take matters into our own hands and intentionally do what it takes to grow in grace.
One of the Bible stories for today is recorded in Acts 2, which is the story of the birth to the Church. I’ll talk more about this in a few weeks, on Pentecost Sunday. But what I want to highlight today is what happened afterward. After hearing Peter preach a sermon in which he boldly proclaimed Jesus to the Messiah, roughly three thousand Jews took Peter’s message to heart and were baptized.
No doubt, what happened that day was an amazing, awe-inspiring event. If you and I witnessed three thousand non-believers coming to faith in Jesus Christ after a single sermon, we’d talk about for months! But as significant as that event was – and it was truly significant – it wasn’t the end of the story. And that’s because professing faith in Jesus—receiving him into your heart and applying his saving work on the cross to your life—isn’t all there is to do. There’s more to being a Jesus-follower than coming to faith in him. After saying “yes” to Jesus, there’s an important now what? to consider. It’s what happens afterwards that determines one’s long-term experience of their salvation. In Acts 2, Luke sums up post-Pentecost response of those three thousand converts in one verse: “They joined with the other believers and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, sharing in the Lord’s Supper and in prayer” (v. 42). And vs. 46 tells us that they did this on a daily basis.
After saying “yes” to Jesus, there’s an important Now what? to consider.
After initially being baptized and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, they participated in daily Temple worship (akin to our Sunday worship); they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (akin to our Xn ed classes) and fellowship (akin to our small groups); they shared regularly in the Lord’s Supper (in people’s homes); and they prayed together.
Intentional and regular worship. intentional and regular learning. intentional and regular fellowship with other believers. Intentionally receiving the sacraments on a regular basis. Intentional and regular prayer life. Each one of these is an essential part of one’s faith development. Together, they are the means by which we mature in our faith. Remove any of them and our spiritual development takes a hit.
So, why is this important to talk about? To put it simply, because life happens. And the deeper our spiritual roots run, the better prepared we are to face the unexpected storms of life that inevitably happen. Apart from a close, intimate relationship with God, bearing the weight of a crisis can become quite overwhelming, even debilitating.
Admittedly, up to this point in my life I haven’t experienced the grief that comes from the death of an immediate family member or a very close friend, so I can’t personally comment on the difference it makes to be able to lean on God during such times. But through the years I’ve heard countless parishioners who have experienced that kind of grief express that they don’t know how people go through that without God’s help. So, taking a cue from their experience, I’m suggesting that the more intimate our relationship is with God, the more prepared we are to face those times when they come.
Listen to how the author of Psalm 116 begins this particular prayer. I love the Lord because he hears my requests for mercy. I’ll call out to him as long as I live, because he listens closely to me. Death’s ropes bound me; the distress of the grave found me–I came face-to-face with trouble and grief. So I called on the Lord’s name: “Lord, please save me!” (vv. 1-4)
On the surface, it could be argued that the psalmist only called on God when he was facing the possibility of dying. But I think verses 1-2 suggest otherwise. He begins by telling us not what God did, but what God is constantly doing. He didn’t report that God heard his request. No, he says that God hears his requests. It’s something that God’s been doing all along, which suggests to me that the psalmist has been laying his requests before God on a regular basis.
We find the same thing in verse 2, where he reports that God listens closely to him. Again, he describes God’s actions as ongoing, not something that happened once in the past. And so, when things got really bad he did what he’d always done before: he called out to God. In this case he asked God to save him from certain death.
So, is there a difference between a spiritually immature Christian calling out to God for help and a spiritually mature Christian calling out to God for help? On the surface, no. Both are seeking God’s help at a particular point of need. The difference, however, lies way below the surface, and is difficult to describe because it’s a subtle intangible.
The best way I can think to describe it is by comparing to our own human experience. Put yourself in the shoes of parent of an adult son or daughter. It’s the difference between an adult child with whom you have a healthy, ongoing relationship who comes to you periodically asking for money to help them through a rough patch, and the adult child who the only time you ever hear from them is when they need some money. Both approach you at their point of need, but your experience of being asked, and of responding, isn’t the same with each of them. As a parent, because you love them both, you help them both. Where there’s a healthy, ongoing relationship where you connect on a regular basis, you’re glad to help; you’re even eager to help. But with the child who only shows up when they need something, you give, but admittedly with a bit of a resentment. You feel used. You even ask them, “Why is it that the only time I ever hear from you is when you need something?”
Don’t you suppose God might feel the same way? Clearly, he’s a lot bigger than us, and his love is much more encompassing than ours, and he probably doesn’t feel that same sense of resentment. But I can see the possibility that our seeking out God only when life gets hard saddens God. On the other hand, when we’re intentionally growing in our relationship with God, I think it brings him great joy to be able to help us whatever the need may be.
Undoubtedly, there are lots of reasons to be intentionally growing in our spiritual walk with the Lord. One reason is so that when those storms of life come along—and they will—our call for help comes from a place of relationship with him. And not simply because we need something, and we want God to provide it.
With that in mind, let me close with a question for you to consider. Let’s say you have a very specific need for which you seek God’s help. And let’s say that for reasons only God knows he doesn’t give you what you were asking for. And as a result, you have to endure the hardship of your situation. Here’s the question. If you’re in an ongoing, healthy, maturing relationship with God, how might your response to God’s “no” be different than if your relationship with him is more transactional in nature? I think there’s often a huge difference in response between the two starting places.
What’s your starting place? And if it’s closer to the latter one (transactional), what are you going to about it?