We all love taking self-assessments, don’t we? Whether it’s the Culture Index, the DISC, the Myer-Briggs, the Enneagram, or the Strengthsfinder, we all want to know more about ourselves. In the vein of these self-assessments, would you be interested in taking another one? One that might be more important than all the others, a spiritual self-assessment? To what extent are you truly being transformed by the Holy Spirit, being made resilient in Christ, and joyful whatever this life brings? Here are some questions (they’re not the only ones) to give you a hint as to whether you’re truly abiding in Christ (John 15):
- Do you take as much time to be alone and silent and listen to the Lord that you need, or do you find you fill your life with activity and noise?
- Do you find yourself anxious about what is happening around you or the decisions you make, or do you rest in the knowledge that God is already at work around you in people’s lives and circumstances?
- Do you most often tackle self-initiated projects and say you’re doing them for God, or do you find yourself acting under the direction and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit? When is the last time you did something because you genuinely felt like God was telling you to do it?
- Do you rest as hard as you work?
- Do you measure the productivity in your life by what you don’t do, as well as what you do?
How did you do? As you can probably see by now, abiding in Christ–and the transformation, resilience, and joy that comes with it, is more about creating space for Christ to work in you than anything you’re doing.
Hard work and effort are good. Many of you are probably HPPs- highly productive people. But hard work, when it becomes separated from a living communion with God, can become destructive, rather than constructive. We can find ourselves subconsciously running from God, rather than to Him. Before long, we’ve lost the very wellspring of our lives. Not only our source of legitimacy as followers of Jesus, but the thing that actually gives us life.
What I’m suggesting is that the answer to leading your family spiritually and well, building your own resilience in light of the many challenges we all face in daily life, building resilience into our kids, and transforming into the follower of Jesus and child of God you are called to be is all the same answer- they’re found in the depths of your intimacy with Jesus, and emerge from there.
This summer, I had my second sabbatical in 20 years, and my second in five. I should have been taking them much sooner. My first was in 2018, right after I defended my dissertation, at the end of a particularly busy year. I can’t remember what my expectations were going into my sabbatical then, but God met me there, changed my life in him in many ways, and, in so doing, changed the way I lead.
During that season, I met with a man who became a spiritual mentor to me. I met with him again this past summer, and I’ve met with him monthly since. My mentor challenged me to not live my faith as much in my head–with solid doctrine, theology, apologetics, a biblical worldview, and the latest leadership book under my arm–all these things are absolutely critical, but I was living mostly there. He challenged me instead to let the experience of how much God loved me transform me into someone with a truly changed heart.
Since then, I learned that my heart can’t be changed by thinking itself into change, or by studying itself into change. Like all disciples of Jesus, before I cried out to Jesus the first time, I didn’t even want to love him. His Spirit gave me a new heart, one that wanted to care, and wanted to love him and what he loved. But I still loved a lot of other things, as well. A lot of things-competition and achievement, affirmation and approval. Oftentimes, more than I loved him. Even as I became a head of school, and even as I became more sanctified and mature through the years, the battle with these loves remained. And loving those lesser things competing for my affections at times more than the one to whom I owed them all meant that I was always going to be something less than the person he created me to be, and wanted me to be. Unless something changed.
In order to be truly transformed, I had to nurture and cultivate the love he had implanted in me, like a seed. I had to put myself under the shower of the Holy Spirit, so he could transform me into that person, a person who loves him better and more, and who is more deeply aware of how much I am loved and approved by God. I had to become a person who is able to actually receive that kind of love, despite the temptation toward shame and the voices telling me I wasn’t worth that love, on the one hand, and my own pride trying to lie to me that I was a person who didn’t need it, that I was actually good enough in my own merit, on the other.
There’s this remarkable short film with the late Eugene Peterson called “Godspeed,” and it’s a documentary about an American pastor who gets off the fast track to go to Scotland to become a pastor in a small, rural Presbyterian congregation. And, there this pastor learns how to become a shepherd in full by slowing down and fully listening to God and the hearts of His people. He talks about the “3 ½ mile God”, which is about the pace Jesus walked the earth, never in a particular hurry, and yet changed the entire world. I’ll never forget this pastor’s quote: “I finally realized that I had to slow down to catch up to God.”
In a book by the same name, “The 3 mph God,” Kosuke Koyama writes that God walks slowly because He is love. Love has a speed, much different from the speed of technology with which we’re all too familiar- it’s the speed we move, so it’s the speed God’s love moves. I, too, realized that the way I could let him transform me was by slowing down and engaging through regular practices inclining my heart toward His love.
Regular practices are how we become better at anything in life: a better golfer or pianist, more healthy or more knowledgeable, a better leader or worker, or one who loves better. Spending time with God, regular practice involving letting him transform you, have been called “disciplines,” or “liturgies” in the Church for thousands of years, but they are simply those regular practices that shape our hearts toward God, the person we want to spend more time with and draw closer to. The other traditional name for them is the “means of grace.” They are called that because they are the way we put ourselves under that sanctifying shower of the Holy Spirit, where he can restore us with his grace and make us new.
This summer, I read a great book called “Beholding,” and in it the author, Strahan Coleman said, “Our habits become altars of availability; God does the rest.” Coleman also likens resting in the Holy Spirit to riding in a current of water. And, he notes that some of the practices we do are active, like swimming in that current- things like Bible study, and worship, and fasting. Most of us engage in these things with some degree of regularly or another.
But, he says that part of riding in the current of the Holy Spirit also involves passive practices, which he likens to floating- things like reflection, silence, and solitude- instead of bringing all my stuff to the Lord and dumping it at his feet, taking the time to be humble and silent, and letting the God of the universe initiate the conversation with me for once. These practices take time and focus, things in short supply in our world, when the enemy of our souls wants to use distraction to lead us from Jesus. And, so, as a result, so few of us are ever truly transformed.
The great thing is that, when we fully engage with the Holy Spirit, actively and passively, He moves in us- transforming or changing us so that we will recognize how loved we are by him, how much he cares for us, even when past brokenness makes it hard to receive that love. Recognizing we’re loved that way changes our identities forever, showing us who we are, and freeing us from anxiety and fear. As we realize we are loved, we come to find that we are able to love out of the overflow of how Christ loves us. We are freed to no longer simply love transactionally–so that we’ll be loved or that someone will do something for us, or give us something in return–but to love those who don’t or can’t love us. We become deeper, better people, those whose hearts and minds are renewed.
This year, at Father’s Day, I was on a trip with my family. My girls blessed me by sharing with me all the ways they had seen me grow as a person and their dad over the past few years: someone who was more at peace, gentler, able to deal with the anger in my life and the need for control; someone who loves others better. They told me I encouraged them that they didn’t have to, and weren’t going to, be the same followers of Jesus they were at 25, that they would be at 35, or 45, or 55., showing them that heart transformation is a lifelong process. Because they had watched their mom and me grow in Jesus. And, as I was giving God glory for those things, I reflected that all those changes in me came about in me as a result of those passive practices–being silent and still, alone before the Lord, not just zipping through His Word but letting it marinate in me, then letting him do his transforming work in my life. All those practices which are really less about doing than being in the Lord. To be is to abide.