Spiritual Growth: Flicking a Switch or Fanning the Flames?

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I was brought up in a home which was in West of Scotland parlance “all electric.” All of our power came via the flick of a switch. It only took the pressure of a finger to turn on a light, heat the house or boil a kettle. That’s why visiting Ann’s house when we first started going out was a bit of culture shock, their heating ran off a large coal “range.” To keep the heat in the house the range needed attention, it need to fed with coal and cleaned of ashes, sometimes it needed more air, some times less, it always needed more effort than our electrical storage heaters.

I think perhaps one of the problems when it comes to understanding Christian spirituality, how we actually live and experience our faith, is that we think being a Christian is like a house being “all electric” We expect God to “zap” us instantly with power, with little or no effort required on our part. I certainly thank God for those moments when in His Grace he instantaneously empowers us to help us face some crisis or experience some breakthrough however I think what has happened is that we have come to think that God’s “extraordinary” ways are his “normal” way. That the way we normally experience the power of the Holy Spirit is as I said instantaneously with virtual no preparation or effort on our part, we just need to flick some spiritual switch by praying or being prayed for.

Perhaps no group in Church history has experienced the power of the Holy Spirit more powerfully than the early Methodists. Critics often wrote off Methodists as “enthusiasts” because they spoke of their experiences of God’s Spirit and of course the tremendous growth of the Methodists and the impact they made in England and United States suggests that it was more than just “talk.” Yet John Wesley, their founder, warned them of the danger of ” …. expecting the end without the means; the expecting knowledge, for instance, without searching the Scriptures, and consulting the children of God; the expecting spiritual strength without constant prayer, and steady watchfulness; the expecting any blessing without hearing the word of God at every opportunity.” Wesley was warning against having this kind of “flick of a switch” spirituality where people expect to experience the Holy Spirit’s power, have a deep intimate relationship with Christ and see God at work in their life without ever having to take any real time to, read God’s Word, pray or be connected to other believers in the Body of Christ. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen at the flick of a switch, it doesn’t happen automatically and instantaneously. Douglas Rumford explains in his book “Soul Shaping” … “We will remain spiritually underdeveloped unless energy is infused into our system. If a person doesn’t learn to read, that ability will not develop automatically. If a person doesn’t hear or study a language other than her native tongue, she won’t be able speak it automatically. And if a person doesn’t seek the things of the Spirit and the Kingdom those things won’t be found automatically.”

When it comes to understanding spiritual growth the Church seems to swing from extreme to extreme. A generation or so ago people were being told that all spiritual growth is down to God and so they should “let go and let God.” Other parts of the Church have described spiritual growth as being virtually all down to us and said its about, personal responsibility, discipline and effort. I have a famous book about holiness in my library which deals with the whole subject of how we grow in holiness without ever mentioning the holy Spirt! So who is right? When it comes to spiritual growth is it “let go and let god” or “fight the good fight of faith?” Well both I think. Just listen to the New Testament on this subject Philippians 2:12 “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” I love the balance Paul has here. Spiritual growth is about personal responsibility and requires effort on our part “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” and yet that doesn’t mean its all down to us and we effectively transform ourselves through sheer determination because “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” Do you get Paul’s balanced perspective” its our actions which allow God to work within us fulfil his intentions for us. God won’t change us without our involvement and we can’t change without His power.

Back to Ann’s coal heating range in Wellyard Farm. To make sure it created the hot water to heat the house Ann and her family had to create the conditions for the flames to heat the water. Ash had to be cleaned away, coal had to be added, air at times had to be blown on to the flames to keep them burning brightly and effectively. Whenever I think about that coal heating system my mind always goes to a short statement Paul makes in the middle of Romans 12. In verse 11 he simply says “In the Spirit, boiling.” Paul asks us to imagine our lives as Christ followers as being like a pot of boiling water. Boiling water is active, bubbling away, its hot, it almost seems to have a life of its own so this is a picture of passion, its the very opposite of the “lukewarmness” Jesus complains about in the book of Revelation. We still use the idea of “boiling” as a metaphor for fervency and passion, I heard someone the other day talk about being “boiling mad.” So people who are “boiling in the Spirit” are people who are passionate about Jesus and His Kingdom, they are active not passive, spiritual hot not tepid. Yet just like the hot water in the heating system at Ann’s house we don’t get to boiling point automatically. It doesn’t happen by flicking a switch. Rather like I had to learn (probably not very well Ann would say) there are things we have to do to kindle and stoke the fire of the Spirit to bring us to spiritual boiling point. Those things are “spiritual disciplines” or habits, things like prayer, reading God’s word, serving other people, being connected in accountable relationship with other believers.

I wonder what you do, if anything, to keep the fire of the Spirit burning in your life so you come to spiritual boiling point, so that your life as a Christian is not one of duty and drudgery but passion and fervency? One translation of Romans 12:11 puts Paul’s words like this, “be aglow with the Spirit” So are you? Is the fire of the Spirit making you glow with the signs of His presence and work in your life? Or rather than glowing are you more flickering with spiritual life? Remember Wesley’s warning? We don’t become aglow with the Spirit just by wanting to be, we need to use the “means of grace” we need to regularly practice those things which “fan into flame the gift of God” 1 Tim 1:6

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