Ralph Waldo Emerson is famous for saying "Life is a journey, not a destination." But he is not the originator of the idea. For centuries, religions of all kinds have described life and our spiritual growth as a journey...a long trip filled with adventure and set-backs. It requires courage, dedication, and commitment.
The Bible often talks of our relationship with God as a journey. All throughout it talks of people walking faithfully with God. God regularly encourages people to walk in obedience. The Psalms and Proverbs are filled with this idea of walking and staying in the right path. Jesus talked about the narrow and the wide path.
And our primary passage for today, and addendum at the end of the Fruit of the Spirit, talks about walking...and journey...
Galatians 5:25, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
We have been looking at the Fruit of the Spirit. It is important to remember that our growth in the Fruit of the Spirit, the growth of our character, is a journey. It is walking this stuff out every day of our lives in connection to the Holy Spirit.
You cannot muster enough energy to do this yourself. You cannot make yourself good. I found this quote on the internet and it speaks so much to what we are aiming at: “It's so much easier to do good than to be good.” — B. C. Forbes. Paul says this in several places, but none so clear as Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
So often we look at God’s call to a holy life. His call to live a life that produces these Fruit of the Spirit, and we say...there is no way! I have tried! I have tried to be patient with that person! I have tried to be loving with my co-worker! I have tried to be kind and generous. I have tried it all, and I just can’t do it...
You are right. You can’t do it. You need the power of the Holy Spirit at work in your life.
This doesn’t get you off the hook. There is still effort required on your part. Some have read Paul’s words and thought, Well if I can’t do what I want to do, I will just go with how things are. I was born this way! God is just going to have to do the work.
Character development and growth take time and effort on our part, but they are only effective as we keep in step with the Spirit.
The imagery here is of the Roman Army marching my...click, click, click...lockstep...every soldier’s heels hitting the stone streets at the same time. And Paul says, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
We live by the Spirit. We don’t live by the flesh, as Paul points out all the behaviors that leads to just a few verses earlier. We don’t live by our culture and what it claims is ultimate reality. We don’t live by our work, our family, our inner sense of things...These should not provide the guidance for our direction and purpose in life. We are called to live by the Spirit.
And as we live by the Spirit, our goal is to learn to keep in step with the spirit...allowing his work to transform us so we exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit...that is how we go from just doing good to actually being good!
I read this quote last week from Richard Foster, “Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God. It is a grace that is given…”
So you have tried time and again to grow in your patience and you have failed.
You have tried to be more loving, but then they just push the right buttons and you find yourself acting in some very unloving ways or saying some very unloving things.
You try to have joy, but you just can’t shake the gloom. You can’t seem to find anything to be joyous about.
You want to be faithful, but you just keep failing...over and over and over again.
And Paul says that our answer is live by the Spirit and walk in step with the Spirit....learning to see where he is leading and then following Him.
So we do this by first
Building our spiritual muscles.
There is no way to know where the Spirit is leading, much less to follow, if we are not spending time in God’s presence.
I am as guilty as the next person...trying to discipline myself to do this...to carve time out of a busy schedule to hear the still small voice of God. We have to step away from the television, from the computer, from the book, even from our family and from work to carve out time to spend in God’s presence.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have developed what they call Spiritual Disciplines. Spending time with God isn’t just about reading the Bible and praying...those are definitely part of it. And praying isn’t just about you talking. Sometimes, and more often than we realize, prayer is about us learning to shut-up.
But there is a long list of disciplines that any Christian can use to spend time with God. Silence, solitude, fasting, worship, journaling, sabbath, prayer with all its different aspects, Bible reading and study, service...all of these are meant to build up our spiritual muscles so as we enter the world our spirits have developed the strength to face what will come our way. We also learn to sense the leading of the Holy Spirit so we are not searching for it in the midst of our struggle.
Just like working out physically...we don’t wait until we get to the marathon to run. We run miles and miles and miles over the months and year before the marathon so that when the time comes we can run with confidence.
Powerlifters lift heavy weights for years and years before they step out on the competition floor and attempt to lift the amount of weight they do.
If we want to show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control...we have to spend time putting in the effort to develop those muscles...and that starts in our time spent in God’s presence because it is there where we learn to walk in step with the Spirit.
But we also have to realize...
It takes time to grow.
Watching one episode of Dr. Phil will not undo years of watching Jerry Springer...so one prayer won’t undo years of living your own way. One Sunday morning isn’t going to undo a lifetime of bad habits.
You have allowed your anger to go unchecked for most of your life...it most likely will not stop overnight.
You have never thought about the fact that you say some pretty mean things about other people under your breath...it won’t end overnight.
You have not controlled the depressive thoughts and moods...it probably isn’t going to happen overnight.
You take any problem area where God needs to work in your life, and it probably will not be cured overnight...because God doesn’t work that way. God’s process of transformation is long, drawn-out, and usually filled with hard work because that is how real change happens. Significant and meaningful change takes time.
Health is not found in a fad diet or the latest pill or energy drink. It means eating less and moving more and making wise choices. Healthy relationship happen after years of integrity and being trustworthy and loyal.
Sometimes God will free people of things instantaneously. I have seen people who struggled for years to quite smoking, turn it over to God, lay their pack of cigarettes down, and never touch them again. I have seen people do that with drugs, alcohol, and all sorts of things...
But the deeper, and probably more damaging sins...those take time. Greed. Anger. Bitterness. A complaining spirit. Impatience. Faithlessness. A lack of integrity. Lack of generosity. These things...the sins that are more easily hidden or disguised take time...I mean we can see when you drink, smoke, and chew! We can hear you when you cuss out your neighbor! But we can’t always tell if you have a prideful heart. We can’t see the bitterness and seething anger within you...those sins are more dangerous to your spiritual lives, and take the longest to root out.
And it is so easy to get discouraged as you work through these character issues. You work for weeks and month and years...and then something happens you find yourself exhibiting some of the old habits. We keep coming back to this, but our spiritual growth is really about progress not perfection. Patience starts with you being patient with yourself.
Some people laugh at me because I keep a pretty detailed spreadsheet of my weight and workouts. If I don’t then when I’m in the midst of a bad workout and feel like quitting, I am tempted to think...this is getting me nowhere! But when I look back at the previous weeks and months...I see that I have grown. I am going farther or I am doing it faster or I am lifting more than before.
This is why the spiritual discipline of journaling is important for many Christians. You are recording your spiritual life and journey...the daily interactions and the failures in a journal...and then over time you are able to go back and read and see how you have grown.
Others will us a spiritual director to help them, much like a coach only for the spiritual life. And the spiritual director will give them challenges and talk and listen...and over time give them feedback about how they are progressing.
Whatever it takes to grow we must be willing to do...but we also have to understand it is going to take time. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Don’t excuse bad morality or character flaws that you are aware of with trite statements like, “I’m forgiven not perfect.” But also don’t beat yourself up when you falter after genuine attempts to grow.
God is a God of grace and mercy as well as justice and truth. He rejects those who use His grace and mercy as an excuse to do as they please... But He rewards those who pursue Him. He encourages those who are struggling and pushing through...because He understands that real progress takes time.
So you build the spiritual muscles. You understand the time this is going to take...You also
Learn to pay attention.
The Holy Spirit is always at work in your life, and it isn’t how you might think. Too often we look for God in the big signs and coincidences of life. We want to hear the voice or get the revelation from our Scripture reading...
But the Holy Spirit works on our character by sending us people to interact with...putting us in situations to challenge and test and grow us... He works in the everyday...the normal...the mundane things of our lives...
Let’s say God wants to grow you in being more loving...he is going to challenge you to work with someone who is hard to love. He will use the heated discussion you and your spouse are having.
He wants to grow your patience...you’re right...he will use the regular, everyday situations of life to help you improve your patience. Long lines at the BMV. Traffic accidents...He will use them all.
Romans 8:28 reminds us, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” There are going to be tests and challenges that God places directly in our path to help us grow. There are also going to be things that happen in our life that, while God doesn’t cause them, He certainly uses...He redeems...He grabs them out of the pile of horrible things that happen and uses them to grow and stretch us...so they are not just “another bad thing that happened to us...but they are transformed into something that can make us better.
Our goal is to pay attention to how God is working in your life. You will often see the same idea or concept come up over and over in your Scripture reading. The pastor will preach on it. Your friends will say something about it. A prayer ministry team member might pray it over you out of the blue. Someone might have a word of knowledge that connects to something.
We are not talking superstitious coincidence. We are talking about grand themes where God is pointing out things in our lives...sometimes even sin we need to stop...but something, someway He is at work...
And He will do it through the every day interactions and activities of your life.
So often we look for all the special spiritual things we have to add to our lives...the 3 hours of prayer...and 2 hours of Bible reading...and retreats...and special church services...and all kinds of things...God works through those things, but God is most active in the everyday things we are most likely to overlook
Jim Cymbala, in his book Fresh Power, writes, “While Christ’s work on the cross...was the only way to settle the problem of guilt, sin, and condemnation; the coming of the promised Holy Spirit was God’s way of changing human beings from the inside out. The law given to Moses had failed on this very point. It was in itself holy and just, but the problem was the sinful nature within people.
Now the Holy Spirit dwelling in the hearts of believers would conquer the age-old dilemma of ‘I want to be different but can’t. I know what’s wrong, but I keep doing it anyway.’ This empowerment by the Spirit would be the dynamic source throughout time for all who live and labor for Jesus Christ” (Pages 16-17).
To steal an illustration from a fellow pastor...
Living this out is a journey...we must learn to live...left foot...right foot.
I need to be more generous...left foot...get rid of some stuff....right foot...give some money away.
I need help with my finances...left foot...spend less...right foot...make more
I need to grow in my relationship with God...left foot...get up tomorrow morning and read and pray...right foot...live it out during the day...left foot...get up the next morning and read and pray...right foot live it out during the day.
One of my favorite movies is the Dead Poets Society.
Despite Mr. Keating calling his students to walk to the beat of their own drum...the reality is you will walk to the beat of someone’s drum...you will keep in step with some drummer in your world. You may keep in step with the culture around you. You may keep in step in with your friends, or family, or the expectations of others.
Or you will live by the Spirit and keep in step with Spirit.