What’s choking you? 3 reasons Christians don’t grow, and what can be done about it

How can some Christians go years without growing spiritually?

I mean, isn’t that equivalent of getting married, and then ignoring your spouse? You thought an inked marriage contract was all you needed, rather than the flourishing love relationship the contract was designed to protect.

Yes, I follow Jesus, they say. I believe in him, but I’m not growing. I don’t pray. I don’t study Scripture. I don’t serve in the body of Christ. I’m not accountable to Christian brothers and sisters. And I’m not any stronger in faith or deeper in spirit than I was five years ago.

How is that even possible? Jesus gave one answer to that: kingdom life can be choked by lesser priorities.

In his famous parable of the seeds, Jesus pointed out four broad responses to his kingdom message. In his third example, he pointed to people who, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19 NIV)

Lesser priorities choke out the kingdom growth Jesus desired. Worries, wealth and wishes for “other things” are the classic signs of a choked out life. 

How do these three priorities choke our spiritual life? And what can we do?

First, worries choke our minds.

What is worry? Worry is inverted prayer, where our minds comb through, again and again, the areas of our lives we feel in least control. Worry indicates our primary concerns–it’s what we fix our minds upon, what we wake each day thinking about. And worry is powerful, for under its power, it is difficult to experience the peace and power of God in our lives.

What’s the remedy? We combat worry by praying the truth of Scripture. (You can read more about one way to do that here.) Recognizing all our concerns, we express them to God by receiving his truth into our minds, and speaking the truth back to God about our situation. Worry, turned to prayer, produces growth in our own lives.

Second, wealth chokes our hearts.

There’s a reason Jesus calls it “the deceitfulness of wealth,” for it is exactly that: a sneaky slit that leaks away the life Jesus wants for us. It’s not that wealth itself is bad, but we usually have no idea how powerful it is, and how easily we can be won over by our wealth without ever realizing our loyalty has shifted. Jesus warned, over and over again, that we can’t serve God and money. When we try, it’s our relationship with God that withers.

Giving to Jesus’ kingdom priorities is the only way we can get wealth right.

What’s the antidote? Only one thing: generosity. Giving to Jesus’ kingdom priorities–the poor, the church, missions–is the only way we can get wealth right. Don’t think so? Listen to Paul’s challenge: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:17-18 NIV)

Giving generously releases the choke-hold of wealth on our spiritual lives. You can take that to the bank. 

Third, wishes choke our passions.

What do we really want? It’s a powerful question. A happier family, a more comfortable job, a better body, a kinder climate? The answers will be as varied as we are. And under this final caption, Jesus catches everything else which shifts our passions away from him and on to “other things.” Rather than seeking first the kingdom of God, we passionately pursue lesser things. We wish for __________ (you fill in the blank), rather than wishing for a stronger church, a more effective witness, an opportunity to show love to a neighbour, a breakthrough in our relationship with our son, or a deeper understanding of God’s grace.

How can we combat lesser wishes? By utilizing our gifts to strengthen the body of Christ. We can realign our passions by actively realigning our service, for employing the spiritual gifts God gave us for the purpose of building up the church (the only reason he gave them to us) leads us to greater wishes, deeper desires, an increase in passions for the same things Jesus is passionate about: lost people finding him, broken people being restored, hurt people healed, and a people of God more vibrant and alive to him than ever. That’s what it means to seek first the kingdom of God–we desire what Jesus wants more than anything else. And when we do that, growth is inevitable.

So what about you?

Which of these three–worry, wealth or wishes–have been choking your growth the most?

And what will you do about it? Jesus wants you to grow in relationship with him, and he’s doing everything possible to help you do that. But you’ve got to choose to grow: to pray God’s truth into your situation, to give generously from your wealth, and to serve passionately the kingdom priorities of Jesus. Get that choke-hold off your neck, and grow.

What’s one thing you will do this week to respond to stop the choking and start the growing?

A Surefire Test for Self-Righteousness: Try it today! :)

Self-righteousness is notoriously difficult to self-assess.

Pic: Pixabay Public Domain

Those of us who struggle with it the most are the least likely to recognize it within ourselves. When the infamous Pharisee pompously prayed of all the ways he outshone his fellow worshiper, I just don’t think he was quite aware of how self-righteous he had become. We rarely are.

But I think I may have figured out a way of doing just that. Go with me for a moment, and then I’ll try to explain what I’m thinking.

Here’s the self-assessment question that might–just might–help reveal if we are struggling with self-righteousness:

Am I more offended by the sin of those around me, or am I more offended by the sin that is within me? 

What gets you riled up? What makes you ache inside? Is it the sin within your own heart, or the sin you see in others?

That, my friends, is a surefire test for self-righteousness.

The Pharisee and the Publican, baroque fresco in Ottobeuren Basilica. By Johannes Böckh & Thomas Mirtsch via Wikimedia Commons.

Because I, for one, am far more willing to denounce others than expose myself. I can feel very good about my reaction to the pride and superiority in others–in fact, I can feel pretty . . . er . . . great about it. You can see where this is going.

And lest you think this is a soft-sell, I’ll be clear: getting over self-righteousness is not about becoming dull to sin. Sin is destructive. And we can hurt for the damage sin wreaks in someone’s life; we can mourn over the losses, the hurt and the pain, even when the person doesn’t realize the effects of what they are doing. When we witness tragedy, when we are present in the midst of aching chaos, when we see firsthand the devastation of betrayal and selfishness, we respond with broken hearts.

We can even be offended by sin.  I mean, aren’t you rightly offended when you hear of abuse in the home or an injustice in the workplace? Aren’t you enraged by bombs dropped on kids or the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women? Yes. We are and we should be. Sin is offensive. Sin is nasty. Sin hurts and destroys.

But, at the end of the day, as a general posture, who’s sin am I more offended by? Which sin makes me the most sick inside?

Is it “their” sin?

Or mine?

Because our answer to that gives us the greatest clue to the state of our own hearts, if we are willing to listen.

Following his classic aphorism to “judge not, lest you be judged,” Jesus said to first take the log out of own eyes, so we can then see clearly to help others with the twigs in theirs. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus’ teaching doesn’t imply “no judgment at all” but rather that we make ourselves the primary focus of judgment first before we then help others. Jesus wants us to be far more concerned with our own junk than the mess in other’s lives, remembering how easy it is to overlook our own sin. Unless we are willing to let Jesus extract the massive ugliness within ourselves, we won’t be very helpful conduits of grace and love for others. In fact, we’ll be dangerously unhelpful. Perhaps that is why the Apostle Paul warned us against harsh judgment of others?  Paul knew from experience how easy it is to forget our own sin in our fervour to “correct” someone else’s error. Prideful self-deception is most powerful when we are focused on someone else, forgetting our own susceptibility, our own ugliness, our own need for Jesus, our own log-jammed eyes.

So, I offer this question to you for thought, for consideration, one more time:

Am I more offended by the sin of those around me, or am I more offended by the sin that is within me? 

What do you think?

Would this question help you discern your own self-righteousness? Would this move you toward a greater awareness of your own need for the Father’s grace, and therefore a greater desire to show the Father’s grace to others?

I’m hoping so. At least for me.

 

Want to keep growing? Celebrate the growth that’s been happening!

Where are you growing?

In the last week, over the last month, during the last year.

Where are you feeling the stretch? (Image: Pixabay, Public Domain)

Growth: where’s it happening?

This can be a hard question, but step back and ask it: where are you feeling the most strrrrrrretchhhh? Yeah, that place.

  • Is it in an area of expanding skill? Learning guitar, computer animation, or how to build a team?
  • Are you growing your heart for a difficult person in your community?
  • Do you see good changes in your eating, sleeping, and exercise habits?
  • Have you been trusting God more with your everyday worries?
  • Have you hurdled personal barriers, such as quitting smoking, buttoning down gossip or quashing procrastination?
  • Are you becoming wiser in your financial choices?
  • Is there a fruit of the Spirit that has been growing larger in you?
Can you name where your growth is happening?

Often we don’t pause to notice the growth. Growth can be slow; we remain focused on areas still needing growth; we don’t want to admit that we are experiencing some success and jinx it. And we can end up marching past the beauty, missing the crocus’ poking through the snow.

Pixabay Free Images, Public Domain.

But we need to stop and notice. We need to turn around and breathe deep. We need to celebrate growth where it’s happening, even share that with a friend who will cheer us on (and not remind us of all the areas we still need to grow–at least not on that day!).

When we plant a garden or raise a calf, it’s always fun to celebrate growth as it’s happening. Go away for a week, and it seems like growth accelerates even more.  It’s such a hoot to look back at our kid’s pictures and marvel over their changes. Celebrate growth.

To keep growing, take time to notice where you have been growing. Celebrate that, be thankful for the grace and the courage that has taken you this far, as well as those who have supported you. Share that with others, so that we can all keep our vision up, our sights high, our hearts full and our minds determined, for the sake of continued growth.

  • Where have you been growing?
  • How will you celebrate that growth?

 

 

Are you Curiouser and Curiouser? Here are 5 ways you can become more curious today.

If we are to grow as people, we must cultivate our curiosity. We must look at the world with big question marks on our brows, eyes wide as we wander and wonder.

But this takes work. Some of us are naturally curious (you can stop reading now), but many of us have lost that child-like trait and we need to regain it.

So how do you grow your curiosity? Because I’m not sure something we’ve lost just comes back to us all that easily. Are there practices we can adopt to re-grow something that has withered away? Yes, I think there are, and here are five good suggestions.

5 Practices For Becoming Curiouser and Curiouser

  1. Keep asking questions. Why does it work that way? How come this and not that? Where did that come from? Why do we think that? Can you tell me more about what you are doing? Can you describe what it was like growing up there? Become a kind of life journalist in your own community.
  2. Get others talking. Encourage others to share what they know about a certain field or area of passion. There is nothing more inspiring than hearing someone share about a passion of theirs, to see their eyes light up and their voices intensify as they wax on about the training of therapy dogs, the making of banjos or the history of grapes. Master the art of the leading question, so that people, and often the shy and quiet among us, will open up about their projects or passions. And then watch out!!
  3. Watch documentaries on subjects you know nothing about. Not only will the content evoke curiosity in you, you’ll be amazed at how your own curiosity is cultivated when you watch someone else following theirs!
  4. Read books that foster curiosity, perhaps even stories where the author or characters are themselves following a path of inquiry. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Anne Dillard was a wonder-changer for me, as I witnessed the travels of her own curious mind and questing heart.
  5. Put yourself in contexts of wonder and creativity, and then soak it in. The beauty and wonder of God’s creation is an obvious and superlative place to start, from your backyard to a mountain trail. But contexts of wonder and beauty are all around, evidenced through both God’s creativity and the creativity of his human images. Cultivate curiosity through the appreciation of art and poetry. Drink in local music venues. See the world differently through someone’s camera lens or sketch pad.

And a bonus practice: Perhaps along the way, you’ll discover a new love. Lean into it. Maybe it’s nature photography or poetry writing. It could be pottery or hiking. Follow the white rabbit and see where wonder takes you.

When we are curious, the world opens up to us. A little curiosity goes a long way. And as we cultivate curiosity,  I think we get closer, just a little, to the kind of people God created us to be. Curious wonderers wandering his world, awed in the landscape and grand scope of his creation, and of ours.

So let me ask you:

  1. Which practice will you adopt?
  2. What has helped you cultivate curiosity?

 

When Doubts Assail: How faith can grow when doubts come knocking

doubtDoubt is a normal, human experience. We all, at some time or another, experience doubt–doubt about the meaning of life, doubt about the goodness or reality of God, doubt about our own selves. Some of us struggle with doubt more than others.

And doubt, as we all know, can lead people into dark places from which they do not recover. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Doubt can be a pathway to faith.

How?

Here’s the key: Instead of letting doubt remain vague, follow up on it. Get specific. Name it. What are you doubting? What is bugging you? What, in particular, do you struggle with? And then do something with it.

Use your doubt as a pathway to deeper faith.

  • Interview people who’ve wrestled with that question.
  • Read books on the subject, from a variety of positions.
  • Write out your thoughts and discuss it with trusted friends.

But whatever you do, don’t just keep expressing vague doubts without ever doing anything about them. That’s just depressing.

Does that sound odd? Think about it. How many people express doubt–doubt in the goodness of God, doubt in the hope of resurrection, doubt in the importance of the church, doubt in Jesus as the son of God, doubt in the trustworthiness of the Bible–and then just leave it there, never going anywhere with it, never seeking answers, never following through. They might sound intelligent over coffee, but if they never dig in and do something about that doubt, it takes them exactly nowhere.

doubtingDon’t be that kind of doubter. Why? Because it doesn’t help you grow–it doesn’t bring about any kind of change. It’s like that friend who talks incessantly about losing weight or traveling or getting organized or quitting their job but never does a thing about it. At a certain point, what do they need? To just do something!

And if they would, then at least they’d be moving in a new direction rather than staying stuck.

Same with doubt: if we will use doubt as a pathway, indicating places we need to explore, then we will begin to grow as people.  Perhaps, at the end of our journey, we will have less faith, but at least we’ll come to a place of conviction instead of lingering in the grey.

But I have a hunch, actually. If we’ll let honest doubt guide our reading, our listening, our study and our thinking, and if we’ll open ourselves up to others who have truly wrestled with these same doubts, we’ll find–to our surprise–thoughtful companions who’ve walked these same roads and came to places of deeper faith.  Men like C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel come to mind, both men who’s journey from atheism to faith in Jesus can be joined with benefit. (Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Stobel’s The Case for Christ are terrific places to start.)

So, what are your doubts? Can you name them?
And what are you going to do about it?

 

Your Friday Challenge: Examen Your Week

Today’s challenge is to reflect on your week to see what was great, what was not and where was Jesus.

Don’t make this long: simply take a few minutes, noting times when you experienced joy or laughter or grace, as well as when you were down or discouraged or sad.

Then ask Jesus to reveal his presence and love to you through these experiences. 

This is an ancient practice of spiritual life called the Examen, originating from St. Ignatius of Loyola. Simply stated, we reflect on the past and note experiences that were great and joyful, as well as times of difficulty or sorrow, looking for Jesus’ presence in the midst of it all. We can do the Examen daily, weekly or over a season of time; what emerges are patterns of highs and lows, and we are able to let the Holy Spirit guide us and form us through this spiritual exercise.  We might see sources of constant discouragement; we might realize that there is a type of work or ministry that really gives us life; we may begin to see areas we need to change (a longer period of time is usually needed to recognize larger patterns).

But this week–good, bad or “meh”–is worth Examen-ation. Jesus is here, Jesus was there, Jesus will be in your next week.  By using the Examen, we become more attentive to his presence in our lives.

So, take a moment today to think about your past week.

  • What brought you joy?
  • What sunk your spirits?
  • And how is Jesus leading you through these experiences?

If you’d like to explore this further, here’s a brief introduction by an InterVarsity staff writer. You could also try this helpful Catholic resource on Ignatian Spirituality.

Your Thursday Challenge: Practice Gratitude

There is something magical about gratitude. When we are grateful, our hearts morph and we wake to our world with altered vision. We see things we normally miss. Gratefulness changes our attitude, making us graceful when we would have been snarky and helpful when we might have shirked. Gratitude instills grace.

Today, practice gratitude with ferocious intentionality. Look for those hidden opportunities to express thanks, and go beyond just the normal platitudes.

Here are a few suggestions to prime the gratitude pump:

  • Be specific in your gratitude (For example, instead of just saying “thanks” to the server at lunch, try: “I really appreciate the helpful and cheerful way you served us today,” accompanied by a larger-than-normal tip.)
  • Make a gratitude list of 10 or 2o (or even more) things or people. (This is particularly powerful when we are having a bad day, and it can be a fun challenge with a few friends, too.)
  • Write out 2-3 thank you cards to people for whom you are grateful. (What a beautiful way to also bring delight to someone’s day!)
  • Express your gratitude to the Father for the little things you normally take for granted. (Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father, and we live gratefully under his faithful, loving care.)

Today, look for reasons to be thankful. Let’s see what gratitude can do, to our hearts and others.


I’ve been posting daily challenges this week. Here’s Monday through Wednesday.

Monday’s Challenge: To Make Someone’s Day Unexpectedly Great.

Tuesday’s Challenge: To Notice Beauty and Share It.

Wednesday’s Challenge: To See Brokenness and Respond to it. 

Your Wednesday Challenge: See and Respond to Brokenness

Following up on yesterday, beauty and brokenness are all around us. Just as we are often too busy to notice the beauty, we often overlook the pain as well. Today’s challenge is simple: Look for the brokenness and respond to it.

brokenessYou see someone hurting, a child being neglected, garbage strewn both figuratively and literally down the streets of our lives–act in response to the brokenness you see.

How can we act? I think in at least three ways:

We can pray–see the brokenness and respond by talking to the Father about what you are seeing and what he would desire in that life or situation. “Your will be done.”

Sometimes we can help. Perhaps the situation requires a definitive action, from the simple to the more involved. When we see brokenness, we must ask: How am I being called to help here?

And then there are times when we can speak. Tell that person that they are loved, remind that sister that there is hope, encourage or challenge as you are able.

There is both beauty and brokenness everywhere. Today, see the brokenness and respond, in the name of Jesus.

Your Tuesday Challenge: Notice and Share Beauty

We live in a world both broken and beautiful. And yet, we are often so busy, moving at such a pace, that we have difficulty seeing either. We rush past both excruciating pain and exquisite wonder, on our way to somewhere else.

Today, deliberately notice the beauty around you. The form of the human face, the wonder of the mountains, the colors of the fall, the shape of this or that object, the surprising or the mundane. Beauty is everywhere, even in unlikely places.

Ace
Photo: Ethan Greentree (Instagram _sirethan_)

Notice it today. Momentarily pause, even for just 3 heartbeats, to wonder at the beauty before you, offered as a gift to you from the Creator. Drink it in, see it.

And then, intentionally, share with someone.  Not just everyone, but someone. The temptation (and the easiest route) will be to simply Instagram or Facebook it, and that is great. (Do it!) But I want to challenge you to pick someone, in particular, to show what you noticed. Send them a personal message with the picture, stop them on the street or even drop by to tell them about it. Describe what you saw and why you wanted to share it with them.

Poppy
Photo: Tennille Greentree

Beauty is all around us. Let’s attend to it today. And let’s share it with someone else. Beauty being shared–isn’t that something we all need, something this world needs?

Your Monday Challenge: Make Today Unexpectedly Great for Someone Else

Make today unexpectedly great for someone else.delight

Your boss, your friend, your kid, your spouse–do something that surprises them with a little bit of Monday awesomeness.

Or go random–buy that stranger’s coffee, groceries . . . gas?

Wave with abandon at someone passing by.

Send flowers. Write a note.

Be the bearer of delight today.