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Living on a Spiritual Plateau–Part 1 – 2 Corinthians 3:18

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Sermon 1 of 2 from the Living on a Spiritual Plateau series

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March 2010 – Recently I was invited to speak on the theme of living on a spiritual plateau. The pastors and elders asked me to address the following three topics:

1. Why does God allow us to plateau in our Spiritual life?
2. How does He use this to our benefit and His glory?
3. How does He get us out/off of this plateau?

I found the invitation intriguing and a bit vexing because no matter where I looked, I couldn’t find anything in the Bible on the subject of spiritual plateaus. As far as I can determine, the word “plateau” is never applied in the Bible to anything but a literal geological formation. Beyond that, I had some trouble defining the term even though I think I had a good idea of what the leaders meant by it. For that matter, I’ve probably used the term “spiritual plateau” somewhere along the way. And I’ve certainly heard others use it.

So even though I generally understand the concept, I couldn’t really pin it down to any specific biblical text. That led me to go in the opposite direction. Perhaps I could get to the topic by going through the back door. I decided to check out the dictionary definition of the term plateau. I found that it refers to “a high plain of relatively flat terrain.” That definition has two key parts. A plateau is both

Raised up, and
Relatively flat.

A bit of further exploration yielded this fact. The plateau is a naturally occurring formation found in many parts of the world. Plateaus may be caused by many sources, such as volcanic activity, tectonic plate movement, lava flows, or slow erosion over many years. And that led me to this conclusion:

There is nothing wrong with a plateau.

Plateaus are part of God’s creation. Somehow that seems like a key insight. We tend to say, “I’m on a plateau” as if that were a bad thing, but perhaps it’s not so bad after all. For instance, the largest plateau in the world is the Tibetan Plateau, sometimes called the “roof of the world” because of its location near the Himalayan Mountains. It is both the largest and highest land area in the world, measuring four times the size of Texas. In the US we have a number of plateaus, several in the East such as the Lookout Mountain Plateau, and many in the West, including the Yellowstone Plateau.

There is nothing wrong with a plateau. 

I noticed that the dictionary offered a further definition that is probably close to what the pastors and elders had in mind. When used metaphorically, the term plateau refers to “a relatively stable period or condition.” Thus you have plateaus in the stock market, churches have plateaus in their growth pattern, and individuals have plateaus in their spiritual development.

God’s Scenery

All of that leads me to this observation, which perhaps goes a bit against the grain. Spiritual plateaus, like physical plateaus, are natural and normal and necessary. They are part of God’s “scenery” of the Christian life.

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            –If all we had were valleys, we would never see the mountains.
            –If all we had were mountains, we would never enjoy the plains.
            –If all we had were sandy beaches, we would never enjoy the forest.

I’ve already suggested that spiritual plateaus are necessary to accomplish certain things in our lives. First, they allow us to find a rhythm in life. Someone has said that 99% of life is ordinary. It’s true, and there is nothing we can do about it. Most of life is the same old stuff day after day after day. Because plateaus are relatively flat, they allow us to set a course in the right direction and to pursue it each day.

Spiritual plateaus, like physical plateaus, are natural and normal and necessary. 
Second, plateaus teach us the importance of perseverance. The old fable of the tortoise and the hare still delights because we all recognize in it a fundamental truth. God honors those who keep their commitments, who follow in his path, and who just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Third, plateaus wean us away from experience-oriented Christianity. So many of us are adrenalin junkies, rushing from one high to another. Our culture certainly encourages us in that direction. In just a generation we have gone from phone calls to emails to weblogs to Facebook to instant messages to Twitter. Now all of life is a series of Tweets. It’s life in 140 characters. Or check out the news channels. I am old enough to remember when Eric Sevareid delivered thoughtful commentaries on the CBS Evening News. Compare that with the cable news networks. They bombard us with information. If you look at the screen, here’s what you see: the anchor in the big screen, three smaller screens stacked vertically to the right, an inset screen to his left, and a constant stream of information crawling across the bottom of the screen. No one can take it all in. A few days ago we paid a surprise visit to our dear friends Craig and Megan Hammond who live in Salem, Oregon where they serve with Campus Ambassadors. Craig took me on a quick visit to the campus of Willamette University. “Take a look at the students,” he said. “They’re all in a hurry.” They were hooked up, wired up, tuned in, talking and texting and iPoding all at the same time.  “We’ve found that the best thing we can do for them is give them a place where they can relax."

How does that figure into the whole spiritual equation? Well, in a society that overdoses on adrenalin, we naturally want the same thing in our spiritual lives. “I want to FEEL the Lord in my soul,” we say. Well, yes, so do I. But feelings come and go, they change according to the mood of the moment. God never promises a feeling that will never change. We make a big mistake if we equate living by faith with “living by feelings."

What we call boring God calls living by faith. More about that in a moment.

A Very American Problem

The whole discussion of being on a spiritual plateau strikes me as a very American sort of problem. It can be very introspective and somewhat self-absorbed to worry about being on a spiritual plateau. Let me explain what I mean. If you happened to live in Port-au-Prince, Haiti when the earthquake hit on January 12, then your thoughts since then have been about the most basic issues of life-food, water, shelter, medical care, and the safety of your loved ones. Being on a spiritual plateau is not exactly your first concern when the ground starts to shake beneath your feet.

God never promises a feeling that will never change.
We can say it in other terms. Our brothers and sisters in the Sudan struggle daily against oppression and the threat of death. The same is true for Christians across the Muslim world. Life is very difficult for Christians in many countries. We are the ones who have it easy. You have to be doing pretty well to be greatly concerned about living on a spiritual plateau. You’ve probably got your health, a job, a reasonable income, clean water, something to eat, a roof over your head, and you probably aren’t worshiping in secret. Again, this is a very American sort of problem, like worrying about where to find the remote control when the rest of the world has no electricity.

The real danger here is that we will pursue a self-centered view of the Christian life, as if we say to the world, “It’s all about me,” when deep down we know it’s not about us at all. 

Having said it that way, I confess that often I have felt like I was on a spiritual plateau, which says a great deal about my own relative comfort in a world of suffering. I too have gone through periods where I felt little zeal, little joy, and it seemed like every day was a struggle to keep on track spiritually. So I know what the question involves. And I think most Christians go through seasons of spiritual dryness where joy is hard to find.

In order to help us find a biblical foundation, let’s look at three biblical principles for dealing with spiritual plateaus. The first one deals with God’s larger purposes for us.

I. God Intends to Shape Us Into the Image of Christ.

Romans 8:29 says that we are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (NASB). We were chosen by God with the express purpose that he might shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. When the Amplified version translated this verse, it added this explanatory phrase, “and share inwardly his likeness."

Most Christians go through seasons of spiritual dryness where joy is hard to find. 
If you wonder how this happens, we get a glimpse of the process in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (NASB).  The key word here is “beholding,” which means to gaze upon, the way you look at your face in the mirror in the morning. It’s what happens when you study a painting carefully or when your daughter sends you an email with a picture of your new grandson. You click on the image, enlarge it as much as you can, and then you “behold” it carefully.  And after you “behold” it, you probably forward it to everyone else in your family. Here is a great principle for the spiritual life. We become like what we behold. Many years ago, when our oldest son was just a young boy, he and I would go for walks in our neighborhood. One Sunday someone said, “I saw you and Josh taking a walk together. I smiled when I saw the two of you because he had his left hand in his pocket and was swinging his right arm as he walked, just like you do.” What my son beheld in me, he unconsciously imitated. I never once said, “I want my son to be like me.” I didn’t have to say that. The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. It’s true for all parents. Our children become more like us than we realize because they “behold” us up close and personal.

We become like what we behold. 
That’s how Christ changes us. As we “behold” him, we become like him. This has to do more with the heart than with anything else. When I was in seminary, I remember my Greek professor, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, remarking on this one day. He said that the founder of the seminary, Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, did not care for the hymn “Take Time to be Holy.” He thought the concept of “taking time” to be holy somewhat trivialized the concept. Dr. Johnson said that whenever they sang it in chapel (and Dr. Chafer had started his career as a musician so he loved to sing and to lead the singing), he would instruct the men to change the words this way:

“Take time to behold him.”

I am sure Paul would approve of that sentiment because we become like what we behold. We are transformed little by little into the image of Christ. Paul calls this “from glory to glory” though it often doesn’t seem very glorious to us. The word for “transform” comes from the Greek word that means metamorphosis, the term for what happens in the cocoon that changes a caterpillar into a butterfly.

The Divine Sculptor

Let me put it plainly. God is at work in your life making you like Jesus Christ. He has predestined you to that end. He is at work in your life making that happen. Therefore, anything that makes you more like Jesus Christ is good. Anything that pulls you away from Jesus Christ is bad.

God is not committed to making you happy and successful. He is committed to making you like his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And whatever it takes to make you more like Jesus is good.

That’s a long road for most of us. Along the way tragedies come and there are many setbacks. Often we may feel “stuck” on a spiritual plateau. But God is determined and will not be set aside.

And everything that happens to you-the tragedies, the unexplained circumstances, even the stupid choices you make-all of it is grist for the mill of God’s loving purpose. He will not give up even when we do.

Consider the work of a great sculptor. He begins by choosing a rough chunk of marble. He intends to make from it a beautiful statue. In his mind, he knows exactly what he will do. He predestines that unsightly stone to become an image of breathtaking beauty. That determination guides everything he does. He cuts and chips and chisels but he will not harm the stone or allow anyone else to harm it. He will remain at the task until it is finished. And in the end what started as an unsightly stone becomes a thing of beauty.

“Take time to behold him.”
In the same way, God is at work in your life. Right now you are rough and uncut and God is patiently chipping away at you. In fact, he’s been chipping away at some of you recently, hasn’t he? Remember this. He will never intentionally hurt you. In the end, you will look like the Lord Jesus Christ.

Show Me Your Glory

Now here is the last thought I want to leave with you. In this life you never know where you are in the process, and I think it’s better that way. You never know at any moment if you are more caterpillar or more butterfly. The truth is, we’re all “in process” all the time.

Right now you are rough and uncut and God is patiently chipping away at you.
A little bit of caterpillar.
A little bit of butterfly.
A whole lot somewhere in between.

Exodus 34:29-35 tells the story of Moses coming down from the mountain after he had met with the Lord. The Bible says that his face was radiant with the glory of the Lord but he didn’t know it (Exodus 34:29). There was a “glory glow” shining forth from his face but he didn’t know it!

Think about that for a moment. He radiated God’s glory so much that Aaron and the Israelites knew he had been with the Lord. How could that be? If they could see it, why couldn’t he see it? If you go back one chapter, you discover that Moses had prayed, “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). Now the prayer is answered, but Moses doesn’t realize it.

You never know at any moment if you are more caterpillar or more butterfly.
Sometimes we pray, “Lord, show me your glory,” hoping for some deep personal experience that will transform us on the inside. We secretly hope that by drawing close to God, we will have some experience that will make us better people, banish our doubts, increase our faith, free us from temptation, and fill our hearts with joy. In short, we want to know God better for our own benefit. In Moses’ case, the real benefit was seen by others. They saw the visible evidence of God’s work before he did.

Occasionally I’m in a meeting where someone will ask, “Are you closer to the Lord today than you were a year ago?” I never know how to answer that question in a satisfactory manner. I certainly hope that I am closer to the Lord today than I was a year ago, but my judgment is necessarily flawed because I don’t see myself clearly. I see what I want to see or I see what I would like to see. Sometimes I look at my life and feel that there has been no progress at all. The best way to answer a question like this is to ask the people who know me best. My wife, my boys, the people I work with every day, they know the truth about me. If I have been walking with the Lord, others will know it. They will see the light shining from me even when I’m not aware of it.

Do not be dismayed if you feel that you have made little progress spiritually. No matter how far we come, there is always more ground to cover for the Lord. Often when we think we’re going in circles, we are actually ascending the mountain of the Lord. Sometimes it takes a friend who can say, “Look how far you’ve come. I can see God’s work in your life.” It was true for Moses. It will be true for us as well.

What does that mean for those of us who feel like we’re on a spiritual plateau? Mostly it means that your feelings don’t matter. You aren’t necessarily the best of judge of where you are spiritually. Even if you are on a spiritual plateau, that’s not always a bad place to be. Remember that God is determined (he said so!) to shape you into the image of his Son, and he will use every part of your spiritual journey to shape you “from glory to glory” as you behold Christ.

Your journey isn’t over yet, and it won’t end until you reach heaven. Between now and then, keep on going in the right direction. When God is finished with you, your life will be a masterpiece. If right now all you can see are the jagged fragments, let that remind you that God is at work making you more like Jesus.

That’s enough for the moment. So far we’ve only looked at the first principle. We’ll take up the next two principles next week in Part 2 of “Living on a Spiritual Plateau."

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