Living on a Spiritual Plateau, Part 2
In Part 1 of this message I argued that since plateaus occur naturally in many parts of the world, they serve a particular purpose in creation. While we tend to look at “spiritual plateaus” negatively, they are actually natural, normal and necessary.
Hmmm. How could plateaus be part of God’s plan for our spiritual growth? A couple of days after the sermon went out, I received a note from a pastor that helps answer that question.
Challenging topic, plateaus! Back East where it rains a lot and the winters are mild, the trees are not put under a great deal of stress, and therefore their wood is soft. If you get strong winds or heavy wet snow, they snap off or totally uproot. Out West where it is dry and the wind always blows and the winters are sometimes harsh, the trees grow slowly. While it seems they have plateaued in their growth, they are actually forming the hard growth rings which give them strength to withstand the storms. Their roots go deep for moisture and their wood is hard because of the slow growth.
That is not a bad thing for believers or leaders if they don’t want to be blown about by every wind of doctrine, or the latest success fad, or the onslaught of temptation or discouragement. Did you ever watch an oak tree grow? God isn’t in the business of growing mushrooms. That’s why plateaus are so common.
That’s good, isn’t it? Plateaus actually make us stronger because the blowing winds that discourage us actually cause our roots to go deeper. Plateaus are meant by God to develop stronger, tougher, deeper, more resilient Christians.
Plateaus are meant by God to develop stronger, tougher, deeper, more resilient Christians.
“God isn’t in the business of growing mushrooms.”
But our problem is that we’ve got too many “spiritual mushrooms” when God wants us to become oak trees with deep roots and strong limbs. In order to do that, we need to spend time on the plateaus of life, letting the wind blow against us so that we can learn to stand firm in hard times.
So it turns out that God uses the plateaus that discourage us to advance our own spiritual growth. That’s good to know. In Part 1 of this message I said that I wanted to share three key principles about living on a spiritual plateau. We’ve already talked about the first one:
I. God Intends to Shape Us Into the Image of Christ.
Our Father fully intends that someday we will look like Jesus. We will have a character like his. He is so determined to see this happen that he has predestined us to be shaped into the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). Like a patient sculptor, he chips away at us, he chisels here, he cuts there, he polishes, and then he cuts some more. And though it is a lifetime project, he never stops working on us. All of us are “in process” right now, and none of us is a finished masterpiece yet. That won’t happen until we finally see Jesus face to face and are made like him (1 John 3:1-3).
“God isn’t in the business of growing mushrooms.”
Meanwhile if we listen closely, we can hear the faint sound of God’s hammer and chisel chipping away everything in us that doesn’t look like Jesus. Plateaus are very useful for this sort of “spiritual sculpting."
In order to grasp the next two principles, I want us to look at Galatians 5:16-17.
Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish (NKJV).
This is one of the most important passages on the Christian life in the New Testament. It answers a question all of us have asked at one time or another: Why is it taking me so long to get better? We’ve all wondered about that, haven’t we?
- “I thought by now I wouldn’t struggle so much with anger. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”
- “I still get tempted by pornography. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”
- “I go to church every Sunday but I still have so many doubts. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”
- “I thought I’d be a better person by now but I’ve got so many bad habits. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”
- “I’m a bitter person even though I cover it up most of the time. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”
Many of us wish we had an answer to that question. We might assume that upon conversion, we would rapidly sprout wings and fly to heaven. But it doesn’t happen that way. God has ordained that even though we are being made like Jesus, it only happens a little bit at a time. And sometimes that “little bit” seems very little indeed.
That leads us to the second principle we need to know about living on a spiritual plateau:
II. God uses our struggles for our own spiritual growth.
Many Christians prefer not to hear this truth because they want a Christianity that proclaims “all victory all the time.” They want a guarantee that all their problems will be solved if they will follow the right formula. But that is not realistic nor is it biblical. We are to fight the good fight of faith, putting on the whole armor of God, standing in the evil day, and enduring hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. Galatians 5:17 is abundantly clear in this regard. Two principles are at war within us. One is called “flesh.” The other is called “the Spirit.” These two principles are in constant, unrelenting, unremitting antagonism to each other. They are constantly at war with each other. The flesh is Paul’s term for the depraved nature inside all of us by virtue of our physical descent from Adam. That depraved nature is hostile to God, selfish, and utterly evil. When we come to Christ, we become a new creation by virtue of the Holy Spirit who comes to live within us (2 Corinthians 5:17). Even though the dominating power of the flesh is broken, the pull of evil remains with us. As one writer put it, evil desires arise from the flesh like smoke from a chimney. To say it another way, flesh is what we are by natural birth; the Spirit comes to us by our spiritual birth.
Flesh and the Spirit are fundamentally opposite.
I draw several conclusions from this:
1. Flesh and the Spirit are fundamentally opposite. They do not and cannot cooperate.
2. The conflict between our flesh and the Spirit is continual and inevitable.
3. That conflict produces opposing desires in the believer.
Thus with the same mouth we curse and we bless. We love and we hate. We serve and then we steal. We proclaim Christ and then we lie to our friends. We forgive and then we lose our temper 10 minutes later. We read the Bible and then we watch dirty movies. We sing in the choir and then we have an affair. And so it goes. The manifestations differ, but all of us feel the struggle in one way or the other.
Some people think, “If I come to Christ, all my problems will be solved. I’ll never struggle again.” Think again, sister! If you come to Christ, your problems are just starting. As a lost person, you sin because that’s your nature. As a Christian, you have a new nature that pulls you toward God while the flesh remains with you until you die. In one sense, Christians have conflicts the unsaved never know about. Our rewards are great but so are our struggles.
Have you ever thanked God for your spiritual struggles?
Have you ever thanked God for your spiritual struggles?
Maybe that’s a new thought to you. We ought to praise God for the war within. The deadly feud between flesh and Spirit is one sign that we are the children of God. Do you desire to be holy? Do you want to please the Lord? Is there a hunger in your heart to know Jesus and to love him? Do you desire to live a higher and better life even though you cannot seem to attain it? If you answer yes, that is strong evidence you are born again. Despite your personal failings, do you truly want to do what God wants you to do? Then you may rest in the knowledge that you are a child of God. Your struggle with sin is proof of your divine heritage. If sin is a burden, at least it is a burden and not a joy. If you can swear and hate and steal and mock and lust and think all sorts of foul thoughts and speak harsh words, if you can do that and feel nothing, then you are truly without hope in the world.
Our ongoing struggles and temptations are not in themselves sinful. We are not condemned because we struggle. It’s not the struggle that matters; it’s how we respond. The sin is in giving in, not in the fight itself.
No one escapes the conflict.
No one can avoid the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit.
No one gets a Christian life free from outward pressure and inward turmoil.
Our ongoing struggles and temptations are not in themselves sinful.
It’s crucial to remember that God allows the struggle as part of our ongoing spiritual growth. Strange as it may seem, we need to struggle because that’s the only way we can grow in grace. Here are a few benefits of our ongoing struggle with sin:
- It reveals to us our inherent weakness.
- It kills our pride and arrogance.
- It humbles us again and again.
- It forces us to cry out to God for help.
- It reveals the uselessness of human effort apart from God’s strength.
- It teaches us to rely on the Lord alone.
- It causes us to love the Savior who delivers us from sin.
- It leads us to a life of continual repentance.
- It makes us more watchful against the encroachment of sin.
- It makes us long for the rest of heaven.
- It prods us to use all the means of divine grace.
- It encourages us to develop habits of holiness.
- It forces us to lean on our brothers and sisters to help us out.
- It leads us to look for daily solutions instead of instant miracles.
That brings us the third principle we need to know about living on a spiritual plateau:
III. God calls us to walk in the Spirit.
Verse 16 tells us to “walk in the Spirit." The Greek word for “walk” is very ordinary. It means to walk from one place to another. It’s in the present tense, which means “keep on walking."
We need to struggle because that’s the only way we can grow in grace.
Do you know what walking is? It’s a series of small steps in the same direction over a long period of time.
Walking implies steady progress in one direction by means of deliberate choices over a long period of time. To walk in the Spirit means something like “let your conduct be directed by the Holy Spirit” or “make progress in your life by relying on the Holy Spirit." It has the idea of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide every part of your life on a daily basis.
Walking is slow compared with driving a car or flying in a plane. It’s not flashy at all. And sometimes walking can be tedious, slow, dull, drab, and downright boring. And yet if you’ve got to get from Point A to Point B, walking will get you there eventually. All you have to do is just start walking and don’t stop until you arrive at your destination.
The Bible doesn’t say “fly in the Spirit” or “run in the Spirit” or “jog in the Spirit.” It tells us to “walk in the Spirit."
The Bible doesn’t say “fly in the Spirit” or “run in the Spirit” or “jog in the Spirit.”
Walk . . . in . . . the . . . Spirit.
One foot after another.
One step after another.
If you started in Reno, and if you had the time and strength, you could walk to Denver or St. Louis or even to Charleston, South Carolina.
Walking will get you from here to there.
It will get you from where you are to where you need to be.
That’s why walking is the perfect picture of the Christian life. It describes the ordinary action of ordinary people in their ordinary routine. Walking works because all it requires is a series of small steps in the same direction over a long period of time. Just walk, walk, and keep on walking, and you will end up exactly where you need to be.
Walking implies two things that are vital for the spiritual life:
1. Steady progress
2. Deliberate choices
Walking works because all it requires is a series of small steps in the same direction over a long period of time.
You’ve got to get up every day and start walking, and you’ve got to make the right choices along the way to get where you want to go.
Tiny Steps Toward the Light
Many years ago a woman came to see me with a most unusual story. Although she and her husband were dear friends, I was not prepared for what she told me. During the years I had known them, they both came to church almost every Sunday and they both faithfully served in various ways. The woman told me that for years she had suffered from a debilitating addiction that almost no one knew about. The details don’t matter except to say that her friends at church and her friends at work didn’t know about it. She had managed to hide her problem for a long time, but it was spiraling out of control and threatened to destroy everything she held dear. With simple, quiet honesty she unfolded her story to me. When she was done, I paused for a few minutes, thinking about what I should say to her. Finally the Lord gave me these words:
“You didn’t get where you are overnight and you won’t get out of where you are overnight. You made a series of wrong choices over a long period of time and those choices have led you to a place of almost total darkness. It won’t be easy to come back to the light, and you won’t make the journey quickly."
All of life is a series of small decisions we make over time. I am what I am and who I am and where I am because of thousands and thousands of decisions made over many years. Most of those decisions seemed small and insignificant at the time but taken together they make me who I am today. On the good side and on the bad side, I’m the sum total of a lifetime of decision-making.
All of life is a series of small decisions we make over time.
Every day when we wake up, we all have decisions to make:
Will I get up?
Will I take a shower?
Will I get dressed?
What will I wear today?
Will I eat breakfast?
Will I take time to read the Bible?
Am I going to work (or to school) today?
If so, how will I go?
Will I ride my bike, drive my car, or take the bus or maybe ride the train?
If I drive my car, will I listen to the radio? If so, which station will I listen to?
What music will I listen to?
When I get to work, who will I greet first? Second? Third?
Will I be friendly or a grouch?
Will I work hard or be a slug?
Will I stay on my diet?
Who will I eat lunch with?
What will I work on during the afternoon?
Who will I talk to during the break?
What jokes will I tell?
What gossip will I repeat?
Will I ever stop to pray at all?
How will I get home?
How will I greet my spouse?
What will I eat for supper?
What will I watch on TV?
If I work on the computer late at night, where will I go on the Internet?
Which emails will I write?
What will I post on my Facebook page?
What phone calls will I return?
What time will I go to bed?
What will I do when the alarm goes off in the morning?
And so it goes. Small decisions. Tiny choices. Most of them seemingly insignificant. But here’s the key insight. We tend to look at life as made up of “Major decisions” and “Stuff that doesn’t matter.” And most of life falls into the second category so we think it has no moral component. Who cares what you wear? Well, you should because your clothes shape your mood and send a message to others. Who cares what music you listen to or what TV shows you watch or who you greet at work? You should because all of those things shape your heart and your mind and ultimately set the course of your life.
There are no neutral decisions. Because every choice we make is intricately linked with every other choice before it and every choice we will make later, all our “little” choices are not really little at all. Every choice we make either takes us a step toward the light or a tiny step toward the darkness. Even the “meaningless” choices lead us in one way or the other. And the sum total of those tiny choices shapes us (for good or for ill) into the people we are today.
There are no neutral decisions.
We are becoming what we choose to be . . .
One tiny step at a time.
The woman who came to see me had made a long series of tiny choices that had led her into the deep darkness. When she started on that journey, she never intended to end up there but that’s where she was. The only way out was to retrace her steps, taking tiny steps each day back toward the light.
From Darkness to Light
So I told her that this is what she must do. She must decide in her heart that with God’s help she would begin to take tiny steps toward the light. Tomorrow when you get up, I said, you will still be in the darkness. And you must take tiny steps toward the light while you are still in the darkness, walking by faith in a new direction. The day after tomorrow you will still be in the darkness. And the day after that and the day after that.
“The day after tomorrow you will still be in the darkness.”
For a long time you’ll be in the darkness even though you’re walking toward the light of God. I told the woman that I didn’t know how long it would last, but if she just kept taking tiny steps toward the light, one morning she would wake up and see a tiny streak of light on the horizon. Just keep taking those tiny steps. The next day you’ll see a little more light. Just keep walking. And day after day the light will grow stronger. If you keep walking in the right direction, one day you’ll wake up and the blazing light of God’s love will fill your life. But to get to that morning, you’ve got to start taking tiny steps toward the light while you are still in the darkness.
We prayed together and she left.
Several months passed and she sent me a note that I still have. In it she reminded me of what I had told her. “I went back home and started taking those tiny steps, just like you said.” It wasn’t easy in the beginning because the darkness was all around her. And it stayed with her for many days. But after a few weeks, she began to see streaks of light and knew she was going in the right direction. And now, she said, it’s happened! “I have light all around me."
That was many years ago. The last time I saw her she was still walking in the light.
I tell that story because it illustrates the true power of walking in the Spirit. It’s not some mystical experience reserved for a special category of “super-spiritual Christians.” No, this is God’s plan for normal Christian living, and it is within the grasp of every believer every day. As we consistently take tiny steps toward the light, we find ourselves walking in the right direction and making real progress. It’s not that the darkness disappears. That won’t happen until we get to heaven. We’ll fight the darkness within us and around us until the day we die. But by God’s grace if we keep walking in the light and toward the light, the light of God’s love will surround us and fill us and change us.
Just keep on walking!
All we have to do is keep on walking.
One after another.
Small steps in the same direction over a long period of time.
Let me return to one of the original questions. How do we get off a spiritual plateau? We don’t! If you find yourself on a spiritual plateau, just keep on walking. Remember, “God is not growing mushrooms.” He uses the spiritual plateaus to grow oak trees with deep roots and strong branches. The plateaus of life make us deeper, stronger, tougher and more resilient. If you’re on a plateau right now, give thanks to God because it’s part of his plan to make you more like Jesus.
When the time comes, God will change the terrain for you.
Until then, just keep on walking!
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Living on a Spiritual Plateau
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