This is Part 8 in a 12 Part series. The premise is this: "Two men in their in their late 20’s walk into a coffee shop around 7:00 a.m. In college they had been good friends, but over the past few years had gotten out of touch. Having lived in the same dormitory for three of their four years at City Christian College, they still had many fond—and a few not-so-fond memories—of their time together in college. Just by accident (or so Michael thought) they had run into each other in a hardware store and had set up a time to talk over breakfast. This is their eighth breakfast together.
If you want to read this series of conversations from the beginning (you don't have to start at the beginning), please see Part 1.
Michael: Good morning!
Jim: Good morning.
Michael: How are you doing today?
Jim: Fine…actually quite well. Thanks for asking.
Michael: No problem. But, if you don’t mind me probing, how do you come to such a judgment?
Jim: About what?
Michael: About how you’re doing …
Michael: You said, “fine,” and then you changed it to “actually quite well, thanks.” Why did you change?
Jim: I guess it’s because I feel like things are going well in my walk with God.
Michael: How do you know things are going well? How do you know you’re not actually doing badly in your walk with God and that you just don’t realize it?
Jim: What kind of question is that?
Michael: A question to frustrate you.
Michael: Of course, we could turn it into an honest question. It would be worth taking some time to discuss. How can you know whether you’re doing well or not in your spiritual life?
Jim: In other words, is there a way to take your spiritual pulse?
Michael: You could say it that way. I don’t spend very much time reading my Bible and praying. I guess that means I’m not doing very well.
Jim: Is the amount of time you spend in devotions the standard by which you measure whether you’re doing well or not?
Michael: I’ve never thought about it. But it’s probably a good starting-point.
Jim: I probably wouldn’t use it as a starting-point, but I probably wouldn’t work it out of the equation, either. It seems that a lot of people use devotions as the standard for measuring their own or other people’s spiritual lives. Another measuring-stick that is often used is the amount of time someone serves in their local church—though I’m doubtful that is the correct standard either.
Michael: Then what is the standard?
Jim: There may not be a single standard, though I do think there is a center-point. Let’s think about it together. What is another way of describing the Christian life?
Michael: What about walking in the Spirit?
Jim: And what does it mean to “walk in the Spirit”?
Michael: I’m not sure exactly, but I think it has something to do with letting the Spirit have control in our lives.
Jim: OK. But without discussing whether control is the main issue in walking in the Spirit, let me ask—how can you tell if someone is a spiritual person or not?
Michael: Isn’t this just a way of restating our original question?
Jim: Yes, except now we’ve brought the Holy Spirit into the discussion.
Michael: Which is where he belongs. It’s certainly impossible to be a spiritual person without the Spirit doing a work in your life.
Jim: It’s good to hear you talking like that.
Michael: Don’t get too excited yet. Yes, the Holy Spirit is working in a spiritual person’s life. But how do we know that the Holy Spirit is doing anything in you or me?
Jim: When you walk in your house, are there any clues as to whether your wife has been cooking with onions?
Michael: Besides the smell?
Jim: The smell’s enough. If the house smells like onions, your wife has probably been cooking with onions.
Michael: But what does a Christian smell like?
Jim: Onions to some and perfume to others. The Bible actually speaks about Christians being a fragrance of life to those being saved and a fragrance of death to those who are perishing.
Michael: In other words, there are ways to tell how you’re doing spiritually. It’s not a moot question.
Jim: A Christian should be able to be sniffed out, or at least should be able to sniff out his own spiritual state.
Michael: Excuse the expression.
Jim: If we know what it is that shows that the Spirit lives inside of us, we will also be able to determine to what degree we are living according to that Spirit.
Michael: I presume that you are about to say something about the fruit of the Spirit.
Jim: Yes! What took you so long to catch on?
Michael: I’m a bit slow.
Jim: (ignoring) The fruit of the Spirit—let’s say them—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, are examples of the qualities that demonstrate the residence of the Holy Spirit. But think about this carefully. The fruit of the Spirit is a list of issues of the heart that spill out into our lifestyles. This list is representative of the types of qualities that are produced in the lives of a spiritual man or woman. Thus, to the original question—How do we know how we’re doing in our spiritual lives?—the answer lies in our hearts. An honest look at the place of our hearts as we live out our lives will quickly yield an answer to the question of how we’re doing spiritually. If our hearts are turned toward Christ and we find ourselves thinking about him regularly…if our minds think about the truths of God and meditate on how to live out our faith, we’re at least doing OK spiritually.
Michael: But, what if our minds and hearts are filled with the stresses of our lives and the worry about whether we’re pleasing the person next to us?
Jim: Then we’re not doing very well. We need to be honest about it.
Michael: Isn’t it easier to measure our spiritual lives by how much time we spend in devotions or service at the church?
Jim: It’s certainly easier, but it won’t necessarily give us an accurate reading. You don’t read the sports page to learn about the President’s economic package. It’s quite simple to say, “I spent one hour in prayer and Bible study today, so I must be doing well spiritually.” But time reading the Bible and saying prayers doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re any more spiritual than a Pharisee. This doesn’t mean that reading the Bible isn’t necessary to spiritual growth.
Michael: I know that.
Jim: But the amount of time you spend reading the Bible isn’t the most accurate measuring-stick of where you are in your spiritual life.
Michael: But you might not be honest in your evaluation of how your heart is before God.
Jim: That’s true. Humans possess great capacity for self-deception. But the Christian who wants an honest answer to the question will have to ask honestly. If the issue is: How am I doing in my spiritual life? then I will be motivated to be honest and to look deeply inside.
Michael: But … but … some people are way too pessimistic about their lives. Even when I’m able to get some perspective and peer a little out of my negative self, I feel unsure—and wonder if I’ll ever get out of the dugout into the game.
Jim: Why do you think that?
Michael: I often compare my life to people like you and I don’t feel that I’ll ever catch up. But I’m aware—even as I’m saying this—that the one I should be looking at is the Lord himself rather than you or any other person.
Jim: The Lord is certainly more reliable.
Michael: Another problem is that I have had so many false starts in my Christian life that I have a difficult time believing I could ever truly be moving forward, even when an honest assessment says that I’ve started in the right direction.
Jim: Then for you this is an issue of faith. If you’ve made some positive steps, then by faith you will have to stand on your knowledge that these are positive steps. If some of the Spirit’s fruits are beginning to show up in aspects of your life that haven’t seen them before, then you should affirm that as something good. It usually takes some time for our feelings to catch up with our affirmations of truth, but if we persist in faith, our feelings usually catch up in the end.
Michael: I think another problem is that I’ve known a couple people that have the exact opposite problem that I have and I tend to react against them. They’re always doing better in their Christian lives than they are actually doing—if you know what I mean. I find myself frustrated when I talk to them.
Jim: Why do you react?
Michael: Because I don’t want to be like them. They’re blind to their own faults.
Jim: Aren’t we all sometimes?
Michael: Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. Last week I was talking with a guy named Steve—I don’t think you know him—and tried to explain to him that his decision to live with his girlfriend was a mistake. I even used the expression “rebellion against God.” Now, for me to get up the courage to say something as prophetic as that was an accomplishment. Usually, I’m far too afraid of my own shortcomings to open my mouth.
Jim: What was Steve’s response?
Michael: He sort of said I was right, but kept turning the conversation to the issue of how he needed to go to church more often.
Jim: Was he trying to get the focus off his sin?
Michael: Perhaps. But I found myself frustrated. I finally blurted out, “I care a lot more about your relationship with the Lord than whether you’re at church every Sunday!” He immediately responded, “Oh, I’m doing great there.” Even lukewarm I was ready to pull my hair out. I think you probably would have ripped your teeth out!
Jim: No doubt Steve has a seared heart because of his insistence on living in a way that he should realize does not please the Lord. But he somehow seems to think that his relationship with the Lord is untouched by his actions.
Michael: Which is exactly what I was trying to say… Steve is an extreme example of how some people are far too optimistic about how they’re doing in their spiritual lives and would probably do well to do some serious heart-searching.
Jim: But you feel that sometimes you’re too hard on yourself, right?
Michael: Right, though not always.
Jim: So, honesty is crucial. Still, I don’t think that it’s all that hard to determine whether there is any true joy in your life, or if you’ve been patient, or if you’ve been kind to your children. These will quickly become evident if you are the least bit honest. Knowing whether your mind has been set on the things of God or stuck in the middle of the world isn’t usually too hard to figure out.
Michael: You’re probably right.
Jim: One other problem in knowing how you’re doing in your spiritual life is that others' opinions of you don’t always match reality. People often view you too positively or too negatively. Neither is helpful. Being viewed as more spiritual than you actually are can be very harmful to your Christian life.
Michael: I would think this would be especially hard for you as a director of an inner city mission. Everyone thinks you’re ultra-spiritual.
Jim: I see many areas that need God’s work in my life.
Michael: I think you’re doing fine. However, you should do everything in your power to remain humble. Be sure that you don’t communicate a caricature of yourself that isn’t entirely honest.
Jim: (sincerely) Thank you for saying that. I think that was a word from the Lord for me today. I don’t want anything in my life to be deceitful. I can certainly say that the times I have made myself out to be more than I actually am have worked considerable damage to my spiritual focus.
Michael: On the other hand, even if you are really walking with the Lord, there will be people who will oppose you and cut you down. One offers too much praise, another too much criticism.
Jim: I know this feeling, too.
Michael: Perhaps they feel jealous. At times I’ve felt jealous of how closely you walk with God and the sensitivity by which you live in relation to him.
Jim: But you don’t cut me down.
Michael: Not yet, anyway.
Jim: I think another reason people are sometimes hyper-critical of those seeking to live entirely for Christ is that they fear that their friend’s new “radical” commitment will affect their relationship with them. When God calls a person to leave his house in the suburbs and come join us in ministry on the Northside, often his parents, close friends, or wife will oppose him. One effective tactic used by those trying to stop him from moving is to attack his spirituality: “Ooooo, you think you’re so spiritual by doing this. You won’t last a month. You’re no more spiritual than I am, and I know I couldn’t live down there and do the kind of work you’ll have to do every day of your life …”
Michael: Whatever the motivation, it doesn’t help when people constantly tell you how unworthy you are. But neither does it help when people view you as more spiritual than you are.
Jim: Honest, regular assessment of our spiritual lives is crucial. I think that an honest look at how we’re doing is actually true humility. Humility is no more, and no less, than an honest look—an attempt to see ourselves as God sees us. When we see shortcomings and sins, we should accept them for what they are, confess them, turn from them, and keep moving on. And when we observe times of victory and emerging patterns of faithfulness, it’s good to affirm them. We can say, “That was good. With God’s grace, I’ll act that way again.”
Michael: An accurate assessment of our spiritual lives is important if we’re going to know where we need to grow.
Jim: Yes. A totally honest opening of our hearts to the searching heart of God is essential. Self-centered introspection is not.
Michael: What’s the difference?
Jim: The difference has to do with where we’re looking. If we come with open hands to God saying—“Teach me, Lord … lead me in your path … show me both my shortcomings and areas of spiritual faithfulness”—then we’re on track. We’re on track because we’re looking to God. But it’s possible to focus too much on ourselves in the process and stop focusing upon God.
Michael: Knowing you, I’d guess you’re about to launch into a mini-sermon about how I need to stop focusing so much on myself and start focusing more on expressing God’s glory in every area of my life.
Jim: Right. But you’re the one who said it. When we’re pressing forward with this singular goal in mind, we won’t be looking at ourselves. Assessment will then become a fairly simple process. When we are consciously seeking to live for God’s glory throughout every moment of our days, our perspective will increase and we will be able to ascertain more accurately how we’re doing spiritually.
Michael: I see the fruit of the Spirit working in your life, Jim. I’m sure people don’t usually say it to you that way, but I wanted you to hear it from me.
Jim: (a little shyly) I still have a long way to go.
Michael: So do I. I won’t ask you if you see any of that fruit in me because I’m not sure I’m ready to hear the answer. But I do hope someday to really be walking the way God wants me to walk.
Jim: As long as you’re open …
Michael: I know … I know …