“Only let us hold true to what we have attained” (Philippians 3:16 ESV).
Dr. Seuss gave us a lesson in the art of negotiation and an example of the benefits of perseverance when Green Eggs and Ham was published in 1960. The Cat in the Hat was sure he did not like green eggs and ham, and equally sure he disliked Sam. But then, exasperated and wet, he tried them just to placate and send away persistent Sam and found out that he did, he DID like green eggs and ham!
Are you a Cat in the Hat Christian, or a Sam?
Forty years ago I was sitting in the lobby of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky killing time until my next class when a student I did not know sat next to me and asked me if I had been saved. “Yes,” I replied, while my body language, facial expressions and visible discomfort spoke loudly “no” and “leave me the hell alone.” I don’t remember what else he said, he didn’t stay long, but I remember his question, my discomfort, and my answer.
Cat in the hat-esque, I was unwilling to engage with a stranger about my beliefs in God, unwilling to engage with myself the depth of my own convictions, and unwilling to even engage in common Christian courtesy with another believer who felt a call to discuss Jesus with strangers. Parsimonious is a good word for who I was back then.
But I might be all Sam now. You see, our personal comprehension of what it means to be a Christian changes over time. The Apostles Paul and Peter speak of spiritual infants (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1 and 1 Peter 2:2) who must grow up and develop into a mature understanding of God’s call on their lives. Peter describes spiritual maturity as passing through a series of phases that supplement and build a Christian life ready and useful for God’s service: “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5b-7 ESV).
Spiritual maturity is not linear. Rather, we grow, fall back, back-track, back-slide, and grow again. Living in the world we can be confused about values (virtues) and true knowledge (what is right and wrong and why), and the temptations of the pleasures of this world can rob us of self-control. Vanity, pride, sloth, and envy will erode steadfastness of character. But perseverance and the uplifting, encouraging, and disciplining actions of the Spirit urge us to pursue godliness, and from Christ-likeness we can approach others in brotherly affection and love.
Still, brotherly affection and love does not happen quickly. Christians disagree about things—does that surprise you? Some of those things we disagree about are human things, and they are troublesome enough; but some things are about theology, and we can become confused and angry with one another over doctrine. (“Thing One” and “Thing Two”, just to keep the Dr. Seuss theme going.) Because spiritual maturity is not linear, Paul admonished the Philippians to hold fast to what they had already attained.
While preachers and teachers influence and educate us, it is the job of the Holy Spirit to lead us into wisdom and understanding of the things of Christ. We are to test the things we hear (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 and 1 John 4:1-8). As we grow in our spiritual maturity we will be stretched to consider new insights, new tolerances and intolerances, new compassions for ourselves and others, and we will experience new sadness over this broken world. Such emotions represent growing pains as the Holy Spirit leads us. But remembering the truths we have already attained will comfort us through our times of testing, stretching, renewal, and growth.
Thankfully, our Lord will not leave us alone once we have invited Him into our lives. He sees to it that we keep moving, keep growing.
The end of the year is fast approaching. Resolutions are just around the corner. Here at the start of November let me urge you to pause and reflect on your spiritual maturity. Are you growing or back-sliding? Are there obstacles standing in your way to becoming a mature Christian, equipped for service and prepared for the vicissitudes of life? What truths are you holding fast as you stretch into the future?
I have always liked Dr. Seuss stories. Here is a poor homage to him, but may it put a smile on your face.
Ponder, ponder, where you stand. Are you safe in God’s strong hand?
Or do you worry about what lies ahead, late at night while on your bed?
Awake! Awake! Put sloth away. Dawn is breaking, a brand new day!
Parsimoniousity? It shall not be the end of thee!
With the Holy Spirit shout, and let the Christian in you out!