Maintaining Spiritual Growth
Spiritual Growth, Awareness, Avoid Evil
It is a common experience. A person arrives at a point of trust and faith in Christ and they are fervent to learn and to grow. These new believers are eager to get involved in studies and service opportunities. They can’t wait to share the Good News of Salvation with everyone they know. Their spiritual fire burns hot.
It is too often the case that after the course of a few months to a few years the spiritual fire begins to wane. People become distracted by the more immediate demands of raising a family or pursuing a career and their spiritual life begins to stagnate. Others get bored at the long process of growth and look for something that is new and exciting.
This morning Paul is going to help us to maintain our spiritual fervor. He’ll give us some tips on how to continue to grow in our faith.
19 Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; 20 do not treat prophecies with contempt. 21 Test everything. Hold on to the good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil.
This text is not easy to interpret because it is difficult to know Paul’s train of thought. Was his command to “not put out the Spirit’s fire” connected to the preceding verses regarding our attitude? Was Paul saying we should keep rejoicing, praying and thanking so that we don’t put out the Spirit’s fire? Are the verses connected to the verses that follow so that Paul is really saying, “don’t put out the Spirit’s fire by treating prophecies with contempt? Or is the command a general and independent command.
I think the best way to understand the text is probably to see Paul giving us a general principle (“don’t put out the Spirit’s fire”) followed by a specific example of putting out the Spirit’s fire (“treating prophecies with contempt”). I see two simple principles in these verses: First, we should work hard to remain teachable. Second, we should always be on guard lest we become gullible.
The first command Paul gives us in these verses is to “not put out the Spirit’s fire”. The words “put out” refer to putting out a literal fire. You can put out a fire by dousing it with water, by covering it up (to keep it from oxygen) or you can let it run out of fuel. Normally, you don’t put out a fire by accident. The fire goes out because someone takes steps to put it out. This suggests that the Holy Spirit will naturally burn within the believer unless we do something to put it out.
What do we do that puts out the Spirit’s fire? There are actually a number of things.
We ignore God’s commands
We refuse to repent of known sin
We nurse a bitter grudge or remain unwilling to forgive
We are driven by greed and the lust for more
We get lazy
We refuse to do what God is prompting us to
The last time I was home visiting my parents I was stunned by how noisy it was. It seemed like there were sirens sounding all the time. The noise of jets overhead seemed constant. I was surprised because I suspect it isn’t any noisier than when I lived there. I had simply trained myself to ignore those noises.
People who live by train tracks, the Interstate, or a noisy intersection all do the same thing. They learn to ignore the noise until they no longer even notice it. That is fine when it comes to the sound of airplanes or traffic. It is bad when it comes to the Spirit of God.
Perhaps you sense Him calling you to missions. Maybe he wants you to take a new job. Perhaps He is nudging you to get involved in a ministry. Maybe he is calling you to give financially to a project. He may even be prompting you to call or visit a friend. Maybe he is pushing you to mend a relationship. If you continue to ignore this prompting for long enough, you will find it difficult to hear God at all. The Spirit’s fire will burn low. You will find life to be cold. How much better to try to respond to God’s leadings so you can learn to hear Him more clearly?
We not only can put out the fire in our own hearts, we can douse the fire in the heart of another. When we are critical of the work that others are doing, we discourage them. We pour water on their spiritual fire. When we sit back and let others do all the work themselves people become exhausted and disheartened and we are putting dirt on the fire. When we don’t bother to help those who are suffering, they begin to think God doesn’t care and the fire starts to fade.
Paul gives us an example of his own: We discourage God’s Spirit when we Treat Prophecies with Contempt. Too often when we think of prophecy we think of prediction. That’s is only a small part of what prophecy means. Most of the time the word prophecy means “proclamation.” In that case, Paul is saying, “Don’t despise Biblical Teaching.” We need to remain open to God’s instruction from wherever it comes.
People turn away from Biblical Instruction for several reasons. First, we turn away because we think we don’t need the instruction. We believe we “know enough”. What people generally mean by such a statement is that they know enough to appear spiritual to those around them. Our goal, however, is not to measure up to those around us, it is conform to the image of Christ.
We have all had this problem in school. Our goal was not to get an education; it was to get good grades. There is a difference. The person pursuing a grade tends to discover what they have to do to get the grade they want. When they reach that goal, they are satisfied. The person who wants an education doesn’t care so much about a particular grade; they want to learn all they can about a subject. Paul is encourages us to keep growing in our knowledge of God, not to get by, but to draw closer to the Lord.
Second, we resist Biblical Instruction because we don’t like what is being taught. The person who is involved in an immoral relationship naturally rebels against teaching that identifies his/her actions as sin. The person who is involved in embezzlement doesn’t want to hear teaching about honesty and integrity. Some people don’t want to hear teaching related to “working out your salvation”. Others don’t want to hear teaching about “grace apart from the law”. Anytime we become the filter for what we will or will not receive, we are going to stunt our growth and become spiritual handicapped.
The person who goes to see the Doctor doesn’t want to hear that they have a disease. However, if they do have a disease, they need to know it as soon as possible so treatment can begin. It would be foolish to stay away from or ignore what the Doctor says simply because we do not want to hear it. Likewise, we need to be told the truth about our spiritual life even if it is uncomfortable. We can’t fix what we don’t realize is broken.
DON’T BE GULLIBLE
The second side of this coin is to beware of being gullible. We must remain teachable and open to God’s instruction and direction but we must also be discerning about what we hear and what we believe. Paul gives us several instructions to keep us from being gullible.
Test Everything. To test everything is not the same as to “resist everything”. The word for test is the same word that would be used to test the “genuineness of a coin”. A person might test the coin to see if it is really gold. You might test a diamond by looking at it under a magnifier. When a cashier is given a twenty-dollar bill they may test it to see if they can see the hologram on the face of the bill. In the same way, we are to test the truth we are hearing.
II Tim. 2:15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” The Word of God is the true measurement of truth. We should measure everything or analyze everything with the Word of truth!
How do we do that? We need to ask a simple question of all instruction: Is what is being taught consistent with the message of the rest of Scripture? We must always compare Scripture with Scripture. God does not tell us that adultery is wrong in one place and right in another. If it seems that way, we have misunderstood the text. God is ALWAYS consistent. If what someone is telling you contradicts some other Scripture in the Bible it either means: it is wrong; you have misunderstood; or the issue demands further study.
We also need to check the context of the verses that a teacher uses to support what he is saying. We must ask, “Are these texts really what the author meant to say?” You can make the Bible say anything you want it to say if you don’t care about the context. Let me give you an every day example.
Suppose you were asked in court, “After the robbery, did you see the defendant running down the street.” You say, “Yes”. The attorney sits down and says, “No further questions.” That is fairly incriminating evidence until the defense attorney asks you to elaborate on what you saw. You now explain the context: “Around the time of the robbery, I saw the defendant running down the street next to his son who was trying to learn how to ride a bicycle.” The context can change entirely what is being said.
Let me give you a couple of examples related to the use of the Bible. Suppose someone quoted Psalm 37:4, “The Bible tells us that God will give us the desires of our hearts.” Does the Bible say this? Yes, it does. However, it begins the promise with, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” The Psalmist is not telling us that God will give us anything we want; He is saying if we delight ourselves in the Lord God will give us the desires of our hearts because our desires will be his desires.
I heard a person once argue that everyone should have the experience of speaking in tongues. He quoted Paul who said, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues.” Did Paul say that? Yes He did in 1 Corinthians 14:5. However, here is the entire verse, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.” Paul’s real message is that though he wishes everyone could have the experience of speaking miraculously in a foreign tongue, it is more important that we be able to teach people with the tongue we have! We must check out the context of any teaching.
There are other things to look for. We should ask what the person believes about Christ. If they are wrong on whom Jesus is, they will likely be wrong on everything else. We should also look at the lives of the people who are doing the talking and the results in the lives of those that listen. Jesus, in speaking about false teachers, said, “By their fruit you will know them.” We can often tell the truthfulness of what someone is saying by observing whether or not the teacher is trying to live up to his own teaching. If those who embrace this teaching become self-absorbed, angry, divisive or indulgent, then the teaching is not from God. If the teaching is helping people to be magnify “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” it is more likely from the Spirit of God.
Hold on to the Good. Once we have examined what is being taught, Paul tells us to “hold on to the good” he is not telling us simply to “keep the notes” on what we learned. What he means is we should “embrace the truth”. In other words we should put it into practice.
Let’s go back to the Doctor’s office. The Doctor diagnoses a problem and then prescribes a treatment. The Doctor hands you a piece of paper that will allow you to get the medicine you need. You go home, put the paper on your desk and congratulate yourself on the fact that you know the problem and you also know the solution to the problem. Is that enough? Of course not. To act in this way would be foolishness. Knowing the problem and knowing the solution to the problem is not enough. We must put that information to work!
Avoid Every Kind of Evil. The flip side of “holding on to what is good” is to avoid what is evil. Not only must we avoid evil teaching, we need to avoid evil in any form. A little bit of compromise can be deadly just as a little bit of poison in an otherwise good cake can make us sick.
As believers it is our job to root out sin in our life with the same tenacity as we would seek to eliminate poison from our food. We are to eliminate every kind of evil. We need to eliminate the sin that is public and that which is private. We must get rid of that which has to do with our behavior and that which involves our attitude. We must address the things we shouldn’t have done and the things we should have done. Evil destroys our spiritual growth.
I realize that this text is not as “flashy” a text as those that talk about various behaviors or about adopting Biblical attitudes. However, that doesn’t mean that these words aren’t just as important.
If we do not keep tending the spiritual fire within, it can grow very dim. Paul’s suggestion is simple: be alert, keep learning; keep growing; and keep stoking the fire.
Here are some practical suggestions,
1. Expose yourself to regular Biblical teaching. Worship weekly, get involved in a study group, read good Christian books, listen to radio teachers.
2. Work at thinking critically by asking, “Am I getting the entire story?” John Stossel of ABC has written an entire book on the half truths and misrepresentations we are given in the media.
3. Learn to check the Scripture texts that another gives to make an argument. Look at the text in its context to make sure it is being used accurately.
4. Be intentional about working on your spiritual growth. As you discover areas where you need to grow, focus on that particular area during the next week. If you need to be more positive and encouraging make it a goal to work at encouraging the people around you.
5. Confront your own justification of sin. Instead of calling something a “white lie” just call it a lie. Instead of talking about “creative bookkeeping” call it cheating or stealing. When you under report your income so you can get benefits, call it fraud. Instead of saying, “I’m having a hard time letting go of the hurt” that someone inflicted on you, be honest and say, “I am unwilling to forgive.” We must see the truth in our own lives and hearts before we can be helped by the instruction of others.
6. Periodically stop and do a spiritual inventory of your life. Has the passion of God’s Spirit begun to wane in your life? Do you find yourself drifting from God? If so, take action.
You don’t have to attend a conference to keep stoking the flame of Spiritual vitality. The “highs” of a conference are temporary unless you make some real changes in your day-to-day living. Maintaining spiritual vitality is essential to our growth as a believer, to our strength in the times of trial, and to our joy in the journey of life. It may not seem like it is a big deal . . . but it is.