God has a plan for our lives, and there's always something he wants us working on. Are we working on it though?
I occasionally look back at my life and wonder if I have 'progressed' in any meaningful or significant way.
I'm sure we all get that feeling from time to time, the feeling of dissatisfaction with our personal progress, like we're not living up to our full potential. Sometimes it might just be the result of having too much time on our hands, looking inward and dwelling on theoretical could-have-been's rather than getting on with our lives.
This might also be partly due to living in a culture which has so much opportunity, that our expectations of what life should look like are hugely overinflated.
I do think there are appropriate moments though to stop and examine our progress as it relates to our spiritual journey, and ask ourselves if we are growing or stagnating. Are we making progress on the path to maturity?
Don't settle for past progress
In a recent message I heard, the pastor posed the question "are we seeking new encounters with God, or are we settling for a past encounter?" He elaborated that sometimes we have had a past experience or encounter with God that changed our lives or moved us forward, but we have settled for this past experience and become complacent, not continuing to go further in our relationship with the Lord.
It got me reflecting on my own progress and whether it showed evidence of growth towards spiritual maturity, i.e. sanctification. In other words, was I actively seeking a deeper relationship with God, or was I holding back somewhere and allowing myself to settle for past 'encounters'?
When I looked at specific areas of my life that need work, I realized I wasn't doing things I already knew I should do, I was holding back. I was procrastinating in my own spiritual journey because some of those areas were tough to deal with. Just like the many times during university that I put off an assignment until the night before it was due, I was delaying dealing with barriers to progress because they were going to be hard to overcome.
What stagnation looks like
The problem with this situation if it becomes a pattern is that it's stagnation. It's the opposite of growth, and in the spiritual sense growth means not holding back anything from God. Growth requires sacrifice, and sometimes God has already shown us what He wants, we're just not ready to do it.
The way the Bible describes the Christian life makes this tension very clear. It is often depicted as an active thing - a race, a journey, or like a tree that grows to maturity and bears fruit. These analogies depict an ongoing process that requires active involvement and participation.
The work of sanctification is something we take part in, and is supposed to continue toward fruition throughout our entire life. It is not like a music track that we can play and pause as we please.
I suspect this casual mentality towards spiritual growth has become pervasive among Christians. It's a feature of the culture - that we can engage with what we want and when we want - and no doubt it has infiltrated thinking on spiritual matters as well.
Anecdotally I see this mentality in 'Sunday Christianity', where many churchgoers reserve consideration and discussion of spiritual things to Sunday gatherings and home groups. But this is not how Christian life was meant to be lived, we are to approach Jesus on His terms, not ours. So we must challenge the source of our complacency.
What growth takes
In a series of videos, the Bible Project examines the 'Shema' (pronounced Shĕ-mah), a passage in Deuteronomy which was recited as a prayer every morning and evening in ancient Israel, as both a pledge of allegiance and a prayer of praise to God:
"Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might" (Deut 6:4-5).
In the original Hebrew, the word 'soul' in this passage actually meant something like 'being' or 'sentience'. So when we read it in context, it means we must love God with our 'entire being' - with complete and total devotion.
If we are holding back in any area of our life, it is impossible to fulfil this command fully, and we may find stagnation occurring - subtle or obvious. We can't move on to new encounters with God if we aren't dealing with the things He has already revealed to us.