Starting the New Year Right
Every time the calendar changes to a New Year it feels like we get a new beginning. We start with a new calendar that has all the pages blank. It is a clean slate, the perfect time to make changes in our lives. Most of us will set some “loose” goals. We want to lose weight, get in better shape, spend money more wisely and any number of other issues.
This morning we are going to look at the issue of planning for spiritual growth. Our text is 1 Timothy 4:7-10.
7 Do not waste time arguing over godless ideas and old wives’ tales. Instead, train yourself to be godly. 8 “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” 9 This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it. 10 This is why we work hard and continue to struggle, for our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and particularly of all believers. (1 Timothy 4:7-10)
Paul begins by admonishing Timothy to think about where he puts his energy. Instead of getting sucked into foolish arguments, which were the mainstay of false teachers, focus on the things that matter.
Occasionally I will get notes from people outside the church who want to argue about which day is the Sabbath, Saturday or Sunday. Others send notes about the priesthood of Melchizedek or the events that point to the second coming of Christ. I have learned over the years not to waste time on these debates. These arguments drain us of energy, divide believers, and go on endlessly. Such debates make people feel spiritual but are indicators of a lack of spiritual maturity.
Paul doesn’t mince words: “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” What valuable words to speak to a society that is obsessed with the physical! Devices that monitor our steps, heart rate, and calories burned were big sellers again this Christmas season.
Paul does not discount physical training. He acknowledges that it is good. It is valuable to watch our weight, exercise, get enough sleep, and eat well. These things will help us be more productive. It will even help us to serve the Lord more effectively (unless we become obsessed with physical training).
Paul challenges Timothy to give at least as much attention to our spiritual development. Physical training can help us live better lives but spiritual training can help us here and in eternity. And this is where I want to focus today.
We All Need to Grow Spiritually
Every one of us needs to grow in the spiritual life. If you meet a person who feels they have “arrived” spiritually (you usually don’t have to guess . . . they will tell you . . . usually repeatedly), there is a good chance you have met a present day Pharisee. They look good on the outside but they still have a lot of garbage hidden on the inside.
“The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. 30 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ 31 The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
It is hard for me to fathom anyone who would think they have met this criterion of loving God with ALL of their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Hopefully, we are moving in that direction but we have a long way to go.
The second command is just as daunting. We must grow in our love for others. We may be making progress but we sure have a long way to go.
Spiritual growth is like Physical growth; you start as an infant and you continue (hopefully) to mature and develop as the years go by. Every year of life brings new challenges and new things to learn or overcome.
The same is true in the spiritual part of your life. We spend a lifetime trying to know God better; trying to hear and apply His word, learn how to pray for effectively, love more completely, and eliminate more and more sin from our lives.
Spiritual Growth Doesn’t Just Happen
You don’t become skilled at anything without practice. Coaches work hard to drill this idea into the head of those who play on the team: “How you practice is how you will play”. Yet, for some reason, we seem to think that if we go to church most every Sunday, drop a little money in the plate, and keep a nice Bible on the shelf, we will grow spiritually. Listen to Paul as he talks like a coach in Corinthians 9:25-27:
24 Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! 25 All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. 26 So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. 27 I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Just like in any sport or skill you have to work at your spiritual life if you want to grow and develop in the faith. If you want to take on the enemy of our souls, you would be wise not to face Him unprepared.
This training is a lifelong process. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument. To become truly proficient, you must invest many hours over a long period and then you must keep playing and learning.
I have been a Christian for almost 50 years! It took me a couple of decades before I had a consistent time with God daily. It took longer than that before I started reading through the Bible every year. I am still working on the disciplines of prayer, listening, Bible Study, contentment and so much more. . . and I am a Pastor!
I share this because I don’t want you to throw up your hands and say you can’t do this. You can! But you must learn slowly . . . like a child learning to walk. There will be falls and failures. That is part of the learning process. The key is to keep practicing, keep training!
How to Train for Spiritual Growth
So, how do you begin the process of training to grow spiritually? Start with your calendar. If you don’t plan to grow you will not grow. So, begin by making time. Start with Sunday morning. Plan to worship and honor God on Sunday. Take it a little further and get involved in a Sunday School class.
The clear majority of people are intimidated by Sunday School. They are afraid they will look ignorant if they get involved with a smaller group. Sunday School is not a competition like it sometimes is in education. The purpose of Sunday School is to get questions answered, learn the truth of Scripture in a give-and-take environment, and learn to think biblically. No one in Sunday School (at least in this church) has “arrived”. From teachers on down to the newest student, we are all trying to learn more about God and grow in the faith.
Think of Sunday School like a gym or club for exercise. You join the club but then don’t want to go there to exercise because you are in such poor shape . . . especially compared to some who are there. However, everyone in the gym knows that there are people at different levels in their growth. The people in great shape can teach you how best to get in shape. They will not ridicule you . . . they cheer for you! So, it is in Sunday School classes.
Then make time in your calendar for God every day. You can start by taking a couple minutes to read a devotional book. Look for one that has a Bible text and some reflections on that text. Start with just these few minutes. Get into the habit of turning your thoughts to the Lord. I find it best to do this first thing in the morning. I have learned that if I wait until later, later never comes.
Read the Bible. Devotional books are great but you need to open your Bible. Find a Bible reading plan that fits you. This doesn’t have to be a formal plan but there are lots of those out there. You can find dozens of these plans online. If you have our church app you can choose the Bible portion of the app and it will take you to YouVersion and you can find any kind of plan you can think of. The goal of any plan is to read the Bible . . . not fulfill and assignment. How much you read is secondary to how well you read.
As you grow in your study of the Scriptures you will grow in your relationship with God.
Pray I wish there was some simple formula for powerful praying. The best advice is: don’t become concerned over form . . . focus on the one to whom you are speaking. Think about a normal conversation with a friend. Do you get uptight about what words to say? Do you do all the talking? Do you only talk about other people and their problems? No. You interact and respond.
I encourage you to do the same thing as you talk with the Lord. Have a conversation. Tell him what is going on in your life. Listen, expecting the Lord to commune with you. Be honest. That is what God wants from you. He would rather you be genuine and stumble over your words than have you put on some act. The goal of prayer is to build your relationship with God. Listen as much as you talk. Over time you will begin to recognize His whispers.
Practice Trust. Dare to start acting on what God is teaching you. In other words, when you read a passage that talks about making things right with someone you hurt, try to do that. When you sense that you should call or visit someone . . . do that. When the opportunity comes when you can share your faith, open your mouth and try to do so. When you feel the nudge to serve . . . step out and serve!
Like learning to walk at times you will take a step and fall. Instead of getting discouraged, learn and dare to get up and try again. Don’t give up! That would be like giving up playing an instrument because you played a wrong note! There are no shortcuts and you will not have “arrived” until you stand before the Lord yourself.
Learn from Others. Look for someone who is further down the road spiritually than you are and then learn everything you can from them. That is one of the benefits of being in a church. There are other believers around who can help you grow in your faith.
I am so grateful that over the years I have had many mentors to guide me. When I first became a believer, I would sit and ask my Pastor questions for hours. I had youth leaders that discipled me and helped me grow in the faith. In college, I had a couple of Professors who I visited often to learn from them as men. I’ve learned from other Pastors and there are several authors whose books I always read.
We spend too much time promoting ourselves; trying to impress others with how mature and competent we are. When we do this we are missing opportunities to grow and learn. We would do better to listen, ask questions and learn. Others have faced things that you are just now facing. They may have answers to questions you are asking. Learn everything you can from others so that you can life more faithfully.
Strive for Balance in Your Life
The spiritually mature person is growing in every element of their life. God wants to influence and enrich the physical, social, emotional and spiritual elements of life. They are all inter-related.
Rick and I were visiting with Shawn and Lydia Gutting a few weeks back and Shawn shared how he takes time at the start of each year to evaluate his life to see if it is in balance. He uses the Five F’s. If he was in town this week I would have asked him to share. The five areas are:
The idea is to look at each area to see if you are out of balance. If you are weak in an area it means you need to make some changes. Ideally, Faith should be at the center influencing all the other aspects. The Bible tells us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and then everything else will fall into place.” (Matthew 6:33).
Growing in faith is not just about gaining more information about God. It is about learning to live out your faith . . . and that impacts the other four areas.
You may need to adjust when it comes to family. Sometimes Christians are so busy with ministry issues that they neglect their family. More often we become obsessed with our jobs or our hobbies. Think of your family as your primary mission field. What are you doing to lead them along the way that leads to Christ?
In most families, the best thing you can do is love and cherish your spouse. Let me ask you a question: if your children treated their spouse the way you and your spouse treat each other, would you be grateful or disappointed? If you would be disappointed . . . make some changes! Learn once again what it means to serve one another. Cherish, honor and respect your spouse. If you can’t find any reasons to do so . . . work harder! If you begin looking for things to affirm rather than criticize, you will be surprised what you find. The smoldering embers of love can start to burn bright again.
When it comes to your children, you should ask: How well are you mentoring them? (In other words, what are they learning about life and priorities from the way you live?) Are you investing enough time in your children and spouse? Are you spending too much time working? Too much time playing or watching TV? We only have our children for a few years. There is much to teach them. It all starts by building a good relationship with them.
Fitness is the rage in our society. There are machines, devices, nutritional services, fitness clubs and more all designed to help you get in shape. Work to be healthy. Save yourself some grief . . . don’t worry about looking like one of the people who spend all their life working out! There is more to life than this. However, strive to live a healthy life. You will serve God more effectively if you remain as healthy as possible.
Finances have the power to make or break a home, family, or life. We are a consumptive society so we are also a society that buys what we cannot afford, and then we live in under the tyranny of debt. You might want to take some time to go through the materials from Dave Ramsey and others. He encourages you to do several things:
Get an emergency fund of $1000
Budget your money
Pay off debt - concentrating on the smallest debt and rolling that payment over to the next debt until they have all been paid off.
Use debit cards (or better yet, cash) for your everyday purchases. The value of a debit card is that you can’t spend what you don’t have.
Live within your means . . . pursue contentment. It is better to live with less than to be saddled with debt.
The last area is Fun! You need to do things that are fun both yourself and with your family. Please note . . . doing something fun does not mean you must spend a lot of money. You can have a great family vacation at a state park or doing day trips. You can play outdoor games, go for hikes, or sit around the table playing a board game. The key to family fun is not the destination as much as it is being together and enjoying each other’s company.
The point of all of this is that growth as a person and as a disciple of Christ takes time and work. The start of a new year is a good time to make changes. The key to reaching our goals and desires for the new year is to write them down specifically and then look at your goals often. Put them somewhere where you will see them every day. Review them every week.
Just as you would put down some fitness goals (I want to lose 10 pounds) or financial goals (I want to have an emergency fund fully funded by June), set some spiritual fitness goals
I want to spend 15 minutes with the Lord every morning
I want to work at prayer this year or I want to work on being more loving, especially in the things I say.
I want to live today in such a way that I can stand before Him in the future without regret or shame.
This only works however, if you set some goals. A new year lies before you . . . make this a year of growth and maturity in your relationship with God and with those you love.