Spiritual Growth 101 – Heart Work
Last week we began a series entitled Spiritual Growth 101. And we started out by noting that people love and celebrate progress, whether it’s a personal record at crossfit, or a promotion at work, we tend to strive for and celebrate progress. As Christians we should strive for progress in the faith. We should make it our aim to grow spiritually.
We also discussed the fact that progress rarely happens without sacrifice. In order to make progress with your 401K or IRA, you have to sacrifice extra spending money. But in the end, though you give up something good (spending money) you gain something better (money at retirement). If you want to make progress in fitness you have to sacrifice that cheeseburger. But in the end, though you give up something good (cheeseburger), you gain something better (fitness).
When it comes to spiritual growth, the same principle is true: giving up something good now in order to obtain something better, it is not so much a sacrifice, but an investment. I challenged us to think not in terms of sacrifice, what we are giving up, but rather to think in terms of investment, what we are gaining, which is better. Because spiritual growth is for our good, for our joy, and for God’s glory, which is all better than whatever good thing we may have to give up in the process. So we are choosing to think in terms of investment not sacrifice, what we gain and not what we give up, because what better to invest in than the kingdom of God, and our spiritual health?
Now this morning as we continue, I want to focus in on the vital instrument in the process of spiritual growth: the heart.
Now before we jump in, I want to define a few terms.
To do so, I’d like to share some quotes with you from NT Wright. You may be thinking who is that? Well, if you don’t know him, he is someone you need to know.
An article in Christianity Today says this of NT Wright, “He is the most prolific biblical scholar in a generation. Some say he is the most important apologist for the Christian faith since C. S. Lewis.”
Wright says this in his work New Heavens, New Earth,“a proper Christian understanding of heaven is not as ‘a place remote from the present world’ but rather as a dimension, normally kept secret, of present reality” (14).
He goes on to point out that “the idea that heaven is a distant place, perhaps up in the sky somewhere, is of course easily recognized as misleading today” (14).
“Rather, ‘heaven’ is God’s dimension of present reality” (14).
He further states, “heaven and earth are not distant spheres, separated by a great geographical or ontological distance, but actually overlap and interlock, supremely in Jesus” (15).
He goes on to state, “the old split between ‘natural’ and supernatural’ is ill conceived…it would be more biblical, in my view, if when we wanted to make this sort of distinction we spoke instead about ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’ (15).
So, according to Wright (and I agree), heaven is where God is, but it’s not some other place that is literally above. If you get into a hot air balloon or a spaceship and keep going up, up, up, you will not eventually get to heaven, where God is. NASA proved that theory wrong, you just end up in space. So the idea of heaven, above and where Christ is at the right hand of God does not mean some place beyond earth that we can get to if we just go high enough or far enough. Again, Heaven is not some geographically distant place, but God’s dimension of present reality, here and now.
This has been expressed historically and biblically in the Temple, God’s particular dwelling.
2D vs 3D
Let me illustrate it this way. We are used to seeing movies in 2D, that is two dimensional movies on a screen that is defined by length and width. Some years back they introduced 3D with the blue and red glasses to try to add a third dimension so you have length, width, and depth. Over time this technology has progressed and it’s not as bad.
Here is an example of 2D.
You see the length and the width. But this doesn’t really tell the whole story. Some of you have never seen one of these. This is called a cassette tape. It’s how we used to listen to music when I was a kid. There is only two dimensions to this.
BUT, check this out. This is 3D. Not only can you see the length, width, and depth, you can touch it, and you can listen to it, if you can find a tape player.
There is so much more than merely this (2D image).
There is another dimension.
The same is true when we are speaking in terms of heaven and earth, heavenly and earthly.
Heavenly is of God and his dimension. Earthly is of man and human nature.
There is the earthly dimension, which is kind of like this 2D image – inferior. The earthly minded individual says God’s will? No, no, MY WILL be done. He thinks in terms of what I want, what I want NOW, and I’m going to do what I need to do to get what I want even if that means other people will suffer in the process. If I want sex, I’ll get it even if that means sexual immorality, impurity, I have lustful desires, evil desires they must be fulfilled. I want that, I know it’s yours but I want it and I want that right there too because I am filled with greed. And when I don’t get my way, I get filled with anger and rage. It’s like, “When I go driving I stay in my lane But getting cut off it makes me insane. I open the glove box, Reach inside…I guess I got a bad habit.” It’s a dog eat dog world, survival of the fittest. I’m selfish and I will do whatever it takes to put me on top, including acts of malice, slander, and filthy language. I want that political office, so I will tell lies.
That is the earthly realm, the natural realm – as other biblical texts call it, the realm of the flesh, it’s carnal.
But there is on the other hand, the heavenly realm, kind of like this 3D. 3D adds another dimension to 2D. It’s better. It transcends 2D. The heavenly realm is characterized by better ways that transcend earthly ways. The heavenly realm is God’s realm and it is marked by God’s ways, ways of justice, mercy, righteousness, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and love. God’s ways which were embodied in the life of Jesus, where heaven and earth kiss, where humanity meets divinity and God tabernacled among men.
Jesus connects seeing this heavenly realm with purity of heart. He says in Matt 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Now, seeing God, having the eyes of one’s heart opened to see God, to see into the heavenly dimension goes hand in hand with purity. Growing spiritually, making progress in the faith requires heart work.
Blessed are the pure in heart. The pure in heart will see God. Cleanse your heart of impurity. Impurity in one’s heart blurs one’s vision of God.
Now Christ has atoned for our sins so in a judicial sense, we are seen as pure, spotless, blameless before God. But practically speaking our hearts are still capable of hosting impurities. And I think impurity of heart not only blurs our vision of God, but it creates relational barriers.
Sexual immorality of any kind, whether it is pornography or adultery, inhibits marital intimacy.
Lies and lack of disclosure inhibits trust.
Slander and gossip create contention.
Greed perpetuates selfishness, the great relationship destroyer.
Impurity in the heart blurs one’s vision of God and creates relational barriers.
The one who walks in these ways have their minds on earthly things, not on things above, they are thinking in terms of the flesh, carnal, natural, it’s all about me, I’m number one. Nobody else matters, and if they do matter, they don’t matter nearly as much as me, and what I want. All of these things put the focus on self and God is eclipsed in the process.
Impurity in one’s heart blurs one’s vision of God.
Spiritual growth requires heart work. I’d like to spend some time together this morning in a passage that captures this well.
Col 3:1ff 1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
He starts by saying since you HAVE been raised with Christ. Raised from spiritual death, a state of separation from God. We have been raised out of spiritual death and given spiritual life, which is fellowship with God in His presence, in the heavenly realm, made to be the temple of God, his dwelling place, to live in his dimension.
Since you now dwell with him in the heavenly kingdom, from above, set your heart on things above.
2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
As I understand it, Paul is saying, since you have spiritual life in Christ, make progress in the faith. Set your heart upon the things of God. Stop thinking in earthly terms, but in heavenly terms. Stop thinking like a natural carnal person of the flesh, and start thinking like a spiritual person who belongs to God. From Paul’s perspective in the first century, he is saying God is in the process of building a new temple in which to dwell when Christ comes and fully establishes his kingdom, where his will is done. God’s kingdom is all about him and his ways and his will. Change your thinking, change your being. Become kingdom oriented, God focused, heavenly minded. Start thinking and feeling, and acting accordingly. Grow up in your thinking. Shift your focus from earthly to heavenly. From selfish ways to Godly ways.
This suggests progress in the faith. This implies spiritual growth. And everyone has room to grow. He is about to give some practical advice for spiritual growth.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
Paul is saying your earthly nature, your natural tendencies include things that are not of God, things that are harmful to your soul and harmful to your neighbor, things that don’t glorify God and things that steal your joy.
They sound good, but they are tricky that way. It’s like bakers chocolate. It looks good, it smells good. Seems like some delicious chocolate that is going to be scrumptious and delightful and satisfying. But you bite into it and it’s awful. You say, ew, not the results I was expecting. Icky. Gross. And you say I wish I never bit into this. That’s how these earthly tendencies work, so put them to death. Say sayonara. See ya, get lost.
Sexual immorality, impurity, lust. It sounds like sexual fulfillment at all costs, no matter the means will be deeply satisfying. Turns out, God created sex, he knows what he’s doing. He created it to be enjoyed in the context of marriage and that is where it is best enjoyed, where it is most fulfilling, where it brings the most satisfaction to the soul. So if sexual immorality, impurity, and lust and still lingering around in your heart, get them out. Put them to death.
Evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. Get rid of them. They will eat you from the inside out. The greedy never have enough and they just perpetuate the greed cycle always wanting more and more and more and go to great lengths to get what they think they want, making an idol out of money and stuff, because that is what all of their focus and heart is on instead of God.
6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. When Paul wrote this, God was just on the verge of pouring out his wrath on a disobedient generation whose hearts were corrupted. Jesus came to give them a heads up.
Matt 13:15For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’
This goes hand in with blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. The Jews of Jesus’ day had calloused hearts set on earthly things and they could not see God. They didn’t have eyes to see. He said
Matt 15:8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
Matt 15:18-1918 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
These things defile a person, and they reside in the heart. And impurity of heart blurs one’s vision of God, creates relational barriers, and stunts spiritual growth.
I could go on and on with these, but you get the picture that Jesus was calling to focus the heart of the matter in Israel, which was the matter of the heart. Their hearts were impure.
Now, back to the wrath of God. Paul lists a bunch of impurities and states that because of them the wrath of God was coming. It was coming on those Jews in that first century generation. Jesus says in
Matt 23:34b-36 I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.
Then Paul says:
1 Thess 2:14-1614 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
Remember, the Biblical narrative is about God and his relationship with Israel through their covenants. Their covenant dictated that hardness of heart toward God as evidenced by disobedience to the Law would result in God’s wrath and he would bring upon them curses. A nation would come and destroy them. Jesus made this clear in Luke 21 that his generation would experience such wrath and we know from history that in AD 70, Rome besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, burning down their temple.
Because of these impurities, which spring from the heart, God’s wrath was upon his people. Now that judgment is in our past, but it doesn’t change the timeless precept that God does not desire that his people have impure hearts; impurity of heart does not please God, it blurs one’s vision of God, creates relational barriers, and stunts spiritual growth.
So Paul says, you have been raised with Christ to newness of life, given spiritual life, so rid yourselves of the impure things that characterized your hearts when you were spiritually dead – after all, it’s those very things that would bring God’s wrath upon his own people, the Jews. Now, Paul is writing to a group of Gentiles, non Jews and he tells them the following
7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. Now don’t get too high and mighty, thinking, “those Jews!” Because those ways characterized your lives too.
8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Rid yourselves of these things. Paul already mentioned a sampling of items that should be purged from the lives and hearts of God’s people including sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed. Now, he adds to the list anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. These things corrupt the heart and stunt spiritual growth.
These are things that belong to the natural dimension of humanity, the earthly ways of man. Those are 2D, they’re inferior, obsolete. They don’t do much for you now that your eyes have been open to the 3rd dimension, now that you have been brought into the heavenly kingdom and given spiritual life. You now have access to the cassette tape and the walkman.
Now, I can’t do much with this cassette tape today except throw it in the trash, but imagine me in the 8th grade, carrying around this 2D picture and thinking man, I got this sweet picture of a Kris Kross tape. That 2D image wouldn’t have done a whole lot for me. If I had my Walkman with me, wouldn’t it make sense to actually take the tape out of my backpack so that I could reap the benefits of access to that third dimension for MY JOY?
As believers, who have been raised with Christ, we should operate in the heavenly dimension, setting our hearts on things above, in the heavenly realms for our good, FOR OUR JOY, and for God’s glory. Let’s rid ourselves of the earthly things that hinder progress in that area, things that blur our vision of that dimension.
9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
These are heavenly ways, things that belong to the dimension of God, that 3rd dimension. Like clothing, take off the filthy garment of the old earthly ways of the flesh and put on the garments of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and peace. This takes effort, it takes work. Our natural inclination is to operate in the earthly mindset. But we are to set our hearts and minds not on earthly things, but things above. By this, we will experience spiritual growth. By this, we will make progress in the faith.
13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Rid yourself of the angry malicious mindset that belongs to the earthly dimension – the vindictive, I’m going to show him mentality, and instead, be like God, be heavenly minded, forgive as the Lord forgave you. Be like him. Set your mind on the things above, on God’s ways of forgiveness.
14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
You can’t really give an exhortation to put on heavenly virtues without culminating in love. In all reality, we could say that love is THE defining characteristic of heavenly ways. I really could get up and say every week: Love more. Love better. Let’s close in prayer.
Over all these virtues put on love. Yes, compassion is wonderful, kindness is wonderful, humility is wonderful, gentleness and patience and forgiveness are wonderful virtues, but above all those, put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. You want to make progress in the faith, you want to increase your spiritual health, put on love.
So in a nutshell, to grow spiritually, to make progress in the faith, rid yourselves of impurities, purify your hearts, put to death the things that belong to the flesh, set your minds not on earthly things, but on things above.
Impurity of heart does not please God, it blurs one’s vision of God, creates relational barriers, and stunts spiritual growth.
Removing impurities is like waking up and wiping the eye boogers and goopy sleep out of our eyes so that we can see clearly. We can see God more clearly with the eyes of our heart when we remove the gunk of impurity. And that is for our good.
That is making progress in the faith because it is an expression that says God I believe you, I trust you, I have faith that though my natural inclination is to fulfill selfish desires and seek personal gain at the expense of others, I have faith that in the end that won’t fulfill the deepest longings of my soul. Instead I believe you, God. I am making progress in the faith. My faith is in the word of God that it is for my ultimate good and my ultimate joy to be unselfish, to be loving, to rid myself of the impurities that blur my vision of God, that as my heart is purified, I will see God more clearly, I will have a better view of Him. And I believe that seeing Him more clearly is better than the alternative!
We can say with Paul in Eph 1:3 Praise be to the God and father of our lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.