Friday, August 7, 2015

Am I Growing?

SCRIPTURE: Colossians 1:10
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: August 7th, 2015
“And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God,” (Col 1:10)
Are we more interested in other people's spiritual growth? Or are we serious about our own? If we are, be prepared to deal with the ugly parts of ourselves. For spiritual growth has less to do with programs or activities. It has more to do with personal self-examination.

If you are like me, you would probably prefer to talk about other people than ourselves. Better to hide while others get exposed. We are comfortable about telling stories about someone else, or the plight of some unfortunate soul. By shining a spotlight on others, we avoid the limelight of being singled out as some kind of a mental guinea pig for others to talk about or comment on. Most people do not like unwarranted attention, especially the negative ones.

When I am preaching from the pulpit, it is a lot more comfortable to tell stories about other people from another place, another Church, another time, or another era. Sometimes, I would choose stories that would not embarrass any of my listeners. I would say things like:
This story is about a man who is NOT from this congregation.”
Upon hearing this, people usually heave a sigh of relief. At least the pastor is not talking about any one of them. Whether it is good news or bad news, people are generally more at ease at looking through the windows of other people's lives. It is also easy to talk about a fictional story or some movie plots and to explain our ideas from there. It is not so easy to talk about ourselves, our warts, weaknesses, and wobbly works. Sharing about ourselves can be very risky. People may take it the wrong way or misinterpret our intent. If we share too much about ourselves, people might accuse us of self-glorification. If we share too little, people say we are too impersonal. We can choose to share a lot about other people and then make a convenient excuse that time does not permit us to share more about ourselves!

The fears of self-revelation are real. It might not be safe. Someone else may use our stories against us. We may say things only to regret later. That is why sharing about others remains a popular choice, even in prayer meetings.

A) The Strange Curiosity About Others

Humans tend toward Schadenfreude, where we take special interest in bad things happening to other people. Like a curious zoo visitor excited to watch how lions and crocodiles eat up their prey alive, humans are especially piqued by tragic events happening to others. That is one reason why news reports on tragedies, disasters, and accidents tend to be more widely read. Air disasters are extremely popular and seem to be picked up by most if not all news agencies. The missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is a case in point. When the ill-fated Boeing 777 was first reported missing on March 8th, 2014, many countries throughout the world reported on it. Although the plane was traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, with passengers hailing from 15 countries, interest in the missing plane garnered attention from more than these affected countries. This week, when part of the plane was washed ashore at a French territory called Reunion Island, the world took notice all over again. It is easy to talk and read news about others. It is not so easy to talk and read news about ourselves, especially bad news.

What about self-examination questions? What about asking ourselves about our own health, our own situation, and our own spiritual growth? This is the subject of this week’s Sabbath Walk.

Am I growing?

B) Building Up Curiosity of Our Spiritual Self

First, we would need to understand what we mean by spiritual growth. The verse chosen for this article will give us an idea of what Paul means by spiritual growth. Paul prayed that the Colossians would be about to do three things: Firstly, to live worthily in the Lord; secondly, to bear fruit in every good work; and thirdly, to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word. These three elements are compressed in this one verse to indicate the desire of Paul. I like to see the three points mentioned as one big idea. Spiritual growth is about living out our lives to glorify God. We glorify God by bearing fruit through good works. We know what pleases God by knowing God’s Word. They are all connected. Growing is not about classroom first and tutorial later. It is about living out the Truth of God; bearing fruit in our works for God; and recognizing what pleases God and what displeases God.

People who lack curiosity of self will tend not to ask questions of the self. They are content to talk about other people. I remember many years ago, a friend commented about the regular preacher: "This pastor can really talk, but there is one thing uncomfortable about him. He hardly share about himself!"

My friend was spot on. As a member of the congregation, it is entirely appropriate to get to know more about the shepherd of the flock. Personal stories connect. They invite listeners to appreciate the daily struggle. They reveal what it means to be human. They tell others that the pastor is an ordinary person like you and me. Without personal engagement, congregation members can feel disconnected from the sermon, from the preacher, and even from God.

In order for us to grow, we need to know where we are. John Wesley gives us 22 ways:
  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?
  4. Can I be trusted?
  5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?
  6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
  7. Did the Bible live in me today?
  8. Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
  9. Am I enjoying prayer?
  10. When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?
  11. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
  13. Do I disobey God in anything?
  14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
  17. How do I spend my spare time?
  18. Am I proud?
  19. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
  20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
  21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
  22. Is Christ real to me?

C) Answering the Questions Honestly and Plainly

The second step is to answer the questions above as honestly and as plainly as possible. I will answer the first three questions in order to kick start the sharing. The first question is about hypocrisy. No one would believe me if I say I am not a hypocrite. So let me clear it once and for all. I am, at times. Hypocrisy hits when we say something but do another thing. As a preacher, I have lots of advice to give over the pulpit. Sometimes, I give more than what I practice personally. It is a tough thing. Should I wait until I have done every single thing before I can preach about it? What about those situations in which I tell others not to worry but I myself worry about something else?

I remember a time when I was preaching about the popular "Do not Worry" passage and remind my congregation to put their trust in God. At the same time, I worry about my son on his way to serve in the army! As a father, I was naturally concerned about safety. Just thinking of the guns and bullets, hand grenades and barb wires, can give me all kinds of scary ideas about injury and accidents. How then can I tell people not to worry when I worry about my son! That's pure hypocrisy.

The second question is about honesty. With that, I must admit that I have been less than honest in the sense that I am selective with my sharing. Each week, when I put up a Bible verse at the beginning of each Sabbath Walk, I often fail to ask how that verse applies to me first. It may seem that I am sharing out of head knowledge which obviously will not go beyond the heads of my readers. Until I am able to share it from the heart. That is where personal sharing carries its influence.

The third question is about confidentiality. This is something key to my pastoral ministry. I even wrote a paper about it in my pastoral care training a number of years ago. Generally speaking, I do not break confidence and I think I have done a pretty good job on that. Unfortunately, there were times in which I broke confidentiality. A few months ago, my wife wanted to give our son a surprise for his Basic Military Training graduation ceremony. She would fly back to Singapore to share in the celebration for our son's major milestone in his two years military service. We agreed then that no one else would know. A week later, I broke the news to a friend which made my wife mad. I had broken the confidentiality agreement with my wife. It is a moment where I felt like a failure. How could I do such a thing to the woman I love?

Just these three questions alone have shown me that the best kind of prayer I can give is that of the tax collector.
9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I have sinned against you with my hypocrisy, my lack of complete honesty, and breaking confidentiality. Just three questions and I get three imperfect results. Honestly, that makes me afraid to even deal with the rest of the questions listed by Wesley. I pray that God will enable me to learn from my past mistakes and to make sure I do not repeat them ever again.

Those days, answering the 22 questions are commonly done during the Holy Club meetings organized by Wesley. It is a way in which Christians are accountable to one another. It is a sign of a desire to want to grow spiritually. It is a constructive exercise that goes beyond the words: "Am I Growing?" to "I want to Grow."

In summary, the way for authentic spiritual growth begins by first learning to avoid becoming overly curious about other people. Second, be curious about our own selves by asking the self-examination questions. Third, answer the questions honestly and humbly. Fourth, make it a desire NOT to repeat them. That is spiritual growth. In our weakness we shall receive grace. For blessed and the poor in heart for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Colossians 1:10 poses to us three questions:
  1. Are you living a life worthy of the Lord Jesus?
  2. Are you bearing fruit in every good work?
  3. Are you growing in the knowledge of God?
Your true spiritual position lies in the honest answering of all of the above. Spiritual growth is not about activity but the courage to ask ourselves tough questions and to dare to answer the questions with honest and humble answers.
THOUGHT: "Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself." — Susanna Wesley on "sin" (Letter, June 8, 1725)


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