A few years ago, when I began to get involved in pastoral ministry I very quickly began to feel a kind of frustration. I had taken on an assumption that progress in the Christian life looked the same for everyone. Effectively I believed that because each believer has God’s Spirit dwelling in them, that progress for each believer should look the same. I say ‘effectively’ because if you had asked me ‘is this what you believe?’ of course I would have said, ‘no!’ But my expectations of the Spirit’s work in my own life and particularly the lives of those I ministered to, revealed that there was an enormous gulf between what I thought I believed and how I acted.
It didn’t take very long for very real furstrations to appear – I found that people’s messiness didn’t disappear. People, myself included, continued to struggle with the same behaviours; lack of generosity to those in need, pride that manifests itself in a lack of compassion toward others, lustful eyes; And people continued to struggle with the same emotions; doubt, guilt, depression, anger. I think what I believed was that progress looked like ‘tidiness.’ I had taken on two assumptions that turned out to be massive ministry mistakes.
1. An over-realised eschatology
I didn’t take into account that during this life sin and brokenness will always be. Rather, what I was looking for in people, and in my own life, was something that only Jesus will bring, removal of sin and brokenness.
2. The Spirit manifests himself differently to each believer
I didn’t take into account the reality of the ‘body language’ the New Testament uses to describe the nature of the Church. There is on the one hand a real ‘oneness’ to the Church that Paul speaks of unashamedly in Ephesians 4:
4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope at your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But at the same time, this same Spirit brings a diversity to the Christian community, expressed by Paul in the outpouring of gifts:
7 Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift. 8 For it says: When He ascended on high, He took prisoners into captivity; He gave gifts to people. 9 But what does “He ascended” mean except that He descended to the lower parts of the earth? 10 The One who descended is the same as the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. 11 And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, [growing] into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.
Growth and progress in the Christian life is not a ‘one size fits all.’ We are each thoroughly sinful and broken people who will continue to struggle with these things in our own particular way. Of course, being complacent with this state of brokenness is a horrible mistake, but so too is having a universal approach to what growth and progress will look like in each person.
Just a thought.