How to Grow in Grace: Step Two

Grace finds goodness in everything
Grace finds beauty in everything
Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
“Grace” – U2

In our previous post, we said that step one in the process of growth in grace is fixing our eyes on Jesus. If we are going to even begin the process of self-examination, it must begin by looking outward. If you consider other methods of change, they typically begin by looking at yourself.  Not so with the Christian story. A Christian vision of change begins with a gaze outward and away from oneself. Consider these words from the writer of Hebrews 12:1-4:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

If step one begins with gazing outward, what is step two?

Step Two: Look for Evidence of the Spirit’s Work in Your Life

If being overwhelmed with guilt and shame and failing to see Christ is a natural tendency when facing struggles, another tendency looms prominently on the horizon. That tendency is a failure to see clear evidence of the Spirit’s work in your life. We are more prone to focus on faults and failures, not Spirit-wrought perseverance and good fruit.

In all of my years of personal growth and working with others, if someone is not blame shifting and avoiding guilt, they are wallowing in all the bad things they have thought, said or done. This is never more apparent than when a couple comes to me for counseling. As they tell the story of their marriage, the narrative is often filled with the negative things in their marriage. They focus on what John Gottman calls “the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” which are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Certainly those things are evident, but what is also evident is their desire to grow and improve their marriage. This is not what they see, but it is precisely what I see. The very fact that they have sought help is a mark of the Spirit ablaze in their lives!

Once again, look how Scripture changes your gaze. In Philippians 1:3-6 Paul says,

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

He says this in 2 Corinthians 5:17;

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

While Paul is able to acknowledge the reality of remaining sin, he does not let that eclipse the powerfully optimistic way that the Spirit is on the move in your life now that you belong to Christ. There will be plenty of time to address the ongoing battle, but for now, we want to establish the fact that we are in the fight! While it may not be easy, the fact that you are fighting is evidence that you are spiritually alive; alive to the Spirit and dead to the things that once held you in abject slavery and powerlessness.

Consider two more examples from the ministry of Jesus and Paul.

In one of the most well known verses of Scripture, Jesus says this;

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Most people can recite verse 16, but not verse 17. Verse 17 gives you an indication of Jesus’ mission. He came to save us from condemnation, not focus on the things that condemn us.

In I Corinthians 1:2-9, the Apostle Paul writes this to a congregation that is torn apart by division, incest, pride, lacking love, along with a host of other problems:

2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

He does go on to address the deep problems in the church, but notice where he begins! This is a typical pattern in Paul’s letters to the churches.

Application

Within this context, look for evidence of the Spirit's work in your life, and let that move you in the direction of gratitude. Be utterly ruthless about this. Take note of everything that gives evidence of God's presence in your life! Everything! If you are married and you are still desiring a good marriage and seeking good counsel, that is a mark of the Spirit. If you have struggled with the same old temptation and are still in the fight, that is a mark of the Spirit. If you have been struggling with depression for years but you still stay connected to the body of Christ and you occasionally think about reading your Bible or praying, that is evidence of the Spirit. These are confirmations that you belong to God and his Spirit is working in you. Never despise the simple signs of his presence in your life. I use the word “never” not to shame you but to encourage you!

Be practical. Get out a piece of paper and start pondering every evidence of God’s work in your life. Don’t stop until you can list 25 things.

Why are these first two steps so important? Because they get you looking in a better direction. It is easy to let your circumstances and your failures weigh you down, turn you inward and feel defeated. These first two steps move in a very different direction and provide a solid foundation for you to take the next steps.

Copyright © 2017 Timothy S. Lane

How to Grow in Grace

Over the coming weeks, I will continue to add "steps" that are practical ways of thinking about the process of growth in grace. If you want to be alerted each time the next post goes live, you can sign up to receive e-news here:

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.