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

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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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.

A Glass Half Full

When you look at this picture, do you see a glass half full or half empty? What about the way you view other people, especially other Christians?

I know, we don't want to be accused of going soft on total depravity, the reality of remaining sin and the temptation to exchange worship of the true God for something in creation. But we have more biblical categories to work with than those, as important as they are.

What about the following? We are made in God's image; the reality of the powerful work of regeneration and new life in Christ; the ongoing work of the Spirit of God in the life of the believer; the present intercession of Christ for his people; the bright promise of a changed life due to God's utter commitment to us? These biblical truths are equally important as we consider growth in grace and wise pastoral care and counseling with others. Let me make this very practical by sharing a counseling story with you.

John and Erin came to me for marriage counseling. They seemed like your average Christian couple, but that was not the case once I began to get to know them. Both of them had come from severely broken homes and had lived lives of confusion and self-destruction years before they had become Christians, met and married. Now they were telling me how hard it was for them to get along. They had several small children, were starting a business together and were trying to navigate ongoing extended family fall-out over a host of issues.

Here is what they saw and described:

  • We are not communicating and getting along.
  • We are constantly fighting with one another.
  • We are not working as a team.
  • We are such a poor example of a Christian marriage.
  • We are doing the same thing to our kids that was done to us.
  • Are we headed for a divorce just like our parents.
  • Does God really love us in light of the way we are responding to one another?

As they shared their story, I began to see what they were not able to see. Here is what I saw:

  • A married couple who were clearly professing Christians.
  • A couple who wanted their marriage to last.
  • A couple, though struggling to get along, were seeking outside help, again.
  • John really cared for Erin and wanted to encourage her.
  • Erin really care for John and wanted to encourage him.
  • Both were involved in a small group Bible study with other couples.
  • They were avid readers and listeners to podcasts that pointed them to Christ.
  • They had been married 8 years.
  • They loved their children and pointed them Christ.
  • They served others within the context of their church.
  • They longed to love their extended family well.

Those two lists couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to one another. Yet this is what is so typical when we are in the midst of a difficult season. There are two very different kinds of blind spots we can have in the midst of difficulty. One is to be in denial about our sin. Another is to be in denial about God’s grace at work in our lives.

Self-Examination

When most people consider the change process, they tend to start with the negative. What’s wrong with me? Why do I continue to do things that I should not do, and why don’t I do the things I should? The Apostle Paul struggled with this, too. In Romans 7:15 he says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” In another place, Paul knew very well his own sinful tendencies. That is why, in I Timothy 1:15, Paul says, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.

Paul was not afraid to speak candidly about his own struggles. He knew his own weakness and propensity to deal with the reality of remaining sin even though he was a Christian. No doubt, this ability to be honest about his own sin was grounded in the hope of the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Christ. You see how he connects the two in verse 15. Honesty about sin is equal to apprehending the work of Christ.

When you start to take a good look at your life, what is your tendency? Is it to think more highly of yourself or to beat yourself up? You are either blind so that you don’t see your sins and weaknesses, or you are preoccupied with your weaknesses, failures and sins so that you can’t see God’s present grace in your life. Paul is seeking to lead you in a different direction. He doesn’t want you to ignore either of these things. By doing this, you are more apt to see progress in your Christian life.

Ministry to Others

It does no one any good to go on ferocious sin and idol hunts in one’s life or the lives of others. Not only do they not help, they can seriously hurt people. Instead, we want to begin with marks of God’s work in our own life and in the lives of others. As I met with John and Erin, I had many opportunities to help them see where God was actually powerfully working in their marriage and family. It wasn’t a completed, pretty picture, but it was a masterpiece in the making by God’s grace.

Remember, if you are a Christian, you have God’s Spirit at work in your life. You can always find places where he is at work; just like John and Erin. And you can find ways that he is at work in others, too.

Copyright © 2015 Timothy S. Lane

Comment

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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.

Present Grace

But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. 2 Peter 1:9

Facing your present sins and lack of growth can be downright unproductive. It doesn't have to be but it certainly can be. I was talking to a friend recently who was struggling in his Christian life. He had grown very depressed and had turned inward. Nothing seemed to help. As we talked, I found him pre-occupied with his present failures and lack of growth in grace. He was stuck because he could only think about his current situation and immediate state of mind.

U2 writes a song about being stuck in a moment and not being able to get out of it. Sadly, it is a song about suicide. You don’t have to be suicidal to feel stuck, though. There are degrees, suicide being the worst. As I reflected on my friend's situation, I was reminded of 2 Peter 1:9. It is a picture of being stuck in the present with no perception of the past or future.

It is a simple verse where the apostle Peter avoids a truncated Gospel. He maintains an appropriate focus on past grace, present grace and future grace. Without this, getting stuck is inevitable. The phrase, “but if anyone does not have them” is referring to the previous verses where Peter highlights various character qualities like goodness, self-control, godliness, brotherly kindness and love. If these character qualities are not evident in your life, albeit imperfectly, Peter says that it is because you have a truncated understanding of your relationship to Christ.

First, you are nearsighted and blind. What could that mean? Someone who is near-sighted can only see things that are up close. A blind person can’t even see that. In other words, neither have the ability to see things in the distance. There is no sense of hope or a future orientation. John says in I John 3:3 that “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.” You have to see future grace to live in the present.

But Peter also says that this person has forgotten something in the past. He has forgotten that he has been cleansed (past tense) from his sins. You have to see past grace, too, to live in the present. In his commentary on 2 Peter, Martyn Lloyd Jones has this to say, “This is a person who not only cannot see forwards, he cannot see backwards either.”

This simple re-orienting of my friend's gaze helped him get unstuck. As he gazed backwards and saw the reality of the forgiveness of his sins, he was grateful and began to talk to God with gratitude. As he gazed forward to the promised hope of complete deliverance from sin and suffering, he became hopeful. This did not happen overnight nor did it happen without seasons of doubt. Still, real progress was made. What do you look to in your past that brings stability in the present? What do you look to in the future that brings stability in the present? These two orientations will drive how you live right now and how you will relate to God.

Comment

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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.