Over my years of membership in the American Psychological Association, I watched my division of industrial and organizational psychology spin off a new specialty called sports psychology. Those psychologists focus on helping athletes to reach peak performance. They explore mental practices an athlete can do to squeeze out a little more speed or increase endurance by a few minutes.
The early Christian church had its version of top athletes, superior practitioners of Christian spirituality. After Christianity got absorbed into the Roman Empire, it acquired many members with questionable motivations. Those who considered themselves real Christians sought a way to show commitment.
You have to understand the setting. They came along after believers at the turn into the fourth century experienced the worst persecution in the first two-and-a-half centuries of Christian history. Of those martyrs not cruelly put to death, many walked around with missing limbs or bore bodily evidence of the consequences for not recognizing the emperor as a “son of God,” the title first given to Caesar Augustus by the Roman Senate. Such martyrdom for the cause impressed many observers and contributed to the explosive growth of Christianity in the fourth century.
With that option gone after Christianity was legitimatized, some believers sought other ways to demonstrate “peak performance.” They went out into the desert to live as hermits. Bishop Athanasius, for whom the Athanasian Creed was named, wrote the biography of Antony of Egypt, the hermit who first gained public recognition. Antony’s story raised up many others who became hermits to be closer to God.
I share this historical observation to raise the question: where should we look today for Christians seeking to be “close to God”?
In medieval times, the monks and clergy were recognized as closer to God than everyone else, the laity. Luther and Calvin recovered Paul’s teaching that all are ministers. Getting closer to God is an opportunity open to all believers, whether or not they pursue it.
The advent of 20th-century stage theory of faith development clarifies what the peak performance of getting closer to God looks like and how to get there. I have described Stage 5 Faith as that consciousness of being close to God and continuing to grow in what the Spirit produces: love, joy, peace, patience and similar qualities.
Unlike superior athletes today who crave attention and bragging rights (as well as higher pay), the peak performance of believers is only possible through a humbling experience. On their own, believers will never experience peak-satisfying levels of love, joy, and peace. That level only happens to believers when the Spirit enters and changes their hearts. The Spirit has to move us to more comprehensive love, joy and peace—closer to God.
Like a sports psychologist, I can give advice on practices that will more readily bring about Stage 5 living. These disciplines have been known through centuries of church life. I have summarized them in the six practices for GROWTH in the Spirit: Go to God in worship and prayer, Receive God’s word for you, Opt for self-denial, give Witness to your experiences, Trust God in a new venture, and Humble yourself before God.
Recognize that most of the growth in our spirituality is driven by the Holy Spirit. What we can do on our own is keep ourselves where the Spirit can most readily work in us, in his workplace of believers gathered around the Word.
Like little Zacchaeus, we can figuratively climb a tree so we can better recognize the Spirit and then keep ourselves where he can work on us. Like Jesus who spotted Zacchaeus up in the tree and invited him down for a time of meal-fellowship, we can let the Spirit draw us into closer fellowship with him. This is God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Christ with us today, the Spirit sent by the Father and Son to be their advocate for more godly and abundant living here and now.
Would you like to grow closer to God?