The Great Passion by James Runcie is a novel about the family and work of J.S. Bach set in the 1730s. He was the hard-working organist and music director at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, and is now recognized as one of the greatest composers of all time. Striking in the novel was his busy household of 20 children, nine of which died in childhood.
I read the novel as a reflection of the German Lutheran church culture of the 18th century, a culture that continued well into the 20th century. In one’s personal life, the emphasis was on work and discipline, and the solution to most problems was to work harder. Suffering was a constant, especially with illness and death so near at hand. With suffering came an emphasis on heaven; relief will come in the next life. Individuality was to be resisted. Identity was to be determined through church life and routines. Overall, life was somber.
I approached understanding this older culture with a distinction in mind between a static view of church life and a dynamic approach that is replacing it. Static is like a flat line. You did your growing as a child. As an adult, you do your work until you are called home. Your church life supported you over the years as you tried to live a virtuous, disciplined life. The opposite of static is dynamic—frequently changing.
Personal life has its downturns, but more important is change upward through the growth of some sort. Personal growth in our current culture is increasingly seen as a life-long process. This distinction between static and dynamic is oversimplified to make the point that personal spiritual growth toward closeness to God was not emphasized in earlier centuries of church life. More important was maintaining the faith you were taught while you encountered difficulties in your life.
The six Reflections that follow assume a Spirit-stimulated personal drive to become more like Christ. You become different over time. What does such growth look like? What can you do to better position yourself so the Spirit can change your life?
Growing in Faith
My first effort as a spiritual director was with a student who wanted to grow in his faith. I did not know how to respond and help. That’s because I was coming out of a static church culture. My understanding of faith was a set of beliefs that I held as I went through my family and work life. Any growth would be in knowledge about God and what he expects of those who follow him.
Since that encounter, I have grown into a broader understanding of faith in a believer’s life. It can be either a noun or a verb. My assumption was that faith is a noun, something I believe. I have learned to see it more as a verb, something I do. The same biblical word can mean both. The action verb is to trust. The challenge in Christian living is to grow in trusting God in a relationship that deepens and brings more benefits in the abundant life Jesus came to offer.
To appreciate that abundant life, you have to think like Paul and recognize the Spirit as the giver of benefits as we experience more of his fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit is dynamic. He wants to bring change to those who follow Christ. The question I will address in the next six Reflections is, what can we ourselves do to let the Spirit draw us closer to him?
Growing in Grace
The Apostle Peter challenged his readers to ”grow in grace and knowledge” (2 Peter 3:18). I know how to grow in knowledge. I have been doing that all my life. But how do you grow in grace?
The problem goes back to the static view of life with God. Your faith in the Gospel of Christ puts you in a new saved relationship with God. You live that life as best you can until you are with God in eternal life. By grace are you saved by faith; it is the gift of God.
But this static approach of new standing before God misses the dynamic view of grace that Paul developed. The whole concept of grace is unique to Paul, picked up then by Peter. The parallel term in the Gospels is mercy, to which Paul adds more. We can speculate that Paul developed the basics of his new theology during his fourteen silent years (Galatians 2: 1) while he witnessed to his Greek neighbors around Tarsus. They were steeped in the mythology of major and minor gods.
Among the minor ones were the Charity Sisters, who were viewed as muses, or the source of ideas for poetry and dance. What they inspired was a gift, and we get the English word “charity” as the giving of gifts or other support to others. Paul emphasized the word charis to describe the gift of our new status before God. But the Greeks would have heard it also in the dynamic terms of new powers we receive from God. That is described with the word charisma, from which we get the word charismatic.
For clarity between the static view of charis and the dynamic understanding of charisma, I suggest the labels Grace 1 and Grace 2. These modern terms can be helpful to highlight the subtle distinction Paul made in describing two kinds of gifts from God. Grace 1 (charis) is the status of salvation in Christ. Grace 2 (charisma) is best described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, where he clarifies spiritual giftings to do ministry.
For Paul, everyone is given a dynamic manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Ministry is done by all. This is a radical shift in perspective that is fundamental to the view of congregational ministry I am trying to highlight. It is so Scriptural and so powerful.
The Greater Gifts
But perhaps even more significant and powerful is the last verse of that chapter where Paul introduces “the greater gifts.” The first example is love, so eloquently described in 1 Corinthians 13 and then combined with faith and hope. He expands that listing in Galatian 5 to include joy, peace, patience, and five other qualities. He calls these “fruit” of the Spirit—what the Spirit produces in the lives where he is active.
What are these fruit of the Spirit? For centuries they were regarded as virtues, qualities that describe a life well lived. The understanding from ancient times is that an individual should strive to achieve these virtues. Church life and preaching too often held up this understanding of a standard that we should aim to attain. To pursue virtues is to submit to a stern taskmaster.
What if, however, these qualities are the product of the Spirit’s work? What if they are Grace 2 given freely? Paul’s fruit of the Spirit is all personal qualities everyone would like to have more of in their lives. Being closer to God is not something we are left on our own to achieve. As Jesus told his disciples, he is not going to leave us as orphans. He is going to send his Spirit to give us new powers.
Read the following six Reflections on what we can do to better prepare ourselves for the Spirit’s work.
These practices are organized around the acronym GROWTH:
Go to God in Prayer and Worship
Read God’s Word for You
Obey the Challenge to Deny Yourself
Witness Through Servant Behavior
Trust God in a New Venture
Humble Yourself With a Discipline
What are some of the benefits the Spirit offers? How do you grow in the fruit the Spirit produces?