What’s the best way to describe the spiritual life? Some say it’s like climbing a mountain. You start at the bottom and gradually work your way up to the top. Others suggest it’s like building a house. First you lay the foundation, then start adding rooms one at a time. What these pictures have in common is the assumption that spiritual growth comes in stages: first you do this and then you do that.
Everyone in our American culture understands walking with God means making progress. The only problem is it’s hard to find Bible verses to support the idea that making progress is what it means to pursue God. If we honestly examine our spiritual track record, we’re likely to come up with a very different picture.
In his book, “Eternity is Now in Session,” John Ortberg suggests that following Jesus feels a lot more like playing monopoly. We don’t go around the board just once. We go around again and again. We pass Go and collect $200. Sometimes we land on Park Place or hit Free Parking. Other times we surrender half of our net worth or end up in jail. Your next trip around may be one of the best, or it may feel like the end of the world.
That doesn’t align very well with the idea that spiritual growth is always making progress in the same upward direction. It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “I turned to the Lord and He healed my marriage,” or, “He took my anger problem away.” Those are wonderful moments but that does not mean from now on your marriage is on autopilot, or the anger under the surface won’t erupt again. Those can feel like devastating setbacks. If we have the expectation that pursuing God always means climbing higher, it can feel frightening when we fall precipitously backwards. We may even doubt we really belong to God.
Thomas Merton said, “We are all beginners all the time.” The Bible scholar Dale Bruner said, “I’m not born again; I’m in about my second trimester.” Virtually all the luminaries in scripture, Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah, Peter and Paul had to make U-turns.
If you are in a discouraging stretch, relax. You get to pass Go again. It’s called God’s grace.
Rev Dr William Lewis