Becoming God's Spiritual Person
Spiritual Maturity and Distance From God
It is extremely easy to say that the ultimate object of spiritual maturity is to come close to God. What does “coming close to God” mean? Are we talking about the kind of relationship we have with God? Are we talking about making God “our best buddy”? Are we talking about obligating God so we can be confident He “owes” us a favor? Are we talking about narrowing the gap between our physical existence and God’s spiritual existence? Are we talking about expanding our physical existence? Are we talking about improving our lifestyle on earth? Obviously, the focus of the individual is significant to that individual determining the meaning of “coming close to God.”
A paradox: the closer one comes to God, the further the person acknowledges the distance is between him (her) and God. When a young person of faith is baptized into Christ, the young person often feels quite close to God. As that person in Christ studies scripture, first he (she) finds a gulf existing between him (her) and God. At baptism he (she) may look at God as being a “buddy,” a “teddy bear” figure that is ready with the Band-Aids for every “ouchy” in life. However, the more spiritually mature that person becomes, the less he (she) sees God as a “buddy.” At baptism he (she) might sing with gusto, “My God and I,” as they walk through the fields of life with arms linked. As he (she) spiritually matures, he (she) is more inclined to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” With continued spiritual development and maturing, he (she) becomes more inclined to sing “How Great Thou Art.” I once heard a professor say (whose name I do not remember), “Because of my spiritual growth, I can no longer sing the songs I once sang—the songs I cannot sing are just not appropriate (for my relationship with God).” He was not criticizing other people—he was discussing his own growth. He certainly was not suggesting that some group or individual Christian prepare a list of “approved” songs!
Does this change happen because one outgrows God? Quite the contrary! It occurs because the believer grows! One in Christ does not put his (her) grasp of God off-limits to growth and development. What one sees as a baptized infant and what one sees as a mature spiritual adult will NOT be the same in view or understanding. Commonly one baptized into Christ sees no gap between him (her) and God. Commonly, one spiritually mature sees an enormous gap. Had God not bridged that gap with Jesus’ death and resurrection, we humans (no matter how devout) could not have built the bridge that provided access to God.
This gap is not new. It always has separated sinful people from the holy God. If God had not spanned the gap with Jesus Christ, access to Him would be impossible. It was Jesus who told eleven of the twelve, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” (John 14:6, NASV)
Isaiah’s View of Himself
Isaiah’s call from God to be God’s prophet is declared in Isaiah 6. There are many questions about Isaiah’s background we wished were asked and answered by scripture, but aside from Isaiah 1:1 there is little information about the man. We know that his father was Amoz, that he was married, that his sons had symbolic names, what kings reigned during the period of his prophecies, and that his prophecy is called a “vision.”
Judah is depicted as being in miserable shape (1:5-9). The nation was depicted as a sick man who was in awful shape inside and out. The six woes of chapter 5 give some insight into the plight of the people. They had squeezed the poor out (verse 8). They existed to indulge themselves (verse 11). They gave allegiance to sin as though sin were nothing (verse l8). They totally perverted righteous values—all was upside down (verse 20). Because they considered themselves wise, they were oblivious to their folly (verse 21). They were interested in drinking and making money, not in what was just (verse 22). The collective effect of these conditions was an incredible ignorance that would produce the total ruin of being exiled (13-17).
Though he lived in horrible spiritual circumstances, there was no indication that Isaiah was not a religious, focused-on-God person. He was honest about Judah’s condition, not one who partook of the society’s sins. He cried out even though the Lord who told him to cry out also told him to expect no one to listen. Isaiah did not condone moral failure.
In his call to be God’s prophet in Isaiah 6, note these things: (1) God is presented as the universal ruler, not a mere regional ruler. (2) God is holy and worthy of glory throughout the entire earth. (Though the environment seems to be the temple, a holy environment did not make Isaiah holy.) (3) Closeness to God heightened his sense of ungodliness and unworthiness. (Being in the presence of God’s holiness did not make him feel holy!) (6) An act of God cleansed him (not human deeds or human efforts.) (7) He was ready to serve God when he was told that God had cleansed him.
The point I wish to stand out in your thinking is this: being close to God made him feel unholy. Being close to God increased Isaiah’s awareness of how very different he was from God.
Why? Isaiah saw God’s actual sinless existence. Being a human, he, for the first time, saw what an actual sinless existence was. The closer you come to God, the more aware you are of yourself. Honesty with self about self is only for the courageous. For example, Isaiah had the courage to accept the rejection of Judah’s society from the start of his prophecies. He was willing to declare what no one wished to hear!
Paul’s View of Himself
We know more from scripture about Paul than we know about Isaiah. Paul was born in Tarsus (Acts 9:11, 30) to devout Pharisee parents (Acts 23:6) who were Jewish Roman citizens (Acts 22:24-29). At an early age Paul was sent to Jerusalem, where he became a student under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), and Paul developed to become one of the most advanced Jewish young men in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:14). He was so committed to conservative expressions of Judaism that he rejected Jesus as the Messiah God promised Israel, persecuted Christians, and was violent toward any Jew who accepted Jesus as the Christ (1 Timothy 1:12, 13). He moved in such prominent circles in Judaism that he could request a letter from the High Priest that authorized him to go to the Jewish community of another country and arrest any Jewish man or woman who believed Jesus was the Christ. He was to bind them and bring them to Jerusalem for trial (Acts 9:1, 2).
It was on the trip to Damascus, Syria, that Paul had a direct encounter with the resurrected Jesus in Acts 9:3-9. Suddenly, he knew beyond question that he had been totally wrong about who Jesus was (is). Three days later the man who had been the persecutor of Christians became a Christian.
Later, when the converted Paul came to Jerusalem, the Christian community initially was afraid of him, thinking his claim to be a Christian was a plot (Acts 9:26). Paul became vocally effective as he proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ. The result: The persecutor of Jewish Christians became the persecuted. Those who formerly suffered through his persecutions sent him home to Tarsus to save his life (Acts 9:28-30).
The irony: this man who was an expert in Judaism was divinely commissioned to be the apostle to the gentiles (Acts 9:15, 16; 22:21; 26:15-18; Romans 1:1-5). More books of the New Testament were written by him than by any other person, and most of his writings are to gentile Christians. The non-Christian violent aggressor who abused and arrested Christians (consider Acts 26:9-11) became the gentle caretaker of Christians (1 Thessalonians 2:7). Though he personally suffered much, he did not abuse adversaries again (consider 2 Corinthians 11:23-33).
Yet, the man many look upon as the “Christians’ Christian” looked very humbly upon the Lord. Consider 1 Timothy 1:12-17. He felt grateful and undeserving to be a follower of Jesus Christ. He was given that privilege, not because he was great, but because the Lord is great. Grace was given to him to verify the Lord’s purposes, not to vindicate him. He never forgot his sinfulness—even to the point of considering himself the foremost of all sinners. The ultimate for him was to glorify God through Jesus Christ.
This same attitude is evident in 1 Corinthians 9:15-18. Paul did not look upon himself as having anything to boast about. Boasting should focus on what God did in Jesus when He resurrected Jesus to be Lord and Christ (consider Acts 2:36; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:5-12). As he instructed the minister/ evangelist Timothy concerning the attitude Timothy was to promote, Paul said, And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God will grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been led captive by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26, NASV)
What effect did this attitude have on Paul? Consider 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. He accepted the responsibility to adjust to other people—even when their thinking was completely wrong. His goal was simple: To bring some to Christ. Not everyone would come to Christ, but some would. He was determined that he would not be the reason for anyone not coming to Christ.
Why would Paul accept the responsibility to be so flexible? Could it be that he knew from experience what it was like to be unapproachable? Could it be that he never forgot what an incredible blessing the persecutor was given when the resurrected one forgave the foremost of sinners?
Note again that coming close to God did not infuse the person with a profound sense of holiness, but a profound sense of sinfulness.
What Does This Mean?
Am I in any way suggesting that the person who comes close to God is not forgiven? No! Consider 1 John 1:5-10 and especially note verses 7 and 9 and the verb tenses of those verses. There is a cleansing from all sin, and that cleansing can be continual.
John’s encouragement in the above scripture is compatible with Paul’s assurance in Romans 8:31-39. In words used today, both men say God has those in Christ covered. Christians who try cannot “out-need” the mercy and grace of God. Do not decide that because you are in Jesus Christ all sinfulness has ceased. Every Christian does things that are ungodly continually! It would be devastating for God to send us a daily printout of our sins! Please remember you are forgiven, not sinless! You are not perfect, but God through Jesus Christ makes you constantly okay.
Suggestion one: No person is aware of how much God does for us in our “sinfulness” until we come close to God. Suggestion two: The closer we come to God, the more aware we become of God’s holiness. The clearer we see God’s holiness, the more aware we become of our own sinfulness.
The result: The closer we get to God, the more thankful we become of what God did and does for us. The closer we get to God, the more overwhelmed we are with our unworthiness. The closer we get to God, the more honestly we “see.” When that happens, arrogance vanishes as it is replaced with humble gratitude. Confidence grows—but it is not confidence in ourselves or any other human. Confidence is in the complete adequacy of God. That confidence grows as it has never grown before!
Question: How are you coming in your commitment to draw close to God?