THE DYNAMICS OF NEW CONVERT MATURITY
THE DYNAMICS OF GROWTH
In the task of growing sturdy saints it is essential that the pastor understand thoroughly the dynamics of growth. Growth is a process requiring both time and experience. Maturity is not a supernatural, instantaneous gift in the sense that forgiveness and cleansing are. It is an acquirement that involves the inner maturation of the person plus the understanding that accrues from daily living. We have to experience adversity to understand adversity. We must experience disappointment to learn how to handle disappointment. We must experience sorrow to know how to bear sorrow. We must struggle with time-pressures, work, schedules, multiple calls for our attention-if we are going to learn how to master time. We must “grow up” as persons if we are to “grow up ‘ spiritually.
New Christians, especially the whole-souled kind, are very apt to go through stages.
1. At first they are gripped by the excitement of novelty. Everything is new-their feelings, their outlook, their expectations, their values, their circle of associates, where they go. Being a Christian is for them a grand adventure.
2. The next stage may be the optimism of fervency. Faith is not only childlike but naive. It is all-encompassing and accepts no limits to the power of prayer and the possibilities of what “we” can do.
3. Stage Two is beautiful, but it is apt to be followed by the excesses fanaticism. This is an extremely dangerous period in the young Christian’s pilgrimage. For in this stage he typically wants instant and huge results. He attempts heroic but unrealistic enterprises. He may fast to an excessive extent. He may plunge into Christian work far beyond either his physical strength or his natural abilities. He may give away his resources unwisely. He may neglect his health and forget that he has a body. He is too eager to win the world to have time to settle down into the humdrum of a discipleship class. His fervor has become fever. In this stage he is highly vulnerable to some cultic aberration which promises even more spectacular power. For some, the tongues emphasis may have strong appeal because it seems so “spiritual.”
4. The next stage is often the furor of imperiousness. As he looks around he becomes aware of the snail’s pace of the church, and so he begins to attempt to set things right. He scolds and taunts, accusing others of laziness and indifference.
5. Sooner or later this will be followed by the depression of reaction. Having worn himself out physically and drained himself emotionally, and discovered that Jericho walls don’t always fall flat, the convert begins to withdraw. He may withdraw into himself, becoming as silent as he was previously verbose-discouraged with both himself and the church. The peril now is the likelihood of drifting into a censorious spirit.
What is the relation of all of this to the need for entire sanctification? It is all part of a spiritual/human continuum. Without understanding what is happening, the believer struggles to find himself as a Christian, and the struggle is a mixture of normal immaturity compounded by a religious willfulness, the true quality of which he has not yet seen. He is not aware that much of his zeal is in the energy of the flesh. It is only as he discovers the Big I in his fervent thrashings for the Lord, gets to the end of himself, and seeks and finds purity of heart that he will enter into rest.
6. So the sixth stage (it is hoped), is quiet strength of sanctified stability. Self is subdued. Love takes over. Trust finds a new level. The demanding, imperious spirit is stilled. Humility replaces pride and self-importance. Inner peace replaces feverish striving.The wise pastor therefore will seek to understand the stages through which his people are passing. He will try to know how they are thinking and what their need is at this point. He will seek to avoid pushing beyond their capacity, remembering the words of Jesus to his unsanctified disciples, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now(John 16:12, KJV). Jesus knew that a mighty baptism with the Spirit would open their spiritual eyes and expand their capacities exponentially. But meanwhile pastoral care had to adjust to present reality.
However, this should never become ground for avoiding holiness preaching, on the rationale that “my People are not ready yet. ” The Holy Spirit will use clear, strong holiness preaching as His prime tool to get them ready. But the pastor will be patient and understanding when his preaching seems to fall on deaf ears. If he keeps close to his converts personally and continues to preach lovingly, sooner or later a
light will come on, truth will be grasped, need will be seen, and the Christian will move up to a new spiritual level. Someone has wisely advised, “Hold the lamp of truth high, so people can see. Don’t dash it in their faces-that will not help them to see.” Preach faithfully but not pugnaciously.
THE PLACE OF DISCIPLINE
The dynamics of growth include the struggle to become a disciplined person. This, as even the entirely sanctified person must learn, is endemic to true maturity. This is the follow-through requisite for personal growth. Unless sanctification is followed by discipline it will be lost. While only God can confirm and deepen sanctification, He will do it by means of the Christian’s resolute adoption of the
disciplines of daily Christian living.
It bears repeating: only discipline will achieve the ongoing, day-by-day conditions necessary for sanctification’s preservation. In sanctification a soul is thoroughly adjusted to divine priorities. These priorities are prayer, Bible, church, soul-winning, stewardship. Such priorities are adopted, indeed, internalized, as the very structure of life. The heart acquiesces with a glad yes.
But it takes more than goodwill to implement these priorities consistently day after day. It takes rigorous self-control and self-direction. This is true because life does not make it easy to practice our priorities. Life is made up of people, family, jobs, duties, events, appointments, bills, sicknesses, the unexpected-always the unexpected. Life never behaves quite as we should like it to. And everything that happens is pushing our time plan into odd shapes, injecting new vectors of influence and direction. As a result, our priorities get jostled, maybe even momentarily obscured from view. Unless discipline comes to the rescue, our priorities are in jeopardy; but whatever jeopardizes our basic Christian patterns jeopardizes our holy relationship with God.
Not that God holds us in a straightjacket. Flexibility in personal schedules, even in devotions, is no sin. Indeed, it can be occasioned by our very sanctified service, for as we are led by the Spirit we will give attention to the unexpected invasions of people-need. But a disciplined Christian will always be on guard lest people and events gradually pry him away from a lifestyle that is structured by prayer and the church. How quickly and subtly even the good can become the enemy of the best.
The pastor who would grow sturdy saints must demonstrate that he himself is a disciplined person. His people will quickly stumble onto the truth here. If he is undisciplined, they will soon become aware of his gorging at potlucks, unbridled talkativeness, excessive freedom with his hands around women, disorganized work habits, excessive time off, careless appearance, sloppy stance in the pulpit, lounging on the platform, irritability in board meetings, illiterate speech, inordinate depression when reverses come, and all such weaknesses-which, unfortunately, some pastors exhibit. Somehow their talk about discipline lacks credibility. If, therefore, he would help his young and immature Christians become strong and disciplined persons, he had better begin with himself. Demonstrated discipline illustrates principles and lends wings to one’s words.
But assuming that the pastor is a good example, he should include in his preaching and discipling classes a large measure of attention to this vital fact of Christian life and character.
The points of discipline most urgently needed by young converts are:
1. Self-control-of emotions, appetites, impulses, speech, and spending.
2. Structure-the achievement of some degree of orderliness and plan in one’s life, as opposed to haphazardness.
3. Steadiness-the mastery of the art of moving forward dependably in our tasks in spite of lethargic feelings. A mature Christian lives by principle, not by impulse or emotion. This applies even to religious assurance. Matthew Henry said, “When I cannot live by the faith of assurance I will live by the faith of adherence. ”
Today Christian growth has become a discipling specialty called Spiritual Formation. It is a new term for Protestants and a fresh emphasis on an old concept. Careless habits, learned attitudes, distorted perceptions, lifelong prejudices, spending patterns, and such elements of personal character acquired while in sin are deeply ingrained in a new Christian even after sin, as such, has been put away.
It takes a while for these patterns to be perceived as spiritual issues. Paul said, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), by which he meant to translate inner holiness into visible practice, experience into ethics, intentions into performance. And in the process forge a strong Christian character.
The Christian must learn to think like a Christian (Rom. 12:2). The conscience needs to be educated. Spiritual formation should be marked by a growing sensitivity to and discernment of the Good, the
Beautiful, and the True. The training of our aesthetic tastes will make us more attractive and well-rounded Christians. Emotional life should be cultivated in the direction of deeper feelings about things that matter, greater compassion toward human need, capacity for anger against evil, and moderation in expression. Feelings may be intense but need to be under control.
Spiritual formation includes a progressive grasp of the implications of stewardship. The person who has for years spent thoughtlessly on trinkets and luxuries must grow out of such childishness, and discover the elevated joys of diverting his material resources to the kingdom of God. This is a process which may need the guidance of a wise pastor and fellow lay persons, but most of all will depend upon the deliberateness and intelligence with which the convert gives himself to it.
Growing sturdy saints therefore will require from a pastor a large amount of pastoral attention, in and out of the pulpit. Continuous pressure and guidance are needed toward the formation of established
habits that form the framework of one’s lifestyle. Watchfulness of attitudes, carefulness to maintain commitments, and deliberate renewal of enthusiasms are all essential to spiritual formation. Understanding is especially important in three areas:
1. Spiritual formation will drift into mere humanistic self-improvement unless the Christian acquires an understanding of what it means to walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:25) and learns to do it. Keeping in step with the Spirit requires learning to recognize His signals. Coming to detect His promptings and His restraints is central to everything in the Christian life. This includes the discernment between true Spirit-impressions and those that come from other sources. Yet the Christian who is in the process of learning to know the Spirit intimately must be warned frequently against the peril of pride and independence, as if he now had a private line to God which exempts him from the need for human teachers.
2. Some perception of the difference between carnality (as delineated in 1 Cor. 3) and humanity (both “normal” and marred) is essential, or the Christian will be insecure in his relationship to God, and unsure of his own spiritual state.
3. The growing Christian needs to understand the crucial nature of the acute pressure points which arise in his life from time to time.
These include friction or misunderstanding with another person; a discovery of an un-Christlike spirit which has hurt another and which needs to be confessed; a reminder by the Spirit of an item of restitution which still needs attention; an urge to undertake a task for the Lord, which we are absolutely sure we can’t do and which frightens us; a leading to speak to a friend or neighbor about his or her
spiritual need; a challenge by the Spirit to take some unusual step of faith in stewardship; an inner nudge to make some special adjustment in lifestyle, perhaps respecting dress, our TV viewing, or the stories we tell; a personal hurt received at the hands of another, which threatens to rob us of our joy and plunge us into a self-nursing mood; an adjustment to our spouse or other family members, which God is
talking to us about.
The important thing here which the Christian simply must see is that any one of these pressure points can be pivotal to further progress or incipient regression. They cannot be ignored or bypassed, or driven underground into our subconscious, no matter how painful the issue may be. To attempt to do so is fatal. But every time such a crisis is faced and resolved God’s way we have won a victory, we are stronger, and the cause of spiritual formation is pushed miles up the road.
The pastor’s tools will be:
1. Quiet example-especially under pressure.
2. Personal conversation in a warm and nonthreatening setting wherein the Christian’s soul can gently be probed, his relapses faced, his problems isolated.
3. Study groups where attention is focused on spiritual formation. As is well known, Wesley’s secret in the nurture of his converts was the class meetings and the bands. “In Wesley’s eye,” writes A. Skevington
Wood, “[the class meeting] was the keystone of the entire Methodist edifice.” It was the “disciplinary unit of the society.”
4. The circulation-perhaps followed by discussion-of devotional books. A pastor should know the books he recommends, and judiciously match the book to the person. And let him be aware of the doctrinal slant. All devotional writing has a doctrinal orientation, even that which claims not to. Aberrant viewpoints will creep in here and there, very subtly, and the unwary beginner will be unconsciously shaped in his thinking in ways not intended by his Wesleyan pastor.
A new Christian cannot be expected to discern such matters, but he has a right to assume that his pastor is a competent and safe guide.
5. The clear teaching and preaching of God’s sanctifying grace as the central catalyst in the spiritual formation process. More of this in the following chapter.