My Bible study group has been studying the book of 1 Corinthians, and this past Sunday we were asked the question, “What do you consider spiritual success?“
How would you answer?
Here are a few things I heard:
“Making disciples, making disciples, making disciples.”
“Planting a church in a local village.”
In my previous work as a professor at a Christian college, I might have heard:
“Leading a student to Christ.”
“Influencing a student to build the Kingdom of God in my discipline.”
Does your answer match any of these? I might at one point have said these things too, but my view of spiritual success has come to be one thing only: oneness with God and loving him with my whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving my neighbor as myself. I want to abide in him every moment and be led by the Spirit with every step I take.
The answers above bothered me because we are called to be more than servants that “do” things for God. We are called to be — to be God’s children, to be one with the Trinity, to be with God. What an honor and a privilege, and the greatest blessing there is — to be in intimate relationship with the Sovereign Creator of the Universe!
This discussion made me realize that what I saw in academics and now on the mission field, perhaps even more so here, is that followers of Jesus so often have a performance-based spirituality. Yes, we are here to teach and develop our students in their study and, if possible, in their Christian faith, yes, we are here to make disciples and plant churches — but first and foremost we are called to relationship with God, to be filled with his Spirit, and to know him.
Recently I memorized the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus was very clear: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers.’” A person can do a lot of things for God, but relationship with him is much more important to him. God does not need us to do his work; he invites us into relationship with him, and then he sanctifies us and works through us as we surrender to him on a moment-by-moment basis. He does the work!
And when we are in relationship with God, our work is led by God; it is accomplished by God. I have a ministry of intercession, and recently the Spirit has led me to intercede specifically for the imams in the country I am in. As the Spirit may do when one is called to intercession for someone, he has led me to identify in a special way with them. For the imams who recite prayers in Arabic from the Koran five times a day, I am reciting five Scripture passages five times a day and praying for them to have a spiritual awakening. I believe the key to a church planting movement starting here is imams coming to faith and forming churches, because they are respected by the people and known by them. This may sound crazy and impossible, but God has done it before in other Muslim nations, and I am believing him for the same thing to happen here. But it is his work I am joining in by his leading, his power, his love. Whatever happens, it is not my success or my accomplishment, but his.
The truth is, nothing we have comes from us — not our knowledge, not our gifts, not our skills. Nothing! It ALL comes from God, so if we have any “success” at all, it is ALL HIS. Even the idea of seeking spiritual success bothers me — and I expect it makes you uncomfortable as well. But how much of what we do is driven by a desire to be recognized or acknowledged? To succeed? Again, the Sermon on the Mount has much to say about this. Matthew chapter 6 could be summed up by the phrase, “in secret.” We are to do our acts of righteousness and to give, pray, and fast in secret. Once again we see God inviting us into intimacy with him, where we are seen and acknowledged by him only. When we do things in secret “our heavenly Father will reward us.”
I want to spend more time in the years ahead training our church planters on spiritual formation and practicing spiritual disciplines, helping them to grow in their relationship and intimacy with the Lord. If our church planters are not grounded in spiritual formation and disciplines, then the churches they are planting will not be either.
Whether we are academics, professionals, parents, church workers or volunteers — whatever role we may have in relationship with others — my prayer is that we will grow in our intimacy with God the Father and that the work we are doing will lead those we are with to seek that intimacy as well. May we all seek to become like Jesus, filled with his Spirit and led by him moment-by-moment — because of grace, not because of duty. Only that can be defined as spiritual success.