Are You Listening?

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Are You Listening?

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Keeping in Step with the Spirit Part 7: Are You Listening?

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

So far, I have shared that to keep in step with the Spirit, you first have to make this a deliberate choice over trying to reform yourself to look like a Christian. Then you reset your focus on knowing God personally rather than as an ideal. So what’s next?

You must listen. In Revelation, as Jesus instructs each of the seven churches, he challenges them to listen to what the Spirit is saying. If you want to keep in step with the Spirit, you have to know where he is leading you. What does he want for you? What will you become? What do you need to avoid? What do you need to surrender?

Listening is not always about what we consider the big issues of life, such as where you should go to get your education or who to marry or what stance you should take on bitterly divisive cultural wars. Listening is often about the Spirit’s formation of your character and how you live out the faith daily. You can see this best in Paul’s fruit of the Spirit list just before this verse. When you listen, you experience deep change.

I frequently tell the story of the first thing I heard God tell me when I intentionally entered into my transformational journey. What He said was to stop criticizing my wife, Shirley. I was stunned and confused. I had plenty of other issues I thought should be number one on the list. But because He spoke and I heard, not only was I changed, our marriage was deeply changed.

But as you listen, you also come up against something you did not expect—grief. It may be the first time you realize how you have been wasting your life, how much you have thrown away just to live out your version of Christianity, how stupid you have been not to have listened as closely as you can.

What I have learned is that when you see your brokenness clearly, see your tendency to comfort yourself habitually with sin, see your useless defiance and self-protection, you find that you are ashamed. You mourn, as the second Beatitude says.

But this grief leads to hope. God’s love opens the way for you to grieve what has happened to you so that you can be comforted—so you can be set free from what has trapped you. Remember how Paul starts this chapter—it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

I encourage you not to skip over this in learning how to keep in step with the Spirit. I meet a lot of believers who will not allow themselves to grieve over the historic wounds of their lives. Grieving seems to them to show weakness. “I have to be strong in the Lord,” they argue.

But tears and sorrow are part of God’s transformational process. Furthermore, grief is not just about what happened to you. It includes what you did to others due to your own unfinished business. You may already be grieving what you did to your children and how that has played out in their lives. Your spouse may be deeply wounded. You may have co-believers who avoid you like the plague. What your un-transformed self did to them requires you to listen to the Spirit so you can grieve, repent, then go and be reconciled, empowered to do so by him.

One of my friends had done a lot of damage to others when in the grip of his unfinished business. He insulted and bullied them mercilessly so he could prove he was right and they were wrong. Then he began to keep in step with the Spirit—and to listen to what the Spirit was saying to him. As a result, he saw the grief he had caused and it affected him so deeply that he went to every person he had wronged and reconciled with them.

This is why listening to what the Spirit is saying matters for you, and also beyond you, for the people who have been harmed by you. As you keep in step with the Spirit, the body of Christ you belong to is changed as well. 

So listen carefully.

-Steve Smith


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Are you looking for the right thing?

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Keeping in Step with the Spirit Part 6: Are you looking for the right thing?

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

Up to the day I knowingly entered my transformational journey and began to learn how to keep in step with the Spirit, I knew a lot about God and the Bible. I had been a ‘Sunday School Scholar’ all the way from the cradle to my senior year of high school. I graduated from college with high honors in Biblical studies and mastered divinity on my way to becoming a pastor. I not only could explain my theological beliefs, but could also teach the essential points of theological viewpoints that were not my own.

But I did not know God. Not personally.

Diving deeper into what it means to keep in step with the Spirit, The Spirit is not given so that I will have some kind of experience or that I will mind my manners better. The Spirit is in us so that we will know God better.

It probably is no surprise to you when I say that the starting place for keeping in step with the Spirit is a deepening knowing of God. Jesus’ life demonstrated this. Our theology demands it. But what does this mean if Bible knowledge doesn’t deliver it?

Here’s the thing. People can know their Bible pretty well and know God as a concept instead of the Being who calls them friend. A lot of believers know God as an ideal, but when crunch time comes, when the warfare is hot and life is stressing them to the max, their ideal of God fades from view.

To keep in step with the Spirit, you have to have your sights set on the true outcome—to know God better. Knowing God is a relationship pursuit instead of a thirst for the right answers to biblical questions. I often marvel at the number of Bible studies people take in without really knowing God in the end. Knowing the Word of God has displaced knowing God Himself as the goal for them.

When Jesus says “Come to me…,”  he is inviting you and me into the relationship God created us for in the Garden. It’s the ‘walks-with-me-talks-with-me’ kind of relationship that will sustain us in our darkest moments, will enlighten us for the whole of our journey.

And when we set our hearts on pursuing the knowing of God, a second reality kicks in.

By knowing God, we know ourselves. It is like having a mirror suddenly placed before your face. You see what your mind has refused to see. It is like Peter on his boat or Paul on the road to Damascus clearly realizing who they were with, and seeing themselves as radically broken men. Like they, people are tempted to say to God, “Keep your distance, because I am a wicked person.”

This is why people embrace rule-keeping over keeping in step with the Spirit. Through rule-keeping we are trying to alleviate guilt, lessening our sense of failure Making us feel like we are doing our part. Keeping the rules seems to offer us a chance to redeem ourselves to God—to think that we are gaining ground in His favor as he sees us trying hard to keep His commands.

Divest yourself of this kind of thinking. Nothing you can do will gain the favor of God. Freedom from guilt was given to you by the sufficiency of the cross. God has not given you His Spirit to watch you try hard to gain His approval. The Spirit has been given to you because God already approves you. You have the Spirit so that you would come to know God deeply—while God Himself conforms us to the image of Jesus.

The purpose of knowing ourselves by knowing God is not to make us feel guilty. Its purpose is to expose the brokenness already there inside us so that we will thirst for the life Jesus died to provide for us. Keeping in step with the Spirit allows us to hear God’s love for us in our broken state. Knowing God intimately will bring us to a make-you-a-fisher-of-men moment—a promise that our brokenness will no longer define us.

In the 30 plus years I have been on this spirit-led journey, I have come to know God better. I am no longer afraid of Him and His agenda for me. I do not wonder where He is in the middle of my worst moments when I am not doing well or life is not working out like I had hoped. Because I am keeping in step with the Spirit, I hear what He is saying and I know He’s got me firmly in his grip. He won’t let me go and he will complete the work he has started in me.

He’s got you, too. Embrace that.

-Steve Smith

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Are You Having to Be Dragged?

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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

Since I grew up in a time when we just did not talk about the Spirit except to fill out the Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—I was quite surprised when I finally learned what it meant to keep in step with him. I have a vivid memory of the day when I was deeply changed by his power for the first time. That day I stopped being an angry man. Let me be clear, the Spirit’s presence and his work in me were not because I was special. His empowering presence is in every believer because God made it part of the covenant He gave us through Jesus.

John the Baptizer had made such a stir among the Jews that the politically powerful sent out a delegation to check him out to see if he had Messiah credentials. He quickly shot down their mission by denying he was any of the following: 1) the Messiah; 2) Elijah; or 3) the Prophet (which refers to Moses’ prediction in Deuteronomy 18 about a prophet like him showing up when God needed to speak to Israel). Instead, John made a clear distinction between his ministry to prepare the way and the One he was preparing the way for. “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

The living presence of the Spirit is what distinguishes the New Covenant through Jesus from the Old Covenant given through Moses. If you do not have the Spirit, you do not belong to Jesus (Romans 8:9).

So let’s dive deeper into what it means to keep in step with the Spirit.

Have you ever seen a mother dragging her child to where he needs to go? I have. The little guy was certain he had no interest in leaving the mall, but his mom had other plans. So he did what all children try to do when they want their own way. He went limp. I suppose he expected his weight would defeat his mom’s strength. But she kept heading for the exit, his body in tow—every now and then pulling him back up to his feet, after which he promptly went limp again. But despite his best resistance, he ended up in the car on his way home. Why? —Because regardless of his cooperation, he was being led to where he needed to go.

Why did his mom do this? Well, foremost, because his life belonged to her. He was her precious son regardless of his tantrum. Looking after his best interest was an expression of her love for him, even though he was not necessarily feeling the love as he was dragged along. But for the mom, abandonment would be the loss or even the death of her child. She loved him too much (and was bigger than him, too) to let him destroy his life by having his own way.

The picture I just shared is contained in Paul’s counsel. Keeping in step with the Spirit is our choice because we already live in the Spirit. The Spirit living in us started the day we put our faith in Jesus, the cross and the resurrection. We belong. God has come to live in us. That is settled for eternity.

But you have a choice whether or not you are going to cooperate with the Spirit. You can go willingly, trusting that where he is leading you is best. Or you can flop down, dig in your heels and resist every step of the way. But you are going where the Spirit is taking you no matter what. Maybe a little more bruised and dusty because of the way you choose to respond, but God will not let go of you.

As I mentioned in another blog months ago, being led by the Spirit can be likened to a train engine. Every car attached to it will go to the destination it is heading because it has the power to get them there. You have been hitched to a powerful engine. Your choice is no longer where you are going, but how you will go. Go willingly. Go humbly. Go thankfully. And when you get there, you will find that you have become the person God created you to be.

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Beware of This Trap

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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

I remember sitting in a room with other pastors listening to a leader who was highly respected for his discipleship materials, teaching us about righteousness. Specifically, he was telling us how the Old Testament Law was God’s revelation of how one lives righteously. He said we needed to double down and train our people to take spiritual lessons from the law so their lives would reflect God’s glory.

For the first time, I realized I was in the presence of someone Paul would call a purveyor of another gospel. I suppose I had missed seeing this before because his books seemed so helpful and his style so compelling. But the foundation of his teaching really contradicted Jesus’ gospel.

The fact is that Galatians was written because of this very issue. Some were teaching that the way you become a righteous follower of Jesus is to obey the law of the Torah, which had been handed down from God through Moses to the chosen people. As the first to trust in Christ, it appeared to them that the gospel and the law were a match made in heaven.

Paul violently pushed back. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:6-8)

Catch that? If you teach this different gospel, you will be under God’s curse! Not a lot of wiggle room here. So pay attention to what Paul is talking about. This is not a different gospel because it teaches that people will be justified through the law. It is a different gospel because it teaches that people will be sanctified though the law. Their formula was Jesus + The Law = Righteousness.

Keeping in step with the Spirit is the part of the gospel Paul sees being left out of this different gospel. Instead, believers are being encouraged to pursue righteousness by being circumcised and living out the Torah laws’ requirements. It is a total dependency on one’s flesh to become like Jesus. For Paul, this is an utter denial of the gospel. It is no gospel at all!

But this seems to feel right even today to too many believers and a number of teachers, although it is rarely stated so starkly. The law is holy. Many of the earliest believers, who were Jewish, followed the Mosaic Covenant. It would seem that it was a natural continuance to, say, keep the Ten Commandments. To point to those commandments as the standard of what God expected of all of us who followed them into the faith. I mean, everyone gets the Ten Commandments, right? We memorize them, put them on courthouses and believe they are the summary of what God gave on Mount Sinai.

Why would this be a denial of the true gospel? —Precisely because it is focused on the wrong thing. It’s Christ—his life—that is our righteousness! “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

Paul is not saying that believers should be without any guidelines, that nothing is sinful. In other letters, he goes into some detail about what we should not be doing as believers. But what he wants us to know about the gospel is that Jesus is enough. Jesus will both justify us and sanctify us—by the empowering presence of the Spirit.

Since we live in the Spirit . . .” is the first step of keeping in step with the Spirit. If you are going to be transformed into Jesus’ likeness rather than try to reform yourself to look like Jesus, you have to be convinced in your mind that there is no other way. No other version of the gospel. The Spirit’s power is the only way. Or you have nothing at all that will remake you into the righteous person God has already decided you will become.

-Steve Smith

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Saints and Super-saints?

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Saints and Super-saints?

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

Jesus did not come to send us on our own personal spiritual journey, but to build his church. Each believer is a living stone of that church. Jesus is not calling us to be part of a Kingdom where we are competing for the top seats. He came to restore us from brokenness and sin into a people who are known as his because they love one another.

Looking back through church history, you have to be struck by the arrogance people have hadand still do have—concerning their siblings in the faith. When I met my wife, she had just transferred from a Bible school seemingly founded on the principles of separation; separation from the world; separation from anything that smacked of sin, or that was edgy; from anything that did not meet the prescribed rules of the institution. As a result, students divided themselves into two categories. The largest group was referred to as the saints. But then there were the super-saints. These were young adults who had already scaled the heights of holy living and could, and did, look down on those who were merely saints.

When Paul gets into Peter’s face at Antioch (Galatians 2:11ff), saying, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’(v.14 NIV) you see that the same dynamics had been at work. Peter and the rest of the Jewish believers had been living life together with the Gentile believers for some time. They ate together as a sign in their culture of being one family. After some teachers showed up from Jerusalem, Peter and Barnabas switched sides and returned to the practice of separation. “It’s not that we can’t eat with you. It’s that we won’t eat with you because we are righteous in a way you are not and may never be!” is the underlying theme.

Paul was brutally honest. He saw these actions as not acting in line with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:14). He immediately demotes the Torah to the level of merely Jewish custom rather than allowing the idea to stand that those practices constituted a superior means to righteousness. A means that was allowing the Jewish believers to believe they were super-saints.

The truth of the gospel is that all of us came into a relationship with God as sinners (Galatians 2:17). This is everyone’s confession if they are to be included in Christ. Jew, Gentiles, male, female, slave, free—are all equally needy at the foot of the cross. We bring nothing to Jesus he wants or needs but our miserable lives, which are not only justified by the cross alone, but are transformed by the Spirit alone.

What this confrontation at Antioch reveals is that whenever we forget this reality that all of us are level at the foot of the cross and fall into thinking we are superior saints, division and distrust break out in the church. People who should encourage each other, serve each other, spur each other on to good deeds begin to divide into different camps, sure that theirs is the one blessed of God. This is what Paul is referring to as not in keeping with the truth of the gospel.

The reason I have looped back to this matter is because of the verse that follows “keep in step with the Spirit.” Paul warns, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:26) He indicates that not keeping in step with the Spirit creates a toxic fellowship for believers. Instead of loving each other, we end up at each other’s throats. We find ourselves looking down on the others in our congregation, internally motivated either to fight or to gossip about them.

So if you… belong to a faction in your church looking to grab the power,… or if you find yourself looking down on others as failures in the faith instead of realizing that, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’… or if you find yourself holding on to grudges and speaking disparagingly about other believers to people in your own circle, then you can be certain that you are not keeping in step with the Spirit. And, like Paul’s cold slap in Peter’s face, it should bring you up short because you are not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.

Keeping in step with the Spirit is a necessity for each of us separately and together. If we are going to be part of a healthy, hope-filled faith community, keeping in step with the Spirit is something we cannot disregard.

 -Steve Smith

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Are You Cursed?

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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

Why does Paul talk about keeping in step with the Spirit?

I really think that the issue here for Paul, in the earliest of his letters, is the basic difference between the teachings of Jesus over against the beliefs of the Pharisees. Remember that Paul got his religious start as a Pharisee who was murderously against Jesus and his followers. I am sure his recollections of his days as the chief enforcer against the church were populated with memories of debates about law and how what Jesus said—and did—never measured up to the demands of holiness expected of real Jews. And forgiving people—what was Jesus thinking?!

It was all about power to obey. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were all for righteousness. But unlike the Pharisees, Jesus recognized the pathetic inability of his hearers—all people for that matter—to live out the righteousness of God’s law. Hard as it is to believe, Jesus knew his hearers could not do what he was teaching them to do—to obey his commands.

I find that this is often overlooked in the way we think in the church. We look upon the commands of Jesus as completely doable and many believers deeply desire to do them. Except that each of Jesus’ commands overtaxes our abilities.

Take for example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45 NIV) We all think that we love our enemies, but there are people you know that you do not love—you don’t need to search your memory to know this is true. For some, it’s the abortionists who routinely rob babies of their future life. For others, it’s the LGBTQ advocates who demand full acceptance of their lifestyle, even to the point of intruding into their child’s bathroom. What about the atheists who actively work to remove Christianity from the public square? What about the people who make up ISIS? When they cruelly and casually kill people, is your first thought to love them? And what would that even look like to love them?

Yet God so loved the world! Everyone was his bitter enemy, living out a life that shouted denial at God’s right to reign over those whom He created. But instead of mass destruction, God came near, lived among us as a human and died for the sins of the whole world.

We all know this. But we don’t know how to do this. And the power to actually love in this kind of way is quite beyond us all.

This is why Jesus promised that God would send us the Spirit. We needed power we did not have. This is what sets the gospel of Jesus apart from the teaching of the Pharisees. And this brings us back to why Paul is talking about the Spirit.

Because of his own experience, Paul was concerned that the Galatian believers were going to be under the curse. “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:10 NIV)  He points out that the law curses you if you fail to keep it, instead of you living in freedom. Deep anxiety is ahead. Feelings of alienation from God will mark you. Fear and failure will dog your steps if you try to do in the flesh what the Spirit only can do for you.

Are any of these emotions part of your experience with God? Do you suffer anxiety, fear or sense you are alienated from God? I did. I remember the years I spent preparing for ministry, first at Bible college followed by seminary. I wanted to be used by God. I studied hard the biblical languages, interpretation, preaching and all the other subjects that would be useful for teaching people how to know God’s Word. But in my personal time with God—well, I didn’t really have a personal time with God. I was afraid of Him. When I did get before Him, I groveled. I expected judgment because I was not measuring up to what I found in the Bible and how I was urged to live by men and women older than me.

I lived as if I was under the curse. But I did not have to be. And eventually, as I trusted in the power of the Spirit, my relationship with the Father changed from unhealthy to whole. And I now understand why Paul was so exercised over the misdirection that the Galatians were receiving. There is nothing freeing about depending on one’s own strength to keep even the best of rules.

Keeping in step with the Spirit is our only hope for freedom.

-Steve Smith

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Why Don’t We Teach This?

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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

“Why hasn’t anyone ever taught me this before?” is a common refrain from the men and women who go through Key to Deep Change training. I identify with them. Growing up in the church I do not recall anyone discipling me concerning the Holy Spirit or even giving a cohesive lesson on walking in the Spirit. To be honest, the Spirit himself was a mystery to me.

I knew the Trinity was made up of three persons, the Father, the Son and, the Holy Spirit. The Father created the world and reigned over it. Jesus came to die for our sins and now sits at the right hand of the Father. And I understood that the Spirit came to live in me. But that was as far as it went. I thought that the Spirit was kind of an extra conscience, prompting me to do good and avoid being bad. Like, “Psst! You aren’t reading your Bible enough.” or “Remember to give your tithe this week!”

In my later teens, a couple of my friends started telling me about the way they experienced the Spirit at their churches, with people speaking in tongues and falling onto the floor. Yet these outward displays did nothing to really change their everyday lives. Talking about spirit power and experiencing manifestations unfortunately did not also mean they knew how to depend on the Spirit the rest of the week.

Instead, we were taught that we have responsibilities. We are responsible to obey. Responsible to read the Bible, pray, witness, tithe, be kind, honor our parents—responsible to be like Jesus.

Of course, the work of the Spirit was sometimes mentioned in passing. But references to him almost felt like a drive-by shooting. For example, I own a 24 full-page study full of good stuff about putting off sin and putting on righteousness. One small introductory paragraph mentions our need for the Spirit to accomplish this, but it did not go on to explain how to surrender to his work. If you study most basic discipleship materials, learning to understand how to keep in step with the Spirit seems assumed. There is nothing that can make disciples feel more hopeless than teaching as if people already know what it means to keep in step with the Spirit. What they really hear from us, whether we mean it or not, is ‘just be obedient.’

This is why it’s tough to find good materials for making disciples. So many discipleship materials begin in the middle of Ephesians—urging believers to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” These resources teach a whole lot of good things that every Christian ought to do. What is missing is the foundational instruction from the scriptures on how the Spirit makes the walk walkable, or standing in warfare possible. I sometimes call this the ‘Twice the Child of Hell’ approach to discipleship (Matthew 23:15). Although my tongue is firmly in my cheek when I say that, I remember the despair of ever measuring up when it came to living the life I believed God expected of me. —Despair that almost led me to give up altogether. —Despair that others have confided in me that almost drove them away from God.

“Keep in step with the Spirit.” This is why this verse matters to you and me. It is Paul’s sign-off conclusion of the whole letter to the Galatians. Instead of tolerating the fact that people to whom he taught the transformational gospel were going down the wrong road, he breaks back into their world like Batman out to destroy the Joker—what these guys are teaching you is unacceptable!

I am not going to just talk about how to understand this truth. I am going to help you live it out in your life. And there are two important reasons why you need to understand how to keep in step with the Spirit.

  1. It leads to the formation of Christ’s character in you. What Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ is who Jesus is. He is love, joy, peace, patient, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, kindness, and self-control. He did not work to become this way and neither can you. You are led to become these things. So you should want to know how instead of wasting time trying and failing.
  2. It gives you the power to live the life and not be blindsided by the flesh. ‘Flesh’ is Paul’s word for the part of us that has been affected by the Fall. We, like the first couple, are born with the illusion that we are in charge of our life. When we seek to be righteous on the strength of our flesh, we find ourselves living a destructive life—not intentionally, oh no! But that’s where we ultimately end up.

If you have never been taught this before, you are going to find out that this is one of the freeing parts of the gospel. It will lift your confusion about how to live the faith life. No false guilt or shame will be placed on you, but you will gain a transformational knowing that you cannot shake. Come along with me as we explore this topic.

-Steve Smith

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What Do You Want?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 6: What Do You Want?

I recall the year I woke up and began to establish a transformational culture within my congregation. I had been pursuing personal transformation for twelve years already. The truths I was learning were showing up in my sermons. But I was not intentionally discipling others about transformation as I now knew it. I had not developed a pathway to make accessible these life giving truths to people trapped by the reformational model as I had been. Yes, I was still leading my church reformationally. All of that changed when someone challenged me to start teaching a small group of men how to pursue intimacy with God. That led to a second go-round with these men, because they confessed that what they were learning was so different from past beliefs that they needed to hear it again. This revealed a reality I never forget—before people can learn the truth about intimacy with God, they have to unlearn lies they learned as truth.

As intentional as this became, it took some years before a transformational culture emerged, mainly because I was learning how to do it as I went along. The church’s leaders, disciplers, and counselors had to come to embrace these truths. We worked hard to make sure that we had a consistent message, not straying into shaming and false guilt. We had to learn to be transparent and confess our own sins. We had to actually restore people trapped by the sin of their choice gently and with humility, to see them receive freedom from the addictions that came from the deadly sin in me choices they had made. More importantly, we learned to hold up the pursuit of God as the ultimate goal of our life together. Like the Corinth church, it was messy. Not everyone wanted to go down that path. But for the vast majority of the congregation, it was amazingly hopeful and freeing.

This kind of transformational culture is possible for your church. But I cannot create it for you. This culture is the product of God’s work, first in you and your church’s leaders, then in the lives of the people who make up the congregation. To have it will cost you. You will have to deal with your own unfinished business. This will be painful at times and Satan will still try to take you out through his lies. But you will progressively emerge as the person you were created to be. You will never regret the process God has to take you through to get there. And, to paraphrase Jesus’ words to Peter in Luke 22:32, when you have turned back, you will be able to strengthen the rest of Jesus’ family.

Why establish a transformational culture? Here are a couple of reasons that I think are close to the heart of everyone who shepherds in Jesus’ church.

  • First, it’s about being the church Jesus said he was building. I am not talking about a new model of the church. I am sure that if you have lived long enough, you have seen plenty of new versions of how to do church come and go, just as I know that you probably have heard why your version sucks. This is not about how to attract more people through the door to have a larger congregation. This is about life. People need the life Jesus offers them. They need it made as plain to them as Jesus made it plain to his first disciples.

The life Jesus still offers is called zoe—life that Jesus gives means a new quality of life, life as it was created to be lived in Eden, full of joy, peace, love, God. This can never be had through a church model. It is God’s gift that grows more apparent as one is continually being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).

  • A second significant reason is so people can be free from the mistaken belief that keeping the rules will make them whole. Rule keeping is epidemic in churches. Not wanting to offend God and recognizing that they don’t know what is exactly right or exactly wrong, people often adopt rules that they hope will help them resist sin. I grew up with a well-defined set of rules for living that people of my tribe can still recite at the drop of a hat. Where did these rules come from? Mostly from our negative reaction to the culture we were growing up in. But the rules did more to make us more anxious or foster rebellion in us than to help us become holy.

Wouldn’t you love to live with people who are becoming whole because of what God is doing in them instead of being held hostage by iffy rules that make no inroads to real change? To spend time with people who are learning to forgive as Jesus forgave them? To experience transparency in relationships, even if that means engaging in helping people with their inside mess while they are on their way to being changed? To see your church family producing people who are not afraid of God? To be with people who want to see their neighbors, co-workers—their city—transformed as they have been transformed?

To be part of a church that produces cutting-edge disciples, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes. To be willing to be on your own transformational journey, and then to take the time to invest the truths you are learning from the Spirit into those you shepherd. If this is what you want, don’t hold back for a minute. Go for it. And I am here to help if you need me.

-Steve Smith


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Is Obedience Our Focus?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 5: Is Obedience Our Focus?

Teaching that people have unfinished business holding them hostage from a holy, obedient life often raises the question about the place of obedience in the transformational church. We are asked, “Aren’t believers just supposed to obey? Doesn’t Jesus tell us that if we love him we will obey his commands (John 14:15)?” Unwittingly the questioner is revealing his or her belief that it is obedience which leads to transformation. People like them continually push others around them to focus on obedience as the goal of their faith journey. To suggest to them that there is a different path to holiness is to remove the one tool in their obedience model toolbox that they believe will keep people from destroying themselves. They honestly fear that failing to demand obedient living will lead people to crash and burn at best, and at worst, to wander away from the faith.

I know that fear. I have watched people I care about choose sin over surrender, even when they knew it would lead to their destruction. But it would be unfair to say that few of them really worked hard at being obedient. Some were infinitely better than I was at obedience. Some stayed in the obedience arena more doggedly than I compared to many of my pitiful attempts at gaining holiness through obeying. But the point is, in the end, they failed in the obedience game. Failure is the end game of anyone who ever believed that they could become holy if they just worked hard enough at obedience. Believers who try to bring about deep change in their lives by just being obedient will discover the horrible truth that obedience neither ends their ability to slip nor quiets the lying accusations of the enemy. And when your whole faith system as a church is built on the faulty foundation of personal obedience, at the crunch it can be pretty devastating.

As the greatest ever TED talk unfolds in the upper room, Jesus tells his disciples that for them to be able to carry out the kind of obedience that indicated their love for him, he will send them the Spirit (John 14:16-18). In other words, he is saying that the Spirit is the power source for obedience—not them. To emphasize this point, Jesus uses a common agricultural illustration. He explains that if they, the branches, want fruit produced in their lives, they will need to stay connected with him, the vine, who is the source of their life (John 15:1-8). The word Jesus uses for this connection, ‘remain,’ captures the idea that the life-giving power for their faith journey will come naturally as they rest in this unbreakable relationship. This is the clearest picture of the difference between Jesus’ call to obedience and the biblical Pharisees’ call to obedience. The Pharisees also wanted people to live obedient lives, so they set up all kinds of fences to keep the herd from straying into sin. Don’t do this. Stop that. Stay away from those people, places or things. Holiness in their world depended on human effort. For Jesus holiness depends on the transformative power of the Spirit.

Transformation leads to obedience, not the other way around. Transformational churches know that the focus of the faith journey is about pursuing intimacy with God; that we can know Him better because he has given His people the spirit of wisdom and revelation (Ephesians 1:17). People in this kind of church have discovered that if they pursue intimacy with God, they will discover He is the one that shows them what the life is about and also gives them to power to live out that life. Obedience is always the by-product of intimacy with God, not the pathway to it.

But the issue of transformation goes much deeper than obedience. It goes down to healing—to freedom from performance—to restoration from the effects of the Fall—to becoming the person we were created to be. Transformation addresses the unfinished business of our lives. If God is not intent on transforming us, then we are on a miserable journey of the survival of the fittest. But He is intent on this and has already determined that everything we see in Jesus will be produced in us. Jesus stands as the image of every brother and sister he will have when the dust clears. Right now God is at work in you and me…not just someday. And God is at work in every one that names Jesus as their Savior.

-Steve Smith

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