Paul concludes his contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit with the admonition: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25) While it seems that Paul’s audience understood what he means, I find that we who make disciples today assume that they somehow know what we are talking about when we speak about being empowered by the Spirit, or being filled with the Spirit, or walking in the Spirit.
I empathize with their confusion because I grew up without a practical pneumatology. The Spirit was mystifying to me. God the Father I could comprehend, having a father myself. And Jesus was my friend and Savior. But who or what was this Holy Spirit that kept popping up as part of the Trinity? I privately concluded that the Spirit was like Jiminy Cricket of the Disney Pinocchio story—another voice of conscience that God had installed in me as a back-up to my faulty one. His job was kind of like, “Uh-uh. Don’t do that.” Or, “Have you read your Bible today?” In reality, I did not know his presence in my life and no one explained it to me.
As I got older, I met believers from a charismatic background whose experiences with the Spirit sounded interesting, but no more understandable. Their stories seemed to revolve around speaking in tongues or words of prophesy and knowledge—which did not always turn out to be correct. I went to their meetings and saw people dancing and being ‘slain in the Spirit.’ But nothing I saw seemed to answer the question, Who is the Spirit and how am I supposed to keep in step with him? This was especially important to me because I was increasingly being caught up in my unfinished business and growing sin addictions. As an extra conscience, the Spirit did not seem to be living up to the task.
Perhaps you resonate with this problem. Somewhere along your journey you finally figured this out, maybe in a Bible study or through a discussion with a mentor. But you have never articulated what you learned to other believers because you were not aware that they had no clue either. If there is one area of discipleship that we make the most assumptions about, it is that believers automatically will come to an understanding of the presence and power of the Spirit in them. That they somehow will navigate their faith journey consciously keeping in step with Spirit. This is a horrible fairytale and is probably the cause of more havoc in the lives of your congregation than you want to know about—but will in time.
How do disciples actually keep in step with the Spirit? And how do we teach them? Here are the basic components of how to clearly teach this to someone you are discipling.
Step 1: Know God.
The starting place for keeping in step with the Spirit is teaching them to pursue a deepening knowing of God. Notice I did not say ‘knowledge’ of God. People can know their Bible pretty well and know God as concept instead as the Being who calls them friend, assuming they belong to the covenant. Knowing God is a relationship pursuit. And in 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 them, people are tempted to say, “Depart, because I am a wicked person.” But the good news is that knowing God intimately also allows us to hear His love for us in our broken state. Allows us to grasp that this kind of knowing is for our good instead of a prelude to punishment. And this leads us to the next phase of learning to keep in step with the Spirit.
Step 2: Grieve.
When they see their brokenness clearly, their tendency to comfort themselves habitually with sin, their useless defiance and self-protection, they come to a point where they are not just ashamed. God’s love opens the way for them to grieve what has happened to them. They may have no idea yet how they will recover, but they can do know they are not what they should be. Teach them that this is part learning to keep in step with the Spirit.
Believers often do not allow themselves to grieve over the historic wounds of their lives, but tears and sorrow are part of God’s healing process. Furthermore, grief should not be limited to what happened to us. It includes what we did to others due to our own unfinished business. We may already be grieving what we did to our children and how that has played out in their lives. Healing grief is Spirit led because it resolves itself towards wanting to get well instead of replaying the unchangeable past. People have to be taught that this should be the focus of their prayer as they travel through the grief process.
Step 3: Surrender.
What we do not know when we start pursuing the knowing of God is what it is that we have to put into his hands. Disciples need to be taught that keeping in step with the Spirit is about yielding into God’s hands what they cannot keep, which they thought they needed, which has trapped them. This includes both the wounds that have hurt them and the sin they have chosen to comfort themselves.
Surrender comes from gaining insight into the meaning of wholeness. This insight comes from the deepening relationship we are gaining with God. It also comes from a growing understanding of what He has said in Scripture. What is the truth? What does this truth mean for my life? What do I do with this truth now that I know it?
These three questions are about listening with spiritual ears. What is God saying to us that we now hear? What does God say we should do when we want to leave a bitter marriage? Or say about a broken relationship? Or say about a long ago crime we committed? Or about a lifelong habit that is as destructive as it is pleasurable? Asked in humility, such questions are used by the Spirit to bring us to the decision point. Will we trust his power to change us?
Step 4: Appropriate.
Appropriation is about trusting in the Spirit’s power. Disciples can know what God is going to address in them, even if they do not know what they will be like in the end. They now may know what they need to say ‘No’ to. They may even desire to go in that direction. But disciples need to know the truth—that they cannot heal their own wounds or free themselves from sin’s grip. This is where they really learn to keep in step with the Spirit. By faith they learn to go forward, trusting grace, which is the empowering work of God by the Spirit within them. They learn that it is this grace that will make permanent changes in their thinking and actions. That the Spirit will transform their desires so they no longer want to go back to the way they were. That he will produce his fruit in them and stamp out the works of the flesh.
Step 5: Grow.
As disciples keep in step with the Spirit, they grow in grace. And they will grow in spite of facing spiritual warfare by way of accusations concerning their faults, reminders of their past failures, ridicule of their weaknesses and direct temptation from the enemy. How do we know that they are growing?
First, they become more compassionate for those around them that are stuck. Often they become shepherds of people who are stuck like they were stuck. Second, the fruit of the Spirit begins to flourish in them. As a result, they start seeing God differently, more clearly, with more trust than before. Third, as they grow, they bring wholeness to others around them. This is the living Jesus shining out through them, beckoning others to his peace that isn’t anything like the world’s version of peace.
Keeping in step with the Spirit is part of the lifelong journey onto which we are invited. None of us are finished with this journey yet—not as long as we live in the body. So what happens next is—we go back to Step 1 and continue to pursue knowing God. The rest of the steps are the ongoing cycle of the journey. That’s how we keep in step with the Spirit. And this is how we teach disciples to be transformed by the Spirit.