How do you measure “spiritual success”? I once had a friend tell me that if I wanted to be successful as a minister that I had to first and foremost learn how to “ooze spirituality.” He was not a Christian, and even though he sincerely meant well, his analysis of spiritual success was both intriguing -- and disturbing. I just wanted to follow Jesus, not “ooze” anything!
On the other hand, some would say we shouldn’t try to measure spirituality at all. That view may be just as well-intentioned as my secular friend’s advice about “oozing”, but it is, unfortunately, just as misguided. That idea is not consistent with what Jesus taught. He taught over and over again that we will be judged by our fruit -- that not everyone who says to Him “Lord, Lord” on the day of judgement will simply get a pat on the head and a welcome packet and a front-row seat.
Whether you or I like it or not, God has made it very clear throughout the scriptures that He has saved us in order to change us; that the free gift of grace and salvation is just the doorway to a new life of holy, sanctified living; that His investment -- in blood -- in you -- is a deposit for which He ultimately expects a return in the form of obedience and maturity. Why? So that you may bless others through these “fruits of the Spirit.”
Fruit is good -- nourishing, refreshing and life-giving. And that is what God requires of each of us -- to move beyond the cross, beyond belief, into obedience that produces fruit that blesses those around us. He gives the sun and the soil and the rain, and we bear fruit for His good pleasure and as blessing to those around us.
So, back to the original question, “How do you measure ‘Spiritual Success?’” I think that one of the best places to begin is right here in Galatians chapter 5. This beautiful list of the fruit of the spirit is not exhaustive, but notice what it does not include. Church attendance is not on the list. Bible memorization is not on the list. Fancy clothes, volunteering and tithing are not on the list. And finally, “oozing” -- praise God, praise God! Oozing is not on the list. Instead, we see listed here the external evidence of a vibrant spiritual life on the inside -- we see love, joy, peace and patience, and more. These are the measures of success God is looking for.
So what place does church attendance have in our spiritual maturity? What role does tithing play, or studying the scriptures? Well, they are absolutely essential to the development of fruit, but they are not the fruit themselves. They are the fertilizer, the soil, and the spring rains that we need to be able to produce fruit, but they are not the fruit themselves. Picture a farmer who stockpiles fertilizer in vast quantities,m but never applies it. There you have the picture of many discipleship programs that aim to educate rather than transform lives; that “puff-up” with knowledge rather than edify with grace, love and truth. Some of us have spiritual barns filled with compost and steer-manure, but fields as barren as the desert.
So, yes, go to church and fellowship with other believers. Get plugged in. Forge amazing new friendships that will spur you on to a more fruitful life. And, yes, study the Word of God. Lose yourself in the greatest story ever told, and find yourself by becoming a part of it in real time! Yes, volunteer. Yes, tithe -- please, tithe! But do these things only that you may bear greater and better spiritual fruit.
Patience as an Anti-Value
Now, let’s talk about today’s fruit: patience or “longsuffering.” That odd word, “longsuffering” is a pretty close english translation of the original greek word - “macro-thumia.” It basically means “slow burn.” Unfortunately, it is also old english and nobody uses that word anymore unless they’re trying to ooze all over you. So we’ll stick with “patience.”
The general idea is this: patience means you don’t blow your top easily. It is the exact opposite of one of the anti-fruits listed in Galatians 5.20 -- “outbursts of wrath” or “fits of rage.” Skin walkers (those who walk in the flesh) have no use for patience. Spirit walkers know better.
Patience is the exact opposite of what our culture values. Love, joy, and peace are all really popular, easy concepts. You’re going to hear all about them this Christmas season from everyone from Billy Graham to Lady Gaga.
But patience? Well, patience is an orphan value these days. In fact, patience is not only overlooked by our culture, but we value the opposite -- “fits” and “outbursts” are practically required to have a hit on the big screen, and definitely a must for some people to get attention on Facebook. Don’t believe me? Look at your TV shows. Unbridled fits of anger everywhere. Or if you don’t like TV, try listening to yourself on a phone call with the cable company when your internet goes down. Or better yet, try reading some of your own immature rage posts on Facebook. Some of you have pointed out that I don’t get on Facebook much anymore, and there is a reason for that. It has to do with how embarrassingly immature and impatient some of us are. Self included!
What is True Patience?
So what does patience look like? What is this virtue that God is looking for in the people led by His Spirit?
First of all, true patience is Disciplined.
Patience, like all of the virtues listed in the fruit of the Spirit, is not something that comes naturally for any of us. You don’t get out of it just because it is hard. Remember, Paul says that our flesh is at war with the Spirit. In order to become patient, we must bring our flesh into discipline -- including our tendency to be quick to anger.
Few things grieve God’s Spirit more than a believer who makes flesh excuses for shutting down His power in their lives. I have heard Christian friends say, “I’m just not a patient person,” or, “Patience is not something I can do” -- as though we could use our natural tendencies as a doctor’s note to get out of obedience to God. Of course you’re not a patient person -- nobody is naturally! You have to work at it. You have to discipline yourself. Patience -- like love, joy and peace -- is only ever the result of a conscious decision backed by unceasing effort to comply with the Spirit of God.
Second, true patience is disciplined restraint.
The essence of patience is restraint -- the discipline NOT to act, even when you really want to. Some people speak, shout and spit what’s on their mind all the time. They can’t seem to stop losing their cool and letting everyone know about it. Boiling over at the drop of a hat is clear evidence of immaturity and a lack of dependence on God.
I have spoken in the past about how some of us have a faith that is ankle deep -- just playing around in the shallow end. Others have faith that is waist deep, a little more interested, but still not “all-in.” And then there are those who are out in the deep water, who have left the security of being able to touch bottom, and who are fully surrendered to the currents of God.
If you cannot restrain your anger, you are just splashing around. You don’t resemble God. God is slow to anger, abounding in love. Those of us who don’t discipline ourselves to restrain our anger are not merely immature, but are working to advance the cause of hell. Satan rejoices when we lose our cool, because it shows how little we trust God, and it gives the world all the more reason to doubt our authenticity.
And that gets to the heart of “restraint” -- it answers the “why” question of how we can be patient. A child of God can show restraint when they are angry because they know their father in heaven is ultimately and totally in control. More than that, a patient brother or sister has the discipline to call to mind those many times when God has been slow to anger with them -- when God himself has shown restraint, even when He has had every reason to lose His cool. Are you angry? That’s fine -- and normal. But “in your anger do not sin” -- do not try to take on God’s job as the only legitimate agent of wrath in the universe. We have no standing to do so; we have no right to do so. We have no excuse for casting off restraint and losing our tempers.
Finally, true patience is disciplined restraint when provoked.
Different things provoke us at different levels. Some provocations are innocent. A child acting out or making noise. A long line at the government office. Traffic. These are fairly innocent provocations even a new believer should be able to get under control through regular discipline. None of these things should cause a moderately mature Christian to lose their patience.
But what about more serious provocation? What about persecution? What about injustice, slander and open hostility? Is there ever a time to allow ourselves to be provoked?
While this is a tough issue to settle, and there may be no hard and fast rule about when we should allow our anger to be expressed, I think we need to remember a few truths about anger from a biblical perspective.
We should always strive to err on the side of mercy. Love is a higher value than justice, because love is the only power that can truly cure injustice. If you are unsure whether you should act on your anger, don’t. Err on the side of mercy, and you will always make the right choice. Remember, justice is ultimately in God’s hands; vengeance belongs to God alone.
Anger is normal and can even have a good result -- especially “righteous anger” over real injustice. In fact, the Bible refers to God’s anger over injustice and sin roughly 700 times.
While God does get angry, it is always under control, slow to develop, and never driven by flashes of emotion. Indeed, while anger can be very emotional, you will never find an instance where God lets himself be ruled by the heat of emotion. God’s anger is thoughtful and calm, not irrational and uncontrolled.
Even in those rare circumstances when God chooses to express His anger, it is always with mercy in mind. God never expresses His anger just to get things off His chest. He only does it for redemptive purposes. We could learn from that, especially those of us who are parents. We discipline our children out of anger, while God disciplines us out of love.
“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Psalm 86.15)
Also check out: Nehemiah 9:31; Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:5; Psalm 86:15; Joel 2:13.