Tuesday, December 19, 2006

How the Spirit of God Changes a Person

Well, it's not very "Christmas-y" but here's my column for Temple City Life for January. More "Christmas-y" things will be posted over the next few days.

How the Spirit Changes People

By nature, I am not a gentle man.

Note that I didn’t day “gentleman.” When it comes to manners and so on, yes, I know how to be a gentleman. But that’s not the same thing as being a gentle man.

Not mean so much as not gentle. Opinionated. Focused. Goal-oriented. Type A personality. Not a gentle man. I admit it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gentleness of late. Paul declared the gentleness is part of the fruit (the natural outgrowth) of the Spirit of God. Galatians 5:22-23 says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

I was thinking deeply about this passage the other day as I was walking out the door of my home. By the door, kind of like a mezuzah, we have a little stone placard with the Ten Commandments. I paused for a moment and asked myself, “Under which of the Ten Commandments does the call for gentleness fall?” My eyes lit upon the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not kill.”

Harshness, the opposite of gentleness, kills. On rare occasion, it kills outright, but most harshness kills the joy, openness, and optimism of others. It kills the spirit. Against such things, God’s law stands.

Gentleness gives life. It creates space for others. It provides room for the other person to heal and grow. Gentleness withdraws from providing an opinion for everything. It listens. It stirs up joy in others. Against such things there is no law.

Real gentleness cannot be ginned up, like taking up golf or getting good at Suduko. While some are naturally gentler than others, the kind of gentleness Paul refers to has nothing to do with nature. It has to do with the Spirit of God.

Actually, much of that section of Galatians has to do with that very thing: what it means to live a Spirit-guided, inspired life. They key verse may well be Galatians 5:25: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

How does “keeping in step with the Spirit” operate in real life? Let me try to explain in a few sentences.

When a person becomes part of the family of God, the Spirit of God takes up residence within him. The Spirit uses external tools such as reading the Word of God, worship, prayer and fellowship to place the “raw materials” of the Spirit-filled life in our grasp. Then He prompts us in and through and beyond those tools. Yes, He prompts us to do certain things and not to do certain other things. We are called to “keep in step” with His constant promptings. And insofar as we listen to and obey His promptings, we are in step with the Spirit—we are filled with the Spirit.

This is how all spiritual growth occurs: as we respond to the promptings of the Spirit. Real spirituality cannot be achieved by external effort. As a matter of fact, that can be toxic. Richard Dunagin tells this story:

At their school carnival, our kids won four free goldfish (lucky us!), so out I went Saturday morning to find an aquarium. The first few I priced ranged from $40 to $70. Then I spotted it—right in the aisle: a discarded 10-gallon display tank, complete with gravel and filter—for a mere five bucks. Sold! Of course, it was nasty dirty, but the savings made the two hours of clean-up a breeze. Those four new fish looked great in their new home, at least for the first day. But by Sunday one had died. Too bad, but three remained. Monday morning revealed a second casualty, and by Monday night a third goldfish had gone belly up. We called in an expert, a member of our church who has a 30-gallon tank. It didn’t take him long to discover the problem: I had washed the tank with soap, an absolute no-no. My uninformed efforts had destroyed the very lives I was trying to protect.

Sometimes in our zeal to clean up our own lives or the lives of others, we unfortunately use “killer soaps”—condemnation, criticism, nagging, fits of temper. We think we’re doing right, but our harsh, self-righteous treatment is more than they can bear.

The Spirit does not use “soap” on us. He uses the wind of His promptings. You can’t beat gentleness into someone anymore than you can stuff people with love or joy or peace. So the Spirit does something entirely different: He blows upon us. And we merely raise the sails, and go where He wills. Yes, God is good.

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