Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Journey of Spiritual Renewal

I love the word renovation for describing what God does in us as we follow Jesus. The word means to restore to good condition; make new or as if new again; repair. Or, simply, to revive. It comes from the Latin verb renovāre , re-  + novāre  to make new. Renewal: a pulsating, life-giving description of exactly what God does with us. This begins a series of posts which will explore aspects of spiritual renewal.

Made in God’s image, we were meant to reflect and refract God’s glory and to emulate his character. Think of humans as gemstones that sparkle with brilliance as his light shines through us. Sin is like black impurities that cloud the clarity of the stones and obstruct our ability to sparkle and radiate God’s glory. Oozing from our broken hearts, sin seeps into every fiber of our being; it perverts our worship, prevents our fellowship with God and defiles our words and deeds. Renewal is the process by which God enters in to purge us of grease and grime, to restore our luster and brilliance, and recondition us to reflect his life-giving light to a dark, dying world. 

The process is a mysterious, miraculous work of God, which, in many ways, exceeds our finite comprehension. Though we can’t analyze or articulate all the mechanics, the Bible and the experience of believers provide a measure of insight into how it “works.” With the help of some modern day spiritual masters,[1] I’ve come to think of it like this:

Process: Inside-out transformation of the entire self

Power: The indwelling Holy Spirit

Means: Training toward Christlikeness in every dimension of life (spiritual disciplines)

Goal: Character traits that lead us to naturally and joyfully live like Jesus (virtues)

The process is well illustrated by sailing.[2] We are like a sailor and a vessel destined for “that celestial shore” called the kingdom of heaven. Arriving at this goal will mean our lives are completely remade and completely submitted to Jesus as our Master and King. While remaining uniquely ourselves, we will think and act like Jesus would if he were us; Jesus will, in fact, be living through us. By the time we reach the far shore, we’ll still be a ship, but we’ll have undergone a complete overhaul. We’ll have a different character. We’ll be virtuous.

If we’re in Christ, our journey has begun. God is already in the process of restoring our hearts and reordering our lives. But he doesn’t begin by giving us a new paint job, despite its weathered deck and worn hull. He starts inside and works his way out. He fixes structural damage, repairs broken parts, replaces rotten boards, mends torn sails. Along with, or after, these essential repairs, he patches holes, seals cracks and eventually refinishes the ship’s exterior. Some of this work may be done in dry dock, but most is miraculously done en route to the destination.

God renovates us by the empowering presence of his Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the wind in our sails, moving us to our goal. (I find it interesting that in both Greek and Hebrew the word for “spirit” can also mean “breath” or “wind;” these meanings play off each other in fascinating ways throughout the Bible.)

Our role is to avail ourselves of the Spirit’s work in our lives. Sailors must set the sails in such a way that they catch wind, so the boat will travel.[3] We do this by practicing spiritual disciplines. They put us in a position to receive grace. They allow the Spirit to fill our sails and propel us toward godliness.

As we practice these disciplines we become expert sailors. We learn to read the currents, predict the weather, navigate at night and control our vessel in harmony with the wind, regardless of conditions. In a word, we develop skill. On the spiritual plane, after long periods of practice, cultivating new habits, we develop virtues, deeply-ingrained character traits. We cultivate a new nature that replaces the old one. From this new nature, following Jesus flows naturally. Our spiritually renewed self begins to claim victory in its battle with the sinful nature. We put on the character of Christ.

This new character, cultivated through spiritual disciplines, replaces our old sinful nature. We live from a new heart, empowered by God’s Spirit, and we actually do what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes.

[1] Esp. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1988); John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997); Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, rev ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). My indebtedness to these authors will show throughout this series.
[2] John Ortberg, in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, also uses the sailing metaphor. Except at the points noted below, this development of thought is independent of his.
[3] Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, 51.

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