For over a decade I was a pastor of spiritual development. My job was to help people progress in their walk with God. During that time, I saw thousands of spiritual journeys become unstuck as disciples encountered God and adopted new disciplines. I also found that some people remained stalled or stale in their journey towards truly fruitful Christ-centeredness. As I analyzed the process that I had seen bring radical breakthrough to so many, I discovered over and again the rhythms of grace consistently playing a significant role at key points of change.
Throughout the last half-century or so, much research has been conducted into the stages of spiritual maturity, and how to move through them. Findings by James F. Engel and more recently, the “Reveal” initiative by Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago detailed these stages of growth, fleshing out the journey that 1 Corinthians 2-3 describes as going from natural, to carnal, to spiritual people.
Reveal’s research importantly noted the presence of key movements between the stages of growth. Each of these movements was catalyzed by a common set of beliefs and actions. I went looking deeper however, because in my own observations I had seen that God too was doing a work in those that were growing. It was a partnership. All Reveal’s findings were obviously correct, but our actions alone are not enough to transform us. God’s grace must be involved somewhere or there simply cannot be such good fruit! After looking, learning, running programs and retreats, and experimenting with over a million words of our own developmental content, I came to this conclusion – each movement is activated by the symbiotic cooperation of God and the individual, often in a specific dynamic that is relevant to that stage. Awareness of that process, and the part both God and the person plays, greatly increased the momentum of the disciple’s journey in our context.
There are three specific rhythms of grace that relate to the discipleship process that I would like to highlight. Each rhythm produces its own fruit, and all these rhythms can be running all the time.
However, I found it helpful to emphasize one in particular for each stage.
Rhythm 1: Spirit and Truth Releases Faith
While faith is something that grows throughout our entire walk with Christ, it is particularly important to establish it in the early days of salvation and growth. In a world that bombards us with messages of unbelief towards God, how does one come to believe? Two key elements combine to build our faith: Understanding of truth about who God is and what He says about Himself; and a spiritual awareness and reliance on this God who is real.
Spirit: No one comes to me unless the Father draw him … (John 6:44) The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:16)
Truth: Faith comes by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. (Romans 10:17)
Faith ultimately comes from knowing and experiencing God – and so to get the rhythm started, we must actually want to know God more. If that hunger is combined with a willingness to surrender our self-will and self-reliance, then we have created an irresistible environment for God’s transformative grace. From there, each element does its job to lead us into a greater experience of the other. Jesus said that the Spirit leads us into truth (John 16:13); and obviously a pursuit of theological truth will lead us to a greater reliance on the Spirit to fulfill all that the cross of Christ made available to us.
Faith in God takes many forms, but the core faith that this rhythm produces is foundational to a fruitful life. Some of the key facets of this faith are: Faith in the atoning work of Christ; Faith in God’s Word; Faith in the nature of God; and Faith in the sufficiency of God’s grace.
Rhythm 2: Repentance and Belief Releases Hope
When Jesus preached, even to those who already believed in God, He would say “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
Most of us quickly get familiar with the idea of repentance, but to believe in God for transformation is not so common. And yet this is the single biggest key to becoming what 1 Corinthians 3:1 defined as pnuematikos: the spiritual person. Instead, many stall in their discipleship journey. By not being able to embrace the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, they remain carnal – essentially driven by their old nature. These people frequently lose hope in the power of the gospel. Eventually they cannot envision a future where their sin is overcome or that they experience freedom in Christ. Despite routine confession and prayer, they remain locked down and ultimately without hope.
Repent: Repentance is not merely confession of sin or saying sorry. It is to change the way we think about ourselves, God, and the sinful fruit in our life.We need to turn to Jesus. (2 Corinthians 3:16)
Believe: To believe in Jesus means I rely on Him, not just agree that He exists. By relying on the power of the Spirit to live as God wants, we are positioned to receive His tangible and enabling grace. One of the most powerful skills a believer can possess is knowing how to embrace the tangible strength of the Spirit.
As with other rhythms of grace, this one is fueled by spiritual hunger. In this case it is a genuine desire to grow in Christ. If we sincerely want to grow, we will. If we don’t want to, we simply won’t. Much of the transformative fruit of this process is related to how we begin to see ourselves in relationship with God. Both good and bad fruit has roots in our inner world. If our identity and intimacy with God is real, then our lives will eventually reflect that abundance.
The most impacting aspect of repentance is related to our relationship with God. We are to switch our view of Him from that of a boss, to that of our loving Father. By relating to Him as a child we are able to embrace the abundant provision of the Father. Hope is restored for a preferred future when we learn to live from the fullness of the Spirit’s power which gives us strength where and when we need it.
Rhythm 3: Faith and Deeds Releases Love
The command we are most reluctant to obey is the one where we go into all the world. We are much more enthusiastic about knowing and growing in Jesus than we are in going. That is because we seldom know how to receive love, and then release it in a way that fits the gifting and anointing we have. We are only called to steward the gifts we have been given, not those we have not been given. Peter and John demonstrated love in Acts 3 by releasing healing. Not everyone has that gift, but as they said “Such as I have I give to you” (Acts 3:6). The love we have for the world is connected to the spiritual gifts God has given. As such, our deeds and faith are connected:
Faith: “… I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2:18)
Deeds: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If it is prophesying, then prophecy in accordance with your faith.” (Romans 12:6)
Growing faith will grow your deeds. Deeds done in God’s power will drive you to trust only in Him. This third rhythm of grace is the only way to effectively and sustainably impact your world. Paul once said that Christ’s love was the compelling force in his life (2 Corinthians 5:14). He was alluding to the reality of God’s love for him, and the unlimited potential that lies behind that love. Love embodies the very motivation and nature of God. Love cannot help but give of itself, releasing grace from an awareness of overflowing abundance.
Paul prayed for the Ephesians that they would become aware of this love, and therefore live out the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:16). By appropriating the love we have received, and the gifts He has given to release that love, we can go effectively in His name. We can: Love God and our neighbors; Love the fellowship of believers; Make disciples of all nations; and Advance the domain of God’s kingdom in our vocation, city and nation.
We are created to be in union with God. From Genesis to Revelation we consistently see the theme of God inviting us into an abiding relationship. Jesus was clear – “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) … so, anything worth doing in life will naturally require God’s help! And yet we constantly default to doing things our way and in our own strength. This is the reason so many well-intentioned believers get stuck or stale in their faith – they are doing it without God! Union with God can easily become an idea we agree with, and yet be a promise we are unable to embrace.
In each rhythm you play your part, and God plays His. And yet they bring great fruit in the absence of striving.