Why am I so bad at following Jesus? Why is obedience so hard? Why am I so timid when it comes to sharing my faith? Why does change in my life come so slow? Have you ever asked any of those questions? I’ve asked them all and many others like them. So what is the answer?
The answer, of course, is many faceted. People are complex. There are lots of factors that influence our ability to live out the life that we want. Most Christians identify with the Apostle Paul’s lament in Romans 7:15 more than any other verse of Scripture. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Yep. Been there. It can be maddening, but change is possible.
And while there are many components to spiritual growth, there is one element that stands above the rest in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity. God. I often think of Peter when it comes to the Holy Spirit. How did this ordinary man go from bumbling idiot to fearless Apostle almost overnight? On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, Peter couldn’t admit that he even knew Jesus to a young girl for fear of persecution. A few weeks later, Peter is standing up in Jerusalem proclaiming the gospel, healing the sick and defying the religious leaders warnings to not speak of Jesus. What changed? Only one thing. The Holy Spirit came.
The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is seen differently by different Christians. I have no interest in debating those divisive positions here. What is important though is to realize how essential the Holy Spirit is to our ability to follow Jesus. We are challenged to live lives worthy of the calling that we have received. We are to be imitators of Christ. We are to live holy lives, but as we noted, this isn’t easy. We try and we fail and we wonder what is wrong with us.
Well, we will always struggle this side of heaven. Until that moment when Jesus completes our sanctification and makes us like him, we will have to fight the temptations of this world, our flesh and our enemy, the devil. Sometimes we will lose. That is being human in this life, but we do need to fight. We do need to strive for a life that honors God. The Holy Spirit is the one who enables us.
Sunday, I was listening to an excellent sermon from my friend Eric on Ephesians 4. You can check out his blog where he writes on life and leadership here. Ephesians 4 is a call to set aside the old life that we lived prior to Christ and live a new life that glorifies God. Then at the end of the chapter Paul writes “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” This verse has always stood out to me because the reminder that my sin causes the Holy Spirit sorrow and sadness is compelling. I don’t want my life to grieve God. But something new hit me this time as I heard these words of warning. I realized that part of the reason that our sin grieves the Holy Spirit is because his very presence in our lives is to empower our obedience. The Holy Spirit indwells believers in order to empower them in the same way that he empowered Peter in such a dramatic way and when we ignore his help and do our own thing, it hurts him. It’s like God gives us this incredible gift and we leave it unopened on the table. I don’t want to do that. I want to know what Paul prayed I would know in Ephesians 1:19,20 “his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.”
I’m still learning to enter into this, but based on the Bible here is what I know:
1. The Holy Spirit indwells all believers, yet not all experience that power.
Verses like 1 Corinthians 3:16 make it clear that if you are a Believer in Christ, the Holy Spirit lives in you as his temple. Yet clearly, we don’t all experience his power. We know this from our personal experience as well as the Scriptures. Paul wouldn’t be praying that the Ephesians would come to know the Holy Spirit’s power if they were already living in it.
2. I need to be praying for the Holy Spirit’s empowerment.
Paul sets the example. If he is going to pray it for the church then I need to pray it for the church and for myself. How much do we really pray about the spiritual matters in our lives? Too often our prayers only consist of our wish list for God. You can read more about that here and here.
3. I need to continually surrender myself to the control of the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians 5:18 says “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” The passage is about what we allow to control us. We can fill up on alcohol and surrender control to alcohol which will lead to destructive actions or we can fill up on the Holy Spirit and surrender control to him which will lead to godly actions. This is key. Research into the spiritual life has demonstrated that the key ingredient in the lives of people who are spiritually mature is surrender. It’s true because surrender yields control of our lives to God. We become dependent upon him and not ourselves. Easy, right? Just surrender. Of course, it isn’t easy which is why I say “continually.” We all want to wrestle control of our lives back on a daily basis. We have to continually offer it back to God.
4. Consistently meditate on the Bible.
Compare the words of Ephesians 5:18-20 and Colossians 3:16. There is a remarkable similarity between the results in our lives when we are filling up on the Holy Spirit and when we are filling up on God’s Word. There is a synergistic relationship between the two. The Holy Spirit speaks and works through the Word. The more God’s Word is rattling around in your heart, the more the Holy Spirit has to work with.
5. Set your thoughts on the things that the Holy Spirit desires for your life.
Our minds are the battleground of our lives. Often, it seems like we have no control over our thoughts. They just come and go as they wish, but choice is a powerful tool. The ability to choose is one of the things that makes us human. We have the ability to choose a lot more than we think that we can. That is why the bible can command us to do things like love and rejoice even in bad circumstances. We may not naturally want to do those things, but we do have the ability to choose them. Same here. Develop the discipline of dismissing sinful thoughts and setting your mind on godly thoughts. Ask God for his help.
Romans 8:5 says “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”
6. Keep attentive to your spiritual life.
We grieve the Holy Spirit when we sin and disobedience builds momentum. We become less sensitive to sin. Saying “yes” to the next sin becomes a lot easier. 1 Thessalonians 5:19 gives another picture. It says “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.” The imagery is that the Holy Spirit is like a fire burning within us and when we sin, we stomp it out. The more we stomp out the fire, the less power is available. Stoke the fire don’t stomp it out.
7. Depend upon God for the next step of obedience.
We tend to get way ahead of ourselves. We make resolutions like “God, I will never commit that sin again as long as I live.” Two days later, your resolution is in the dumpster. Pay attention to the next step in front of you. What do you need to do today? What does God want you to do right now? Trust the Holy Spirit for that step. This seems to be Paul’s counsel in Galatians 5:25. “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
If you feel like you are bad at following Jesus, don’t beat yourself up. You are like all the rest of us. But, don’t give up either. Fight. Grow. Lean on the Holy Spirit to do it.