We’re continuing our series on cellular spirituality, which is a way to look at spiritual formation. It’s the way Christians try to become more like Jesus Christ. The topic of spiritual growth is so central to Christian spirituality, we feel it’s something that can’t be talked about too much. We believe it’s an integral piece of what it means to be a Christ follower. We want to expose ourselves not to little bits of information about it, but to a lot of different ways in order to keep our awareness up a little bit.
Today we’re going to go through Romans 12. It’s one of my favorite chapters in the Bible and particularly in The Message translation. I think it speaks so accurately to our lives. We’re going to read a lot of it today and I encourage all of you to go home and read it and really give that chapter a lot of scrutiny, no matter what translation you prefer. We could probably spend about six weeks on every little section in that chapter, but today we’re just going to give a brief overview.
We’re talking today about the ways we try and become more like Jesus Christ. As a pastor, I’m particularly concerned with this topic. As much as there are so many other good things to talk about, this is central to our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. There’s a lot that’s taught and talked about out there in Christian-land (Christian radio and TV land and Christian Bookstore land) that sometimes makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable, however inadvertently. Some teaching makes it feel a little bit like the Christian life is grade school. You advance from elementary to intermediate to middle to junior high to high school and then you go into college Christianity. It sometimes feels a little bit like the Christian life is reduced to the life of an athlete. You go J.V., varsity, college and then pro. Sometimes it feels like we dissect our Christian life and experience into little milestones I don’t really see represented in the Bible.
As we continue to explore this metaphor of cellular biology, I want you to keep this phrase in mind: Our spiritual life is not about automation; it’s about incarnation. Automation, especially here in the big motor state, is a series of preprogrammed processes. You go on autopilot, so to speak; you automatically react to things. An automated process is a streamlined process reduced to its simplest form so everyone does only a little bit of the job. If we reduce our spiritual lives to three keys to holiness or five principles for better understanding, we’ve excluded all kinds of stuff mentioned in the Bible. Instead, we’ve just tried to just get an overview of the things that “super-matter”.
That’s a bit false. Instead, we want to look at a biblical understanding of spirituality in which everything matters. Instead of an automated approach to spirituality, we look at this as an incarnational approach to spirituality. The incarnation is the very fact Jesus came down to take on the form of a human being; he lived a human life. A human life is not always clean. A human life has tragedy and circumstances.
When we think about a spirituality reflected in the Bible, we’re not thinking about a spirituality that’s entirely pure and clean. We’re talking about a dirty, earthy spiritual life that is about real life stuff, the stuff that means something. That’s biblical spirituality; that’s what we see represented in the Bible. It’s not just a bunch of processes. Instead, it’s a whole life approach that says: If we are to become more like Jesus, then we have to leave no stone unturned. Instead, we say, “God, here’s my whole life; I give it to you.” That, of course, is an immensely tricky thing to do and it’s something that will take every one of us a lifetime as we keep finding new, perhaps embarrassing, stones to overturn.
Imagine if you will, when you chose Jesus Christ, a single spiritual cell is born inside you. It’s a cell that represents your purely vertical relationship with Jesus. The more you love Jesus, the more you give of yourself into knowing and experiencing God, the more that one cell will begin to multiple into other cells. You can’t really love Jesus without Jesus, in some way, infecting you with love for other people. In a sense, that Jesus cell gives birth to another cell that might be love for other people. Those two cells begin to feedback and cross talk and give help and life to one another and spawn other cells, all of which are connected.
Instead of thinking about a spiritual life that has levels, we’re thinking about something more free form that spreads in different ways. It is omething that connects every part of your life to every other part of your life. We aren’t fragmented or segmented people, but, instead, whole individuals trying to follow Jesus Christ.
We’re going to talk four observations to do with the spiritual life and begin by reading in Romans 12:1-3. This is the Apostle Paul talking to the Church in
“Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday,
Your everyday, ordinary life, not your X-Man-Superman-super-hero ordinary life, not the parts where you feel best about yourself, where you’re soaring sky-high—your everyday, ordinary life. We’re talking about your life when you’re mad at your kids, your life when you hate your boss, your life when you’re too tired to get up in the morning—your everyday, ordinary life.
“…your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me,
and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as
every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not
misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God.
No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves
is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what
we do for him.
It’s an interesting way for Paul to begin this discourse about how we grow and experience and understand the spiritual life. I find it fascinating to see the way he sets things up, immediately calling Christians to be qualitatively different than the world around them. He immediately says, “There’s something inside of you that needs to be fed and needs to be manifest.” In this way I think we can begin our understanding of cellular spirituality and how we grow spiritually by saying everything is alive.
The spiritual parts of your life are alive. Things that are alive grow, they die, they get hungry, they need nourishment. When you think of your soul as being alive, you’ve got to think of the fact that different parts of your spiritual life need to be taken care of. You don’t achieve a level of spirituality and then never pay attention to that aspect of the spiritual life again. You don’t feed one hungry person and all of a sudden think of yourself as having achieved compassion or mercy. You don’t go on one mission trip and then all of a sudden think of yourself as a world class evangelist who never has to do anything again. You don’t attain one level of being really spiritual and then ignore that area of spirituality for the rest of your life. Think about what your marriage would be like if you did that. You say, “I love you,” on your wedding day and then never again, and then you can’t figure out why he doesn’t love you anymore. These spiritual components of our lives are alive and need to be nurtured or else they’ll get sick and die.
This brings us to our second observation about the spiritual life. Everything counts for something, so if something that’s alive is allowed to die, that’s important. If you used to feel compassion towards people who were less fortunate than you and you don’t anymore, that’s important. If you used to be able to love the people that didn’t really like you and you can’t anymore, that matters. Consequently, if you feel like maybe God is expanding your spiritual awareness and coaxing you into new ways of being loving to the world around you, those new things coming into your mind also matter. Everything you can think of matters, which is an awesome, almost terrifying, concept, because for most of us we can think of an awful lot.
Everything is alive and everything matters. This is very, very different than what we commonly think when left to our own devices. How many times in a day do we say about some inconsequential thing, “I’ll get to that tomorrow”? How many times in a day do we see someone who we think could use a word of encouragement or a silent prayer and we don’t do those things? When we do those things, they feed our spiritual lives; they are like nourishment to the cells in our spiritual body.
Let’s pick up here in Verse 4.
“In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets
its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around.”
Time out for just a second. Paul’s going to use this next section to talk about a local congregation. Paul is going to talk about a church, but the things that are true for a church are also true for us as individuals. You might think of yourself as an individual, but in reality you’re composed of somewhere around 30 to 100 trillion cells that have to work together in order for you to do anything. Your body already represents how important it is to be working together, to be connected and to be of one mind. When we read Paul’s thoughts about how to be the Body of Christ, thinking about the Church, we can also think about how this applies to us as individuals.
“The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each
of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a
chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would
we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently
formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just
go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or
pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be
something we aren’t.”
Oftentimes, when we think of spirituality as something to be achieved, and we think of the different steps we go through, it creates, however inadvertently, this kind of comparison. We think there’s only one way to become more spiritual. If someone says to you, “I spend thirty minutes in prayer and Bible reading”, we think of them as more spiritual than someone who only spends two minutes a day in prayer and Bible reading or only spends two minutes a year in prayer and Bible reading. But what if that person spent thirty minutes a day in prayer and Bible reading and the rest of their time working at a concentration camp? The person who only spent two minutes a year instead was out in the middle of a jungle somewhere providing clean water to people because the love of God was so deep in their hearts they had to something to save somebody’s life? Now our little system of trying to figure out who’s really spiritual is all screwed up.
Instead, we don’t think of a one-size-fits-all approach to spirituality. One-size-fits-all doesn’t fit anyone. Instead, we think of a way we all grow in our spiritual life in different ways. Take, for example, our Coriolis leadership team. There are differences between John and Randy and I. This might be the areas in my spiritual life I believe God is wanting me to grow in. Some of them are bigger than others, some are smaller, some are new, some are connected. I might feel like right now God is asking me to be mature and I feel like the spirit of God is telling me, ‘You need to grow up a little bit.” So I put effort into that, because God brings them to my mind. I would never prescribe for someone else: These are the ten things you need to do in order to become more like Jesus. No, I’m saying this is what I feel like Jesus is telling me: “You’ve got to work on some stuff, McDonald; you’ve got some bucking up to do.”
Conversely, you might compare that to John. John’s spiritual growth could look totally different. Maybe there are areas where John’s also working on spiritual things similar to mine, but for me maturity in Christ isn’t looking more like John Voelz or trying to copy the things Jesus is telling John Voelz to work on. For me, spiritual maturity is saying, “Lord, what do I need to work on?” Randy’s growth, of course, would look a little different.
Now bear in mind this is just a metaphorical way of understanding how we grow as spiritual people. It doesn’t mean you have to look like this or you have to act like this or you have to emulate these things. Instead, it means we all come to God and say, “You can have everything. Instruct me how you’d like me to grow.”
This brings us to our third observation for today. Everything is connected. Oftentimes, it becomes very easy for people to segment different aspects of their Christian life. It becomes very easy for people to put up little boxes they like to protect. But the reality is everything you do matters in every other area of your life. You can’t be a jerk in one area of your life and not be a jerk. Have you ever met someone in a purely social capacity and they seem so wonderful? “This is the coolest person ever. I want to grow up and be like this guy.” Then you work with them and you say, “This person is the spawn of Satan; they’re evil.” We all know these kinds of experiences.
The truth of the matter is there aren’t fifteen people running around inside you. You’re you. A lot of people wear masks or faces, but at the core, you’re you and everything you do, you’re doing. When you treat your wife a certain way, that’s you treating your wife. When you treat her nicely, kindly, sincerely or gently, that’s you. Yet, when you’re angry at your boss or you speak ill to someone, that’s also you. You’ve got to reconcile every part of who you are, because it’s the same person. One of the great gifts of God is he makes us whole; he gives us the understanding to know we are made whole in Jesus Christ. For many people who struggle with this kind of thing, we know there is hope over and over again Jesus is able to make us whole.
Once we understand that these things are connected, we also have to understand that every part of our life is contagious. This is our last observation for today. If a part of your spiritual life gets sick, it will begin to spread that sickness throughout every part of your life. If a part of you goes bad, if you can’t let go of some old wound, it will eat you up like cancer. You cannot love one person or hate one person and not have that branch out into every other part of your life. If you hate your spouse, that’s going to affect your kids, your spouse’s family and your network of friendships. If you hate the last church you were at, that’s going to affect this church and every church you go to next. That’s going to affect you and it’s going to spread throughout your life, affecting everything. This happens all the time in a myriad of different ways.
Let me give you an example. It’s an example from my own life and my own cluster of friendships; it has to do with pastors. This might not be true for any of the pastors you know; this is just something I’ve noticed in some of my friends, and this has been very painful for many of them. It could be just as easily true for plumbers as for pastors, except maybe with better pants.
One thing I noticed with people who are in ministry is they get into conflict with other people who are in ministry. This breaks my heart. Say, for example, a subordinate staff member gets into conflict with the senior pastor. Tension emerges between these two people and the person who is losing goes home. Who do they complain to? They complain to their wife. That’s who we all complain to. Because church is something so personal to so many people, the conflict becomes personal and meaningful; it’s a spiritual community that the spouse is now involved in. When the worker/pastor comes home and complains about work, they’re not just complaining about work, they’re complaining about church community. That affects the person who stays at home.
What happens on Tuesday? Worker/pastor goes back to work, resolves the conflict with their boss, so that issue is now settled. It’s all water under the bridge; we all have conflicts. God loves resolution. We’re done but who is it not finished for? It’s not finished for the spouse at home. The spouse at home festers and feels angry and feels like the spouse is at work being abused and in some way those things have turned sour. Spouse at home has this poison gradually growing inside of their heart that not only affects their marriage, but affects their relationship with that couple, with the boss, and spouse. It affects their network of relationships and the whole church. Pretty soon, if that’s never resolved, that family leaves the church, they tear their relationship apart, they tear their own family apart, but they don’t come somewhere else seeking wholeness. They come somewhere else seeking justification. I can tell you, I see this all the time, and I see it with my friends.
It’s just an example—it’s not because it’s ministry or because they’re pastors. It’s because we are all people, and every part of our lives is connected. When you have a problem at work, a problem at work will manifest itself at home. A problem at home will manifest itself at work. A problem with your spouse will manifest itself in your kids, because everything is connected.
To illustrate, I heard this great story about some sailors who were going through the
They’d do this at both of the two islands. One day they approached the first island, dumped their cargo and one of the sweet potatoes came inland through a fresh water stream. When the monkey picked it up and began to eat the sweet potato, there was no salt on it, so he got to enjoy the sweet potato. The next time they came by, they saw this monkey washing his sweet potato that was covered in salt water in the fresh water stream so he could eat it. They came by again and now there were several monkeys washing their sweet potatoes off. They finally came by one time and every monkey was washing their leftover vegetables in the fresh water stream. (It’s known as the hundred monkey effect if you care to research at all.) The same day all of the monkeys on the first island began washing their food in the fresh water stream, all of the monkeys on the second island, which previously had not washed any of their food, began at that moment to wash all their food on the same day. These two islands, a mile or two apart, had this strange transference of consciousness or awareness.
The story in and of itself isn’t really important, it’s just a neat little story. Scientists really have some wonderful arguments about it on the Internet if you care to read any. What it illustrates for us is just how intimately connected and how contagious our behavior is; nothing is isolated or separated. If you’ve got an addiction in your life or broken relationship, that’s going to hurt you in some other area. Maybe like a cancer or an illness that has no visible manifestation for sometimes years, so, too, will a kind of spiritual cancer live under the surface of your life for an indefinite amount of time until it sabotages you.
We say all of this with the awareness that just as there are poisons that work themselves through our spiritual life, so, too, are there incredibly healthy things that shoot well being and positive energy, the light and the life of Jesus Christ, through every part of who you are. If you give a gift, you get this injection of positive spiritual energy. You get this infusion of the life of the Holy Spirit. If you just reach out with kindness to the world around you, you’ll find your life increasingly begins to feel more healthy. The more you represent or imitate or actuate the life of Jesus Christ everywhere you go, the more you’re going to feel that health of God flowing through every part of who you are. I think it would be a great mistake for us to think of our spiritual life as only something that can be damaged. Instead, we ought to think of our spiritual life as something that can be nurtured and cultivated. It is omething that can increasingly represent Jesus Christ to our family and to the world around us.
I’d love to leave you with some questions about who you are on this cellular spiritual level. I’d love it if we could ask ourselves what we’re deliberately doing to culture our souls. There are all kinds of things that happen to us, good things and bad things, and by-and-large the way we respond to those things is what’s going to culture us spiritually. At the same time, there are things we can do deliberately in our pursuit to imitate Christ. What are those things for you? Maybe it’s prayer, maybe it’s fasting, maybe it’s contemplation, maybe it’s time alone with God, maybe it’s a walk in the woods. Maybe you connect with God through nature. What are those things? What are you deliberately doing? We often hear people saying, “I don’t really connect with God that way.” Okay, how do you connect with God? “I don’t really enjoy a quiet time.” Okay, I’m not selling you a quiet time. What are we deliberately doing to have Jesus grow in us?
Secondly, I wonder where do you think God is pushing you? What are the new cells being born in you? Is there something about compassion or justice or mercy? Is there something about financial understanding or money management? Is there something about forgiveness or love for your enemies? Is there something about the ability to take criticism? Where is God pushing and growing you?
Conversely, where are you just dying? Where are the areas in your life you refused, up to this point, to take a good hard look at—your addictions, your habits, your foul relationships, your speech? What are those things for you? If we’re to just take this moment and be mindful of our spiritual lives to ask God for a greater awareness, then we can run a kind of spiritual diagnostic. At the end, say, “Okay, Lord, I’m ready. Let’s get a little bit healthy.”