Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Walking (Together) by the Spirit

The last two Sunday mornings in July, I shared a two-part message on Walking by the Spirit (Part 1 and Part 2). Our primary scripture was Galatians 5:16, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” I shared that the Greek word for “walk” in that passage is in the present imperative form. It literally means “keep on walking.” It’s a continuous ongoing action, and it’s also a command!

This means that there is no point at which we can say, “OK, I’ve gone far enough.” We will never “arrive” and be done with it. There will always be another step that we have yet to take.

But there’s another aspect to Walking by the Spirit that I only had a chance to touch on briefly during the last message, and that’s the idea that we cannot truly walk by the Spirit in isolation.

In a culture that emphasizes individuality and self-sufficiency, that can be a little difficult to swallow. It is true that many aspects of our relationship with God are (and should be) very personal. Truly we ought to be making time every day for one-on-one prayer and Bible reading. But that was never supposed to be the finish line - that’s only the starting point!

In the Bible, we read of many times when Jesus withdrew and spent time by Himself in prayer (Matt 4:1-2, Luke 6:12-13, Luke 5:16, Matt 26:36), but that was always part of His preparation to minister to others. Jesus sought out solitude - not isolation. And there is a difference! At a recent Wednesday morning ministers’ meeting, one of the pastors shared this quote from Robert Morris: “Solitude and Isolation are not the same. Solitude is when you get alone with God. Isolation is when you get alone with yourself. And you're not that great to get along with.” :)

We should have times of solitude with God in our lives - but we shouldn’t be isolated from other believers. We need each other!

Here are a few of the dangers we face when we live isolated:

1 - WE WON’T HAVE HELP WHEN WE NEED IT. “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.” (Ecc 4 9-10 NASB)

If we’re walking together with others, if/when one of us gets into a bind we won’t have to look far for help. It’s already there. In fact, walking together can keep us from falling into traps. Back in June, I wrote about how internet scammers prey on those who are isolated. We can avoid a lot of hurt in our lives - online and in real life - by staying connected to others.

Walking together also means being available to help others. There has to be a balance. If you’re always the one asking for help but never there when others need you, you’re going to drive others away. Are you blaming God, or others, when you find yourself alone in a difficult place… when it was really your choice to remain isolated?

2 - WE CAN BECOME SELF-CENTERED … AND NOT EVEN REALIZE IT. An isolated life is a selfish life. The Bible talks about our relationship and responsibility to “one another” over 100 times in the New Testament alone. It’s difficult to fulfill those “one another” verses by ourselves! This isn’t an extrovert vs introvert thing. You don’t have to be the “life of the party” to have meaningful relationships with other believers. And it is possible to be extremely outgoing, surrounded by people, and still be isolated.

Self-centeredness in an adult isn’t necessarily going to look like it does in a toddler. Sure, plenty of adults get pouty and upset when they don’t get their way. But most of us dress it up a little better than that! Our self-centeredness might manifest as a belief that others are always talking about us and thinking badly about us. But the truth is, people aren’t thinking about us as much as we think they’re thinking about us! (Hat tip to my mom for inspiring that!) And to be honest, obsessing over someone else’s opinion of you is a symptom of self-centeredness and insecurity. (Trust me, I understand this - and battle it. Which is why I’m reading books like “When Pleasing You is Killing Me” and “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” - both highly recommended!)

Bitterness is another indicator of self-centeredness. It’s natural for us to feel a sting when we’re wronged by someone else. There are times when we’re going to angry. It isn’t pleasant, but stuff happens in all of our lives. The question is, can we let it go… or do we insist on isolating ourselves, holding on to our offenses and keeping a mental scorecard? When something wonderful happens for someone else, do we resent it because we wished it would happen for us? Or can we genuinely rejoice with them? Great self-examination questions.

3 - WE CAN START MAKING GOD INTO OUR IMAGE. Isolation can lead us to the point where we can’t imagine God ever disagreeing with us because we are our only feedback. We can even convince ourselves that a bad decision is God’s will. When we’re isolated, it’s easy to cherry pick and take verses out of context. (Rom 8:28 / Jer 29:11) Those verses are promises that God will be on our side when we’re in line with His will -- not promises that He will take our side in a conflict when we’re in the wrong.

We need people in our lives who will tell us when we’re wrong, and we need the humility and openness to hear what they’re saying instead of dismissing what we don’t want to hear. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (Prov 27:6 NASB). We can often be our own worst enemy - not because we’re out to get ourselves, but because we’re so bent on defending ourselves that we miss out on the positive lessons we were supposed to learn from our negative experiences.

God made all of us in His image. When we isolate, we have a dangerously narrow view of God.

So how do we turn things around?
We need to start by being honest with ourselves. Then we need to find other people, friends who will be honest with us… and be willing to receive their feedback.

This isn’t about church attendance. I do believe that it is important for us to gather together as the Body of Christ on a regular basis (Heb 10:25), but church attendance doesn’t guarantee relationships. That’s going to take some work! And that’s where I want to challenge you this week.

Maybe you’re already in some healthy relationships with other believers you can count on - and who know they can count on you. That’s wonderful! But I would challenge you to expand your circle of friends. Make an effort to include someone new. Reach out to them as a peer, not a project, and know that it’s OK if it doesn’t turn into a “best friends” relationship. Maybe you’re the gifted extrovert who will “accidentally” help others who aren’t as outgoing to connect with each other. Or maybe you’re the thoughtful introvert who will help others think more deeply about matters they would have otherwise brushed over. We need each other!

If you’re lonely and longing for healthy relationships, ask yourself what you want that person to be for you. If you’re looking for a savior… you’re not going to find that in another human being. Only Jesus can meet that need. But on a very practical level, what do you think a friend should be? Once you’ve answered that, look for opportunities to BE that person to someone else. That will be a great invitation to others to walk together with you by the Spirit! And when you walk by the Spirit, you’ll never walk alone. :)

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