How much continuous spiritual progress have we made through the years? How many of us have nagging doubts that our heavenly Father and our elder brother Jesus Christ can work with us to get the job of our conversion and salvation done? When contemplating the devastating fragmentation that rent asunder the greater church of God in recent years, many wonder how to properly evaluate such a disaster or place it in the right perspective. Such an upset makes it difficult to judge our individual growth as well.
Most of us have encountered spiritual setbacks, perhaps triggered by the loss of a job, the death of a family member, the termination of a friendship, unfulfilled goals or seemingly unanswered prayers. Perhaps we have worked to overcome a long-held habit, and just as we feel we have almost overcome it, the vile practice returns stronger than ever. Because of incidents or situations like these, we have doubts about our conversion, believing that we have not made significant spiritual progress. Moreover, many of us might not recognize spiritual progress if it hit us across the bridge of the nose. Do we have the capability to judge spiritual progress in ourselves or in anyone else?
Myopic View of Progress
We desperately need farsighted vision to evaluate spiritual progress. I first began to learn this lesson as a teenager back on the family farm. One summer, I asked my father if I could invite some of my friends from town out for the weekend. We had become involved in a massive demolition project, tearing down an old barn that had over the years become an eyesore as well as a safety hazard.
Dad thought for a minute and then said, "No, young people don't seem to have any sense of progress. They would judge us for the present mess rather than for what we have planned for the future." At that time, I thought my father seemed unreasonable, but as the years progressed, I have come to see the profound wisdom of that observation.
I have since learned that not only do young people have a myopic view of progress. Although young people tend to fixate on the immediate or the here-and-now while adults are more inclined to focus on the future, all human beings possess the ugly quirk of refusing to look beyond the scaffolding and debris (metaphorically speaking) to the finished product.
Building contractors realize that "please excuse our mess" signs will rarely stop impatient, premature, critical judging. A number of years ago, as I took my family through a large amusement park in Southern California, I noticed the elaborate precautions the contractor had taken to prevent people from gawking at the work in progress. Perhaps our forefather Noah wished at times that God would have erected some kind of barrier around the work in progress—but he had the spiritual vision to see beyond the scaffolding to the finished product.
We can be thankful that Abraham had the vision to look beyond temporary obstacles and tolerate innumerable delays while the project God intended to work through him and for him—godly seed, a permanent homeland, a heavenly country—was being prepared (Hebrews 11:8-16). In fact, Abraham died in the construction zone, having only seen the promises afar off. His vision transported him beyond the transition stages to the final goal (verse 13). Moses, Elijah, Daniel, John the Baptist, the apostle John, and Herbert W. Armstrong all died amidst the construction without ever seeing the fruits of their work dramatically increase.
The apostle Paul warns in I Corinthians 4:5 that we make a mistake to judge things out of its appropriate time: "Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. . . ." While we sometimes may not see the reason for something happening in our lives, it may become clear why it happened later. The Master Contractor has a plan for all of us—along with a timetable—full of interesting phases and sequences. God has made this plan so awesome that we can absorb it only in block-by-block increments, reminding us of Isaiah 55:8, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." Indeed, some of God's plans and methods are "unsearchable . . . and . . . past finding out" (Romans 11:33).
We could also compare the educational process to a construction zone. Students often cannot see the relevance of a particular course to their program or the relevance of a particular unit to the course. Some presumptuous students feel they know better than the curriculum's designer and try to take shortcuts. God has not placed us in charge of the curriculum that He has planned for us. He is a Master Educator, and He knows best how to turn out summa cum laude graduates.
Thwarted or Guided?
Unfortunately, some of us at times think we know better than the Contractor what we need and what should be done with our lives. God makes it clear what He thinks about the "know it all" who believes he has a better idea: "Woe to him who strives with his Maker! . . . Shall the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?'. . . Woe to him who says to his father, ‘What are you begetting?'" (Isaiah 45:9-10). It would seem highly presumptuous for the flagman on the construction crew to tell the demolition foreman where to set the dynamite charges.
God has given us minds to think and plan, but He does not always give us charge over the outcome of our plans. Proverbs 16:9 says, "A man's heart plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps." Sometimes those steps move sideways, backwards or perhaps over a circuitous detour. Sometimes God steers us away from horrendous unseen obstacles while we mistakenly think that He is thwarting us or not answering our prayers. Verse 25 suggests, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death." Is it possible that, if we always received what we prayed for and set our minds upon, it would also lead to death? Jeremiah 10:23 affirms, "O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps." He implies that, without God, man's plans always end in failure and ruin.
Many individuals have come to realize this important lesson. Swedish composer Hilding Rosenberg once told conductor Herbert Blomstedt, "I have learned over the years sometimes to have more gratitude for the things that did not come my way. Often the reason they do not come our way is because something better is around the corner." A former dean of faculty at a Midwestern university once stated, "Every experience, good or bad, when properly evaluated, can become the starting point for greater growth."
Three thousand years ago, King David understood that setbacks could ultimately lead to something greater and better. In Psalm 119:71, he writes, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted. . . ." If we have confidence in God's plan for us, we can come to see that setbacks, hard times, and prayers answered contrary to our expectations work for our ultimate good. If we approach these difficulties properly, we can often gain a better, more productive perspective, and there is no better point of view than God's.
Good From Bad
How many of us have prayed for a specific result only to receive the opposite? At some time in our lives, most of us have become at least temporarily disappointed with the way God has resolved a problem because it was either totally unexpected or seemingly disadvantageous. This is a sign we have not had Christ's mind completely formed in us.
From a human viewpoint, the apostle Paul had every reason to display disappointment in his many adverse situations, but he does not. Putting a positive spin on an apparently negative event, he reassures the church members in Philippi: "But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel" (Philippians 1:12). His imprisonment in Rome actually provided a golden opportunity to bring Christ's message to the emperor's palace guard (verse 13)!
In verse 16, Paul evaluates another situation which most of us would have considered a setback. While under house arrest in Rome, his "competitors" in proclaiming the gospel mock him, preaching Christ from insincere and self-serving motives: "The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains." In verse 18, however, he says that whatever motives drove his detractors to preach Christ, the job was certainly getting done. In fact, he writes, "[I]n this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice."
It does not matter whether we see immediate progress in ourselves (or in others); the Master Builder knows which pieces fit where. In evaluating God's collective work, we have responsibility only for judging ourselves and bringing our own flesh and minds into submission. If we ever get in the position of questioning whether a brother in Christ fulfills his part in God's plan or acts from a sincere motive, we should compare ourselves to the presumptuous flagman on the construction crew attempting to tell the demolition foreman how to set his charges.
A number of years ago my son built a shelter for our cat. Although he had the plans in his head, the rest of the family never became privy to them. For the entire day, his bedroom looked like a demolition zone: boards, nails, and tools scattered everywhere. Later in the afternoon, I asked him whether he had any idea what he intended to accomplish. He replied, "Trust me, Dad." I felt keenly impressed by his optimism, although at the time I did not share it. By nightfall, he had completed the shelter, and I thought the finished structure appeared aesthetically appealing. God has the same kind of confidence in us as my son had in his carpentry. In Philippians 1:6, the apostle admonishes us to have confidence that "He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ."
Our Savior, in order to accomplish His work, had to undergo what we would call setbacks, beginning with changing from a comfortable, permanent, spiritual state to a precarious, temporal, mortal state. What greater setback could a being ever experience? He emptied Himself of His divine prerogatives, becoming a mortal, fleshly human, suffering and undergoing temptation like any other human being (Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 2:10, 14, 17; 4:15). However, this extreme demotion ultimately resulted in His glorification as our King and High Priest—and in due time will produce our salvation and glorification with Him. Although our trials do not have the severity of Christ's, we need the same kind of vision to keep a positive outlook, expecting occasional obstacles.
Progress toward a goal seems always fraught with delays and detours. During the early 1980s, I would frequently travel U.S. Interstate 70 across Colorado. At Glenwood Canyon, the construction delays used to hold up traffic for over a half hour at a time. To a hurried motorist, the delay seemed like a lack of progress. If in his reflective moments, the motorist would only look beyond the piles of rubble, the forms, the steel rods and the sunburned faces of the construction crew, he might envision a magnificent, compact, double-tiered freeway through a breathtaking mountain gorge. Fortunately for me, I had a completed picture of another stretch of highway—Interstate 15 crossing the Virgin River Gorge between Utah and Arizona—that fortified me in those frustrating times amidst the Glenwood Canyon traffic snarls. Today, that engineering miracle has reached completion, and it is far more gorgeous than I had ever imagined it in my mind's eye.
Put On a Hard Hat
We all live our entire lives in a spiritual hard-hat zone. It seems a pity that God does not require us to wear construction helmets or hard hats to remind us of our temporary and precarious condition. We could envision God Almighty as the Chief Engineer and Jesus Christ as the Contractor. Both know their responsibilities and know what they are doing.
So far, the plan has come right along on schedule. To us, sometimes the plan looks on schedule, but lately too few of us have expressed confidence that anything seems still on schedule. The apostle Paul cautions us to withhold our judgment. Philippians 4:11-12, "I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased [he does not allow himself to become overwhelmed following a setback], and I know how to abound [he does not let the euphoria of accomplishment slow down his progress]."
Paul urges us to consider both setbacks and accomplishments as transitional phases on the road to full conversion. He writes in Philippians 3:13, "Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." The road to conversion, like the road to success, is always under construction. Like Paul, we must press forward to finish our part of the job.
When we realize that we spend our entire lives in a spiritual construction zone, then we should better understand how setbacks, detours, innumerable delays, or prayers answered contrary to our expectations provide an expected and necessary prelude to our spiritual progress. Put on your hard hat and get to work!