This is the second part of a sermon I preached in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, on November 16, 2008, entitled, “Change We Can Believe In.”
A Request I Couldn’t Get Out of My Mind
About two years ago, one of my sons’ friends and his parents came to our house for dinner one night. As we were flipping hamburgers on the grill, Mike (the father) and I started talking about spiritual growth. In a moment of candor, he said to me, “I would really like to grow spiritually, but I don’t know what to do. I wish someone would break spiritual growth down into specific steps that I could take.”
As I worked for the next year and a half on a book that was just published a couple of weeks ago, Mike’s request haunted me. By the time I was done writing it, I realized that I had been writing for Mike and other Christians who want to grow spiritually. Taking pilgrimage as a metaphor for the spiritual life, I titled the book, One Step at a Time: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living (https://spirit-ledleader.com/?page_id=29, the Alban Institute, 2008).
At the heart of this book is my wrestling with the question, “How can I experience more transformation in my life?” Biblical writers teach that believers are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives, but if transformation is so elusive for so many of us, what’s wrong? Is it our theology or something we need to do differently? What could I say to help others experience real, lasting transformation in their life?
Insight on the Camino
Two and a half years ago, the summer before my conversation with Mike about spiritual growth, I went on a long hike. A very long hike. Jill, my two sons and I walked 500 miles across northern Spain on pilgrimage. I was on sabbatical, and I felt led to walk this ancient pilgrimage route to seek God’s leading for the next phase of my life. Even more, I was hoping that God would use this intense, extraordinary experience to transform me in some way.
I didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for. The first night we slept in bunk beds, in a room with 120 other pilgrims. Our clothes got soaked, our legs were aching, we were exhausted, and this was only day 1. Some days the temperature was over 110 degrees. Jill injured her leg and nearly got heat exhaustion. My feet ached and my legs throbbed. We had to face things in ourselves and in our marriage that we didn’t want to have to face.
I was praying to be transformed every day, but all I was getting was crabbier, more tired, and more fed up with myself and everyone else. Oh, there were lots of wonderful moments, too, but I was really wondering if significant transformation was even possible in my life.
Then one day, something shifted. I started off in a particularly crabby mood. We had an extra long way to go that day, and on top of it, the rain started falling. This was really going to be a good day, I could tell!
Along the way, I noticed that the rain would come and go depending on the wind. When there was no wind, the rain just kept dripping on me. But when the wind would start up, sometimes the rain cloud above me would blow away, and we’d get a respite.
All of a sudden, I got this insight.
The Holy Spirit is like the wind. When I pray and ask for help with my negative moods or temptations or hard feelings, I am inviting God to do in me what I cannot seem to do for myself. It’s not magic, and it doesn’t work every time, but often, when I truly surrender my will to God’s, and ask for help with an open heart and mind, God produces a change within me. To go back to the metaphor, the Holy Spirit often blows away whatever is making me all wet spiritually, mentally or emotionally.
I also came to realize that the changes the Holy Spirit makes in me are seldom permanent. I trust that God has given me eternal life, but I still need the Holy Spirit to breathe into me freshly every day and every moment for me to continue to experience the changed life that comes from God.
Such an ongoing dependence on the Holy Spirit is what Jesus meant by abiding in him. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. With Jesus we can bear much fruit. Apart from the Holy Spirit, we will be our old normal, limited, unchanged selves. With the Holy Spirit, we can experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
It’s that simple.
I didn’t say, it’s that “easy”, but it is a simple concept. With and only with the Holy Spirit’s active working in our lives and through us, can we experience the change we most desire, and the change we are called to as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, too many Christians have accepted the message of salvation, but have not learned how to let the Holy Spirit transform their hearts, minds and behavior on a day-by-day basis. Or, if they know how to yield to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, they often choose not to. Did I say, “they”? I meant, “we.” We all know the experience of knowing the right or good thing to do, but choosing a different course.
The Christian bookstores are full of inspirational and instructive books on living the Christian life, but not one will do you any good, if you are not willing to say “yes” to the Holy Spirit. You can listen to sermons, get videos of great teachers, and read the Bible until you’ve memorized every word, but if you are not prepared to say “yes” to the Holy Spirit on a moment by moment basis, you are not going to experience transformation. You are not going to experience the change you need, the change you hope for, and change you can believe in.
I cannot tell you specifically what the Holy Spirit wants to say to you at this moment, but I guarantee you that the Spirit has something to say to you that fits with God’s will for your life. God is trying to lead you in the ways he wants you to go, on a step-by-step basis.
We are not called to figure out God’s master plan for our life ahead of time. We are called to learn how to stay connected to the Holy Spirit, to recognize the Spirit’s prompting when it comes, and to say “yes” for the next thing God is asking us to do. Then, and usually only then, after we have said yes and have followed through on the Spirit’s leading, will we be ready to hear the next bit of instruction.
Transformation rarely happens in one fell swoop. We change as we learn to take one step after another as the Holy Spirit leads us. As we say yes to the Spirit’s leading today, we move to the place where we can say yes to whatever he wants us to do tomorrow. Then, when we add up all the days of our lives that are filled with moments in which we are being led by the Holy Spirit, the net result is a truly transformed life.
The place to start, though, is with this present moment.
What’s the Holy Spirit saying to you now?
What’s your answer?
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. —2 Corinthians 13:14