May 2, 2012

Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation

by Wyatt Graham

A dark room that reeks of the musty smell that accompanies rot. Alone here, your mind wanders nowhere yet everywhere at the same time. A feeling of dread, loneliness or something wriggles through your bones. A sucking feeling in your gut tips you off that you are hungry but you are not sure. It might just be anxiety. All of this happened because of a keen experience of separation from God. A sort of spiritual anxiety. The Puritans described this feeling with the phrase, “the dark night of the soul.” They knew well about the malady of spiritual depression.

Spiritual stagnation is a problem that will bombard everyone at one point or another. Depression, fears and anxiety gush out, because we feel “separated” from God, from grace. We feel alone, sinful, dirty and unloved—or perhaps unloving.

Part of reason spiritual depression occurs, I am convinced, is because we have a wrong view of Biblical Change. We go to God and ask for ways to overcome our problems, our worries. We look to ourselves and our problems and then to God’s word for helps to our problems. Being lost in our issues, we seek help from God.

Not to throw out the baby with the bath water, one should admit a mixture of good and bad rises in this recipe. The good comes when we seek God in our distress. The bad comes about when we try to find the right “trick” to overcome spiritual depression. These tricks are sometimes hidden under the guise of “practicality” or “practical helps” in Scripture.

Sometimes, however, reading the Bible in order to attain “practical” helps or seeking only what is “practical” (a very popular word these days) becomes an Achilles heal for spiritual athletes. That which promises hope results in further disappointment. These aids crush the runner’s sternum causing a desperate gasps for air instead of the promised jolt of energy so-called practicality promises.

Please do not misunderstood what is being said. The Bible speaks in many practical ways. When it speaks in this way, a believer should take this practical help.

Here is what I mean. While it may be appropriate in some places to find wisdom for life (cf. Proverbs) and many moral lessons might be learned from Scripture (cf. 1 Cor 10:6, 11), this really is not the primary way in which we grow into the image of Christ. This is not the way that God typically pulls us up from mire and washes us clean as he ushers us into spiritual contentment.

Growth in grace and feelings of intimacy with God come about by beholding the glory of God as one sees Christ in the word through the Spirit. The following three propositions aim to show how believers both grow in godliness and feel secure in God’s grace. 

First, people change by beholding God’s glory. Today, the reason Israel remains without internal transformation is because they read God’s word with a veil over their eyes (2 Cor 3:14). For believers, however, Paul writes that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). In other words, it is through “beholding the glory of the lord” that believers are “transformed” from glory to glory. Glory changes people. 

Second, beholding God’s glory means to behold Christ who fully reveals God. Paul continues to explain in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In short, God’s glory shines from the face of Christ. This is because Jesus revealed God in his incarnation (cf. John 1:14, 18).

Third, to change by beholding God’s glory through Christ means one must be entranced by the word of God. Since Christ has ascended to heaven, the way to see glory shining from his face is through his word. Thus, Hebrews 1:2–3a says, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” The radiance of God’s glory spoke to us in these last days. And this radiance is Jesus Christ whose words must dwell in our hearts (cf. Col 3:16). The way to access God’s glory is to meet Christ through his word, the Scripture, as the Spirit unites us to the Son through our meditation on it (cf. John 16:13–14).

What this means “practically” is that we must study God’s word to see what it says apart from seeking the so-called “practical” lessons. This does not mean we should not learn practical lessons. Surely we should. It simply means we read Scripture to see the glory of God in the face of Christ primarily. This may be the primary way you overcome your spiritual slump. It is through moving away from the grocery list of do’s and do not’s and moving toward a deep understanding of God’s word.

The direction I want to push this is into studying the Old Testament. Since Jesus fulfills the entire Old Testament (Matt 5:17–20), an oft-neglected way to observe God’s glorious plan of redemption and thus behold the Glory of God is by reading the Old Testament. It is here that the unfolding plan of God may be understood; by understanding God’s Scripture, one better comprehends the meaning of Christ’s work. In this way, Christ’s face shines on us through the Old Testament.

It is a sad occurrence that so many Christians read only the New Testament when God’s glorious plan of redemption that finds fulfillment in Christ is dramatically observed in the Old Testament.

To put it simply, stop reading Scripture to solve your problems and start reading Scripture to behold the glory of God in the face of Christ; and as you understand Scripture through the Spirit, you will begin to grow out of your problems. You will transform from level of glory to another and regain that containment and feeling of security Christians are promised in the Lord. And for me, reading especially the Old Testament helps to grow spiritually.

Wyatt Graham

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Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He also blogs at Follow him at @wagraham. Follow TGCCanada at @CanadaTgc.
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  • Well said, and so true, as I’ve found in my own experience. Reading the word of God, all of it, regularly and in large amounts, has helped so much with assurance and overall Christian maturity and understanding.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Lynda. It is wonderful how simply mediating on God’s word day and night (cf. Josh 1:8; Ps 1:2) drives us to a deeper relationship with him.

  • Kevin T

    Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his great exposition of Romans 8:17-25, notes that the Bible never helps us directly, immediately. Searching for immediate solutions to our problems is often the result of a man-centered gospel. Focusing on our problems and our sins too often results in morbid introspection. He correctly notes that the Bible helps us by causing us to see the glory of God which contributes to our desire for holiness and sanctification. In Ephesians 3, Paul speaks of the unsearchable riches of Christ. Speaking of God to the Corinthians, Paul says, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

  • @ Kevin T. Thanks for that timely reminded by the Doctor and the Apostle Paul. Very encouraging.

  • Chad Graham

    When you come home can you be my doulos too… I mean now that you are so well trained? Good post bro.

    • I don’t know whether to be afraid or happy for the offer. Maybe both.

  • Mary Elizabeth Palshan

    We all can think of so many preachers/lay persons, who use God’s Word as a moral compass, or a means to an end for their current, sad circumstances. If that’s all it is for us, then we might as well follow Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and even Tony Robbins.

    BRILLIANT article…..totally enjoyed it!

    God is in the details.

    • Thanks Mary for those kind words.

  • Ted Bigelow

    Fantastic post!

    • Thanks Ted! I appreciate the kind words.

  • Eric Davis

    Good word, Wyatt. Thank you for serving us.

    • Thanks Eric. How’d the thesis end up, by the way?

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  • Elizabeth Miller

    I just love this! Thank you so much! There’s a lack of OT teaching in the Church these days, and it grieves me. When I was a baby Christian it was through reading the OT that I learned so much about Who God was. And then I learned that Jesus was found in the OT and it was through those wonderful books that I came to learn more about Jesus and then the NT was opened for me, and I could see and understand better. Jesus Himself pointed to the OT to learn of Him! Why do so many believers think the Bible begins with Matthew? My Bible starts with Genesis and oh, what a glorious plan we see when we meditate on the full book! How can we rightly divide Scripture when we only read part of it? Again – thank you!

    • I know what you mean. Until a few years ago I rarely read the OT. I was a Matthew to Revelation Christian. But you are right. Scripture starts at Genesis.

      Thanks for reading.

  • When the writer of Hebrews said Jesus Christ the same Yesterday, Today and Forever, the ‘Yesterday’ spoken of was indeed those days of what we call Old Testament days. Without an understanding of Who God revealed Himself to be Yesterday, we can in no way know Him Today.
    If we do not seek His ‘Face’, the hand from which a ‘gift’ is offered may be that of The Enemy with chains attached, not a free gift from our Heavenly Father.

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  • Wyatt, thanks for this timely encouragement! Hits me right where I’ve been struggling, as many voices shouting practical advice are keeping me from “beholding the glory of the lord.”
    I’ll be over here in the OT if anybody asks… Grace and peace to you, brother!