I have been reading, slowly, a work written by William Wilberforce. If you don't know who he is, he is most recognized for his untiring work to abolish slavery from England. He was also a staunch Christian who influenced his time and culture through his commitment to Christianity. In his work entitled A Practical View of Christianity, he says the following:
"Bountiful as is the hand of Providence, its gifts are not so bestowed as to seduce us into indolence, but to rouse us to exertion; and no one expects to attain to the height of learning, or arts, or power, or wealth, or military glory, without vigorous resolution, and strenuous diligence, and steady perseverance. Yet we expect to be Christians without labour, study, or inquiry."
For many Christians, their Christianity rests on little more than a conversion experience. Perhaps no one has taken the time to disciple them. Or other diverse entertainments pull more passionately on their emotions. Or, as Wilberforce suggests, perhaps we do not apply the principle that hard work equals success to Christianity as we do to other efforts.
I have had several conversations with Christian friends recently in which the idea of Christianity as work has come up. This has led me to an interesting series of questions: "Why does living as a Christian take work? Couldn't God just make us Christlike automatically? Why put us through the process of sanctification?" In pondering the answer to this question, I identified a truth from Wilberforce's quote: Attaining to the height of learning, arts, power, wealth, etc. takes work. So, I could generalize the question: Why does the height of anything take work?
I think the answer can be found in God's gift of free will (I have addressed free will in another post here). If someone is given free will, then this means he has the ability to choose rightly or wrongly. This also means that in his life, he will either choose to put effort into something or to leave it well enough alone. For example, my brother is a music teacher. He has chosen to put his effort into the study of music and has risen to the height of a band director. I have not chosen to put effort into music. I played the flute for a time in high school band, a little in a church orchestra during college. But that has been the extent of my effort. Thus, I have not risen to any heights at all in my flute playing. Indeed, I have fallen back down to a beginner band level through lack of practice. Thus, in making my choice, I chose not to pursue being a musician and lack musical skill.
Isn't it the same with all pursuits? Whether mere hobbies or essential jobs, we rise and fall in congruency to our efforts. We put our time and effort into that which we become good at. Even when we have a natural aptitude, we still must put in effort to achieve. Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and even Billy Graham put in effort to achieve their heights. We probably all know someone with unreal IQ scores but an entire lack of effort who could achieve so much more if motivated to do so.
Thus, whether we achieve or not in this life (and what we achieve) is tied to our choices, our free will. In giving us free will, God gives us the choice not only to accept or reject His gifts to us, but also the choice to be sanctified or not. The benefits of sanctification are rewarded to those who choose to yield to God's Spirit working within them.
This answer then led me to another question: "How is this work of Christianity carried out?" Without a doubt, if one desires to evaluate the status of a Christlike life, there is no greater list than the Fruit of the Spirit, a list of the Spirit's working in a Christian heart. Yet when we talk about the Fruit of the Spirit, we often act like we simply pray and then God miraculously produces in us the fruit we desire. We see ourselves as passive. Yet Paul's command is to "walk by the Spirit." We must do something: we must walk. We must chose to walk if we will possess the Fruit of the Spirit.
The Bible is replete with the idea that Christianity takes effort: "A pupil is not above his teacher ; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher" (Luke 6:40). "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever" (1 Cor. 9:25). "...train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Tim. 7b-8). "But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" (Heb. 5:14).
If walking in a Christian way takes effort, takes training, then we must expect the Spirit to train us. We will not reflect the Fruit of the Spirit in our lives unless we have been trained in it. This means it takes practice just as becoming an accomplished musician, business man, or football player also takes practice. What will this practice look like? Consider the following:
You pray to be a person of love. A friend back stabs you the next day. Will you practice love?
You pray to be a person of joy. Your kids wake up cranky and whiny that morning. Will you practice joy?
You pray to be a person of peace. There is an accident on the highway and you are going to be late for a morning meeting at work. Do you practice peace?
You pray to be a person of kindness. A woman cuts in front of you while in line at the post office. Do you practice kindness?
You pray to be a person of goodness. Your boss asks you to falsify a report. Do you practice goodness?
You pray to be a person of faithfulness. Your father contracts cancer. Do you practice faithfulness to God?
You pray to be a person of gentleness. Your toddler decorates the entire bathroom in toilet paper. Do you practice gentleness?
You pray to be a person of self-control. Your spouse has forgotten your anniversary producing anger in your heart. Do you practice self-control?
It is my firm belief that if we plan to be godly Christians, then God will put us through a course of godliness. We will be challenged on all fronts to practice the Fruit of the Spirit. We will face test after test. The more we pass the tests, the better we will reflect Christlikeness.
I'll be honest about this: I in no way display perfect Christlikeness. Yet I am seeking to walk by the Spirit. I pass the tests at times, at others I fail. But I go back again, knowing that my choice to walk by the Spirit, to face the tests, will be the only way I gain the heights of godliness. Practically, I suggest that every Christian make a list of the Fruit of the Spirit and then write below each fruit ways he tends to fail the test in each area. Then, to write beside each failure a way to remedy the situation. Consider this task like a Study Guide for a test. You can't pass a test without preparing for it (perhaps you can if the teacher is too easy; I am not that kind of teacher :-)). Perhaps if we put the effort in to prepare, we might act differently the next time. If you do decide to go through with this task, let me know how it goes. And I'll update, too, because I plan on taking myself through the Study Guide as well.
(As a side note, one commonality of all the great Christians of the past is their willingness to honestly evaluate themselves and to identify goals and ways to improve themselves. In our society, we have sadly lost this practice. In a world that tells us we are always right, always good and truth is relative, we do not improve morally because we never evaluate our incorrect morals).