There are times when we all struggle in our journey of spiritual growth. Times we feel stagnant. Times we think we're going backward rather than forward. Times when we unwisely compare ourselves with brothers and sisters in our church, wondering why we aren't as spiritually mature as that person. These times can even lead to times of wrestling with whether or not we are really Christians.
Before we turn back to Philippians 1:3-11 to find another way to encourage others who struggle, let me, once again, address those who feel they are struggling even now. First of all, there is something healthy about the struggle. There is something healthy about the discontent you feel regarding your spiritual growth.
I remember reading Don Whitney's Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health. As Whitney mentioned spiritual disciplines, he warned against the idea of "microwave spirituality." This is the notion that we can just push a particular button and very, very quickly grow in Christlikeness. In that same section, he quotes R.C. Sproul's book The Soul's Quest for God: "There are no quick and easy paths to spiritual maturity. The soul that seeks a deeper level of maturity must be prepared for a long, arduous task. If we are to seek the kingdom of God, we must abandon any formulae that promise instant spiritual gratification."
Because spiritual growth is a "long, arduous task," we should not be surprised when we feel that it is taking longer than we expected. We should not fret when growth seems harder than we thought it would be. It is long because we have far to travel to truly be like Jesus. It is arduous because all along the way, we fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Yet, there is hope. There is hope when the path of spiritual growth seems too long or too hard, and we see a piece of that hope in Philippians 1:3-11. Paul declares, with great confidence, that "he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (v. 6). God began the work in you, He is completing it, and He will complete it. Of this, we can be confident. And in this, we find hope when the journey is a "long, arduous task."
We can speak these kinds of words to our brothers and sisters who are struggling in their own spiritual growth. But there is more in this text. This is not the only source of encouragement that Paul gives the Philippian Christians. The other way we can encourage one another when struggling with spiritual growth is to intentionally recognize evidences of grace.
Now, what are evidences of grace? They are, quite simply, the evidences that God's grace is at work in another person. They are the evidences that God has begun a good work and that God is continuing His good work. Let me give some examples:
- Love for God, His Word, other Christians, neighbors, enemies...seen in words and in actions
- Enduring the trials of life while looking to God for strength and grace, trusting His purposes
- Godly sorrow that leads to repentance when he sins
- Remaining faithful to Christ, to the gospel, to the church, and to holiness in the face of opposition from family, friends, or co-workers
- A biblical approach to his family life, work life, social life...all of life
- Being quicker to confess sin against others and forgive the sin of others against him
- His decision-making process is driven by what the Word says and getting counsel from the godly people around him
What is happening when we rebuke another person? We are recognizing fruits that are inconsistent with who they are in Christ. What is happening when we talk to others about the evidences of grace in their lives? We are recognizing fruits that are consistent with God's work of grace in their lives. Paul does this in three ways, and we should take this as an example of how to encourage others.
First, in verse 5, Paul rejoices because of their "partnership in the gospel from the first day until now." He is not simply thankful for their financial support of his missionary efforts, though he is that. He is recognizing that they are committed to fellowship with an apostle of Jesus Christ in a day when apostles were not celebrated but stoned. If you walked into the Philippian branch of the postal service, you would likely find Paul's face on a "Wanted" poster. Yet, the Philippian Christians were committed to him.
D.A. Carson remarks that the word "fellowship," in our day, has been watered down to mean warm friendship between people at a formal or informal event. It doesn't even have to be Christian. Non-Christians talk about having "fellowship" with one another. To counter this notion, Carson continues, "The heart of true fellowship is self-sacrificing conformity to a shared vision" (p. 16, Basics for Believers). The vision shared by Paul and the Philippians was a gospel vision...a vision of men and women from all peoples, languages, tribes, and tongues believing the gospel and serving the Lord Jesus Christ. And this kind of commitment to the gospel...a commitment that shares the vision and shares resources to make the vision a reality...this is an evidence of God's grace at work in them.
Second, Paul says that the Philippians did not simply get off to a good start and then fade away. They are persevering in their commitment to the gospel and to gospel ministry. Notice in verse 7, they are partakers of grace "both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel." Even when opposition came their way, the Christians in Philippi persevered in their commitment to Christ and to His gospel and to His apostle.
This kind of endurance is another evidence of grace. In the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about seeds that are sown on rocky ground. These are people who hear the Word and immediately receive it with joy. However, in the face of opposition, tribulation, or persecution, they fall away, proving they were not truly rooted in the gospel (cf. Mark 4:1-20).
For those who are parents, this is one way to tell if the faith your child professes has taken root. When he/she hits the teen years, there is typically an increase in opposition to the gospel. Other teens are exploring all kinds of philosophies and lifestyles, and it is often in middle and high school that other children will voice opposition to your child's professed faith. What happens then can be an indicator of whether the gospel has taken root. It is certainly true that a teen's love of debate or stubborn desire to be right may mean not giving up in an argument. However, opposition typically exposes whether the professed faith is a genuine faith (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7).
The Philippians did not fall away in the face of opposition. As we read the rest of the letter, we see that the opposition remains, and Paul will encourage them to continue to persevere. But, for now, he is recognizing that they have persevered to this point.
We see a third and final evidence of grace in verse 9. Here, Paul has begun to tell them what he prays on their behalf. He prays they will grow in love, in knowledge, and in discernment, so that they will make wise choices and live holy lives. However, there is a little piece of grace evidence tucked inside this wonderful prayer for spiritual growth. It's the possessive pronoun before the word "love."
Paul does not pray that "love may abound" but that "your love may abound." That little word makes a huge difference! Paul is saying that the kind of love that should be abounding in the congregation is already present. They are not devoid of love. He is not praying that they would begin doing something they have neglected to this point. He is praying that the love they already have for one another, which is an evidence of God's grace in their lives, will abound more and more.
So, Paul recognizes God's grace (1) in their gospel fellowship, (2) in their perseverance in the face of opposition, and (3) in their love for one another. One last thing...how do you do that with other people? How are you going to be able to recognize the evidence of grace in others? How can you encourage others in ways that are real and meaningful rather than sounding superficial and generic...like a Hallmark card? We should want to answer these kinds of questions because we are commanded to encourage one another, and we want that encouragement to be meaningful.
Here's the first step to recognizing the evidences of grace in others...in being able to give more meaningful encouragement to one another. It will seem simple, but it may also feel very difficult and too time-consuming. Here it goes: "We must know one another if we are going to recognize evidences of grace in one another." I told you it was simple. You can't recognize evidences of grace in someone you don't know...or someone with whom you only talk about the weather, sports, and politics.
If our relationships with one another do not remain and grow deeper over time, then we have no ability to see and encourage spiritual growth in one another. Not only that, but receiving this kind of encouragement from strangers or acquaintances is not nearly as meaningful as receiving it from those who truly know you. If I've seen you fail in an area of your life for some time and then recognize growth in that area, then you will be more blessed when you hear me say so. I'll say it again: We must know one another if we are going to recognize evidences of grace in one another.
It's simple, yet seemingly difficult. We fill our lives with tasks and activities, and as a result, many of our relationships remain superficial. We don't have time for people; we don't have energy for people; we don't want to deal with people. We can too easily settle for small talk in the church foyer, when biblical relationships in the church must go deeper. You need others to see into your life, and others need you to see into theirs.
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he said this: "And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all" (1 Thessalonians 5:14). As you look around at your relationships in the local church, do you know the idle that need to be admonished? Do you know the fainthearted that need to be encouraged? Do you know the weak who need your help? Brothers and sisters, if local churches are to be what God has called them to be, then we must seek to know one another and encourage one another by recognizing the evidences of God's amazing grace.