I remember it like it was yesterday. Andrea woke me from a dead sleep and told me it was time. Excited, anxious, and afraid, we checked into the maternity ward at the hospital. Determined to begin parenthood on the right foot, I put into action everything our birthing coach had taught: the breathing, the comforting, the encouragement, massaging her shoulders, feeding her ice chips, but all the while feeling completely helpless. It was heartrending for me, watching Andrea go through so much pain. Ice chips felt like hollow help when she was doing the hardest thing her body had ever been asked to do. She turned to me and whispered, "I don't think I can do this." And, while I tried to reassure her that she could, I thought, "I will never let Andrea put herself through this again."
Why would anyone do this?
A little later, my wife answered that question with the look in her eyes when she held our baby for the first time. As time went by, the pain of the delivery room shrank in comparison to the thousands of moments when we were able to teach our child to read, pray, play the piano, throw a football. Sending her off to kindergarten, being there when she chose Jesus, and one day walking her down the aisle: these are the reasons we go through the pain. In ways I couldn’t even understand at that moment, my life was changed forever in that gift of new life.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.Romans 8:18
I’ve found myself asking a similar question about the hard process of spiritual formation: why would anyone do this? Not unlike childbirth, growing in Christ is costly, risky, pain-filled, and difficult. It’s difficult for everyone, young people and adults. But the spiritual intimacy with God and the loving connections with others will outweigh the fear and difficulties many times over.
Paul, in Romans 8, speaks with a poet’s vision. He was writing to a people who experienced persecution and oppression. They might have asked, “Why would anyone do this?” Paul answered, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (vs.18). He compared it to giving birth, saying that all of creation is groaning, as if in the pains of childbirth, to be reborn, redeemed, restored, and made new. Paul is referring to the adventure of following Christ that requires risk, pain, difficulty, and, at times, great cost. Yet through Jesus we can have new life.
Caught up in what God is doing
This brings fully before us the picture of salvation as beginning to live a life that is caught up in what God is doing. It is a life in which “. . . God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (vs.28). It is a life that already has victory over death. Paul promises that we can actually experience and know God: his grace, his love, his transforming power, right here and now (ch.10).
The moment I learned we were expecting a child, I was changed. That changed my identity, my priorities, my view of the world, the way I loved. Even though my daughter Macy was not yet in my daily life, she had already changed me. I couldn’t touch her face yet, hear her cry, or see her smile, but I still knew she was very real and present. She had an effect on me, because I was part of a new, profound reality.
When we become followers of Christ, it changes us. It changes our identity, our priorities, our view of the world, the way we love. We are forever changed, because of a new, profound reality in our lives. When we acknowledge and willingly commit ourselves to the way of Jesus Christ, this is what we call salvation. However, being saved is not the finished product, it is just the beginning of our journey with Christ. Jesus loves us completely. He wants to form us into who we were made to be. And that will make us more like Christ himself. This developmental process gives rise to new emotions, produces a new character. Our lives are being made new into the beautiful creations that God intends.
As my child grew, I grew, too, in my ability to love, to have compassion, to give without expecting anything in return. These qualities grew incrementally so that I hardly noticed. But there were moments that stand out. One time, at three years, Ava wanted to show her distracted daddy how high she could jump. She put one little hand on either side of my face and turned me forcefully toward her as she said, “Daddy, listen to me with your eyes.” Moments like this have shaped me into a different father. When I first held her, I promised her everything. But I wasn’t capable of loving her the way I do now.
Spiritual disciplines are not a substitute for God's grace but are containers to receive it.
As we follow Jesus, we grow in our ability to act selflessly, to have compassion, to make tough decisions, to give without expecting anything in return. These things grow incrementally and often with difficulty, risk, and pain as we encounter the challenges of life. In the new life of salvation, God doesn’t just save us from our sins, but patiently works to make us into new beings.
Christ won’t leave us in an infant stage of spiritual growth; he continues to transform our inward being and outward actions, but only as we allow that to happen by obeying the Spirit. As we work with the Spirit of God through such things as prayer, reading the Scriptures, worship, solitude, giving, and serving, he begins to transform our pains, struggles, and habitual actions. These efforts, what some call spiritual disciplines, are not a substitute for God’s grace (his gift to us), but are containers to receive it. Grace is God acting in our lives to enable us to do what we cannot do on our own. As we grow, we become disciples of Jesus by learning what Jesus did, how he loved, how he followed the ways of the Father, and becoming more like him.
On one occasion, I was about to preach to a few hundred people. Andrea called from the other end of the country to tell me she was having a miscarriage. Pregnant with twins, one baby’s life had ended while the other’s heart was beating strong. I found myself preaching from John chapter 15 with a new brokenness and passion that evening, proclaiming the message to “remain in Christ” for myself more than anyone.
Apart from Christ we can do nothing
At his last supper, saying goodbye to his beloved disciples and friends, Jesus told them he would send them the comforter, the Holy Spirit, who guides us into all truth. He also said, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine . . . I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (vs. 4, 5).
Remaining in Christ is not simply believing in him, though that is crucial. It means being in union with him, experiencing his love, joy, and peace, and sharing in his intentions and even his power to live our new lives. In a relationship, both parties must be engaged. God takes the initiative and provides the means for us to be in Christ, but it cannot happen without our response.
Why would anyone want to pay the price to develop spiritually, to be a disciple of Christ? Well, it’s the victory over death and the redemption that we wait for along with all creation. But it is also the growing capacity to receive and to give his love right now.
At each one of our four babies’ births, the same thing happened. Andrea turned to me and said, in the throes of labor, “I can’t do this.” The first time this happened, I panicked. The fourth time, I prayed. I prayed for that moment Paul tells about when it will all be worth it. There are beautiful glimpses of our “hope of glory” along the way for those who remain in Christ, growing in the transformed life, here and now!