Luke 2:52 reveals that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God’. Along our own faith journeys, growth like this is so important and foundational. Yet, as is the case along any path, we’ll inevitably encounter obstacles. Some are not so obvious. Noticing and addressing these barriers as they sneak into our daily lives will help keep us on the right path.
So what are these pitfalls which prevent and challenge our spiritual formation in Christ and for Christ?
Here are six to be aware of:
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1. An inability to say ‘No.’
As Christians, we’re called to live a simple life. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 advises us to ‘aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs’. Simplicity in life requires being willing and able to say ‘no’.
Most Christians are too busy. We have allowed the world to set our life’s schedule, resulting in ineffective busyness. We have lost the ability to prioritize in general, and we have very little understanding of biblical priorities in particular.
In Luke 10, our Lord was enjoying the hospitality of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Mary was sitting ‘at the Lord’s feet’ listening to His teaching. In contrast, Martha ‘was distracted with much serving’. The latter sister then complained to the Lord: ‘Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ The Lord’s answer was instructive and challenging: ‘Martha, Martha. You are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:38-42)
Today this is called FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. People are insatiably searching for meaningful experiences, so they try to do anything and everything which is marketed as something that will make your life meaningful.
Saying no helps you find the bigger yes.
There was nothing wrong with Martha’s commitment to serve. But our Lord was affirming Mary’s commitment to elevate the priority of hearing God’s Word and then intentionally implementing that priority in her life, which meant she had to say ‘no’ to some things in order to ‘yes’ to the right things.
Effective serving in life is dependent upon prioritizing time with the Lord in His Word, and Mary had ‘chosen the good portion’. Out of that she would be able to serve; but serving should never trump the hearing of God’s Word. Mary was spending her time doing something even more worthwhile than hospitality and service.
But the fact is, you can’t and won’t say ‘no’ until you have a bigger ‘yes’. To have a bigger ‘yes’, you have to know God’s priorities from His Word, which also instructs you in the principles needed to make wise decisions. Establishing and maintaining biblical priorities and properly ordering our lives is not easy for Christian leaders. We love people and want to serve them – plus there is an ever-subtle tendency to think that busyness will convince others of our value.
Find God’s ‘yesses’ from His Word.
A biblical ‘yes’ will be big enough for you to say ‘no’ appropriately and kindly, but firmly and at the right time.
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2. Shortchanging your time alone with the Lord.
Examine the lifestyle of a ministry leader who has failed, and you will frequently find a lack of personal time with the Lord. Often, even among mature ministers, the first thing sacrificed to an overly demanding lifestyle is their time alone with God.
If you are not experiencing a daily relationship with the Lord, you are much more likely to stumble or fall. You need times of silence, reflection, and renewal. Psalm 62:1 says it perfectly: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence.’
Church leaders can often neglect time alone with the Lord because they are frequently worshiping and praying with others, and they think that is sufficient. But imagine a marriage where the wife never spends any time alone with her husband, because she says they’re ‘together all the time’ when they’re with others.
Just like that marriage will not be healthy until the couple plans some ‘alone time’, so we as the bride of Christ should make it a priority to spend time alone with our beloved Savior.
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3. Living beyond your means.
Advertising agencies are committed to making yesterday’s luxuries today’s necessities, and they are extremely effective in their marketing schemes. Too many Christians in today’s materialistic world, including leaders, find themselves with ‘too much month at the end of the money’ because they have bought into a conspicuous consumer lifestyle.
How do you avoid the materialistic traps in today’s culture? Here’s a simple plan: First repent from any covetousness in your heart, then write down the income that God has given you. Subtract your tithe, and then the offerings that you are led to give beyond the tithe. Then arrange a lifestyle that works with what’s left. Adopt a lifestyle within your means, and don’t automatically expand it when your income increases.
While debt is not sin, you can be sinfully in debt. Conspicuous consumerism is driven by having to get the next thing with an eye-catching label, believing that this is the key to a meaningful life. Actually, it is a form of idolatry that will bring God’s discipline.
Our Lord will give us what we need, and if He gives us more resources than we need, it is likely for the purpose of expanding our ministry capacity. How much you have does not really concern the Lord. What does concern Him is: does what you have actually have you? Matthew 6:33 tells us to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’
Too many of us seek things first and allow the Lord to be a mere addition. But life is not about things; ‘to live is Christ’. Things are not our life. ‘For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?’ (Mark 8:36) Do not let things use you and draw you away from Him who loves you and has loosed you from your sins (Rev. 1:5).
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4. Forfeiting the opportunity to give sacrificially.
What a blessing it is to give sacrificially of our time, energy, and money. When we learn to live within our means and spend our time wisely by living with simplicity, we establish margins from which we are then able to respond to opportunities of ministry and to give sacrificially.
Don’t forfeit those God-given opportunities with a careless or materialistic lifestyle. If you live within your means – willing to go without when you can and managing finances responsibly – you can give sacrificially when God presents a need.
Living a disciplined lifestyle will allow you to have the ability to give of your time, energy, and money because your simplicity will have created an abundance in your life. Do that, and you will be repeatedly reminded that it really is ‘more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35).
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5. Neglecting to fast – with prayer and the Word.
Are you reluctant to fast? Do you associate it with hunger strikes and grim-faced self-denial? Or with boastful adherents who proudly (and unbiblically) announce that they are fasting? Well, forget those notions. They are parodies of genuine fasting, which can be a blessing in many ways.
It is not self-inflicted punishment; it is devotion – and you should not neglect it. It is simply a joyful exercise of setting aside something you don’t need in exchange for a calculated focus on the Lord. Fasting should always be accompanied by prayer and the Word, so skip lunch once in a while and spend that time with Him.
Set aside your hobby occasionally and give that time to the Lord.
Devote a break time to Scripture instead of Starbucks.
Set aside a day and spend it in devotional Bible reading, prayer, meditation, and time to be alone with God.
What a joy that will be for you! Keep it to yourself – the biblical admonition in Matthew 6:16-18 is to tell nobody but the Lord that you are fasting.
Then enjoy the blessings that result from a special moment of intimacy with the God who loves you.
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6. Succumbing to sexual sin.
It is so obviously wrong and horribly harmful – yet it is so incredibly common. Outright adultery is painfully common in ministry leadership, and pornography is even more pervasive. Do not succumb to it! Remember the biblical fall of King David, which began with idleness, roving eyes, and a lustful heart, then descended to adultery and murder. Stop the downfall when it’s a spark, not a flame – and certainly before it’s a wildfire.
In other words, don’t resist temptation, ‘flee it’. Sometimes we mix up biblical principles in life decisions. For instance, we exalt ourselves and then pray for humility when the Bible says ‘humble yourselves and He will exalt you at the right time’.
Another one is that we ‘flee Satan’ and resist temptation but actually the Bible says, ‘resist Satan and he will flee from you’ and ‘flee temptation’. Do not trust in your own strength to resist. Instead, flee temptation and fill your heart with a love for Christ and your spouse.
When a heart is filled with Godly love there is no room for the obsessions of sexual idolatry. Ask the Lord to give you a revulsion to even the thought of sexual immorality and an obsession with the joy of the marriage bed, which is holy. Then find friends of the same gender who will love you enough to pray for you and hold you accountable while encouraging you to ‘fix your eyes on Jesus’.
Remember that a saved sinner is still a sinner, and never put yourself in harm’s way. Never. And never rely on your own strength: ‘Put no confidence in the flesh’ (Phil. 3:3), while always depending wholly upon the grace of God in Christ.
This book excerpt was adapted from 3D Leadership by Harry L. Reeder III, with permission from Christian Focus Publications. You can learn further about the aids to spiritual formation as well in his book.
Dr. Reeder has served for almost 20 years as senior pastor of the 4,000+ member Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, birthplace of the PCA denomination. His radio ministry, In Perspective, is broadcast on stations nationally. Through Briarwood’s Embers to a Flame ministry, Reeder and the ministry leadership team teach, coach, and mentor church leaders across the country and around the world. Pastor Reeder and his wife, Cindy, live in Birmingham, Alabama.
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