VIRTUES: The Holy Bridge, by Gary L. Thomas

Embracing the Virtues of Christ

The Holy Bridge by Gary L. Thomas

From: The Glorious Pursuit

This life therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in
righteousness, not health but healing, not being but
becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we
shall be, but we are growing toward it; the process is not yet
finished but it is going on. This is not the end but it is the
road; all does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified.
(Martin Luther)

It had been an exhausting week for me, with two or three more hard weeks ahead.  I was flying from coast to coast, so I requested an aisle seat.  I needed the room to get some work done.

“Sorry, sir,” the agent said, “all that remain are center seats.”

“Are you kidding me?  The plane’s full?”

“Afraid so.”

I sighed as I got in line to board, knowing work would be impossible.  I dug a book out of my shoulder bag and found my seat between a fairly big man and an elderly woman.

I didn’t even have my seat belt on when the woman started talking.  “Do you live in California?”

“No, I was here on business.”

She was probably in her seventies, with a sweet demeanor.  The universal grandmother.  But I was tired from speaking at several events, and I looked wistfully at the book in my hands.  Escape was buried in those pages, but how could I open the cover without being rude?

“I’m sorry,” the woman said, perhaps catching my glance.  “I’m sure you probably want to read.”

I smiled politely and began to crack open my book.

“I just don’t get to talk very much,” she said quietly.  “Not since my husband died fifteen years ago.”

Her words were like a spiritual body-slam.  I was tired, full of self-pity about some personal pressures I was under, and selfishly demanding four hours of duty-free living on a cross-country flight.  Still…a thought occurred to me. Out of all the seats I could have been assigned, events had been so ordered that I was seated next to this elderly woman who was alone and hoping for someone to talk to.  Wasn’t it at least possible that God had placed me beside her for four hours?

“I’m sorry to hear about your husband,” I said, putting my book away.  “Do you have any children?”

Her face lit up a little, and the conversation took off.  I did my best to draw her out, to ask her opinions, to get a glimpse of her life.  I found out she was a Christian and that her church had been facing some difficult times.

I listened a lot, even though the novel kept summoning me.  “This is God’s daughter,” I kept reminding myself.  “She deserves to have someone care about what she’s going through.”

And as the flight ended, a surprising thing happened.  As I stepped off the plane I felt – no other word to describe it – buoyant.  A simple act of surrendering to the situation in which God had placed me ushered me into an inner reality in which I could practically taste the presence of Christ, amazingly renewed inside.  The pressures were the same but not so heavy on my spirit.

What had taken place?  Considering it now, I see this: I’d surrendered to the situation, believing it was not a random circumstance denying me the time to do what I wanted to do, but a situation in which God had placed me.  I had decided to act on a higher claim than my own personal agenda or comfort.  I recognized my position under the guidance and direction of the Father, which is the essence of the virtue of humility.  And I surrendered my will to His will.  In doing so, I experienced Jesus.  Since Jesus is the true delight of my soul, it was only natural that I should feel a quiet elation.

That is one of many common experiences in which I have understood how the practice of the virtues is a highway to experiencing Jesus.  To some that may seem a dangerous statement, and yet it’s true.  Just as mystics pursue God through contemplative prayer, so we can enter God’s presence through the practice of the virtues of Christ.

When we talk about “experiencing” God, we’re faced with two tensions.  There will always be Christians who insist they experience Him in the “inner” world of their soul, through prayer, contemplation, solitude and quiet, or through the thrills of religious fervor.  And on the other side are the Christians who insist the “experience” of God comes through our acts of obedience and service in the “outer” world or in a more cerebral sense, as they encounter the Word of God.

But there are problems and limitations in these viewpoints.  Stress outer behavior too much, and you often create perfectionistic legalists – people out of touch with the empowering grace of God and His mercy.  Stress Bible knowledge to the exclusion of other things, and you get Christians with a roster of right doctrines in their head but with little heart concern for living out what they know.  And again, stress interior experiences too much, and you can end in a personal search for “enlightenment” that does not build the self-giving character of Christ.  Cut loose from the authority of scripture, personal experience becomes God.  You can become the kind of hypocrite who takes secret pride in their illuminated and “higher” experiences, and as a result they cannot find their place in the common, serving, body of Christ.

Imitating the virtues of Christ can connect the inner reality of our soul with the everyday practicality of our outer behavior.  I said, “Okay, God, I’ll accept your call on my life at this moment.”  And inner attitude led me to a particular action – putting down my book and directing my attention to another child of God who needed some care and spirit lifting.  And the result was that I experienced the pleasure of cooperating with God, under His direction, in a work He had for me to do.

Almost selfishly now, I am more alert to these divine appointments.  Just recently, I asked an elderly woman if I could carry her heavy bag.  She was surprised…and delighted.  “I’ve spent my entire life caring for others,” she said, “and I can’t believe that someone is carrying my bag.”

Without the interior sense that Christ is living His life in me, however, lugging heavy bags for strangers would be a joyless, religious duty.  (You wind up asking yourself, “Have I lugged enough suitcases?  Have I lugged any lately?”)  But in fact, the experience itself is transformed.  It’s not what I want more tally marks of service; I want to know more of Christ, not in head knowledge but in heart knowledge.  I have come to want what James talks about: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” (James 1:27).  I’ve begun to see that God makes the blessing of His presence known to those who take this verse literally, and I want that blessing.

I have returned from business trips with great regrets, and I have returned from business trips experiencing the joy of life in Christ, and I know which one I want.  The virtues have become my bridge to help me return with a sense of fulfillment instead of regret.  Regret is a debilitating spiritual drain – MS of the soul.

Have you been plagued by regret?  I’m not just talking about sin here.  The absence of Christ’s life in us can feel like a living death, which creates a passive regret.  Many of us accept the restraints and limitations of a life ruled by otherwise good Biblical principles and morals.  But without healthy interior growth, we are still stuck with all the diseases of a normal, fallen soul.  Self-absorption, apathy, boredom, sin, and failure – any number of spiritual illnesses can keep us from feeling fully alive spiritually.

Are you feeling depleted, like you’re bored with Christianity?  Or tired of trying to measure up as a Christian?  Wishing you had a sense of Christ’s reality in your life?  If that’s your situation, learning how to grow in the virtues of Christ can be a bridge to the new life you have wanted.

Christ In You

Some time ago, I caught myself stewing in some destructive attitudes.  For instance, I displayed constant irritation at people over petty things: Bad customer service in stores.  Being cut off by thoughtless drivers in traffic.  One time I was singing a worship chorus to myself in a store, and it made e feel like a hypocrite.  Either I was going to have to lose the attitude or lose the chorus.  I opted to lose the attitude.

The route I took to change was a gradual one.  I thought, “What if I adopted another mindset?”  I didn’t want to become a Christian Pollyanna: “Gee, Lord, I’m so incredibly grateful that traffic was heavy and I missed my plane today.  I really love this character growth stuff.”  That would have been play-acting, doomed to failure.  But I did need to face up to the gap between my surliness and the spirit and character of Christ.

So I began by offering up to the Lord the inner stresses I felt.  Each time I set out, I chose an attitude of acceptance.  I accepted the fact that I might get caught by every red light, that the people serving me might have their own limitations and hassles.  I dropped the unrealistic view that this is an easy world where everything should go right, meaning “right” according to my plan.  Instead, I relaxed in the Biblical view that this is a fallen world where unnerving things happen.  When I began my day, I forced my mind off myself, my demands, and my own goals.  I began to think a little about giving God a place in my demanding schedule: How could I make other people’s experiences more pleasant, perhaps with a smile, an offer of assistance, or patience at the check-out line?  Instead of scowling at slow-moving checkers – “Hey, buddy, why don’t you buy a pulse and get some life in you?” – I started commending efficient checkers.

I made an important commitment to my own spiritual growth in Christ.  This was a commitment to character growth and to making a place in my life for the virtues that describe Jesus to become, little by little, real in me.

One day, some time after I began this practice, I was hurrying down an aisle at a discount superstore.  Kelsey, my youngest child, was talking to me, the store was crowded, and I was distracted with trying to find a book I needed.  I also needed to get out of that place and could feel myself getting a little irritable.

I was scanning the shelves when I nearly collided with a woman coming the other way.  I looked up at her…and instead of the old rush if irritation I felt something else.  What I saw was not an obstacle or an irritation, a reduced version of a human being.  I saw a person, who, like me, could use an encounter with kindness and grace in flesh form.

“I’m sorry to be in your way,” the woman said, looking embarrassed.

“Not at all,” I answered.  “I’m just as much in your way as you’re in mine.  Here, let me move.”

After the woman moved on, Kelsey, who had observed the encounter, said, “Daddy, why are you always so kind?”

Always so kind…I laughed sheepishly.  More are the times I’ve been very glad that Kelsey wasn’t with me.  But in this instance, I was thankful for the change in me that was noticeable, and perhaps the beginning of a new pattern that would be a witness to my daughter that Christ is real enough to change her irritable dad into a man of patience and peace.

My discoveries about growth began when I realized other people do not “make” me irritable – or anything else.  They only bring out the inner man that has been secretly marinating in the juices of irritability.  How about you?  Are you blaming other people or other things for the responses to life that come out of you?  Or do you need to stop and face honestly what is going on in your innermost being?  What small piece of your life do you need to focus on?

When we take the time to get down to the real roots of our failure to grow in Christ, the truth emerges.  And because we are fallen people – redeemed, but still needing to grow – spiritual growth turns out to be a lot of work.  But wasn’t salvation supposed to be free?  After Jesus came into our hearts, wasn’t He supposed to grow us up?

Potent Grace

Many Christians mistakenly think God will do all the work of spiritual growth for us.  After all, aren’t we “saved by grace, not by works?”  That is true of the specific act of salvation.  But grace is more than pardon.  It is also the power God gives us to grow and change.  Interacting with grace requires something of us because you and I also can turn away or resist grace.

Grace is often evident in the early days of our spiritual growth when it can seem as if we are being carried along.  The first changes come swiftly and easily for many people and, compared to the dark, despairing attitudes we once had, our new sense of hope is bright and revolutionary.  So we’re tempted to conclude that spiritual growth must come from God’s efforts.

In this technical age when so much work is done for us, it’s easy to see how we get this wrong impression.

Not long ago, my seven-year-old son, Graham, approached me.  “Will you play a game with me, Dad?”  He had just rented a Super Nintendo baseball game.  I’m not a big fan of these games, but I am a big fan of Graham, so I consented.

He was the Mariners, and I was the White Sox.  He explained the control buttons to me, and then he threw out the first pitch.  After the first inning, I was ahead 5–0.  After the second, 9–0.  Graham was shocked.  I was hitting the ball at will and throwing strikes past him with a brilliant array of pitches.

The last time Graham was this quiet, we were burying a dead terrapin.  I looked at his silent face and suddenly my prideful euphoria was transformed into a father’s empathy.  Maybe I should let up on him a little, I thought.

I tried to bunt but watched my player hit the ball into left field.  Acting on a hunch, I took my fingers off the buttons and watched my man get another hit.

“Uh, Graham,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“You’re not playing me.  You’re playing the computer.  You must have pressed one player only.”

Graham’s enthusiasm for life returned instantaneously.  “No wonder you were beating me!” he shouted, his excitement and relief translating into sheer volume.  “I couldn’t figure it out!”

For two innings, I had been amazed at my precise timing, my good eye, my dutiful fielding.  But then I realized it hadn’t been me at all.  I was pushing buttons, but a kid’s computer was doing all the work, ignoring my commands and going ahead on its own.

Spiritually, the same thing often happens to us.  During certain stages of spiritual growth, it’s as if we’re on autopilot.  Old habits drop away.  Prayer and seeking God is new and exciting, no effort at all.  Maybe after a special retreat or seminar you sensed God’s nearness in a special way.  Perhaps your eyes were opened to the needs of others, and you enjoyed the sense of doing His will in simple, everyday matters.  In those times, you felt so in tune, so in control, on the fast track to maturity.  And then…

One day, it seems as if the autopilot switch is turned off.  I look back on earlier seasons in my life, and I wonder why I did not struggle then with some of the things I struggle with now.  I was less mature then, wasn’t I?  I knew less then, didn’t I, in terms of scriptural knowledge and common sense about life?

We cannot lose sight of the fact that our transformation into the spiritual likeness of Christ must go deep, to the core of our being.  We are nothing like the Lord when we start out, though some of our surface “niceness” might trick us into thinking so.  In fact, some change does come easily, quickly – especially surface attitudes, and especially when we are already very tired of repeating a behavior that’s getting us nowhere.  But the deeper, lasting character changes we need seem to come with time, involvement, effort, and even wrestling on our part.

This does not downplay God’s active role of moving upon us to spotlight areas of our life which need to be brought under His truth and surrendered to the Spirit of Christ.  But it does highlight our part in responding to grace.

After the moment of salvation, a Christian needs to be taught how to cooperate with God’s work as He empowers us to grow and change.  Our failure to teach this has resulted in a landscape littered with frustrated Christians who feel depleted or ineffective in the depths of their being.  Are you one of them?

You might be a man who is reading this book after your latest fiery outburst against your wife or children.  Though you are a Christian, your temper has gotten the best of you once again, and the pained looks on your children’s faces make you realize that you are acting like a monster.  Can God empower you with the peace and love of Christ, not only to make you a witness of Christ’s presence to the world, but to keep you from wrecking your family?

Perhaps you’re a woman who is just realizing that time logged in church doesn’t equal maturity in the Christian faith.  By now, you had hoped to be “a woman of God,” someone whom younger women would seek out for spiritual guidance.  Instead, you live with doubts and fears, and reflect, “I thought that becoming a Christian would help me to know God…to become a new creature in Christ.  But I still have so many of the insecurities and doubts I had before.”

It’s also highly possible that you are in a state of spiritual exhaustion.  Fighting hard to keep bad habits, negative attitudes, and temptations under control is not unlike trying to keep a hundred beach balls submerged.  As soon as you push one down, another pops up.  After a while, you feel no holier, just a lot more tired.  You are thinking, Where is the peace and rest, the freedom from guilt in God’s presence, that I was promised in the gospel?

After salvation, we all share a common need – a growing interior connection with God resulting in a lasting, outward change.  Thankfully, the changes we see in our lives reinforce the power and beauty of interior growth.  That’s where growth takes place, where our inner and outer worlds cooperate and push each other forward.

The good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to be slaves to the darkness and weakness within us.  Growth and change, however, do not come easily.  They require an effort on our part, but it must be the right kind of effort.

Perhaps this talk of “effort” already has made you feel let down and disappointed.  You may be one of the many Christians today who are tired from striving to be good and fighting against certain sins, tired of trying to act nice all the time while living in a selfish, greedy world.  If this is your experience, you may be thinking, “I can’t possibly try any harder.”

Learning to practice the attitudes or virtues of Christ does not begin with “trying hard to be better.”  It begins with a close, clear-eyed look at your true heart attitudes.  Then comes a surrender of these attitudes to our merciful Father, who always welcomes us to come to Him in our poverty of spirit.  This is what the writer of Hebrews meant when he encouraged us to “make every effort to enter that rest,” (Hebrews 4:11).  We will consider this again in the next chapter.  But for now we need to see that we begin to rest in God when we cease to keep up fronts and pretenses with Him, as if God cannot see us in our core, as we truly are.

Our “rest” in God continues when we stand before Him in total honesty about our loves and hates, our desires and ambitions, and recognize that this is the daily exercise of our journey of spiritual growth in Christ.  We begin by saying, “This is exactly who I am, what I want, and what I think right now.  Train me to become like You.”

But how do we train?  What is God’s part in leading, coaching, teaching, empowering?  What is our part in choosing to follow what He’s teaching us, in responding to His work in a right spirit?

What we need to learn is how to interact with the grace of God, which is always at work in and around us.  And that is where we turn our attention now.

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