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Which direction are you growing?

A Tall Tree

by Dennis Pollock

Elizabeth Edwards, after calling it quits with her politician husband John as a result of his infidelity, had this to say about the man she married: "I think I did marry a marvelous man. I think that he changed over time. You know, I think it was sort of hard for me to see it or admit it for a very long time. But he changed. Maybe we all change over time. And he's no longer the person I married." In her autobiography she penned these poignant words: "So when I closed the door on the John of today, I also had to say goodbye to that sweet man whom I had loved for so long. It was not as easy as it might have seemed to anyone looking in from the outside who knew only the John of today. And I have to wonder if he is sad too, when he thinks of that young man."

Her words were certainly gracious, given what her husband had put her through, and they reflected a very simple and yet profound spiritual truth – people change. In this case Elizabeth was clearly implying that John's change had been in the wrong direction. The Scriptures reveal that in spiritual matters it is impossible to remain static. You are either growing towards God or you are growing away from Him. Understanding this simple truth is foundational to seeing the nature of the new birth – what it accomplishes, what it does not immediately accomplish, and what it will ultimately accomplish. 

Growth Away from God 

The Bible teaches us that man is created in the likeness of God. Even in the unredeemed man we can see traces of our Creator's kindness, warmth, humor, and generosity. Many a mother who has never been born again has made huge sacrifices for her children and husband. It is not uncommon for unregenerate men to lay down their lives for their families in times of peril. For this reason some accuse God of injustice for demanding that we must be born again through faith in Christ, or else eternally perish. How can God be so hard on such "nice" people?

What they fail to understand is that man's natural condition is to grow away from God. There is in the nature of unredeemed man a principle of corruption, a spiritual decay which makes time his great enemy. As the years and decades unfold, he will progressively grow less like his Creator and more like the great enemy of all that is good. A beautiful woman in her twenties may appear nearly perfect. You can find no wrinkle on her, or hardly a trace of cellulite! Her form is flawless and her face gorgeous. She seems to burst with beauty, vitality, and vigor. But the coming years are not her friend. In a few short decades wrinkles will replace smooth skin, sagging will replace firmness, and the stunning looks that made men's heads turn wherever she went will be forever gone. Time will have done its terrible work once again. (By the way, it works the same way with men!)

The law of aging is but a physical parallel to the spiritual law of corruption (also called the law of sin and death). In both cases time works against us. It is not evident over a day or a month, but through the years and the decades it is unmistakable. Paul writes "that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts…" (Ephesians 4:22). There is an "old man" within us all, an inherent sinful nature which, if not dealt with through Christ, will progressively dominate our thoughts, our wills, and our lives. At the heart of this nature is selfishness. And while it is foolish to compare ourselves with others, there is one thing of which we can be sure – if I do not belong to Jesus, the me of twenty years from now is going to be more selfish and less tender toward spiritual things than the me of today. 

Dead things decay. Years ago I went to a man's house to check out the car he had advertised in the newspaper. The old man ushered me into his dark garage, and I nearly gagged from the terrible aroma which pervaded the place. After a moment I saw the reason for the stench. Lying in a corner of the garage was a dead cat – and he hadn't died just yesterday! Decay had set in big time, and the smell of the little creature's rotting corpse saturated the air. An animal who has been dead for five minutes will show no signs of decay and give off little foul odor, but wait a while. It is only a matter of time.

The Bible teaches that without Christ, we are all spiritually dead. Paul writes, "And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him (Christ)." Where there is death there will be corruption and decay. Thus Paul writes that the old man "grows corrupt." All over this world, men and women of all races, cultures, and languages are in the process of decaying. They are growing further from God and His nature with every passing day and year. Not all organisms decay at the same rate. An apple can last a lot longer in a plucked state than a banana. The apple may look at the banana proudly and say to itself, "I'm sure glad I'm not like those stinking bananas. They've only been on the shelf for a week and they're already getting dark and stinky!" But the apple should not speak so boastfully. The same principle of decay is working in them both. It is only a matter of time before the apple becomes a stinking, putrefying mess like his brother, the banana.

RefrigeratorIt is possible to slow down the rate of decay through refrigeration but quite impossible to reverse it. A peach can last a lot longer in a refrigerator than it could sitting on the window sill in the heat of the summer. But that refrigerator can only do so much. Nearly all of us have had the unpleasant experience of opening our refrigerators and smelling a terrible odor. As we searched for the offending culprit, we found we had left some fruit or lasagna a little too long. Men and women often use things like religion, therapy, positive thinking, and addiction experts as temporary fixes, and they can do some good. But like the refrigerator they are limited and will eventually fail. The one great need of a corpse is not therapy or positive thinking; it is life. And only Jesus Christ can give that. 

Growth Toward God 

Just as growth away from God is the natural state of the unredeemed man, growth toward God is the natural state of the child of God. Jesus declared: 

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches (Matthew 13:31,32). 

The principle involved here is the kingdom of heaven's ability to grow in the life of the believer. Though God's initial work in our hearts at the new birth may seem small and insignificant, like the tiny mustard seed, give it some time, and you will be amazed at the transformation that will occur. Spiritual growth and change are fundamental characteristics of the true believer. Some changes will be instant and dramatic occurring immediately at the new birth; others will be slow and gradual – but change there will be. Peter writes, "Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." Elsewhere he writes, "As newborn babies, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may growthereby." Paul writes, "speaking the truth in love, we may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ."

When a farmer sees his corn plants growing or his wheat field maturing he is not shocked. He fully expected it. He knows that there is a mysterious principle of growth contained within those seeds he planted. Give them some soil and a little moisture and they will grow. He has seen this happen time after time. It is a universal law somehow built into the seeds of living plants. 

There is likewise, within the gospel of Jesus Christ, a divine principle of growth. When Christ's gospel meets a heart made tender and compliant by the work of the Holy Spirit there is an eruption of divine life and the growth process immediately begins. As we expose ourselves to God's Word and fellowship with other believers, we will grow more and more like our Savior as the years and decades roll by. Time has become our friend and is no longer our enemy. We may not look prettier on the outside over the years, but we will definitely look a whole lot better on the inside. This is what the Bible calls "sanctification." 

God's Priority 

This explains why direction, not present level, is what God is primarily concerned about. In Isaiah God declares Himself to be the One who "declares the end from the beginning." He not only sees our present struggles and flaws, but He knows the course we are taking and our ultimate end. This explains why God insists that even "nice people" must be born again. He sees unredeemed man, not as he is now, but as he will become over years, decades, and centuries, if he were allowed to live that long.

A man may have been blessed genetically with a wonderful personality, a strong sense of morality, and a kind manner toward others. He may have gained a religious nature due to his upbringing, but give him a few centuries (or in some cases a decade or two) and he will become a monster capable of the most horrendous crimes and blasphemies. If we could go back in time and see Adolf Hitler as a three year old boy, I'm sure he would have given little hint as to the madman he would become. No doubt he said and did many cute things, as with all three year olds. What was required to turn this cute three year old into a hideous demon wreaking untold misery upon the earth? Only time. Of course the average garden-variety sinner will not morally disintegrate at anything near the dizzying speed of Mr. Hitler, but he will disintegrate – slowly and quietly at his own particular pace.

The reverse is true for the born again child of God. He may have his struggles, he is certainly not without his flaws, and in the eyes of many he may be a poor representative of Jesus Christ. But if he has received the grace that Jesus offers, he is finally going the right direction. The years ahead will bring him closer and closer to the heart of his Master. The issue is not where one is located on a universal scale of goodness or likeability, but which direction one is currently going. Imagine two ladders side by side reaching to the top of a ten story building. At the top of the first is a man just coming off the roof and slowly making his way down the ladder. Near the bottom of the second is another man who has just started to climb and is only on the third rung of his ladder. If asked which man is in the higher position, all would answer, "the first man." But to the discerning eye, the first man's height advantage is a bit of a deception. Depending on the rate of the first man's descent and the second man's ascent it may take some time, but sooner or later the second man will overtake the first and go well beyond him. It is only a matter of time. Perhaps this is a major reason why Jesus tells us not to judge our brothers. They may have had a starting point well back of where we began in our growth towards God, due to genetic factors or a miserable home life. However, if they are truly Christ's we are both headed for the same destination – the likeness of our Savior.

Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, came to this earth to turn rebels into subjects of the kingdom of heaven and transform them from objects of God's wrath into objects of His mercy. He took our sins upon Himself as He died on the cross and rose again the third day. He now sits at the right hand of God and offers men and women the gift of life, which completely ends the principle of sin, corruption, and decay that affects all of humanity. If you will repent and receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior through simple faith, you can be born again, your sins will be forgiven and the direction of your life forever changed. And though you will still be far from perfect, God will count your faith as righteousness and fully accept you as His child. A place will be waiting for you in heaven.

 Which direction are you growing?




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