Dr. John B. MacDonald
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Beginning a new year is a time for reflection and resolve.

January is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus had two faces: one looking back; the other forward. It represents the transition from old to new.

 Let's explore four healthy transitions.

 

In light of the looming New Year, I’ve been reading about a particular person today. 

Let me be a bit more precise: He became a pivotal figure for God at a crucial time in the history of God’s people. His name was Samuel.

He didn’t begin as an effective, fully-mature person of significance – he grew into it. We first read of him as a new born – without education, strength, or position.

One thing that caught my attention about Samuel was his growth pattern in contrast to others who did have education, strength, and position (1 Samuel 2-3). 

Here are four observations:

  • “Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice” (2:19). My thought is that each year the new clothes would hang on the smaller frame of the boy, but by the end of the year they were too small and larger clothes were needed. Growing is natural in healthy circumstances.
  •  “… the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD” (2:21). Here I thought about the phrase “grew up.” It is one word in the original. It isn’t the word (tsamach) translated “to sprout up, to spring up,” in other words, to get larger like a plant that grows. The word is gadal meaning to grow up in a more profound sense, not just size but ‘greatness’. 
  • “And the boy Samuel continued to grow (halak) in stature (gadel) and in favor (tob) with the LORD and with [people]” (2:26). In this instance, “grow” is from the word usually translated “to walk,” which in this case refers to the way he was living his life. The words translated as “stature” and “favor” have the sense of “becoming great” and “pleasant, good” – they speak of his character. In short, this growth is in Samuel’s character as demonstrated by his behavior not only before God, but the people among whom he lived.
  • “The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up (gadal), and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word” (3:19-21). Again the word for “grew up” is ‘greatness’ rather than simply getting bigger. In this section (1 Samuel 3) there is an intriguing scene in which Samuel not only hears God’s words but speaks to God: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

 

Let’s explore how these four observations integrate with beginnings and transitions in your life. I’m not referring to your physical maturing – although that may be true; I’m referring to your spiritual formation – whether you are more like Jesus today than a year ago.

 Four take-aways:

1.         Growth is natural in healthy circumstances. The inverse is also true: desired growth does not happen in unhealthy circumstances.

Ask whether people who have known you for years are able to look at you today and discern that you have grown. As in Samuel’s case, growing is not usually observable from one day to the next. But it should be from one year to the next. Each year he needed new clothes – not simply because the old ones had worn out, but they were too small.

Have you grown in your likeness to Jesus this year? If not, I propose that there may be unhealthy circumstances in your life.

These unhealthy circumstances require diagnosis and treatment. I recommend that diagnosis begin with an honest and intense review of your life using the words of Psalm 139:23-24.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me, and

lead me in the way everlasting.

Such a review is serious about excising the rot of wrong thinking, wrong speaking, and wrong behaving – things that need to be removed to return us to health. At this point, a treatment of 1 John 1:9 is prescribed. I paraphrase that text for each of us personally:

If I confess, or agree with God about my sinful thoughts, words, and actions (and be specific about each of them), He is faithful and just and will forgive me my sins, and not only that, he will cleanse me from all unrighteousness.

Although I have put this paraphrase in the first person (i.e., I, me, my), it also requires community (i.e., we, us, our).

2.         As stated earlier, the growth to which we are referring is about becoming greater, not simply getting bigger.

Bigger doesn’t mean better. I don’t wish to be offensive but in the physical realm a bigger person does not mean a healthier, better, or ‘greater’ person. The abuse of steroids, or overeating, makes people bigger but it does not make them healthier.

Some people grasp for power, influence, and control over other people and organizations – even in the church. Recently I was talking with someone about dysfunctional leadership in churches often being manifested by incompetence and control. We recognize incompetence for what it is. His comment on control was insightful – we control if we don’t have faith in the Lord’s leadership.

What is the aim of true growth? I propose that it is not about becoming greater, more powerful, or richer, but about becoming more and more like Jesus.

3.         True growth demonstrates Christ-like character through Christ-like behavior.

The apostle John puts this well when he writes: “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6). Our “walk” or behavior manifests our character. This involves the unspeakable “O” word – obedience.

4.         Like Samuel, we are invited to not only hear God’s words, but also speak with Him.

Listening to God is most often experienced in the intentional, intelligent, responsive hearing or reading of the ancient and holy text of the Bible. Subject to that posture, it also includes ‘listening’ with discernment to others and to circumstances.

As you read of Peter’s experience in Acts 10 his orthodox understanding of Scripture was challenged and expanded by responding to God in his circumstances which included others.

It was Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215 A.D.) who stated that prayer was “keeping company with God.” To me, that definition is a lot better than “talking to God.” His description allows for listening and speaking, and profound companionable silence.

For healthy physical growth we require health (e.g., the absence of disease), good nutrition, regular exercise, and wholesome community.

By analogy, healthy growth in becoming more like Jesus also includes health (e.g., the absence of sinful thoughts, words, and actions), good listening to what God says, continuous obedience to the heart of God, and wholesome fellowship with the people of God.

As you enter into the New Year, think of it as an opportunity for transitioning into true growth.

 

Next week, I’m going to propose a renewed discipline that will encourage true growth.

 

Until next Friday, 

 

John, a brother

 

Photo credit: Bust of Janus located in the Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy

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