“I know all the things you do. I have seen your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance. And I can see your constant improvement in all these things.” Revelation 2:19
There are a lot of principles in scripture, but this is one that doesn’t always get noticed, or even gets much attention. Yet I think it is very important because the word “progress” really should be a one-word description of every believer’s journey. There are other values that I’ve seen – for example “excellence” or “perfection” that often get mentioned.
I shy away from the concept of perfection, even though we are exhorted to become more like Christ, who was perfect in every way. If you adopt perfection as a value, you will be constantly disappointed because it is not one that you can attain, at least not here on earth. My friend Paula Rinehart even wrote a book in 1992 entitled Perfect Every Time: When Doing it All Leaves You with Nothing.
The title pretty much speaks for itself because it suggests that a life dedicated to being perfect at everything leads to emptiness and dissatisfaction, or as she says, it leaves you with Nothing.
Instead of perfection as a goal, I always preferred excellence which is a better target to aim at since it does not require perfection. But even if you aim at excellence in everything that you do, you sometimes may fall short, no matter how hard you try. So, while aiming for excellence is a good thing, what God wants us to aim at is progress – that our actions, speech and service show “constant improvement.”
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy (I Tim. 4:15), he tells Timothy: Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. “These matters” refer to his life, speech, conduct, love, purity and faith. Pretty holistic – trying to make progress in all of those areas of life in order to set an example for others.
I’ve done a lot of mentoring in my life which brings me joy and satisfaction in ways that are hard to describe. My satisfaction comes from have the privilege to invest in another’s life and to see how they mature, which is another way of describing progress. When I meet with younger men (and one woman in Africa – Anita), I tend to ask questions as to how they are progressing in aspects of their life where I know they are challenged.
We all face challenges and it’s nice to know that you don’t have to face them alone. One of the men I met with – Mark – recently told me that our relationship has impacted him – not just for what we’ve discussed, but just the relationship itself. He told me that I probably don’t realize the impact I’ve had on him (and to be honest, I really didn’t) just from the very fact of meeting with him. Very encouraging to me, although it’s hard to point to one thing I said or did that I could say “this is important to communicate and I should remember it for others.”
That should be an encouragement to anyone who wonders if they would make a good mentor – your impact may not be anything that you actually say but just that you are there to listen. You don’t have to say wise things or impart deeply profound truths. You just have to listen and be there.
My own journey has not been linear where I could be seen as constantly making progress or improving, and sometimes my own progress has flat lined. Those times of horizontal movement – where my spiritual life just seemed to go nowhere – often were when times were good and things were going well. Go figure!
You’d think when things are going well for you professionally and with your family that you would experience some growth. Well, that’s not my experience. My times of growth usually came at times when things were not going well. I’ve always thought that I learned more from life when things were hard and difficult, then when things were going well.
That might be your experience, too. I sat down with a friend of mine who is doing a bible study for new believers this morning, and made that same statement, and everyone at the table nodded in agreement. Tough times result in more growth, and therefore more progress.
My toughest times came in the late 1980’s when I faced financial ruin due to the recession and the collapse of the real estate market post 1986. We skated on thin ice daily – wondering how we would survive another call from one of my creditors demanding more money than I had or could get. I was liable on some $55 million due to real estate projects that had floundered when the economy went into recession. It took me almost 10 years to work through it, and it exacted an emotional toll in the process.
I burned out from the constant stress and strain – not once but twice. You’d think I would have learned from the first experience of burnout, but apparently not. At the end of the day, the banks that I owed money to ended up being my clients over the next decade. Bankruptcy was always a possibility, but I preferred to stick it out. It was not fun.
How did I survive? First, I found a new and deeper faith in God, realizing that I could lean on Him. My wife was instrumental in all of this, and we learned to communicate at a level that we’d never been able to before. And last, but not least, I had several close friends who met with me weekly checking my “progress.” Those meetings and conversations were as important to me as getting oxygen, water and food is to sustain my body.
I wouldn’t wish tough times on anyone, much less myself or my family. But it is those difficult times of life where we have to face the reality that life can be hard and that we don’t have all the answers and we need to know that Abba Father is on our side. It is through those difficult times – whether they be financial, relational, or health, or anything else for that matter – that one comes to the realization that we need God so that when we call for help, He is there.
When we finally realize that we need God as much as we need oxygen, food and water to sustain us, it is a turning point in our lives. We also need friends – those few Godly people or mentors who come alongside us sometimes at our point of greatest need and partner with us in our journey. While they can’t always solve our problems, they can help us attain a balanced view of our circumstances so that we have a perspective that is not short-term.
I attribute my financial disaster 30 years ago and its accompanying burnout to having left an indelible fingerprint on my life because I learned that God is in control of everything, and conversely, I was not. Once I was able to pry my fingers off the steering wheel of my life, I realized that He is real and is a better driver than I could ever be.
So, the challenge here is not to have tough times, but to use those times as a period of growth and to always see His hand in all of our circumstances. Surround yourself with mentors or Godly friends who will lift you up when you are down, who will carry you when your energy is spent, who will encourage you when your courage is lacking, and who will pray for you when you need it most.
When that happens, you will find that your spiritual life will become one of constant improvement and progress. If you haven’t invested in someone else’s life as a mentor, think about it today. Your hand in their progress is the return on your investment and it is eternal and priceless.
FURTHER STUDY: Paula Rinehart’s book “Perfect Every Time” is still available at Amazon.
For research on the connection between perfectionism to suicide and depression: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/09/alarming-new-research-on-perfectionism.html
WORSHIP: Listen to “I Am Not Alone” sung by Kari Jobe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfveawSAHJA
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