I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:16-19 (CSB)
The recently passed J.I Packer once commented on the state of the American church like this:
“The North American church is 3000 miles wide and 1 inch deep.”
That’s just a fancy way of saying, in a general sense, we are shallow.
We may have large church buildings.
We may have burgeoning church programs.
We may have large church attendance.
But at the end of the day, if Packer is correct, many of us are grossly undeveloped in regard to our spiritual maturity. Simply put, we’re putting more energy into creating facades than into laying foundations.
Here’s a reason I think this happens: its much easier to work on the appearance of godliness than actually doing the hard work of pursuing godliness.
If all we do is try to appear mature, it won’t take much for the superficiality of our so-called maturity to be revealed. The smallest trial will unravel us because we were not equipped to handle it.
As a result, when any sort of pain, suffering or challenge comes our way, we quickly become unglued. We can’t help ourselves, let alone anyone offer assistance to anyone else. We fall apart rather than stand firm.
So what’s the problem?
From my vantage point, I would say the problem is our refusal to tend to our inner life.
In other words, we aren’t willing to apply ourselves to the discipline of spiritual development. Likely because it’s hard work!
The issue of spiritual shallowness is nothing new. Paul gave his protégé Timothy a clear and distinct charge in order to be effective in his ministry:
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8 NIV)
So, what do I mean when I speak of the inner life? I’d describe the inner life as what’s going on inside of us. Its the collection of our thoughts, our attitudes and our emotions.
When the inner life is untended, the outer life is usually a mess.
- When we think in a worldly, selfish manner, we typically lack in love, humility and servanthood. As a result, we operate out of pride, greed, lust or envy.
- When our attitudes are driven by the flesh, we often say or do things that aren’t life-giving, but tear down and destroy. Thus, our mindset is set on survival rather than servanthood.
- When our emotions are unchecked, our life can look like a roller coaster, hurtling up, down and around. We lack self-control, which results in a lot of collateral damage
The truth is that rather doing ministry, many of us with untended inner lives need to be ministered to!
I think some of the reasons our inner lives are so neglected include our over-busy lives, an overabundance of distractions, and a culture that celebrates performance and production to the exclusion of faithfulness and thoughtfulness.
Add to the mix our propensity toward laziness and disobedience, which only make matters worse.
See, spiritual maturity demands effort. And just like physical exercise, we only grow when we experience some sort of resistance.
Charles Stanley right made this observation:
“Adversity is not simply a tool. It is God’s most effective tool for the advancement of our spiritual lives. The circumstances and events that we see as setbacks are oftentimes the very things that launch us into periods of intense spiritual growth. Once we begin to understand this, and accept it as a spiritual fact of life, adversity becomes easier to bear.”
Another challenge is that, in some quarters of contemporary Christianity, tending to the inner life is seen as mystical, non-productive and self-indulgent. Some will view slowing down to tend to the soul as “touchy-feely,” wimpy or selfish.
The problem with this is that, no matter how much we may deny it, we are multi-faceted human beings, and it does us no good to ignore any aspect of our being. Like it our not, we are emotional beings! Avoiding the emotional aspect of our personhood is a recipe for disaster.
I wonder: could it be that the American value of rugged individualism is actually hindering our ability to grow as a whole person?
I have a hunch that for many of us, the real challenge is tending to our inner life this: we are fearful to look within because we know its a mess. Sort of like that closet we know needs to be cleaned, but every time we open the door to begin the task, we feel overwhelmed and simply close the door. And so the closet remains in its state of disorder.
One more thought: generally speaking, as American Christians, we’re better at doing than we are being. We like to be busy and produce, but struggle with practices that slow us down. Prayer, scripture meditation, fasting and reflection seem terribly slow to us. We like to be on task, but are less interested in preparing for the task.
For these reasons (and certainly a few more) the garden of our inner life goes untended. Rather than flourishing with fruit, it is overrun with weeds. Yet, we don’t seem bothered enough to do much about it.
Such an attitude reminds me of the story about a woodcutter who failed to take time to sharpen his ax:
Once upon a time, a very strong woodcutter asked for a job in a timber merchant. The pay was really good and so were the working conditions. For those reasons, the woodcutter was determined to do his best.
His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he would work.
The first day, the woodcutter felled 18 trees.
“Congratulations,” the boss said. “Go on that way!”
Motivated by the boss words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could only bring down 15 trees. The third day he tried even harder, but he could only manage 10 trees. Day after day, he finished with fewer trees.
“I must be losing my strength,” the woodcutter thought. He went to the boss and apologized, saying that he could not understand what was going on.
“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?,” the boss asked.
“Sharpen? I’ve had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been so busy trying to cut trees….”
Perhaps a way to think about our inner life is in relation to root systems. Some trees are beautiful, but because their root systems are shallow, they are easy to knock over. But other trees, like the cypress trees that inhabit the stormy coastline of central California have deep root systems, which allow those trees to stand in the midst of battering winds and rain.
Here’s the bottom line: what takes place in our outer life is inseparable from what’s going on in our inner being.
If our root system is compromised, then the trunk, branches, leaves and fruit of our outer life will most certainly be negatively impacted.