Avoiding Spiritual Darkness in Our Latter Years
When are the leaves of a tree most beautiful?
Late in their life span. Eye-popping hues of gold, yellow, and red dot the landscape. Their colors peak right before they die, turn brown, and fall to the earth’s surface.
That’s how I want to finish: more winsome and attractive the older I get, in the latter years of my earthly life. Someone who reflects the grandeur of my Creator. Not a person who soils the Lord’s reputation through a moral collapse, self-centered living, or negative attitudes over a weakening body, or unfulfilled tasks that He never assigned me in the first place.
But finishing well starts long before I reach senior citizen status. Just as soil conditions during the months prior to autumn affect the quality of autumn colors, so the choices and habits of younger years determine the beauty of my character in my 60s and beyond. Finishing well is the cumulative effect of factors we can control in the earlier years, decisions that either enrich or harden the soil of our heart.
My previous post explained two truths and described one strategy for finishing well. Today I’ll cite three additional insights for increasing the likelihood of providing a more attractive view late in life.
Beware of Blessings
It’s sobering to read a pattern in the Old Testament concerning the response of God’s people to His blessing. Typically, when He prospered them, they forgot Him. Ease of life created a sense of self-sufficiency, accompanied by less intimacy with or even outright rebellion toward Him. Deuteronomy 6:10-12 is representative of numerous passages warning of this tendency. Before they entered the Promised Land, where they would enjoy its benefits, including plenty to eat and nice places to live, here’s what God told them through Moses: “Then watch yourself, lest you forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (6:12).
During the wilderness pilgrimage, “They forgot God their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wonders in the land of Ham, and awesome things by the Red Sea” (Ps. 106:21-22). Psalm 106:13 adds, “They quickly forgot His works; they did not wait for His counsel.” For an informative case study of an individual who responded poorly to God’s blessings, read 2 Chronicles 26. Early in His reign, King Uzziah sought the Lord, and God prospered him and his fifty-two years on the throne. How alarming to see that he became proud of God’s blessings, which led to blatant disregard of God’s law and banishment from the throne. He was so vain, he was waiting for a vacancy in the Trinity. Instead, he vacated the throne when God zapped him with leprosy for his defiance.
Charles Swindoll had it right when he wrote, “For every person who fails the faith test posed by adversity, I’ll show you a hundred who fail the faith test posed by prosperity.”
Has the Lord given you a fruitful ministry? Have scores come to the Lord through your witness or church leadership? Do others consistently compliment your teaching? Has He given grace to your children to such an extent that they never experienced a time of outright rebellion or unbelief? Are you blessed with good health and a challenging career that provides more than enough income for your family? Have you, by His grace, resisted a particular temptation for years rather than falling prey to it?
Even if these blessings are direct answers to prayer, they’re still a threat. Never underestimate the potential of the human heart for pride, self-sufficiency, and forgetfulness of God. Make it a point to express gratitude to Him regularly for His blessings, and ask Him to keep your heart soft.
Finishing well depends on how we respond to divine blessings.
Depend on the Disciplines
Another phrase that describes so-called spiritual disciplines is “means of grace.” I like that description! Spiritual growth and cultivation of deep character aren’t merely the result of human effort. Yet God has determined that He will extend the grace to grow through certain means He has provided, such as prayer, Bible study, fasting, authentic fellowship, and corporate worship, to name a few. He doesn’t zap us with holiness just because we’ve accepted Christ as Savior.
We must choose to use His means of grace.
That requires applying a word that is increasingly unpopular among believers: discipline. Paul told Timothy, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). Among the things the author of Hebrews told Christ-followers to pursue was sanctification (Heb. 12:14). Strong character that exhibits the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) isn’t bestowed on us if we’re passive rather than actively pursuing a Christ-like character. Salvation is a free gift, but spiritual formation is a cooperative effort in which we cultivate habits that allow us to tap into God’s gracious resources for holiness.
Dallas Willard said it well: “Grace is not opposed to effort. Grace is opposed to earning.”
The means of grace I most commend to you is Bible memory. When discouragement, temptation, or doubts hound me, I preach sermons to myself based on verses tucked away in my mind. I don’t memorize verses because I’m spiritual, but because I’m not, because I’m needy. Hiding God’s Word in my heart provides fuel for the Holy Spirit to burn at the moment I most need it. Most helpful to me are the timeless promises in the Bible, such as Psalm 32:8; Isaiah 30:18, 41:10; John 14:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Philippians 4:19; 2 Thessalonians 3:3, and James 1:5.
For a clear explanation of the various spiritual disciplines, get a copy of Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Don recently updated the book for the 20th anniversary of its publication.
Finishing well depends on our cumulative choices over time. The spiritual disciplines prepare the soil so vibrant, beautiful character sprouts from it.
Ask for Accountability
One means of grace for our growth is forming close relationships with others in the body of Christ. One aspect of fellowship too often taken for granted is selecting one or more persons who will hold us accountable for cultivating “habits of holiness.” There is grave danger for Christians who have too much privacy.
I like Patrick Morley’s definition of accountability, and how he divided the definition into helpful parts:
“Accountability is to be regularly answerable for each of the key areas of our lives to qualified people.”
*Regularly (implies consistent, ongoing contact) *Answerable (I give someone else the permission to ask me hard questions.)
*Key Areas (relationship with God, spouse, kids; use of money/time; moral/ethical behavior; and areas of personal struggle)
*Qualified People (mature persons who will keep confidences)
Here are questions I gave my accountability partner to ask me every other week. Adapt them to your own situation.
- Are you maintaining a regular time alone with the Lord in which you cultivate intimacy through prayer and Bible study?
- Did you say or do anything since we last talked that constitutes a breach of integrity?
- Did you spend adequate time investing in key relationships: spouse, children, close friends?
- Has your use of time been characterized by diligence in relation to work and ministry opportunities?
- Are you taking care of yourself physically through sound eating habits, exercise, and rest?
- Did you say, write, or do anything in relation to a member of the opposite sex that you wouldn’t want your spouse to know?
- Have you made yourself more vulnerable to temptation by what you’ve watched, read, or by letting your eyes linger for too long on someone other than your spouse?
- Did you speak negatively to someone about a third party who wasn’t present?
- In your speech or thought, have you detected an unforgiving spirit toward someone who has hurt you?
- Have you lied in response to any of the previous questions?
It is difficult to admit failure to a brother in Christ. My image takes a hit. But his encouragement and payers–and sometimes his challenges–keep the soil of my heart tilled and ready to bear fruit.
No one can finish well who takes a solo approach to Christian living. Eventually, spiritual darkness descends on such a person. If no one is asking you the hard questions, who could you approach this week to serve in this capacity? Choose wisely. Find someone who will be both tough and tender.
As you read this article, how did God speak a personal word to you? What is a logical response on your part to what He whispered to you?