A few years ago I had a conversation with a mom and dad who were concerned with the spiritual progress or lack thereof of their high school son. They told me how they had a weekly prayer meeting, did devotions, and named a few other obviously spiritual activities. They simply could not understand why their son did not have the wisdom to love God like they did, and they based it on their devotion to what they saw as spiritual exercises. Their devoted mysticism did not seem to translate into parental effectiveness. Here was the problem: they were overall not a very happy couple, and seemed to struggle at times with balancing life economically, and sometimes seemed to have a hard time matching their spiritual obsession with practical decisions in everyday life. So, their high school son simply failed to see the practical impact of their spirituality when they translated it into how they actually lived their lives.
To him, it was only a game, and one he did not want to play with his life.
Compartmentalization marks Western Christianity: we have our spiritual life over here, our economic life over there, our work world in one place and our family in another, and so on. The lack of integration leads to a failure to bring about change in areas not explicitly tied to our “spiritual” spheres in life. One of the tragic effects of compartmentalization reveals itself in many who confuse explicitly “spiritual” activity with growth in wisdom and maturity. I meet far too many who simply believe if they do enough spiritual work (defined as church attendance, quiet time, prayer meetings, reading books, etc), that such activity will automatically translate into wisdom in every day life.
If only that were true, but often it is not.
Now, please do not misunderstand, I am very convinced that someone who spends much time in God’s Word, in prayer, and in spiritual disciplines will gain wisdom over time. I have confidence both in the Word of God and the Spirit of God. But I do not have confidence whatsoever in a believer who thinks that the exercises alone, separated from practical application in everyday life and accountability through the local church, will create a man or woman of God. In fact, I would argue from observation that too many young men (and young women) I have seen actually are hindered in their growth when they buy into a compartmentalized view of Christianity that assumes growth happens simply because of spiritual exercises without any effort to integrate such exercises into the daily life of emotions, economics, relationships, etc.
I have seen young men, including young men who proclaim a call to ministry, talk excessively about their love for Jesus, the sermons they hear, and the books they read, only to discover when they are alone with a young lady on a date they do not seem to have the conviction about physical boundaries that would be consistent with their claims about their love for the Word. I have met young ladies surprised by this and caught totally off guard. These young men are not able to translate their supposed devotion to Jesus into a concomitant conviction about how to treat their sisters in Christ, and it is a pathetic reality.
I have listened to young men tell me their dreams of great impact for the gospel, how they are sure they are going to change the world, but their dreams sound strangely like opportunism and a lust for personal gain than a call from God to surrender everything (including recognition!!) for the cross. They cannot seem to translate their desire to make an impact to a humble life.
I have watched young men who think that the cure to an area in which they need change is simply to pile on spiritual activities. Again, do not misunderstand, I think fasting and prayer, Scripture memory, and other disciplines can absolutely help a young man change to be more like Jesus. I will be teaching a course on this very topic with Mark Liederbach in the spring. But when a young man thinks that simply doing the exercises will mystically change them without any effort on their part to apply spiritual truths to a given area, they are simply behaving like Pharisees. Example: if a young man rejects authority, simply memorizing verses alone will not cause him to suddenly listen to wiser voices. He needs to listen to wiser voices to learn how to listen to wiser voices.
We practice what I call substitute godliness when we do one “spiritual” thing while ignoring the very issue we need to confront to change.
The other day I got an email from a young man who had starting talking “randomly” to a young lady I know. She is a sharp young whipper-snapper-she got his email and sent it to me. So I wrote him. He replied, telling me how he had broken up with a young lady, and was recently back in church and following the Lord, and how he felt like a young lady like this one I know would help him to understand young ladies better in the future. So, he asked me to please tell her he would like to be her friend. Yeah right. I am sure the fact that she is attractive had nothing to do with him choosing her. I think it had everything to do with it. I told him he needs MEN in his life over the distraction of a pretty girl.
Sometimes I want to run headlong into a wall.
This is why young men (and I am intentionally picking on young men here) need mentors. They need men who can help them to translate their spiritual exercises into the areas where they need to change. I have seen far too many young men who are genuinely passionate for Jesus, but when it comes to making decisions in everyday life they are as dumb as a stick. A guy like this can articulate the gospel theologically but has the social skills of a Yeti. He can spend days consistently in his quiet time but totally forget an assignment spelled out in a syllabus. He can sweet talk a young lady and make her think she has found her knight in shining armor, but in reality the only person he wants to rescue is himself. By the way, ladies, if a guy can look you in the eye and talk really sweetly to you so that you feel like you just fell into the land of Camelot, wait and see if the same guy can look men in the eye and carry on healthy conversations with them. Some young guys can smooth talk a girl, but a man of God can converse with girls and guys, young and old. These men do not compartmentalize their world.
By the way, this is true for young ladies as well. Sometimes a young lady will be remarkably passionate for Jesus, but in one area of her life (often growing from her past) she seems to be unable to trust Jesus in that area. She may believe Jesus for salvation, but in the specific area of relationships with guys she would rather deal with that in her own power. Or, it may be a seeming inability to trust the Lord in finances, or with her future, etc. Is there an area in your life that you have, without realizing it, separated that part of your life from the truth of the gospel’s power? If so, you need more than a lengthier quiet time. You need godly mentors to help you to open the window of your heart to let the light of the gospel shine in places you have kept shut off from grace.
Young men, you need older men in your live to help you unpack the gospel change you desperately need and to apply the spiritual disciplines you should be exercising. Young women, you need older women as well. Check out Titus 2.
You can be spiritual on the surface and be a complete idiot. I know because I have been that myself too often. I see it all the time. No, not every young adult I know is like that. Most are not. But those that are can fool their peers and tragically are most successful at fooling themselves.
Ask yourself this question: what is an area in my life where I really need work? Hint: we all have those. Now ask yourself: how am I moving toward change in that area? Who do I have to help me? God has given us His Word. He has also given us His body. Change can happen. Get in a small group. Find an older man or woman of God. Get help, because you need it. And you can change. Do not seek only to be busy doing spiritual exercises. Be busy pursuing wisdom as well.