– By Mark Buchanan
I opened my first session last week by reading some of the story of Stephen from Acts. Here are the sections:
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue… who began to argue with Stephen….
All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel….
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this [a prophetic indictment Stephen brings against them], they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him….
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 6:8-10, 15; 7:54-60).
The contrast between Stephen and the Sanhedrin – the highest Jewish ruling council in that day – is striking.
He is full of grace and power.
They are filled with hate and rage.
He has the face of an angel.
They gnash their teeth.
He speaks with calm bold authority.
They yell at the top of their lungs. He sees the glory of Christ.
They see red.
He is full of the Holy Spirit.
They are filed with fury.
He listens for the Father.
They clamp their ears shut.
He speaks peace.
They rush at him, and drag him out, and stone him.
They kill him. He forgives them.
Here’s a puzzle: each member of the Sanhedrin had engaged, over their entire lifetime, a strict regimen of spiritual disciplines – reading Scripture, giving tithes, helping the poor, fasting, worshipping, and more. Probably, most members of the Sanhedrin were further along than Stephen in these practices.
How is it that two people can read the same Bible, pray to the same God, worship at the same altar, throw money in the same plate, and yet one becomes increasingly angry and bitter while the other grows more and more thankful and grace-filled?
This is the question at the heart of spiritual formation. Clearly, spiritual practices alone do not make a saint. We all know this, because we’ve all met the man or woman who has memorized a thousand verses, served on a dozen church committees, tithed faithfully from the crib, and so on, but who is nasty, gossipy and proud. And we’ve met the opposite – those whose spiritual practices are sometimes inconsistent, sporadic, quirky, but who look so much like Jesus, or least like one of his angels, we keep having to do double-takes.
This story in Acts indicates the difference is the Holy Spirit. And that maybe solves it, but maybe it just complicates it: we have all met self-proclaimed “Spirit-filled” people who manifest little of the Spirit’s fruit.
I suggest one thing above all things is crucial to growing in Christ-likeness. Obviously, without the Holy Spirit, all our best efforts will be useless, and probably harmful. But even then, the Holy Spirit can make little headway, nor can all the spiritual disciplines on earth, if we lack this one thing.
Humility is relentless honesty with ourselves about ourselves. And humility is desperate hunger for God to change that which is amiss within us. Humility lets us see ourselves as we really are. And humility helps us live in daily yearning for God to have his way with us.
Before God breathed on you, you were dust. Unless he breathes upon you again, and again, and again, to dust you shall return.
Indeed, that’s the point.
Mark Buchanan is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta. Mark is a pastor, teacher, speaker, and the author of widely-acclaimed books of practical theology as well as the forthcoming novel, David. Mark wrote an article called “Confessions of an Ex-Pastor” in The Sept/Oct issue of Faith Today.