In the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus instructs us of the greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s not by accident this shows up so many times in The Bible.
Here’s why Jesus paired these commandments: you can’t fully do the second one if you aren’t doing the first one. Having a close, personal relationship with God is what keeps us growing mentally, spiritually and emotionally.
I know a lot of people who will disagree with my statement above. It’s true, you don’t need to have a close, personal relationship with God to give good advice, help out those in need, donate to a worthy cause. But lacking the relationship makes those just good deeds and not LOVE. As Mother Teresa said “It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving.” You can’t pay your way into Heaven with good works.
- James 2:24- “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
- James 2:26- “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
- Hebrews 10:24-25- “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more you see the Day drawing near.” [emphasis mine]
If you’re not working on your own spiritual, mental and emotional health (which is a constant pursuit, btdubs), you become emotionally unavailable and stunted. And you can’t invest in people in the way God wants, not to mention develop close, personal relationships with those you love, if you’re emotionally unavailable and stunted.
It is a two-way street. To be adequately equipped to invest in the growth of others, you need to have people investing in your growth. Which is hard, because it requires vulnerability, the acknowledgement of imperfection and the recognition of need. It’s messy and dirty and sometimes (a lot of times) super un-fun. But it’s worth it because this is how fruit is harvested; this is how we grow.
Let’s look at a practical example. Jesus did a ton of good works throughout his three-year ministry. But the works aren’t what define Him. The works are what He did as a result of his spiritual growth, and He used them as a way to teach people how to grow spiritually and how to treat each other. He surrounded himself with 12 dudes in whom he invested (through close personal relationship); and they, in turn, invested in him.
The Bible doesn’t talk too much about their downtime, but even if a majority of their time together was spent teaching and performing miracles, Jesus and his squad had some time to go deep and process the tough stuff. That’s how Jesus grew those disciples up to continue His mission after He left. Jesus gave us the model for how we should be getting down and dirty with each other to grow spiritually and learn how to really love one another (aka: discipleship).
Even Jesus, God incarnate, recognized his own vulnerability and need. I’m not saying we all need to spend 40 days fasting in the wilderness, but this is a good example of the time and effort Jesus put into developing a relationship with his Father. He faithfully answered the call of the Holy Spirit to spend 40 days communing with His Father.
But how do we do this? How do we ensure we’re not avoiding our own emotional/spiritual growth by busying ourselves with acts of service? How do we switch from simply serving others to loving others? How do we develop a close, personal relationship with God?
- Pray. Developing a consistent prayer life is probably the most difficult of the three basic steps. It’s hard to have the discipline to pray when life is happening (and there’s Netflix to binge). It’s hard to set aside time each day to dedicate to the Lord. To tell Him your desires, to ask for forgiveness, to intercede for our broken world, just to talk and listen. It will always be hard, but it gets easier the more you do it. And it doesn’t need to be this big flowery thing. I pray in my car to and from work. I pray in the shower. I pray during the times I find myself alone with a few minutes to connect to my Creator while I’m washing dishes or dusting.
- Read the Word. The Bible is God’s book. It’s our instruction manual and our direct line of communication from God. Through reading the Word, we are not only reading about how God wants us to live. We’re reading about His character and His personal love for us. Through the stories, we’re given living examples to follow.
- Be in Community. There’s friends and then there’s community, and if you’re lucky, they overlap as frimunity or framunity (ok, those don’t really work but you get the point). Get in a community of people who are also after God’s heart. Find a community modeled after what Jesus had created for himself with the disciples. Get messy with each other. Be real. Hold each other accountable, and encourage one another. Have fun together. These are the people who will invest in your spiritual and emotional growth. They’re the ones who will call you out on your shtuff, and then walk through the muck and mire with you. And you’ll learn how to do this for others.