[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for January, 2017.]
Perhaps you have heard the joke about the generous, but none-too-bright, fisherman. After years of patient failure, he finally struck success, pulling in fish after fish! Being a generous fellow, he quickly motored back to the shore to share the good news with his friends. “Are you sure you will be able to get back to the same spot?” they asked. “Easy,” he said, smiling. “I’ve marked the spot with a big marker.” And with that, he showed his friends a large freshly-painted white ‘X’ on the side of his boat! We smile, confident that no-one would be so stupid, but in many ways that is what happens when a Christian measures one’s growth and maturity by anything other than the objective measure of the Word of God.
The early Corinthian Church had that problem: at least, they had a group within the Church with that problem who were not slow in pushing themselves forwards. Was Paul an apostle? Well, they were “Super Apostles” (2 Cor 11:5). Was he able to give guidance? Well they could do it better and with more impressive oratory, and so on. According to them, they were simply the most impressive exemplars of Christian ministry possible, but the measure and affirmation of their excellence was always and only themselves, so that Paul could say with withering understatement, “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise”(2 Cor 10:12). “Not wise”: we understand his point—or do we?
The problem was not unique to 1st century Corinth, and is not limited to those who challenge Apostolic authority or doctrine today, although there are plenty who fit into that category at the fringes of the Church. We also can be guilty—not by inventing new doctrine or declaring ourselves to be fit for Church office when no-one else agrees but in being the only assessors of our spiritual condition to whom we will listen.
If we measure ourselves by ourselves, we will always err in our favour when called to assess our spiritual life. We will rationalize our failure to progress, excuse our sin and delay its mortification. We overstate our growth and understate our faults. Inevitably we will also begin to “drift” away from Christ but because the any “X” we use to mark out our Christian progress moves as we drift, we will have no measure of how far we have drifted until something rouses us. Doubtless a true believer will have a sense that “all is not as it should be” but drifting is not always obvious until one has drifted so far off that returning becomes hard work and only possible through the love and grace of Christ. [see Matt 18:12ff & Heb 2:1ff.] O that we had not trusted in ourselves!
Navigation is complicated, even for well known journeys. Each day sees new combinations of winds or tides so that yesterday’s settings cannot be taken without careful checking. A navigator who plots everything just by his own assessment or yesterday’s settings is “not wise”! Complacency leads to catastrophe and even death. The same is true in the spiritual life. We may not fall foul of the known hazards Christians have dealt with for many years but each day and generation brings subtle new pressures or temptations that if ignored, will cause us to drift. Complacency leads to catastrophe!
Thankfully, as Paul knew, God in his grace provides us with such navigational aids outside ourselves (2 Cor 10:13). The sphere of his ministry and service was defined by God’s measure (metron) and that measure was the grace of God which revealed the full mature knowledge of Jesus Christ (Eph 4:7&13-14). So how can we avoid drifting in 2017? By keeping our eyes on Christ through His Word, and not on ourselves.