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Diagnosing Spiritual ‘Stuckness’: the Problem May Not Be What You Think

Joe Barnard
The Way Forward
The Way Forward

Joe Barnard is the author of The Way Forward: a Road–map of Spiritual Growth for Men in the 21st Century (Christian Focus Publications). For eight years he pastored a church in the Highlands of Scotland. He is now the director of a men’s discipleship program, Cross Training Ministries (www.xtrainingministries.com).


 

In south Louisiana, where I live, banana trees are everywhere. They are in backyards, beside strip malls, and hanging next to patios and swimming pools. Yet, much to the frustration of local kids, none of these trees produce edible fruit. The sad truth is that bananas grow in my area, but only so far. Covington, Louisiana is just far enough south for the trees to survive, but too far north for mature fruit to ripen.

I often think of the banana trees in my hometown when I reflect on Christians today. Too many of us hit a low–ceiling of spiritual growth. We desire to grow, but feel stuck and frustrated as if our maturity is stunted. To make matters worse, many of us are confused about the source of the problem. Preachers, like me, can be too slick in our diagnoses. We fire off indictments of laziness and apathy without carefully looking into underlying symptoms. Such slipshod treatment is dangerous. Any physician worth his wages knows that an effective remedy begins with an accurate diagnosis. This is true physically and spiritually. Therefore, for those struggling with spiritual ‘stuckness’, here are four questions to help clarify the root of the ailment.

Am I lazy, or am I exhausted?

Exhaustion often gets misdiagnosed as laziness. This is not surprising. After all, when the sun sets, the guy who falls on his couch worn out by a relentless task–list looks a lot like the guy who never got off of his couch. Both men look at their Bibles on the coffee table and ignore them, but for different reasons. One has no motivation. The other is motivationally spent.

There is no question that exhaustion is epidemic among Christians today. We live in a world that tells us we can have our cake and eat it, too. We can pursue demanding careers, maintain extreme fitness, stay current on pop culture, politics, and sports headlines, be hyper–involved as parents, teach Sunday school and volunteer as chaperones for youth groups, and, oh yes, walk closely with God, too. The truth is that no human being can shoulder such weight. Something must give. For too many, what finally gets squeezed out of a breathless day is ‘the one thing needful’ (Luke 10:42).

Am I stubborn, or am I ill–equipped?

What often looks like stubbornness is a lack of training. As a pastor I used to get annoyed with the members of my church. I would tell them to do things, and they would not get done. I would preach a series on prayer, or challenge parents to disciple their kids, or initiate a campaign for evangelism, but little would change. Instead of the warmth of enthusiastic willingness, I felt the chill of fearful reluctance.

Then one day, while pondering the ministry of Jesus, I realized something. Jesus never asked his disciples to do anything without first equipping them to do it. As the greatest of all teachers, Jesus knew that faithful implementation requires careful preparation. I had missed this. I had mistaken telling for training, delegating for disciple–making. No wonder the results in my church were meager. A Christian untrained in evangelism is no more likely to share the gospel than a person ignorant of plumbing is likely to fix a leaky sink.

Are there stiff–necked Christians who refuse to do the basics of the faith? Of course. But not all reluctance is due to stubbornness. Pastors, in particular, need to keep this in mind.

Am I apathetic, or am I idolatrous?

One does not need to search far to find someone grandstanding the point that apathy is the root problem of modern Christianity. Christians don’t grow, we are told, because Christians don’t care. At most this is a half–truth. By nature, human beings are passionate creatures. We live by love, and what we love determines how we live.

This point is important to grasp because the condition that stifles the growth of modern Christians is not a lack of passion, but a misdirection of passion. In other words, we are not indifferent, we are idolaters. We cherish lesser goods above the Greatest Good and therefore focus on the gifts rather than the Giver. Thus, for example, bodily fitness ends up mattering more to us than godliness (1 Timothy 4:8). A desire for success drains our desire for sanctity. Our worshipping hearts are like a waterline that loses pressure, not because there is no water in the pipes, but because someone left a hose on in the backyard. 

The Christians I know are not apathetic. They care deeply about a lot of different things. Their problem is not a shortage of emotion, but the source of their emotion. They need a richer taste of the pleasures at God’s right hand so that, like the Psalmist, they tap into an eternal wellspring of joy (c.f. Psalms 16:11, 27:4, 36:8, 73:25, 84:1–2).

Am I aloof, or am I alone?

One can hardly step across the threshold of a church without feeling the gravitational pull to sign up for small groups and Bible studies. The appeal repeats like an advertisement on television, “Don’t be aloof. Get involved!” Church leaders strategize to make sure that new faces are not like wallflowers at a high school dance, sitting on the edge of the room, avoiding the action in the middle.

Now all of this is good, indeed necessary. But in the midst of trying to get Christians to sign up for programs, too often something is missing. A lot of Christians who are deeply involved in churches nonetheless lack genuine spiritual friendship. They are not aloof, but they are alone. Even though they attend a community group or volunteer on a committee, no one is close enough to them to share their grief, to help them resist temptation, or to bring them a word of promise in the midst of doubt . The difficult truth is that a person can be involved without being known. This is why attendance sheets can never replace intimate relationships. God has called us to more than participation; He has called us to love.

Early in ministry, if someone would have asked, “Why are so many Christians spiritually stuck?”, four words would have come to mind: laziness, stubbornness, apathy, and aloofness. I still believe that these traits create problems among Christians, but in general, my diagnosis has become more cautious with time. I’ve realized that in ministry, as in medicine, an effective remedy requires a careful analysis. For this reason, whether prying open the rusty hinges of my own heart or looking into the heart of another, increasingly I use the prayer of Psalm 139,

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

Try me, and know my anxieties; 

And see if there is any wicked way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting (vs. 23–24).

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