Personal Spiritual Growth Inventory

It’s common as we enter a new year to spend time in reflection. We may set goals or resolutions for the year. We may take stock of our work or our finances. We may reflect on the highlights and struggles of the last year or on our hopes and plans for the upcoming one.

As we seek to grow as disciples of Christ, reflection can be an important tool. Structured reflection gives us the space to celebrate how we’ve grown and consider what lies ahead as we continue to grow in Christlikeness.

Why not take time to reflect on your spiritual life as you enter the new year?

A spiritual growth inventory is a great way to set aside time to reflect. This can be done on your own, with a  mentor or pastor, or in a small group setting. You can also ask a trusted friend or spouse for their input on areas in which you most need to grow. 

Remember that as with any exercise like this, the point is not to earn our way into God’s favor or work our way into holiness. It also isn’t about heaping guilt on ourselves for all the ways we fall short of some spiritual ideal.

We are completely dependent on grace and the inner working of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives and hearts, and this transformation is a lifelong journey. This reality doesn’t mean we are passive with no part to play in our spiritual growth.

We should be striving to pay attention to the ways sin still holds strong in our lives and seeking ways to put it to death. We should be seeking to develop the habits of godliness and Christ-likeness, nurturing a character that is pleasing to him. A spiritual inventory can help us discern what areas of our life need the most attention. 

The questions that follow are by no means exhaustive. You can work through all of them, or select only a few to consider. Feel free to adapt or add to them in any way that best suits your circumstances. 

Spiritual Inventory Questions

  • How would you describe your walk with God over the last year?

  • How have you grown since first coming to faith? How do you feel you would most like and most need to grow?

  • What is one joy and one struggle in your life and ministry right now?

  • How has your church and faith community helped in your spiritual development? How is it helping you presently?

  • Which fruits of the Spirit are most evident in your day-to-day life (see Gal. 5:22)? Which fruits are least evident in your day-to-day life? Is there something hindering these fruits?

  • What trials have been present in your life over the last year? How did you respond to them? Did they bring you closer to the Lord or further away from him? Do/did you respond with trust or bitterness? What did these trials bring to the fore in your heart? What does this show you about your relationship with the Lord? What does this show you about any idols that may be present in your heart?

  • What are the besetting sins in your life that you are aware of? How are you trying to overcome them? Are you making excuses for any sin in your life? What would it look like for you to take its reality seriously?

  • What role do spiritual disciplines (Bible study, prayer, and others) play in your life? How have they aided your growth in spiritual maturity? What is something you’ve discovered recently in your devotional life? Are there any spiritual disciplines you would like to incorporate? Why?

  • What role does the Bible play in your life? Does it influence your decision making, your priorities, the way you see the world, etc? How has the Lord been speaking to you through His Word?

  • What is your prayer life like?

  • What does the way your spend your time reveal about your priorities? Are there things you spend too much or too little time doing? What adjustments do you need to make?

  • What opportunities do you have to engage in God’s work in the world? Are there opportunities in your life for ministry and service? Consider opportunities in your family life, workplace, neighborhood, community, etc. Are there opportunities to help those in need or to share your faith? Are there opportunities to build relationships with non-Christians or to encourage the faith journey of those who do know the Lord? How are you living into these opportunities?

Next Steps

As this inventory brings sin to light and shows areas in which you can grow, prayerfully turn these things over to the Lord. Repent of the ways you are missing the mark. Ask for His strength and wisdom as you seek to become more like Him. Then prayerfully consider action steps you can take to practically cut out the sin pattern(s) and foster a godly pattern of behavior. Seek out someone you trust who could be an accountability partner with you in this journey.


Suicide Prevention Lifeline: A Resource

What makes life worth living?

It’s a question that seems easy to answer when life is going well. But it becomes painful when life seems to be a never ending string of pain, sickness, or sorrow. It becomes tragic when it’s a question tinged with despair.

Sadly, suicide is currently the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and the 2nd leading cause of death for those aged 15-34. These are our friends and neighbors, family members and coworkers. We should not cease to see this as a tragedy.

But this is not a tragedy we must merely accept. Death by suicide is not inevitable and can be prevented.

This is why I want to share with you today the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can call the Lifeline for free, confidential support for yourself or to learn how to help a loved one in crisis.

I would encourage each of you to save the number in your phone (seriously - do it now). You never know when it may be a help to someone or help you receive support in a crisis situation. The number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also chat with a trained crisis team member online at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.

During this National Suicide Prevention Week, I would also encourage you to take a few minutes to read the great resources on the Lifeline website to learn more about the warning signs of suicide and what you can do to help.

I deeply believe that life is worth living. I believe your life, my friend, is precious, valuable, and worthwhile. You are a gift to the world.

Let’s keep reminding each other of this truth.

The Bible is Not About You

This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.


As I write this post today, which will be the last in this current series on studying the Bible, I sit in the tension of two truths. 

1. The Bible is not about you. 

As Western Christians, we get uncomfortable with that first statement. Some would take quite an offense at it. Some would use it to call into question my views of Scripture. 

In our time and place, we sit in Bible studies in which we hear too often the phrase “What this passage means to me is…” We sit in these studies or classes or sermons in which Scripture is read but then we sprint to how it’s about us. How it somehow relates to an aunt’s illness or a conflict with a co-worker, questions about the future or a sense of comfort and wellbeing. It’s as if the Bible becomes a Magic 8 ball, we shake it, flip it open, and slap the verse we pull out onto our current situation.

We must remember that the Bible is not first and foremost about us. It tells God's story. It was written in another time and place and, if you come from a Western culture, in a radically different culture. It was written for the ears of particular audiences, for a particular purpose, in light of a particular situation. 

2. The Bible has everything to do with you. 

Just as our God is not only transcendent, removed, wholly and holy other, but made Himself immanent and accessible, so it is with His Word. It is true that the Bible is not about us. But it is also true that it has everything to do with us. Yes, it tells God’s story—but He has invited us into that story. 

child-945422_960_720.jpg

Scripture teaches us what God is like. It shows us how He works in the world. It tells us everything we need to know for salvation and proper relationship with Him. It models for us how to live in a way that pleases Him and embrace the abundant life He offers.

It can be applied to our lives and speak to our circumstances. Through the piercing, tender work of the Holy Spirit, it can move us to repentance.

It is God’s Word, written in time and space, but speaking to people in all times and spaces. It is both not about you and completely about you.

The Final Step

I think this dichotomy guides the way we approach Scripture. 

When we remember the Bible isn’t about us, we approach it with respect and care. We study it. We pay attention to genre and allow it to shape our reading expectations and approach. We read it in light of its immediate context of surrounding verses and chapters and its big-picture Redemption story context. We notice the use of words and literary devices. We listen for the Word spoken to the original hearers.

If the Bible were any other document, this is where our work would end. We’d put it under our literary and historical microscopes, analyze and dissect, arrive at a conclusion and that would be the end. But because the Bible has everything to do with us and our lives, we don’t end here. After we have done the careful study, we come to the place we can apply it. 

When we understand what God was communicating to the very first audiences of Scripture, we have a solid framework to take that message and apply it to our own circumstances. We can look for an appropriate and correct parallel to our situation and apply the same lesson. 

For example, that oft-quoted, oft-abused verse, Jeremiah 29:11, gains proper clarity. From our study, we know God is talking not to an individual but to a corporate group of His people. We know they are in the darkest days of their history—they will be brutally ransacked, many will die gruesome deaths, God’s presence in the Temple will leave them, and they will be ripped away from their homeland, the land of God’s promise and favor. But God says, “I know the plans I have for you (plural). Plans not to harm you (even though that’s all you can see right now, even though my righteous judgment would give me cause to cast you off). Plans to give you a hope (when now you feel hopeless) and a future (when now it seems all is lost).” This is the message that can be applied to a parallel situation. We know it isn’t just a warm and fuzzy sense that everything will be fine. It’s a sure promise in trial, when all is dark, that God will not abandon His purposes with His people, and that these purposes can never be thwarted.

And so we come to the final step. The place where this glorious and gracious story—that is so much bigger than you or I—touches our little world and shapes our hearts. 

Literary Genres in the Bible and Why They Matter for Bible Study

This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.


When you read a story to a child, do you read it the same way as you would an encyclopedia article? Do you read the newspaper the same way you read a poem? 

We instinctively know that we can’t read everything the same way. The style and form—or genre—of what we’re reading shapes our expectations and interpretation. The genre gives us reading "rules."

If we look for metaphors and deeper layers of meaning in an instructional manual, we’d be missing the point. Likewise, if we expect a children’s storybook to give us nuanced answers for our self-help predicament. We pay attention to genre to read well.

Genre and How We Study the Bible

Do you know the Bible contains several different literary genres? As we read and interpret Scripture, we must pay attention to it to read well and read the passage as it was intended to be read. 

When you read a passage of Scripture, ask, “What is the genre of this book/passage? How does that genre inform the way I should read, interpret, and apply this?”

book-2604453_960_720.jpg

One of the best single resources I know for this endeavor is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart. This book is well worth having on your shelf.

For each of the genres in Scripture, the authors explain the main features of the genre, the Biblical books it applies to, and the basic principles for reading and interpreting the genre. They keep everything practical and accessible, focus on broadly applicable principles that can guide our reading, and pepper these principles with examples. 

For our purposes here, I’ll give a brief overview of the biblical genres—but I’d encourage you to get a copy of How to Read to learn more.  

Biblical Genres At A Glance

Narrative 

The narratives in the Bible tell us about God’s work in history. These stories from the past are intended to shape us in the present, but they are not intended to be moralized. They may illustrate implicitly a principle or standard of morality (positively or negatively) that is explicitly taught somewhere else in Scripture, but they do not always give us a clear judgment of people’s behavior.  

Law

The Law was a binding covenant, or legal agreement, between Israel and God, and explains how the nation of Israel was to behave and worship, individually and as a society. It included specific blessings and curses that would come as a result of their faithfulness or unfaithfulness (see Deut. 28). These blessings and curses are important to understand the rest of Israel’s history, particularly the prophets and the exile. 

Poetry

Poetry uses evocative and imagery-laden language and is peppered with metaphors and similes. The Psalms (the largest collection of poetry in the Bible) are songs and poems to and about God, intended to give voice to the praise and prayer of God’s people. They are music, not in-depth or extensive explanations of doctrine. They are properly interpreted as a whole, with each line understood in light of the ones around it. 

One feature to keep an eye out for: parallelism. The writer puts two lines of poetry in parallel with each other, to add a depth of meaning—and beauty—by the way they compare to each other or build on each other. Once you start looking for it, you’ll see how frequent it is. For example, Psalm 19:1:

"The heavens declare the glory of God, 
And the sky above proclaims his handiwork."

Wisdom

Wisdom literature in the Bible uses poetry to give practical, pithy statements about how to make godly choices and think and act based on God’s truth. By nature it is inexact and not exhaustive. It gives us a memorable snippet of truth but doesn’t tell us all about it. This is why all wisdom literature must be read and interpreted based on the entirety of Scripture.  

Prophecy

The prophets spoke for God to specific people in a specific situation. They announce God’s enforcement of the covenant, as given in the Law, and declare both judgment and hope. They must be read in light of the historic setting and background of the audience and in light of the blessings and curses of the Law. The prophets often convey their message using poetry, so we should remember to pay attention to the imagery, metaphors, and parallelism in their message, just as we do in the Psalms. 

Gospels

The Gospels are selective presentations of the life, work, and teaching of Christ, for a specific audience. The differences in the Gospels are intentional, and paying attention to these differences will help us understand what is being emphasized and communicated by each Gospel writer. Just as we pay attention to the intended audience of the Gospel writer, we pay attention to the audience of Jesus’ teaching. His parables and stories expect a response, and they are properly understood when we remember who he is calling to respond in that moment (disciples, crowds, Pharisees, etc.).

Epistles

The Epistles were letters written by apostles to a specific group of Christians for a specific purpose and to a specific situation. Since we’re only given one "side" of the conversation, we need to pay attention to the historical context and to the clues we’re given about the “other side” of the conversation. It’s crucial to read these books with an eye for the entire argument and flow of logic. We must constantly be asking what the author’s words would have meant to his original audience, and then (and only then) we can consider what a comparable situation and application it has for today.

Apocalyptic

The word apocalypse means “revelation, disclosure, unveiling” and refers to an unveiling of unseen or future spiritual or earthly events and realities. It heavily uses symbolism and visions, and it is concerned about future judgment, justice, and salvation. It is important to remember that apocalypse (which appears in Revelation, Daniel, and prophets like Ezekiel) is a form of literature, and one that is heavily stylized and artistic in its imagery, use of numbers, structure, etc. 
 

Reading the Bible in Context: Part 2, The Big Picture

This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.


I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t love a good story. We love being caught up in them, swept up in our imaginations, transported to another time. They make us laugh and cry. They inspire us and challenge us to live differently. Stories shape who we are. 

I hope you’ve encountered some good storytellers in your time—the sort that captivate you as they slowly pull you into their tales. 

We cannot forget that the Bible tells us a story. It is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It tells the grand story Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. We are a people of this story. We are marked by it. And we have been called to live in it.

pexels-photo-273936.jpeg

To understand the Bible properly, we need to understand its Story. We need to see how the parts of that story fit together. When we’re reading the Bible, we should ask, How does this passage fit into the overarching story of the Bible?

CASKET EMPTY is the best tool I know to explain the biblical story and keep each part of the Bible in its larger framework. CASKET EMPTY was developed by two Gordon-Conwell professors for the purpose of helping people understand the story of the Bible. They’ve used CASKET EMPTY as an acronym to describe the major highlights of the biblical story. This acronym structures the beautiful illustrated timelines for the Old and New Testaments as well as the companion study guides. If you’re looking for a thorough yet accessible overview of the Bible, you really must take a look at these

I’ve given broad brush strokes of the Story below, using the CASKET EMPTY framework. Remember that this is a sweeping abbreviation, so you’ll want to read more on your own to fill in the gaps and details.


Old Testament

Creation

Genesis 1-11

God creates the world and everything in it, and it is good. Adam and Eve, the first humans, are deceived in the garden of Eden, and sin enters the world. This “Fall” brings the results of sin and death, including the effects of sin on our relationship with God, with each other, and the with created order.

Abraham

Genesis 12-50, possibly Job

God makes promises to Abraham (see Gen. 12:1-3, 17:1-8) and makes a covenant with him. This covenant continues to his descendants, starting with his miraculous son Isaac and moving to the entire nation of Israel.

Sinai

Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth

God delivers the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt, with Moses as their leader. He makes a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai and gives them the Law. They enter into the Promised Land, with God promising to dwell with them in the tabernacle.

Kings

1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah

God grants Israel a king—first King Saul (which ended badly), then King David. God makes a covenant with David, and his is the true royal line. After David’s son Solomon dies, the Kingdom is divided into Israel in the North and Judah in the south (which follows the rightful line of David). Both Kingdoms stray from God’s Law, though the Kingdom of Judah does have some godly kings, who call the nation back to worship of God alone. Because Israel and Judah have broken the Law, God promises judgment. The prophets write during this time, calling the nations to repentance, announcing judgment, and promising God’s faithfulness. The Kingdoms continue to rebel, however, and God brings judgment through the means of other nations. Israel is conquered by Assyria, and Judah is conquered by Babylon.

Exile

Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Obadiah, Psalms

After the Kingdom of Judah is conquered, the people are taken to exile in Babylon. The prophets say that after a time of exile, God will restore His people and bring them back to their land. They also promise the coming of a Righteous King, and a new covenant in which God’s people will be freed from sin and given hearts that are soft to obey Him. 

Temple

Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Psalms

As God promised, the people of Judah are allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem. They rebuild the city, the walls, and the temple. 

New Testament

Expectations

Between the end of OT and beginning of NT, no Biblical books

The Israelite people continue to wait for the promised Messiah the prophets spoke of, as they continue to face oppression by world powers. 

Messiah

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John

Jesus comes as the Messiah and in his life, death, and resurrection fulfills the promises made to God’s people. He announces the arrival of the Kingdom of God and proves its presence with signs and miracles. He calls people to repentance and a response to the Gospel. Jesus lived a sinless life but died a criminal's death on a Cross. His death paid humanity’s penalty for the effects of sin and death brought on by the Fall and began a restoration of all of Creation. His life, death, and resurrection are the climax and ultimate fulfillment of the Old Testament, and the basis for the Christian church’s teaching in the rest of the New Testament. This is the highlight and center of the Story.

Pentecost

Acts

After Jesus returns to Heaven, his disciples receive the Holy Spirit. They begin to spread throughout the known world, obeying Jesus’ command to baptize and teach disciples in His Name. God makes clear Gentiles (people not of ethnic Israel) and people of all nations are equally welcomed into faith. Fledgling churches spring up and expand, even in the face of persecution. Paul, once a persecutor of the church, emerges as a key leader.

Teachings

Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude

Leaders of the church write letters to teach early Christians about the effects and implications of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They talk about how new life in Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit change the Christian’s thinking and behavior. They also deal with issues related to organizing the early church and wrestle with early wrong interpretations of Jesus’ teaching. 

Yet-to-come

Revelation

Evil is finally and fully judged, and God is shown to be the Victor and King. The Redemptive story comes to its full conclusion as Creation is fully restored. God’s people are brought together and live in God’s Kingdom in a New Heavens and New Earth.


Whenever you’re reading a passage of Scripture, locate it within this big overarching Story. Then consider how it relates to the Story, how it moves the Story along, etc. Also consider how its position in the Story affects the way you interpret it. This is all a part of reading the Bible in context—grounding each passage of Scripture within the whole Story of how God has and is working in our world. 

Friend, we are a part of this story. As you sit and read your Bible and ask these questions, you sit in between the “teachings” and the “yet-to-come.” We haven’t seen the full arrival of God’s Kingdom or His full Restoration. As a part of the Church, as a believer in Jesus, you are a part of His Story and a part of His work in the world. I stand in awe of this!