By Keith J. Thomas
Each phase of life has certain words that bring a level of anxiety. Physical Check-up, Report Card, Fiscal Audit, Try-outs, Performance Review, and Tax Return are all concepts that can bring a degree of anxiety or on occasion, fear. Yes, anxiety can be very unhealthy and stressful. It can bring on us a sense of pressure or being overwhelmed and even discouragement. However, when you really stop to think about the process of evaluation, one must admit that if done properly, it can be a healthy process to reflect on where we are with where we would like to be in terms of long-term improvement. The Christian walk is no different. Long term growth comes when there is intentional and honest self appraisal. An inventory of our heart attitude is helpful if we want to see intentional growth.
Be Careful - Two Dangerous Extremes
It is not difficult to see that there are two specific extremes that turn into land-mines when it comes to taking a personal Spiritual Inventory. Avoid these two extremes at all costs because there can be catastrophic results!
First, is the extreme of seeing it as set of legalistic obligations. If we make the error of looking at the spiritual inventory as a a list of requirements or obligations that must be met to be minimally acceptable in God's eyes, you have made a grave error. Jesus warned his disciples and the Pharisees over and over again of the risks of falling into measuring by legalistic lists of duties and obligations to obtain favor in God's eye's. (See Matt 9: 10-13, Matt 12: 1-13, Luke 11: 37-44) Becoming a slave to a spiritual inventory will lead to legalism. Nothing we do can provide us favor or standing in God's perspective for salvation. Further, nothing we do can keep us in good standing to maintain favor in Gods view i.e. keep us secure. Nothing we do has merit - this is the heart of the gospel. We obtain favor and keep favor because of what Christ has done on the cross. For example, a fastidious daily devotional habit cannot get me into heaven! Nor does my lack of devotional life jeopardize my security of heaven! Works righteousness does not have any merit in obtaining right standing with God. Only Christ's work on the cross is sufficient for our justification. Spiritual Inventories are only a tool to help us gauge our level of growth and commitment in practicing spiritual disciplines after our step of salvation.
Second, is the extreme of seeing it as a meaningless and fruitless exercise. In most instances, people avoid appraisal because it means we must confront the realities of our deficiencies and it could require change. Perhaps one of the reasons why people avoid doing an inventory is because no one really wants to admit to the honest truth. For example, when we look in the mirror it is a brutal reminder when you are 30 lbs overweight or your hair-line is receding. We hate it. For some people - the solution to this discomfort is ..... don't look in the mirror! The same goes with the mirror of a spiritual inventory. Seeing ourselves as a person who is ill equipped as a Christian Case-Maker is not a pleasant reality. It has implications.....Perhaps this means that I really don't have a burden for spiritually lost people or I really don't love unbelieving people the way God does or I don't want to challenge myself to ramp up on some basic apologetics skills. Honest appraisal requires a commitment to action and change. Paul mentions repeatedly that each believer needs to regularly examine themselves (1 Cor 11: 23-32, 2 Cor 13:5) making sure that we walk in a manner that is worthy of our calling. This requires an honest self appraisal and spiritual self inventory.
Take the Right Approach
No one has 100% of their Spiritual life mastered to perfection. It is simply a part of the sanctification process that takes place over the course of the life of a believer. As you work through each question, give yourself a grade or a mark. The scale above, is useful; Outstanding, Very Good, Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory. Record your findings somewhere in a journal or prayer book to help you record where you are on 01 January 2016. As you enter the new year, ask God to help you change by the renewing of your mind. Jesus reminds us that being a disciple comes at a cost and it should not be taken lightly (See Matt 14: 25 - 35). Enter the new year with a sense of anticipation as to where and how God will change you to be a better disciple. The biggest tragedy that could take place is if you were the exact same person one year from now. Don't be passive - be proactive to become a reproducing Christ follower! Identify and address your weaknesses. As you move through the next year, revisit your list once every quarter just to see where God will lead you in your faith journey. It is helpful if you keep a few things in mind as you work through your inventory.
Keep a Balanced Perspective
Remember that the inventory is simply a tool not a test. Taking the inventory too seriously could lead to a depressing perspective because no one is perfect and no one can master the Christian walk ideally. However, taking the inventory too glibly could lead to a hap-hazard approach to one's faith walk. In Ephesians 5: 15-16, Paul tells the believers "Therefore, be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil." The word translated "careful" is also translated "walk circumspectly" or "walk cautiously", the idea conveyed is with exactness - even piety. Note the level of measurement or intentionality that is associated with one who walks in wisdom. Contrast this with one who is foolish, unmeasured and careless. A spiritual inventory allows you to walk circumspectly. It facilitates wisdom and exactness. Use the tool of a spiritual inventory with wisdom and balance.
When you are finished with the inventory, identify areas of strength and areas of weakness that need to be improved. Frequently people with either fixate over things they do well or they will become preoccupied with the the areas that need improvement. Divide the list into two broad areas; + Areas, where I believe I am doing well and ∆ (Delta) Areas, where I believe I need to improve. As you reflect on the list be sure to make it a matter of prayer asking God to guide you as you complete the evaluation phase of the exercise. Praise God for the areas where you are doing well and ask God to to give you wisdom on which ones to focus on for improvement over the next few months. Develop a strategy to address the one or two areas to improve and set forth a plan on how to improve! Don't be consumed with every area where you want to improve but focus your energy on one or two specific areas that you feel convicted about to reshape over the next few months. Be sure to include specific plan on implementation and pray about God changing you over time.
Transformation = Worship
As you go through this exercise, do this as an act of worship! Ask God to lead you and to give you great wisdom, insights and discernment. Praying throughout the process is key. When you approach this exercise with a heart of worship it should take any temptation for pressure off. Automatically, it becomes an issue between yourself and God. Desiring to move towards greater levels of obedience and living Biblically is actually an act of worship. It is your gift to God. Paul states in Romans 12: 1-2 that we should present our bodies (our entire being heart, soul and mind) to God as a living sacrifice. When we are transformed by renewing our hearts and minds we are actually in the process of worshiping our great God. The world seeks to see us conform to its image whereas God seeks to see us transform our minds. Remember a transformed heart and mind equals an act of worship.
Begin this year with the end in mind. Pray about where God wants you to improve as a Christ follower. Remember what Francis Chan stated - "Life is a series of decisions that results in either reward or regret." Make this year count - invest yourself wisely!
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