Which way are we heading?

Last week, we touched on the idea of judging people by the criteria that we decide are important.

I want to talk about today the danger of judging people concerning their spiritual growth or spiritual maturity or apparent lack of it.

What this judgement is effectively determining in our minds whether someone is in or out – have they jumped through all the hoops of orthodox Christianity or not.  Are they in or out?

But the problem with this view is this:  by which criteria do we judge; how much must a person know of doctrine and Scripture before we can call that person a Christian? What differences of lifestyle need to be apparent as a proof of change? At what point has conversion taken place?

But as I said last week, it is not our role to judge. We are not here to judge others growth but to focus on our own growth. By all means, judge your own growth – you are the best person, after God to do so.

2 Corinthians 13:5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?

Jesus’ comments about Sawdust and logs in eyes also comes to mind.

Today I want to expound a thought which forms an important principle that I focus my pastoring role on it.

And it also ties in with the ethos of this church, about belonging before believing.

My question always is: which way people are facing, not how far away they are from God.  And even if they are facing the wrong way, how can I help them turn around to face Jesus and how can I help them start the journey

In her article “Digging Wells or Building Fences”, the New Zealander Sheila Pritchard tells the story of a visitor to an Australian outback cattle ranch being intrigued by the seemingly endless miles of farming country with no sign of any fences. He asked a local rancher how he kept track of his cattle. The rancher replied, “Oh, that’s no problem. Out here we dig wells instead of building fences.” The implication is that there is no need to fence cattle in when they are highly motivated to stay within range of water, their most important source of life.

Sheila uses this illustration as a model for spiritual growth that is based on digging deeper wells rather than on building higher fences.

You don’t need fences when you have an attractive sweet watering hole.  Jesus is the sweet water to attract people.

He said come and drink.

Revelation 22:17 The Spirit and the bride say, "Come " And let the one who hears say, "Come " And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.


Isaiah 55  “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost…
Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.

This concept of wells and fences also is described as “centred” rather than a “bounded” or closed set.

In a closed set, you are either in or out. You either fit or you don’t and the lines are clear. In or out. The goal is to get someone from the outside of the line to inside the line. The problem, as I said before, is by what measurement we use for ‘in-ness’.

The issue is that when we come to judge, we judge others on their externals, but we justify ourselves by our internal thoughts. Comparing apples with pears and getting the wrong answer.

A person could be seen to believe all the right things and behave in all the right ways and yet not have a relationship with God at all.

That is the problem with the concept of Believe before belong.

This was certainly true of some of the religious people of Jesus’ day who were theologically orthodox, kept the Law, mostly lived good lives, studied the Bible, prayed and tithed and yet were moving away from God.

They were clearly in, but Jesus was scathing of them.

Matthew 15:7-9 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.

The Old Testament presents a closed set. It was about erecting fences like circumcision, the Law and ethnic Jewishness.

The Temple was built as a closed set with the Courts of Priests (for priests only), the Court of Israel (for Jewish men only), the Court of Women (for Jewish women only) and the Court of Gentiles (where foreign followers of Judaism could gather). It was all about those who were “in” verses those who were “out.”

When Jesus came along He dismantled that fence, and the religious took offense. Jesus demonstrated the end of the closed set and introduced a centred set approach to God.

He taught that the fence was removed so that everyone could come towards God and drink from the Well.

Think about one of Jesus’ first spiritual conversations. It was with a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42). She was definitely outside the fence for many reasons – she was Samaritan, female and had led an immoral life but he encouraged her to come into relationship with a God who loves her: “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman responded positively to Jesus’ invitation, and so did the entire Samaritan town in which the woman lived.

So, were they in according the Jewish guidelines? No, they remained on the outside.  But not according to Jesus, because they were centring on him.

The Bible also reports that when Jesus died on the Cross, the veil (separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple) was torn from top to bottom. The veil was a “fence” designed as a “keep out” sign between God and people. Jesus ripped the fence up showing that the way into the presence of God was open to all.

Ephesians 2: 13-15 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace…

In a centred set, it is about moving towards the centre, moving towards Jesus. As long as you are moving towards the centre, it is good. Some may be moving faster or slower, but the goal is the moving toward. Rabbits and turtles move at different paces, but they can both get there if they are focused on the right thing.

As important as Christian conversion is, it’s important to realize that it’s not an end in itself. The Christian life is a journey – a process – not just an event.  We are being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18) and we are receiving the end result of our faith, the salvation of our souls (1 Peter 1:9)

Engel’s stages of faith is an interesting picture of this coming to Christ pre and post conversion. It indicates the steps toward the well and notice that conversion is not at the end or the start but in the middle.

“A Christian is not a finished product the moment he is converted.” (Hiebert)

In the freebies bin last week was a sign:  Life is not a destination, it is a journey.  Christianity is likewise not a destination but a journey.

Christianity is not just about “getting over the line” or “getting into the circle.” It’s about a long obedience in the same direction. With every choice and decision we make, every act we perform we need to ask ourselves “will this lead me closer to Jesus or take me away from Him?”

It is not about where you start from. It is not about how far away from Jesus you start out, but it is about which way are you heading.

We need to remember that journeys start with one step and that first step may be a long way from the finishing point.  It may be well out in the outback deserts, but the steps are coming closer to the well.

A couple of Sundays ago, someone new to the church asked me at the door if it was okay for him to come inside. I could have (but never would) put all sorts of hurdles in his way but of course, I said come, you are always welcome here.

Keep remembering also that the first step is not the last step, we must continue to step in the right direction toward Jesus. Keep walking toward the well.

Having turned and faced Jesus, we must continue to move towards the centre. Christianity is not a static state. We must think in terms of growing to into Christ likeness.

2 Cor. 3:18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Philippians 1:6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:13-14 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

In fact, this is one of the problems with a closed set. Once you are in, you don’t have to do anything because you have your ticket to heaven, you are in the Christian circle. You are “in” rather than “out.”  You can put your feet up and wait and drift (often drift away).

But in a centred set, all those who are moving towards the centre are included even though they are all at different stages.

There is a growing awareness of things spiritual in this country. People might not be ready to come to a church service, but they want to talk about spiritual things.

Not every person is ready to say the sinner’s prayer. Some are and that is wonderful, but for those who aren’t, what is it that I can do or say (or not do or say) that will move them a little closer to Jesus?

Let me offer this thought.  Before you judge someone for where they are in relation to Jesus, ask yourself if you know where they came from and how far they have travelled toward Jesus, and not focus on how far they have yet to go.

It is a big step even to step into a church during the mid-week, how much more so to come to a worship service on Sunday, how much more to ask for help, how much more to ask for prayer, how much more to surrender their life to Jesus.

Instead of judging by some standard that we believe is important, ask yourself these questions:

How can we help people move just a little closer to Jesus?

How can I take down fences that have been erected to keep people out?  Do I recognise the fences that I may have put up?

How can I signpost the well that will attract people to the water of life that Jesus provides for all to quench their spiritual thirst?[1]

And one more to dwell on for yourself:

If Christian disciples were no longer defined in terms of fences, but only according to their movement towards Christ the centre, where does that leave you and me? Who am I facing?

May I suggest we dwell on Philippians 4:10-15

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you."[2]


[2]  Sources include:

Sheila Pritchard “Digging Wells or Building Fences: the risk of spiritual growth” Reality magazine Feb/Mar 1994

Dave Andrews “Paradigms of Salvation” Stimulus Vol 7 #4 Nov 1999, 19-23

http://baysidechurch.com.au/fences-or-wells/ Posted on August 21, 2013

Hiebert, Paul G. 1978. ‘Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories’. Gospel in Context 1 (4):24-29.