The Upward Spiral 

 

It is a feature of God's dealings with men that He confirms the degree of spiritual success or failure which we achieve or aim for by our own freewill effort. Thus we read nine times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart; but ten times that God hardened his heart. Similarly, God adds iniquity unto the iniquity of those who wilfully sin (Ps. 69:27; Rev. 22:18). Conversely God imputes righteousness, adding His own righteous characteristics to us, in response to our faith. This is the key idea of 'justification by faith', being counted righteous although personally we are not. The briefest reading of the Gospels will likewise reveal that people were both attracted to and repulsed from Jesus at the same time. Jeremiah often makes a play upon the Hebrew word shub- it can mean to turn away (from God), and also to 'turn back' or repent (e.g. Jer. 3:1,7,10,12,14,19,22; 4:1). If Israel turned in repentance, then God would return them to their land (Jer. 15:19); if they turned away from Him, He would turn them out into the Gentile world. Our lives are a twisting and turning, either to or away from God; and God is waiting to confirm us in those twists and turns. Jer. 8:4-6 comment that if one turns from the right road, then they must turn back. We all know how when we miss the way in finding an unfamiliar address, there's a tendency to keep on going along the wrong road- because turning back is so psychologically difficult. And this is the image that God uses here- to appeal to Israel, and ourselves, not to foolishly 'backslide', keep on turning away, from Him- just because that's the course we're set upon.

In keeping with all this, there is ample indication in Scripture of there being  an upward spiral in our spiritual development, epitomized by the principle, " he that hath, to him shall be given" (Mt. 13:12). This theme is repeated elsewhere:

- Dt. 4:2 tells us that the exact nature of God's requirements and commandments is designed to enable His people to yield obedience: " Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that (i.e. in order that) ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you" . This would explain David's desire to have God's requirements and commands revealed to him more fully. Contrary to thinking 'I can't keep the commandments I know, so don't reveal any more to me', he actively sought to know God's expectations of him: " I have sought Thy precepts...give me understanding, that I may know Thy testimonies...I panted: for I longed for Thy commandments...hide not Thy commandments from me...I shall not be ashamed when I have respect unto all Thy commandments. I will praise Thee with uprightness of heart when I shall have learned Thy righteous judgments" (Ps. 119). Thus David sought to know more of God's requirements because they are designed to help us be more obedient to all of them in toto.

- This theme is often found in Ps. 119. David inclined his own heart to be obedient to the word (:112), but God inclined his heart that way in response (:36). David’s meditation on the law gave him understanding (:99), but he was given understanding by God (:34). He kept his feet in the way of God’s word (:101), but God made him walk in that path (:35).

- Dt. 12:28 " Observe and hear all these words...that it may go well with thee...when thou doest that which is good and right" , as if to say 'When you are obedient, you will be even more obedient'. " Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall even live in them" (Lev. 18:5) seems to mean that if we seriously try to be obedient, then obedience becomes a way of daily life, and the individual acts of obedience are not so difficult. This was undoubtedly the Lord's source of victory over the flesh. He lived a life that was in harmony with an atmosphere of obedience.

- "If you do not stand firm... you shall not be made firm" (Is. 7:9) is clear enough.

- Rom. 6:19 speaks of how the ever increasing downward spiral of obedience to sin is turned round at baptism, so that we begin an upward spiral of obedience to righteousness. God does good unto those that are good, but leads those who turn aside even further astray (Ps. 125:4,5). Those who are "[born] of God" are able to hear and understand God's words (Jn. 8:47)- and baptism is surely how we are born of God (Jn. 3:3-5). This seems to open up the possibility of yet higher growth once we are baptized- it's all an upward spiral, like any functional relationship.

- " Let patience have her perfect work...let brotherly love continue" sound as if we must allow the process of righteousness inspired by spiritual acts of love and patience. We can obstruct that process (James 1:4; Heb. 13:1). One aspect of spirituality leads to another. Thus the Lord commends the one who is watching for His coming, and then speaks of how those who are to be accepted at His coming are those busy preparing spiritual food for their brethren (Lk. 12:39,42). The implication is that he who is watching, truly watching, for the return will be busy about the brotherhood’s needs.

- Jn. 3:21: " He that doeth Truth (i.e. obeys the word, Jn. 17:17) cometh to the light" (the word, Ps. 119:105). Again, obedience to the word leads to more understanding of it.

- The book of Proverbs is a good example of spiritual knowledge creating even more. The purpose of the Proverbs is to enable us " to perceive the words of understanding" (1:2); the words of the Proverbs make one more sensitive to other " words of understanding" . The Proverbs themselves were given in order that men might be able to " understand a (i.e. another) proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings " (1:6). Therefore " A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels" (1:5). " Righteousness keepeth him that is (already) upright in the way" (Prov. 13:6). “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser…the words of my mouth…are all plain to him that [already] understandeth” (Prov. 9:9; 8:9). If, as suggested earlier, Proverbs is a commentary on the Law, then we can see why the book opens by explaining that its purpose is to allow greater perception of other parts of the word. The very experience of wisdom and obedience creates a sweet palate for it, as eating honey does (Prov. 24:13,14 LXX). The man of knowledge “increaseth [Heb. ‘confirms / adds to’] strength” (Prov. 24:5).

- Moses seemed to realize all this when he asked for a deeper revelation of God: " If I have found grace in Thy sight, show me now Thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in Thy sight" (Ex. 33:13). He already knew God, he already had found grace before Him; but he asks to be taken up to a higher level on the basis of what he has already been shown.

- “The Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another...to the end He may establish your hearts” (1 Thess. 3:12,13) gives an insight into the upward spiral of development which the Lord wishes us to partake in. It’s quite a theme in 1 Thessalonians: “abound more and more…increase more and more” (4:1,10).

- The land which has drunk in the rain gives forth "herbs meet for them by whom it is tended" (Heb. 6:7 RV). The parallel is intended with "those who have tasted the good word of God" (Heb. 6:5). If the land represents those who respond to the Gospel, as in the sower parable, who are those who tend it? Surely the preachers and pastoral carers. They benefit, they are encouraged, by those whom they have cared for and converted. I've seen this so very often- one goes to exhort, and comes back home exhorted. But this is all part of the intended upward spiral in functional ecclesial life.

- Faith is perfected / matured by the process of works (James 2:22,23). The works, the upward spiral of a life lived on the basis of faith, develop the initial belief in practice. Thus Abraham believed God in Gen. 15, but the works of Gen. 22 [offering Isaac] made that faith “perfect”.

- Jn. 8:47: " He that is of God (by being born of the word, 1 Pet. 1:23) heareth God's words" summarizes this theme. In the same discourse the Lord reasoned " If ye continue in my word...ye shall know the truth (the word- Jn. 17:17)" (Jn. 8:31,32).

- Through his correct response to the early promises given him, Abraham was imputed “the righteousness of faith”. But on account of that faith inspired by the earlier promises, he was given “the promies that he should be heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). That promise in turn inspired yet more faith. In this same context, Paul had spoken of how the Gospel preached to Abraham in the promises leads men “from faith to faith”, up the upward spiral (Rom. 1:17).

- Zech. 11:11 says that the righteous remnant who were already responsive to the prophetic word spoken by Zechariah, would have their strength and belief confirmed by Zechariah's prophecy of the broken staff (Zech. 11:11 cp. Is. 14:32; Zeph. 3:12). The Jews returned from Babylon to the land of their own volition; but it was Yahweh who gathered them back (Ps. 147:2), as if He called them almost of His volition rather than theirs. They rebuilt Jerusalem; but actually, Yahweh did, through His confirmation of all the freewill effort of men like Ezra and Nehemiah (Ps. 147:2).

- David mentions God's giving of the Law to Israel as an assurance of His forgiveness of them, a sign of His love to them despite their sins (Ps. 103:7)- indicating that the more righteous we are, i.e. obedient to the word, the more the word will be revealed to us?

- Paul heard of the spiritual development of the Ephesians (1:15-19), therefore he prayed that God would grant them more knowledge and understanding (v.16,17). The dynamic in this Divine confirmation of their freewill effort was God's Spirit power.   Paul repeats the prayer in Eph. 3:14-21: " ...be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; that...(ye) may be able to   comprehend...to know...to be filled with all the fullness of God" . It is thus by God's Spirit word acting on our " inner man" that this greater comprehension of our glorious calling is achieved. He tells them later to be " renewed in the spirit of your mind" (Eph. 4:23), alluding to the Ezekiel passages which speak not only of Israel making themselves a new heart / spirit / mind, but of God giving this to them (Ez. 18:11; 36:26), in confirmation of their efforts. There are examples galore of God acting on the minds of men to give them a certain attitude which they would not otherwise have had (consider how He gave Saul another heart, or gave Israel favour in the eyes of the Egyptians so that they lent to them, Ex. 12:36).

- " Every one that is of the truth (born of the word- Jn. 17:17; 1 Pet. 1:23) heareth My voice" (Jn. 18:37)- a response to the word makes us all the more sensitive to the shepherd's voice in future.

- " Then shall we know, if we follow on (an intense Hebrew verb with the implication of hunting / persecuting) to know the Lord...(because) He shall come (down) unto us as...the latter and former rain unto the earth" (Hos. 6:3). Thus the Spirit/word blessing (the rain) of knowing God would come on the people (" the earth" ) if they zealously desired to know the Lord. Similarly in Hos. 10:12: " Break up your fallow ground...seek the Lord (then) He will come and rain (imputed) righteousness upon you" . Note how the hard effort to desire the knowledge of God is required first. The Lord's sower parable interprets the breaking up of the ground as a preparation of our hearts by our own freewill to respond correctly to the word.

- 2 Pet. 1:5-9 speaks of " knowledge, temperance...charity...if these things be in you and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ... and (can) see afar off" - i.e. the correct application of knowledge in practical terms leads to being even more fruitful and having even greater knowledge and spiritual vision. The RV reads: “In your faith supply virtue, and in your virtue knowledge”; and the Greek defintely means that we should develop one virtue through the exercise of another. Strength leads to strength.

- The Hebrews failed to break into this upward spiral because they were " dull of hearing" the word (Heb. 5:11). The Greek word for " dull" implies 'lazy', and yet comes from the same root as the Greek for 'bastard' ('nothros' cp. 'nothos'). Thus because they were not being properly born again by the word of the Gospel they were unable, in subsequent spiritual life, to receive the real power of the word.

- In the final conflict between Israel and her enemies, God's confirmation of men will be clearly seen. The Gentile nations will be gathered to make the final invasion by the Lord's evil spirits confirming their evil spirit, whilst the repentant remnant of Israel will be confirmed in their regrets by having " the spirit of grace and supplications" poured on them (Zech. 12:10), i.e. a desire and ability to powerfully supplicate the Father for forgiveness. If men wish to turn from their sins, God will turn them. Thus " the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob" (Is. 59:20) is changed by the Spirit into: " There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob" (Rom. 11:26). Those who turn from sin are turned from sin by the Lord. The blessing promised to Abraham was not only forgiveness of sins, but that the Lord Jesus would turn away Abraham's seed from their iniquities (Acts 3:26). Yet we only become Abraham's seed by repentance and baptism. Our repentance and desire not to sin is therefore confirmed after our baptism.

- The Lord commented on the various types who heard John's preaching. Finally He addressed Himself to those few who had truly perceived His message: " But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you...verily I say unto you..." (Mt. 11:9,11); it was to those who perceived that John was speaking God's words, who were impressed by that more than anything else, to whom Christ gave a fuller exposition of John's purpose. Thus He concluded: " If ye will receive it...he that hath ears to hear, let him hear" (Mt. 11:14,15), stressing   the  same principle that if any had that initial disposition towards the real spirit of the word, then they should take careful note of the additional help He was therefore offering them. It would seem that the Lord taught the crowds with parables, and then those who came to hear Him early in the morning, or in a private house, or high in the mountains- these were the ones whom He took further up the spiral of knowing Him.

- " Do not my words  do good to him that (already) walketh uprightly?" (Mic. 2:7). The power of the word will only strengthen those who are already disposed to obey it. These words of Mic. 2:7 are in response to the Jews' query: " Is the Spirit of the Lord straitened?" . The answer was that God will only use His Spirit/ word to do good to those who live a word-guided life.

- If we stay as babes, taking only milk, we will be unable to discern good and evil (Heb. 5). The idea is that as a baby will put anything in its mouth, so does the immature convert. Those who don’t mature on from the milk of the word run the risk of poisoning their spirituality. The drive to maturity isn’t optional; if we lack it, our spiritual health will suffer. And by contrast, the more we grow, the more we will be able to discern what is harmful and what is nutritious.

- When a [Jewish] man turns to the Lord Jesus, the veil of obedience to the Law is taken away (2 Cor. 3:16 RVmg.). Yet the Law also led men to Christ; and yet it also veils Him from them- depending whether they read it as God intended.

- Israel would be provided with more cities of refuge if they were obedient (Dt. 19:9); the way of escape from sin would become easier.

- Visiting the fatherless and widows will result in the believer keeping himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27 Gk.).

- The Lord castigated the audiences of John the Baptist, that they did not “repent, that ye might believe” (Mt. 21:32). Repentance would lead to faith… and yet it is faith which leads to repentance. The two things work together to form an upward spiral of growth.

- Marriage is a great example. As a couple "cleave" to one another, so they become one flesh (Gen. 2:24). But this becoming one flesh is interpreted by the Lord Jesus as meaning that God actively joins the couple together (Mt. 19:6); as they cleave to each other in the process of married life, so God joins them together. Clearly the Lord understood Gen. 2:24 as speaking of the process of marriage, rather than simply the ceremony of a wedding. In passing, note that the Hebrew idea of two becoming one has already been used in Genesis- the morning and evening, the day and night, were fused by God into one day (Gen. 1:5- the same Hebrew phrase is used). Similarly we read of the waters becoming, or being made one, by God (Gen. 1:9). It's as if the immense power of God in creation is unleashed in His bonding of man and wife together. To put that asunder is to fight against the very creative power of God.

- Paul asked Titus to visit the Corinthians. He himself " of his own accord" decided to visit them. But God put the idea in the heart of Titus (2 Cor. 8:6,16,17). The freewill desire of Titus was confirmed by the hand of God operating on the heart of Titus. It could be argued that it was God who put the idea there in the first place, foreknowing that of Titus's " own accord" he would wish to do this work.

- The good example of others contributes to our experience of the upward spiral. And yet if we don't respond to them, we can be held accountable for it and slip into the downward spiral. Thus the Lord held the elders of Israel guilty because when they saw the whores and tax collectors repenting at John's preaching, "you, when you had seen it, repented not" (Mt. 21:32). They should have been influenced by the repentance of those people; they should've allowed repentance to be contagious. But they didn't, and so they were held guilty for that.

- Rom. 6:19-23 makes the contrast between how serving sin leads to ever increasing sin, whilst serving Christ results in ever increasing righteousness. We are all too aware of the upward (downward!) spiral of sin- we well know the feeling of losing our spiritual grip for an hour, day or week, and sensing how sin is ever increasing its hold over us. But by our union with Christ in baptism it is quite possible, indeed intended, that we should get into an upward spiral of obedience, in which one spiritual victory leads to another.

- We bear spiritual fruit by God's word abiding in us. If this happens, then God will purge (clean) us through His word so that we will bear more fruit (Jn. 15:27; Eph. 5:26). Thus response to God's word leads to that word being even more powerful to us.- Paul taught Timothy that by nourishing others with good teaching, he would himself be “nourished up in the words of faith” (1 Tim. 4:6). Caring for others on whatever level is what stimulates an upward spiral in our personal spiritual growth.

- We either depart from the faith (1 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 3:12), or we depart from iniquity (2 Tim. 2:19, 22; 1 Tim. 6:5). We’re always moving in one direction or the other.

2 Pet. 1:5-9 speaks of " knowledge, temperance...charity...if these things be in you and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ... and (can) see afar off" - i.e. the correct application of knowledge in practical terms leads to being even more fruitful and having even greater knowledge and spiritual vision. The RV reads: “In your faith supply virtue, and in your virtue knowledge”; and the Greek definitely means that we should develop one virtue through the exercise of another. Strength leads to strength. “Faith is wrought by love” (Gal. 5:6 RVmg.) in that the fruits of the Spirit reinforce each other in an upward spiral. Faith leads to humility, and vice versa. Realizing we of ourselves are insufficient results in humility, which in turn develops faith. Hence Prov. 20:6 comments that a man of faith will not "proclaim his own goodness". Following through Paul’s reasoning in Rom. 15:9-13, he seems to be saying that “hope” (RV) leads to joyful praising, which in turn leads to hope and trust. It’s an upward spiral, a positive circle. And each of those fruits of the Spirit become more gripping upon us the more we develop them. If we are “rooted and grounded in love”, then we come to appreciate yet more “the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:17,18). And indeed all spiritual endeavour leads to the Lord inviting us deeper into that endeavour; thus it was as Barnabus and Paul went about their ministering to the Lord that they were invited to go on a missionary journey (Acts 13:2). Likewise it was as the Levites were in process of collecting funds for repairing the temple, that they found the book of the law- perhaps because they needed more space in which to store the donations, and whilst making space they found the scroll (2 Chron. 34:14). In the process of being a deacon, faith is developed (1 Tim. 3:13). The very process of service and obedience leads to greater faith in practice. It was whilst Zacharias went about his service to the Lord that we was given the news that he would finally have a son (Lk. 1:8). And we all find this true. As we enter more deeply and more passionately into the things of the Lord, so He leads us further into new understandings and fresh areas of endeavour. Faith without works is “barren” (James 2:20 RV)- the implication being that if we do the works which our beliefs elicit from us, yet more creative fruit is brought forth. And James goes straight on to speak of Abraham offering Isaac (James 2:21)- as if to say that Abraham and Sarah’s ‘barrenness’ was overcome by their faith, and this led them to the ‘opportunity’ to show yet more faith in being prepared to offer Isaac. 

He who fears the Lord, “him shall he teach in the way that he [God] shall choose” (Ps. 25:12). The Father opens up new ways of understanding for us each, of His choosing and according to our individual needs, in response to our living a God-fearing life. If our hearts are knit together in brotherly love, the more we will understand- for true understanding is, in the end, to fathom the depths of God’s love (Col. 2:2).

Phil. 1:9,10 gives more insight into what exactly goes on in the upward spiral. Our love abounds more and more through “discernment, so that ye may prove the things that differ” (RVmg.). We grow by being given different situations to respond to, in order to develop our judgment- what Eph. 5:10 calls “proving what is acceptable unto the Lord”. By reason of use our spiritual senses are exercised to discern good and evil (Heb. 5:14). This is why, be it in church or family or deeply personal life, our consciences are constantly being probed and exercised by the situations which Providence leads us into. And thus we grow in sensing more keenly right and wrong, more victoriously overcoming all the temptations whose strength lies in the fact that in the heat of the moment we waver as to what is right and wrong… and the end result of this increased and heightened discernment, Paul says, is a love which abounds “yet more and more” (Phil. 1:9).  

We’re familiar with the references to God hardening the heart of Pharaoh (Ex. 14:8 etc.). However, the same Hebrew words occur in a positive context- for God also hardens or strengthens the hearts of the righteous (Ps. 27:14; Is. 35:4). Indeed, Is. 35:4 speaks of how the righteous shouldn’t have a weak or [Heb.] ‘fluid’ heart, but rather a hardened one. Clearly enough, God solidifies human attitudes, one way or the other. This is a sobering thought- for He is prepared to confirm a person in their weak thinking. But on the other hand, even the weakest basic intention towards righteousness is solidified by Him too.

The upward spiral is of course far harder to get into than the downward spiral. Hag. 2:11-13 seems to have this idea in mind- Judah were reminded that if a person carries a holy thing, it doesn't mean that their clothes become holy and thereby make everything holy which they come into contact with; whereas something which is unclean, under the Law, made everything unclean which it touched. And this reminder was so very relevant to the returned exiles, just as it is for us. For so much had been made potentially possible for them, and yet they slipped time and again into a downward spiral.