Shooting at the Wrong Basket: Three Ways Your Heart May Be Deceiving You About Your Spiritual Growth

It was the easiest basket she ever scored. Her teammate passed her the ball, and off she went down the court. She confounded the defense with her mad handles, and before they knew what had hit them, she was at the basket, scoring an easy two points. Everyone in the gym was shouting her name. “Gee,” she thought. “They’re making an awful big fuss over a simple lay-up.” Then it hit her. The crowd wasn’t shouting her name because of her athletic prowess. They were trying to get her attention. The defense wasn’t confused by her dribbling skills; they were trying to figure out why their opponent wanted to score in their basket. As reality hit her, the young player went from euphoric to embarrassed. This scenario has been a fear of pretty much every person who’s ever played basketball. Though it’s more likely to happen during those painful preteen years, every once in a while, even a professional commits this ultimate basketball blunder. Whether you can relate to this sports phobia or not, I’m sure you’ve, at some point, found out that you were doing something all wrong when you thought it was going so right. Spiritual growth can be a little like that. We think that we’ve made great progress, when really we’ve been deceived. Here are three “wrong baskets” you may be shooting at when it comes to your sanctification.

  1. The Basket of Behavior Modification
    A popular YouTube video shows comedian Bob Newhart as a psychiatrist who promises that he can solve his new patient’s problem with two words. He doesn’t really need to hear her issue, but he indulges her need to tell him. After listening to her irrational phobia about being buried alive in a box, he proceeds with his two magic words: “Stop it!” The woman is stunned. Surely her therapist will go back to her childhood and dredge up some seemingly unrelated but profound cause of all her problems. Her problem should take years to unravel, not seconds! Again, Newhart exclaims, “Stop it!” And the sketch goes on from there until finally the doctor adds a few words to his solution—which I won’t spoil for you here.

This is the tack we often take with our spiritual growth. Have a problem with anxiety? “Stop it!” Overeating? “Stop it!” Laziness? Gossip? Lust? “Stop it!” It seems so easy. We just have to stop doing what we’re doing, and we’ll be on the track to holiness. What we don’t realize is that we’re really just playing a game of Whack-a-Mole when we do this. Every time we whack the mole down into his hole, we haven’t gotten rid of the problem. He’s just going to pop up somewhere else.

Jesus address this phenomenon in Mark 7 as he responds to the Pharisees’ accusation against His disciples and the ceremonial cleanness of their hands.

And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting [and] wickedness, [as well as] deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride [and] foolishness. “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
 (Mark 7:20-23)

Jesus is saying is that our surroundings don’t cause the sin. The sin is embedded in our heart. Therefore, changing the outside won’t create real change. For genuine growth to occur, we must delve into the heart and find the idol that we’re serving (which is why we need the mirror of God’s Word, the work of the Holy Spirit, and fellowship with the body of Christ!). Otherwise, all we have is a basket scored on the wrong end of the court. It looks pretty. It was done according to form, but it actually doesn’t help the team. (For more on idolatry, you can check out this piece that I wrote about the topic.)

2. The Basket of Substitution
This next pitfall is actually a form of behavior modification, but I wanted to address it separately. When we fool ourselves by substitution, we trade one insidious idol for a more acceptable one, thereby fooling ourselves into thinking that spiritual growth has taken place. For instance, an alcoholic is able to give up drinking. Now, however, he binge-watches The Great British Baking Show on Netflix. His idol of comfort hasn’t been defeated; it’s just been made over to be more socially acceptable. It’s important to note that given the choice between binge-watching and alcoholism, Netflix wins. In some cases, a person may need to take a radical step to get off the path he is on and onto a healthier one. A smoker who gives up cigarettes and takes up gum has done a good thing. However, he has likely not addressed the idol motivating the desire for cigarettes (or cinnamon Orbit); therefore, he has not really gone anywhere spiritually. However, in some cases, making a substitution may be the first step toward spiritual growth. It’s a means, not an end.

This doesn’t apply just to substance abusers, however. Consider the chronic over-eater who chucks that vice and becomes a religious gym rat and fanatical dieter. Though these two fruits seem diametrically opposed to one another, in truth, this person has done nothing with the idolatry in her heart. She’s just a thinner, fitter idolater. Or what about the person with an anger issue who switches from being a volcano to being a clam? He’s still angry. His heart hasn’t changed. He’s just switched to a more socially acceptable way to deal with the anger. But God isn’t interested only in our being socially acceptable. He wants us to be holy. He wants us to put our idols to death, not trade them in for a shinier model.

3. The Basket of Comparison

Jesus warned against this third dangerous pseudo-method of spiritual growth when He told the parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector:

"The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.'
"But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
(Luke 18:11-13)

Did you catch what made the Pharisee think that he was holy? He compared His holiness to another person. Though that’s not all that’s wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer, it’s certainly one thing that we can identify with. Maybe you’ve experienced it in reverse. You’ve walked into church and taken a seat in the back and marveled at all of the “holy” people around you. You perceived your need for growth, not through the mirror of Scripture, or by gazing at Christ, but by comparing yourself with others.

On the flip-side, when I play the “at-least-I-don’t” game, I’m just like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. “Well, at least I don’t cheat on my taxes like that guy.” Or, “At least I don’t let the kind of filth in my house that they let into theirs!” Or maybe, “At least I don’t yell at my kids in public like her!” My friends, spiritual growth can’t be measured against another person. Your evaluation, for good or bad, doesn’t see that person’s heart. And likely, you’re not seeing your own heart very clearly either.

Comparison can be helpful in two ways, however. If you want to compare, first compare yourself to Christ. He is our standard. It should be into His image that He is conforming us and that we are seeking to be conformed—both inside and out (Rom. 8:29, 12:2). Second, compare yourself to yourself. This might actually be more encouraging. Think about an area of sinful struggle and consider how you handled yourself in that area five years ago. Now think about how you handle it today. Is there a difference? Praise the Lord! He has helped you to grow. Don’t stay there, though. You’re not done!

Spiritual growth is hard, and we get it wrong a lot. The good news is that despite our blunders and gaffes in estimating our own growth, God is still faithfully at work in us, progressively making us more like His Son. We may totally forget to address the issues of our hearts, but He never does. And I must mention that growth is not a matter of self-discipline, will power, or a magic formula. As Paul tells us in Galatians 3, we are sanctified the same way we were justified—by the power of the cross. Of course, that doesn’t give us a pass on going after our idols, but it does give us hope!

So then, my beloved…work out your salvation with fear and trembling;  for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for [His] good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13)

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