The Spiritual Upward Spiral

I want to talk to you about a way I think about growth in Jesus; at least, about how spiritual growth has taken place in my life. In describing this, I will use the picture of a spiral.

Picture in your mind a spiral staircase. Imagine that you are above it, looking straight down on it, like you are looking at a blueprint of a building’s floorplan. The staircase will like a wheel with spokes. The “spokes” are the steps, and the “rim” of the “wheel” is the handrail. It also looks like a clock face. The steps are like the hands of the clock and the they point to “12 o’clock,” “1 o’clock,” “2 o’clock,” “3 o’clock,” etc.

As you go up the stairs, you pass “12 o’clock” several times. The first time you pass it you are low on the stairs, the next time you are a little higher, and then you are higher yet as you pass it a final time.

This has been a helpful picture for me in understanding how God has grown me in Jesus. The different “o’clocks” I have encountered on the way up are key truths about God and His plan for my life. Things like: God loves me, God is faithful, I must trust Him, Jesus took all my sin, heaven is real, the Bible is God’s sure Word, etc. As God leads me along in spiritual growth, I find myself coming back to truths I have known for a long, long time. Truths in most cases which are quite simple. But now I am at a different place in my life, “higher up the spiral staircase;” that is, God has grown me since I first heard that He loved me and now I am learning about His love in even deeper and broader ways.

Let’s keep going with the truth that God loves me to illustrate further what I mean: God loves me. Well, who, having been raised in Sunday School from childhood, has not known this from earliest memory? One of the first verses we memorize as children is John 3:16, the beautiful revelation of God’s love for the world. And yet the depth of God’s love is something I need to learn about more and more as I walk with Jesus.

A globally known and respected theologian of the last century was asked later in life, “After all your study, what is the greatest truth you have learned?” His answer? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Those, of course, are lyrics to a simple, well-known children’s Sunday School song.

The Apostle Paul talked about God’s love in this way: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV).

If that is the way it is with God’s love—so deep I need His power to grasp it, then I need to return to it often in my forward and upward progress in Jesus.

Here is my second example: God’s kind and repeated command, “Do not fear.” The fact that God repeats this so many times in the Bible (I have never counted, but someone has said that this word from the Lord is in the Bible 365 times, one for every day of the year) tells me I need to revisit it over and over and over again.

When I first encounter it, my life may be going very smoothly and so I easily, and perhaps glibly, agree, “I don’t need to fear anything!” But then, later at another point in life, I find myself in circumstances that are generating fear in a whole new way, in a deeper, disturbing way. Now I need to learn more from God about how He helps me with my fears.

This brings me to some past sermons. In one, we studied the well-known account of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet in John 13. Christ’s call upon His followers to serve is something we need to revisit over and over as we progress in Christ.

The sermon before that was from 2 Peter 1 where Peter says, essentially, I know you already know all this but you need, desperately need, reminding. Remember to add to your faith the seven key qualities of virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Remember.

One way this picture of a “spiritual spiral” helps me is by reminding me that there are not an infinite number of truths I need to know and master in order to mature in Jesus. It seems that there are a somewhat limited number of really basic truths which I need to learn. As I come around to those truths again, like on the ascending staircase, I learn them again in a deeper and fuller way, and then even more as I come around to them again.

God leads us to revisit fundamental truths about Him and His will for us. And, as we are at different places in our lives with each visit, we learn of Him in new ways. It is like an ascending spiral, the ascending spiral of spiritual growth. He is leading us upward and onward to our final destination—becoming mature Christians who are given a rich welcome into glory to live with Him forever!

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.

Slowing Down: An Approach to Personal Bible Study

Reading the Bible has been indispensable in my spiritual growth. This has been true from the day of my spiritual birth (January 24, 1976) up to the present. God has used this time in His Word to grow and shape me and, especially, draw me into a closer relationship with Him.

One of the biggest changes in my practice of Bible reading took place around 1983. At that time, a conversation with a brother in Christ helped move me beyond reading the Bible as a study exercise to reading the Bible as an act of worship. In other words, it became more personal, more relational.

For many years The One Year Bible has been my “go to” for my personal Bible time. What is that? Here is what the cover of my very weathered copy of The One Year Bible says: “The entire New International Version arranged in 365 daily readings.” (The One Year Bible has been published in other translation versions as well, at least two of which I have tried, but I have found I like the NIV best for my personal Bible time.) Each day’s reading is dated for the day of the year and contains readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Psalms, and the Proverbs. In fact, the entirety of the book of the Psalms is in there twice: from January 1 – July 2 and again from July 3 – December 31.

The copyright date of the edition I read is September 1988. Why is that significant? I believe I have had this copy almost from that date, perhaps from sometime in 1989. A dear mentor of mine, Jim Paul, gave me the copy I have. My wife Sue Ann and I began serving a church in Dallas in February of 1988. Jim Paul led the Spanish-speaking congregation which was part of that church’s ministry. Jim frequently came to my office, most often solely to pray with me. What a gift that was! On one of those occasions he had this red The One Year Bible in hand and gave it to me. To use a well-used phrase, it was a gift that has kept on giving!

My latest development in Bible reading has been to slow down the pace of my reading. For many years my goal was to finish reading through my one year Bible within the calendar year. And, for a number of years I met that goal, but not in the last couple of years. I found that frustrating. What often got me off my pace was vacation, or any other stretch of time where I was out of my regular routine (e.g. attending conferences, etc.). I tried to catch up; sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I didn’t. The result, along with the frustration, was a sense of self-imposed pressure. Needless to say, this distracted me from enjoying and benefiting from my reading.

My new approach? Read as much as I want, or, as much as I have time for. Then I mark the spot and pick up my reading there the next time. I got the idea from my wise and dear wife, Sue Ann.

Now, instead of being focused on getting to the end of the day’s reading, I focus more on the content of what I am reading. I can linger over a verse or a paragraph or even a phrase. I can jot a note in the margin. And I underline. I use highlighter pens and colored pencils to underline specific themes (e.g. red for salvation, green for God speaking, orange for the Holy Spirit, etc.)—a color-coded way of bringing those themes out visually.

In the past, when I completed reading The One Year Bible, I would pick a new theme to look for while reading in the new year, and use a new color to underline it. I am still doing that. I have found it to be very beneficial in helping me focus while I read. And now that I am reading more slowly, I can see where I have missed those themes in some passages in past readings and I can underline them in their respective colors.

I am encouraged with my new approach. I feel less pressured in my reading and sometimes thoughts from my morning reading linger throughout the day. I think this has been a good step for me—slowing down.

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.

Growing in Prayer: Meaningful Ways to Expand Your Prayer Life

What a privilege believers in Jesus have! We can come boldly to the very throne of God to make our requests! In Jesus, and through faith in Him, we can approach God with freedom and confidence. (See Hebrews 4:16 and Ephesians 3:12.)

God tells us in the Bible that He sends His Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers to help us pray. When we don’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit helps us and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). He also moves us to address God the Father as “Abba” (Galatians 4:6). “Abba” is an Aramaic term for “Father” that is similar to our “Daddy” or “Papa.”  For the Holy Spirit to urge us to call God “Abba” means that through Jesus we have a personal, close, and affectionate relationship with the Creator and Ruler of the whole universe! Amazing!!

Have you spoken in this way to God yet? If not, give it a try! During your personal prayer time, address God as “Abba” or “Dad” or “Papa.” Of course, by using such a familiar term, we do not want to lose any respect for God; we do not want in any way to disrespect God. Rather, as one brother in Christ put it, we want to relate to God with familiar respect. Or, we might say, we want to relate to God with respectful familiarity. This is a high privilege our Lord Jesus Christ has provided for us through His life, death, and resurrection.

In fact, I encourage you to actually say “Abba” out loud. Now an important first step in that direction is saying your private, personal prayers to God out loud. If you have never done that, give it a try! When God led me to begin praying out loud during my private prayer time, my prayers were transformed. All of a sudden they became more concrete. I didn’t just direct vague thoughts to God; I was putting those thoughts into specific words.

Praying out loud also made the personal nature of my relationship with God seem more real to me. Please understand: ever since the night God saved me in 1976, my relationship with Him was real. However, my sense of that reality heightened through praying out loud. When I pray out loud, it is like talking to another person in the room … because I am talking to another person in the room! God is a real Person and He is present. He is not far away somewhere “out there.” Through Christ I am in God (see Colossians 3:3) and God is in me (see 1 Corinthians 3:166:19). God is closer to me than any other person could ever be! Can I say again, “Amazing!!”?

And once you have taken that step of praying out loud by yourself, then take the step I mentioned earlier and address God, out loud, as “Abba” or “Daddy” or “Papa” … with the respect He is due. I am doing this in my prayer times. As I pray to Abba, one thing I am asking Him is that He would help me to better grasp His love for me. I am asking Him to help me experience His love in a deeper way, in a way that powerfully impacts me. Would you like to join me in making that request of God?

We learn from the Bible that asking God to help us grasp His love is a good and right thing to pray for. How so? Because we have record of the Apostle Paul praying for this very thing for the Ephesian believers. He asked “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).

Notice that not only does Paul pray for them to comprehend God’s love, he also prays for the strength and power to be able to grasp the love of Christ. We cannot know and experience God’s love on our own, through our own effort. We need divine enablement. We need God’s Holy Spirit to enable us to grasp God’s love for us. Why? Because, as verse 19 says, the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge.” His love is so wondrous, so amazing that without God’s help there is no way we in our weak humanity can know it.

And if God grants us our request to experience His love more, we will be changed. We will be transformed. We will “be filled to all the fullness of God.” May God do that for us.

So join me in calling God “Abba.” Join me in praying out loud to our Father God. And join me in praying to experience His love in a deeper way.

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.

Remembering the Value of Scripture

I am so thankful for the Bible, God’s Holy Word! Through it God draws me to Himself and changes my life. In fact, as I look back on my journey with Jesus, the Bible stands out as an absolutely indispensable, hugely transformative aspect of my spiritual life.

Through the Bible, God brought me to faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus. On the night I was born again, the pastor who helped lead me to Christ read John 1:12 to me: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” He asked me if I believed in Jesus and, when I said, “Yes,” he said, “You are a Christian.”

Fast forward now 43 years to the present. How is God at work in my life through His Word today? Let me tell you.

I use The One Year Bible for my daily Bible reading program and as I read through it, God has used specific verses to encourage my heart. I am very grateful to our heavenly Father for that. He knows what is going on in my life and what I need. And He is kind enough to speak to me in my need. He is good.

The Lord is helping me in another way through His Word besides pointing out passages that help me in the moment. What I have been noticing, and thinking about lately, is how reading the Bible shapes the way I think.

Let’s face the facts: we are engaged in a spiritual war. To a large extent, the battle is for our minds. Thoughts can lead to beliefs, and beliefs do lead to behavior. This is quite clear in the way God put together many of the letters in the New Testament, such as Ephesians and Colossians. The first halves of these books reveal to us truths to believe; the latter halves of the books give specific instructions about how we are to live. Beliefs lead to behavior.

Satan is working hard to fill our minds with God-less thoughts. He is very effective in tempting people to believe things that are not true. And he has many slick ways to get his evil thoughts into our minds. The world around us, the culture in which we live is under his influence. And he uses all possible avenues—the internet, social media, TV, movies, news outlets, books, classrooms, advertisements… anything.

We live in a world of ideas. We are being constantly influenced by what we see and hear. If we are passively, absent-mindedly absorbing the thoughts and ideas that swirl around us, we will end up having the worldview of our culture. We will actually have a God-less mindset.

This is where God’s Word is so absolutely vital.  We can combat Satan’s falsehoods with God’s truth… if we are immersing ourselves in the Bible, God’s true Word to us.

So this is what I have been noticing, and appreciating lately: God’s Word guards my mind, strengthens me in the battle, and cultivates in me a God-filled mindset. Regularly reading the Bible is a slow-drip way of infusing a biblical worldview into my mind and of resisting the God-less worldview Satan wants me to have.

Each morning I sit down with my bowl of cereal and cup of freshly brewed loose-leaf tea, and I read The One Year Bible. I am enjoying it! As you likely know from experience, reading the Bible is not always enjoyable or fun or easy. Sometimes it’s something you just have to make yourself do… like taking your prescription medication. It’s a discipline. However, there are times when God gives you a special word of encouragement. And, what I’ve been noticing lately is that God is using this regular reading to protect my mind and to build and reinforce a God-centered way of thinking.

Thank God for the Bible!

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.

Journey in Prayer: 7 Steps Toward a Rich Prayer Life

Prayer is vital to my walk with the Lord. By “prayer,” I mean simply talking with the Lord. I am so grateful that the sovereign Creator, the holy and only God of the universe allows me, a sinful creature, to come directly to Him. He not only allows it, He has made it possible. He has opened the way to Himself through His Son, the Lord Jesus. I like how Ephesians 3:12 puts it: “In Him (Jesus) and through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” Because Jesus died for my sins, rose from the dead, and returned to the Father, I can boldly approach God’s throne of grace through Jesus, my great High Priest (see Hebrews 4:14-16).

I want to share my journey in prayer over the past 43 years. In particular, I want to tell you about specific ways to pray God has shown me. I think of them as prayer steps in my journey with Jesus. Taking these steps has deepened my experience of the Lord through prayer.

Step #1: Committing to a daily time of prayer.

Right after I became a believer in Jesus, during my freshman year of college, I began practicing daily prayer. After I was done with classes for the day, I would return to my dorm room, sit on my bunk and spend time with the Lord in prayer and Bible study. This practice laid the foundation of a daily practice of prayer which has been a bedrock foundation of my journey with Jesus.

Step #2: Using the ACTS approach to prayer.

“ACTS” is an acronym which stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. You can find these kinds of prayer used by God’s people in the Bible. Adopting the ACTS approach to prayer has helped me to understand these different types of prayer and to regularly incorporate them in my practice of prayer. Please understand: this is not a rigid formula I follow in all my prayers. Rather, I generally follow this outline during my longer times of prayer. By contrast, if I am in need of God’s immediate help in a particular situation, I do not adore, confess, and thank before I ask Him for His aid. I just cry out, “Help me!”

Step #3: Praying out loud during my personal prayer times.

This step was, and continues to be, very significant. Admittedly, at first it felt strange and awkward. But the more I prayed aloud, the more comfortable I felt. I also realized some real benefits. I was able to focus my thoughts and make my prayers more concrete. Talking aloud increased my sense of actually relating with the Lord, that He indeed was right there with me in the room and that I was personally connecting with Him. On a personal note, being the private person that I am, I need to be assured that no one can overhear me during my prayer times. That means I pray in the basement, usually in the morning before anyone else is up.

Step #4: Praying Scripture.

At first this too may seem a strange approach to prayer. Praying Bible verses back to God?! Yes, indeed! That is exactly what it is. And it’s not just some modern approach to prayer. People in the Bible prayed Bible verses back to God! One very clear example is in Acts 4:23-31 where the believers in the early church incorporated verses from the Old Testament, especially Psalm 2, in their prayer to the Lord. What I have found is that the Bible gives me content for my prayers, especially for the “Adoration” part. I also have the assurance that when I pray Scripture, I am praying what is true and what is according to God’s will (see 1 John 5:14).

Step #5: Praying “all the time.”

My point here is that there came a time in my prayer experience when my praying to the Lord went beyond my designated daily prayer appointment with God. I began to include spontaneous prayers throughout the day. Something along the line of what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing.” Another way of thinking about this prayer step is captured in the phrase “practicing the presence of the Lord.” It is an increasing awareness of the Lord’s continual presence. This awareness can be expressed through spontaneously praying throughout the day—and when awakening at night—and when I rise in the morning.

Step #6: Having times of unhurried prayer.

I am a structured person by nature. I structure my day according to a schedule—what I do first, then second, then third, etc.—often with specific time allotments attached. In that schedule, my daily prayer is generally confined to a certain amount of time. What I have found very helpful is to plan an unhurried time with the Lord in prayer. Then I am less prone to be thinking about what’s next in the day and I can be more relaxed and focused on praying. I find that my sabbath day (Monday) is the time when unhurried prayer works the best.

Step #7: Saturating my prayer with the Gospel.

This is my most recent prayer step. I am learning how central the Gospel is in my journey with Jesus. Believing in the good news that Jesus died for my sins and came back to life is not simply my “ticket” into heaven. It is the power of God for the continual transformation of my life into Christ’s likeness. I need to evermore believe the Gospel, rehearse it, and live out its marvelous truth. And so I fill my prayers with the Gospel message, especially toward the beginning of my daily prayer time. I have memorized key Bible verses which give the Gospel and I incorporate them into my adoration of the Lord, my thanks to the Lord, and my confession before the Lord.

I have shared with you a lot of things about prayer. My goal in sharing these steps in my journey in prayer is to not to overwhelm you; rather, it is to encourage you to take one step in your own prayer journey. Step #1 is critical and so I urge you if you have not taken this step, start with this one. If you already have a scheduled time of daily prayer, consider taking one of the other steps.

Journey on with the Lord in prayer! It is a wonderful privilege God has provided us through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.