Strengthen What Remains
The reputation is not always the reality. The church in Sardis had a reputation for being alive, but the spiritual reality of their condition was that they were dead. Maybe they were coasting on the spiritual vitality of a previous generation. They weren’t creating any momentum for God’s kingdom themselves. Stuck in neutral, they were enjoying the downhill speed created by the courage and faithfulness of their parents’ generation. But a steep climb is coming, and they aren’t going to make it unless they wake up and hit the gas.
Strengthen what remains but is about to die.
Or maybe they’re just blind to the reality of their actual spiritual condition. It’s hard for me to see what’s wrong with me. It’s difficult for me to diagnose my own disease. What isn’t already dead is dying, and I’m out here believing my own hype, coasting on the work of others without adding any forward momentum of my own. This is what it’s like to be in Sardis, the corpse-church that thinks it’s doing just fine. “You’ve got the reputation of being a fine vineyard,” Jesus says to them, “but you can’t show me a single grape you grew yourself.” What are you going to pass on to your children? A stalled car at the bottom of the hill fresh out of gas. Wake up, Sardis. Wake up, America.
We need two things in order to see the true reality of our spiritual condition. First, we need to examine ourselves in the presence of the Holy Spirit and in the light of God’s word. The Scriptures are an entire storehouse of surgical tools, and the Holy Spirit is the expert surgeon who can revitalize us when we’re close to death. We need God’s presence and God’s truth if we’re to see what’s really going on with ourselves and our churches. When I try to diagnose myself by myself, I tend to be too permissive, giving myself too much grace and too little accountability. When I try to fix myself by myself my methods are crude and archaic, like a doctor bleeding his patients with leeches. The Spirit knows what to do better than I do, and He wields the word with precision and expertise. The best thing that I can do is listen and obey.
The second thing we need in order to see the true reality of our spiritual condition is the correction and rebuke of others. This is not something that any of us normally seeks out on our own. And almost all of us hate to be corrected or rebuked. We would much rather have our friends sing our praises. But the author of Ecclesiastes says, “It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools.” The truth hurts. But a person on the brink of death is going to have to go through a lot of pain in order to be brought back to health. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is to search for the truth in any criticism, no matter how harshly it comes.
Search for the truth in any criticism, no matter how harshly it comes.
Jesus told Sardis to strengthen what remains. “Strengthen what remains but is about to die.” Rescue the good things you have going before they’re gone. Spend your energy trying to revitalize what you have, not resurrecting what you don’t. Are you feeling dry, even dead, spiritually? What signs of life can you find? Maybe you feel distant from the Lord but you’re serving at your church. You’ll be tempted to quit because there’s a voice inside accusing you of hypocrisy. Don’t listen to it. Lean into that service. Reorganize your spiritual energies toward that. Focus your attention on turning any sign of spiritual life into a Spirit-filled stronghold. Attend to what you have so that you don’t lose everything, and then you will be able to rebuild your spiritual life from positions of strength.
“Strengthen what remains,” because that’s the key to a spiritual turnaround. Strengthen what remains, and then give your focus to what you’ve lost from that position of power. Do you struggle to pray but don’t mind reading the Bible? Read the Psalms. Turn your openness to reading Scripture into a love of God’s word, and then watch as the Spirit slowly rebuilds your prayer life from that place of strength. Are you concerned with personal holiness but not corporate justice (or perhaps the other way around)? Lean into the one and let its strength breathe life into the other. The spiritual life is not siloed. Each aspect strengthens and upholds the others, like a network of strongholds on a battlefield.
You may be close to spiritual death, but it’s not too late for you. God can bring you back from this. He can bring you back to your first love. He wants you to wake up, to see the reality of your life — of our life as His church — and to focus your energy on what good things you can find. Don’t try to rebuild your whole life at once. Focus on one thing at a time. God will revitalize what can be revitalized, and once those things become strong, he will resurrect what is dead. Don’t give up. There’s life in you yet.