The word “becalmed” may sound peaceful, but it was a terrifying one to mariners on the old sail-powered boats. With no movement of wind or water, a ship was literally adrift – floating aimlessly for days or weeks on end until winds or currents took up again, or the sailors perished from lack of food and water.
In a similar way, for most Christians, over the course of our lives, the most dangerous enemy of spiritual growth is probably not some sudden temptation or assault of our spiritual “enemy” or some personal “storm” of life, but the danger of simply drifting. The author of the Book of Hebrews warned believers of this very situation: “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1). Notice that in this instance we are not warned against being pulled violently into temptation or spiritual failure, but simply against the danger of drifting like a leaf on a river or a bottle in the sea.
Our spiritual lives can begin to drift for a number of reasons. On the one hand we may become so overwhelmed with work, family or other things that we lose track of where we are going or do not see that, on a treadmill, we are going nowhere. Busy as we are, we are spiritually adrift and getting nowhere despite the energy we are exerting in life. On the other hand, in an almost opposite manner, we can begin to drift in boredom. When everything is going well and we have no pressing responsibilities, it is sometimes easy to drift aimlessly in frivolous pursuits that begin to eat up the hours and days so that we eventually find ourselves drifting without real spiritual action and growth. When this happens, we are unempowered to resist the currents of life, and spiritually we are more in danger of being “tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).
The old sailing ship analogy can help us here. Just as sailing ships received their power from the movement of the wind or sea currents, so the Christian life is really empowered by the Spirit of God, which is itself so often symbolized in the Bible by moving air (John 3:8, Acts 2:1-4) or moving water (John 3:5, 7:38-39). When that spirit does not flow through us, we become spiritually “becalmed” and adrift. We may feel fine otherwise, but spiritual direction and growth are greatly diminished or not present at all.
The answer to this potential danger is given by the author of Hebrews, as we saw: “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1). We certainly keep the Spirit alive and strong within us through contact with God in prayer, and also, as we see here, in study and paying attention to the things we have heard. Whether we are adrift through overwork or through boredom, so often the spiritual result is the same – we lag behind in prayer and study because we either feel we do not have time for them, or we feel bored with them.
But the answer in both cases is not less, but more spiritual activity to “stir up” the Spirit within us as Paul wrote to Timothy: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). These verses are usually quoted in the context of the power we receive from the Spirit, but they are equally talking about our fanning (like a blowing wind) the Spirit to increase its action. We must take the initiative to fan the Spirit into action through our spiritual activity, and the Spirit in turn then directs and empowers us. Spiritual growth is always accomplished this way – we are only growing to the degree that we are not drifting; we are only alive to the degree we are not adrift!