The essence of spiritual growth

O Son of God, perform a miracle for me; change my heart. You, whose crimson blood redeems mankind, whiten my heart. It is you who makes the sun bright and the ice sparkle; you who makes the rivers flow and the salmon leap. Your skilled hand makes the nut tree blossom, and the corn turn golden; your Spirit composes the songs of the birds and the buzz of the bees. Your creation is a million wondrous miracles, beautiful to behold. I ask of you just one more miracle: beautify my soul.

Celtic Prayer

God grows what he makes.

Birth, that miracle of beginning, is really just the prelude to the ongoing creative act of God in what we call growth. Bride and groom sometimes focus more on the wedding than the marriage, and young parents sometimes focus more on preparing the nursery than preparing to raise an eternal person. So we in the church sometimes speak more about spiritual beginnings than the challenging, complex process of spiritual growth and formation. And why should that surprise us? Birth is a boisterous climax of pain and joy. It is an arrival and a revelation. It’s easy to talk about and naturally celebrated.

The cries of joy in the delivery room, however, are nothing compared to the drama of being spiritually reborn. Jesus shocked Nicodemus with the notion (John 3). In his parable of the prodigal Jesus has the father saying: “this son of mine was dead and is alive again.” And so it goes through the New Testament. Spiritual birth means an awakening to God based on a new relationship with God that is so radical that it is called the difference between death and life.

Growth, on the other hand, is often painfully slow. Spiritual growth has its leaps and bounds, but it also has long interludes, and sometimes even regression. Some believers seem not to want growth, and others prematurely claim spiritual maturity that is more wishful thinking than reality. Yet this is God’s chosen way, and we must understand it.

It takes some courage to long for, really long for, spiritual growth in the people you minister to or in yourself. It’s not easy dealing with disappointing results. It’s hard to know just how much to expect and how soon. Yet not to go out on a limb and have a passion for spiritual growth is to risk settling for the status quo, or worse, to acquiesce to the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The idea of “growth” comes from the world of nature, the word itself related to “green” and “grass” in Old English. The New Testament is full of the idea of growth. It was not just because Jesus taught in rural Galilee that he used so many agricultural metaphors. The sower going out to sow, the farmer caring for his field, the crop-master looking to maximize his yield, the harvester winnowing the grain, these and many more pictures of God as grower say to us that God’s way of doing things in this world is process. Miracles, as the out-of-the-ordinary speeding up of process, show that God is powerful enough to do whatever he wants however he wants. Growth, as the ordinary way things happen in the world, shows the way God has chosen to work typically in the world. And if we insist that he do otherwise, as for instance, those who can only think of spiritual development as dramatic personal experiences, then we are saying that he may not work in the way he apparently has chosen to.

The apostle Paul, who might have been as impatient as any Christian leader, knew about planting, watering, and growing: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Cor. 3:6-7). He talked about growing in faith (2 Cor. 10:15), in love (Eph. 4:16), and in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10). In Ephesians he uses an unusual expression: “… speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (4:15). How does “one grow up into” someone? In this passage the picture is of the body growing together, “joined and held together by every supporting ligament.” Without connective growth the body would contort and collapse into a pile of flesh and bone. But Christ holds it all together by growing it all together. Month by month, year by year, muscle, bone, tendon and ligament are woven together in a process that began in “the secret place” of the womb (Ps. 139:15). Disease may intrude and disfigure; bodily trauma can disrupt the process; but through it all God irrepressibly does his growing work “fearfully and wonderfully” (Ps. 139:14). What a marvel it is to see a human being go from hidden fetus to infant to child to adolescent to adult–almost two decades of bones growing longer, muscles stronger, senses trained, coordination tuned, voice richer. And we only see the gross movements of it all, the cellular and molecular knitting left to the eyes of God alone.

The people who I stand in awe of, not because of what they have done, but because of what God has done in them, are those who have had their first year or two of dramatic spiritual growth. Not that long ago they were spiritually empty, confused, lost. Then they found God, and they opened their lives to his influence. As 1 Peter 2:2 says, they became “newborn babes” craving spiritual milk so that they can grow up in their salvation. They then develop an appetite for spiritual truth, they discover worship and service. In short, they are growing “in the grace and knowledge of Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). It is the ultimate picture of divine work.

So how can spiritual leaders think of spiritual growth as anything but a marvel and a privilege? We’re not biding our time waiting for people to grow, nor are we simply enduring the curse of this fallen world. The curse may interfere with growth, but growth itself is God’s intentional work. We must believe that even when we are frustrated by the spiritual childishness of some, or the wild growth spurts of others in which they come up with grotesque theological ideas or misguided zeal. Who of us hasn’t had phases of spiritual gangliness? It’s all part of “growing up.”

Think then of how many theological implications arise from the concept of growth. Principles which must shape our ministry:

1. Spiritual life can only be a creation of God, for no mere mortal can claim credit for birth or growth.

2. We must be awed at how he does it, and never limit how people are converted or sanctified. As Jesus said: “The Spirit gives birth to spirit…. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8).

3. Amazingly, God involves us in the process–be it “planting,” “watering,” or some other step.

4. Growth is development over time, and thus, cannot be forced.

5. Growth requires care and nourishment, and will be impeded in their absence.

6. Growth is not just increase, but shaping.

7. Just as the body’s growth includes the knitting together of different kinds of tissues, spiritual growth involves the coordination of all of our inner faculties–our thinking, feeling, willing, morality, and everything else that happens inside.

8. We are ministering to people who “are being saved.” Their growth is a life or death matter. We know they are growing when we see a fuller salvation, which is to say sin and Satan are less the victor and the character of Christ is becoming the contour of their lives.

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “The essence of spiritual growth”

  1. Thank u sir for that wonderful insight about growth,personall i long for it and pray that God will help me in the different phases of this growth u explained so i could really yeild the best fruits and be a blessed wife and mother in the family and also in the ministry with the orphaned boys whom we minister as house parents in our boys home in kolkota -INDIA.

  2. As Ruth just said, wonderful insight, thank you! Recently I have made several attempts to buy raspberries and although they look good they are still slightly tart and not that perfect sweet that raspeberries are when they are at peak. I’ve been thinking about seasons, and God’s perfect timing. Only He can make the raspberries sweet and the roses and everything else just as beautiful. How awesome to know that we can look to Him alone and abide in Him daily as He helps us to grow and perfects us in His perfect timing!

  3. Thank you for a timely reminder as one in the midst of deep frustration in ministry where spiritual growth is painfully slow. Thanks for the reminder that this is not my work as a pastor – only God can make people grow!

  4. Hi Mel, I appreciate your highlighting the slow process of growth and the fact that we need each other. But what about the gospel, which as you know is the good news that even though we’re more defective and lost than we ever imagined, we can be more accepted and loved than we ever dared hope, because Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again for sinners like you and me. Isn’t this the reality that molds and shapes us at every point in every way? This gospel should define the way we think, feel, and live, and I think that might have been left out here.

  5. Julie – absolutely agree with what you’re saying. There will be more posts on spiritual growth in the future. But, as you say, the power and promise of change and growth is found in Christ. As the prayer at the top of this post says: “O Son of God, perform a miracle for me; change my heart. You, whose crimson blood redeems mankind, whiten my heart…”

  6. Thanks Pastor David and Ruth (in India) for your comments. A prayer for you and for all others who labor in the cause of the gospel: “My God, grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer all my life whatsoever it may please thee to lay upon me; yes even for a hundred years am I prepared to endure the sharpest pains, only let my people be converted.” Curé d’Ars, 1786-1859

  7. I was particularly drawn to point 6..Growth is not just increase, but shaping. In both the cultures of world and church the idea of increase is predominant. But true spiritual character is not just ” more”, but “what kind”. Into the image of Christ we go! And along those lines, here is a thought. Instead of WWJD (What would Jesus do?) how about changing it up to WWJB (What would Jesus be?)
    Great article.

  8. Thanks for the observation, Roy. This may be a weird analogy, but in our culture we do think of “growth” as merely increase, except when it comes to anatomical growth. The prevalence of weight-loss programs demonstrates that not all increase is health. Since it is obvious that bodily growth means shaping, not just increase, i wonder why we don’t think that way in the spiritual realm.

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