Spiritual Growth as Integration

Spiritual development means not just becoming more (growth), and becoming different (transformation), but also becoming better integrated within ourselves in all of our relations.

When a body grows, its parts don’t just get larger, they become better connected. Nerves thicken and branch out, blood vessels and capillaries lengthen into every bit of living tissue, bones and joints are tied together by ligament and tendon. The result is an integrated physical organism. Every step that the body takes is an orchestration of energy, coordination, and will. Take these parts and train them and a body is able to catch a football in full run, do a pirouette, or draw complex harmonies out of a piano.

There are so many parts to life–the moral realm, aesthetics, relationships, ideas and opinions, social issues, health, the environment, community life, politics, marriage and family, church life. Without spiritual integration we move through life, bumping into these issues with randomness instead of the unity and wholeness that life can be. Spiritual development includes the progressive integration of all of who we are and of ourselves with the rest of creation and of our relationships.

A life of spiritual growth will include the intentional development and integration of a Christian mind, will, and affections. If they are in principle held separate, or one developed and others purposely ignored, aberrations will result.

Favor the mind while devaluing the will and affections and you may end up a doctrine hound and a logic-chopper. Prefer will to the detriment of mind and affection and you develop a strong-arm, self-sufficient theology. Focus on the affections while suppressing mind and will and you are at the mercy of your own subjectivism. Multitudes of Christians have over the centuries leaned hard one way or another, sometimes threatening to tip over into one part of themselves.

Every era has scholastics in tension with mystics, quietists being drowned out by activists, pietists trying to warm up the orthodox, militants burning the books of intellectuals. That will probably not change. The question is whether we believe in the value of the integrated self. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength,” is that greatest of all commandments, and the list surely could have included every label for every impulse, faculty, skill, and talent we possess.

Does this mean that the goal of ministry is to move toward a homogeneous ideal of what the perfectly balanced Christian is, or is much of the balance to be found in the plurality of persons which is the church. Surely the latter. Diversity in the church includes variations of psyche and temperament. Balance is in the Body. Homogeneity within one person is not the goal because God has not chosen to make us that way. The work of spiritual growth is challenging enough without us thinking we need to move people to a uniform level of rationality, emotionality, and all the rest. There will always be those people who read thick books and those who read thin ones, those who weep in worship and those who don’t, those who drive like a bulldozer and those who are sensitized to every subtlety of life.

On the other hand, every person does possess the standard equipment for a life that is rational, emotional, and volitional. Exclude one and you have something not human.  We cannot assign a part of  our personhood to someone else in the body of Christ. The well-directed life is a harmony of the rational, emotional, and volitional that demonstrates the integrity (wholeness) of the person, and image of God mirrored in the person. And why does it all matter? It is not because these parts of ourselves all have a right to be heard, but because God had a purpose in mind when he gave us those faculties.

Many Christians can point to a time in their lives when spiritual growth meant a kind of awakening of some great part of themselves that had been asleep. They had turned off their minds because that was the “spiritual” way or they had extinguished their emotions believing that their origin must be the flesh and not the Creator. But then one day they saw in someone they respected a Christ-centered, spiritually stable, genuinely full life, and began to allow for themselves the formation of a previously unformed part of their lives.

Here’s a question: do you think you have a pretty good idea of where your spiritual strengths and weaknesses are?

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