What Spiritual Growth Requires
God’s desire is for you to become more like Jesus… to become “Christlike” as you begin to reflect His character. As explained by the Apostle Paul, “For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son…” (Romans 8:29, NLT). When this happens, Jesus’ values, desires, and goals become our values, desires, and goals. His plans take precedence over our plans, and “we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church” (Ephesians 4:15, NLT).
What will it take for this growth to happen? What is required of us if we hope to become more like Jesus? To set the stage for growth to happen in your life, consider these four facts:
Fact 1: Growth Requires Time
No child is born fully grown (for which every mother is thankful). Rather, children need time to grow. They must learn to walk and talk, to recognize shapes and colours, and to interact positively with others. Over time, they may learn to drive a car, to play sports, or to play a musical instrument. Eventually, they will learn to survive on their own, to find a job, and to perform at that job. They will build relationships, mentor others, give, and love. The truth is, we never stop growing. Even as Christians, there’s never a point when we can say we have “arrived” with no more potential for growth.
An oak tree can take up to hundreds of years to grow. By comparison a squash takes only a few months. The question is, do you want to be a squash or an oak tree? There are no shortcuts. You need to be in it for the long haul.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow expressed a similar thought when he said, “The purpose of that apple tree is to grow a little new wood each year. That is what I plan to do.” Through you may have seasons of life during which your growth is accelerated, true discipleship is marked by consistent growth over time.
No matter how mature you believe you have become, there is always room for more. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6, NLT).
Fact 2: Growth Requires Effort
The New Testament contains two letters written by the Apostle Paul to Timothy, his young apprentice. In the first letter, notice the emphasis Paul places on the effort it takes to grow: “…Train yourself to be godly. ‘Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.’ This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it. This is why we work hard and continue to struggle, for our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and particularly of all believers” (1 Timothy 4:7-10, NLT).
Growing as a disciple of Jesus requires hard work and intentionality. It does not happen by accident; it is the result of deliberately organizing your schedule, your habits, and your attention toward the things of God.
James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, encouraged his readers to aspire to greater spiritual heights when he wrote, “You should set your goals high and direct your energies toward achieving them. Train your mind. Develop your skills. Discipline your appetites. Prepare for the future. Work hard. Go for it! You can’t steal second with one foot on first” (Life on the Edge, p. 59).
Fact 3: Growth Requires Change
Most of us do not like change, preferring instead to stick to our old traditions. Why? Because change involves “leaving” — leaving behind people, places, positions, comforts, relationships, or things. We experience this as loss.
In the Old Testament, Abraham discovered this truth when he set out on his own faith journey… a literal journey. Genesis 12 tells how God called Abraham (then known as Abram) to leave his homeland, his family, and everything he had ever known. If he would do so, God promised to lead him to a new land, show him great favour, and make him a blessing to all nations. Though it required major changes, Abraham chose to obey God.
What changes will be required for you to grow as a Christian? Maybe you will need to adjust your schedule so you can more consistently spend time reading the Bible and talking with God through prayer. Perhaps you will need to get more actively involved in a particular ministry of the church. It could be that you need to begin practicing certain spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, simplicity, and solitude. Or it could be something else entirely that God impresses upon you. Whatever it is, you will need to change if you hope to grow.
Fact 4: Growth Requires Help
First and foremost, your spiritual growth is the effect of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit at work in your life. Without that, any apparent growth is only superficial religiosity and hypocrisy. The Holy Spirit alone is capable of making a person more like Jesus. “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Romans 12:2, NLT). Growth only happens as we make ourselves available to what the Holy Spirit wants to do within us.
According to God’s design, however, we also need each other to spur on that growth. “Under his direction, the whole body is fitted together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Ephesians 4:16, NLT). No one can become a mature follower of Jesus on his or her own; we grow best within the context of Christian community.
As believers, we minister to each other, care for each other, and help each other to grow. We must be accountable to each other, support each other, and encourage one another. This involves worshipping together regularly, sharing life together in small group settings, and forming relationships for mentoring and accountability. Only when we participate in full community within the Body of Christ can we experience the full extent of spiritual growth that God intends.
[To review some of the myths about how we grow, go to False Assumptions about Spiritual Growth.]