A strategy for growing toward Christ-likeness must be based on the actual ways that people grow and develop spiritually. By identifying and understanding how we spiritually mature, we become more intentional in our use of time and methods. Understanding the dynamics of spiritual growth makes us more aware of how God uses the specific circumstances of our lives to draw us closer to Him.
I will identify 8 principles of spiritual growth. Each principle helps us unravel God’s mystery of transforming sinful, rebellious people into godly, passionate lovers of His Son, Jesus. Each of these principles is grounded both in Scripture and in common experience.
1. God is ultimately responsible for all spiritual growth
There is a dangerous tendency within this sophisticated, technological culture to attribute spiritual “success stories” to clever human strategies, wise choices or determined hard work. Without downplaying the importance of human responsibility in spiritual growth, God’s role must always be central.
This principle shines forth clearly in Isaiah 61: 11, where the prophet Isaiah compares God’s role in dealing with His people to the role of garden soil in causing seeds to grow. God plays the role of a seasoned farmer carefully preparing the soil and maintaining the garden with the vision to see each seed grow into maturity.
This principle is also clearly illustrated in the New Testament. When Paul saw the early church members focusing too much on the role of human leaders, he reminded them that God is the person primarily responsible for growth. The picture in 1 Corinthians 3: 7 – 9 is also of a garden. There are many servants helping the Gardener (God) grow His seeds, yet it is the Gardener who causes the growth. The Christian’s attitude toward growth should always give tribute for the growth to God. 1 Corinthians 15: 10 - Paul teaches that everything the Christian becomes or accomplishes for the kingdom of God is only because of God’s grace and power.
We are saved by grace because of what God did rather than anything we could contribute. Yet it seems to be more difficult for Christians to believe their continued spiritual growth is dependent on God. A subtle legalism often creeps into our lives which equates our spiritual growth with the disciplines we exercise. Paul challenges the Christians of his time with a message relevant for us today, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3: 3).
God is ultimately responsible for the growth process in our lives from beginning to end. He chose before the world was created to make us a part of His garden, where we could grow into the holy likeness of His Son, Jesus (Ephesians 1: 4). His plan was not to only save us, as important as that transformational experience is, but rather to continue to nurture us into His likeness. His role as the Gardener is not finished when the seed takes root. Rather, His role in our spiritual development has just begun.
The Holy Spirit works as a supernatural catalyst throughout our life. He first brings us into a personal relationship with Jesus and then molds us into His likeness. “He who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1: 6). God is ultimately responsible for all spiritual growth in the believer’s life.
2. Effort, diligence, and discipline are absolutely necessary for growth
If God is responsible for our growth, can we simply bask in the glory of His grace, waiting for Him to propel us into His orbit of holiness and bliss? Paradoxically, God’s complete provision for our growth is not undercut by the necessity of our effort and discipline. In fact, Scripture seems to suggest that our diligence is essential to the growth process.
In 2 Peter 1: 1 – 11, we learn God is both the source and dynamo for godly living. Additionally we are challenged to “make every effort” to build on what God has given. God’s provision for our growth becomes the reason why we should diligently work toward Christ-like qualities. While God supplies the resources and enablement for our growth, we must supply the effort.
Paul also emphasizes this principle in both his personal lifestyle and teachings. He often uses the example of a soldier or athlete to illustrate the amount of discipline and hard work required to be successful. In 1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27, Paul states that “in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize.” He then goes on to challenge his readers to run the Christian race in such a way as to get the prize. This demands strict training, much like the focus of today’s Olympic Games. Concluding with an example from his own life, Paul says that he “beats” (meaning “to conquer” Romans 8: 13) his body to keep it submissive to God’s will for his life. His training plan is not sporadic, like a man beating the air, but it is intentional and deliberate. In order to grow into a mature woman or man of God, the believer must be a part of a diligent training plan for growth (1 Timothy 4: 7 – 8). We can learn a great deal about growing toward Christian maturity from both the example and teaching of a godly man like Paul.
This close relationship between God’s provision for our growth and our active involvement in the process is nowhere clearer than in Philippians 2: 12 – 13: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” The mystery of this principle may be hard to grasp, but the implication is clear. If Christians are to grow toward maturity in Christ, they must demonstrate their passion to grow by obedient action.
3. Spiritual growth potential may not be easy to see at first
Anyone who has ever worked with teenagers knows that it is dangerous to predetermine who will become the Christian leaders of the future. I have seen some of the most athletic, popular, and brilliant students fail miserably in their Christian walk, and I have also seen some of the most unlikely students blossom into Christian giants. God’s criteria for success is different than our own.
As we evaluate our lives, we must be careful not to underestimate what God can do in and through us. Rather than compare ourselves to spiritual giants at the end of their pilgrimages, we would be wiser to acknowledge where those people began their walk with God. When Samuel was looking for God’s choice to replace Saul as king of Israel, he was tempted to choose David’s older brother, Eliab. However, God rebuked Samuel for his lack of spiritual discernment: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16: 7). Who could have guessed a red-haired shepherd boy would become the most famous king in the history of Israel?
Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, responds to their preoccupation with the more external qualities for leadership (1 Corinthians 1: 26 – 29). God is not confined only to the brightest and the best. Rather, He chooses people who have a heart to follow Him, regardless of their natural abilities or talents.
There is a dangerous practice in contemporary ministries to focus discipleship efforts only on those who have the highest potential. While the intent may be to not waste time on followers we perceive to be insincere, there is a danger of discouraging someone God could powerfully use. In His parable of the weeds, Jesus tells the story of a man who sowed good seed in a field. While he was sleeping, an enemy planted bad seed in with the good seed. When the different seeds began to mature, both good and bad plants were apparent. His servants asked him if they should get rid of the bad plants, and the farmer responded: “No, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them into bundles to be burned, then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (Matthew 13: 29 – 30). In the early stage of a believer’s growth it may be difficult to see evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. In fact, it may be difficult to see a lot of difference between a new Christian and someone living for the world. Time will bring out the true quality of the heart.
Jesus emphasizes this principle again in His next parable about the mustard seed (Matthew 13: 31 – 32). God enjoys making something great out of something small. Who would ever imagine that a tiny mustard seed would produce a gigantic tree? From a human perspective, the small things in this world are rarely important. In God’s eyes, however, they can develop into great harvests. We must never underestimate what God can do in our lives or in the lives of others, because He sees tremendous growth potential in every believer who has a heart for Him.