What is spiritual growth?
It is growth of the spirit.
It is growth brought by the spirit.
But what is growth?
Growth is something that can happen to an individual.
- Samuel grew in favor with God and men (1 Samuel 2)
- Jesus also grew in favor with God and men(Luke 2).
- Proverbs teaches that the man who walks with the wise will grow wise (Proverbs 13).
- Solomon claimed to have grown in wisdom more than any other man, but concluded that this growth was nothing more than a “chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1).
- Paul suggested that people can grow in their faith (2 Corinthians 10), and he suggested that this type of growth is typically accompanied by a change in activity (2 Thessalonians 1)
Growth is also something that can happen to a group, particularly the church.
- Ephesians 4 provides detailed teaching about the church, particularly focusing on God’s plan to use certain gifted members to guide the church’s growth.
- Colossians 2 teaches that the body’s growth comes directly from the head, Jesus Christ.
- Ephesians 4 furthers this idea by suggesting that the goal of the church’s growth is to become more like Jesus.
The Bible seems to clearly teach that growth comes from God, not from our efforts.
- Paul powerfully states in 1 Corinthians that it is God who brings growth, not the efforts of any man (1 Corinthians 3).
- Jesus told many parables of growth (often the growth was kingdom growth, but occasionally individual growth). Almost always, the source of the growth was a mystery. On some occasions, Jesus even pointed out that no one knew how things grew (Mark 4).
- During the Sermon on the Mount, in an effort to explain our need to rely on God, Jesus referenced the lilies of the field who grow even though they make no effort. His point is that God brings the growth, not our efforts (Matthew 6).
- It would appear that God has given us the “milk” of His Word (Hebrews 5) as the primary instrument for our growth. Both Peter (1 Peter 2) and Paul (2 Corinthians 3) reference the need for spiritual milk.
When growth occurs, the Bible seems to teach that it is accompanied by a change in actions.
- Jesus suggested in the parable of the soil that those who truly receive the Word will produce a “crop” (Matthew 13).
- Paul implied that growth (both the expansion of the gospel around the world and people’s increasing knowledge of God) would be accompanied by “fruit” (Colossians 1).
- Paul described the fruit of the Spirit as the result of a life lived while being submitted to the Spirit (Galatians 5).
- The first listed fruit in Paul’s list is love, which coincides with the observation that it would appear spiritual growth will manifest itself through the depth of our love for others (2 Thessalonians 1). This idea seems to correspond well with Jesus’ teachings regarding the importance of our love for others (Mark 12; John 13).
Given the above concepts, it seems reasonable to define growth as:
God-enabled change in individuals or groups which results in more Christ-like activity, particularly love toward others.
Measuring the above definition of spiritual growth is not difficult. One can easily create lists or goals based upon the fruit of the Spirit or rooted in current relationships, and then regularly assess progress or regression based on the completion or achievement of the lists and goals. Of course this type of measurement is still somewhat subjective, however, it is virtually impossible to imagine an objective way to measure the growth of something so ethereal as the human spirit.
Noticeably missing from this definition is any sense of change in our relationship to God. Further study will hopefully address this absence. For now, it should suffice to say, spiritual growth of any kind must also include a positive change in one’s relationship with God.
Particularly problematic is the question of how one measures a change in their relationship with God. Throughout history, people of all cultures and all religions have attempted to identify clear-cut methods for obtaining the ideal relationship with God. Buddhism points to the eightfold path. Islam demands its followers observe the five pillars. Judaism reverts to strict observance of the Torah. However, none of these routes provide a biblically appropriate path to a deeper relationship with God.
Of course, Jesus is the ONLY path to the Father (John 14). However, this simple truth does not seem to provide a means by which to measure the growth in our relationship with God. Thus, we often tend to seek out more tangible methods by which to measure our spiritual growth. Some may rely on depth of feeling, or moments and experiences when God seemed particularly close. Inversely, the absence of these moments and experiences seems to indicate an alarming regression or lack of growth.
Some seek growth through the accumulation of knowledge, sensing a closeness to God whenever they discover a previously unknown truth about God or His Word. Seeking “head-growth” as the sole measurement of growth is dangerous as the Bible carries many warnings about harmful consequences of over-dependence on knowledge (Matthew 23; 1 Corinthians 8).
An even more dangerous measuring tool of spiritual growth is a checklist. Benjamin Franklin famously kept a list of thirteen virtues which he desired to shape his life. He regularly selected one of the virtues to be a focal point of his life, and he evaluated himself daily on his performance regarding each of the values. A temptation exists for some to reduce their relationship with God to a similar checklist of activities. Checked-off boxes are easy to measure, and if I can check all my “God” boxes in a day (prayed, read the Bible, witnessed, etc.), I can feel very positively about the progress of my spiritual growth. However, such activity is dangerously close to imitating the spirituality of the Pharisees.
Jewish tradition identified nearly 700 specific laws given by God in the Torah. These laws were a combination of actual laws from the Torah as well as many laws created through the oral tradition which was considered to be authoritative alongside the Torah. A devout Jew in the days of Christ would have considered the only measurement of their spiritual growth to be the extent to which they were “keeping” these laws. Jesus condemned this kind of spirituality, pointing out in the sermon on the mount that God was concerned not only with our actions, but also with our motives, our responses, and our thoughts (Matthew 5).
While none of the aforementioned methodologies (feelings, knowledge, lists) should be the primary or only means by which to measure spiritual growth, they may all be appropriate means by which to occasionally assess one’s growth. The key is to utilize these tools within a framework that understands the nature of spiritual growth. It is altogether possible that a person may be experiencing significant spiritual growth which does not show up in any of these measurements. It may also be possible for someone to demonstrate measurable growth which is, in reality, not growth at all.
Consider the following three examples of spiritual growth or lack thereof.
The early days of the church in Ephesus are recorded in Acts 19. After arriving in the city and witnessing the initial conversions of many people, Paul began to teach daily in a lecture hall. After teaching for two years, we are told that a series of events prompted several of the believers to give up their idols. The conclusion is that some of these people may have been believers for up to two years, sitting under the daily teaching of the Apostle Paul and were unable to give up their idols. We must wonder how Paul gauged their spiritual growth if they were not even willing to step away from their idolatry.
Few things in the Bible are as frustrating as the apparent lack of growth experienced by Jesus’ disciples. Reading the Gospels, we begin to wonder if these twelve men every understood a thing Jesus told them. Even at the last supper, after three years of walking with Jesus and hearing his teaching, they were still unable to comprehend the reality of Jesus’ mission. Even though he had regularly talked about his impending death, they were unable to grasp the concept. However, their inexplicable lack of growth over the three years is even more befuddling when contrasted with the amazingly accelerated growth which apparently took place immediately following the resurrection. The Peter we observe the night before the crucifixion is demonstrably different than the Peter we encounter in Acts 2.
Finally, Judas Iscariot presents a troubling tale of one who apparently demonstrated some level of spiritual growth, but clearly did not actually grow. Apparently, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus came as a complete shock to the other disciples. When told that one of them would betray Jesus, they were unable to identify who that person might be. Seemingly, to whatever extent the disciples exhibited spiritual growth, Judas did as well. In fact, one might suggest that Judas demonstrated a higher level of growth as he was entrusted with the group’s money, a task he would not have been given had he been considered untrustworthy. Yet, in spite of the outward evidences of growth, Judas clearly did not grow spiritually, as all evidence points to a reality that Judas was never even reborn spiritually.
What can we learn from these three observances?
- From the Ephesians, we might conclude that spiritual growth does not happen overnight, and in some cases may take a great deal of time. We can also suggest that growth may not always happen immediately in the ways we would expect.
- From the disciples, we can observe that spiritual growth may not always be a steady process, but might happen in spurts, prompted by significant or traumatic experiences.
- The Judas story reminds us that measurements of spiritual growth may not always tell the whole story.
Much of our desire to measure is deeply rooted in modernity. The scientific method has become THE indisputable method for determining truth. As a result in every area of our life, we look for measurable factors which will demonstrate our success. We are likely to engage in actions which lend themselves more easily toward measurement, particularly, we are drawn to repeatable patterns and processes which correspond to the scientific method.
We sometimes apply these same ideas to spiritual growth. Since we want to be successful in our growth, we desire to measure it. Accurate measurement is much easier with consistent factors, therefore, we theorize that spiritual growth can best be measured if we can reduce it to identifiable consistently repeating factors. The result is a formulaic approach to spiritual growth which ends up placing undo stress on the methods and the activities instead of the result and the process.
Luke 18 records Jesus’ story of a man who measured his spiritual growth based on his ability to consistently perform spiritual activities. The man prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Jesus made it clear that this man was not justified before God.
Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3) that, “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.” Have you ever tried to wrap your hands around the wind? We see and hear measurements of the wind’s speed, but the reality is that those measurements are nothing more than averages based on moment-by-moment data. The wind is inconsistent, it is unpredictable, and it is uncontrollable.
Jesus said the work of the Spirit is like the wind. Spiritual growth is sometimes inconsistent and unpredictable. It is a process, but not always a measurable and orderly process. For this reason, we must learn to be patient with ourselves and others. Growth may not happen in the timeline we prefer and it may not take the path we prescribe. We must give grace to those who have not fully arrived (because we also have not fully arrived).
While opening ourselves to the Spirit’s work, we must also open ourselves to the possibility that He may have different plans for us than we have for ourselves. If we must measure something, we should measure love. Jesus measured love by sacrifice and we probably should also. But this post is already long, and that topic requires much more, so perhaps now is the time to bring this rambling writing to an end.