Sincere Christians desire to grow, but growing more spiritually mature is not intuitive or easily accomplished. Paul speaks of his own personal growth this way,
“Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)
Why does he describe it as such hard work? Well, because it is. It’s not out of reach, but it does take some effort, some diligence, some trying. May I offer just a few examples and paths for your own spiritual growth?
Turning our focus on Jesus
We’re often told in Scripture to look to Him: we are to be and make other disciples (followers) of Jesus (Matt. 28:18-20); we need to fix our eyes upon Jesus (Heb. 12:2); and we must walk in the same manner as He walked (1 Jn. 2:6). A truly powerful key to spiritual growth has always been, from the beginning of Christianity, to carefully observe how He thought, pay close attention to how and what He speaks, and focus on what He did and didn’t do. It’s how people have always learned best, watching and imitating. As disciples that’s easy to understand, but it’s not all that easy to actually do. We live in a world which seems to very easily consume our time, our energy, our attention, and pretty much every hour of our conscious day. Spiritual things, the unseen things, are too easily pushed into the background. Spiritual growth, therefore, takes diligent focus to bring to the foreground of our minds the life of Jesus in the midst of our daily lives. It happens for some by integrating a time of Scripture reading into our daily schedules; finding time for prayer; or sometimes something as silly as putting a wad of paper in your pocket that has WWJD on it as a memory prompt. Whatever it takes, however, look to Jesus, then do it — do what Jesus did.
Obedience even when we don’t fell like it
“But what if I don’t feel like it?” One of our greatest stumbling blocks in growth is our feelings. When we’re faced with a moral choice we often have to work our way through our feelings to get to obedience. Does any of this sound familiar? “Lord, I know I should be in church Sunday morning, but I just don’t feel like it today.” Or, “I know that I should share the Gospel with so-and-so, but I feel so embarrassed and inadequate.” Or, “I know I should forgive, but I just can’t seem to let things drop.” We have a hard time getting past our feelings, and it will almost always cause to remain immature.
The spiritual giants of the Bible all had their difficulty with how they felt — but they overcame! Think of Moses (Exo. 3,4), who wanted to be anywhere but in Pharaoh’s court saying, “Let my people go.” Think of Gideon (Judges 6,7), whose fears took two “signs” to be overcome. Think of poor Job (Job 1,2), who must have been overwhelmed with grief at the loss of everything. Think of Jesus Himself who prayed that the Father allow the cup of the cross to pass Him by. Did these heroes struggle? You bet! Was it hard work? But they overcame, got past their feelings and obeyed. So can we! Indeed, it is only through a personal struggle through such feelings to do what is right that we will grow, too.
Hang in there and keep trying
This part of spiritual growth has two applications. First, we all know (don’t we?) that trying once will NOT be the end of our struggle. Very few (maybe no one) does anything perfectly the first time. Children only learn to walk and then run by trying and failing scores (perhaps hundreds) of times. So, despite the fact that trying to imitate Jesus and coming up short will always be a bit discouraging, we must keep trying. It’s important to realize that we’re only a failure, when we stop trying. Peter denied the Lord, but afterward repented and later preached the first Gospel sermon. John Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey, when things got difficult; but later proved useful again to Paul’s ministry. Stumble, fumble, trip, and fall. But were they failures? No, not at all.
Second, even after we’ve overcome the fumbles and stumbling blocks of our Christian efforts, we will have to overcome them again — and again. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” didn’t go away after the first encounter — in fact, it never did. And Elijah got deeply depressed even after his great victory for the Lord, when he thought about having to face Jezebel and the Baal worshippers — again. It was only through courageous perseverance that they were successful as servants of God. Paul continued serving the Lord, overcoming his thorn in the flesh — daily. And Elijah continued to serve the Lord even with a death-threat hanging over his head.
Our growth as Christians depends heavily upon our persistence, grit, and determination to serve the Lord faithfully and fully despite our mistakes, despite the obstacles, and despite resistance from others. Our growth and even our faith are in danger if we are willing to quit because of the struggle. We must try again and again; and even after success, we must keep on keeping on.
Spiritual growth isn’t about being a genius or about being especially deep and insightful. It isn’t about finding some elusive key, having a transcendent experience, or discovering some special knowledge. It’s surprisingly simple. It is available to those who put the effort into it by really knowing and following Jesus, obeying Him even when we don’t feel like it, and continuing to try in spite of fumbles and obstacles.
Will you put the effort into it?