Spiritual growth happens in stages. Bible teachers like Charles Stanley map it out with phases such as 1) Unbelief, dormancy; 2) Salvation and a ‘honeymoon’ time; 3) Eager serving, a sense of wanting to repay Christ for all He has done; 4) Inadequacy, fruitless, feeling as if I cannot do anything right; 5) Spirit-filled, learning how to yield to the Holy Spirit; 6) Re-programming, where things of the past that affect consistency are brought to the surface and dealt with; 7) The exchanged life, living in dependance upon Christ for everything.
While spiritual growth doesn’t necessarily fit into categories, Stanley’s phases do happen. I suppose the more important question is how to make them happen, how to make progress.
We’ve all heard stories about children planting seeds then digging them up each day to see if they are growing. That isn’t the best idea for spiritual growth either, because our focus needs to be on Jesus, not turned inward. However, I’ve noticed that I can ask myself certain questions and practice certain disciplines. While they don’t make growth happen, they do help with the hindrances. More than that, these disciplines are in line with what God is trying to do as He produces growth in me. They help me cooperate with Him, so in no particular order . . .
First is to have a holy dissatisfaction with myself. That means allowing the Spirit to tell me what is wrong. His voice comes as gentle nudges, sometimes so gentle that I can easily push them away or turn them off. Instead, I need to listen, to not be too quick with “positive thinking” or anything that denies His elbow in my ribs. “Do not grieve the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30).
Second, ask God to transform my life. This sounds like such a noble prayer, and the first time I prayed it, I was looking for glorious results. Now I’ve learned that if I pray that, I’d better duck. God answers this one, and the tools He uses can be painful. I’m reading Job and remember how the book starts with God calling Job His servant, and defending him to Satan as an upright man whose faith would stand no matter what tests came along. After all Job went through, his faith did stand, but he had turned inward as he complained, and had some serious questions about God.
Then God reveals Himself to Job. After that, Job acknowledges that his knowledge of the Lord was enlarged. In Job 42:1-6, he says, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job grew through hanging on in his ordeal, but also through realizing that God is God and can do whatever He wants in his life. Maybe Job didn’t ask for this growth, but whenever I have asked, the Lord has often used extreme trials to temper and enlarge my faith and to make me more like Jesus.
Third, put myself in ‘places of grace’ by practicing spiritual disciplines. Growing Christians are reading God’s Word, praying, studying, worshiping God in church with others, serving Him, and so on. These things don’t ‘make’ growth happen, but without them, it seldom does.
Fourth, I need to be thorough when it comes to repentance. When I sin, I need to confess it to God without excuses, blame-shifting, or reluctance to change. I cannot grow in Christian character and harbor sin at the same time.
Fifth, make restitution where possible. Not every sinful deed involves injury to another person, but many of them do. God wants me to make it right. This is one of the most difficult parts of growing, but I will stop growing if I refuse to go there.
Sixth, develop a seriousness of purpose. Maybe getting older helps, but I’ve realized that life here is very short. Most of what I do has no eternal value whatsoever. Cook, eat, clean, sleep, read a novel, make a quilt, plant flowers, pull weeds—none of it will go with me to heaven, only the Christian character that develops as a result. I can make a meal without any thought, or I can make it an expression of God’s love for my guests. Even though the Holy Spirit controls whether or not God uses these things, being purposeful makes me think twice about how I spend my days, even my moments. “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men” (Colossians 3:23).
Seventh, and related to the above, narrow my focus. This might not apply to everyone but it certainly is important for me. I’m interested in so many things, can do many things, and love doing many things. However, a scattered approach to life often means that I don’t hit any targets. This year, I determined to take the dozens and dozens of thing on my to-do list and sort/toss/condense until the list had limited but definite shape and is doable. I’ve also been decluttering and simplifying my home.
This has been perhaps the most challenging. For example, I love to quilt, love art and painting, and graphic art. I cannot do all this, so I’ve picked art quilts as my artistic expression (with a purpose to glorify God and benefit others, of course), and all my art books, art materials, etc. either work toward that goal or go into the ‘give away’ pile. Oh, the freedom!
I’ve a wonderful little book called “Principles of Spiritual Growth” by Miles J. Stanford. In it he says that the life of Christ is an organic thing, a powerful thing. Life grows. It cannot help itself. Jesus lives in me, and He will come out, be seen, make Himself known.
I agree, but I know that I can put a rock on top of that growth, dump toxins on it, undernourish it, keep it from the sun (Son), and stunt it by neglect. God is able to deal with me should I be so foolish, but I’d rather have the other kind of trials—those that come because Satan doesn’t like what I’m doing—rather than the ones God brings because I’m grieving or quenching His Spirit and refusing to grow up in my faith.