5 Truths On Spiritual Growth

Too often the idea of spiritual growth is presented so disconnect from real life.  Not so in the Bible!

The Colossian church struggled with sensuality[i]  in a city renowned for its perversion.  Paul, writing from a Roman prison, was encouraging the Colossian church to grow in godliness amidst the immoral climate of the city in which they themselves once walked.[ii]  From within the congregation there were two theories as to who one overcomes these worldly lusts.  The first group argued that one inhibit and control the bodily desires through rigorous regulations and rituals (asceticism), and the second group reasoned that one cannot and need not overcome it – one simply needs to allow the earthly flesh to go its course since it has not importance or influence on your renewed spirit (Gnosticism).  Paul renounced the foolishness of both these arguments, stating that no bodily denial or imprisonment has power to overcome sinful urges[iii]  and that God will certainly judge sinfulness, so don’t fall back into that life.[iv] The answer is to deliberately grow in holiness and renounce sensuality. [v]

Although the whole letter to the Colossians leaves us with profoundly practical truths about spiritual growth, these three verses contain very helpful truths on Spiritual growth.

“To [the saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I labor, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” (Colossians 1:27-29)

  1. Spiritual growth does not earn favor with God

 

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The gentiles in the Colossian church were saved and blessed with the indwelling Spirit of Christ because “God [has] chosen” them, because God “has qualified (them) to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints” (1:12).  God loved and favored these gentile Christians in spite of their struggle with sensuality.  Later, as he encourages them to grow in godliness, he reminds them that – even before they grow spiritually – they are already “God’s chosen, holy and beloved” (3:12).

This is true for you too: you have already been made “accepted in the beloved” [vi] regardless of their lack or level of spiritual growth.  No amount of spiritual growth or weakness will increase or decrease God’s loving favor on your life.  You are loved and favored because God had chosen you and qualified you.

  1. Spiritual growth has a clear goal

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Paul’s ambition for the struggling Colossian church was clear: to “present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28). In the sister-letter Ephesians Paul phrased this truth bolder to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). Every member ought to grow up into the image of Christ himself.  For that we have been predestined[vii]; and that is the purpose of our times in the presence of the Lord[viii].    Although Paul never used the word disciple in his writings, we are not surprised that he chooses another word conveying this truth as the overarching goal of the Christian life[ix].  So according to Paul, spiritual growth has a clear goal: the imitation of Christ himself: to emulate his lifestyle and represent his character.

This demystifies spiritual growth completely.  The goal of Spiritual growth is a person – to emulate and resemble Jesus Christ himself.  And this is a life-long process to “grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”. [x]

  1. Spiritual growth requires deliberate effort

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Paul did not assume that spiritual growth happens automatically, but rather through his “proclaim(ation)… warning… teaching… wisdom… labor… struggle(s)… energy” (1:28-29).  Spiritual growth requires deliberate effort – as everything else in life.  Later in this letter Paul instructs these Colossians to overcome their weaknesses to sensual temptations by deliberate actions: “set your heart on things above” (3:1), “set your mind on things above” (3:2), “put to death what is sensual” (3:5), “put off anger…” (3:8) and “put on… compassion” etc (3:12-14).   Peter likewise instructs the Roman church to “make every effort to add to your faith courage…” etc.[xi]  We grow as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”.[xii]

Real spiritual growth does not happen automatically.  It is not reserved for a select few.  It does not come by means of some special revelation nor academic learning alone, but by “exercising yourself in godliness” [xiii] – by deliberate acts of spiritual disciplines as we seek to know God, his will and seek to emulate him in a community of believers.

  1. Spiritual growth is God’s work

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Christian spiritual growth is not another selfish self-help practice aimed to “be a better you!”  Spiritual growth happens by means of God’s renewal.  Even Paul’s labors are accredited to God’s as he works “with all his energy that he powerfully works” (1:29).  Even as he encourages the churches to “work out your salvation” he qualifies that “it is God who works in you, giving the desire and ability to fulfill his will.” [xiv]

Spiritual growth is God’s work.  We will do good to remind ourselves that when we were dead in our sin, God made us alive.  God revives and continues to renew us into the image of His Son.  And therefore every time “we behold him, we are being transformed into the image of his Son”[xv] – God does the work of renewal; we need to present ourselves to him and his grace.

  1. Spiritual growth is teamwork

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Spiritual growth is not a solo mission.  God works through others to shape, encourage and renew us.  Paul boldly asserted his role in the renewal and regeneration of the Colossian congregation by means of his prayers (1:9-12), preaching, admonishing and teaching (1:28-29) and instructions (3:1-14, etc).  Elsewhere he encourages the church to follow his example in life and godliness as a means of spiritual growth,[xvi] “to encourage one another and build one another up” [xvii] and in another place he mentions that his spiritual warfare on their behalf enhances their growth in godliness. [xviii]  We grow up within caring and loving relationships.

Spiritual growth is teamwork; ironically our concern and effort for another’s spiritual growth makes us grow in godliness.  Therefore we ought to always consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.” [xix] In other words, the express reason for our assembly is to deliberately edify and encourage others to excel in godliness and good works.  We grow because of other Christians’ input.

Thus, Paul teaches spiritual growth is the quest to know and represent Jesus Christ our Savior, in response to God’s loving favor and powerful enablement, by means of deliberate effort within a community of believers.  It is something we desire, we respond to, we assist in and we celebrate, and something which only reaches its climax “we he appears”. [xx]

So, how have you grown? What’s next for you? And who is helping you?

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[i] Colossians 2:22-23

[ii] Colossians 3:5-7

[iii] Colossians 2:23

[iv] Colossians 3:5-6

[v] Colossians 3:1-17

[vi] Ephesians 1:6

[vii] Romans 8:28

[viii] 2 Corinthians 3:18

[ix] 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; Ephesians 5:1-2; 1 Corinthians 11:1; cf Philippians 4:9

[x] 2 Peter 3:18

[xi] 2 Peter 1:5-8

[xii] Philippians 2:12

[xiii] 1 Timothy 4:7

[xiv] Philippians 2:12-13

[xv] 2 Corinthians 3:18

[xvi] Philippians 4:9-121

[xvii] Thessalonians 5:11

[xviii] 2 Corinthians 10:1-6

[xix] Hebrews 10:24

[xx] 1 John 3:2

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How do I grow from here? – phases in discipleship

Building a tower

Chicago_Spire_pit
The famous “pit” of the incomplete Chicago Spire

I am always surprised at my impatience every time I pass a construction site where “nothing seems to happen” for weeks on end – sometime even for months. When the foundation is being laid it might easily look to the ignorant onlooker as if there is no work being done because – everything above ground looks the same!  We tend to think that because I can’t see any development on the surface, no progress is being made.  But that’s not the truth.  We all know that constructive growth happens in progressive phases.

Chicago_Spire_plan
An artists representation of the completed Chicago Spire tower.

So too with discipleship – our growth in Christ happens in phases.  And – like in our sky-scraper example – the strength and longevity of our spiritual health depends on the quality of its foundation.  When the necessary foundation phases are not laid down properly, the disciple will lack endurance and vitality in their spiritual life.

Phases in discipleship

One of the most helpful research studies on the various phases in discipleship was done by the Willow Creek Association in 2007.  After an extensive study of over 200 churches and 80’000 members, Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson identified a framework of four phases where church-attendees found themselves in their relationship with Christ.[1]  This framework ranges from those who have a basic belief in God, but seek surety regarding Christ’s person and role in their lives (exploring Christ), through attendees who are growing in relationship with Christ (grounded) and feeling close to Christ (maturity) in daily communion with him, to believers who see their relationship with Christ as the central most important aspect of their lives (leadership).  After identifying these phases, the researchers identified three “growth-movements” and sought to identify the spiritual catalysts that most likely caused spiritual growth to the next phase of a disciple’s relationship with Christ.  These catalysts were grouped as (i) spiritual beliefs and attitudes, (ii) organized church activities, (iii) personal spiritual practices and (iv) spiritual activities with others (i.e. activities not organized by local congregation).

Adapted from WillowcCreek REVEAL study 2007
Adapted from WillowcCreek REVEAL study 2007

The graph above is adapted from this REVEAL study, showing four phases in discipleship with the catalysts they found most likely to produce spiritual growth in a disciple within that phase. Below is a summery of the findings as illustrated in the graph above.

  1. After conversion, during the grounding phase in discipleship, the two agents that contribute the most to the disciple’s growth in Christ are Biblical Teaching (growing in knowledge and attitudes) and participation in church activities (like Foundation classes, Bible school, small group and weekend services); these two groups of activities causes the most spiritual growth within this phase of discipleship growth.
  2. During and after the initial grounding in Christ, the two factors contributing the most to the disciple’s growth in Christ are firstly personal devotional disciplines, and secondly a lifestyle of witnessing, where the disciple shares his/her faith with others. (It is important to note stress again that devotional disciplines must be demonstrated – the habits are best acquired through participation and demonstration; so also with witnessing). No further growth in Christ will occur without a lifestyle of devotional disciplines; the disciple must become a self-feeder to grow in spiritual maturity – just like a baby that needs to learn to feed itself.
  3. The last significant growth phase, where a disciple grows from maturity to leadership, happens as the disciple acts on his/her own conviction or initiative and takes responsibility for a church-related ministry or activity, or even the care of some younger disciples. Just as a boy grows from a baby dependent on others, through maturity as he cares for himself, into a the young man who cares for his own family, so the disciple must grow to become one who takes ownership and responsibility for the spiritual well-being of others in some form.  Without this step, mature believers tend to become discontent, frustrated and tend to disengage from faith or move to another ministry, because they are not “fed” in church any more.  If they do find a place to serve faithfully and see the impact it has on others, these members will continue to grow and inspire others to partner with the church in a similar manner. Along with this “initiative” the disciple also needs to grow in understanding and response to the Lordship of Jesus over his/her personal life.  The study shows that, in this stage of the disciple’s life, he/she needs little from the local church to grow apart from encouragement and opportunities of engagement in full participation in Christian service. [2]

Greg Hawkins comments’ on the results of the study is indeed noteworthy…increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities [read “church programs”] does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does not predict whether they love God more or they love people more.” [3]  This is a very important conclusion: each disciple should be personally coached, given what he or she needs within their own walk with God.  One cannot give a one-size fits all program for every disciple – one must consider the phase of the disciple and coach them within in their current challenges.

There should be little surprise that the number one catalyst that provokes spiritual growth in a disciple is the Bible (studying, reflection, and the belief of its accuracy and authority). [4]  [I might add that helping people study it is the also the most neglected in contemporary church discipleship programs].

Bible
The Bible – still the most influential catalyst for spiritual growth.

Hybels refers to this as “the wake-up call of my adult life,”[5] since the church spent all their efforts and resources in developing programs to produce disciples, yet now he knows that that all they should have done was teach people “to take responsibility to become ‘self-feeders’… …how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.” [6]

This study has brought a new perspective to contemporary discipleship models: where in the past the commonly held notion was that greater participation in church activities (or discipleship activities) ensured spiritual growth (becoming like Christ), the result of this study indicates that church programs only initiate the discipleship process by grounding converts in their faith, but continuing in these programs will probably not lead to maturity in Christ.  The more mature a disciple grows, the less significant will a church program be on that person’s spiritual growth into Christ.[7]

Consider the maturity

Therefore, in summary, their reveal study concludes that the journey through discipleship has distinguishable phases: after conversion the young disciple needs to be grounded in the faith through instruction in doctrine and shown how to abide in Christ through the basic disciplines. During this phase instruction into basic truth and settling into a habitual life of personal devotion is important. Thereafter the disciple matures in character through training in the Christian lifestyle through observation and emulation of modeled behavior.  In this phase participation in fellowship and practices such as service and witnessing are important. In the last phase leaders are trained through delegation and participation in the discipleship process of others, and later through commissioning or deployment.  During this last phase mentorship and shared responsibility, with coaching in skills and character shaping is the focus.

Thus, to encourage growth towards maturity in Christ, a disciple should be helped firstly to be faithful in attending fellowship and bible study (such as church celebration, small groups, Bible School, etc).  Secondly, the apprentice needs to be coached in devotional disciplines in meeting with God faithfully.  Thirdly, as he/she grows in relationship with Christ, the disciple should grow in confidence in serving and taking initiative as the need arises or the Lord directs, so that his/her love for God may find expression in serving others.

So what should you do to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18)?  What is your next goal?

Footnotes:

[1] Hawkins, Parkinson, REVEAL: Follow Me, p20-21.

[2] Ibid, p78.

[3] Hawkins G., from video results of study: http://revealnow.com/storyid=48 [Accessed 12 March 2011]

[4] Ibid, p105.

[5] Hybels B., from video response to results: http://revealnow.com/storyid=49 [Accessed 12 March 2011].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Spiritual Life Survey Results Revealed, Willow Magazine, Issue 3 2007, http://www.willicreek.com/wcanews/issue.asp?id=WNI32007  [Accessed 12 March 2011]

A life of power – the need for discipleship

Power to win

The 1995 Rugby World Cup was in my matric year, which meant it was a good year for high school rugby.  I don’t know boys passed their exams during that season because all I can account for during that time was playing rugby with my friends, watching rugby highlights on the TV, listening to rugby commentary in the car and when there were no rugby broadcasts we’d play 1995 World Cup Rugby computer game.  It was an exhilarating few months from the build-up to the final, and what a final it was!  South Africa vs New Zealand, 80 minutes of extraordinary hard rugby turned to 100 minutes because by end of normal the teams were tied at 12 points each.  It seemed as though the the Webb Ellis Cup trophy would be shared by these two teams for the next four years until Joel Stransky received the ball from a scrum, and under tremendous pressured kicked a perfect drop goal from just outside New Zealand’s 22m line.  What a great victory he secured for South Africa! [see the video below]

But, oh! how this victory destroyed rugby in every school for the rest of the season…  Every match looked like a kicking competition.  I don’t think we even broke into a sweat in some games.  It doesn’t matter what position a player was supposed to play – every boy who got hold of the ball would attempt at a drop-goal.  Needless to say there were nearly no successful attempts.   Why could I or my school friends not execute a successful drop kick under pressure like Joel Stransky?  The answer is quite simple: we did not live the disciplined life he lived – on and off the rugby field.  We did not devote our lives to the hours of practice and mental preparation he did.  Those hours, amounting to years of preparation, paid off in those crucial seconds, because his gained power to perform when it was needed.

Power to break

On some Saturday mornings me and my brothers would watch a broadcast of Judo or Taekwon-Do championships where athletes scream and break bricks with their fists, kick through thick planks and smash concrete with their foreheads. [See example video below].

Carefully studying their methods and moves we’d get psyched and try it ourselves in our own back yard.  We’d find some bricks and planks, stand exactly like them, remind one another to “focus our energy”, scream and … crack our fists, sprain our toes and bruise our foreheads.  Although we copied their moves, screams and facial expressions as closely as possible we seemed to lack their power.

Why?  Because we did not live their lives.  We had their “form” but not their “power” – the power that stems from a disciplined, devoted life.

Power to survive

The best contemporary image for discipleship I have discovered is from the new movie Karate Kid .  In the 2010 version the young Dre (Jaden Smith) runs from some mean boys who know Kung Fu but is saved by Mr. Han (Jackie Chang), a master at Kun Fu.  [see the video below]

Afterwards Dre asks Mr. Han to teach him Kun Fu.  Mr. Han reluctantly agrees but instructs Dre to do seemingly meaningless exercises that has nothing to do with self-defense.  But seeing as the young Dre was only interested in learning to fight, he ignorantly rebels after hours of mundane exercises and starts walking out.  Mr Han calls him back and gives him the lesson of his life, showing him how the “pointless activities” of “jacket on / jacket off” and “pick the jacket up” was preparation for self-defense.  He concludes with the powerful life-lesson that “Kung Fu lives in everything you do… everything is Kung Fu.” [see the video below]

As a pastor I have had so many people over the years who come for counsel and prayer to gain power over something – smoking, pornography, anxiety, depression, obsessive thoughts.  Or to “fix a marriage”.    I’ve been at conferences where some big ministers invited people to “sow money now” that they may prosper.  Others invite people to come for impartation that they may gain a specific spiritual power.  These people sound like the ignorant, young Dre who simply wanted to be shown how to fight and overcome his enemies without living the life his King Fu master lived.  But like Mr. Hun I have come to understand that the power to reign in this life comes from the daily devotions and disciplined self-denial in everything we do, as we really live lives devoted to Jesus.  Everything we do is discipleship.

A need for deliberate discipleship

Have you ever met old Christians – genuine believers – who practically grew up in church, yet when you spend some time with them quickly discover they are staunch racists, or stingy and greedy, or habitually rude, bitter, or anxious?  And you think: how is it possible that a person can be a believer your whole life and after 60 years of going to church that person does not resemble the gracious, merciful, loving Jesus whom he or she follows?

Paul was referring to this hypocrisy when he wrote “In the last days there will be people… having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:1,5).  In other words people who fake godliness – who act as though they are kind at heart when they are among believers, but in reality they are rude and demeaning, or act as though they are at peace with others but they harbor unforgiveness an bitterness in their hearts.

Spiritual growth does not happen automatically and does not stem from a “secret key” – it requires a deliberate intent (2 Peter 3:18) and disciplined effort (2 Peter 1:5-8) of spiritual practices through which we deny ourselves (1 Corinthians 9:27), transform our mind (Romans 12:2) and character as we come face-to-face with Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), exercising ourselves unto godliness (1 Timothy 4:7), into the image of Christ Himself (Romans 8:29).

We need to remind ourselves every so often that the word disciple is derived from the word discipline; a disciple lives in the power of his master to the degree that he imitates the disciplines of his master.

In the next posts we will look more into the goals and means of discipleship.