How does a seeker after God, after Jesus Christ, and the life of faith actually GROW? I'm not talking about an "automatic" procedure whereby we enter a "cup" of verses, add a spoonful of commentary or our Daily Bread, and then mix in a brief prayer, stir it all together and . . . poof!-- we somehow grow. Actually, hundreds or maybe thousands of Christians do this everyday or every other day and get weary of the regimen because they see no life-change. You may be one of these folks waiting and waiting for that one day you will wake up and be "mature."
I'm also not talking about a legalistic study routine, where we set aside x-amount of minutes, or even hours, spend a lot of time looking up terms and concepts, pour over commentaries and say our prayers, hoping again that God will somehow make the "work" work! This type of regimen does become laborious and fruitless after a while. Very little progress in the faith results. If you are one of these very tired people, you know what I mean.
Let's back up a bit and see what the Barna Associates team said about spiritual growth and maturity in their May 2009 survey. They noted (1) a strong majority (81%) of self-proclaimed Christians believe spiritual maturity is just "following the rules;" (2) most churchgoers (50%) are not clear as to what their church expects in terms of spiritual maturity; (3) most Christians offer shallow, one-dimensional views of personal spiritual maturity; and, (4) most pastors in America struggle with what spiritual maturity should look like. Interestingly, 90% of those pastors claim that such maturity is a national problem--except in THEIR church! (If this is enigmatic to you, join the crowd!)
In addition to this dire national problem of spiritual immaturity and illiteracy, many Christians track spiritual maturity using WRONG categories. Thus, Bob Logan and Tom Clegg* noted that spiritual maturity typically is measured by tenure (how long someone has known the Lord), education (perceived knowledge of the Bible), presence (attendance at church and ministry activities), busyness (participation in programs), compliance (agreement with the pastor or leaders), variety (more and different experiences), giftedness (ability to perform), and contribution (how much they tithe or financially give). Instead, the Bible measures spiritual maturity as hating evil (Prov. 8:13), loving the unlovely (cf. 1 Peter 2 & 3), sharing Jesus with others (Matt. 28:18-20; Col. 4:5,6), teachability (1 Tim. 3:2), patience and forbearance (Eph. 4:2; Phil. 2), peaceability (Mat. 5:9), contentment (Phil. 4:6,7, 11, 12), simplicity (Rom. 13:8-14), and joyfulness (Gal. 5:22). Or, just list the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-24, or follow the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.
So here's what I believe really gets us growing toward spiritual maturity. First, don't trust your own assessment! Most of us dislike honest, deep and revealing character assessments from others. Even from our closest friends. Why? Simply because we are selfish, self-motivated and self-centered most of our lives. Yes, that's right--and our pious attempts to say otherwise betrays our true natures. Few of us are really God-centered. Few of us are really selflessly concerned about others. Thus, the first thing we need to really grow is self-awareness given by someone(s) we really and deeply trust has our best and God's interest at heart. This person may not SEEM like a friend. He or she may actually be quite severe on us and our character qualities. But we know the truth when God speaks through that person into our lives. Such an assessment needs done often, rigorously and carefully. Find a spiritual assessor if you really want to grow spiritually.
Second, throw away your "Morning with God" books, pamphlets, tapes, CDs, DVDs and so forth. If you have not graduated beyond these "helps," you will never spiritually grow or mature. The old Puritans understood that maturity takes patient, God-seeking, in-depth pouring over the words of Scripture to hear God speak. This is not primarily an experience, though it may have experiential marks. Weeping, laughing, a feeling of exhilaration and so forth may or may not happen, and if they do, growth is NOT in the experience but what comes THROUGH the experience. Spiritual growth is much deeper than our subjective experiences. When we begin to see more of God than of us, more of what He says and wills and wants, and less what we think He wants, then we are growing spiritually. Consequently, Scripture reading may be limited to a passage, a verse, a word--until God burns His truth into the depths of our minds, hearts, bodies and souls. Yes, you may need to do an in-depth word or passage study, using the tools you have learned up to now. But never mistake the tools and the study for the growth.
Third, forget the pablum in our Christian bookstores and search out and read the spiritual biographies of men and women of faith a century or more ago. Their stories of in-depth searching, praying, studying the Word, life practices and so forth will give you a taste of what spiritual growth looks like. I personally like the old Puritans and their descendants, people like Horatius Bonar, Robert Murray McCheyne, Thomas Brooks, Octavious Winslow, Samuel Rutherford, John Owen, Charles Spurgeon and so forth. Many readers of this blog have no idea who these men are, but they have drunk deeply of God's well of spiritual riches and have understood spiritual maturity.
John Wesley gave four questions for weekly small groups that probe the spiritual depths of our being: (1) What known sins have you committed since we last met? If there is such, what shall we do about it?; (2) What temptations have you faced?; (3) How were you delivered from these temptations?; (4) What have you thought, said or done of which you are uncertain whether it was a sin or not? Additionally, he gave a scheme of self-examination asking oneself such questions as, Have I prayed with fervor?, All the time I am engaged in exterior work in private?, Have I at the beginning of every prayer or paragraph owned I cannot pray?, and so on and so on. Spiritual growth flows out of spiritual depth. And spiritual depth comes from shamelessly seeking God to examine, probe, transform and make us into the likeness of Jesus Christ in our deepest being.
Fourth, track your spiritual fruitfulness on a monthly basis. Are you more loving, more gentle, more self-controlled, more joyful and so on this month than last. How do you know? (Remember the first point!) Has God shown Himself to you more glorious, more awesome, more loving, more faithful this month than last? How so? In what ways? Do you sense God in worship more "closely" (an old Puritan word)? Do you increasingly find Him as your "all in all?" Is your expectancy of heaven increasing? Is your prayer life deepening, expanding, growing? Are you praying less words but praying more powerfully?
These are a few hints. There are more but this is enough to chew on for now. Let me know what you think.
*Robert Logan & Thomas Clegg, Releasing Your Church's Potential, ChurchSmart Resources, 1998.