Confession time: In graduate school, my therapist was a vacuum cleaner.
I should explain. While pursuing a degree in mathematics, I spent many days working out theories, formulas, and proofs with pen and paper. I spent hours chasing ideas that turned out to be worthless. I recycled a lot.
I was often discouraged on the ride home from campus. Did I make progress today? Did I do anything of value?
Around the same time, I took on the household chore of vacuuming, and I grew to love it. This task counterbalanced my mathematical research. In the apartment, I could see my progress. The stripes on the carpet couldn’t lie: clean carpet here, dirty carpet there. As I listened to the vacuum turn and click, I knew I was contributing.
Our Ideal of Growth
We’d like our Christian growth to be like vacuuming, wouldn’t we? Give me Five Easy Steps or Fifteen Minutes a Day with guaranteed progress on the other side!
It’s no surprise we want definite, quick results. In the West, we can get most goods and services in a flash. Microwave meals, drive-through car washes, next-day shipping, movies streamed to the living room. If you’re willing to pay, you can make it happen.
And we’d like our spiritual progress to be the same: fast, noticeable, predictable. We don’t like to wait, and we resent not being in control.
The Reality of Christian Growth
For most, growing as a Christian is slow and unpredictable.
If you come to Christ as a teenager or adult, some practices might be obvious (if painful) to change. But Christian maturity is more about the heart than it is about behavior. Our trust, hopes, and desires need to change, and good behavior follows.
But our hearts are complicated and mysterious. Imagine being hired to fix up an old house and prepare it for sale. The broken windows, missing siding, and crumbling sidewalk are easy to spot from the driveway. But you don’t see the water damage, the dangerous stairs, or the fire hazards until you walk around inside. Even then you won’t learn about the electrical, plumbing, or termite problems until you open up the walls. By nature, our hearts have many layers, each one focused on self. And every layer needs to be remade.
God transforms us as we walk with him. But it doesn’t come easily. We can’t simply plug a machine into the wall.
How to Measure Your Growth
The precise how of sanctification is a mystery, and people much smarter than I have written volumes on the topic. We know that our growth, like our conversion, is the gift and work of God. We also know that God works through our work to accomplish this. (Phil. 2:12–13)
And though we might want to know the details, we don’t need to know them. God is sovereign and we are not. Because of God’s promise, we can have confidence that he will sanctify us and bring his good work in us to completion. (Phil. 1:6)
Our growth is much more like a tree than a bubbling science experiment. If you take measurements of a tree over several days or weeks, you’ll be disappointed. When you don’t see growth, you might doubt the tree is alive.
But if you measure a healthy tree from one year to the next, you’ll see what God is doing. You’ll see more fullness, more height, more fruit. And true Christians are all healthy trees—God’s spirit within us guarantees that. (Matt 7:15–20)