Ordinary Ingredients of Christian Growth

Fad diets exist because healthy diets are boring. We don’t like to hear about vegetables and exercise; we’d rather lose ten pounds in a week by taking some radical step.

But fad diets don’t work. The most reliable path to a healthier body is the one doctors have been recommending for decades.

Ordinary Means

So it is with our spiritual lives. We think mountaintop experiences will provide the jolt we need to grow closer to God.

But the truth is both more mundane and more wonderful. We don’t need to climb the mountain; God has come down! By his Son and by his Spirit, he dwells with his people. As a consequence, God uses ordinary means to make us grow.

Four Ingredients

My recent Bible reading has shown me four ingredients of Christian growth. (This list isn’t comprehensive.)

The Word

God’s word gives us growth.

Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. (1 Peter 2:1–3, NASB)

We need the Bible like newborn babies need milk: desperately!! Surely you’ve seen a hungry baby. We should long for God’s word with the same urgency. Without the Bible, we simply won’t grow.

Community

God has created a healthy interdependence within the church.

  • God gave the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11–12). God gives people to equip the saints, and the purpose is the body’s growth.
  • The goal of this building up is “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Paul wants us to aim for “mature manhood” and “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). In the growth of the body, we will find maturity, fullness, and unity. Notice that Paul mentions “knowledge” specifically, so community is not just about emotional support. We are to help each other grow in understanding as well.
  • We are to grow past the adolescent stage, where we are “tossed to and fro by the waves.” Instead, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:14–15). Much has been written about the phrase speaking the truth in love, but in context it must involve steadying, correcting help that leads to growth. By definition, this cannot be done in isolation.
  • The “whole body” is “joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped.” Every single part of the body is necessary to join and hold it together, and “when each part is working properly,” the body grows and “builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:16). Every part of the body is necessary for the body’s growth, and no part grows without the body.

Repentance

Christians are not to walk as the Gentiles walk. Instead, they have been taught

to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22–24)

This is the process of repentance. Note the three distinct parts: put off, be renewed, put on. We identify and turn away from our sin, we remember our new God-given identity, and we adopt the godly behavior or thought that replaces sin. To help us, Paul lists five examples of this repentance in Eph 4:25–32.

Beholding the Lord

There is a glory present in the new covenant that was veiled in the old. The veil keeping people from God is removed for those who turn to Christ.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17–18)

As we behold the glory of the Lord, we are transformed from glory to glory. Though “beholding” sounds mysterious, it must include a few actions.

We cannot behold the Lord without delighting in the Bible, the unique place where we hear of Christ’s glorious work. We meditate on God’s glory—thinking about his character and work, thanking him for his love and grace, anticipating the excellencies of his presence. The word leads to our meditation which leads to prayer.

Powerful Means of Growth

It may not be flashy, but God faithfully causes growth from the most ordinary of means: regular Bible intake, membership in a local church, repentance of sin, and beholding the glory of the Lord in meditation and prayer.

God takes weak and ordinary people and uses them in extraordinary ways. He does the same with the ordinary ingredients of Christian growth. They may not be radical, but they are powerful.


Photo Credit: Rohit Tandon (2016), public domain

How Fast Does a Christian Grow?

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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)


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Photo Credit: Hans Braxmeier (2015), public domain

3 Questions for the New Year

Tear down your calendar and tack up the new one. The new year has arrived—you must have heard the shotguns at midnight.

It’s time for everyone and his hair gel-loving cousin to trumpet the importance of resolutions, new habits, and goals. Like pork and sauerkraut, it’s a dependable (if off-putting) tradition.

I’ll leave the goal-setting courses and motivational programs to the gurus. Instead I’m posing some hard questions to help frame the next 12 months. Take a look with me. Answer if you dare.

Where do you need to grow spiritually?

All Christians admit they’re forgiven sinners who continue to sin. So confession and repentance are regular features of our spiritual lives. But too often our confession is vague, and ambiguous confession leads to no repentance at all. Ongoing sin eats away at our souls, so we need to rustle the bushes and scare the specific sins into the open field. Be prepared, they’ll run.

Both the Bible and prayer are essential. We need to read the Bible to remember the features of our rebellion. God hates sin, and we would rather look away than feel his gentle finger pulling up that squeaky floor board.

We pray for God to spotlight the uprisings in our hearts. We need his intervention. Occasionally our sin is so blatant and offensive that it blinks in neon, but more often it slithers away into the dark alleys. We need to face our sin with the courage and confidence that comes from knowing we have been forgiven. Then when God brings the sin to our face, we must be merciless in putting it to death.

How well do you rest?

For some people, resting is difficult; it can feel unproductive and lazy. Of course, these are the people who most need to rest.

Most of us would feel dramatically better if we simply slept more. Track your sleep for a week and see what you learn. (I did this recently and found I slept far less than I would have guessed.)

Rest includes sleep, but it’s bigger. Under this umbrella you should include a weekly sabbath, a yearly vacation, and other stolen hours here and there throughout the months.

Rest requires planning and might look very different from person to person. What recharges you? What renews your physical, emotional, and mental energy? What are you doing to incorporate those activities into your life?

How can you stretch yourself for the kingdom of God this year?

Here I enter the realm of goal-setting, but with a twist. I’m not asking this question to encourage a bigger audience or bank account. As God leads and wills, we should want to have an impact for his kingdom this year. How can we best use our skills and talents and opportunities toward this end? What risks can we take to stretch ourselves?

First, let’s talk evangelism. Who has God put in your life so that you could share the gospel with them? Who can you invite to coffee? To dinner at your house? To church? How can you show God’s saving love to those around you?

What projects are out there for you? Outside of normal office and home activities, what ventures could you undertake to glorify God? These might be artistic or technical, collaborative or individual, public or private. Is there a way for you to tell a God-glorifying story in a medium where you have skill?

What questions are you asking yourself heading into the new year?