The story is told of a group of tourists who were touring a village. An old man was seated on a park bench, and one of the tourists asked him if any great men had been born in the small town. “No,” the man replied after a moment’s thought. “Only babies.” Just as no man or woman is born “great”, no Christian is “mature” immediately upon being born into the family of God. Each believer starts this new life as a babe in Christ. However, it is God’s plan for every believer to grow from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity. He gives us the resources we need and provides a model for us to follow. We can understand the process of spiritual growth by examining principles seen in the life of Jesus.
The Goal of Spiritual Growth Is Christlike Character.
It is natural for the new believer to ask: “What does spiritual maturity look like?” The answer is that it looks like Jesus Christ. He not only is the object of our faith, but He is the object of our growth. From the beginning, God’s desire has been for those who believe in Christ to be conformed to His likeness (Romans 8:29). As we grow in Christ and become more like Him, those around us should be able to see His image reflected in us (2 Corinthians 3:18). This does not mean that we will become physically like Him with the same appearance, mannerisms, or manner of speaking. Rather, it means that we will become like Him in our attitudes and in our actions.
This is a lofty goal indeed and can be intimidating, especially to the new believer. However, it is important to remember that God provides us with more than the minimum daily requirements for our spiritual growth. In fact, 2 Peter 1:3 says that God’s divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness. Some Christians find this hard to believe, especially when they begin to experience challenges or frustration in their spiritual lives. And, sadly, there are sometimes people who mistakenly tell them that they don’t have everything they need⎜that to really grow they need something more. This “something more” may be a mystical experience, a special anointing from the Holy Spirit, a special degree of wisdom or knowledge, or something else. Regardless of how well intended this advice may be, it is a form of spiritual intimidation and should be rejected as such. Just as a healthy baby is born with all the parts it needs to grow and develop normally, so we are born spiritually with all we need to grow in Christ.
Spiritual Growth Occurs Gradually, in Phases
One error to avoid is thinking that God has not given us everything we need to grow. An equally dangerous wrong belief is that growth will occur overnight. Just as a newborn baby develops gradually and only after much nourishment and the proper care, so it is with the “babe” in Christ — the new Christian. We should expect to drink milk before we can eat meat, and to crawl before we can walk. God understands this better than we do, and He patiently works with us as He conforms us to the image of His Son. We see this principle illustrated in the approach Christ took with His disciples.
A careful study of the life and ministry of Christ will show that He was deliberate in the way that He related to and worked with His disciples. Because each of the Gospel writers recorded the life of Christ from his own perspective, it can be difficult to see a pattern simply by reading through the New Testament. However, when the Gospel accounts are combined into a chronological narrative, it is clear that Jesus taught His disciples things that were appropriate for each phase of growth, and that He moved them through successive phases. It is also clear that Jesus intended this pattern to be repeated as, before His return to heaven, He commanded His followers to make disciples in all nations, teaching the same things He had taught.
While people may label these phases differently, they can be described as follows:
1) Establishing Faith ⎜The necessary first step for anyone to become a disciple of Christ is to repent of his sins and former way of life and to trust in Christ as his savior. This event is referred to in Scripture as being born again (John 3). Regardless of whether a person comes to faith at age eight or eighty-eight, he becomes a newborn “babe” in Christ.
2) Laying Foundations ⎜The focus of this early phase in the life of the believer is gaining a better understanding of who Christ is and how to follow Him. As the new Christian learns more of Christ’s nature and character, He learns to trust Him not only for salvation but for other things as well. During this phase, Jesus invited his disciples to spend more time with Him so that He could reveal Himself more fully to them.
3) Equipping for Ministry ⎜In this phase, the disciple learns to serve others and engages in ministry opportunities under the guidance of more mature believers. Jesus’ call to His disciples, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” indicates that He was moving them to the next phase of growth. Jesus took His disciples with Him as He went about teaching and ministering to people.
4) Developing New Leaders ⎜As the believer progresses to this phase, he is ready to take responsibility for the spiritual well being of others. Jesus’ time during this phase with His disciples was characterized by teaching about how to live in His Kingdom. Also, He designated twelve of His closest disciples as apostles and sent them out on their own to preach the Kingdom of God and to minister to people’s needs.
There Are Two Dimensions to Spiritual Growth ⎜Equipping and Restoring.
Not only does spiritual growth occur in phases, but it also involves two dimensions⎜equipping and restoring. The equipping dimension includes building knowledge, skills, and abilities into peoples’ lives, while the restoring dimension refers to regaining the image of God by developing emotional and relational health. The phases discussed above relate primarily to the equipping dimension, which is characterized by growth in such areas as personal knowledge of Christ and His ways, the ability to trust God, and the ability to minister to others.
The second dimension relates to our emotional and relational well being. This aspect is necessary because, when a person comes to faith in Christ, he brings all of his baggage along with him. Some of us bring little baggage and some of us bring a lot, but none of us has the emotional and relational health necessary to grow to full maturity in Christ. As can be seen in the way Christ worked with His disciples, God does not wait to complete the equipping dimension before He begins to work on the restoring dimension. Rather, the two are interrelated and He works on them at the same time. In fact, it must be so because one’s spiritual growth is limited if emotional and relational issues are not addressed.
Because of our own sin nature and because we live in a fallen world, we develop unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving as we make our way through life. Many of these patterns develop as we try to protect ourselves from the inevitable hurts that come our way. God wants to restore us to emotional health, not just so we can minister effectively for Him, but also primarily so that we can enjoy our relationship with Him and with others. There is no relational health without emotional health.
As in all other areas, Jesus is our model of emotional and relational well being. It is an understatement to say that not everyone liked Him, but the way He related to friends and foes alike was healthy. His words and actions were characterized by integrity, purity, and honesty. And His emotions betrayed integrity as well. As G. Walter Hansenin writes in Christianity Today, “I am spellbound by the intensity of Jesus’ emotions: Not a twinge of pity, but heartbroken compassion; not a passing irritation, but terrifying anger; not a silent tear, but groans of anguish; not a weak smile, but ecstatic celebration. Jesus’ emotions are like a mountain river cascading with clear water. My emotions are more like a muddy foam or a feeble trickle.” Because of the hurts in our past and the resulting protective behaviors we have engaged in, many of us can probably identify more closely with the description of Mr. Hansenin’s emotions than we can with those of Jesus.
The Christian life is all about relationships. When we place our faith in Christ, we enter into relationship with Him. We also become part of the family of God. The Bible speaks of believers as members of the “body of Christ.” Much of the teaching of the New Testament revolves around how we are to relate to one another. If we have not developed emotional and relational health, these new relationships can be very challenging. The good news is that these new relationships provide a wonderful opportunity for us to grow. Believers should make up a restoring community, where we demonstrate unconditional acceptance and speak the truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:15).
In light of these teachings, our primary concern should be that we see consistent progress over time in our spiritual growth and that this growth is evident in all areas of our lives. We should imitate the Apostle Paul’s mindset as reflected when he wrote, “…I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14) The picture Paul paints is of an athlete who is straining every muscle as he pushes toward the goal. We should exhibit the same determination in our spiritual lives.
However, we should not become preoccupied with growth for growth’s sake. We should not become like the anxious six-year-old boy who every morning jumps out of bed and runs over to the growth chart taped to the back of his door to see if he has grown any taller over night. If we continue to press toward the mark, growth will come. And, each day we can rejoice in the confidence that He who has begun this good work in us will carry it through to completion (Philippians 1:6).
• What evidences of change in attitudes/actions/beliefs have you seen in your life since you became a Christian that indicate you are progressing toward Christlikeness?
• Meditate on Philippians 1:6, thanking God that He is at work in your life and will continue to work.