Scientists marvel at the inter-connected nature of all living organisms. Though many stubbornly refuse to recognize the fingerprints of God in creation, they still speak in awe of the complex design of things they observe and refer to the delicate balance of nature. Because we are complex beings, understanding spiritual growth demands that we understand many components of our lives. To attain spiritual maturity the believer must grow in at least two dimensions of the Christian life— equipping and restoring. The equipping dimension prepares the believer to serve others on behalf of Jesus, in effect, to carry on His work, while the restoring dimension addresses a person’s emotional and relational health.
Historically, the church has focused primarily on the equipping dimension of the believer’s life and has not always recognized the need to minister to the whole person. This limited perspective of the church’s calling is a tragic misunderstanding that has hindered not only the growth of individual believers but also the ability of the church to impact the world for Christ. From our experience, we have concluded that healthy spiritual growth is most likely to occur when both dimensions (equipping and restoring) are addressed.
The Equipping Dimension Involves Growing In The Following Areas
Growth in knowledge of God, His ways, and His will
Knowledge of God, including His character, His ways, and His will is essential to spiritual growth. The Apostle Paul’s understanding of this principle led him to pray for the believers in Colossae as follows: “We have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you might live a life worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:9-10)
Paul’s prayer for these believers provides insight into the dynamics of spiritual growth. The more we grow in spiritual wisdom, the more we will live pleasing to God, doing the good things He desires us to do. This action leads to a greater knowledge of God and more spiritual wisdom. And so the circle of growth continues.
The knowledge of God that Paul writes about is interactive and experiential, not just an accumulation of information. An example will help make this point. A person can study the sport of scuba diving, can watch others scuba dive, and can even speak intelligently about scuba diving, but until he actually puts on the equipment and dives into the water, he is not a scuba diver. Similarly, many people who know much about what the Bible teaches, have not embraced the teachings of Scripture as truth in their hearts and put it into action. They may know about God, but they do not know God.
In addition, to grow spiritually, a believer needs to interact with other believers in a local church body. Paul in I Corinthians 12 makes it clear that believers, as members of the Body of Christ, are inter-dependent on each other. They are to express this inter-dependence by showing love for each other, learning from each other and praying for one another. This interaction with other believers can significantly impact the spiritual growth as the young believer is encouraged and provided with real-life models of the Christian life.
Another area that influences spiritual growth is the specific content of a believer’s learning. The early focus of learning needs to be centered on such subjects as God’s character, who Jesus is, and how to walk with Jesus daily. These topics are necessary for a healthy relationship with God and a strong foundation for further growth. As we grasp a basic knowledge of who God is, we learn how to please Him, and follow His leading. We gain this knowledge through daily interaction with God in the circumstances of life.
Growth in ministry skills and abilities (Mark 10:45)
As mentioned above, the point of acquiring knowledge is so that it can be put into action. One of the ways we act on our knowledge of God is to minister to others or, as Paul puts it, “bearing fruit in every good work.” (Colossians 1:10) In the early phases of the Christian’s walk, his focus needs to be meeting the practical needs of others (e.g. arranging transportation, cooking meals, etc.). We see this principle in the way Jesus taught His followers how to minister. When His disciples were new believers, Jesus gave them practical responsibilities such as dispensing food, providing transportation, controlling the crowds, and bringing their friends to learn about Him.
As believers grow spiritually, God often increases their ministry abilities and opportunities. This pattern is clearly seen in how Jesus trained His disciples. Although He began with giving them simple acts of service to perform, He gradually increased their responsibilities. He sent them out on their own to minister and gave them positions of leadership within the larger band of followers.
Growth in faith and trust in Christ (Proverbs 3:5-6)
A further area of equipping is growth in our willingness and ability to exercise faith and trust in Christ. Growth in faith means growing in strength of conviction and quickness to obey. Simply put, it means putting into action what we believe to be true. In fact, the putting into action is the proof that we truly do believe something to be so.
The point of acquiring knowledge is so that it can be put into action.
Some years ago, there was a tightrope walker who performed unbelievable feats high above the ground. A promoter offered him a substantial sum of money to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. The event drew large crowds of people, eager to see the daring (or folly) of this artist. When the moment came, the performer calmly walked above the rushing waters, to the wild cheers of the crowd. Then he walked across blindfolded. The cheers grew even louder. It appeared that the show was over, but the artist had one act left to perform. He had a wheelbarrow raised to the rope and, asked the crowd if they believed he could walk the wheelbarrow across the falls. The crowd responded enthusiastically. Then he asked for a volunteer to get into the wheelbarrow, and the crowd fell silent. All had said they believed, but none was willing to act on that belief. As Christians, we demonstrate our faith by a ready willingness to “get into the wheelbarrow.”
Growth in trust means applying our faith in more and more areas. It is one thing to recognize Christ as our only way of salvation and place our trust in Him as Savior. It is quite another to begin to trust Him in all areas of our lives. After all, we have grown up learning to be independent and to trust in ourselves—our knowledge, our abilities, and so on. However, as the writer of Proverbs reminds us, we need to trust in the Lord with all our hearts and not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). Admittedly, this is hard to do. But it is an important part of the maturing process. God, in His wisdom and providence, continues to bring circumstances into our lives that give us opportunities to trust Him and expand our faith. As we encounter these circumstances, God provides the resources to deal with them, as we take a risk and trust Him.
It seems that God sometimes gets us into tough situations just so we can learn to trust Him. The Bible certainly provides enough examples, whether it be Abraham standing over Isaac on the altar, the Israelites huddled on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptians in fierce pursuit, Daniel and his friends in the fiery furnace, Jesus’ disciples fighting a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee, or any number of other events. One of the most important things that every Christian must learn is that God can be trusted, regardless of circumstances that would make it appear otherwise.
To really know God in this personal, real way, a believer must interact daily with Him and His Word and put the Truth into action.
The Restoring Dimension Involves Developing Emotional And Relational Health
As was mentioned earlier, it is critical that we also give attention to the restoring dimension of a believer’s life as well as the equipping dimension. Spiritual growth will not occur in many areas unless there is maturity in the restorative areas discussed below.
We need to develop emotional health.
Developing emotional health begins with learning to think correctly because emotions are a natural response to our thinking about, or interpretation of, the things that happen around us or to us. Thinking correctly involves both what we think (content) and how we think (process). Incorrect thinking is often based on an incorrect or inadequate view of ourselves, of others, or of God. These viewpoints or perspectives are largely formed in childhood and are influenced by the people and events closest to us. It is critical that we learn to counter falsehood with truth.
Consider the following example: A student receives a “B” on a test instead of the expected “A” and feels worthless. The “worthless” feeling is the content of his thinking. He arrived at this content, or conclusion, by the following thought process (beliefs that led to the student’s conclusion). First, “I must always be perfect in order to be valuable.” Second, “I made a mistake, and therefore I am not perfect.” Third, “Therefore, I am not valuable. I am worthless.” Both the content and the process need to be corrected. The key is to be able to identify where one’s thinking goes wrong or, to put it another way, to identify which proposition is not true. In the example above, the second phrase is true (he did make mistakes; he is not perfect), while the first and third are not. The student’s thought process starts on a false premise and inevitably ends with a false conclusion.
Along with learning to develop right thinking, we need to develop certain emotional skills if we are to achieve emotional health. These skills include learning to process emotions in the present and learning to process emotions that have been buried.
…emotions are a natural response to our thinking about, or interpretations of, the things that happen around us or to us.
We learn to process emotions in the present by being able to identify how we feel and express those feelings, even if they are unpleasant. It is often helpful to talk about your emotions with a trusted friend. Use words that describe how you feel. Say, “I feel . . . angry, sad, anxious, confused, embarrassed, secure, happy, relieved, daring.” Be as specific as you can and don’t use a “weaker” or “safer” word when a “stronger” one is appropriate. If someone has offended you, you may need to talk about your emotions in a controlled way with that person. Once you have processed your emotions, you need to release those that are negative. This release may mean choosing to forgive, if someone has offended or wronged you.
We need to develop relational health.
Developing emotional health rightly precedes a discussion of developing relational health, because relational health is impossible for a person who has not achieved at least some measure of personal emotional health. In order to be able to relate to another person in a mature, healthy way, you must first understand and be able to manage your own emotions. Or, to put it another way, until you are comfortable in your own skin, you are unlikely to feel comfortable around other people or unlikely to make them feel comfortable around you.
Skills necessary for relational health include the following:
- Developing intimacy. Intimacy is the ability to connect with another person at a deep level. This involves sharing thoughts and feelings about yourself.
- Setting boundaries. Boundaries are limits, or markers, that define a person as separate from others and help define what is unique about that person. Boundaries define what a person is, what he chooses, what he feels, what he likes, what he wants, and so on. A person needs to set his own boundaries and not allow others to set them for him.
- Developing good communication skills. These skills include speaking clearly, listening carefully, and giving constructive feedback.
It is critical to a person’s spiritual growth that he develops both the equipping and restorative (emotional and relational) dimensions of his life. Spiritual growth is a life- long process. The important thing is to stay on the path and continue the journey. The good news is that these various dimensions of our being have a positive relation- ship to one another. As we grow in our knowledge of God, in service and in faith and trust, it will help us to grow emotionally and relationally. And as we grow emotionally and relationally, it will help us to grow in our relationship with God and service to Him. It is important to remember this truth⎯”He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” (Philippians 1:6)
- Read Psalm 73. List the emotions described by the Psalmist. Describe how the Psalmist dealt with his emotions in this Psalm.
- Read Matthew 12:9-15. How is Jesus’ ability to set boundaries tested in this situation?
- Read John 2:1-11. How do you think this situation impacted the growth of the disciples?
- Think of a situation in your life that is impacting your spiritual growth. Write down evidences of growth that are occurring because of this situation.
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