“God, make me good, but not yet.” – St. Augustine
The quote above attributed to one of the early church fathers, while perhaps tongue in cheek, contains a significant element of truth. Our goodness (growth in holiness) depends on God, but it also depends on us. God will not make us good until we are ready and willing to partner with Him in the process. We have focused previously on God’s role in our spiritual growth and meditated on the magnificent resources available to us. Now, we turn our attention to the flip side of the equation and focus on what is expected of us. The truth is that the believer plays a significant role in his own spiritual growth.
Consider, for example, the building of a garden shed. You may think about what you want the shed to look like, and you may draft plans for the structure. You may even secure all the necessary tools and materials to build the shed. However, at some point you have to actually get to work⎜to saw boards and hammer nails or the shed will never get built. Successful completion doesn’t depend on your grand dreams or your good intentions. It comes about only through hard work. So it is with the Christian life. God has placed everything we need for growth at our disposal but, until we actually start to use what we have been given, we will not make progress.
Paul wrote to his young charge Timothy that he should train himself to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7). Paul uses an athletic analogy to convey to Timothy that effort will be involved. The Olympic athlete dedicates himself to countless hours of rigorous training, all the while refraining from otherwise acceptable enjoyments to maintain discipline, all for the sake of achieving his goal. So, too, the follower of Christ must engage in certain activities and refrain from others in order to achieve the goal of increasing Christlikeness.
A word of caution as we delve into this topic. The Christian life is a marathon rather than a sprint. It takes time to develop the endurance necessary to run a marathon. It doesn’t happen overnight. Some believers hear of great Christian saints who read many chapters of the Bible or pray for several hours each day. Inspired by their example and determined to imitate their dedication, they try to maintain the same habits. Rare is the person who can immediately achieve that level of discipline. Most of us never do. And that’s okay. As we will see below, God does call us to study His Word and to pray. But it is far better to start slowly and develop consistent habits than it is to try to do too much too soon and give up discouraged and disillusioned.
Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy that, “It is much harder [to learn to pray] if we succumb to the temptation to engage in heroic efforts in prayer. This is important. Heroism, generally, is totally out of place in the spiritual life, until we grow to the point at which it would never be thought of as heroism anyway.”
Having said this, the truth remains that the degree to which a believer follows God’s instructions determines the degree to which he grows. Following God’s instructions is not always easy, but the fruit is of great value. As the believer engages in the following activities, he will grow spiritually.
Understanding and Applying the Word of God
Believers grow spiritually as they get to know God⎜His nature, His purposes, and His ways. And the Bible is the primary source God uses to reveal Himself to us. In order to get to know God better, a believer must understand the meaning of Scripture by hearing, reading, studying, memorizing and meditating on the Word. In His second letter to Timothy, Paul writes of the importance and value of Scripture in these words: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right. It is God’s way of preparing us in every way, fully equipped for every good thing God wants us to do.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, New Living Translation)
The author of the first Psalm paints a vivid picture of the person who delights in God’s Word and meditates on it frequently. This person will be “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (Psalm 1:2-3) What a beautiful picture of the outcome God desires to see in our lives!
It is important that our study of the Word never becomes an end in itself. The purpose of study is to learn and to grow, not just to gain more knowledge. There are people who know much about the Bible and have even memorized lengthy passages but who do not believe in the God of the Bible and have no interest in obeying Him.
James warned his readers against being hearers of the word only, saying that in so doing they were deceiving themselves (James 1:22). Jesus closed a lengthy address (commonly known as The Sermon on the Mount) to the crowd gathered on a hillside by giving the parable of the wise man who builds his house on the rock and the foolish man who builds his house on the sand. The wise man is the one who listens and obeys, while the foolish man listens but does not put into practice what he has heard (Matthew 7:24-27).
God has provided an open line of communication with believers through prayer. Prayer is simply talking to God, knowing that He is always available and expecting Him to respond to us in the way that best suits His purposes and is in our best interests.
However, prayer is not simply an option that we should resort to when we have exhausted our own resources. Rather it should be the natural response to any situation we find ourselves in. We should turn to God first, whether to ask for guidance, protection, provision, or whatever need we might have. Ephesians 6:18 tells us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”
Sometimes we may tend to make prayer harder than it needs to be. We don’t have to learn certain techniques, memorize complicated formulas, use just the right words, or adopt a particular posture. However, Scripture does provide a model for the kinds of things we should pray about.
Many of us are familiar with what is commonly known as The Lord’s Prayer. How often do we look upon this prayer as an actual example for us to follow rather than a fine piece of oratory to be recited or sung? We should remember that our Lord offered this model prayer in response to His disciples’ request for Him to teach them to pray.
This is how you should pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name,
Your Kingdom come,
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13)
The prayer begins with recognition of the exalted position of God and ends with recognition of our position of dependence. It is composed of two primary parts. The first section focuses on God as we acknowledge that we are speaking to our loving heavenly Father, worshiping His holy name (which represents His nature and perfect character), and asking that His perfect will be accomplished here on earth. The second section focuses on our needs, as we ask for daily provision, for forgiveness, and for spiritual protection.
Fellowshipping with Believers
One of the greatest needs of our day is for people to develop healthy relationships. God knows this and has provided for this need through fellowship with other believers. The restoration of our vertical relationship with God paves the way for healthy, mutually beneficial horizontal relationships with others. However, these relationships must be nourished through spending time together and celebrating the life we share in Jesus.
This is why Scripture tells us that we should not neglect meeting together with other believers. We need each other. The Christian life was never designed to be an individual pursuit. Regular fellowship with other believers provides comfort, accountability, instruction, encouragement, support, and direction. If a believer is not involved in a local church, he may develop distorted thinking, lack emotional support, feel insecure, and flounder without accountability.
Not only are we to spend time with other believers, we are to serve one another. Again, Jesus is our example. He told His disciples that He came not to be served but rather to serve others. Later He challenged them to serve others as He had served them (Matthew 20:28 and John 13:15).
Serving others is not simply something God thought up to help build character. Rather, service benefits both the giver and the receiver. It benefits the receiver by meeting a need. It benefits the giver by allowing him to experience the joy of seeing a need met and by enabling him to impact others. Along the way, we all have the opportunity to be on the giving end and on the receiving end, and we can find equal joy in each.
Most service to others is nothing heroic but simply involves everyday expressions of love such as offering a kind word of encouragement, giving someone a ride, providing a listening ear, fixing a meal, having a good attitude, or sharing what God is doing in our lives. Scripture emphasizes the “everydayness” of service by saying, “Whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone, especially to our Christian brothers and sisters.” (Galatians 6:10, New Living Translation)
Recognizing The Centrality of Relationships
There is a common theme that runs through the four activities discussed above, and that is the strong cord of relationship. This should not be surprising as relationship is at the heart of the Christian life. We have a new relationship with God and new relationships with His people. Our relationship with God and our worship of God are at the core of everything we do. Without worship, study becomes mechanical and lifeless, prayer becomes self-centered and demanding, fellowship becomes forced and empty, and service becomes an onerous burden.
A believer will grow spiritually as he consistently studies the Word, prays, fellowships with believers, and serves others with genuine humility and a desire to please God. The four topics covered in this lesson by no means exhaust the opportunities for growth; these are simply the primary or foundational means of growth. Other disciplines that may prove helpful to the believer include silence, solitude, fasting, and frugality among others.
However, these foundational activities must be engaged in by anyone who is serious about growth. Although Scripture emphasizes that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), there are no shortcuts to Christian maturity. Scripture and the experience of saints through the centuries prove otherwise. It would be the height of folly for any of us to think that we will be the first to achieve maturity without effort.
The good news is that the ball is in our court. The October 1997 issue of “Today in the Word” relates that the great Scottish Bible teacher Alexander MacLaren once wrote: “We may have as much of God as we will. Christ puts the key of the treasure-chamber into our hand, and bids us take all that we want. If a man is admitted into the bullion vault of a bank and told to help himself, and comes out with one cent, whose fault is it that he is poor?” So we see, then, that the choice is ours. May each of us desire increasing godliness and use the keys we have been given.
• Read Psalm 1. What happens to a believer who becomes isolated from other believers and/or God’s Word? List the benefits of meditating on God’s Word.
• Read Romans 12:9-16. List ways a believer should demonstrate love to others.