26 June 2021

The above question may be asked by sincere believers who at times wonder whether there is definite growth in their spiritual life; an accompanying question may take the form of ‘how do I know I am indeed growing spiritually?’

Before we seek to answer these queries, it is helpful to state certain Scriptural principles regarding spiritual growth and formation.
The use of the term ‘walk’ by Apostle Paul in Ephesians implies a lifelong nature and process in spiritual growth and formation. Growth and formation do not happen overnight or even over a longer period relatively; it takes the course of many years and even a lifetime to grow and mature spiritually. Hence the statement that Christian life is not a sprint but a marathon or a journey of a lifetime. We must recognise that there is no spiritual perfection here on earth; it only takes place when the Lord Jesus comes again in His second coming.

We are saved by grace and grace accompanies us throughout sanctification and our spiritual journey and transformation. But growing in grace requires our participation and effort, albeit by the enabling of God’s Spirit, and does not mean that we are passive (like the claim “let go and let God”), implying that if we remain passive, God would do ‘everything’ (Philip. 2:12-13).

Jesus is our example and paradigm; His life on earth is the pattern for ours. As we follow Him and learn from Him, we learn to walk as He walked, and with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, spiritual transformation into the image and character of our Lord Jesus takes place. Jesus’ life on earth as the sinless ‘perfect human’ as well as His death on the cross ‘enable’ those who are born again to be justified before God and be counted righteous before Him (as these ‘achievements’ and ‘virtues’ of Jesus are imputed to us by faith and the ministry of the Holy Spirit).

Coming back to the questions posed, we probably would not be able to have a comprehensive answer to them; but perhaps there are certain characteristics that denote Spiritual growth and it may be helpful for us to consider them.

1) Spiritual growth always takes place in a context of relationships; spiritual growth is relational.
It is not incidental that the Lord Jesus commands us to love the Lord God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind and to love our neighbour as ourselves. The Apostle Paul often ends his epistles with practical exhortations and many of these focus on relationships. For instance, Paul commands us to serve one another through love (Gal. 5:13) and warns us not to devour one another or become conceited, provoking and envying one another (vv.15,26). Many of the virtues he lists as fruit of the Spirit have a strong relational dimension – love, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness. Spiritual growth is not expected to take place in isolation from other believers – there is no such thing as an individualistic Christian. So we need to ask how are our relationships with others, in particular other believers? Are we serving others in love? Do we show patience, gentleness and kindness to our spouses and children in the family context? What about in the spiritual family context (the church)? Do we see ‘fermentation’ of jealousy, envy, backbiting, sinister gossip and the pursuit of status, popularity, one-upmanship, and the applause of men? When God forbids something, He expects of us not just negative abstention but the positive virtue. “You shall not kill” enjoins not just abstention from killing but also positively seeking our neighbour’s good, and it must come from the heart. We do not begin to obey God from the heart until we have been put right with Him and see Him, as our Father. Obedience is the fruit of forgiveness; Christian doctrine needs to penetrate to the heart, change us, and lead to practical daily living. Self-denial is the way to get on well with others. This is because we are all plagued with pride and conceit, which cause strife with others.

Are we kind to strangers and those who seem not to matter in the eyes of society? Genuine growth and transformation spiritually will always affect how we treat others. We are reminded of the parable of the good Samaritan – the Jew fallen prey to the bandits was helped by a Samaritan who generally has no dealings with Jews (in fact there is intense animosity between Jews and Samaritans), But the Jewish priest and levite just walked by nonchalantly, even hurrying apparently to a spiritual task, without lifting a finger at all to help. Let us not forget that Christ Jesus died for us even when we were yet sinners and enemies of God. Those who are children of God should show some semblance of the character of God in their lives and this is best seen in relationships with others (believers as well as non-believers).

2) Spiritual growth never happens in ideal conditions but in situations of conflict.
Christians must expect a fierce battle between the Spirit and the flesh (Gal. 5:16-17). No believer walks in the Spirit without waging warfare against unruly passions and desires (cf. 1 Peter 2:11). Conflict in fact is a normal experience in Christian life; besides the battle between the Spirit and the flesh, there is the constant battle against the enemy and his minions. The devil ‘never sleeps’ and he is always looking for an opportunity to pounce on the Christian who is unguarded. Satan is opposed to God and to our good. There is therefore no room for peace or a truce with him. However, he is under God’s control and does only what God permits him to do – we are on the winning side; he may be able to make us fall from time to time, but he will not win a final victory over us. Nothing can befall us except God allows it (and He allows it because of His love); we do not live in a random world, but in a world run by our heavenly Father. This does not mean that tragedy will not strike; but it does mean that it will not come unless God sends it, for our good. In our tribulations we should see the Fatherly hand of God, who is working for our salvation. We must be sure to respond rightly to His discipline in our lives. We are to rejoice in our suffering, but this does not mean that we do not truly suffer. The Christian ideal is not Stoic impassibility, immunity from feelings or sorrow, but patience and cheerfulness in pain and sorrow. Christians can bear tribulations patiently because we know that our Father sends them for our good; there is a tendency to expect God’s power to remove our weakness rather than work through it (cf: Paul: For ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ 2 Cor.12:10). We often live as if only this life matters.The misfortunes of life serve to keep us from such an attitude, and to remind us of our eternal hope and inheritance. While this life on earth cannot be compared to eternal life, it in itself contains much that is good, as long as our sights are set beyond it. Our sole comfort is the prospect of the life to come; we should use the things of this world insofar as they help our Christian discipleship.

We must note that because we ‘struggle’ in our Christian life, it does not mean that we are not growing. In fact, those who claim not to experience any conflict in their spiritual walk are either oblivious of the battles or are not actually growing spiritually. The flesh and its passions must be ‘nailed to the cross’ – mortification of sin is a continual need – the Spirit leads us to put sin to death (Rom. 8:13-14). The Apostle Paul exhorts believers to put off the old man and to put on the new man – an apt description of this working out of the reality of our ‘new position and new identity in Christ’, and the abandonment of that which belongs to the old creation. Our expectation is not imminent perfection but slow, steady, daily progress. Ungodliness and worldly desires are to be avoided. Soberness, righteousness, and godliness are our aims.

3) Spiritual growth happens from inside out – growth is organic, not mechanical; fruit is grown, not built.
The fruit of the Spirit is contrasted with the works of the flesh. The fruit is a character formed by the Spirit and it can only grow from inside out; it is only made possible by the living relationship between the Christian and the Lord Jesus (John 15:1-17). The branch must receive nutrition from the vine to grow and to bear fruit; it implies remaining and abiding in the vine continually and not to be broken off from the vine. If there is no fruit, there is no growth; if there is no character of the Lord formed in our lives and if there is no positive impact on the lives of others (including non-believers being impacted by observing and understanding the reality of the gospel in our lives), then perhaps, there is no actual growth or ‘growth is stunted’. God looks at our hearts (which are inside), not the external activities and appearances in our lives which may appear ‘spiritual’. We need to take heed to ‘keep our hearts and to keep them right before God’.
In the imagery of the vine, the vinedresser is the Father who prunes the branches so that they may bear more fruit. This is done in love but it is also a painful process and necessary for further growth and maturity in God. As we receive discipline from our heavenly Father, let us not be discouraged but let us be grateful instead that we are children of God and that God desires His children to be transformed into the image of His Son Jesus.

4) Spiritual growth is balanced, symmetrical, not lop-sided.
This needs to be elaborated and qualified to be appreciated. Note that when Paul referred to the fruit of the Spirit in (Gal. 5:22), the nine qualities which follow, are all grouped under the term ‘fruit’ and not fruits. The singular form implies that these qualities are a unity like a prism with the various facets or faces, or a bunch of grapes instead of separate pieces of fruit – genuine spiritual growth would mean that all these qualities are all to be found in the believers and not just one or two of these traits.

For instance, one can claim spiritual growth because one is gentle with other people, but this trait of gentleness – is it balanced with the courage to be faithful in lovingly confronting sin (Gal.6:1-2)? We may be among those who are unusually self- disciplined, but are we patient and kind to others; is our discipline rigid and stoic or vibrant with the joy of the Spirit? Some of us may be noted to be generally happy and joyous, but if we have no patience in adversity, perhaps our joy results from a sanguine personality rather than from the work of the Holy Spirit. Real transformation would be seen in God working on all the defects in our character – genuine spiritual growth is thus noted as balanced, symmetrical and not lop-sided with one or two traits prominent whilst the rest of the other qualities significantly absent.

5) Spiritual growth is supernatural – it is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Holy habits ultimately are not formed by self-discipline and effort like natural products; the discipline and effort must be blessed by the Spirit of God, or they would achieve nothing (cf: Jesus said, ‘Apart from Me, you can do nothing’). The Holy Spirit lives inside of us as the “Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9). Jesus lived the exemplary Spirit-filled life on earth – He is the example of ‘fully realised human holiness.’ We will not grow spiritually if we are left to ourselves; we must depend on the Spirit of God, for everything depends on the Spirit. Daily, we must make a deliberate effort to recognise the person of the Holy Spirit, to move into the light of His presence in our consciousness and to open our minds and to share our thoughts and plans as we gaze by faith into the face of God. We should look to the Holy Spirit as our teacher, guide, sanctifier, helper in our daily life; He is the illuminator of truth and of the glory of Christ; He enables us to pray, and He is the One who directs and empowers our lives in our witness and outworking.

We need to look to Jesus as our example and paradigm; we need to depend on the Spirit to transform us into the image of our Master; we need to trust in God who begins a good work in us and will complete it in HIs own time and in His own way. To do all of these imply making ourselves available to the Lord God in our time, in our talents, in our prayers, in our assimilating of the Scriptures, in our fellowship with the brethren in the church. God works and we work (as He enables us) but do not go away with the thought that we do not need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philip. 2:12), doing it without grumbling or questioning that we may be blameless and unblemished children of God (2:14).