I once had a game-changing conversation with a friend. He was a musician and had been for decades. He played guitar and sang and wrote beautifully poignant songs. He owned a recording studio and spent significant time mentoring other musicians. If you asked people to describe him, the fact that he was a musician would make the list almost every time.
Our conversation was about goals and dreams and how we move forward in our life. At one point my friend said, “I think I need to stop calling myself a songwriter.” This off-the-cuff statement drew dead silence from everyone around the table. How could this person, for whom music was so essential, say something like that? He continued, “I’m still working with musicians, and I still play, but it’s been more than two years since I wrote a song.”
Then came the bombshell: “At some point, if you’re going to call yourself something, you really ought to be doing that thing, right?”
Does our label describe reality?
We love to wear labels. Some of those labels buy us credibility in our community. Some of them make us feel good about ourselves. Sometimes the labels are useful and accurate shorthand for some aspect of our lives. But what happens when the label we wear and the life we live aren’t in alignment? I’m not saying we need to be the perfect, but don’t we at least need to be making an effort?
At some point, a label that doesn’t accurately describe the way we live becomes hypocrisy. My friend observed that if he wasn’t going to structure his life in such a way that he could invest time writing songs, it probably wasn’t truthful to call himself a songwriter.
The Christian church has a similar problem. We wear a label. Sometimes, proudly so. Our neighbors see that label. They can also see clearly how our actions, our words, and relationships align or contradict what we claim to be. One difference between being a songwriter and a Christian is that our actions don’t make us Christian. We become Christian when we accept Jesus as the source of our life, forgiveness, and salvation. At this moment we become something new, a follower of Christ.
While our identity in Christ is now completely different, there remains a sticky question. Are we growing?
Should Christians Grow?
Scripture indicates that personal growth is a part of a healthy spiritual life. Jesus told us we are branches, and when we’re connected to the Vine, we grow and bear fruit. Paul talked about our minds being renewed and transformed. In Ephesians, we’re challenged to lay aside the old life and put on a new one. 2nd Corinthians 3:18 says that when we look to Jesus, we are changed into his image.
Of course, there’s also line after line of interpersonal instruction where we’re told to live at peace with others, to forgive, to bear one another’s burdens, and to encourage each other. These are skills! We don’t automatically know how to do these things. They take effort and practice. Over time they become more natural to us.
These are the kinds of things that can so easily be seen by the people around us. Like the penciled growth mark on the doorframe in the kitchen showing how much we’ve grown since last year, these things show the pace of our maturity in Christ. That means personal growth in followers of Jesus is the tangible evidence of God’s work in our lives. Three areas of growth seem to visibly accompany spiritual maturity.
Three Ways We Grow.
First, we grow in the Fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5, Paul compares two ways of living. He points out the kinds of tangible and practical ways we live when we are self-driven, self-justifying, and deceived by sin. Our lives become marked by immorality, impurity, hatred, jealousy, uncontrolled anger, and envy. We allow addictions to run rampant in our lives. Then Paul contrasts this with the tangible and practical ways of being that emerge in us when our lives are led by God’s spirit. We slowly change, beginning to live differently. Our lives come to be characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. If we are growing in Christ, these things will become more and more true of us. People experience of us will change.
Second, we will grow deeper in love. Jesus told his disciples that they would be known as His followers by one thing: their love for one another. John expanded our understanding of this. He tells us that our love for the people around us is the visible manifestation of our love for God. He tells us that if we hate, then God’s love isn’t in us. As we grow in the image of Jesus, we are going to love more and love more deeply.
Third, as we grow we will deepen in our commitment to the truth. I’m not talking about learning more doctrine here. We grow in our commitment to be people of truth. People who live truthfully, who speak truthfully. This is the heart of growth. If you aren’t willing to admit and accept the truth, you can’t grow. The recovery process begins by admitting you have a problem. Similarly, our life in Christ begins (and constantly returns to) repentance. That old churchy word simply means agreeing with God about the truth of our hearts. Another way to describe this is humility. As we mature, we will less and less need to appear to be something different than we are. We will be more comfortable with talking about our weaknesses and struggles. We won’t get taken in by shiny portrayals of perfection.
We take on the label of Christian when we decide to follow Jesus. We are made right with God through grace. Our lives, through struggle and victory, are covered in grace. Our personal growth isn’t about salvation or being loved. Yet, visible personal growth is a vital part of our life of faith. It is the evidence of God’s work in our lives. As we look to Jesus, the transformation that has happened spiritually will begin to manifest itself in us in tangible and practical ways.
We will change and grow, becoming more and more like the one we follow.
In coming posts we’ll look more closely at the goal of Christian personal growth, and how it’s different from what you find in the self-help section of the bookstore. We’ll look at why Christians avoid talking about personal growth. That will lead into some posts about how we can intentionally pursue this kind of growth in our lives. Stay tuned.