Turning ten is a big deal. Double digits! When my daughter reached this milestone we celebrated with a bedroom make-over. This involved a lengthy daddy-daughter trip to IKEA marked by significant discussion and debate over various bedroom furniture options. With choices finally made, we excitedly hauled a small warehouse of cardboard boxes out to our vehicle. It felt like we had really accomplished something.
At home, we began to haul those boxes into her bedroom and then opened them. Each contained all the parts for some new element of her room. A loft bed. A matching desk and dresser. But all the pieces spread out on the floor looked nothing like the final product. There were slabs of various sizes and shapes along with bags of bits—screws and nails, drawer pulls, tiny dowels, and other unidentifiable pieces. Our journey had only just begun, and the path ahead looked daunting.
Spiritual growth can feel a lot like this. You have a vague idea of a preferred future. But laid out in front of you are all these pieces you’ve been given. Bible study. Worship. Prayer. Reflection. Silence. Retreats. Service. Prayer journals. Growth journals. Daily Devotionals. Bible reading plans. Books everyone says you just must read.
You look at all the pieces you’re supposed to use and feel intimidated. Do you really need all of this? How do these pieces fit together? Where do you begin? At least with the IKEA box, you’re reasonably certain every piece is necessary, but that’s not true with spiritual growth.
It’s no wonder that many of us just decide to stick with the old furniture of our spiritual lives. Putting all of this together can just seem overwhelming.
Start with the Big Picture.
We made it successfully through the bedroom transformation. The key, of course, was the assembly instructions IKEA provides. Those little black-and-white booklets walk you through the process step by step. For me, the most important part of the instructions is that final picture. There you can see what you’re shooting for. When one particular step didn’t make sense, referring to the bigger picture helped me put it in context.
That big picture kept us focused on our goal. Understanding the goal helped us make sense of the individual pieces and the steps for putting them together. In the same way, the best step you take to help you sort out your path of spiritual growth is to understand the big picture. What is the goal of spiritual growth in your life? How does this fit into God’s larger goal for the world?
The answer to this question is found in the book of Ephesians. This is a rich book that deserves your attention and in-depth study. For our purposes here, I’ll summarize two key points.
Ephesians 1:9-10 tells us that God’s purpose in the world and the entire universe, is to bring everything together under the authority and care of Jesus Christ. Everything God has done and everything God will do is about moving this plan forward. That’s cosmic level stuff. Finding our place in it can feel a bit like a confused ant wandering around on the floorboards of a moving car.
Through the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul walks through how Jesus ministry, salvation, and the church play a part in this divine plan. That brings us to chapter 4, where we see God’s goal for us as individuals and how this fits into that larger cosmic plan. In short: God’s goal for you and I is that we would mature in the image of Jesus. (Read it in Ephesians 4:1-16.)
That’s it. When we grow in the image of Jesus, so many things are resolved.
Our sense of identity becomes clear, as we strip away lies and self-justification, coming to see who we really are in Christ.
Our thoughts and behavior change as we move away from a self-led, self-centered life to a Spirit-led, other-centered life.
Our sense of purpose broadens from self-advancement to the advancement of Jesus’ way in the world, a whole new kind of living that’s referred to in scripture as the Kingdom of heaven.
God’s incredible cosmic plan can seem so abstract and distant. Yet this passage of scripture connects it directly to the spiritual growth that happens in your heart and mine. This is why your personal growth as a follower of Jesus matters. God has chosen to enact the most wide-reaching plan in the universe through the small, fragile vehicle of the human heart.
The goals of Christian personal growth.
Knowing this, we can clearly describe the goals of personal growth in the life of a follower of Jesus. There are three.
Goal 1 – To know our Identity in Christ.
Ephesians 4:15-16 encourages us to “grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.”
To know how we can play our part in the body, we need to know who we are. We are now “in Christ.” Understanding who Christ is and how Christ sees us is central in knowing our own identity. Seeing Jesus more clearly helps us see which stories we carry about ourselves are true and which are false.
For followers of Jesus, personal growth means learning our identity in Christ.
Goal 2 – To grow in the Fruit of the Spirit.
Ephesians 4:13 tells us that the measurement of our growth is the fullness of Christ. You and I will not become Jesus. This side of eternity, we will never be perfect, but we have within us the same Spirit that led Jesus and guided his growth. The Spirit that was active and present in Jesus is active in us too. As we grow, the qualities of that Spirit will become more and more visible in us. We are not left to wonder what that will look like.
Galatians 5:22 describes the fruit of a Spirit-led life. It’s beautiful. It will be a life manifesting more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. When we talk about becoming more like Jesus, this is what we mean.
For followers of Jesus, personal growth means there will be an experiential increase in the fruit of the Spirit. We’ll be able to see it. The people around us will experience it in us. Seeing this growth take place is the visible mark of God’s work in our lives.
Goal 3 – To become agents of Jesus’ new Kingdom in the world.
Ephesians unveils a mystery. The personal relationship we have with Jesus, as well as the personal growth that happens at the effect of the Holy Spirit in our lives, is directly connected to God’s greater, cosmic purpose.
As we grow in our understanding of our identity in Christ, and in our personal spiritual maturity, we come to understand that we are a part of what God is up to in the universe. The Bible uses different words in different places to describe this new role and responsibility we are drawn into–Ambassadors, Ministers of Reconciliation, Priests.
As we mature spiritually, we naturally begin to participate in God’s larger plan to bring this Kingdom into the world. This isn’t about volunteering at church or building bigger congregations. It’s not even about the classic call to evangelize. This is a new and organic way of being in the world, where who we are becoming impacts the world around us.
The more Jesus’ character grows in us, the more we can enact Jesus’ vision in the world around us. This happens through the Spirit-led, other-centered life we are beginning to live. The healthier and more mature we are, the healthier and more loving our personal networks and communities become. Those growing communities become epicenters of God’s truth, grace, and love flowing out into the world.
There are many tools we can use in our journey of spiritual growth. The right tools will be the ones that take us toward these three goals.