There’s a wall in our house that will serve an important purpose in just a few months. I saw it the first day we walked through and decided to call this house our home. Right now it’s just a boring grey wall, but soon it will be covered in smeared pencil marks and initials marking the height of our daughter. Eventually there might be sibling marks chasing each other in an impossible race, and Mommy and Daddy will probably have to add a line for solidarity. Height will be the focus, but there will be so much more contained within the gaps of those lines. Slowly, it will collect years of growth in our family.
As a culture, we love growth and we love to show that it’s happening. We track it in milestones, achievements, and challenges. We attach percentiles to our children. We hang degrees on our walls, display trophies, and keep a quickly-delivered update handy for the “whatchya been up to?” question. After all, if we’re not growing then what are we? Stagnant? Ineffective? Or worse, going backward? I wonder though, are we confusing growth with outcome? Are we focusing on the pencil marks and missing all the richness of process that comes in the gaps?
There’s a problem with this view of growth, especially when it creeps into our spiritual life. It captures us in the physical and external world, and it places a hindering need in our heart to have something to show for it. I know about this need, because I’ve struggled with it. I’ve confused my external spiritual activities with internal spiritual growth, and I’ve let those external activities offer false comfort for the state of my heart.
For example, my Christian resume is comprised of a long list of mission trips, Bible studies, and worship teams that I’ve participated in. I can speak Christianese with the best of them, and you better believe I have a marked up, ragged Bible that bounced from one continent to another during my college years. I would journal and read that ragged bible in a coffee shop, and it felt good to have a friend run into me while I was doing it (this was before social media could offer a picture to the world of my spiritual efforts). Surely all of these external representations of my faith were indicative of an internal growth as well, right?
In the beginning, yes. I was moved to a place of action from the remarkable work that Jesus was doing on my heart. Like Jesus talks about in the sower parable (Mark 4), my soil was rich and ready for growth. But slowly over time, this remarkably personal and internal growth process became confused with what felt like required benchmarks in my Christian life. My soil was getting dry, it needed rain, but I became satisfied with the half nourished crop it was producing, because well, I could see it! After years of trying to grow from drying soil, I suddenly found myself with a long list of measurables, and a short list of actions truly influential in my spiritual growth. My ragged Bible became dusty, and hard questions about Christian culture as a whole left me bitter and fleeing from my long established church life.
Here’s the cool thing about true spiritual growth, though: it’s not dependent upon external measurables. It’s not even dependent upon cliché actions or feelings, because God is bigger than all of that. God will find you in the desert, with your dry soil, and quench your thirsty spirit. God will walk alongside you as you stray, and will guide you to the place where you will grow. For me that place ended up being some time away from church activities. As I struggled, questioned, and pushed back from those things, I was able to see where my true growth needed to happen. In the midst of my Christian busyness I was hiding genuine aspects of who I am: a messy, imperfect, grace-needing human.
I think it’s easy to see ourselves doing something that appears to be “spiritual” but with the wrong heart condition can quickly turn into an expression of our flesh. In Galatians 5:16-18 Paul writes that flesh and spirit oppose each other. So if we mistakenly let our flesh (the desire to measure, prove, accomplish, etc.) dictate our spiritual life, we’ll end up with a “law” or rule-governed faith. This faith may appear productive on the outside, but it’s really empty on the inside. “But if you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law.” In other words, it’s all about the order of these things. Tend to your soil, meet with Jesus, and quench your spirit. This will lead you to the outward expression that will inevitably follow.
As much as I would love to say that I’ve got this order figured out in my own life, it’s truly a constant process. I will forever find myself stuck between what this world tells me and what the bible does. Fortunately, the struggle is good, and it’s helping me grow, from the inside out.
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