Have you ever thought about what it means to grow spiritually? I’ve become convinced that the way many of my Christian friends think of growth is really more like shrinkage or confinement. Our purpose often seems to be increasing specificity. In the process, we make decisions that confine us. For example, we decide whether we believe in infant baptism, or in the rapture. Or we commit to Calvinism over Arminianism. Or we develop a conviction about the appropriateness of any number of gray issues like drinking, dancing, dating, daily Bible reading, etc. There are whole groups of Christians who still think that long hair (or an earring) on a man or short hair (or make-up or pants) on a woman are bad—perhaps even sinful. To be sure, those groups are a bit extreme, but as I look around, I see that even if we don’t go that far, we think of Spiritual growth as the development of and compliance with an increasingly particular set of doctrinal and behavioral standards.
My problem with this is not that it’s wrong to have a well thought out theology or a commitment to behavioral holiness. It is, however, mistaken to think of those as the sole parameters of the spiritual life. When we do, we end up drawing the parameters tighter and tighter. Using the word “growth” to describe this is something of a misnomer.
The solution to this “problem” is to remember—and prioritize—the personal and relational aspect of spiritual growth. In other words, I view my growth as greater and greater personal interaction or depth of fellowship with God or with other people or with creation. Let me illustrate. When I learned to drive a car, I seriously expanded my capacity to interact personally with the world around me. I began to take up more space in the world—I grew. In a very similar way, if I get to know you well, I can begin to understand and interact with the world from your perspective to some degree. You—or your thoughts and feelings—become like a car I can drive around and get a bigger view of things. By knowing you, my horizons are expanded.
Jesus defined eternal life as knowing God (John 17:3). “Knowing” in this case is personal and interactive, not just cognitive and propositional. If I keep this in mind, I will see spiritual growth as being more and more widely traveled in the personality of God. Then I can put my refined theology and careful obedience in their proper place. They are like cars I can drive around to be more engaged with God. Jesus said as much when he said, “He who has my commandments and keeps them; he is the one who loves me; and he who loves Me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”