Whenever I ask a group of believers how they would like to grow spiritually in the next year, the answers usually range along these lines: I want to read the Bible more. I want to grow in prayer. I want to overcome this bad habit. I’d love to be a better witness at work. I want to start family devotions. I want to help my church grow stronger.
All these are good and noble goals to have. (And trust me. If you hang out with us at Bridgeway in 2021, you will grow in each of these areas.)
But there are three larger canopies under which we could place each of these goals, which Scripture encourages us to aim at. Reading the Bible more is not the end-game. I want to learn to read the Bible more because it will propel me toward these three larger targets. Prayer is not the endgame. I know people who pray a lot, but they’ll get nowhere near these three areas, and so for them, their praying is largely wasted.
These three primary goals for growth are 1) Christlikeness, 2) Knowledge (the knowledge of God); and 3) Fruitfulness.
When Paul promised to pray for the believers in Colossae, notice what he asks for. “We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding [knowledge], so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord [Christlikness], bearing fruit in every good work. [fruitfulness].” (Col. 1:9-10)
Let’s talk about what is arguably the most important of the three.
We are to grow in Christlikeness
Paul writes in Romans 8:29 – “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son.” When all is said and done, it’s your destiny to become a moral replica of Jesus.
Whatever else you may do with your life, there is one moral path that we should follow, and Jesus blazes that trail. What this means is that over the course of time, as a person follows Christ we should see an increase in Christlike character and love growing in them.
The New Testament provides living examples of this. Jesus took impulsive Peter and shaped him into the first leader of the early Church. Jesus took John the zealot, known as a “son of thunder” and turned him into the apostle who spoke more about loving others than anyone else. He took the persecutor Saul, and when he was finished with him, released to the world the first and best missionary of faith the world has ever seen.
And Jesus has a destiny marked out for you, if you will allow Jesus to train you for godliness.
One reason we know this is the most important of the three goals, is that if we don’t – or won’t – grow in Christlikeness, then the two other types of spiritual growth are nullified. If I grow in knowledge, but fail to learn how to love like Christ, my knowledge is worthless (1 Corinthians 13:2-3). I may think I’m living a highly fruitful life, but if my fruitfulness doesn’t flow from moral goodness and obedience to God, then that fruit is tainted (Matthew 7:15-23).
One reason among many why I want as many people as possible to become true followers of Christ, is because I want a world where the moral qualities Christ modeled for us are increasing on the earth. For a person to be able to grow in the virtues called the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) – tell me where that wouldn’t be a good thing!
How does this growth happen? First, by a relationship with your Savior.
In Christianity, Jesus is not just a target. He’s not just our example, or a “goal”. He’s our very life. There is no Christlikeness to be had without Christ.
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said John 15. “Apart from me you can do nothing!”
Jesus was talking to an agricultural society when he said those words. If he were talking to a group of engineers and pilots, he might say, “I am the engine, you are the jet.” To achieve the heights of altitude and speed which are so awe-inspiring, the jet must be connected to the engines. The moment that jet is severed from those engines, begins the fall. And the moment we sever ourselves from Christ, the plummeting begins. A famous Puritan once said, “The moment we sin is to enter a declining state.”
So as the believer learns to connect daily with his or her Lord, finding nourishment in his Word and learning to listen to him through prayer, several things begin to happen.
The Lord begins to reveal to you an area of sin where he wants to go to work. Every believer should have a Spirit-led self-awareness of where their specific weaknesses are. But if you can’t ‘name your demons’, or worse you deny their existence, you are only deceiving yourself.
Then the Lord begins to show you a path through those dark woods. “Train yourself to be godly,” Scripture says (1 Timothy 4:7). You’ll begin to discern a customized training program or personalized strategy to help you overcome your sin. Maybe you’ll be led to forgive someone, and be reconciled with them. Maybe you’ll be asked to cease and desist some behavior. Or learn a new habit. Or find a counselor or coach. It could be any of dozens of things, which will begin to press upon your heart. That weight or burden you feel is likely a sign that the Lord is at work.
Finally, the Lord will always, always, ALWAYS lead you to find a small group of some trusted brothers or sisters with whom to share your moral journey. Which takes us to the second way this growth happens.
How does this growth happen? Second, by relationships with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
The person who will grow in Christlikeness the most, will be the one who is plugged into a living network of mentoring, discipling, and accountability relationships with people they will allow to speak into their lives.
The other day I read through Proverbs 27, and I came across three verses which speak to this very thing: Verse 5 – “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” Then verse 6 – “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Then verse 17 – “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”
All three of these verses point to what is needed if we ever hope to grow in Christlikeness. It won’t happen just by listening to a sermon or reading a book or attending a class, if that’s all I do. I may acquire the knowledge there of things in me that need to change. But to truly change will require being in a relationship with the type of person who is willing to rebuke me, wound me, sharpen me and sand me down. A person who will see me at my worst, then not run from me, or judge me, but help me, pray for me, encourage me, so that I can overcome those things.
I look back at the fiercest dragons I’ve been able to either slay or bring to heel in my life – the dragon of lust and pornography, the dragon of anger, the dragon of depression, and fear – and you know what I see? I see friends and counselors and mentors who were somewhere nearby. I never won any of those battles on my own.
How does this growth happen? Third, by churches which cultivate these type of relationships.
There are three things a church should have in place to nurture this growth.
We’ll do everything we can to nurture and strengthen Life Groups. Like Rick Warren likes to say, churches need to grow larger, and smaller, at the same time. We simply cannot preach people into maturity. At some point, a person must move from the pew to the living room, and start to share their hearts with others. That’s when the transforming power of Christ begins to go to work.
Then out of Life Groups needs to come an entire additional layer of interaction that many call Triads. A life group of 8 to 12 people is even too large for some of the deepest types of interactions we’re describing. But to have 3 men or 3 women come together regularly (it needs to be same sex), and then to ask three sets of questions related to our growth targets, can be indescribably powerful. Questions like: How are your quiet times going? What’s God been speaking to your heart? (Knowledge). Where are you struggling right now? What sin areas seems to be pressing on you? Where are you vulnerable? (Christlikeness). Where are you experiencing fruitfulness in your life and ministry right now? Or where would you like to experience more fruitfulness? (Fruitfulness).
Beyond triads is yet another layer where the church begins to raise up teams of mentors, disciplers, counselors and encouragers, where the old can teach the young, the experienced can apprentice the novice, and the strong can help the weak.
Finally, it needs to be said that even if you participate in each of these networks of relationships, it’s still possible for you to sabotage the growth that God would produce in you. There are several prerequisites of the heart that each person must bring to the table:
Honesty. Believe it or not but it’s more than easy to water down the true condition of my life while in these types of groups. It’s even possible for me to lie. These relationships exist for taking off masks. But if I won’t lower mine, then all bets are off.
Trust. Especially with triads it’s important to trust the others you’re with. What happens in Triads stays in Triads. Trust also relates to control. If I have to always be in control of the dynamics of the group, and I can’t submit to the others, then I will stop the flow of grace to my heart.
Safety. A church must cultivate an atmosphere of grace and humility, where it becomes safe to be transparent with what’s really going on in my heart. The local church is by nature the original Island of Misfit Toys (if you remember your Rudolph.)
If we are able to take steps in this direction, signs of Christlikeness will begin to soon appear all over the place in our church family. It will take time, but please Lord, may this become increasingly who we are.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.