Fearing Spiritual Growth…
This culture in which we live squeezes all the God sense out of us. I want to be observant and informed enough to help this congregation understand what we are up against, the temptations of the devil to get us thinking we can all be our own gods. This is subtle stuff. It demands some detachment and perspective. I can’t do this just by trying harder” (Eugene Peterson, “The Pastor”).
In this post, I want to talk about one of the subtle reasons that many Christians do not grow, our character does not change to match up with Jesus’, our beliefs do not change to match up with the Bible’s…I’ve been talking more about spiritual growth recently, so I need to unpack one of the biggest threats to our growth, just as a farmer needs not only to teach how to plant and grow crops but also how to prevent pests that want to devour the crops and prevent the harvest.
One of the biggest local churches in the U.S. a few years ago realized that God had used them to deliver many babies—new Christian converts—but that they had done a terrible job of partnering with the Holy Spirit to help those Christians grow, even with their state of the art facilities, hundreds of pastors, and a weekly ministry budget of over $500k!
Why is it so difficult to grow?
Part of it is that we love to focus on one side of the coin of grace—God’s grace forgives me IN my sin. YES IT DOES! AMAZING GRACE!
But we often forget the other side of the coin of grace—God grace transforms me FROM my sin! That transformation–growth!–is an expected part of what it means to be a Christian! Not to stay in our sin (actions or beliefs) and celebrate them, but to weep over them, to confess & repent of them to God, and to partner with Him as He transforms us!
Therefore, I am beginning to realize that many Christians are afraid of spiritual growth; part of it is because it’s difficult—if God loves me as I am right now, why go through the difficulty of “lifting weights and working out” to grow spiritually? SWEET! I can just stay as I am AND have Jesus love me—best of both worlds! We talked about this two weeks ago in the eagle analogy…but living as a Christian like this will cause us to miss out on the “full life” that Jesus wants us to have (John 10:10).
But there is another reason we are often afraid of spiritual growth—we are worried of losing our connection with non-Christians/newer Christians. We are worried that if we grow to become more like Jesus, we will seem uppity/holier-than-thou/Pharasaical/arrogant towards others. We SHOULD be concerned about this—God doesn’t want us to be any of those things…but He does want us to grow, He doesn’t want our fear of being flagrant to stop us from being fragrant! He doesn’t want us to be holier-than-thou, but He does want us to be holy! He doesn’t want us to be self-righteous, but He does want us to be righteous through faith in Jesus!
But without realizing it we Christians WANT to stay broken, WANT to stay on the lowest rung of Christian growth, we WANT to stay immature—though we would never say that out loud or even think about it that way explicitly—because we think that’s the only way to have access to non-Christians, that’s the only way to connect with them is if we basically become a Christian version of them! WE DON’T WANT TO LOSE OUR STREET-CRED by actually changing to become more like Jesus!!!
“[We have a] skewed understanding of sin. It’s almost as if our sins have become a currency of solidarity—something we pat each other on the back about as fellow authentic, broken people. But sin should always be grieved rather than celebrated…We’ve become too comfortable with our sin, to the point that it’s how we identify ourselves and relate to others. But shouldn’t we find connection over Christ [and how high He is growing us], rather than over our depravity [how low we have gone in our sin]?” (click HERE for full article).
Like trading baseball cards as kids—“Sweet—look which one I have!”—it’s cool to share our sins as a way of showing that we’re not Pharisees/legalists/judgmental like OTHER Christians! (interestingly, those who call Christians judgmental never seem to realize that they are being judgmental there!) We celebrate our tumors instead of asking Jesus to cut them out of us…
At some schools in the U.S., students will be mocked and ridiculed by their classmates if they work hard in school—they’re called teachers pets, brown-nosers, book-worms and worse, simply because they want to get good grades and reach their potential. Some classmates see these students as being arrogant, of thinking that they are better than others because of their desire to get ahead and reach their academic potential.
- These “eggheads” don’t want to party
because they know that they have to study in order to get to college;
- these “know-it-alls” don’t want to play video games all day & goof around
because they want to expand their horizons and go see a ballet;
- these “nerds” don’t want to listen to their neighborhoods favorite music
because they are learning to enjoy the richness of classical music, etc.
And so there is pressure from others to come back to the pack, to be like everyone else, to intentionally stunt one’s growth because growing when others aren’t will cause us to stand out more, will cause us to be different and possibly to be denounced, to be labeled with the ultimate scarlet letter these days—being inauthentic, being a legalist, being a Pharisee, being self-righteous, thinking that we are better than others, being intolerant, etc. We see this blow up all over social media when someone starts to believe and act in a way that the pop culture disagrees with–the person’s character is smeared and their reputation thoroughly trashed! As Christians we see this, we realize that the cost of being truly Christ-like is so staggering, and so often we silently say to ourselves, “Well I better not do/believe THAT—I don’t want to tick off the CULTURE!!!!”
John 12:42-43 (NLT)
42 Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. 43 For they loved human praise more than the praise of God.
And so we place our friendship with the world as more important than our friendship with Christ; we care more about what others think of us than what Jesus thinks of us…
We face this same pressure as Christians—if we grow, if we really begin to believe, talk, think, plan, respond, and act like Jesus and the Bible, our taste-buds are going to change—we aren’t going to like the same candy that some of our friends like!
- Our sense of humor will start to change—we won’t laugh at the same jokes anymore because what used to be funny without Christ is no longer funny with Christ.
- We won’t watch the same movies—not because we are better than those who watch them, but because Jesus lives inside us now and we don’t want to drag Him through 2 hours of that kind of trash!
- We won’t gossip the same way we used to, and so when hanging out with our friends who still do, we won’t have much to say or we will change the subject to more God-honoring subjects.
- With God’s grace we will still LOVE those in the pig-pen but we will be in the process of being cleaned up by Jesus and so we will make a conscious effort while loving those in the mud to not get the mud on us anymore, to wear not the outfits of the culture but Jesus’ holy robes, the righteous acts of the saints (Revelation 19:6-8).
Revelation 19:6-8 (NIV)
6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
8 Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
RIGHTEOUS actions—born out of our RIGHTEOUS beliefs—are the clothes that we will wear in heaven! But we keep wearing the culture’s outfits because we don’t want to stand out or potentially alienate anyone else. Jesus said that sometimes wolves dress in sheep’s clothing in order to harm the sheep; nowadays, many sheep dress in wolves clothing in order to hide the Shepherd…
This “wearing of robes,” this living holy lives as a way to honor Jesus, will seem to some or many like arrogance, like we are being holier-than-thou, like we are being legalists, when it is not that at all—it is us growing closer to and more like Jesus. It is us GROWING, which is EXACTLY what Jesus wants us to do! Many simply will not understand why we are different…
“1 Peter 4:1-5—Living for God: 4 Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. 2 As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. 3 For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4 They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. 5 But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
The New Testament doesn’t identify Christians as sinners; that is MIND-BLOWING to some people, to many Christians! The NT identifies Christians as SAINTS. But we don’t ACT like saints because even that very word conjures up images of the “upper-echelon” of Christians and none of us want to even consider that that is how God sees us! We don’t want to be part of the 1%, we want to stay part of the 99%! We bristle at being called saints—and embrace calling ourselves sinners!—because of how OTHERS will think of us if they hear us calling ourselves saints! We don’t want to lose our connection with non-Christians, and so we don’t grow, we consciously but usually sub-consciously don’t change over time because such holy change might alienate others.
We don’t help people become Christians by saying & showing, “I’m just like you!” but rather by saying & showing, “I’m becoming just like Him (Jesus)—and you can too!”
John 15:18-25: The World Hates the Disciples
18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’[b] If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. 24 If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’
Would you let Jesus grow you like THAT, grow you to the point where the world hates you?! Jesus wants to grow us to be like Him, and since He was rejected by the majority of all people, so will we if we grow and reach our potential.
The world will eventually hate us Christians as Jesus chooses us to come out from the world and grow to become like Him. Many Christians think that we must be doing something wrong if many/most non-Christians hate us, and so we change our beliefs and actions to lower their anger, we cool off our faith to cool off the world’s hate. And sometimes we are hated by the world because we are being non-Christian! But sometimes we are hated by the world because we are growing as Christians, we are testifying through our words and actions that their deeds are evil and they do not like that.
Many plants start out in a Styrofoam cup in the safe/controlled environment of a glass greenhouse. Eventually they grow under the expert care of the gardener, and then they are moved from a cup to a small ceramic pot, then to a larger ceramic pot and eventually they are moved, after much growth, out of the pot and into the ground outside! They have left their former environment, not out of plant-arrogance, but out of gardener-guidance!
But many of us just want to stay in our current cup or pot in the greenhouse! We are comfortable there, our friends are there, it’s environmentally (culturally!) safer there! If we are moved elsewhere by the Gardener to grow in our size, fruitfulness, actions and beliefs, there is a sort-of leaving behind of old pots, old plants, old ways, old beliefs. And yet grow we must, even if the other plants inside invite us back into our old pots, even if those inside mock us for being outside in the winds & rains, for daring to grow to reach our potential. “I’m still a sapling and you’re a sequoia—you must think you’re better than me way up there!” “No, I’m not BETTER than you, but I am by King Jesus’ grace becoming better than ME! I’m becoming the REAL me that the Savior made me to be, not the counterfeit me that the culture wants me to stay!”
Many of us hide our Christianity or we hide from becoming Biblical Christians–we bury in the ground what the Master has given us (time, talents, treasures, God’s Word, and even our faith in Jesus which is a gift from Him!) and we don’t invest it, don’t put it into practice, we don’t GROW! We stay in the same pot! The third servant buried in the ground what the Master gave him, but probably buried it in such a way that the other two servants had no idea! He probably covered over and blended in the area where he buried his talents/mission/responsibility/faith—all gifts from the Master! The third servant was vertically scared of screwing up what the Master gave him, but I also think the third servant was vertically scared of what his/her friends would say if he acted like the first two servants and focused on growing what the Master gave him! The third servant was thus STILL able to say to his other friends: “I’m no different from you! I’m not part of “management”—I’m still in the factory, one of you! I don’t have any secret gold, any gifted holiness that separates me from you! I still watch the same movies, laugh at the same jokes, live basically the same way—I’m one of YOU still, see!!!”
This is EXACTLY what Peter did when he denied Jesus three times, all within EAR-SHOT of Jesus Himself! “You’re one of THEM, one of the JESUS-freaks!” “NO, I tell you, I don’t even KNOW Him! I don’t believe that, I haven’t grown into THAT, into one of THEM! I mean, yeah, I believe in Jesus, but not like THAT!” In other words, “I’m one of YOU—the same, no different, not at all!” (Mark 14:66-72) Peter was close to Christ but still warming himself by the fire of the culture…this was a DISOWNING of Jesus, a DENIAL of Jesus, and it caused Peter to weep bitterly once he realized what he had done, it caused Jesus to look at Peter with pain in His eyes (Luke 22:60-62)…
WE all have lines we won’t cross in following Jesus, but each of ours is different. We all have a place where Jesus wants to lead us—in our beliefs and actions—where we simply say, “No. Jesus, I won’t follow You there. The cost is too high. I can’t believe that, I can’t do THAT. What will others think of me!?” Peter followed Jesus ALL THE WAY to just outside where He was being interrogated…but then he hit his line and wouldn’t dare to be associated with Christ there; Peter wanted the warmth of the culture’s fire instead of the heat of Christ’s furnace. We should WEEP and REPENT over these lines that we won’t cross, over these ways that our friendship with the non-Christian culture becomes an idol that eclipses our friendship with Christ…Jesus invites us, through pain and suffering and the condemnation of non-Christians and other Christians, to follow Him ANYWHERE He leads, to grow as TALL as He wants us to grow…as the United song “Oceans” says, to trust Him “without borders”…
Let me close with this…
Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”
Why should we NOT be afraid of growing as a Christian, even though it will involve pain and suffering?
Because we are literally going to present our character, our hearts, our integrity to Jesus someday in heaven as a thank You, as a gift to Him—“Look what You did in me, Jesus—thank YOU SO MUCH!!!”
I want to present a heart of wisdom, of integrity, of courage, of faith, hope and love, of belief in BIBLICAL Truth—all of it! I don’t want my heart to be a runt or a sapling—think of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree!—I want it to be an OAK tree, a Sequoia or Redwood of righteousness (Isaiah 61:3).
Think of a piano recital, or a speech you have to give in front of a lot of people—no one wants to get up there and totally show how unprepared they are, how little they practiced! No, the “fear” of not trying and having many people see actually helps us to practice and prepare, to try our best!
Well, that’s what this verse is teaching me—my character, my heart is going to give a recital to Jesus when I see Him in heaven, a recital of His heavenly song of grace, love, Truth, obedience, sacrifice and perseverance—a song of my GROWTH!—and I don’t want Jesus to see that I wasted my life staying on the lowest step of Christian growth! I don’t want to present to Him a heart that I buried in the ground because I was afraid of the culture or afraid of messing up—I want to present to Him a heart that is scarred, yes, but that continued to grow and become who He made me to be and do what He made me to do.
If the Holy Spirit has spoken to you through this post and you realize deep down that you are not growing as a Christian because you are scared of what others will think or say, confess that to Jesus right now—apologize to Him and accept His forgiveness and promise that He will cleanse you, that He will teach you to follow Him WHEREVER He leads, that you will believe ALL that He teaches in the Bible, that you will leave the warming fire of the culture and jump into the refining furnace with Jesus…that’s the only way that all of us as individuals and as a congregation will grow…
Here is another great quote & post on this topic:
When Christians talk about being broken or being messed up or being complete failures, I think I know what they mean. At best, this language is an admirable expression of the continuing presence of indwelling sin and our constant need for a Savior. But we must be careful. Admitting that you are a screw up–as if God looks at sinners with a wearied grin that says “Come here, silly boy, and let me tousle your hair”–does not exactly capture the explicitly moral language of David’s God-directed plea in Psalm 51. Likewise, simply being honest about weakness in your life is not what the Heidelberg Catechism has in mind when it says “the dying-away of the old self” is “to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it” (Q/A 89). Authenticity is not to be confused with repentance. For full article please click HERE.
This is one the most amazing (and convicting) things I have read in a long time. Thank you for helping me join the dots and recognise how often I sabotage my own spiritual growth in order to avoid standing out.
As Christians we are supposed to stand out! Our lives are supposed to look different!
Thank you for your encouragement! Praise the LORD that we have these treasures in jars of clay! 🙂