Why We Need to Stop Talking about Spiritual Growth

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I’m a competitive person. I love tracking my results against other people or even against myself.

In college I used to drive the 11 hours from my home to my dorm with minimal stops to try to beat my time each trip.

When I run in the morning, I want to go just a little bit further with each run, even if it cuts into my writing time.

When I set a word count goal, I’ll leave a wreckage of butchered words as my fingers fly across the keyboard.

I want to grow and improve. Why wouldn’t I want to get better at things I care about?

Now, if there’s one thing I care about, it’s Christianity. Heck, I plunked down thousands of dollars and untold hundreds of hours into seminary for four years.

I wanted to get better at studying the Bible, praying, and doing Christian-ish things. I was always measuring my progress. I wanted to grow spiritually. I wanted to know I was doing better from one year to another.

And good heavens, I burned out. I burned out over a lot of things, but in retrospect, I can see how the concept of “spiritual growth” tapped into the worst parts of my competitive drive.

Am I sinning less this year compared to last year?

Am I praying “better” than last year? (You know you’ve thought something similar at least once.)

Do I know the Bible better than last year?

My constant need to measure fits in well with our Christian subculture that recognizes the blessings of God and the gifts of individuals based on the dollars they raise and the numbers they lead in salvation prayers or baptize. The larger your church, the more influence you’re afforded.

Measure, measure, measure. We measure everything, all of the time. It’s no wonder we fall into this trap when it comes to judging whether we are spiritually healthy or not.

As I’ve confronted my own measuring mania, I’ve tried to move away from the language of spiritual growth. I don’t want to know if I’m getting better or improving or providing some metric of my spiritual awesomeness.

The truth is that I could pray a lot or improve my Bible knowledge and still be a wandering, self-centered mess without direction.

Speaking of direction, spiritual direction is just the sort of thing we need to talk about instead of growth.

Let’s talk about where I am and where you are right now and which direction you’re moving in.

We could also speak in terms of temperature, being hot or cold.

Jesus spoke in terms of abiding on the vine. If we abide in him and he in us, the life of God will be evident. Our direction or proximity tap into this idea of abiding.

What if we ditched the language of spiritual growth in favor of spiritual proximity (close or far, hot or cold) or spiritual direction?

Are we living close to Jesus? Are moving in step with Jesus? Are you close enough to Jesus to know whether or not you’re moving in step with him?

These have been helpful concepts for a performer like myself who will endlessly beat myself up for failing to attain certain spiritual growth goals. I can lose my connection with God as I focus on my weaknesses and supposed distance from God.

The past two weeks have been really full with tired kids and lots of additional work. Sleep deprivation from kids is nothing new. I’ll also never complain about having a lot of work to do.

However, as I took stock of my direction and considered my spiritual “temperature,” I honestly had no idea where I was pointed. I felt like I was just running from one thing to another. As I considered my temperature, I felt the chill of being far from God’s presence.

I hadn’t cleared very much space for God over the past week, and I felt the lack in my soul. As I consider that we could “lose our souls” in the midst of busy schedules, I took more intentional steps to create space over the past few days for abiding, prayer, and meditating on scripture. I wasn’t measuring anything. I just tried to be present for God.

I skipped the part where I beat myself up for being a spiritual slacker. I didn’t lament that I’d lost ground in my race to grow spiritually.

I reoriented my life. I shifted my priorities. I changed how I spent my time.

As I stepped into greater awareness of the state of my soul and the presence of God, I felt the crazy of the past few weeks buzzing through my body. The residual anxiety that had followed me throughout each day finally emerged.

This morning I was driving my oldest son over to a friend’s house. He had asked me to play music because he loves anything with loud drums. We chatted about the way the music gets quiet and louder “on its own” during different parts of the songs. He noticed the “jingle bells” that the drummer played during the bridge and celebrated the booming bass drum by shouting, “BIG DRUM!”

As I turned off the highway, I realized that, for the first time in several weeks, I was completely at rest. I wasn’t buzzing with anxiety. I wasn’t worried about anything known or unknown. Mind you, I can flip that anxiety switch on in a second. It doesn’t take a lot.

However, it was a relief to know that a few days of attending to my soul and more actively creating space for prayer and devotion could actually result in God changing the direction of my soul.

Before I realized what I was doing, I naturally resolved to make myself feel even more relaxed and at peace with God tomorrow.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer
and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

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We Don’t Move Forward by Adding Another Thing

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I’m in the Christian writing business, so I am acutely aware of the greatest danger for Christian living books: The worst Christian living books try to add more stuff to your life without helping you remove stuff first. In fact, the most helpful books probably remove stuff and help you thrive with what you already have.

Our greatest challenge as Christians is seeing what we already have. If we aren’t getting to the place where we think we need to go, we probably won’t get there by adding another thing to our lives. We’re already loaded up with stuff and our minds are buzzing with distractions and ideas to the point that we’ll struggle to figure out the next step.

If you’re feeling full and life is chaotic and crazy, you don’t need another book on how to study the Bible or how to memorize scripture better or how to even add another cool prayer practice to your life. Those things may help, but they won’t help you when you’re feeling busy and chaotic. You’ll just struggle to add those things to your life and then you’ll have both the sensation of spinning wheels and the guilt of not being able to live a spiritual-enough life.

If you are a follower of Jesus, then here is what you have: you are a member of God’s family who can call him “Father.” You are mysteriously united with Jesus, and the Holy Spirit dwells in you. That is what you already have. You don’t have to work to gain those things. You may need to change things in order to “experience” that reality, but you can’t add anything to your life that will make any of those things more real.

So if you read scripture, you will give yourself a tool to experience the presence of God.

If you pray, you’ll be able to confess sins, express what’s on your mind, and, if you learn how to listen, hear what God is saying to you.

If you add a new spiritual discipline or practice, you’ll create more space to experience God in your life. If you keep an open mind, you’ll ideally start to become aware of God throughout each day.

However, none of those spiritual practices can change God’s presence in our lives. If anything, it’s the stuff in our lives that prevents us from seeing God. We are too loaded down with distractions and burdens to hear and experience God.

Some of us, perhaps many of us, rely on these distractions as a way to medicate our pain, confusion, or disappointment in life. I find it striking that Jesus described himself as a doctor who had come for the sick. It’s like he knew that our world is full of hurting people who are relying on all kinds of “drugs” to get through the day.

We are promised abundant life that flows constantly like water from a spring. However, so many days it feels like a trickle. Then again, perhaps some of us are picking at dry ground, praying for a bit of relief. We’re looking for the perfect way to dig up enough water for today, and those promises of abundant life feel like a dirty trick.

I have seen time and time again that I can only move forward spiritually if I remove something. I need to eliminate the stuff that is keeping me from being present in my day, from hearing God, and from resting in who I am.

Our core identity in Christ is the foundation for our lives, and too often we try to become something holier and more spiritual on a false foundation of extra effort or new fangled spiritual gimmicks.

The “work” of the Christian life isn’t convincing God to be with us. The work is cutting out all of the crap and distractions that cut us off from our identity in Christ and fill up our days. God can’t build until the foundation is cleared of all the junk. And sometimes the junk is stuff we like—television shows, sports, social media, news sites, etc. It’s a leap of faith to trust God has something better for us if we prepare a place in our lives.

Perhaps we’ll be prepared to take this leap of faith when we’re hurting enough or feel lost enough. You’re always welcome to try adding another new thing. I just suspect that it will fall flat without addressing your identity in Christ first and foremost.

I’m not saying that God can’t help things get better or that more prayer and Bible won’t help. I’m just saying that we all have so much more than we realize already. It’s right there for us, and we don’t see it. It would be a tragedy if we spent our lives trying to add one more thing when the most important things are hidden because we haven’t learned to grow through subtraction.