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.

 

Rohr for Writers: Your Downfall Can Lead to Resurrection

 

Rohr forWriters

“If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it! A ‘perfect’ person ends up being one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond imperfection.”

Falling Upward

 

There’s a rule that many writers and artists follow: some of your best work will come out of your deepest pain. If I quoted every time I’ve heard that at a writing conference or read books about this, I would just have a blog post full of quotes from other people.

So much of what we crave in our lives comes by first confronting our pain, failures, and struggles.

If you want intimacy with someone else, it will be forged by facing both relational and external struggles together.

If you want to excel at writing, you need to at least face your lowest points in life, your failures, your fears, and your anxieties. This is where some of your most authentic experiences can be found.

By the same token, if you want to grow in prayer, you also need to bring your sins, shame, and deficiencies to God. These are the raw materials of spirituality because they reveal all of the false commitments, false gods, and false identities that keep us from God and each other.

Our pain and failures aren’t just enshrined as a monument to our misery. They are transformed in the act of confrontation. Most importantly, we are transformed as well. In fact, if you want to reach any kind of lasting change that could make a difference in your own life or in the life of anyone else, you need to start here.

No matter what else you stick in front of failure, pain, or fear, these things will keep eating away at that false veneer.

No matter how much we force ourselves to get over it and to move on, we’ll continue limping until the source of the injury is healed.

We won’t experience relief and wholeness until our pain and struggles are transformed. You can’t find a way to go around this, you can’t make up enough rules to keep you safe, and you can’t teach yourself into becoming better or healed.

We’ll have the most to offer others, either through our prayers or our writing if we prioritize the fearless uncovering of our pain before God and on the page as we write. We don’t have to shout our imperfections in the street for all to hear or post them on our blogs for all to read—in fact, please don’t do either of those things!

This is the deeper soul work that takes place in quiet, secret places.

This is the foundation for our lives that determines the power of our art, the potency of our prayers, and sturdiness of our relationships.

Our pain and our struggles are most certainly an affliction in many ways, but that doesn’t mean we should run from them. Our greatest healing, creative work, and ministry to others will come through these very things that we had once seen as our downfall. If we bring the causes of our downfalls to God, we’ll find that they’re the very things that lead us to resurrection.

 

For a bit more about this topic, check out my book:

Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together

If You Want to Stop Sinning, Stop Trying to Stop Sinning

Garden lettuce spiritual growth lessons

I used to plant the lettuce in my garden in long rows, thinning the sprouts according to the seed package’s specifications. Then I spent the rest of the summer pulling all of the weeds around my lettuce.

It’s likely that I pulled more weeds than harvested lettuce.

I liken weeding to mowing the lawn one blade of grass at a time. It’s my least favorite part of gardening, and since we garden organically, I had to come up with a better weed prevention strategy.

I thought I found my solution with a bale of straw. I could fill all of the gaps in our garden with straw and keep the weeds to a minimum. We saw a drop in weeds, but I still had to keep up with them. At the very least, I cut our weeding in half.

However, once we moved to Ohio where I built two raised beds in our small backyard, I discovered that straw wasn’t going to work. An army of slugs took refuge in our straw and used it as a highway to eat everything in our garden. We needed to find a way to prevent weeds without using chemicals and without covering the ground with fabric that would deplete the soil or straw that gave safe haven to slugs.

I found the solution in my in-law’s garden.

My in-laws have been gardening for as long as my wife can remember, and their lettuce patch replaces my orderly rows with a sprawling patch thick with lettuce. They spread their seeds in an area, thin the sprouts a bit, and let the heads of lettuce grow up right next to each other.

This was a huge “Aha!” moment for me.

We now grow a lot more lettuce and spend virtually no time weeding. As of this summer, I have yet to pull a single weed by our lettuce because our seeds were so evenly scattered.

Mind you, this is a bit of work at first. I had to spend a lot of time thinning the seeds I’d scattered. However, in the long run, I don’t have to do a thing most days. There are no weeds competing for garden space because I’ve invested time in creating so much life in our garden.

The key to defeating weeds is to invest in growing healthy plants that will take their space.

I was doomed to keep fighting weeds as long as I was focused on weed prevention rather than plant cultivation.

I have seen the same principle play out in my life when it comes to Christian living. If I want to leave sin behind, I have to stop fighting against sin. We can only leave sin behind when we pursue something (or someone) else in its stead.

When we talk about repentance, we often speak of an abrupt “about-face” or turning away from our plans to God’s plans. If you think about it, fighting sin or sin-prevention strategies prevent us from actually turning away from our sinful ways in order to pursue God.

We’re so busy looking at what we can’t have that we’re unable to see what God offers instead.

Fighting sin does nothing to cultivate the health of God in our lives. We’ll just keep moving from one “weed” to another, waiting for another weed to sprout in our lives since nothing else has been sown in its place.

While we can always take commonsense steps to avoid sin, the real victory over sin is won when we give God space in our lives and actively pursue God. Whether serving others or devoting time for prayer, these steps toward God keep us turned away from sin. Repentance is turning away from sin, but holiness happens in our daily interactions with God.

There is freedom in the pursuit of God that conquers sin. While there are moral standards of a sort for Christians, we leave certain paths behind because of Christ’s “yes” rather than our own “no” that strives for holiness.

We have been called. Christ has said, “Come!” to you and to me because we surely thirst for the redemption he offers.

He has better things for us, but we’ll never leave our own plans behind if we refuse to believe it.