Arguably, there is hardly a topic more frequently blogged or at least often wondered about than that of spiritual growth: How do we grow as Christians? What I have to say about this topic is hardly the last word; indeed, one might say that the whole of Scripture is in a fundamental way concerned with precisely this question. For salvation, after all, is for the sake of being ‘conformed to the image of his Son’ (Rom. 8.29) – salvation in large part is for sanctification. The Apostle Paul writes very plainly and directly at one point just what the will of God is: ‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification’ (1 Ths. 4.3). So if sanctification – a Christian’s spiritual growth – is so central to our salvation and God’s will, why is it that so many Christians find it so difficult to grow spiritually? What are, to speak roughly, the ‘mechanics’ of spiritual growth?
Well, the first thing to be said about spiritual growth is that it is not strictly mechanical. It is, after all, spiritual growth: The Holy Spirit of God nourishes us, enabling us to grow. With that said, surely there must be some practices, disciplines, activities that contribute to our growth (and conversely some which do not). When one wants to grow intellectually, training for a marathon or working out five times a week isn’t going to do the trick (at least not in and of themselves). When one wants to develop their musical abilities, one shouldn’t look to bathe or shower more frequently (even if – or perhaps especially if – no singing in the shower sounds bad). As absurd as these examples are, they illustrate the plain point that Aristotle and others since have made: that there are particular practices appropriate to particular aims. So what, then, are the practices appropriate to the aim of a Christian’s sanctification?
There are many good books written by Christian authors which very helpfully delineate the disciplines conducive to sanctification. (Some which come to mind more immediately are: Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.) The classic Christian disciplines such as prayer, fasting, meditation, solitude, and study are unquestionably important, indeed indispensible for growing into the image of Christ. But the point I want to discuss is not so much what the practices of sanctification are but when such practices should be engaged. More specifically: In the process of sanctification, do Christians grow as a result of practicing these disciplines, or do these disciplines result from our growth as Christians? To put it another way: Do Christians grow in their love of Christ by spending more time with him, or do they spend more time with Christ because they love him? These questions, on close inspection, are no different really than another one which is perhaps more commonly asked (at least within oneself): Should I wait to feel like doing my devotion, or should I just will myself into doing it?
Of course, like much else in the Christian’s life (see my previous blog here), the answer is: ‘both-and’. Christian growth is both a result of and a motivation for engaging in the disciplines of sanctification. That is, we grow not only because we discipline ourselves but we are more prone to discipline ourselves because we have grown. Again, growing in our love for Christ is both a reflection of and a reason for further devotion to him. That is, holiness comes from the hard work of devotion; in the same breath, our devotion becomes a more desired desire (so to speak) as we grow in holiness. There exists, to put it somewhat awkwardly, a ‘dialectic of sanctification’ whereby: on the one hand, practicing the disciplines of devotion – i.e., willing ourselves to action even if we don’t ‘feel’ like it – help us to grow in sanctification; on the other hand, growing in our sanctification further impels us to and makes more ‘natural’ the disciplines which we seek to do. There is, if you will, a dialectic of devotion which mutually reinforces itself as we place ourselves Coram Deo (‘before the face of God’) to be grown by God. The only thing we can’t afford is inaction.