Have you felt a desire to grow and develop spiritually? If so, it is God who placed the desire within you. Have you felt unsatisfied with a faith that lacks the depth and transformational power you long for? God is drawing you closer.
Have you felt helpless and confused in the face of painful situations? God is calling you deeper into harmony with His will for your life. This is not a divine guilt-trip or a sign of heavenly disapproval. As always, God’s motivation for this calling in your life is pure, perfect, relentless love.
As the hymnist George Matheson wrote in 1882,
“O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.”
Why do so many Christians live with spiritual stagnation and defeat? Perhaps many considered the moment of their justification before God (by grace, through faith in Christ) as the pinnacle of their spiritual journey. However, this allows no active role in the life of the Christian for the Holy Spirit, who Jesus said “the Father will send in my name” to “teach you all things” and “remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit is also the One who can produce the “fruit” of divine love in your life (Galatians 5:22).In reality, the moment of salvation is only the starting point of the new life you are meant to live in Christ. It is like reaching base camp at Mount Everest. You have come a long way, but the true climb is still before you. The Holy Spirit is within you as an ever-present guide and source of courage and love.
Just as a climber ascends gradually higher and higher toward a distant summit, the vitality of your new life is meant to steadily escalate in intensity, “… shining ever brighter until the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18). To neglect spiritual development in your life would be to miss out on the magnificent destiny you have on this earth and beyond, a destiny of wholeness and of victory.
The Human Spirit
As Dallas Willard wrote in his illuminating book Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, “The human spirit is an inescapable, fundamental aspect of every human being; and it takes on whichever character it has from the experiences and the choices that we have lived through or made in our past.”
In other words, you spirit has developed throughout your life, and how it has developed affects every aspect of your being. Describing the spirit, Willard continues: “From there we see our world and interpret reality. From there we make our choices, break forth into action, try to change our world. We live from our depths—most of which we do not understand.”
You can likely see why this topic is of special interest to Christian counselors like myself. The human spirit (sometimes referred to as “the heart”) is the launching pad from which all human thoughts, feelings, and actions proceed. In Scripture we are told, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23). Any positive changes that you can achieve and experience through counseling will be directly influenced by the condition of your spirit.
Therefore it is crucial that your spirit is developed on a secure foundation. I know of no better foundation for spiritual development than Christ himself. Our own wisdom betrays us at our time of greatest need. Other people we depend on often let us down. Even the church fails as an adequate foundation for our spiritual development. But a truly firm foundation will undergird and protect our spirits.
As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” – Matthew 7:24-25
You may have seen the Christian bumper sticker that reads “Wise men still seek Him,” referring to the “wise men from the east” who came from afar bearing gifts to worship the Christ child (Matthew 1:1-12). In the case of these sages, being wise was part of their profession. Today, you can choose to be wise simply by seeking Christ as the foundation upon which to build and develop your spirit.
The rain, streams, and winds described in the above passage represent the tragic circumstances we face in life, the consequences of our own sin, and the pain we feel as a result of evil in the world. All of these things can have a corrupting influence on the spirit that is not built on the “rock” of Christ. In the next several verses, Jesus explains the potentially devastating results of spiritual corruption.
“And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” – Matthew 7:26-27
Elsewhere in the Scripture we are cautioned about the external consequences of a corrupted spirit. Jesus warns the Pharisees in Mark 7:21-23, “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
This common theme is repeated throughout Scripture. The idea is that all fear, doubt, pride, strife, etc. proceed from a spirit that is not in harmony with God. Our sole example of a life lived in complete harmony with God is Christ during his time on earth.
Being both truly divine and truly human, Christ was able to demonstrate what a God-centered life looks like. Thus when Phillip asked Jesus to “show us the Father,” Jesus replied simply, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Your spirit may have been damaged by corrupting influences in the world or by your own choices, but through Christ it can be renewed and transformed!
Where to Begin?
It can be quite daunting to set forth on the great expedition of spiritual development. “After all,” you might think, “what if I fail?” “What if I don’t know how to even begin?” “What if it doesn’t work for me?” “What if I don’t have what it takes?” “What if God doesn’t respond?” And on and on our doubts and uncertainties go. While these fears are understandable in light of the immense stakes, they need not paralyze us before we begin.A Christian counselor can assist you on your journey of spiritual development by helping you give a voice to these fears so that they can be dealt with openly rather than swept under the rug in shame. Honesty is the best place to start.
Negative thoughts such as “I will fail” can become habitual, automatic reactions to any and all attempts to make positive changes. In fact, modern studies in neuroplasticity demonstrate how such thoughts can actually reshape the physical structure of the brain as grooves are worn by oft-repeated thoughts.
However, the encouraging news is that these changes are not permanent, that the brain can be reshaped again by introducing new thoughts! This physical feature of our brains has been beautifully designed by our Creator for our benefit.
A skilled counselor can help you begin to “re-wire” your mind by exploring new thought patterns with you and gently guiding you to spend time and effort focusing your thought life on more uplifting messages. This same technique was prescribed by the apostle Paul long ago when he wrote to the church in Philippi, urging them: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
It is important to note that if the suggested change in thought content is too radical at first, it can be difficult for the mind to accept the new thought. For example, it might be useful to slightly modify the thought “I will fail” into something softer, such as “I am afraid of failing.” This minor change can open the door to invite in the “perfect love” of God, which “casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
This strategy of replacing well-worn thoughts with new, more helpful ones is never quick or easy. In fact, it requires concentrated, sustained effort. But spiritual development, like anything of value, was never meant to come easy.
The replacement of destructive thought patterns with the truths of Scripture can be downright grueling at first, but just as muscle hypertrophy (growth) requires “trauma” to the muscle fibers, so the mind must struggle through the tension of re-directing thoughts in order to activate spiritual growth. Eventually, the goal is to put on the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) by claiming Scriptural truth.
As the great old Scottish writer Henry Drummond put it, “If a man does not exercise his arm he develops no biceps muscle; and if a man does not exercise his soul, he acquires no muscle in his soul, no strength of character, no vigor of moral fiber, nor beauty of spiritual growth.”
Catch the Vision
In order to motivate yourself to embark on the voyage of spiritual development, it is vital that you catch the vision of the abundant life you were made to enjoy in Christ. A good example of this is found in Peter’s second epistle:
“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.” – 2 Peter 1:3-7
What an immense and glorious vision! What could be higher than the calling to “participate in the divine nature”? The benefits of escaping “the corruption of the world” listed in this passage are far beyond the highest hopes most people ever have for themselves. And yet the vision alone is not enough.
As Dallas Willard writes, “The vision is clear, and no one open to it can mistake what it means. But while all is clear and desirable, we must admit that, in many historical periods as well as today, Christians generally only find their way into this divine life slowly and with great difficulty, if at all . . . . Why should this be so? Surely, the life God holds out to us in Jesus was not meant to be an unsolvable puzzle! And that only leaves us with the explanation that, for all our good intentions and strenuous methods, we do not approach and receive that life in the right way.”
The Way of Humility
If we are going to begin to construct our spiritual development on the foundation of Christ, we must first do so by following his example of humility. We must “have the same mindset of Christ Jesus” who “made himself nothing” and “humbled himself” (Philippians 2:5-11).
As Thomas Watson wrote, “The right manner of growth is to grow less in one’s own eyes.” Referring to Christ, John the Baptist wisely reflected, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Spiritual development is simply a progression toward actually doing the things that Jesus taught. It requires a change of the inner self, or the heart, where our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions originate.
If you want to set out on the resplendent journey of spiritual development, a Christian counselor can support and guide you in the process of building your life on the unshakable foundation of Christ.
“Surrounded,” courtesy of Hanbyul Jeong, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Grounded,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Look Up,” courtesy of Justin Main, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Glencoe,” courtesy of Paul Morris, unsplash.com, CC0 License