The uniquely Christian perspective on personal growth I want to offer is not uniquely mine, it has been held by many great believers throughout the centuries. However, it certainly runs against the grain of our self-obsessed, self-glorifying modern western culture.
Come to think of it, I have to honestly admit that it runs against the grain of my own heart. Like all of the men and women I work with in counseling, I have a heart condition: my heart is infected with the disease of pride and selfishness.
Glorification of Self
Most of what you will read online or in self-help books about the topic of personal growth will focus on aspirations like the following:
- How to achieve your personal goals
- How to become your best self
- How to increase your self-confidence
- How to succeed in your career and relationships
- How to find happiness and inner fulfillment
- How to live in harmony with your values and beliefs
- How to get what you want out of life
- How to take control of your life
Sound familiar? Do you feel inspired just reading phrases like these? I can certainly relate. There is a part of me that wants to believe I have immense potential locked up inside of myself, and that if I could only apply the right techniques to unleash it, I would be unstoppable. Motivational speakers and authors capitalize on this impulse in all of us and make millions.
But wait a minute, something isn’t right here. Where is God in this picture? Aren’t all these statements focused on my own little holy trinity: me, myself, and I? Whatever happened to the “purpose of the Lord” mentioned in Proverbs 19:21?
You will find plenty of personal development plans that include “spirituality” or “faith” as one aspect of growth or “one piece of the puzzle.” But this relegates the sovereign King of the universe to playing only a minor supporting role in your life.
Remember who we are talking about here. God is not your wingman, your homeboy, your life coach, or your personal assistant. He’s not here to help you succeed in life. He is the great “I am”, who spoke the universe into existence (Genesis 1:1) and “makes the nations tremble” (Isaiah 64:2). He is the “consuming fire” worthy of reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28-29). In him you “live and move and have your being” (Acts 17:28).
And if you are a Christian, that means he is Lord over your life. Nothing you do apart from him will prosper. His story is what ultimately matters. Your focus should be on how you fit into his narrative, not how he fits into yours.
The Death of Selfishness
Messages that focus primarily on helping you achieve “self-actualization” (reaching your full potential as an individual) run directly contrary to the difficult call of Jesus to deny yourself in order to follow him. In fact, we could come up with a modified list of personal growth aspirations, all scripturally based, that differ sharply from the phrases listed above. Imagine trying to sell a plan for personal growth using the following messages in your ad campaign:
- How to take up your cross daily (Luke 9:23)
- How to suffer for the gospel (2 Timothy 1:8)
- How to lose your life for the sake of Christ (Matthew 10:39)
- How to become a servant (Mark 10:43)
- How to humble yourself in obedience (Philippians 2:8)
- How to be crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20)
- How to die to sin (1 Peter 2:24)
- How to give up everything you have (Luke 14:33)
You would likely attract a much smaller audience using slogans like these, but you would be much closer to God’s plan for personal growth. Please don’t think that I’m trying to dampen your spirits. The growth that God wants to produce in you is spiritual growth, which is actually much richer and fulfilling than the temporary “puffing up” that comes with the ego-stroking, self-serving, quick-fix personal growth plans peddled in the marketplaces of the world.
Think of the “growth” of a helium balloon, which expands quickly, but is ultimately fragile, empty, and easily deflated. By flying too high the balloon dooms itself to certain destruction. Strive to be more like the giant sequoia tree, which grows slowly but is strong and secure.
The tree owes its life to the waters that feed its roots. It raises its branches toward the sky from where it receives essential light, much like arms raised in thankful worship and praise. All of its power and grandeur reflect the glory of the mysterious forces that produced it, demonstrating that “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).
Sometimes we want to skip the uncomfortable part of growth to get to the good stuff more quickly. Do you remember what it was like being a child and feeling anxious to grow up? I have to admit that I often demand immediate results. This desire clouds my judgement so that I am easily led astray by promises to deliver instant gratification. Can you relate?
Even if we couch our impatience in Christian terms to make it more palatable, we often focus much more on the result of growth than on the process of growth. We love focusing on how “when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10b), forgetting that the “refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2) is incredibly painful, and that it is intensely unpleasant to be “poured out like a drink offering” (2 Timothy 4:6).
You might not be thinking “sign me up!” at this point, but stay with me. If you’ve made it this far, you are hardier than most! Now I want to briefly explore some of the themes of spiritual growth (sometimes called spiritual development). For this, I will be leaning heavily on the profound writing of the late Dallas Willard in his book Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ.
The Focus of Personal Growth
As a Christian counselor, I’m interested in ways to simplify complex messages in order to communicate them to my clients during our brief time together. It is always a good idea to know the answer to the question, “What is the point?”
Willard does a great job of concisely boiling down the focused intent of personal growth from the Christian perspective. He writes, “The simplicity of spiritual formation lies in its intention. Its aim is to bring every element in our being, working from inside out, into harmony with the will of God and the kingdom of God. This is the simple focus. We must keep it constantly before us and not be distracted by other things, no matter how good they appear.”
Staying focused on the big picture is essential whenever pursuing a goal. There is a constant danger of becoming distracted or sidetracked and wandering from the path. You constantly run the risk of zeroing in on one element of the process (usually your personal favorite), making it the ultimate focus. Truthfully, it is usually the areas where you struggle that need the most attention. Every individual element of spiritual growth must serve and yield to the supreme focus.
Is This Where You Give the 3 Easy Steps?
Be wary of plans that promise “simple formulas” for growth or success, even Christian ones. At worst, these are marketing schemes to drive up profits. At best, they are misguided applications of the idea of “trusting God” that claim to eliminate the need for any strain, effort, or endurance on your part. God is ultimately responsible for your growth, but the process is often rigorous on your end also.
As Willard writes, “There are no formulas–no definitive how-to’s–for growth in the inner character of Jesus. Such growth is a way of relentless seeking. But there are many things we can do to place ourselves at the disposal of God, and ‘if with all our hearts we truly seek him, we shall surely find him’ (Jeremiah 29:13, PAR). Or, as the prophet Azariah said, ‘If you seek Him, He will let you find Him’ (2 Chronicles 15:2; see also 15:4). We can count on his goodness.”
Many of the clients I work with struggle with low self-confidence, which inhibit their efforts to pursue growth. But here there is good news for the seeker: Your personal inadequacies are no hindrance to what God can accomplish!
Willard again: “Of course, we cannot realize this goal on our own. But there is no need for that. God has made provision for achieving this aim. To ‘grow in grace’ means to utilize more and more grace to live by, until everything we do is assisted by grace. Then, whatever we do in work or deed will all be done in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17). The greatest saints are not those who need less grace, but those who consume the most grace, who indeed are most in need of grace–those who are saturated by grace in every dimension of their being. Grace to them is like breath.”
Why Isn’t This More Popular?
Unfortunately, you won’t find a lot of people pursuing this type of growth, even within the church. One of the key reasons for this is a lack of willingness on the part of the believer. As Chesterton famously wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.”
Willard put it well: “The problem of spiritual transformation (the normal lack thereof) among those who identify themselves as Christians today is not that it is impossible or that effectual means to it are not available. The problem is that it is not intended. People do not see it and its value and decide to carry through with it. They do not decide to do the things Jesus did and said.”
“The means to spiritual formation are available. In the spiritual life, it is actually true that ‘where there is a will there is a way.’ This is true here because God is involved and makes his help available to those who seek it. On the other hand, where there is no will (firm intentions based on clear vision) there is no way. People who do not intend to be inwardly transformed, so that obedience to Christ ‘comes naturally,’ will not be – no matter what means they think of themselves as employing. God is not going to pick us up by the seat of our pants, as it were, and throw us into transformed kingdom living, into ‘holiness.’”
In their book How People Change, Timothy Lane and Paul Davit Tripp point out another reason that spiritual growth is not pursued: an unwillingness to give up sin in your life. Drawing on the teachings in the book of James, Lane and Tripp write, “An essential element of growing in grace is a willingness to look at what fuels the ungodly responses in your life. ‘Purify your hearts,’ says James. Look at what you’ve allowed to become more attractive to you than the Lord. ‘Wash your hands,’ he continues. Exchange your sinful responses for godly ones. It is all by grace, but that does not mean we are passive! Christian growth is warfare. It is worth doing the hard work of discovering what leads us away from this glorious God.”
If you want to pursue the kind of true personal growth that Jesus calls us to, start today. Contact me or another Christian Counselor on this site to begin your journey on the road to growth and flourishing that has eternal value.
Lane, T. S., & Tripp, P. D. (2008). How people change. Greensboro, N.C: New Growth Press.
Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the heart: Putting on the character of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
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