I have been praying and thinking a lot recently about spiritual growth. Much of this thought relates to working through my own growth process, including my reflection and learning from times of stagnation. But I am also intrigued about how spiritual growth works in others, for the purpose of fulfilling the great commission through disciple making.
What God has allowed me to understand will likely not come as a revelation to anyone who spends time in the Word, and it was not a surprise to me — more like an “Aha! Of course!” moment. I have learned that spiritual growth — deepening faith — does not happen absent the presence of the Holy Spirit. Throughout my life, I have grown in head knowledge of the Bible, but lagged at times in corresponding spiritual growth. My mind goes to James’ warning to us that head knowledge is not enough, for even the demons believe that God is real, and they shudder (James 2:19). Just because I know things about God, doesn’t mean I know God (Matthew 7:21-23).
So what is missing when I experience stagnation or drifting away? There are many things that can be the cause: unrepentant sin, misaligned focus, selfish ambition, laziness in spiritual disciplines, etc. But the thing God has made me see recently is that, oftentimes, my stagnation or drifting away is due to the absence of the Holy Spirit in my life.
In Philippians, Paul passes along one of my favorite pieces of wisdom. Paul gives two instructions in closing his letter to the Philippians that are hugely helpful to me. First, Paul says don’t be anxious. Easier said than done. Just give me a few moments, and I can come up with an impressive list of things to be concerned, anxious or flat out worried about if I am looking from a fleshly perspective. But Paul says do this: stop, then pray — with thanksgiving, humbly make your request known to God. Once you do that, Paul tells us that something miraculous happens. He says that a peace that surpasses all understanding will wash over us. A peace that you were certain was not possible for you just moments earlier suddenly fills your heart. I love that, but that is not what caught me recently. It was the instruction that immediately follows.
Verses 8 and 9 are the goldmine here. Paul tells his readers to focus on the good and then to put into practice in our lives the things that we have learned and received and heard and seen in Paul. When we do that, the God of peace will be with us. So, if you’re stressed, stop and pray and receive peace. But if you want the God of all heaven and earth to be with you — to abide in you — then be intentional about how you live. Follow Paul’s example.
So, what does the Holy Spirit have to do with this? The Holy Spirit is who Jesus promised would come after He departed the earth. We are told that the Holy Spirit would take up residence within our bodies — that He would literally be with us. However, we need to understand that God cannot dwell where there is uncleanness. God calls for His dwelling places to be holy as He is holy. Much like the Lord instructed Moses to put the unclean outside the camp because the Lord dwelt within (Numbers 5:1-4; also Deuteronomy 23:9-14), we should not expect a holy and perfect God to abide in us while we are actively or passively missing the mark.
So, what this means for me is that I must be active in my faith in order to make my body a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit. Working to live like Paul, who lived like Jesus (not forgetting that we are to model Jesus as well (1 Peter 2:21). When my life consists of obeying God, then my body is a suitable temple for the Holy Spirit to occupy. But when I fail to do those things that God commands of me, I drift away (Hebrews 2:1) and I become an inhospitable place for the Holy Spirit to dwell.
Caution here, however. I am not for a second saying that works lead to salvation and life. But I am saying that true faith is marked by obedience. I obey, God honors that obedience and abides in me via the Holy Spirit. Then the good that I do, I do by the power of the Spirit. It is by God’s power that all of this happens, but I must act. I don’t understand exactly how that works. But I am okay with that, just like Solomon (see Ecclesiastes 8:14-17).
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26).
So, here’s the crux of the matter for me. There are many times that the enemy convinces me that I am doing well. There are times that I go through the motions and increase my head knowledge, yet my heart is unchanged. The reality is that I am responsible for that stagnation. The call to follow is a call to action. Saving faith is not passive. I can’t be. If we believe what the Word says — if we really believe — we must act. When we act, we will grow. But not of our own action, rather because we then receive the Holy Spirit who changes us with His power.
It is not the obvious falling away that is most dangerous, but the slow and often imperceptible self involved move to head from heart. Failing to follow through and, therefore, falling away.