Slow Spiritual Growth (the only kind)

“So that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:7

Are you where you thought you’d be at this point in life? I’m not talking about geographically, professionally, or financially, but more deeply. Are you handling life better? Do you feel stronger? More settled? More confident? Are you reaping the benefits today of a life-long pursuit of a deeper relationship with God?

I don’t recall, frankly, whether it was Leslie or I who said one time “I thought I’d be further along by this time.” I have that feeling every time I’m a bit out of sorts. I may have doubts about my future. Or I may find myself at the mercy of my latest self-centered passion. I react far too strongly to some aspect of my daily existence. I’ve let some soul-disturbing thief break through the peace that God set to guard my heart. Then I wonder if I’ve really made much progress.

For some people this kind of experience becomes the occasion to doubt if the whole thing is true. Convinced that they’re no better off than they were years ago, they decide to fling away from it all for a while.

Peter would understand. The verse above rings with power and confidence. It inspires with its call to a genuine faith that is the result of various trials by fire. This is Peter at his supreme best. He knows what he believes. He’s passionately and unswervingly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ.

And it wasn’t always like that.

We’re a couple of weeks after Easter as I tap out this little devotional. If we go back to a couple of weeks after the first Easter we’re likely to find Peter fishing. He and the other disciples had been commissioned to go and change the world, but at the opening of the last chapter of John, Peter said “I’m going fishing.”

Now the reason for that diversion probably has a lot to do with some residual shame Peter felt about his denials. The point here, however, is that fear and doubt had combined to bring him to a screeching halt. He felt like a failure. No progress. No growth. No use in pretending. So he went fishing.

The great advantage we have with this character in the New Testament is that we have a letter from him about 30 years later. That’s where the quote comes from. Thirty years after casting aside his mission and perhaps his faith, he wrote with a passion we expect from one of the founders of the church. The fact is, he had grown tremendously over those decades, though early on, and perhaps at many intervening points, he wondered if he was worthy and if it was all worth it.

Of course it was worth it for Peter, and it’s worth it for us. We’re growing whether we realize it or not. The chief problem I think is that we tend to judge our entire lives on the basis of our latest spiritual selfie. That one split-second portrait is likely to be very unflattering, especially if I take it during a fit of minor road rage, or in the express check-out line behind the person who has 13 items. There are many times throughout each day that I don’t feel like a very settled and mature Christian.

God, of course, doesn’t take split-second snapshots. Thank God. He watches the whole life with the advantage of knowing how it will end. He doesn’t panic, or throw up His hands in frustration when I’m less than my best or even when I’m at my worst.

God knows what I’m still learning: that spiritual growth is slow. It’s a sometimes frustrating combination of insight and incremental implementation. I know a whole lot more than I’m able to put into practice, but failure should never mean that I stop practicing. It takes time for insight to make a lasting difference.

Have you ever watched a 3-D printer? The jets sweep back and forth over the object being created. Watch it for a few minutes and you can’t tell any difference. Give the printer a few hours, however, and you have a human ear or a complex part for NASA. Genuine spiritual growth is like that. Spiritual growth is so slow that you often can’t tell a difference in the short run.

And because of that it’s often subtle. Just like God usually is. I’m always kind of amused by people who say that Jesus didn’t claim to be God, especially in the Synoptic gospels. But based on what we do know of God, would we expect Jesus to tromp around Israel hollering “Look at ME! I’m God! I’m God!”?

For the most part, throughout the Bible, God prefers subtlety to splashy power displays. The plagues on Egypt were, by and large, an exception. Even Jesus when He performed miracles often told the beneficiaries to be quiet about it. Why? Because subtlety builds faith.

It takes no real faith to believe in a God who scrawls His will across the skies. However, if we understand faith as a kind of spiritual faculty, like sight or hearing, then subtlety is the only way to make it stronger. God’s goal for us is always to strengthen our faith, one aspect of which is trust.

My experience with spiritual growth is that God gives me an insight, and then tells me to hang on to it even when the evidence seems rather thin. I may want Him to be repetitive and obvious. He says “have faith.”

Thirty years after doubt, Peter knew that genuine faith came through testing. It only comes through testing. The combination of pressure, heat, and time produces a diamond or a mountain range. Those same qualities produce a soul fit for eternity. It’s the only way.

Don’t be discouraged for long by the frustrations that are part of every life. None of them have either silenced God or stilled His hand. He is working. Frankly, we’re just plain awful at self-appraisal. So keep the faith and try to glorify God through whatever you face. You’re growing.


Dr. Terry Ellis

April 30, 2017

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1 Comment
  1. Love it. Most encouraging. I'm in an "in-between" state right now. We believe God is leading us in a certain way but it is not happening as yet. Nothing is going to plan. The other individual involved in this venture is impossibly positive and nothing seems to discourage her. Me, I struggle with the wait. I have noticed that God takes no notice of my complaints. I am 65 and I see my life drifting at present. One of the things that has come to my attention is how often patience and faith are linked. There is nothing like a good long wait to prove that you have both patience and faith operating. So we'll get there, just not as soon as I would like