Five Patterns for Spiritual Growth

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As the New Year begins for many of us a new set of commitments or resolutions are developed. Something about the transition from an old year into a new one always brings a measure of self-reflection and recalibration to my life. 1 John 2:6 reminds me that, "whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked." My life must be patterned and shaped by Jesus' life. Disciples of Jesus are people who are becoming like Christ in every sphere of their lives because they have been united with him through his life, death, and resurrection.

Many of us long to be better people. I know I want 2017 to be a year of growth and improvement. But I don't want to just grow or improve for the sake of saying I improved myself. I want to reach the goal for which I have been created and redeemed. I want to walk as Jesus walked.

If you're like me though that last sentence needs some definition. Specifically, how will I walk as Jesus walked in new and growing ways this year?

If I look at Jesus' life on this earth in the Gospels I notice a set of patterns that come out about the way in which he lived. In a future post I will elaborate more on where these patterns are seen in Jesus' life, and why I have identified them as the matrix by which we can discern growth and maturity within our Christian lives. But for the sake of the rest of this post, I want to identify the patterns and ask a probing question that will help you identify some specific ways you can grow in 2017 to walk as Jesus walked. Here they are:

Worship

We are created to be worshippers. God has hardwired that into our DNA. We were created to worship him above all other things. However we have chosen to worship false idols and exchanged worshipping God for the things that were created. Jesus, however, never exchanged the worship of God for another created thing. He lived a life of devoted worship by always glorifying and exalting his Father above all else.

In 2017, what idol in your heart will you fight to cast down and replace with a true worship of God?

Learning

Unlike God I am not all-knowing. And yet Jesus said that true life is "that [we] know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3)." If true life is knowing God then I have not arrived and so I must grow in my knowledge and understanding of him. To say with Paul, "that I may know him!" Jesus himself displayed a pattern of growing in "wisdom and stature and favor with God and man" (Luke 2:52) and gave himself to understanding his Father's will in all circumstances.

In 2017, how will you posture your life so that you can know God more deeply? What will your pattern of learning be?

Community

The first thing that God found that was "not good" in Creation was the lack of community within humanity. Adam was alone. To remedy this God made one like Adam, yet distinct from him so the he and she could live in community together, thus displaying the image of the Triune God, who is eternally in communion with himself. Jesus did not isolate himself in his ministry but formed a family of disciples who were to become the first church. As such, spiritual maturity means living out the new commandment to "love one another just as I have loved you" (John 13:34).

In 2017, how will you work for the unity of the church by living in community with other believers?

Serving

God serves us. He has since our first day. He serves us by being the Creator, by giving us life and breath and every good thing, even when we don't deserve it. Jesus himself stated that he came "not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)." This was the posture of his entire life. He gave himself for us. Walking as Jesus walked means giving myself for the sake of others, even those who are my enemies or are different from me. It means sacrificing my comfort, security, and control to help others.

In 2017, how will you serve others who are different from you or difficult for you to serve?

Witness

Jesus did not merely come as a moral example for us to learn from and emulate. He came to rescue and redeem us from our greatest problems; Satan, sin, and death. He did this through his perfect life, his sacrificial atoning death, and his powerful resurrection from the dead. The action of Jesus on our behalf is a good news message that we must respond to and a message that we must declare to the world. Just as the Father sent him, Jesus says, "I also send you" (John 20:21). We are to be his witnesses in all the world.

In 2017, who will you share the good news of Jesus with?

Growing In the Patterns

My hope is that these Patterns and questions will spark some thinking on your part about how you can grow spiritually. I will be writing more this year on these Patterns, how Jesus embraced them in his own life, and how they can shape and influence our lives so that we will walk as Jesus walked. The fruit of these Patterns however comes from abiding in Christ, which is what happens when we trust in Christ and place our faith and hope in him. My prayer for you is that in 2017 you will embrace Christ as your Lord and in so doing bear the fruit of a growing, vibrant relationship with him through the Patterns of Spiritual Growth.

Discipleship Machines?

I have a friend who makes YouTube videos. Peter goes out to his shop in his garage almost every week and does some wacky thing with wood or epoxy or gummy bears or any combination of the three and creates a video of his project. Usually these projects end up being reduced to a set of steps that a fairly intelligent person could take and reproduce themselves. Just follow the steps, duplicate the process, and you can possess a fancy ring made out of colored pencils, super glue, and resin coating.

Often we think of discipleship as being something like that. Follow the steps, do what we’re supposed to do and we’ll be a saint in no time. Or we might see our spiritual formation to be something like climbing a ladder. One rung at a time we take the next step and move forward. Or, our growth spiritually is like a journey to a far away place. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress illustrates for us what we imagine this development to be like. One step in front of another, from here to glory as we trudge along. “Upward and onward!” might be the battle cry.

As helpful as those images can be to our imaginations and pursuit of spiritual growth, I often wonder if they are failing to tell the entire story? Don’t get me wrong, Christian living is biblically envisioned as a pursuit or a goal, even a race. We are called “sojourners” in this world. But when we think about spiritual growth we often merely allow it to be a linear project. And when something is defined by linear steps it can become very easy to think that by taking those steps we can mass-produce a project. Consider our “Automation Alley” environment. Ford and others were clever in building not just a automobile (which had already been done). They were geniuses for automating the process of building thousands of automobiles. It worked for machines. I’m not confident however that this sort of automation is possible in making disciples.I don’t think the New Testament writers had this in mind either. There doesn’t seem to be a “one size fits all” process or class to discipleship.

Paul, instead, envisioned it this way. He called our spiritual formation saying, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15). Paul describes our maturity as growing up. He describes the end result of our discipleship just a few verses earlier by saying that we “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13, NIV). To put these two verses together Paul is directing us to the fact that our discipleship process is to grow up to the fullness of Christ. Elsewhere he comments that our transformation is “into the same image” as we behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18). Simply put, discipleship is growing up to look like Christ.

This helps me because it allows me to grow into a person instead of trying to reach a far away goal. The little “wins” that come along today won’t ultimately determine my spiritual success. Nor will the temporary and momentary sins and sufferings that slow my progress and my growth. I will grow to become like Christ. I’m not some project that is either a success or failure. I’m called to a person, to be like a person, and to grow as a person. Not a machine. The plan of discipleship is to be like Christ. If that means taking a class to know his Word better, good. If that means spending time in relationship with others who are wise and helpful, good. If that means walking into the valley of the shadow of death through some difficult providence, this is well and good too. I am growing up into Christ. I am not being molded into a machine.