21st Century Discipleship Resources

Teaching Extra 07 - See how they grow (1)

Growing spiritual roots

An opening reading: 1 Peter 1:22- 2:3

A. Being born, growing up

1. When people become Christians they are born again - that is, they become spiritually alive, just as once they became physically alive (John 3:5-6). The most natural thing in the world is that newborn children start to grow. When this does not happen, we are very concerned. Birth leads to a new experience of life which, in turn, leads to growth. Where the growth ceases, the life is at risk. In the same way, we expect newborn Christians to grow and make spiritual progress in their knowledge and love of God.

2. Spiritual growth, like any kind of healthy growth, is a bit of a mystery. Things grow ' of themselves'. In other words, they don't grow because they are told or commanded to do so, it just happens. When farmers plough their fields and plant their crops, they can do everything to prepare the ground and provide the right conditions. But at the end of the day, they are unable to make anything grow. Paul the apostle put it like this: 'I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow' (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Living things also tend to grow in spurts - times of rapid growth are followed by times of slower growth. Both are necessary in order for the growth to be strong. Christians sometimes feel they are making good progress and at other times that they have 'levelled off'. This is as it should be, so long as times of consolidation lead on to new stages of development. If life were always exciting, we would start crying out for a rest!

3. Children grow naturally, but they do need to be given the right conditions in which to grow and flourish. These include good and nourishing food, loving parents and families, warmth, safety and security and stimulation for their minds and abilities. Given these conditions, growth will happen in nearly all circumstances. So it is with spiritual growth - the right conditions enable it to happen. We do need to be concentrating on those activities which are spiritually healthy. As with most other areas of life, if we allow ourselves to drift, we won't progress.

4. There is, however, one significant difference between physical and spiritual growth. We have to want to grow spiritually. By and large people grow physically (upwards and outwards!) whether or not they choose to do so. Spiritual growth, however, requires a decision on our part to set ourselves towards God and make spiritual progress. We have to choose to be serious about God. This is why Paul the apostle encourages us to 'set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things' (Colossians 3:1-2).

B. Conditions for growth

What, then, are the conditions that make for spiritual growth? As with physical growth, they have to do with our diet, opportunities for the right kind of stimulation and relationships.

1. Prayer and Bible study must be top of the list. Exposure to the light of the sun plays a big role in growth. Similarly, a large part of spiritual growth has to do with prayer - opening ourselves up to the light of God. Prayer is communication with God. It often involves words but might also mean being still in God's presence, or thinking things through, knowing that God knows all of our thoughts. The Bible frequently encourages us to pray. For instance, 'Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near' (Isaiah 55:6). 'Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; everyone who seeks finds; and to everyone who knocks the door will be opened' (Matthew 7:7-8). Prayer does not necessarily mean asking God for things. Much of the time when we pray, we are simply bringing our lives into line with what God wants, or trying to see the big picture of his will and purpose. Even when we do ask for specific things for ourselves, God's answer may surprise us. He might, someone has said, reply: Yes, No, Wait, DIY or mind your own business!

Bible study is the equivalent of eating a healthy and balanced diet. As we read the Bible, we come to understand more about the mind and purpose of God and this in turn brings us wisdom. This is why it says that the Bible is 'able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus' (2 Timothy 3:15). Having wisdom means more than having information or knowledge - it involves knowing how we should live and how we should use the knowledge we have. Learning and exploring the truth about God, understanding God's mind, is exciting.

3. A child needs stimulation so that it can begin to make use of its mental and physical abilities. It gains this as it engages with the world around about it. In the same way, new Christians begin to engage with a series of activities which should stimulate them. These include worship (learning to express love and praise to God), service (making use of our abilities in the service of others) and witness (sharing our faith with other people). As we attempt each of these, we are like children learning new skills. Bit by bit we grow in confidence and ability.

4. Not least is the need for relationships. Children learn more from their parents and other family members than from anybody else in the early years of their lives. Relationships are, in fact, of vital importance to us at every stage of life. They are another of the sources of stimulation that we all need. Friendships and fellowship with other Christians are some of the greatest sources of help and encouragement any of us could have. More on this later.