Wouldn’t it be nice if Christians could enter a little room, push a button, and in a matter of seconds be instantly transformed from spiritual infants to spiritual giants? The physical maturation process does not work that way, and neither does the spiritual growth process. It takes effort, time, and discipline. No shortcuts exist for spiritual maturity.
The spiritual growth process involves God working in us, the individual believer working out what God is working in, teachers working with us to train and to equip, and fellow believers working together to develop Christlikeness. The apostle Paul revealed God’s process for spiritual growth in the letter written to the church at Philippi.
God Works In
Paul wrote, “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). The initial step of faith begins the journey of God working in us. Just as a process led to our conversion, so a process moves us toward spiritual maturity. In fact, God works in us before he can work through us. Our English word energy comes from the word translated work in verse 13. It is God’s divine energy at work in us and through us to accomplish spiritual maturity. God is always at work in us in the spiritual growth process. He uses people, circumstances, and events to achieve his work.
When a believer comes into relationship with Christ, their eternal destiny is altered. A radical reorientation of priorities occurs. Life’s purpose emerges. But instant liberation from every bad habit or character flaw we’ve ever possessed rarely happens. God working in us is like the landing of an invading army on a beach, and the subsequent rooting out of the enemy as the army fights and claws its way inland to occupy and control the island. At salvation, God establishes a beachhead. The total occupation will come in time as the believer grows and matures, submitting to God’s rule and reign.
Individuals Work Out
Paul added, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12). Notice that Paul didn’t say, “Work for your salvation.” To work for something means to earn it, to deserve it, to merit it. The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is not something we gain by doing good works. It is a free gift of God’s grace.
The verb work out means “to labor to full completion,” such as working out a problem in mathematics. In Paul’s day, the word was used for “working a mine,” getting out of the mine all the valuable ore or “working a field” to harvest a bountiful crop. Today, we use the term work out to describe the physical exercise that results in health and stamina. When Paul wrote, “Work out your salvation,” he was talking about a spiritual workout or spiritual training.
Spiritual growth doesn’t happen by trying harder; it comes about through training. Merely desiring spiritual maturity will never bring it about. I can try very hard to bench press 300 pounds, but it’s not going to happen. To bench press 300 pounds, I need to begin training, starting with lighter weights until I build up my muscles so I can, in time, bench press the heavier weight. Remember Yoda’s statement from Star Wars: “Do or do not, there is no try.”
Training necessitates engaging in spiritual disciplines. We do the things Jesus did to live the way Jesus lived. To live a Christlike life, we order our lives around the practices of prayer, solitude, worship, giving, sacrificing, and serving. These habits need to be consistently practiced.
Teachers Work With
Paul continued, “As you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out . . .” (v. 12). Spiritual growth rarely happens in a vacuum. Maturing believers need the counsel and guidance of teachers. Paul was a teacher to the Philippians. He had instructed and had modeled for them a Christlike life. He was the teacher; they were the students. He was faithful to his calling; they were obedient to his instructions.
Optimal growth occurs when believers study under teachers who inspire, instruct, and challenge believers to new heights. The spiritually hungry student will be open to the instructions, insights, and guidelines of a teacher. Two key elements are necessary for effective teaching: A well-prepared, learned teacher and a teachable, obedient student. A teacher can present insightful and encouraging truth, but if the student fails to hear and to apply the truth, it becomes void. Spiritual growth demands hearing and using the truth.
Believers Work Together
“Therefore, my dear friends” (v. 12), Paul wrote to the church at Philippi. They were a spiritual family. Believers growing spiritually are in a relationship with other believers. Just as we have a relationship with Christ, we have a relationship with like-minded believers who are pursuing spiritual maturity and Christlike behavior.
Business people and athletes talk about the power of a team. The Christian community is no different. We are a team. We need each other. Spiritual growth was never intended to be a solo event. It was always meant to be a relational activity, where believers are accountable to each other, challenge each other, encourage each other, and support each other in the growth process. That is why small groups and Bible study classes are so critical to spiritual growth. Together we go farther and learn more profound truths.
Three tools are used in this partnership and process to enable believers to develop spiritually.
God’s Word teaches us how to live. Those who are serious about spiritual growth will live according to biblical principles, precepts, and promises. Therefore, a believer will read, study, memorize, meditate on, and apply God’s Word.
God’s Spirit guides and informs us as we grow. The Holy Spirit provides the power, conviction, and direction for spiritual growth. The Holy Spirit acts like an internal warning system when we begin to make wrong steps and like an applauding crowd when we take the right steps toward becoming like Jesus. God’s ultimate purpose is to make us like his Son. God’s Spirit uses God’s Word to make God’s child more like God’s Son.
God uses circumstances to mature us. Events are the problems, pressures, heartaches, difficulties, and stresses of life. We rarely grow with opportunities; we grow in the midst of obstacles. Those unfortunate events often cause suffering. And suffering gets our attention like nothing else. C. S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Painful circumstances—whether we bring them on ourselves, other people cause them, or the devil incites them—are used by God to help us grow to Christlikeness as we follow the Spirit’s guidance and learn from God’s Word.
The spiritual growth process won’t be quick or painless, but it will be profitable. As we submit to God, to able teachers, and to fellow believers, we will mature into Christlikeness.