In my own life, I've struggled to understand what spiritual growth looks like when its fueled by the Holy Spirit rather than my own efforts. Or I should say, I've attempted spiritual growth by self-effort for so long that I'm just now learning a different way.
Spiritual growth by self-effort has taken on a variety of forms for me, but it's generally looked something like this:
- I decide I need to change. It's usually a behavior, such as being more consistent in spiritual disciplines, and it's usually something fairly general: I need to be a better mom! What is motivating me? Often I feel guilty or someone I admire has shared what they do in a certain area and I want to emulate them. Sometimes it's actually God convicting me but rather than looking intently at my sin and listening intently for His diagnosis, I immediately take responsibility for my own change.
- I do more, try harder. The mantra of spiritual growth by self-effort is always "do more, try harder". It leads me to develop a set of "steps" that I will take in the future to make myself grow and make myself better.
- I do good for a while and then inevitably fail. What happens when I don't do exactly what I set out to do? I am not only dejected but then must muster up the motivation and will to start over again: decide to change, try harder, and on and on. It's an endless cycle of stagnation and condemnation.
I cannot tell you how long I lived this way! Even after coming to an understanding of the gospel of grace, I struggled to understand what role I was to play in my own spiritual growth.
So how do we grow according to the Holy Spirit's power rather than by self-effort?
- First, I can acknowledge that any conviction I sense is from the Holy Spirit if it is specific ("The way you responded to your son in that moment was wrong") and it is hopeful ("Confess your sin to me, and you will be forgiven. Confess your sin to your son. I will help you respond differently next time.") There is a vast difference between self-conviction fueled by guilt, comparison, self-made standards, people-pleasing, or condemnation and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. If it isn't specific and hopeful (truth and grace), I'm placing myself in bondage. If it is the conviction of the Holy Spirit, based on the truths of Scripture, I have a responsibility to respond in obedience. I may cringe at my sin, but I don't have to cower before God. He wouldn't have pointed out my sin if He didn't love me.
- After experiencing conviction, the next thing I do is extremely important. My innate drive is always toward self-effort, so I must carefully place myself before God and allow His probing through Scripture and through prayer. Whereas growth by self-effort causes me to look at and modify my behaviors, the Holy Spirit wants to look at my heart. He wants to point out my idols. He wants to get at the root of my sin, precisely so He can cut it out at the root. This feels very uncomfortable, but I must sit in the discomfort and wait on the Lord to do the heart work needed for permanent change.
- I must confess my sin to God. I confess how I am looking to myself or to others to be my functional savior instead of looking to God. I repent of my sin. I trust by faith that God has forgiven me. And I spend time meditating and searching Scripture and praying on how God meets the very need that I'm looking to this idol to meet. How is Christ greater than the idol to which I'm looking?
- I confess my sin to others. This is an important yet often ignored avenue for spiritual growth. It feels beyond risky to tell even the most trusted friend about the ugliness of my heart. I prefer to handle it all in-house when, in fact, God does so much work in me when I speak my sin out loud to others and receive the ministry of grace and truth from my sisters.
- Finally, I must obey with the Spirit’s help. I cooperate with God by responding in obedience as He leads. I ask Him to help me, to convict me, and to recognize my idols in the future. Over time, as I submit to the Spirit’s work in my life, the root of my sin will wither and I will see growth. The key words are "over time". God's work in us is typically not immediate. His nature is to act as a careful and precise gardener: planting, pruning, and watering at just the right times for maximum fruit.
What about you? How are you growing? Do not resist the very One who can do it!