3 Illusions of Spiritual Growth
“See Dad, can you believe how fast I am now?!” It was her sixth birthday. I watch as she exhibits her newfound speed and familiar enthusiasm. She’d start just in front of me, burst forward for twenty feet. Then she'd stop turn around and with a determined look on her face race back, showing up her former five-year old self.
Some moments are different from others. They float into our presence like a butterfly within reach, but ultimately beyond grasp. Moments like those stay with us. They symbolize an age or a period in our lives. Watching her run is one of those for me. In fact, I’ve returned to that moment many times in order to savor her mix of innocence, awareness, and misunderstanding.
In my life, one spiritual truth that’s helped me uncover many others is that the physical mirrors the spiritual. So a question I’ve been pondering lately is, what causes us to feel like we’ve grown or are growing spiritually—when, in fact, we’re exactly the same? That same mix of innocence, awareness, and misunderstanding isn’t so charming in spiritual life.
After reflecting, I’ve come up with three illusions that cause us to feel like we’ve grown.
The Information Illusion – In his recent book on the subject of information, James Gleick observes, "Information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle." The emphasis on information in our culture is difficult to overstate. After all, knowing is growing, right?! Education is elevated as the way to get ahead in life, so it's not surprising that most churches approach discipleship through an information based paradigm.
And so we feast on new, novel, and innovative ways of thinking about following Jesus. We devour curriculum, we read books, we listen to sermons, we read blogs (but keep this one! J). As we read and consider, our mind sees things differently and it feels like we’ve grown, but knowing isn’t the same as growing.
The illusion here is that information produces growth. Study after study has shown that there’s a huge gap between what Christians know and what they do. Just as turning six doesn’t make my daughter faster, information doesn’t drive transformation. If we want to grow, we must take our “know” and make it show (application). In other words, application helps us change the illusion of growth into a reality.
Been There / Heard That Illusion – As a first-time teacher in SE Asia, my first year was the most difficult. Not only was it my first year teaching kids, but it was also my first year in the culture! I quickly learned that the normal challenges of lesson-planning and grading would be a tough, but just as difficult was the unexpected interruptions and responsibilities. I wasn’t aware of what I didn’t know! As my second year began, I felt much more comfortable, just because I knew what to expect, but there was still a lot I didn’t know.
The illusion is that the longer we follow Christ the more we've got it figured out. This is related to the Information Illusion, but it goes beyond head knowledge because it extends into our faith community's experiences and rhythms. Each year, as Christmas comes along we’re just a bit less open to learning from those Scriptures than we were the year before. As Easter approaches, we go through the motions because we’ve ‘been there and done that’. Our level of comfort rises, so too, does our confidence. When we travel the same road time after time, our awareness of what’s around wanes, and as a result we buy into the illusion that we've grown.
The Discipline Illusion – As we grow spiritually, it doesn’t take long to realize that spiritual disciplines are necessary to steady growth. We begin with the best intentions. Whether it’s daily devotional times of prayer and Scripture or weekly Scripture memory and accountability partners, it all works great…for a while. Not only do we recognize growth in ourselves, but others are noticing it, too. Before long, however, it feels like we’re just going through the motions. What happened? We’re still doing the same things, why isn’t it helping us grow anymore?
The illusion is that the doing produces growth. Disciplines, in themselves, don’t help people grow. When they do it’s because they help us to connect with God. When we approach devotional time (or other discipline) in order to check it off our spiritual to do list, we deceive ourselves into thinking we're growing. In the same way, if we engage the disciplines to prove our own devotion—either to ourselves, God, or others, then we’re missing the point. Spiritual disciplines are, and must remain, the means not the end.
I love these early birthdays of my children. I expect and look forward to their exuberant displays of newfound powers. They are content to believe they’ve changed and aren’t concerned with whether or not it’s objectively true.
As Christ followers, we must ask ourselves the question, are we content with feeling like we’ve grown or are we committed to pursuing the real thing?