I walked through our yard yesterday to check out the 25 Colorado Blue Spruce trees I planted a few weeks ago. They were bare root seedlings similar to what is shown in the picture to the left. I was looking at the trees to see if I could observe any growth.
Bare root trees come with no dirt around the roots and therefore, the root system endures a set back as they are shipped and then planted. The trees must expend a lot of energy into producing a healthy root system after being planted. In the first year or so, most of the growth will be below ground and not visible.
When we look at the Church, we have people in all stages of spiritual growth. Like the trees, it is sometimes difficult to assess how much growth is really taking place because we cannot see below the surface.
In both trees and people there is danger in assessing the growth by what can be seen on the surface. Just because none can be seen does not mean that growth is not taking place.
In fact, it is the growth below the surface that is the more important. In trees, a strong, developed root system is necessary to sustain the growth above the surface. The developed root system can allow the tree to survive periods of drought, endure high winds and provide the nutrition that the tree requires.
Similarly, the spiritual development in the believer is crucial as a foundation for living the Christian life. Without this spiritual development, the believer will struggle to withstand periods of doubt and trial and will be acting out of superficial conformity rather than conviction.
True change in a person must happen from the inside out. External motivations tend to produce temporary results. The change brought about by external motivation only continues until a stronger motivation replaces it. Whereas internal conviction can withstand the pressures from the outside.
Understand that while we would like to be able to observe and measure the growth in both Christians and trees, without the invisible, subsurface , foundational growth, the external growth cannot be supported.
As I see it the solution is quite simple. The solution is to understand that spiritual growth is all about relationship. It cannot be assessed by do’s and don’ts. It cannot be assessed by lists of “spiritual” disciplines. Spiritual growth can only be assessed by a deepening of the relationship with God.
In John 14:15, Jesus tells us that love for him will result in obedience to his commands. To be in obedience, one has to acknowledge that obedience is the proper response and then work toward understanding the desires of the master to whom obedience is due.
In Romans 15:14-17, Paul talks about the role of preaching / teaching in bringing about faith. So perhaps a good test of spiritual growth is the willingness to hear and interact with Scripture.
The discipleship process has to be focused on deepening the relationship with God. Any process or program that does not have this focus will engender a false sense of maturity or worse yet, spiritual pride.
In focusing on the relationship with God and not on externals, the mentor must not rely too heavily on apparent external change. The external change will eventually show if there is growth, but there may be some lag. Don’t panic and don’t loose sight of the foundation.
If we keep the focus on Jesus Christ and Scripture, growth will come. Isaiah 55:11 says:
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.