“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)
God is primarily in the business of remodeling our thought processes – our values, attitudes, ways of viewing things. This inner mind is the primary arena for growth. A normal Christian loves more and more like God loves; grows in self-control, contentment, humility, and courage; grows in understanding of God’s ways; and is increasingly other-oriented and less self-oriented in the choices of life.
The inner transformation is visible in outward conduct. One’s character changes, and even those personality traits that reflect sinful thought patterns are changed. Note that this growth into more Christlike behavior is in areas of unconscious sin or sins of omission, falling short of Godlike qualities. In deliberate sin there is no pattern of gradual growth. People do not reduce their bank robberies annually as they “grow in grace.” They do not lie less frequently or cheat in fewer matters. In the Old Testament there was no redemption for presumptuous sins (e.g., Exod. 21:14; Num. 15:30-31), and in the New Testament that type of deliberately chosen sin occurs consistently in lists that identify those who are unredeemed and under judgment (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Rev. 21:8).
In matters where a person makes a deliberate choice, the normal Christian will choose God’s way. But much of our behavior falls short of Christlikeness involuntarily and even unconsciously. It is in this area that the normal Christian grows steadily to reflect more and more accurately the likeness of Christ.
God does influence our minds directly, but His primary method of bringing about growth is through what are commonly called “means of grace,” or conduits of divine energy. In these means we are not passive but must participate actively. Even though God indeed works in us both the willing and the doing of His good pleasure, we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13). Let us consider four tools of the Spirit for spiritual growth.
Prayer. Through prayer our companionship with God reaches its highest intensity. Not only do we grow more like Him through this companionship, but we find that prayer is the great means of victory at the moment of temptation.
Scripture. The Bible is God’s means of revealing His character and thus His will for our thoughts and actions. Therefore, the more we know His Word, the higher potential we have for conforming to His will. It is the milk and bread and meat of the soul. Furthermore, Jesus demonstrated in His hour of temptation that Scripture is a great weapon in spiritual warfare. As we study it diligently to understand it and as we meditate on it constantly to apply it to life, we will be prepared to use it effectively to overcome temptation.
Church. The congregation of God’s family is indispensable for spiritual growth. United worship and observance of the ordinances, teaching, fellowship, discipline, service, and witness within the responsible structure of the church are God’s ordained means for the growth of each member.
Suffering. Suffering may be God’s great shortcut to spiritual growth. Our response to suffering determines its benefit to us, of course, for the same adversity may be destructive or life building. The response of faith, that is, confidence that God has permitted the trial for His glory and our own good, transforms a potentially evil circumstance into a means of making us more like the Suffering Servant Himself.
These four “tools of the Spirit” are indispensable to Christian growth. But though they are equally available to all, not all Christians seem to mature at the same pace.
Some Christians use the means of grace more diligently than others. Although in a passive sense all believers may be equally “yielded” to the will of God, the Christian life is nevertheless a war, and some are more aggressive and seem to have more of a will to fight. Though faith must rest, relying on God to do what we cannot do, it also must wrestle, struggling in warfare. Satan is the great adversary and destroyer, constantly seeking to immobilize, if he cannot destroy, God’s people. Furthermore, Christians live in a world that is opposed to all they yearn to be. Some seem more aware of these adversaries and more persistent in opposing them.
In a sense, failure to do battle aggressively could be considered a spiritual flaw needing correction. At the same time this difference among Christians may simply be another sign of different levels of maturity. One should, in these matters, deal stringently with oneself and generously in judgment of the other person – both of which responses are the opposite of our natural inclinations!