Alive and Growing
Alive and Growing
Juan and Maria were enthralled with their new baby son. Words could hardly describe the thrill of new life they shared. Yet they were very aware of the responsibilities that rested on them. The infant’s survival depended on them: on the care they gave and on the provisions they made for his needs.
How quickly he grew! Maria could almost see him developing. Daily he gained weight and grew larger, thriving in the healthful, loving environment.
We might expect that as the weeks extended into months and years, normal growth and development would occur. It would not be too difficult to imagine how Juan might appear after several years. The baby was alive and growing!
In a similar way, the normal expectation of spiritual life is growth toward spiritual maturity. In this lesson you will discover that new spiritual life must be nurtured for growth to occur. You will also learn what is needed to nurture spiritual growth.
The Nature of Spiritual Growth
The Standard for Spiritual Growth
When you heard and believed the Christian good news, you began living an exciting new life. This experience is called new birth or spiritual birth. Everyone who has this new life in Christ begins by being born spiritually. Unlike biological life, which is limited by time to a normal life cycle, the germ of spiritual life is eternal. In people this germ of spiritual life resembles human infancy: it is subject to growth, development, and maturity.
Jesus spoke specifically of the possibilities inherent to this germ of life: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). You brought to Him a life filled with sin that had separated you from Him. He gave you a new life, His life, and He wants you to have this abundant life to the fullest.
When we speak of life to the fullest, we refer to the quality of life one can experience. Physical life, as we all know, can be sustained at a bare existence for some time. However, at this level one could not be very active, productive, or fulfilled. By contrast, when one eats well, lives in a healthy, secure environment, and exercises properly, one develops an abundant reservoir of energy. In this condition the individual fulfills the purpose for which he or she was designed, that is, living to the fullest.
When you were born spiritually, the spirit of Jesus Christ came to live in you. This birth generated the potential for spiritual development, development into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:27). Now that the spirit of Jesus resides in you, He assumes control of your life. As the Lord of your life, He lives His life out through you as far as you surrender to His Lordship over your life (Romans 8:9–11).
Who can tell what the future may hold for a newborn? She is a bundle of potential and capabilities which need development. If given proper care and nourishment, a healthful environment, adequate encouragement, and ample opportunities, this child will develop into a whole, mature person. This baby has within her everything she will ever become, but in latent form which must be developed.
We can transfer the idea of a newborn infant’s growth and development toward maturity to spiritual life. Our Lord wants each of us to experience life to the fullest. How does one experience fullness of spiritual life? As we have noted above, you began to live the new life when you experienced new birth. You began like a spiritual baby, as a babe in Christ. In every way you were completely God’s child. Yet you were not fully developed. To experience the fullness of the new life, spiritual growth and development must occur.
In general, as one responds to the Spirit’s control, he or she grows spiritually. Growth leads to awareness, not only of the marvelous privileges but also of the responsibilities. Understanding of spiritual life and God’s Word increases. God’s purpose for one’s life becomes increasingly clear as the new believer walks with the Spirit in control of his or her life (Galatians 5:25). The germ of spiritual life must be nourished, nurtured, and exercised for optimum development.
The Need for Spiritual Growth
Can you think of a person who is several years old but has not developed beyond the infancy stage? Immediately you would recognize that something was wrong because we expect growth and development to accompany life. That which is alive and normal will grow toward maturity.
Jesus taught the principle of spiritual growth to His disciples. He compared spiritual life to a vine and its branches, saying that no individual branch on the vine can be productive in and of itself. It must be in vital contact with the life of the vine. Then it can produce ever more abundantly as it develops and matures. In the same way, no Christian can mature and be spiritually productive without remaining in vital contact with the true Vine, Jesus Christ (John 15:1–16, but notice especially vv. 4–5, 8, and 16). The only alternative to spiritual growth and development is spiritual decay, degeneration, and death (John 15:2, 6).
A person is not an infant one day and an adult the next. Maturity is a time-consuming process. Spiritual life develops according to this same growth principle. While we begin as babes, growth and development are to be expected. Just as a baby grows toward adulthood, so a babe in Christ must move toward spiritual maturity. We expect this growth because the person is spiritually alive. And what is alive and normal grows, develops, and matures as long as it is nourished properly. Only then can one accomplish the spiritual purpose for which God has called him or her, that is, to bear lasting fruit such as the Father desires (John 15:16).
Nurture and Spiritual Growth
Every mother knows that if her baby is to survive and grow, he must be nurtured. Therefore, mothers lovingly care for their babies by supplying food and providing for their total needs. Without such tender care, babies would soon die.
In a similar way, spiritual life needs nurture. Helping someone experience spiritual birth is but the beginning of our Christian responsibility. Following new birth is the need to nurture spiritual life so the person will survive spiritually and will mature. While spiritual infants are fully God’s children, they have just begun to develop their spiritual potential and do not yet experience spiritual life to the full, as their Lord intends. During the early stages of development, they need the support and encouragement of caring spiritual brothers and sisters. Nurture of spiritual life is thus needed for new converts to survive spiritually and to grow toward Christian maturity.
You will recall, perhaps, Jesus’ words to Peter concerning his ministry. The task of nurturing spiritual life involves people at various stages of Christian maturity from infant lambs to mature sheep (John 21:15–17). Obviously, Peter understood the need and accepted the challenge to care for the total flock, for he mentions both the spiritual infants (1 Peter 2:2) and the rest of the flock (1 Peter 5:1–4). Moreover, Peter appeals to other Christian workers to nurture spiritual life in the same way. He knew that it must be nurtured to survive and to reach its full potential.
Elements of Spiritual Growth
We have discussed the importance of those things which help sustain physical life: food, a favorable environment, support during infancy, exercise, and loving nurture. Spiritual life, similarly, matures normally when it has the necessary growth elements. It thrives on the Word of God, is nurtured by healthy Christian relationships, is stimulated by use (that is, as one prays, exercises spiritual gifts, and applies knowledge of the Word to his or her own life), and abounds as it shares its life with others. Thus, when one matures spiritually, one completes the intended life cycle: birth, growth, development, maturity, and reproduction. He fulfills the purpose for which he exists. Such a response brings glory to God and is the only appropriate response for the benefits of salvation and eternal life. Before we detail the elements of spiritual growth, let us examine the levels of spiritual growth.
Levels of Spiritual Growth
There are levels of development through which a person passes as he develops toward maturity. One of the marks of these levels of development is the ability to receive and digest different types of foods. Infants can handle milk, and milk is all they need to facilitate proper growth. But soon the baby requires something more substantial: cereal, porridge, or finely chopped vegetables and fruit. Later the child requires a fully balanced diet, which should include meat. Two basic facts emerge from these observations: 1) food is essential to proper growth and development, and 2) food must be appropriate for the stage of development.
Again, the illustration transfers to spiritual life. Spiritual life requires spiritual food to nurture spiritual growth. However, spiritual food must also be appropriate to the level of spiritual development.
The Bible, God’s Word, is compared to spiritual food. It is like milk for spiritual infants, and it is like solid food for those who are mature spiritually.
Now, let us examine three levels of human existence that are described in 1 Corinthians 2:10–3:3. These are the man without the Spirit, the worldly man, and the spiritual man. In these verses the apostle Paul describes the characteristics of each level. From this description we can determine what is needed to produce spiritual growth that leads to maturity.
The man we shall consider first is the man without the Spirit. He has not been born spiritually; therefore, he is spiritually dead (2:14). He is at the lowest level of human existence. The man at the second level is described as worldly (3:3). He has experienced the new birth and is therefore alive spiritually; however, he has not developed beyond the stage of spiritual infancy. At the third level is the spiritual man (2:12– 13, 15). He has gained spiritual stature and is able to function in more mature ways.
As these Scriptures indicate, the ability to receive and understand spiritual truth is a major difference among these levels. In fact, the ability to understand God’s Word demonstrates to which level of spiritual maturity a person has attained, if any. As you would expect, the man without the Spirit cannot understand or appreciate spiritual food, for his interests lie in other directions. Paradoxically, the worldly man is a spiritual baby. He must be fed with only spiritual milk as he is able to understand only elementary spiritual truth. He is interested in feeling good and enjoying the blessings of the Lord. But his attention span is short when he is faced with the sobering responsibilities of spiritual adulthood. Thus, he feels no obligation to grow spiritually and develop spiritual muscles. The spiritual man, being more fully committed to the Lord, is maturing in his relationship with God. He is fully satisfied with the deeper doctrinal truths, the meat or solid food of God’s Word. Moreover, he shares this truth with others, encourages those less mature than he, and is able to teach and serve effectively within the body of Christ.
Paul’s teaching on the levels of spirituality shows us that God’s Word is the spiritual food which nurtures spiritual growth. One’s response to the Word, then, determines whether one will progress spiritually toward a healthy and productive period of Christian maturity or remain a spiritual infant with the dangerous signs that accompany prolonged infancy.
Nurture Through the Word
In our discussion on the levels of spiritual development, we noted that God’s Word is the spiritual food which nurtures spiritual growth. One’s spiritual development is directly related to one’s response to the Word of God. Let us examine more closely how the Bible nurtures spiritual growth.
While the physical universe speaks forcefully of our Creator, this revelation is general and incomplete. In the Scriptures, however, God reveals himself more fully. Whereas the physical universe speaks of qualities such as power and wisdom, the Bible reveals His holiness, justice, truth, mercy, and love. The Scriptures also reveal God’s nature, plan, and will for man. In this disclosure God reveals himself.
God’s Word provides us with His plan for our lives and the goals of Christian living. We learn how to serve Him, to correct mistakes, to discern the nature of spiritual life, and to produce spiritual victory. The Bible is God’s blueprint for spiritual life.
The Scriptures nurture spiritual growth because they are quickened by God and are life-giving. The same spiritual life that resides in the Scriptures resides in the Christian. The life of God in the Word is the source of the new life God gives. The spiritual life within responds to the spiritual nourishment in the Word. It is a compatible diet; however, Christians must allow the Word to change what God intends. As they desire what God desires, they grow and develop in their likeness to Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Nurture Through Relationships
Babies are born into families. Each member makes room to accept and accommodate this new family member. The family unit is the setting in which the needs of the newborn are met. Each member gives of himself or herself to meet the needs of the new child and helps nurture this new life. Throughout the development of the child, the family provides the caring, supportive setting in which he can mature. The family experience is one of sharing life, of nurturing one another, and of meeting each other’s needs. The strength of the family relationship is an important factor in nurturing new life.
With spiritual life, association with other Christians contributes to spiritual growth. The caring relationship shared by fellow believers nurtures spiritual growth.
It is often helpful for a new Christian to identify closely with one who is more spiritually mature. In a sense, the more mature Christian can become like a spiritual parent, providing the loving, caring relationship which nurtures spiritual life. Such a person can aid the new Christian in studying and applying God’s Word to his own situation. He can also influence him by his godly example and offer needed encouragement, counsel, and prayer.
God has planned, also, that the local church be a place where spiritual life is nurtured. Many Christians think of the church congregation as the family of God. Helping a new Christian identify with the local church can be compared to helping a new baby relate properly to his family. Local churches, as we have seen, are organized with God-appointed leaders, such as pastors, deacons, and teachers, to help Christians grow toward spiritual maturity (Ephesians 4:11–16). The activities of the church, study of the Word, corporate worship, active evangelism, effective service and education, fellowship, and discipline, are designed to nurture spiritual life and to promote spiritual growth.
Nurture Through Use
Perhaps you have been wondering, “What is the function of a healthy body? Should it be used or should it just be a potential source of productivity? Should its purpose be to please itself only or does it have a responsibility to others? Will its ability to function effectively be impaired if the body is not exercised?” These and other questions come to mind as we consider spiritual life.
As we have seen, Jesus admonished His disciples to become productive. Not only is spiritual health involved in His admonition, but also spiritual life (John 15:1–8). The point is that one must either be fruitful or suffer spiritual loss. Thus the goals of Christian growth and maturity are service and productivity. Just as Christians are admonished to grow and develop (2 Timothy 2:15; 2 Peter 3:18), so are they challenged to share the truth so that the world may know of God’s redeeming grace (Matthew 28:19–20; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). While the writer to the Hebrews implies that mature Christians should be capable of and involved in teaching truth and exercising spiritual discernment (Hebrews 5:12), Paul says explicitly that the various church ministries exist to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:12–13)
As Christians perceive their responsibilities to become Christ’s ambassadors, they share the good news with others. Living, spiritual organisms that are healthy will reproduce. They realize that the process of growth and maturity is not an end in itself. They live to exalt the Author of life and share
His life constantly with those who have not experienced its life-changing power. The mature Christian thus fulfills the purpose for which she was born. Alive and growing, she moves purposefully to do her Lord’s will: building up the body of Christ spiritually and numerically.