It’s hard to see my kids growing. Especially since I am around them all the time, I barely notice the various changes they undergo. Not that I am oblivious to their development; however, it’s too incremental to be readily apparent. Then when out with them we run into someone who hasn’t seen them in ages and we hear the inevitable, “My, the kids are getting big!” People who are mere acquaintances seem to notice more easily.
As a Christian, I can be frustrated with what feels like a lack of spiritual growth. Worse, there are moments when I wonder if instead I am losing ground. At the same time I realize that my expectations for my spiritual experience condition the experience itself. What I expect (or hope for) in my relationship with God is far from what is actually the case. In hospitals, doctors often advise patients and their families to manage expectations. A nice euphemism for “Don’t get your hopes up.” But maybe it is also apt counsel for the spiritual life.
Of course, I do not mean we should not have hope. Nor should I limit God. But perhaps I need to manage my expectations about in my relationship with God. Or to put it another way: what can I really expect to see in terms of my spiritual growth? And what does such growth even mean? Is it something
Underlying these questions, I realize, is an assumption that perhaps I shouldn’t make. To see if our kids are gaining in height, we can use one of those charts that you put on your wall. Or we can also just get them to stand up straight against the wall or door frame and put a pen mark by the top of their head. If we want to know if they’re gaining weight, we can use a scale. Easy to do, easy to see. But the same might not be true of spiritual growth. But even if I can’t see growth when it’s going on does not mean it isn’t happening. Like I said, I don’t always notice when our kids have grown.
Spiritual growth, I think, is at least partly subterranean. Much of the spiritual growth I long for is happening beneath the surface. I suspect God is at work mining in the caverns of my heart. Who knows what diamonds he may unearth, what treasures he may eventually uncover? Work is going on. Progress may even be made. But it doesn’t mean I see it. Nor does it mean growth happens in expected ways.
And expectations are funny things, because I have found myself thinking at times that spiritual growth by necessity means spiritual progress. Growth is always linear. Think of the once popular clichéd aphorism, “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.” But as I stop and think about it, talking about spiritual growth is not the same thing as talking about the growth of a plant or even a human body. I say this because spiritual growth in the Christian faith is always in the context of a relationship. And we all know that relationships are complicated, have their ups and downs, and do not necessarily grow in a predictable, linear way.
A relationship with God, especially, by its very definition escapes expectations and confounds assumptions. While there are things about my relationship with God I probably understand relatively well (thanks to Scripture), there are aspects of the relationship I will never understand this side of eternity (and perhaps not even then!). Yes, God is reliable, faithful, dependable, trustworthy. But his work in us and around us isn’t quantifiable; rather, there is always an element of mystery.
The upshot of this is that I am not the best candidate for judging my spiritual growth. For my part, I can do what Scripture calls “making every effort,” to do my part in cooperating with the work of the Spirit in my life. But the “Spirit blows where he wills.” And this also means that I am not in the position of judging someone else’s spiritual growth. It’s not for me to make judgments about someone else’s relationship with God. Yes, we are called to accountability, but that’s not the same thing. Part of what I am getting at is that there are Christians who can be quite critical of other believers. The fact is I can barely discern my own heart, much less someone else’s. My spiritual thermometer is inaccurate at best and misleading at worst. Only God knows the full meaning of the myriad of motivations, struggles, desires, and aspirations that compose our actions from day to day.
Though on any given day I may not notice that my sons or my daughter is taller, I can easily tell that they are taller now than last year. And that they are definitely bigger than when they were born. They are growing. Of that I can be sure. And though I cannot see the spiritual growth that is happening with me, I can be sure as someone who abides in Christ that it is going on. I may not always see it, but God sees and that’s enough.