I work with college students in a campus ministry context. Several years back, I was curious about how my students defined spiritual growth. I set up a bunch of 1-on-1’s with student leaders to ask them two questions:
1)How do you define spiritual growth?
2)How do you know if you’re growing in your faith?
What emerged were a lot of pregnant pauses as students considered, it seemed for the first time, to define this nebulous goal of spiritual growth that they were all pursuing. The answers varied but the overarching theme was some version of “following Jesus more closely.” The second question had absolutely no consensus answer. Students had no way to determine whether or not they were on the correct path to get them to the point they desired to go.
Several years later, I found myself in a similar predicament. I was checking all the boxes that I had for years to measure whether or not I was doing the necessary things to grow in my faith. Reading my Bible daily? Check. Spending time in prayer? Check. Prioritizing community, service, and giving? Check.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my faith wasn’t growing. I felt stagnant. I felt like the disciplines on which I had always relied had carried me as far as they were going to. I wanted a deeper level of faith, greater obedience, and “more” of Jesus even though I had no idea what that really meant.
Finding True North
Around that time my devotional reading had me in Galatians. I read: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) Joy jumped out to me. At the time, I did not feel that my life was characterized by joy. And, since the “fruit” (re: the characteristic traits) of a life controlled by the Holy Spirit included joy, that seemed to be a problem.
From there, I embarked on a journey to cultivate joy in my life. Today, I am much more joyful than I was a few years ago.
But I also discovered a helpful metric for measuring spiritual growth that doesn’t rely on checking the boxes of spiritual disciplines.
My overarching evaluation question for the effectiveness of my spiritual life is now: “Am I growing in the fruit of the Spirit?” If I’m not growing in the fruit of the Spirit, it doesn’t matter than I’m on a 45 day streak on the Bible app. If I fly off the handle at even minor inconveniences, it doesn’t matter how much time I spend in prayer every day. If I find myself saying harsh, judgmental, or unkind things with any regularity, it doesn’t matter how involved I am in a small group or ministry. In every case, I’m missing the mark that Scripture has set for my spiritual development.
What’s the Goal?
The goal, as we’ve been told, has never been behavior modification. The goal is complete transformation of our lives under the lordship of Jesus. As Paul wrote in Romans 8, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” (Rom 8:29) When we read this verse as only informative on the Calvinism vs. Armininism debate, we miss the treasure that informs our understanding of spiritual development. The whole reason we are saved is to be conformed to the image of Jesus. We’re being developed into a spiritual family in which every member imitates Jesus.
How do we know if we’re being conformed to the image of Jesus? Jesus’ life was characterized by submission to God, obedience to His Word, and being empowered/led by the Holy Spirit.
We do well to make sure that our lives are characterized by the fruit of the Spirit. This, not the level of our supposed spiritual activity, is how we know if we are being conformed to the image of Jesus.