What would do you if you realized you’re not as physically fit as you want to be? Maybe you’d join a running club, or sign up for an exercise class. That’s intentional growing. Your goal is to grow in strength, and you purposefully make an opportunity for yourself.
What if you lack the necessary skills for a job you want? Maybe you would take classes or find an employer who will train you on the job. That’s intentional growing—creating an opportunity for your self-improvement.
What do we do when we’re concerned about our spiritual knowledge? We study God’s word on our own and with others; we listen to sermons; we choose Bible classes that will help us grow; we read good books and blogs. This is intentional growing—and it’s exactly what God expects us to do: “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1Peter 2:2) He wants us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…” (2 Peter 3:17-18)
Intentional growing: We realize our need, we find opportunities, and we grow on purpose.
Sometimes, an opportunity to grow spiritually is dumped on us, and we don’t want it.
Serious illness, death, divorce, financial loss, persecution, and other crises can challenge our faith in the Lord. Many people who have experienced such suffering tell us how they actually came to rely more on the Lord, and even grew stronger. They understand Peter’s heartfelt response when Jesus asked the apostles if they would leave him as others had: “…Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
Suffering—though unwelcome—can refine us and make us a better version of ourselves. What distinguishes people who grow stronger from those who don’t? Once the trial descends on them, they decide to lean harder on the Lord. Intentional growing.
Seeing everyday opportunities
We also have everyday opportunities to grow—other than when we’ve recognized a strong need for more knowledge and strength, and aside from when we’re facing a tragedy or crisis. Let’s think about everyday moments that pop up all the time. We’ll look at two kinds of opportunity: One arises from the needs of people around us, and the other is ever-present in all of our relationships.
People have real needs, and sometimes what they need is beyond the limits of our experience, comfort or enthusiasm. The phone rings: “Mrs. Smith’s grass is a foot high and her yard is a mess. Can you help us clean it up this Saturday?” Oh, no. What if we absolutely detest yard work? The dirt, the heat, the mosquitoes…
Life constantly presents us with the choice to serve and do and relieve and help—or retreat and hide and avoid and refuse. But these situations are opportunities to grow. If we practice something we’re not good at, we might learn to do it reasonably well. Then we’re ready to help the next person in need. This is growing.
But helping Mrs. Smith presents us with a chance to grow in a way that’s far more important than just expanding our skill set. We don’t like yard work? Ok, but Mrs. Smith is 85, has no family, and is unsteady walking outside with her cane. Her true need clashes with our desire to avoid pulling weeds and getting dirty—and here’s where we discover the most valuable growth opportunity. God doesn’t call us to get good at mowing grass or cutting back the ivy. God calls us to selflessness.
To be willing to clean up Mrs. Smith’s yard, we have to take seriously the Holy Spirit’s words in Philippians 2:3,4: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
Isn’t this what imitating Christ is about? (Continue reading Philippians 2 for a beautiful description of his selflessness.) Every Mrs. Smith scenario—every opportunity that beckons you out of your safe, comfortable, this-is-what-I-like zone—is a spiritual training session. Don’t skip the class!
Our relationships with family members, sisters and brothers in Christ, friends, fellow students, neighbors and co-workers provide a constant flow of opportunities to learn and grow. Consider two things common to all human interaction: We’re not all perfectly nice all of the time, and even when we are nice, we don’t always agree with each other.
Even people who love us are not always at their best. They’re tired or disappointed or just cranky. They display selfishness and unkindness. Whether these are rare weak moments or frequent displays of ingrained habits, they are not pleasant occasions.
As Christians, we know not to repay evil with evil, but to “always seek after that which is good for one another and for all…” (1 Thessalonians 5:15) And we know that “Love is patient, love is kind…” (1 Corinthians 13:4)
The challenge? It’s difficult not to respond to poor behavior…with poor behavior. If I’ve hurt you, your first reaction might be to shoot a verbal arrow at me. Or, my selfishness might provoke you to treat me with the least amount of kindness you can get away with. Or, even if we’re not acting badly, what happens when we strongly disagree about something important to both of us? Will we communicate our opinions in love and gentleness?
Every interaction, good and bad, provides us with an opportunity to grow—in patience, in thoughtfulness, in selflessness, and in our ability to act as Christ would. But this ongoing training session is very different from a point-in-time request to come work on Mrs. Smith’s yard!
If we’re continually around other people, we swim in an endless stream of speaking, responding, acting, reacting, meeting, retreating, agreeing, disagreeing, asking, answering. The sheer volume of words and deeds presents many, many instances of both good and bad behaviors. Our attitude and commitment to Christ-like living is tested minute by minute.
Our efforts to be like Christ must be intentional and intense, or we will give in to the temptation to react in an unthinking, self-serving way. Intentional means we take specific steps to transform ourselves into someone who speaks and acts like Christ. We need to pray, asking God for strength to control our attitude and words, and for wisdom to see our own flaws more clearly. Intense means this is concentrated, committed work—and it’s not easy. We have to fill our minds and hearts with the word of God so that God’s thoughts and ways become our own (Isaiah 55:1-9). We might need to practice patient, respectful responses in advance until these words naturally spring to our lips. We must honestly admit when we have been the problem, and ask for forgiveness.
Every time we overcome irritation with patience, every time we meet selfishness with generosity, every time we respond to anyone with the spirit of Christ, we are growing. From arising in the morning to falling asleep at night, every moment with other people is a spiritual training session. Don’t skip the class!
Life will continue to provide us with opportunities to grow the way God wants us to. The question is, do we intend to grow?
By Evelyn Apple