6 Misunderstood Truths About Spiritual Growth

“Growth is a common struggle for all Christians, because it often looks different than we expect or hope.”

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked lately is, “How do I grow as a Christian?” This question comes from people who feel they are stuck spiritually, or growing at a painfully slow pace.

Paul Tripp recently shared on the ChurchLeaders podcast that most Christians feel comfortable with their past salvation—that they received Christ—and their future salvation—that they will go to heaven one day—but they struggle with how to walk out their salvation in the present.

Growth is a common struggle for all Christians, because it often looks different than we expect or hope.

Thankfully, I have come across some incredible resources filled with much biblical wisdom on how to grow as a Christian. These ideas have helped immensely and given me a greater understanding of this process.

Here are six powerful (and often misunderstood) truths about spiritual growth.

1. We will never be perfect in this life.

If anyone had credibility in saying how far he had come in his Christian growth, it was James. He was known in church history as “camel knee” for how fervently he prayed. Yet, even James admits “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2).

One of the truths about holiness is that the more you become painfully aware of your failings, the more you are actually growing. Self-righteousness and feeling that you are “good” will hinder your growth (see 1 John 1:8; Luke 18:9-14). The nearer you draw to the Lord, the more you see his perfection and your imperfections (see Isaiah 6:1-8). As we grow as Christians, we will become more and more aware of our sins.

Even as Christians, who are called to grow toward perfection in Christ, we will never be perfect in this life. Far from it. There is not a day of our Christian lives that we are not needy for the gospel. Accept this reality and continue growing as a Christian from this place of acceptance because of Christ’s work on the cross on your behalf.

2. Growth is often hard to see up close.

When we look back over the years, we see how God has been working in us. But we can often feel like we are not growing at all in our day-to-day lives. We wonder how long we will struggle with the same things, and why we can’t seem to move past baby steps in our Christian growth.

I remember being a kid and going on our extended-relative camping trip, and seeing one of our cousins. So much had changed in a year: He was taller, looked much older, and his voice had completely changed and gotten deeper. We were very surprised by how much he had changed, but he and his family didn’t understand our surprise. They had seen his change in small, daily increments. We were much more able to notice the change because we hadn’t been with him for a year.

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This is how Christian growth can feel sometimes. But as we look back over the years, we can truly say, “I’m not who I want to be, but thank God, I’m not who I used to be.”

When Christ comes into our lives we become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). He brings us “from death to life” (Ephesians 2:5) and yet we are still, in this life, in “this body of death” (Romans 7:24). And we will always need to continually lay down our sin and selfishness daily at the foot of the cross (Luke 9:23).

In The Incredible Patience of God, Lane Adams explains how even as a pastor, he feels painfully aware of his weakness and lack of growth. His book, originally titled Why Am I Taking So Long to Get Better, describes the struggle we all have with the slowness of our growth in Christ. We do grow in our faith but often not at the speed we expect or hope. This is normal.

3. We don’t put our faith in our growth, but in the gospel.

We shouldn’t rest our faith on our Christian growth, but on the gospel alone.

Yes, we want to grow as Christians. Yes, God has called us to grow as Christians. Yes, God want to see us walk in freedom and protected from the vices of sin and selfishness. Yes, God is working in us and helping us to follow him—more than we know.

But still, the fact remains: We do not keep our salvation by works. No, we are saved by grace, and then empowered by God to grow—but our salvation always rests in God’s mercy and grace alone. We don’t work for our salvation; we work from our salvation. It’s all because of Jesus (see Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5).

4. God is continuing his work in us.

God is often doing far more in our growth than we realize. He wants us to follow him, more than we want to. He is at work in our lives to enable and empower us to trust and obey him. We have a part to play, but God is playing the most important part.

Paul says, “I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6).

So always remember that you are not only working to follow closely to Christ and obey his commands—be encouraged that he is “continuing his work” in you, as well.

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5. Following Jesus is a lifelong process, not a one-and-done moment.

Following Jesus is a commitment for life—a life filled with incredible amounts of joy and peace. It is not a one-and-done moment in which we pray a prayer. Praying to receive Christ is only the beginning of a life of drawing close to God. There is a maturing process in the life of the believer, similar to a child growing to adulthood. The Bible speaks of this, of the immaturity and maturity of Christians. Growing to Christian maturity takes a lifetime of submitting to God, his Word and his process in our lives.

Don’t ever be fatalistic, thinking your growth is so slow that it will never really happen. Keep following hard after the Lord. Keep getting back up and obeying (see Proverbs 24:16).

The good news is we can slowly see spiritual growth in our lives, growth in love, humility, trust, obedience. It is the work of God in us. Allow God to work this in you over the course of months and years, and don’t forget to look back on all he has done, and rejoice!

6. We must always keep working to follow Jesus more.

A wise Christian knows that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). And they will always be weak as long as they are here on this earth, so they “make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14) and they “flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11).

One of the best books you can read for a biblical framework of growing in Christ is The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. This is essential reading for any serious Christian. Jerry says:

Scripture speaks of both a holiness which we have in Christ before God, and a holiness which we are to strive after. God has made provision for us to live holy, but he has also given us definite responsibilities to pursue holiness. Only as we accept our responsibility and appropriate God’s provisions will we make any progress in our pursuit of holiness.

So spend your life running the race and enjoying every step of the journey to know Christ more, continually offering your whole heart to God. As Jerry Bridges says, God has given us “provisions” by which we may grow.

Read Part 2: 5 (More) Misunderstood Truths About Spiritual Growth »

Matt Brown (@evangelistmatt) is an evangelist, author and founder of Think Eternity, an evangelistic ministry that impacts thousands of people with the gospel each year through live events and online. This article was originally published on Matt’s blog at ThinkE.org.