Stop Pursuing Spiritual Growth and Start Loving Christ!

In 2009, our church’s motto was, “Passionately pursuing spiritual growth in Christ.” For most of the year, I thought this was a very good motto. On the Sunday that my mind changed, I sat in my normal spot doing my normal activity: interacting with the sermon. As I pondered and wrote, I began to wonder whether we should be pursuing spiritual growth. The more I pondered, the closer I came to a negative answer: spiritual growth is a result and, therefore, an inadequate object of pursuit.

Spiritual Growth is a Result

The image of spirituality as fruit bearing runs throughout the New Testament.  A small sampling of passages (emphasis mine) hints at the cause-effect sequence at work here.

I am the vine; you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5 ESV)

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4 ESV)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Gal 5:22-24 ESV)

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col 1:9-10 ESV)

In each case, fruit is the result of connection with Christ and the connection has nothing to do with our effort. No amount of pursuit on our part will connect us with Christ. It may be that “pursuit” is altogether the wrong term, for it does not bear the same connotation as “abiding,” “belonging,” and “filling.” This does not imply lack of effort on our part, for as Paul says in Philippians 2:12, we are to work out the salvation that God has put it. But, this cannot occur by our own effort: “for apart from me you can do nothing.” Just as fruit is the natural result of the wholeness of the plant, so also is spiritual fruit the natural result of the wholeness of each person and each community in Christ. The plant’s attention to life produces its fruit. The Christian’s attention to Christ, our life, produces spiritual growth.

Christ as First Love

Love reprioritizes our way of thinking. As our first love, Christ holds the highest place and is our ultimate end. The more we love him, the more we begin to consider all else as loss in order to gain him; Christ becomes the one for whom we act. Our love for him actualizes presence (Christ in me and I in Christ (John 15) by developing relational knowledge of Christ’s person, experiential knowledge of his resurrection power, and participatory knowledge of his sufferings (Phil 3).  Our identity as persons and as community is directly tied to the subject of our first love: Christ. We are Christians inasmuch as we are in relationship with our first love, Jesus Christ, and this relationship is safe in his hands and in the Father’s hands (John 10:29-30).

Original version was published in October 2009. This is a rewrite.

About Laura

My name is Laura and I am on a journey, pondering the implications of God's glorious design of humanity and integrating every aspects of this design into a description of whole life health.
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6 Responses to Stop Pursuing Spiritual Growth and Start Loving Christ!

  1. Andrew B says:

    I think this is a very foundational point. In our well intentioned humanity there are lots of things we tend try to take control of in our effort the build the Kingdom of God the way we think it should be.

    Re your closing question – I suggest shared life community among the fellowship of believers allowing and expecting it to become an expression / manifestation of the Jesus Body.

  2. Laura says:

    Andrew,

    As years pass, I am understanding more and more just how much we don’t control–and can’t. Figuring out what we can control–and actually taking responsibility for that–is huge.

    I like your suggestion and am in the process of figuring out what that looks like in my culture–and how to do it (pesky, non-controllable deep beliefs hinder me, I expect).

  3. Bruce says:

    As usual, Laura’s point is well taken and I agree with it, at least from an academic standpoint. However, the subtlety is likely lost on the intended audience. In this case, the intent is to communicate to a general audience two significant points. First that spiritual growth has a strong component of personal responsibility and investment (not passively absorbed by simply filling a pew or seat in a Sunday School class). Second is that we are to be passionate about our walk, not merely show up when the doors are open. Unfortunately, both of these concepts are somewhat foreign within the context of a nominal church setting, especially a multi-generational setting which is strongly driven by a participation model of spiritual growth. Key interdependent terms are passion, person (personal), growth and Christ. Getting those four ideas in a pithy and sound form is hard indeed.

  4. Laura says:

    Bruce,

    As usual, you insights bring me down to the real world, where folks have not gone to seminary :-).

    Couple questions:
    – I agree, with appropriate reservation (given the post above), that the motto communicates the need for “personal responsibility and investment” and “that we are to be passionate about our walk.” But, given the subtlety of the connection between pursuing Christ and spiritual growth, should this concept not be clarified and restated over and over? I don’t see that happening.
    – We’ve only a few months left of the year. What CAN we do in this scant time–especially with Christmas coming up–to focus on the pursuit of Christ (maybe in preparation for next year!)?

  5. Mark says:

    No matter how you PhotoShop it, it’s still just a motto hanging the wall if no one takes any action. So the question of the wording is irrelevant but your question of “How do you encourage spiritual growth?” is very relevant. And in frustration I don’t have an answer…and I now see I must take this to God for help because I truly want to be a part of helping disciple people. I have heard it said that it is up to each individual to grow on their own and I have heard it said it’s “the church” who is responsible. I feel both are correct as it should be a partnership, a union connected through Christ, almost like a marriage. So a thought just came to my **un-seminar-ied** infant-Christian brain: If the concept of a person “pursuing spiritual growth” through a church is similar to a marriage, read Ephesians 5:21-32. Would we replace “husband” with “church leadership” and “wife” with “church-goer” OR “husband” with “church-goer” and “wife” with “church leadership”??? Or is that just too silly a question?

  6. Laura says:

    Mark, you make several good points.

    1. You are absolutely correct: “it’s still just a motto hanging on the wall if no one takes any action.” We’re struggling with some of that too. But then, if implementing the wrong motto makes the process futile, then we should fix the motto first. It is not true that any action is good action. Only the right action is good action.

    2. The persons in the church and the church (which is the persons) are responsible for spiritual growth. Ephesians 4:15-16 is of great help here: : “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Three key ideas are in this verse: 1) Persons, speaking the truth in love to one another, cause the church to mature. 2) All spiritual growth comes from Christ alone. 3) The church (Body), when the persons comprising it are functioning properly, causes itself to grow.

    3. The process of spiritual growth is, I think, similar to a marriage and Eph 5 is an excellent resource. So much so, that we need not try to figure out the details of the metaphor: The husband is Christ and the wife is the Bride. The husband, Christ, sacrifices himself to wash and prepare the bride, the Church, for marriage. The wife, the Church, submits to her husband, Christ, partnering in marriage (preparation?). We must not equate the husband with anyone but Christ, for only he is the head of the church: not pastors, leaders, or even…dare I say it…the Pope. Christ alone is head and he is the ultimate source of spiritual growth.

    Of course, with all of this theology, we get back to your original query: Is the banner just a banner or are we doing it? That is indeed the question.

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