Spiritual growth is a simple mystery.
It is simple, because the means of spiritual growth is generally common sense to those who have responded to the gospel: it is facilitated by spiritual disciplines. Many of us have heard the Sunday School chorus, “read your Bible, pray every day and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” We practice these and many more disciplines in the context of the community of believers, the ministry of the Spirit, and the ordinary trials of life – all basic, essential ingredients for growth.
It is a mystery because it is a miracle. We are not the agent, the provider of grace that causes the fruit of the Spirit to grow. The harvest is the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of our efforts. No amount of striving will grow a singular grape of love, joy, peace, or patience (etc.). The disciplines simply allow space and time for the Gardener of our souls to do his work.
Then there is the simple, mysterious goal. The vast number of terms describing the ends of spiritual growth (though necessary) probably further complicate this simple mystery. They are necessary because the words provide a myriad of vantage points to the objective: Sanctification, holiness, Christ-likeness, maturity, obedience, abundant life, kingdom of God, and many more.
They “point toward our growing likeness, in any and every element of human experience, to the fullness of Christ’s person and gospel message.”
Many of us began our formation haphazardly. I use that word cautiously because the Spirit has a way of bringing order from even the most disordered things. The Spirit brought me mentors to help order my utterly disordered, young life – to disciple me. This is a normative path that, when missed, can slow or stall spiritual growth completely. I began reading the Bible daily at 11 because my grandmother told me to start in Joshua where the best war stories were, then my mother fielded my thousands of questions. The Bible became a puzzle that I was determined to unravel to uncover its mysteries. I didn’t at this time even know the author.
When I encountered Christ at a camp at age 12, I unknowingly added the discipline of worship. Meditation first happened on my paper route, where I had nothing but time and space to listen; solitude, accidentally when I began rollerblading; memorization, at Master’s Commission because I wanted a passing grade. Yes, the Spirit can even produce growth, then sort out our motives later. As another example, I first fasted in desperation to see a lost family member found – bargaining in vain with a God who is far more concerned about the lost than I.
As Formission Director, I’ve been given the gift of more time and intentionality to think about Spiritual Formation (#MyHealth). Even more than as a pastor. It’s even expected of me to practice disciplines, and to teach others to do the same. If I could share one thing I have learned to be of supreme importance, it is to maintain both simplicity and mystery in our personal vision for spiritual growth. And then to press towards it.
“Our role in our own formation is to see with the eyes of faith and to act – even aggressively – into that sight.”
The simplicity helps me to always experience and share more grace, more abundant life, more joy, more of Christ in the everyday things. The mystery keeps my heart (mostly) from legalism on one hand and license/laziness on the other. As Dallas Willard famously said (I paraphrase),
“Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”
In the end, as I intend to grow, I always find grace whether through success or failure (and usually a mixture of both).
As I play with the disciplines, try on new ones, come back to old, dusty ones, practice learned ones without a sense of even practicing, I allow the Spirit to lead me naturally from one to the other. As I succeed in them, fail in them, as life’s uncertainties and the rollercoaster of my emotions and circumstances leave me with no real sense of whether I’m growing, I always come back in the end to the simple mystery of his grace. I am his son, who he loves. He is pleased with me.
 Howard, Evan B. A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018. p.104
 Ibid. p.58
 Ibid. p.75.
 This blog post was inspired by two of my favourite books on disciplines: Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, and The Making of an Ordinary Saint by his son, Nathan Foster. Highly recommended reading.