Spiritual Growth
by Ken Gardner

We often stress the importance of spiritual growth, but it occurred to me recently that most of us have grown about as much as we want to. Most of us are about as mature as we want to be. We're pretty much where we want to be. When it comes to other pursuits, I think we'd all agree that most of us exercise about as much as we want to, we read about as many books and write about as many letters as we want to. And despite our complaining, we make about as much money as we want to. All of us could work a little harder, a little longer, a little smarter, if we really wanted to. But we don't. We do pretty much what we want to do. And when it comes to spiritual matters, we're the same way. We attend about as many worship services and Bible classes as we want to, we conduct about as many Bible studies as we want to, we give about as much as we want to, we read and study the Bible about as much as we want to, and we read about as many brotherhood publications as we want to. You could say we know about as much Bible as we want to.

Furthermore, most congregations have grown about much as they want to, whether you're talking about spiritual growth or numerical growth. Most congregations are about as large as they want to be. Most have about as many baptisms and new members as they want. If we really wanted more baptisms, if we really wanted to be larger, we would be. If we really wanted less fussing, there would be less. We fuss because we decide to fuss. Most congregations have about as many elders and deacons as they want. We all say we want to grow, but deep down we really don't want to. We're really not willing to make the necessary changes in ourselves. Oh, if new members are just like us, with the same interests, same middle-class background, same education level, live in the same neighborhood, great. But if new or prospective members are not exactly like us, if they're a little poorer, or a little richer, a little louder or a little quieter, if they have a few more problems or a few less problems than we do, if their kids are worse than ours, or better, if they don't always wear a dress or a suit, or if they do, if they're difficult to get along with, or if they need a lot of attention, or if they need to be rebuked, then let them go. They really didn't fit in anyway. It's easier to just let them go than to try to change them, or ourselves, or to just get along despite our personal differences. It's easier to let the problem leave than to try to deal with it. If that's the case, then we're the ones with the problem.

Once we reach spiritual adulthood, most of us stop straining, stop pushing ourselves, stop challenging ourselves. We reach a plateau, we peak, we level off, we coast. Young people are at least still wrestling with doubts and questions, wondering just how much can they do. They're still asking themselves, "Could I one day teach a Bible class, lead a prayer, lead singing? Could I one day be able to convert a friend?" Most of us who are spiritually "grown up" have already dispensed with those questions. We've already answered them, and usually in the negative. "Oh, I tried that one time, and I didn't do a very good job. In all honesty, I was a little bit embarrassed." And so we quit trying. We're too cowardly to take any risks anymore. When it comes to serving the Lord, many of us try once, fail, and that's the end of it. We're really kind of arrogant. Do we think we ought to be able to do something perfectly the first time we attempt it?! We're like the huge elephant tied to a tiny stake in the ground that he can't pull up--at least he couldn't when he was small, and now he doesn't try anymore. You and I are full-grown, we're strong, but we're held back by a childish fear of failure. We're smarter than young people, we know what we can and can't do, and that's that.

We've reached our comfort levels, and in that respect we're just like many of the people we look down on. They haven't reached spiritual maturity, and they seem to be content where they are. Try as we may, we just can't get them to come to church, to quit drinking, or smoking, to pick better friends, to go to school, to get a job, to do their best, to excel. They frustrate us, and we're angry with them, we want to take them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them. We're upset with them because we love them so much, they're our kids and husbands and wives and dear friends, but they seem to be stuck where they are, and we can't budge them. They need a good, swift kick to get them going, we say to ourselves.

But maybe you and I need a good, swift kick, too. We may be ahead of others, but if we've stopped, too, are we really any better off than they are? Their faults are so glaring, so obvious, so serious, but yours and mine are so minor. They won't give up their friends and their drugs and their drinking that will cause them to wind up in prison, but you and I aren't in much of a hurry to give up our inactivity, our indifference, our pride, our complacency, our complaining, our fault-finding, all of which may cause us to end up in a place far worse than prison. They won't reform--and we won't either.

So what's the solution? Just give up? Just say, we've all got our faults, some a little worse than others maybe, but none of us is perfect, so let's just not worry too much about what's right and wrong. No, that's not the answer. It is important to do what's right, and we must push ourselves to excel and grow, but let's remind ourselves that we all have room to improve, and growing always hurts, it always requires effort and straining, it requires our very best effort. Sometimes growing hurts more when we're older and more mature. The faster we run the more wind resistance we face, and it's easy to give up. We've overcome many obstacles, and often it's easier to look at how far we've come than how far we have to go. We've scaled many mountains, but more lie ahead.

The more we realize our own shortcomings, the more we understand how great is our own need for improvement, then the more compassionate we can be with those who seem so far behind. So instead of condemning them for not catching up, let's encourage them. They need our prayers as much as they need our preaching, our love as much as our lectures, our coaxing as much as our condemnation. They need us, and in a sense we need them. Because we're all in the same race together.