On Being Christian

a relational model of spiritual growth

Week 3 of the spiritual formation lecture series, “Is There More to the Christian Life?” was about typical models we use in attempts to facilitate spiritual growth. The series is taught by professors from Biola University’s Institute for Spiritual Formation.

The premise: God transforms us in and through our relationship with him. This relationship is presented throughout scripture in the context of nourishing – branches on a vine. being connected, Jesus said his food was to do his Father’s will. Nourishment strengthens and empowers us. And yet we consistently slip into the following spiritual patterns that drain and discourage us.

1. The Magic Theory of transformation (passive):
We wait for God to zap us with inspiration, obedience, holiness, peace. We expect and pray for instantaneous, magic change. Yet the Bible makes clear that we must make efforts to “walk by the spirit,” and “make every effort to add to your faith virtue,” etc. When you repeatedly pray for a magic solution and it doesn’t happen, it’s best to let go and accept that God is taking you on a journey. Spiritual is not the same as magical.

2. The Cause and Effect Theory (meritorious):
When we realize growth requires effort, we think we must earn God’s favor. If we mess up, we fear God’s punishment. If we do well we deserve his blessing, or we feel entitled to more than what we’re getting. This is the trap of earning our growth – sanctification by law or works, not by grace. From the notes: “Working out our salvation in the power of self is to return to a law-based method of spiritual growth, rather than a theology of growth rooted in the New Covenant reality of Christ’s imputed righteousness by faith alone through grace alone.” You can’t work to be more spiritual.

3. The Willpower Theory (do-it-yourself):
Pretty obvious – we can change ourselves through sheer willpower. It differs from #2 in that we don’t try to earn change, we try to change ourselves in our own strength. We repeatedly cycle through sin > confession > repentance > try harder. We focus on external behavior – avoiding behavioral sin and performing behavioral tasks. In this model our growth is completely autonomous from God. How’s that working for you?

4. The Relational Theory (spiritual change):
“Humans were made for an interpersonal attachment with God the Father through Jesus Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit.” Relationship with God is a reality for a believer, and is inherently transformational. “Walk by the Spirit and you won’t gratify the desires of the flesh,” “abide in me and bear much fruit.” As we allow more and more of our life to come under the reality of God’s rule (his love, grace, truth and authority) we are gradually transformed in our inner being. It’s simple, but it isn’t easy.

How do we break out of the negative patterns? Instead of “I’ve got to do better,” or “I will work harder,” begin to speak truth to yourself: acknowledge how far away I am from where I want to be, how amazing that God loves me anyway, my inability to change myself, the richness of his grace.