Eight Ways To Stunt Your Growth: Choices that are sure to inhibit your spiritual progress.
- Published in the July | August 2000 issue of Discipleship Journal http://www.navpress.com/magazines/archives/article.aspx?id=11194
- Written by Gordon Macdonald
More than 25 years ago, a neighbor gave my wife, Gail, a small cutting from a tree in her yard. We had often expressed our admiration for the tree, particularly in the spring when it bristled with unusually colorful blossoms.
The sprig our neighbor brought to Gail was no more than 25 inches long. It came wrapped in wet paper towels and sticking out of a plastic bag. Frankly, it hardly seemed a gift worth a thank-you note.
“Plant this in some good soil and protect it,” our neighbor said. “In a few years you’ll have a tree like ours.” We planted it but with little expectation. I mean, our neighbor’s tree was a magnificent thing. This? Merely an ugly root.
More than once in the first year or two, the neighbor’s gift came close to extermination during a close brush with the lawn mower or the Weed Eater. But the cutting survived and, to my surprise, began to grow.
Then one New England spring (heaven will be like a New England spring or autumn), something extraordinary happened. The branch, now a sapling, became clothed with blossoms like the ones we’d seen in our neighbor’s yard. Today, that stick-become-sapling is a fully grown tree, taller than the roofline of our home. We look at it with the same admiration once reserved for our neighbor’s tree. “We grew this tree,” we say to each other. “We cultivated it from ‘stickness’ to significance.”
Such growth, whether of a tree or a follower of Jesus, is not a “given.” Down through the years we believers have learned a lot about what makes people grow. We talk about growth at length. It fills our sermons, our books, and our magazines. But talk alone does not make growth happen. And so it is appropriate to talk about why some do not grow.
There are some famous nongrowers worth tracking in the Scriptures: Cain, Lot, King Saul, Judas, Simon the Magician, and Demas. One wonders, Why didn’t these men get it? Then there are others who started well, peaked early, and settled for dismal endings: Noah, Solomon, and Hezekiah, for example. We probably have our own lists of people we know personally who started well and finished poorly. We sometimes worry over the possibility that we could become one of them.
Oswald Chambers reflected the anxiety of nongrowth when he wrote in his journal,
A great fear has been at work in my mind, and God has used it to arouse me to prayer. I came across a man whom I knew years ago, a mighty man of God, and now 10 years have gone and I meet him again—garrulous and unenlivened. How many men seem to become like that after 40 years of age!
Our 25-year-old tree could be little more than a blip in our memories today if it had been neglected or mowed down. It could have been stunted had we failed to nourish it. Had we not protected it, it could have died when the gypsy moths infested New England a few years back.
And you could say something similar about people who show such promise in the early days of their spiritual journeys and then, somewhere along the way, fall and fail to get up. Or about those who take a wrong turn and never get back on track, or simply lose their taste for the challenge and permanently settle at some rest stop. How does it start going wrong?
1- Family Ties
Growth can be inhibited when a person lives with what some call family tapes, paralyzing messages drilled into the mind and heart of a young person by authority figures. Family tapes is a term born of modern psychology. But don’t let that be a hindrance to spiritual thinking. The term speaks to something a lot of us have had to live with.
“You can’t do anything right.” “You’ll never be anything like your father . . .or mother.” “You can’t be trusted.” These and other harsh judgments often sink into the inner being in the first 10 years of life. Other versions: “I could never be like him.” Or, “I don’t want to be like her.”
Family tapes play deep and can be almost impossible to erase apart from an unusual power that comes from heaven itself. The tapes become “limiters” to the soul. They tell us that we can never ascend to any significant usefulness in the kingdom. We are smart if we search and scan our deepest selves to learn if any of these tapes are playing rogue messages through the systems of our souls.
John the Baptizer is a powerful, positive example of a family’s impact. Read the words of his parents during his infancy, and you’ll see what happens when a person is released to become everything God wants him to be. On the other hand, Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebecca, probably struggled with harmful family tapes. Jacob’s mother seemed to turn into a manipulator and conniver in her later years. Jacob’s character and personality reflected his mother’s, and he lived with the consequences.
2- Friend or Foe?
The friends one chooses (I’ll call them peers) can also adversely affect growth. Some of us choose peer friendships that rarely spur us to grow in anything, much less spiritual depth. These kinds of peers do not normally encourage each other to step out and take the risks that growth demands. They like to keep the playing field level. If someone in a relationship grows, then the others have to face a parallel challenge of growth themselves. Not surprising then that peers (wrongly selected) can often discourage growth through sarcasm, disaffirmation (I think I coined a word), and trivial pursuits.
Some will protest that they have fruitful, nourishing relationships with peers who are committed to spurring one another on. And I will say, that’s exactly why they’re growing. But I am writing about those who are not growing. Among nongrowers, you will almost always find that a directory of their closest friends contains people who are rooted in the status quo.
What growth I have experienced has usually come not from peers but through the encouragement of people older, deeper, more experienced than I. Unfortunately, some of us avoid such people. He intimidates me, we say of someone who is clearly superior in spiritual dimension to us. Or, she makes me feel inadequate or guilty. But these are often just excuses to keep away from those who just might press us to growth.
3- Stretching Exercises
When simple, monochrome answers that allow for no think-room are all you need to keep going, don’t expect to grow. In the spiritual community in which I grew up, the price of acceptance often seemed to be tied to saying the right things in the right way. Searching questions and issues not easily packaged were not welcomed. And so, inadvertently, we learned to produce flat, formulaic responses to weary questions. Too many have turned their minds off and lost their desire to think. Growth does not happen in a community where people are not encouraged to think for themselves, where they simply write down obediently everything the person up front says.
In my own pursuit of growth, I have come to love the tough questions that stretch the mind and try the spirit. I do not perceive myself to be an above-average thinker, but I love to be in the company of those who are. The Christian idea is a splendid matter for the mind. To never penetrate it, explore it, or come to love it as a thinking person guarantees nongrowth.
One thinks of that oft-quoted description of the Berean Jews who “were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). You get the impression of eagerness to explore, discover, embrace truth—not because it is force-fed but because it makes good sense to a hungry spirit.
4- Learning from Our Blunders
We do not grow when we resist the lessons that come from our mistakes. More than a little of what I have learned that I now count as valuable came from mistakes . . .and sins. I’d prefer that I would not have made the mistakes or that I would not have defied God through my sins. But someone once got through to me that we should never waste our failures: that we must squeeze every error for its deeper truth.
“Let the consequence speak to you, Gordon, now that you have to face it. Don’t run from it; don’t deny it; don’t complain about it. Let God’s grace permeate it with lessons that will be there for you the next time.” Cain never saw that. When the consequences came for his sin, all he did was whine. It got him nowhere.
The person with too much pride, a tendency toward truth-denial, an unwillingness to accept the prophetic rebuke hasn’t a prayer for substantial growth. No biblical character exemplifies this principle (on the positive side) better, in my opinion, than Simon Peter. The man simply thrived on his own mistakes. He learned and grew every time he made a fool of himself. He seems the preeminent disciple largely because of his teachability, which is the prerequisite for growth.
5- Living Lackadaisically
One does not grow if one is lazy, not curious, disinterested in stepping out into new ground. “Unenlivened and garrulous” were Oswald Chambers’ words. These are the folks who go with the flow, let things happen to them, who diet (intellectually and spiritually) on “candy.” They sleep late, idle away their hours before the television, and accept superficial conversation as a way of life. They do not demand of themselves on a daily basis that they acquire one new insight, one new experience, one new perspective on life in the presence of the living God. They do not test their motives, their quality of life (as measured by the fruit of the Spirit), or their love for humanity. Then one day, often when it seems too late, they realize that they are doomed to a life of shallowness.
You get the feeling that Paul often bristled with impatience at people like this. “I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ,” he said in exasperation to the Corinthians. “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it” (1 Cor. 3:1–2). He prayed that the Colossians would bear fruit in every good work, grow in the knowledge of God, be strengthened with all power, have great endurance and patience, and give a lot of thanksgiving (Col. 1:10–11). Quite a recipe for growth! No laziness here. The same concern is reflected by the writer of Hebrews: “You are slow to learn . . .you ought to be teachers . . .you need milk, not solid food . . .anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness” (Hebrews 5:11–13). In other words: grow up!
6- The Bane of Bitterness
Does it need to be said that growth will always be interrupted when the heart becomes a dark place through an unresolved attitude problem? I’m thinking of “hot spots” in the soul that exist because we’ve refused to forgive those who have offended us or because we’ve avoided confession and restitution toward those we’ve offended. The interior life needs to be regularly cleared by giving grace and seeking it from others.
Resentment and anger top my list of growth arresters. I’ve known too many people who got stuck somewhere along the journey because someone hurt them, betrayed them, humiliated them. And they never got unstuck. They preferred to vindicate themselves with their accusations and their demands. Result: spiritual growth generally retarded if not destroyed.
One should never expect to grow if one’s character is marked with bitterness or with envy of others who are further along on the journey, or if one is quarrelsome, incapable of admitting wrong. Growth will be impeded if being universally liked is a high priority. All these examples of unresolved attitude are illustrated in the tragic life of King Saul, who never went anywhere in terms of growth after he became fixated on the young David.
7- The Danger of Distraction
Perhaps the thing that stunts growth most powerfully is that almost banal problem we all share today: busyness and all its distractions. Equipped with our cellular telephones, pagers, and our e-mail; attracted by an endless score of programs and events too good to pass up; plagued by the chance to know too many people and have too many experiences; there is a paucity of time to pursue growth.
Yet the ancients as well as some moderns who have grown deeper (and sweeter) in Christlikeness as the years go by all knew one thing. Genuine growth is intentional. It is a high priority in one’s consciousness and in one’s planning. Growth occurs in quiet while others seek noise; it delights in the Sabbath pause while others embrace more action. Growth accepts the messages of struggle while others prefer comfort; it learns prayer, thought, and study while others are content with entertainment. Nothing wrong, of course, with some noise, some action, some comfort, and some entertainment. They just don’t stimulate a whole lot of growth. Like caffeine, they create motion but not much nutrition.
Search and scan the Scriptures, and you will find that every great person God used found a way to withdraw from the distractions of a busy life and find God in silence and solitude. Here is Moses going up the mountain or going to the “tent of meeting.” I love this description of a highly pressured man meeting with his God. “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
Ask yourself again why Daniel interrupted his high-stress life as a national leader three times a day to invoke God’s presence. Or why the Son of God found it necessary to rise early on many mornings or go to the desert or to the Garden of Gethsemane to commune with the Father. Why is it that Paul frequently alluded to extended times of intercession for people and for his own needs? Each of these understood that growth was not an option and that it was found in raising the heart toward heaven.
What else did Jesus have in mind but the problems of distraction and frenzied calendars when He described the kind of person in whom the Word of God does not dwell for long: “The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature” (Luke 8:14).
Through spiritual disciplines, a person enlarges at soul level and becomes a person in whom God delights to dwell. In the tough moments we seek out such people, believing them to have a word from heaven. We draw on their wisdom, their brand of cheer grounded in eternal reality, and their quality of life.
8- The Right Kind of Growth
But in this cursory look at growth and what inhibits it, one more thing must be said. We do not grow (in the best sense of what growth means) if growth alone is our objective. Go to the numberless health clubs in our land to see what I mean. Take note of those who simply build their bodies to show them off. To grow merely for the sake of growing is narcissistic. You can show off prayer muscles just like you can show off your forearms. But what are they good for if there is no purpose beyond just looking smashing—spiritually or physically?
But we grow genuinely when we understand that growth’s purpose is, first of all, the honor of the everlasting God. As our Father, He exalts in our move toward maturity and capability. We grow properly when we think of enlarging our capacity to see reality through God’s eyes. And we grow when we think of the process as equipping us to be faithful servants to those in our generation. For such purposes beyond ourselves, growth becomes a worthy objective.
To quote the Apostle Paul in his prayer for the Philippians’ growth (Phil. 1:9–11): “[I pray] that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless . . ., filled with the fruit of righteousness . . .to the glory and praise of God.” That’s good growth, unchallengable.
The tree in our front yard is now more than 25 years old. It is the interest center of our landscaping. But that was not always so. We’ve not forgotten that it was once a wet stick wrapped in paper towels. Growth has made the difference. And we delight in what we have. I’m grateful we didn’t kill the growth when it would have been easy to do so. I also feel that way about the spiritual growth track God has laid before me. But, like Oswald Chambers, I’m mindful of the fact that yesterday’s growth does not guarantee tomorrow’s.