Recently in this Milemarker I’ve been tackling a very important topic that doesn’t often get addressed honestly by churches – it’s the topic of spiritual growth. First, I think a lot of us are foggy on what true spiritual growth looks like and so we are tempted to settle for a counterfeit version of authentic spirituality. Secondly, I see a lot of well meaning churches, religious leaders and Christians perpetuating some assumptions and practices that are actually counter-productive to what Jesus and Scripture teaches.
For instance, last week I shared that one of the big mistakes we make happens when we confuse biblical information with spiritual maturity. We get tricked into thinking that hearing a certain type of sermon, reading the right book or attending the latest conference will automatically make us more spiritually mature. The problem, however, is that it’s easy to substitute those things for what really feeds our souls – regular one-on-one time with God. Spiritual depth develops through the disciplines of personally reading and applying scripture and then talking and responding to God in honest prayer. In order to grow, you have to become a “self-feeder.”
With that said, I want to tackle a second practice that I see affecting many of our spiritual lives. We greatly underestimate the powerful pull of community.
There’s a reason that the Bible makes a big deal about relationships in spiritual community. God Himself exists as Father, Son and Spirit who are One in community. In the Old Testament, God developed His relationship with humanity in the context of a spiritual family and nation. In the New Testament, God establishes the church and places a high value on our immediate relationships. Jesus modeled it as he invested in a group of hand-selected disciples. The apostle Paul writes letter after letter to spiritual communities and repeatedly emphasizes our need for “one another.”
Here’s why. You were designed to grow best spiritually in the context of healthy, grace-filled relationships. Some of us would like to believe we could grow more like Jesus on our own - but it’s not true. The Bible is pretty clear that authentic spiritual growth happens best together and is most clearly demonstrated in how we get along with one another.
Paul puts it this way, “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23). Those are pretty relational qualities if you ask me.
In other words, if you want to know how spiritually mature you are just take a look at how well you get along with others (especially those who are difficult or irritating). My father-in-law says, “you can learn a lot about someone by watching how well they work and play with others”. And I believe it’s true.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that we are something that we are not when we are all alone. We can pretend that we are full of love until we have to spend time with someone who is difficult to love. It’s easy to be patient when you don’t have to wait on someone else. We fool ourselves into thinking we are kind, good and gentle just because we think kind, good or gentle thoughts. But just because we sometimes think kind, good and gentle thoughts doesn’t mean we treat everyone with kindness, gentleness and goodness. And just because we can act joyful and self-controlled around some people doesn’t mean that joy and self-control are dominant characteristics of our life.
The best picture of who you are is seen in the way you relate to the flawed people that surround you. How you and I cope with the dysfunctions, idiosyncrasies and bad habits of the people we encounter everyday is the most accurate picture of who we really are inside. That’s why healthy community is so important – it is the perfect place to see ourselves as we really are and to allow God to make us into whom He wants us to become. Without it, we take the easy route and simply live in spiritual denial. Don’t ever underestimate the powerful pull of positive community!
The flip side of that truth is also a reality. Don’t ever underestimate the powerful pull of negative community. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many people hang out too long in unhealthy community and watched as it slowly poisoned their relationship with God and others. Now, hear me out – I’m not talking about avoiding people who are flawed, messed up, sinful and who are making mistakes – Jesus hung around those kinds of people all the time.
What I’m talking about is the danger of hanging out with flawed, messed up people who are more concerned with picking apart others than in dealing with their own junk. Those relationships are often characterized by negativity, criticism, judgment, envy, self-righteousness, gossip and slander. (And let’s be honest, some of us can be pretty good at those things). That kind of negative community will slowly demobilize you and drain you of spiritual passion and growth.
So, if you find that your spiritual passion isn’t what it once was or isn’t what you’d like it to be, I’d encourage you to take an honest look at who you are hanging out with. Stop and pay attention to who you are listening to. If you are a part of a group who spends a lot of time complaining or whining, it’s dragging you down. If your friends tend to bad-mouth and criticize others it’s affecting your outlook. If those people in your life that should be encouraging and uplifting are negative and critical, it’s not a safe place for you to grow and be transformed. It’s probably time for you to confront the issue or find new healthy spiritual relationships.
So, don’t ever underestimate the powerful pull of community – nothing helps you grow like positive healthy community and nothing will stunt you faster than negative unhealthy community. So be intentional about connecting with others who are taking responsibility for their own spiritual health and who will encourage you, with mutual grace and compassion, to do the same.