“I am sure that God who began the good work within you will keep right on helping you grow in His grace until His task within you is finally finished on that day when Jesus Christ returns” (Philippians 1:6).
It takes years for us to grow to adulthood, and it takes a full season for fruit to mature and ripen. The same is true for the fruit of the Spirit. The development of Christlike character cannot be rushed. Spiritual growth, like physical growth, takes time.
When you try to ripen fruit quickly, it loses its flavor. In the United States, tomatoes are usually picked unripened so they won’t bruise during shipping to the stores. Then, before they are sold, these green tomatoes are sprayed with CO2 gas to turn them red instantly. Gassed tomatoes are edible, but they are no match to the flavor of a vine-ripened tomato that is allowed to mature slowly.
While we worry about how fast we grow, God is concerned about how strong we grow. God views our lives from and for eternity, so he is never in a hurry.
Christian author Lane Adams once compared the process of spiritual growth to the strategy the Allies used during World War II to liberate islands in the South Pacific. First they would “soften up” an island, weakening the resistance by shelling the enemy strongholds with bombs from offshore ships.
Next, a small group of Marines would invade the island and establish a “beachhead”—a tiny fragment of the island that they could control. once the beachhead was secured, they would begin the long process of liberating the rest of the island, one bit of territory at a time. Eventually the entire island would be brought under control, but not without some costly battles.
Adams drew this parallel: Before Christ invades our lives at conversion, he sometimes has to “soften us up” by allowing problems we can’t handle. While some open their lives to Christ the first time he knocks on the door, most of us are resistant and defensive. Our pre-conversion experience is Jesus saying, “Behold, I stand at the door and bomb!”
The moment you open yourself to Christ, God gets a beachhead in your life. You may think you have surrendered all of your life to him, but the truth is, there is a lot to your life that you aren’t even aware of. You can only give God as much of you as you understand at that moment. That’s okay.
Once Christ is given a beachhead, he begins the campaign to take over more and more territory until all of your life is completely his. There will be struggles and battles, but the outcome will never be in doubt. God has promised that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6).
In the book Putting the one Minute Manager to Work, one of the key concepts is this:
Don’t Just Do Something—Sit There!
Too often, many of our problems arise from acting before thinking. We confuse activity with productivity. We think, “I’m so busy, I must be accomplishing something!” In reality, we may just be spinning our wheels. Like sitting in a rocking chair, you can expend a lot of energy and create a lot of motion, but you still aren’t going anywhere.
Progress and productivity always require thought! The Bible says:
“A wise man thinks ahead; a fool doesn’t and even brags about it!” (Proverbs 13:16).
“A good man thinks before he speaks” (Proverbs 15:28).
“The wise man looks ahead. The fool attempts to fool himself and won’t face facts” (Proverbs 14:8).
“A wise man is cautious and avoids danger; a fool plunges ahead with great confidence” (Proverbs 14:16).
Unfortunately many parts of your work seem to conspire to keep you from thinking! Pressures, deadlines, appointments, and interruptions fill your day so you have no time to think. You stay so busy swatting mosquitoes that you have no time to drain the swamp.
Nothing is as important to your job as thinking, yet nothing is harder to take time to do. The solution is to schedule “think” time. Make a daily appointment with yourself to simply think about your work. Think about what you do, how you do it, and the results you are getting: “Any enterprise is built by wise planning, becomes strong through common sense, and profits wonderfully by keeping abreast of the facts” (Proverbs 24:3).
Your mind is like a muscle. It develops with use. The more you develop it, the more productive you will be. Your brain is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift to God. Think about it!
“Our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him”
(2 Corinthians 3:18b).
Discipleship is the process of conforming to Christ. The Bible says, “We arrive at real maturity—that measure of development which is meant by ‘the fullness of Christ’” (Ephesians 4:13).
Christlikeness is your eventual destination, but your journey will last a lifetime. This journey involves believing (through worship), belonging (through fellowship), and becoming (through discipleship). Every day God wants you to become a little more like him: “You have begun to live the new life, in which you are being made new and are becoming like the one who made you” (Colossians 3:10).
Today we’re obsessed with speed, but God is more interested in strength and stability than swiftness. We want the quick fix, the shortcut, the on-the-spot solution. We want a sermon, a seminar, or an experience that will instantly resolve all problems, remove all temptation, and release us from all growing pains.
But real maturity is never the result of a single experience, no matter how powerful or moving. Growth is gradual. The Bible says, “Our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
“The Lord your God will drive those nations out ahead of you little by little. You will not clear them away all at once” (Deuteronomy 7:22).
Although God could instantly transform us, He has chosen to develop us slowly. Jesus is deliberate in developing His disciples. Just as God allowed the Israelites to take over the Promised Land “little by little” so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed, He prefers to work in incremental steps in our lives.
Why does it take so long to change and grow up? There are several reasons.
We are slow learners. We often have to relearn a lesson forty or fifty times to really get it. The problems keep recurring, and we think, “Not again! I’ve already learned that!”—but God knows better. The history of Israel illustrates how quickly we forget the lessons God teaches us and how soon we revert to our old patterns of behavior. We need repeated exposure.
We have a lot to unlearn. Many people go to a counselor with a personal or relational problem that took years to develop and say, “I need you to fix me. I’ve got an hour.” They naïvely expect a quick solution to a long-standing, deep-rooted difficulty. Since most of our problems—and all of our bad habits—didn’t develop overnight, it’s unrealistic to expect them go away immediately.
There is no pill, prayer, or principle that will instantly undo the damage of many years. It requires the hard work of removal and replacement. The Bible calls it “taking off the old self” and “putting on the new self” (Romans 13:12; Ephesians 4:22-25; Colossians 3:7-10, 14).
Growth is often painful and scary. There is no growth without change; there is no change without fear or loss; and there is no loss without pain. We fear these losses, even if our old ways were self-defeating, because, like a worn out pair of shoes, they were at least comfortable and familiar.
Every change involves a loss of some kind: You must let go of old ways in order to experience the new.
“Practice these things. Devote your life to them so that everyone can see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15).
While you were given a brand new nature at the moment of conversion, you still have old habits, patterns, and practices that need to be removed and replaced.
We are afraid to humbly face the truth about ourselves. I have already pointed out that the truth will set us free but it often makes us miserable first.
The fear of what we might discover if we honestly faced our character defects keeps us living in the prison of denial. Yet, we often build our identities around our defects. We say, “It’s just like me to be” and “It’s just the way I am.” The unconscious worry is that if I let go of my habit, my hurt, or my hang-up, who will I be? This fear can definitely slow down your growth.
Only as God is allowed to shine the light of his truth on our faults, failures, and hang-ups can we begin to work on them. This is why you cannot grow without a humble, teachable attitude.
Godly habits take time to develop. Remember that your character is the sum total of your habits. You can’t claim to be kind unless you are habitually kind—you show kindness without even thinking about it. You can’t claim to have integrity unless it is your habit to always be honest. A husband who is faithful to his wife most of the time is not faithful at all!
Your habits define your character. There is only one way to develop the habits of Christlike character: You must practice them—and that takes time! There are no instant habits. Paul urged Timothy, “Practice these things. Devote your life to them so that everyone can see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15).
If you practice something over time, you get good at it. Repetition is the mother of character and skill. These character-building habits are often called “spiritual disciplines,” and they include such things as meditation, prayer, fasting, Bible study, simplicity, stewardship, solitude, submission, service, and evangelism.
“Everything on earth has its own time and its own season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
As you grow to spiritual maturity, there are several ways to cooperate with God in the process:
Believe God is working in your life even when you don’t feel it. Spiritual growth is sometimes tedious work, one small step at a time. Expect gradual improvement. The Bible says, “Everything on earth has its own time and its own season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
There are seasons in your spiritual life, too. Sometimes you will have a short, intense burst of growth (springtime) followed by a period of stabilizing and testing (fall and winter).
What about those problems, habits, and hurts you would like miraculously removed? It’s fine to pray for a miracle, but don’t be disappointed if the answer comes through a gradual change. Over time, a slow, steady stream of water will erode the hardest rock and turn giant boulders into pebbles. Over time, a little sprout can turn into a giant redwood tree towering 350 feet tall.
Keep a notebook or journal of lessons learned. This is not a diary of events, but a record of what you are learning. Write down the insights and life lessons God teaches you about him, about yourself, about life, about relationships, and everything else. Record these so you can review and remember them and pass them on to the next generation (Psalm 102:18; 2 Timothy 3:14).
The reason we must relearn lessons is that we forget them. Reviewing your spiritual journal regularly can spare you a lot of unnecessary pain and heartache. The Bible says, “It’s crucial that we keep a firm grip on what we’ve heard so that we don’t drift off” (Hebrews 2:1).
Be patient with God and with yourself. one of life’s frustrations is that God’s timetable is rarely the same as ours. We are often in a hurry when God isn’t. You may feel frustrated with the seemingly slow progress you’re making in life. Remember that God is never in a hurry, but he is always on time. He will use your entire lifetime to prepare you for your role in eternity.