Last week I spent an early morning over zoom with a group of men from Cedar Falls, Iowa who meet together every Thursday. It is a wonderful group who over the last 16 months have become good friends, fellow travelers on the journey. They went through VP3’s The Journey last year and are now working their way through A Way of Life.
In their recent conversations together the whole topic of Christian maturity had surfaced — what is it to grow up in Christ and how do we know if we are actually growing? This is what the eleven of us discussed last week. As I listened to their curiosities and convictions I recalled a similar conversation 25 years earlier.
It was in the lobby of Emerson Hall at Biola University when a group of seventy-five college students gathered to hear author Jerry Bridges speak on maturity in Christ. Bridges had already written several books, including The Pursuit of Holiness, The Practice of Godliness, and Transforming Grace: Living Confidently in God’s Unfailing Love. But it was not his books or credentials that earned the students’ respect. Bridges’ combination of honesty, humility, and hopefulness gradually gained their trust that night. He spoke of God’s love and grace as an experienced fellow traveler.
In the end, Bridges began a dialogue with the students. Initial observations and comments were made, but it was one student’s question that focused the remainder of the conversation. “How do we know if we are actually growing up spiritually?” the student shouted out from the back of the residence hall lobby.
This question cut to the chase for many of the other students. This young man spoke of how hard it was for him to have any clear sense of what God was doing generally, or even if God was doing anything in his life. He just couldn’t see what God was up to amidst his current set of life circumstances. As he spoke one could sense his despair. He ended his extended question where he started: “How can I know if I am growing spiritually?”
Measuring progress in the Christian life is a difficult and tricky endeavor. Jerry Bridges began his response with that word of caution. Bridges discouraged any sure-fire, across-the-board standard of measuring spiritual maturity. We can be so easily self-deceived. He told the group that if he had to offer a way of evaluating our growth from time to time it would not be based on our confidence in managing sin or any felt sense of “having really arrived” in one’s relationship with God.
Bridges then looked at the young man and asked, “How can you know if you are growing spiritually? The most reliable way I know is this: Are you growing in an awareness of your need for God?” He proceeded to explain that it is most often our weakness— our sense of waywardness, fragility, and need for God—that drives us throughout our lives to discover God’s abundant grace and life and work.
Along my journey another very wise and godly man framed it for me this way: “the greatest privilege we can have in our spiritual lives is to have a sense of need for God.” When we lose this sense of need we find ourselves deaf to Jesus’ invitation to join him in his way of life.
Last Thursday morning I relayed the Jerry Bridges’ story to this group of Iowa men, all in different phases of life than those college students so many years ago, but yet asking the same core question. Bridges’ response still resonates with me now as it did years ago.
The rich and grace-filled encounters with God’s Spirit that have come to me along the way have always occurred in a deep awareness of my waywardness, my fragility, and vulnerability, my deep need. And at such moments the Spirit confides to me with Jesus’ words to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8).
Thankfully Jesus patiently tutors us by his Spirit into this reality that the Christian life in its many dimensions is not so much an achievement we make, but a gift we learn to receive again and again and again in companionship with Jesus.
The great philosopher and Christian Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “A human being’s highest achievement is to let God be able to help him.”
Are you growing in an awareness of your need for God?
Spirit of God, be generous in and with and through and among us. In Jesus’ name.