Spiritual growth doesn't happen by accident. Here are 7 principles you'll need if you want your inner life to flourish.
You’ve likely seen the “seven habits of highly effective people”—and maybe even practiced some of them. Or perhaps you’ve come across a popular e-book about “9 Things Successful People Do Differently.” If you’re in the business world, you probably also know what companies do to rise from “good to great.” People like Stephen Covey, Heidi Grant Halvorson, and Jim Collins are great at identifying core characteristics of people who succeed in some area of life.
Can we also discover core characteristics of people who grow spiritually? Some people would say “yes” and then jump immediately into a list of practices like daily prayer, scripture study, etc. I certainly won’t knock those practices, but I’ve known people who do them regularly and never experience a changed heart. (Jesus noticed the same about some religious leaders in his time). Why aren’t those the foolproof keys to growth? Because there’s a deeper layer of attitudes that will either enhance our progress or limit it.
I’ve noticed some almost universal characteristics among those who grow spiritually. So I’m adding to the many lists of “here’s what successful people do” because even in spiritual matters, growth doesn’t happen by accident. Based on what I’ve observed, if you want your inner life to flourish, here’s what it will take:
- Ask God. Goes without saying? You might think so, but it’s really easy to forget this. The first answer to every spiritual issue (or really every issue in life) is simply to ask God. It’s his process, not yours. You may not realize how it’s happening—or even that it is—but you’ll look back at some point and realize how far you’ve come. He has a way of getting us from point A to point B without our being able to define how it happened. Ask him to be the “general contractor” for your internal renovation. It then officially becomes his responsibility to accomplish it. And he’s really good at it.
- Want it. To a very large degree, you’ll be defined by your hungers in life. Whatever you’re desperate for will shape you because that’s the direction you’ll grow. If you’re really hungry for spiritual depth, you’ll inevitably find it.
- Let go of expectations. How rigid are you? Many people seek spiritual growth within limits. They don’t express these boundaries and may not even be aware of them. They want to layer their growth on top of what they already “know” to be true. But what if what they know isn’t as certain as they think? They will be laying new growth on top of a faulty foundation. In order to grow, you have to be wiling to let your foundations be shaken. Spiritual growth rarely comes without some kind of paradigm shift. Most people who have experienced a season of accelerated growth say something like, “I was 100 percent convinced of (whatever their pet doctrine was), but God rearranged my thinking.” When you ask God for new insights, you have to be willing to let go of some old ones.
- Be open to shifting circumstances. Are you okay with earthquakes? God often changes our external circumstances to prompt changes in internal attitudes. Our surface desires open a window into our deeper desires, and deep desires turn our focus to God like nothing else. That focus is vital for growth. But our focus never gets off of ourselves if we’re fighting against the changes in our lives. Which leads to …
- Ask good questions. “God, why are you doing this to me?” is not a good question. It’s self-focused and obsessed with escaping whatever crisis we’re in. It’s also an implied accusation. Here’s a better question: “What do you want to reveal about yourself in this situation?” Or another: “What are you teaching me in this?” These aren’t accusations; they are trust-based requests for understanding. When we ask them, entire vistas of understanding open up before us.
- Flip the switch. Most of us are like spiritual vacuums, always trying to consume whatever gets within range of our hunger. We’re on a desperate search for fulfillment, and we’ll grab anything—relationships, careers, knowledge, accomplishments, possessions, power—to get it. This is what Jesus called “seeking to save your life,” and it leads to losing it, inevitably in the form of futility and frustration. What’s the alternative? Lose your life intentionally. Flip a switch from “intake” to “outflow” so you’re always pouring into God and others. Paradoxically, this leads to getting the life you were once desperately trying to grab in other ways. An outward focus results in rapidly accelerated spiritual growth.
- See your spiritual life as an adventure. Too many people see it as an obligation. Or constantly feel the pressure to “get it right.” It’s true that the door to the kingdom is narrow, but once you’ve entered the gate, there are vast pastures and forests to explore. Run wild. Like a father watching his child learn to walk, God is fine with mistakes. Three steps and a fall get shouts of delight, not a rebuke for failure. It’s all part of the learning process. In the parable of the talents, those who took risks were commended; the one too conservative to lay it on the line lost everything. If you want to grow, you have to know the heart of the Father well enough to know he isn’t worried about you stumbling in the process. He wants you to go for it anyway.