Life in 4D: Four Categories to Help Trace Spiritual Growth

As we prepare to switch out our calendars, we can’t help but think back to where we were 365 days ago. How does the person in those pictures compare to the person in the mirror? Surely we have changed, right? Physical change is rather easy to see (sometimes easier than we would like!), but how do we know whether we are growing spiritually? And more than that, how can we tell if we are growing in all areas of the Christian life?

            Growth is not always linear, and we can’t seek stats or levels where the Bible does not give them. But this does not mean we should not pursue growth or cannot see it. In his second letter, Peter calls his readers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). As this verse shows, we not only can see growth but should see growth.

            So what are we looking for? Christian growth is not measured by time. Spiritual maturity does not grow like a stock, where it increases on its own and you check it every few years. Neither do we gain “spiritual tenure,” where we mature just because we’ve stuck around long enough. As one pastor has said, everyone grows old, but not everyone grows up. Growing old is easy; just wait around and it will happen. But growing up takes work.

How can we tell if we are spiritually maturing or just getting spiritually older? How can we trace spiritual growth in our lives? The best way is to reflect on your own life and to ask close, trusted brothers and sisters in Christ who will give you honest feedback. The categories of Doctrine, Discipline, Duty, and Delight provide lenses that will help as we reflect on our Christian walk. They are not comprehensive or totally distinct, but they are a good starting point. Most of us will naturally gravitate toward growth in certain ones, and we will go through seasons where one may be emphasized over another. Surveying our Christian life in 4D will help us identify areas where we are strong or weak, stagnant or growing, attentive or blind.

Category 1: Doctrine

A true knowledge of God is the foundation for all things in the Christian faith.

Doctrine has to do with the knowledge of God and His Word. It includes understanding the Bible, from specific passages to systematic or biblical theology. Knowledge is not the end of the Christian life, but it is the beginning. A true knowledge of God is the foundation for all things in the Christian faith. If we try to do more or be better without continually growing in our knowledge of God, we will be like one who continually adds weight to a pickup truck without upgrading the engine. It will groan under the strain until eventually it gives out.

If you feel burned out, frustrated, or just plain blah in your Christian life, the solution is not to serve less or supplement with other things. The thing you need to do is reorient your eyes on God’s truth and soak in the richness of His beauty. As the Psalmist prays, “Revive me according to your word” (Psalm 119:154). Seeing God in His Word will give strength to your soul and vigor to your service!  

Has your knowledge of God expanded over the past year? Has your understanding of His Word broadened? Have your eyes been opened to new truths that were hidden before? If not, take on Paul’s prayer for believers in Colossians 1:9. Pray “that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding…” He prays that they may be filled to attain all spiritual wisdom and understanding! May we be filled to the max with the knowledge of God!

Category 2: Discipline

Disciplines are the practices of the Christian faith that cultivate growth. They are the training regimens of godliness that include Bible study, prayer, fasting, meditation, Scripture memory, and similar practices. Just as an athlete would not expect to excel if he or she did not put in hours of training, so too a Christian cannot expect to grow in godliness without the dedicated, consistent, and often rigorous exercise of Christian discipline.

While there is no formula for results, the principle stands that if you put in minimal effort, you will see minimum gains. As an weightlifter friend of mine used to say, “If you want mass (muscle) on your body, put mass on the bar.” Nowadays, churches are filled with spiritual lightweights. Many Christians expect to make great strides in spiritual growth with only minimal spiritual effort. They lament that they do not experience the peace of God, but they only spend five minutes in prayer in the morning. Others wonder why they struggle with their thought life, and then they spend two hours watching tv but only 10 minutes in the Word of Truth. How different is Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7)!

Are you praying more than you were at this point last year? Are you increasing in the skill of Bible study? What new memory verses have you added to your repertoire? If you see stagnation in your walk, you should first take a diagnostic of your practice of these disciplines. Some may balk at this and say it is legalistic, but all you are doing is designing your life to allow the Spirit to work in you. If you say you want to grow, practicing these disciplines shows that you actually mean it. As you persevere in these things, you will see God’s grace bear fruit in your life.

Category 3: Duty

Duty is our obedience to the imperatives of God’s Word. It is the outworking of grace in our lives; our response to the truth that we have learned. It includes things such as evangelism, encouraging and exhorting one another, and overcoming sin.

The Bible talks about this in many ways: walking by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25), walking worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1), putting off the old man and putting on the new (Colossians 3:9–10), being holy in all behavior (1 Peter 1:15), walking in the light (1 John 1:6–7) are just some examples. We acknowledge that we do not earn our way to God, but these passages make it explicitly clear that in light of the inner change that God has wrought in our hearts, there should be an outward change to our activity.

As you reflect on this area of life, pick a passage that lays out how we are to live, and look for growth in each command. For instance, in Colossians 3:5 and following, you may ask yourself, “Have I seen a decrease in immorality in my life? In anger? Have I seen an increase in kindness? In thankfulness to God? Looking back over a year may reveal trends of growth that are not visible from day to day.

Category 4: Delight

The final category has to do with the enjoyment of our relationship with God. This involves experiencing the love, joy, peace, and hope of God as we think of who He is and what He has done for us. Many times in our lives we can focus on our activity for God that we forget to enjoy the presence of God, where there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).

One of the main storylines of Scripture is God’s restoration of fellowship with fallen mankind. The close communion in the Eden was disrupted by sin, but God immediately set about to restore that communion. He did this first through the tabernacle and temple, where He once again dwelt among them. In the New Testament, God’s presence on earth was first in Christ Himself and then through the indwelling Spirit in every regenerated heart. We look forward to the New Jerusalem where He will dwell among us in unveiled glory (Revelation 21:23). But we do not need to wait until that time to experience the joy of God’s presence. We have fellowship with God right now through faith, and we can enjoy the firstfruits of these things even while we walk this earth.

The Christian life is so much more than knowing things about God and doing things for Him. The Christian life is about being with God in the nearness of intimate fellowship. The descriptions of God as our Father and the Lord Jesus as our brother or husband reveal that our interactions with God are not just transactional: they are relational. As a parent with his child, God pays close and intimate attention to every care, need, joy, and experience in your life. As your intimate companion and head, Christ delights in you and desires that you may delight in Him. How many times have we neglected the comfort, strength, and joy that comes from realizing the nearness of God! How different should the state of our hearts and minds be if we only remembered that He is near and that He cares for us! Spend much time in His presence and delight in Him, not for what He can do for you, but for who He is to you: your Father, your Brother, your Refuge, your God.

The descriptions of God as our Father and the Lord Jesus as our brother or husband reveal that our interactions with God are not just transactional: they are relational.

A Final Exhortation

If we attempted all of the things listed above in our own strength, we would fail miserably. We are hopeless and lost on our own. But Christ reveals the invisible God (John 1:18; Colossians 1:15). All of the doctrines of the Bible are held together in Him. He is our righteousness and our salvation. He was perfectly disciplined and fulfilled all of the duties of the law, yet He died on our behalf, taking our sin upon Himself. Through His death we died, and through His resurrection we live. It is through Christ that we have an intimate relationship with God the Father. Look to Christ for the knowledge and righteousness of God! Look to Him for your salvation! Look to Him for your hope and joy! He will receive all who come to Him in faith. Those who do this stand without blame in the presence of God.

It is from this position before God that we live. Life is a grind, and we will often fail. If you look back and do not see much growth, don’t be discouraged! Part of the Spirit’s work in our lives is to show us our sin so that we may bring it to God for forgiveness and for His help to overcome it. Keep pressing on! Each day brings new opportunities to grow in godliness.

An old hockey coach used to say to me, “each day do one thing to be one day better.” We live our Christian life one day at a time. Strive each day to grow a little more in the areas of Doctrine, Discipline, Duty, and Delight. Pray that the Spirit will reveal one more day’s worth of knowledge about God. Pray that He will help you be more disciplined than yesterday. Pray that He will help you walk more worthy than before. And pray that you will rest more in the wonderful arms of your loving Savior.

Brothers and sisters, a day spent pursuing godliness will never be wasted. What will you do today to bring about one day’s growth of godliness in your life?  

Mike Engelsgjerd recently separated from the U.S. Army after 15 years of service. Towards the end of his service, Mike began to feel God’s call to full time Christian ministry. In following this call, He is pursuing an M.Div. at TMS with the goal of becoming a Chaplain in the U.S. Military and a Pastor.

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