Over the thousands of years that have passed since Jesus lived here on earth, theologians have defined spiritual development in a variety of ways. Since we live in an increasingly pluralist and secular culture, spiritual development can have widely different meanings depending on who is defining it.
A general definition to start with is that spiritual development is a belief in a higher reality, something that exists outside of the material reality.
For those who follow Christ, the meaning of spiritual development is more specific. According to Acts 17:28, “… in him we live and move and have our being.” Our core nature, desire for significance and purpose, and our sense of belonging are derived from God himself, as he transforms us through Jesus Christ and his infallible, unchanging Word.
Romans 12:2 powerfully exhorts us: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” This is a concise biblical summary of the purpose of spiritual development.
The truth that comes from God and his design for us, change us from the inside out in everything we do. He has given us all of our intelligence, skills, and abilities, and he requires that we steward those gifts according to his will. The more we develop spiritually, the more we align our wills with God’s will for our lives and for all of creation.
To put it simply, we can define spiritual development as becoming more like Jesus each day.
Spiritual Development as a Process
Spiritual development is not an instant transformation, but a lifelong journey of maturing and becoming Christ-like. God provides daily grace and power to his children as he refines them into his image. In Scripture, we see God’s refining spoken of as a process or journey. Here are several passages to illustrate:
- Jesus says to his disciples, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
- “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
- We don’t grow in isolation; we are sanctified in fellowship with Christ’s body, the church. “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors, andteachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
Spiritual Guidance in Spiritual Development
It’s important to receive spiritual guidance from fellow Christians, but this doesn’t have to take place in an authoritarian context. A spiritual guide should be a helper who walks in step with the Holy Spirit. Counseling and coaching can be contexts for this supportive role.
One area in which spiritual guidance is important is correcting inaccurate beliefs about God’s attributes. Ignorance and lies about who God is need to be revealed and refuted for true spiritual growth to take place. Believing the truth about God and understanding who he really is, allows us to be restored and healed when receiving spiritual guidance. God’s love heals us so that we can live for him.
In this setting, spiritual guidance helps to reshape our inner thinking and belief systems, which we then carry out into the world around us. God is not only our personal Lord and Savior but One Who loves justice and peace in the world at large.
As we grow in Christ, we will become more aware of God’s immanent presence and guidance in our everyday lives. In attempting to carry out his will on a practical level, he will be with you. His manifest presence can be cherished even in the day-to-day mundane tasks of life.
It’s important to embrace the reality of God’s immanent, caring nature for his children, while also remembering his utter sovereignty over every human issue, from individuals to nations to the entire created universe. He reveals himself to us by means of the Holy Spirit through his Word, as well as through our circumstances, other believers, prayers, and the church, guiding us on our journey with him.
Spiritual Development as Counseling and Coaching
One way to look at spiritual development is through the lens of progressive stages. Erik Erikson has popularly described the stages of a human lifespan, and we can use these to describe the stages of development in our faith. Christian psychologists Yvonne Bissonnette Tate and Stephen Parker have correlated Erikson’s model to a spiritual growth model.
When a Christian is first born again, this stage can be called spiritual infancy. It is characterized, just as in Erikson’s model, by the tension between trust and mistrust, or a strong faith in God vs. despair and sadness, and a feeling that God is unreliable. For a believer, this tension is resolved by embracing hope in Christ through faith, which will last a lifetime.
Erikson’s model concludes with the stage of adulthood, which in the Christian walk relates to spiritual maturity, that is, a Christian who has grown up into wisdom and sanctification. This Christian is equipped to be a spiritual guide to other believers as they grow in their own faith.
A Christian counselor or coach should be trying to help clientsto mature spiritually or reach the “spiritual adult” stage. Counseling can reveal barriers to maturity, and obstacles like isolation, misplaced shame, unconfessed sin, and unbelief.
In counseling, it’s possible to evaluate a client’s maturity level and stage of development, and then mentor the client in areas of trusting God, resisting temptation through his strength, pursuing him on a daily basis, and cultivating a love motivation to work for him.
By the power of his Spirit, God can use Christian counseling as a tool for growth in the life of a believer. Clients often find comfort in knowing their issues are understood by an empathetic listener, and they find encouragement as they are reminded of ways the Lord is working in their lives.
Spiritual Development: Purpose
Our ultimate purpose as believers is to glorify God by seeking righteousness found only in Christ Jesus. God has promised us that we will only find complete happiness in an eternal relationship with him. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). As followers of Christ, we should find our greatest purpose and passion in seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness.
Again, we must remember that sanctification is a process. God’s love compels Christians to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). This is both our eternal destiny and our temporal pursuit.
Scripture portrays spiritual growth as a growing to maturity: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
Motivation to mature spiritually comes, as we have seen, because we are compelled by the love of Christ, and also because we are called to put our selfish desires to death and clothe ourselves with Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
We can see a correlation with this death to self in the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous. All members begin by admitting that their lives are a mess and that they are powerless over their addiction.
In the same way, we cannot save ourselves from sin and its consequences; we are completely powerless on our own to live our lives according to God’s will. This teaches a theology of sin, which is paramount to our faith.
As believers, we will not attain perfection this side of heaven, and certainly not by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. The second step of AA is to acknowledge that God alone is able to do the work of restoration. Step three requires submission of yourself to the Lord.
Though obviously, not every Christian is an alcoholic, these principles are a fitting reminder of the fact that we are all addicted to sin. This addiction will stunt our spiritual development.
Addiction, in the Biblical worldview, is a form of idolatry and prevents us from giving God his due worship. It can run the gamut from the seemingly innocuous (television, food, social media, or even idolizing family or a ministry role) to the illegal (drugs, theft, illicit sex, etc.).
To grow spiritually, we must pursue God with a heart of genuine worship, knowing that we are imperfect creatures and surrendering our full hearts and lives to him in every area. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1).
Spiritual Development: Purpose from Calling
It’s common for a believer to feel conflicted about discerning what the will of God is versus their own personal desires. A calling is one way to describe God’s will in an individual’s life.
Calling is defined as follows: “A calling is a transcendent summons, experienced as originating beyond the self, to approach a particular life role in a manner oriented toward demonstrating or deriving a sense of purpose or meaningfulness and that holds other-oriented values and goals as primary sources of motivation” (Dik & Duffy, 2009, p. 427).
The word calling is often used to refer to vocational ministry but also applies to any profession in which a believer may be engaged. This emphasis grew stronger during the Protestant Reformation when the reformers emphasized the doctrine that all believers are priests who can come to God on their own through Christ.
One study has found that men who decided to become Catholic priests placed a high level of importance on integrating their identity as priests with a strong sense of self.
We can correlate this to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers; Christians who embrace this doctrine can find a stronger purpose in their individual vocations. God’s will is transcendent, or high above us, yet it is also immanent, interacting with our personal identities and lives.
A separate study on calling and purpose discovered that people who believe God causes events also perceive him as having sovereign control over every situation. Trusting that God is sovereign helps us to perceive his will in our lives.
People who are able to see their vocation as a calling tend to have better outlooks on their careers and lives. But beyond simply achieving personal benefit, it’s important to seek God’s will in our careers and vocations.
We are God’s instruments in the world: “Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness” (Romans 6:13).
Regardless of a Christian’s particular job in the workplace, all of us are called to be instruments of justice and righteousness in accordance with God’s revealed will.
Discerning God’s will takes place in the context of the body of believers. “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:4-5).
A Christian counselor or coach can help you connect to a local church, and embrace patterns of servant leadership as you live out your purpose and calling in the world.
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