It’s Flashback Friday and we’re happy to bring you this Cutting Edge article from Fall of 2008
Bert Waggoner talks about Lifelong Spiritual Development
The Holistic Nature of Personal Growth
Let me begin by establishing this simple assumption: personal growth is holistic. We grow physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, theologically, and relationally. We cannot separate these from one another; they are interdependent. Right from the start we must be committed to give attention to all aspects of growth and not think that any aspect can come to maturity without caring for the others.
There is no aspect of our personal growth that is more vital than growth in relationships. Our relationships are the driving force that shapes who we are and who we will become as leaders. If this is true, it is easy to see why we should make it our highest priority to nurture and develop our relationships.
Growth in Relationship with the Triune God
First, we must grow in our relationship with the triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The relationship with God is a relationship with all three members of the holy Trinity. Sometimes there can be a problem in spiritual development due to all the focus being on one member of the Trinity—e.g. within Evangelicalism, the Son; within the Pentecostal/Charismatic context, the Holy Spirit; or within historical Protestantism, the Father. Our growth in relationship with God must be with the Father, and with the Son, and with the Spirit. Our growth takes place in the dynamic of love that exists in this divine community.
The basic pattern for prayer and worship in the New Testament is to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. This is not the only pattern the New Testament models, but whatever the pattern, it always implies the Trinity of persons. Our God is a triune God. That is the only God that can be known through Jesus Christ. When we pray to Jesus, the Father and Spirit are present in Him. When we pray to the Father, the Son and the Spirit are present in Him, and likewise for the Son and the Spirit. This is the relationship theologians call the perichoresis. Jesus puts it this way, “Father, just as I am in you and you in me…” (John 17:21). So when we pray and worship it is never a solo relationship with the Father or the Son or the Spirit. Prayer always brings us into relationship with the eternal community— the triune God.
Knowing that I am in the presence of this divine community is very significant to me. It is like sitting with a group of friends—first speaking to one and then the other according to the primary roles they play in the total plan of redemption, always knowing that as I address one, the other members are also present in the conversation and that in the course of the relationship, first one will speak to me, then another, and I in turn will speak to them. This focus on and experience of the various members of the Godhead is evident in Paul’s spirituality (1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Romans 14:17-18; Galatians 3:11-14; 4:6 and others). The trinitarian relationship comes out in his doxologies and his theological arguments. This is the kind of relationship with God in which I am endeavoring to grow. It is the foundation for all of my prayer life and personal growth.
Growth in Relationship with the Kingdom of God
Coinciding with our growth in relationship with the triune God is growth in relationship with the Kingdom of God. Actually, the Trinity and the Kingdom of God are so closely related that it is almost as if they are the same thing from different perspectives. To be in the triune God is to be in the Kingdom of God and vice-versa. But it is important for us to consciously relate to the dynamics of the Kingdom of God. We need to grow in our experience of God’s love and power. It is important to be consciously aware that we are living in the powers of the age to come, caught in the vortex of the coming kingdom.
The experience of God’s love being poured into our hearts is our most important area of growth. There is nothing that a leader needs to grow in more than in the conscious experience of the Kingdom of God as love (Romans 5:5). I personally missed this emphasis on the kingdom as experienced love in my earlier years. I knew the Spirit experientially primarily as the Spirit of power but not as love. Then I began to see that just as the primary dynamic within the Trinity is love, the experience of God’s love is also the primary dynamic in the kingdom. Since coming into that awareness I have been on a continual quest of growth in the experience of God’s love.
The Kingdom of God also comes as the kingdom of power. Love and power should not be set in contrast with one another. The power that is expressed in the Kingdom of God is the power to love God and others (I Corinthians 13). It is not a naked power that can be used for one’s own advantage. It is an experience that gives courage to believe that we can do all things through the Spirit that is within us. We must all grow in the conscious awareness of God’s kingdom by the ever-increasing experience of the power of God.
Growth in Relationship with Others
Finally, we must grow in our ability to relate to others. I say “finally” because growing in human relationships should come out of and follow the development of our relationship with God and His kingdom. The Trinity provides analogy for the development of human relationships. We were made in God’s image as relational creatures.
The Trinity provides us with a model of how human relationships should be structured, and the experience of God’s kingdom provides the motivation and power for those relationships.
Paul clearly states that the greatest evidence of authentic spirituality is to love. Love cannot be done in the abstract. It can only be done when we engage in human relationships. 1 Corinthians 13 calls us to make it our highest human endeavor, to grow in our social skills and thus in our ability to relate to others, and to build communities of love. We would not do injustice to the text if we replaced “love” with “relationship building” because that is what love is. Nothing is more important—the greatest thing is love. We can grow in all other aspects of our life, but if we do not grow in our ability to relate, everything else is zero, including tongues, miracles, and prophecies.
Intellectual and Theological Growth
I have been speaking primarily of relational growth, but there is one further aspect of growth that I believe is vital to every Christian, and especially to leaders of the flock. This is an area of growth that is often denigrated in forms of spirituality that have been influenced by Gnostic thinking and a kind of spirit/nature dualism. The idea in these schools of thought is that the mind, due to the fact that it is material, is evil, and the only true knowledge of God is that which comes through mystical experiences. The area of growth these Gnostic forms of spirituality have denigrated is intellectual and theological growth.
The Bible does not divide a person into parts. Its purpose is not to provide us with a biblical psychology. So when it uses the language of body, soul, spirit, mind, heart etc., it is speaking of aspects rather than parts of a person. But even more fundamentally, it is speaking of the entire person—whatever it is the person consists of. Thus, when Jesus (and Moses) said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37), he was saying to love God with all you have and are. This greatest commandment, though it includes more than this, certainly includes loving God with the intellect. Since God is the greatest subject of human thought, there is nothing that is nobler for the human mind than to think lofty, inspiring, edifying thoughts of God and His relationship with His world. To do this we must become lifetime students who are always in the process of growing theologically and intellectually.
Signs of Stagnation in Growth
What are some signs that we have stopped growing? There are many, but let me list some of the most evident ones. We are probably not growing in our relationship with God if there is not an ever-increasing experience of the triune God. We are probably not growing in the experience of the kingdom if there is not an ever-increasing experience of God’s love and power. We are probably not growing in relationship with others if we are not deepening our relationships with others and bringing new and different people into our circle of relationships. We are probably not growing intellectually and theologically if we are not thinking new and fresh thoughts of God. We are probably not growing as a pastor or leader if we are not developing new teaching and preaching out of the growth that is taking place in all of these areas. Canned sermons and borrowed sermons are usually a sign that growth is diminishing and that one is taking the path of least resistance.
Reasons people Stop Growing
There are many reasons we stop growing. I believe Jesus highlighted three of the most important of these reasons in Luke 6. He uses three metaphors which highlight growth killers that are common to disciples.
The first is the image of someone who has a plank of wood in their eye, yet is trying to remove the speck from another person’s eye. The problem Jesus highlights here is the tendency to judge others—the development of a critical spirit. When one takes the role of critic, rather than lover and learner, that person has stopped growing.
The second inhibiter of growth Jesus points out in Luke 6 is a heart that takes easy offense at what others have done to it. The metaphor He uses is that of a heart with a bramble in it. The evidence of the brambled heart is that it refuses to open itself to others or to new ideas because of the injury that others have done to it. It is imprisoned by the past offenses of others. Brambled hearts are not growing hearts—they are shrinking hearts.
The third condition is captured in the metaphor of the two houses. One was built on the sand, the other on the rock. The problem is in the area of commitment. There is sand in the foundation. Unless we have made our decision to follow Jesus whatever the cost and decided that we will grow and become all that we can be, we will have sand in the foundation. Without a solid rock of commitment, we will take the easy route out. When I asked Evelyn to marry me forty-six years ago, I did so under one condition: that she would never complain at the number of books I bought. I told her that day, “I want to grow all my life and I will need books to do it.” I laid the foundation for a life of growth. The sand was out of the foundation. Commitment to grow is necessary for growth.
There is one other cause for growth to stop that is especially prominent in a charismatic context. It is the temptation to look for an easy way out of the pain that growth requires. It is the opposite of commitment to discipline. It is a reductionism that says, “If I can just have a vital experience with God in which He shows Himself in some powerful way, that is all I need in life.” Some Pentecostals believe that if a person just has the experience of speaking in tongues, it will solve every problem. Others think if they could just go to some meeting where signs and wonders are present, that will be all they need. Signs and wonders are good and speaking in tongues is good, but they are no substitutes for the day-by-day discipline that is required for a person’s growth. There is no silver bullet to personal growth. It is a long and painful yet exhilarating pilgrimage.
The Rewards of a Life of Continual Growth
The rewards of a growing life are innumerable. A person who is committed to personal growth finds life always getting richer—the better wine is at the end. This person is never “over the hill.” The ones who commit themselves to a life of personal growth will experience what Jesus promised: the life abundant, even through the most painful circumstances. For the growing person, life becomes richer and richer. I am sixty-six years old. For me, this is the best time of my life. The world’s system tells me that I went over the hill twenty-five years ago, but I don’t believe it for a minute. Only those who are not committed to growth go “over the hill.” The rest are like Caleb, who at the age of 85 took the mountain land of promise.
Not only do we have the reward of an enriched life, but the person who is growing is always preparing for unexpected opportunities that come their way— opportunities to serve. I never thought I would have the privilege of serving as National Director of Vineyard USA, but my continual pursuit of personal growth prepared me for the opportunity to serve this wonderful movement.
The reward is not just in this life. The reward follows us beyond this life into the presence of our King and Lord. Then as we stand before our Judge, who is also our Savior, we will have the joy of all joys—the joy that comes from hearing Him say, “Well done, you good and faithful servant.” That’s the ultimate payoff.
Practices and Attitudes for Growth
What practices and attitudes contribute to a life of personal growth? Docility is the most important attitude. Docility is an attitude of humility, of submission, of being interested. The growing person knows that there is much to learn. He or she listens to those who are authorities. Wisdom is the growing person’s passion.
Growing persons practice the classic disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, and worship. They are committed to community and cherish relationships. Growing persons experience God, not just in the big things of life, but also in the day-by-day routine of life. Growing people are both socially aware and self-aware. Growing persons read the Proverbs and live them. Growing persons are devoted to a lifestyle of growth because they are devoted to a Friend that calls them to a lifetime of growth.