We all want spiritual growth, but what does that look like? How can I know if I am growing at all? We’ve already seen that spiritual growth, for Christians, means growing in holiness, or in Christlikeness. With this in mind, there are a number of key indicators we can use to assess our spiritual growth.
When we’re talking about measuring results, we can split these measures into two groups. The first category answers the question, “should I expect to see change?” and the second answers the question, “do I see change?” In the business world, the first category is called “leading indicators” and the second category is “trailing indicators.”
We’re interested in spiritual growth, so in the leading indicators category, we are looking for current activities and attitudes that will help us grow spiritually. Trailing indicators will be things that are evident to us and others.
Leading Indicators of spiritual growth
Spiritual growth doesn’t happen accidentally. Our flesh is corrupt and sets us up to be our own rulers rather than being ruled by the Lord. We can’t serve two masters. Therefore because we can’t be free of the flesh, we need to practically work at it if we want to become holy (Phil 2:12-13). Here are some of the things to watch for that will indicate whether you should expect to grow.
1. Regular and deliberate exercise in spiritual disciplines.
The term spiritual discipline sounds very formal, but really what this means is this: do you have a structured way of taking in the Word of God, meditating on it, and praying? This regular set of disciplines is a fundamental way of growing in the knowledge of God and His will, the sinfulness of sin and our own sinfulness. These three areas of understanding are essential to growth, and we should grow in these as part of our quiet times (which is what we call this regular set of spiritual disciplines).
2. Attendance in church activities
We need to be involved in a local church if we want to grow in holiness. I’m not just talking about going to church on Sunday. There are plenty of people who do that and still don’t grow. The reason is that going to church doesn’t necessarily lead to spiritual growth. Instead, we need to be part of a community of believers who are focused on spiritual growth.
Being part of this sort of community means we all share a desire to grow in Christlikeness. This desire results in shared experiences and discussions which sharpen us and encourage us to grow.
Certainly, we should go to church on Sunday, but we also need at least two other activities during the week in which we are meeting with other members of our local church. At least one of these two other activities should be a time when we’re sitting under the teaching of the word of God and deliberately growing. It could be a home group, or a youth group, or even a Sunday school lesson. This additional activity helps us build relationships which in turn feed our desire for growth.
I know that not everyone can make three events each week and that others can do even more. But I’m convinced that involvement in the local church and especially sitting under the faithful teaching of the Word of God is vital to spiritual growth.
We have an incredible privilege in our modern age to grow through reading. Other than the many benefits that come from reading generally, Christians who read have the opportunity to grow spiritually from teachers and leaders outside their immediate circles. Reading doesn’t replace those leaders, but it does provide a valuable supplement to what we learn from our leaders.
In the church I’m part of, we have a reading group that is run by our leadership, and everybody in the church is encouraged to read a book together each month. The message of the authors we read expands and reinforces the messages they hear in church. It also demonstrates that what they hear from church leaders is part of a broadly recognized body of teaching that is rooted in the history of the church.
Trailing indicators of spiritual growth
Activity is not the same as growth. But our work should result in growth when we engage those activities with this purpose. Here are some key indicators of spiritual growth.
1. A concern to please the Lord
To what extent are you concerned about pleasing the Lord? Here are some practical tests: Does your concern to please the Lord manifest itself in your prayer life? Does this concern guide those small, everyday decisions? An inverse question would be, do you have a healthy fear of displeasing the Lord and violating His express commandments?
Paul made it his aim to please the Lord (2 Cor 5:9), and as he explains this, he brings it down to the level of his deeds (2 Cor 5:10). Pleasing the Lord is one of the key indicators of spiritual growth because it indicates that we are no longer focusing on pleasing ourselves. Obedience is simply doing what the Lord asks because we know it pleases Him when we act in agreement with His will. His commands
2. A submissive heart
Submission might not seem obvious, but the more time I spend in the word of God, and in counseling, the more I’m concerned that a submissive heart is not only the fruit of spiritual maturity, it also precipitates it. What I mean is that we need a submissive heart to grow, but our growth will also be manifest in a submissive heart.
In the modern western society, this is a critical issue and indicator of whether we are worldly (and autonomous) or godly (and trusting the Lord). Do you take joy in submitting to your church elders? Your government (regardless of your political persuasion)? Do you pray that the Lord will bless them? Do you consistently speak respectfully of your church, it’s leaders and civil authority? How you regard the authorities God has put in place reflects your submission to the Lord (Rom 13:1-6).
But submission isn’t just about submission to authority. We are called to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21). If we are submissive, we will “regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). When we do this, we will “give preference to one another in honor” (Rom 12:10). Submission extends into every relationship from church, to marriage, including husbands to the needs of his wife (Eph 5:21-25ff).
It should be obvious that the sort of submission in view here is not grudging submission, but a respectful and joy filled submission rooted in a deep trust in the Lord and His order.
3. A teachable heart
Here is one reason why a submissive heart is important. If you are not submissive to authority, you won’t be teachable. I know, because for many years, this was me (and I’m still learning). I thought I knew better. Do you listen respectfully to the views of others, even when you disagree? Or are you more focused on “fixing” their misunderstandings and naivete, or arguing for your position? We will not grow if we are not willing to learn about the Lord from others. The Lord has appointed teachers in His church for the purpose of teaching us (Eph 4:11-12). Do we submit to the Lord’s plan for our growth?
4. Joyful service
Not just others at church, but those in your home? Do you joyfully serve your spouse? Parents? Roommates? Do you look for opportunities to serve at church too? Or do you prioritize other things over service to others? A serving heart is a giving heart. The person who joyfully gives receives much more back from the Lord. Service is rooted in love (Gal 5:13). A failure to love is another reflection of our relationship with the Lord (1 John 2:10, John 13:35). Our relationship with the Lord, or more specifically the heart we have for Him will determine whether we will grow.
The 3 functions of the heart at work
Our desires are deceptive. Sin seems to be desirable, but we know that sin ends in death (Rom 6:23, Prov 14:12, 16:25). You’ll notice that each of the trailing indicators above has an affective heart change. That is, spiritual growth changes our desires.
You might also notice that the leading indicators are not primarily affective. They are more rational and volitional, which is to say they stem from our understanding and will. There are, of course, desires in them, but they are not pressing, immediate desires for satisfaction, they are rather a longer term, deeper desire.
The priority of the mind and will reveals something important about how we are to function as saved sinners. We are not to be led by our fleshly emotions and feelings since these are corrupt and pursue the wrong things. We are instead to be led by what we know is right – the principles of the word of God. These principles lead us to commit to and act out what we need to do. The result is that our feelings and affections change as a result. We see this in Colossians 1:9-12, where Paul starts with the knowledge of God’s will (v9), followed by the pattern of our will (walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, v10). The affective aspects of our heart follow these in verse 11-12, including patience, joy, and thanksgiving.
Our spiritual growth depends on putting in place the disciplines we need to grow. These are driven by what we understand of the word of God. Understanding the word of God leads us to deliberate and knowing obedience. The Holy Spirit uses our intelligent obedience to bear fruit in our lives. Notice in Gal 5:16, we are commanded to “walk by the Spirit,” which means obeying the desires of the Spirit (Gal 5:17), which God has recorded for us in His word.
As we obey, the Lord works in us according to His purposes (Phil 2:12-13), to bear fruit, which is evident in our desire to please the Lord, a submissive heart, eagerness to learn and joyful service.