When I was a child, I was amazed at how amazed grownups were at how fast I grew. “How did you get so big?” is one of those questions that gets old fast. But now that I am a grownup, it’s my turn to be amazed how fast kids grow. When my wife and I were dating, we babysat a sly toddler who was still mastering the basics of grammar. He played a trick on us once (the details of which I’ve forgotten) and cried out, “I joked you!” This has become one of our inside jokes, and we now refer to that toddler as “I Joked You.” But I Joked You probably doesn’t appreciate it. In a Facebook update from his dad, I see that he’s sporting skinny jeans and a verifiable teenage smirk as he heads into high school. How did he get so big?
Normal human development, for all its predictability, surprises us. It catches us off guard that someone so small can get so big. Hands that could barely grasp our fingers become strong and skillful, just as capable as ours. A toddler can demonstrate immense creativity, energy, and mischief. And a teenager—how much more! The difference in personal power and experience that emerges over a decade is staggering.
It’s this kind of staggering difference that we need to keep in mind when we think about spiritual growth. What God offers us in Jesus Christ is a change no less dramatic.
Scripture uses several images of growth to describe the spiritual life. The Apostle Paul writes that our process of growth will continue “until all of us come . . . to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NRSV). A more literal rendering of the word translated maturity would be “to a (full-grown) man,” and in the next breath Paul writes, “We must no longer be children” (4:14). Spiritual growth is about growing up—leaving behind the patterns of our early spiritual life now that we’re ready for something more.
Jesus memorably speaks of the kingdom of God as a mustard seed: “it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:32 NRSV). This image makes me think about another small seed: the human embryo. When we were each first formed in our mother’s womb, we started out about one tenth of a millimeter long. Think about that for a moment. That’s how small you once were. And look at you now!
What these passages are getting at is this: As far as an oak has come from an acorn, as far as your body has come since you were a single cell, you still have that far to go yet—and more—spiritually. But what is it that we are growing up into? Scripture describes this reality in various ways: growth in character, growth in love, growth in the knowledge of God, growth in holiness, and growth in wisdom, among others. But one key way to understand the process is growing in power. Just like a teenager can do all sorts of things that a toddler simply can’t, so we become capable of all sorts of new things as we grow up spiritually. We become powerful.
Gentleness: An Example of Power
Have you ever seen someone who has every right to be angry remain calm and respond graciously to the person who has offended them? The power of such gentleness has long-term effects. Chief Master Sergeant Anthony Brinkley shares in an episode of The Moth about a time he encountered life-changing gentleness. When Brinkley, who is Black, was only twelve years old, he witnessed his grandfather being brutally beaten by white police officers. This was a catalyst for long-term bitterness toward white people. Later, while serving in the Air Force (where he also experienced racial discrimination), Brinkley left base while he was supposed to be on standby and missed a base alert. When he learned he had missed the alert, Brinkley says, “A common military expression applied: I was in deep doo-doo.” He fully expected an angry tirade from his white commanding officer, Sergeant Denny. Instead, Sergeant Denny spoke to Brinkley’s behavior calmly, in a way that reminded Brinkley of his own grandfather: “it was his grandfather-like demeanor that completely disarmed me and brought tears to my eyes.” After their heart-to-heart, Sergeant Denny let Brinkley off with “a punishment far below that which my desertion warranted. . . I was so shocked that an older white guy would give me that kind of break . . . That moment with Sergeant Denny added glue to my burdened resolve to just let people’s actions show me who they are and to try not to make ready judgments based on race.” Brinkley says he left that Air Force base a different kind of person.
Sergeant Denny had the power of his rank and the institutional behemoth of the U.S. military behind him when he confronted Brinkley. But that wasn’t the power that tipped the scales in Brinkley’s heart. It was the power of Sergeant Denny’s gentleness that did that. He had the inner capacity to respond to a genuine shortcoming with grace. And because of that inner capacity, Brinkley’s life was changed. That’s true power.
Growing in Power
Like any kind of spiritual maturity, the power of gentleness is no small feat. Proverbs says that “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city” (16:32 NRSV). Think about your own life. When someone messes up in a severely problematic way, how do you respond? What comes out from the corners of your heart in moments like that? For most of us, anger is immediate and can feel uncontrollable. We are too weak to overcome it. We lack power.
Spiritual growth is about gaining the power we need for things like that in our heart to change. Imagine a life in which you respond to others’ failures with gentleness as automatically as you do now with anger. What if you could operate with compassion instead of self-pity, confidence instead of fear, generosity instead of anxious self-protection? The teaching of Scripture is that by God’s grace, these are the kind of changes that come within our grasp over time as we cooperate with Jesus in the process of spiritual growth. We aren’t stuck in our current patterns of smallness and selfishness. What a relief! What good news.
Just like with kids growing up, this process can look mundane day-to-day but proves dramatic as time goes on. Acorns become oak trees. Children become women and men. The difference in personal power and experience that emerges over a decade is staggering. As you think about spiritual growth, take a moment to pray now about your next decade. “Jesus, let me grow up into ‘the full measure’ of your way of life. Give me the power for the changes you want to see in my heart. Help me to believe these things can really happen, and the wisdom to do my part. Amen.”