How to Visualize Spiritual Maturity

Now that we have established the basis for our two major growth dimensions, loving God and loving others, we can begin to discuss how to measure and visualize maturity. For now, this post assumes that there is a means by which we can measure maturity (granted, a big assumption) and focuses of visualization for the purpose of reinforcing the concepts already discussed.

There are four views discussed in this section. The first is mostly a basis to begin with…a simple bar chart reflecting the current state of a disciple in terms of how far they have progressed along the knowledge, character and behavior dimensions.

Here we see that this person has grown most in knowledge, second in behavior, and third in character…a pretty typical distribution. It is not depicted, but one can easily see where phases of maturity can be drawn at various levels. If the range of maturity values is 0 to 5, perhaps phase 1 is 0-2, phase 2 is 2-4 and phase 3 is 4-5?

Now if we were break down each dimension into smaller parts using the cross-cutting themes (or categories) discussed earlier, this bar chart might look something more like the following.

Here we can see inside each of the major dimensions to understand the component pieces. This tells us what areas of knowledge, character and behavior are strong and which are weak. In the graph above, we see that this person’s attitude is very humble but not very persevering. With this information, a faith coach can target this area of weakness with disciplines aimed at building self-confidence and steadfastness unto overall perseverance.

Other views can be helpful as well. By stacking the values, we can get an aggregate view of knowledge, character and behavior.

This is basically the same data as the earlier chart, only the bars are stacked one on top of one another rather than being side-by-side. The value of the previous chart would be able to see phase levels of each theme within each dimension independently; i.e. I can clearly see that this person is a phase 3 disciple with regard to a humble character but only phase 1 with regard to a persevering character.

The value of this stacked bar chart is to see keep the aggregate knowledge, character and behavior scores (and phasing) and yet add the component pieces to see relative (as opposed to absolute) strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, it’s important to see end-to-end measurements of each of the themes.

This chart looks similar to the last chart, but you’ll notice that the themes and dimensions are reversed so we can see maturity by theme rather than by dimension. I can see were my disciple is with regard to joy, including each component piece of knowledge, character and behavior.

What is the point to all this visualization mumbo jumbo? The point is that in order to be effective as a disciple and a disciplemaker, we must have some way of understanding where we are, where we are going and how we’re going to get there. The assessment tool can be used to gain a subjective understanding on where a disciple is in their walk; graphs like these can be used to visualize the conclusions; and discussions on what activities are appropriate to strengthen weak areas may then take place. At the end of the day, it’s simply about being more intentional about becoming more like Christ.

What is Our Purpose in Life?

What is the primary purpose of a man? What is their reason for being? Why are we all here? Clearly these are deep questions that have answers only God can fully understand. Though I will not pretend to answer fully in one blog post I do believe God has provided a simple view that will allow us to move forward confidently.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon struggles to answer these questions. It is the outpouring of a man who wasted the better part of his life seeking significance through what the world has to offer. His recurring mantra is “Vanity of vanities…all is vanity”, because he eventually came to understand that our significance cannot be found in anything the world has to offer. It can only be found in what God has to offer. His final conclusion is revealed in Eccl 12:13, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep his commandments, because this applies to every person.” Note that the two directives, fear God and keep His commandments, are inseparable…genuine reference for God includes obedience. Therefore, we may confidently state that our primary purpose in life is simply to demonstrate our respect of God by obeying Him.

But what would God have us to do? What does it mean to keep His commandments? Surely it does not mean simply keeping the law, for the entire New Testament is written with the view that obedience to God includes more than keeping the letter of the law. Jesus himself gives us the simplest answer when he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.'” Matt 22:37-40. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 7:12). Toward the end of Matthew, Jesus separates those who loved Him from those who did not, and the means by which he knew who loved Him and who did not was the manner in which they treated other people (i.e. other disciples of Jesus). As if to underscore this teaching to the Galatians, Paul later adds, “the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. (Gal 5:14)

Based on these few passages plus a number of others, the principle purpose or reason for being of a human is simply to do the following:

Love God and Love Others

Love God

While true, this calling is still very abstract. How can we begin to break it down so we can keep our arms around the it yet make it more applicable to daily life? If we left it here, it would remain a Christian cliché – a mantra that people profess but do not even understand let alone live. Let’s begin by taking each part one at a time, beginning with “Love God”. Loving God can be stated simply, yet more precisely, as the following:

Hearing God, Believing God and Obeying God

That is, we love God when we listen to Him, trust Him and then obey Him. We seek specific truths of God from His Word (The Bible), we believe the truth granted to us, and we live consistent with that belief. If a person does these three things, they express love for God in its purest form. To the extent that strive to know God’s Truth through the bible, believe it to the point that we take action (rather than simple intellectual assent), and actually do what it says is the extent that we love God. When we fail to crave God’s word, believe what we know, or obey what God has said we are being unloving toward God.

Love Others

Loving other people is just as easily misunderstood. Most connect love with emotion; God connects it with sacrifice. A loving person does not simply have warm fuzzy feelings; they let go of what they have for the benefit of others, regardless of how they “feel” about them. The perfect example of love, of course, is Jesus sacrifice of Himself for those that did not love Him first. Consider the statement below as a simple refinement of the “love others” directive:

Joyfully forget yourself and focus on others forever.

There are four components intentionally includes in this phrase: joy, humility, compassion, and perseverance. It is believed that upon inspection of God’s word, loving others can be boiled down to these four major “themes”. We love others when we forget about ourselves (humililty) and focus on the needs of others (compassion) with great passion and contentment (joy) for the rest of our days (perseverance).

That is, we love others when we forget about our own needs to focus on the needs or others, and we are most supremely fulfilled doing this consistently throughout our lives.

Now, let’s connect this to the Iterative Growth Model.

People grow along three dimensions: knowledge, character, and behavior. They grow along these dimensions by hearing, believing, and obeying God iteratively and incrementally. Remember also that we briefly discussed themes. The themes are characteristics that are developed by successive iterations of hearing God, believing God and obeying God and can be considered components of knowledge, character and behavior. For example, if one theme is compassion then I can grow in my knowledge of compassion, belief that leads to compassion, and compassionate living.

Connecting the iterative growth model to loving God and loving others, the hear-believe-obey cycle directly maps to “Loving God” as described above. Similarly, the themes map directly to “love others”. There are four major themes: humility, compassion, perseverance and joy. These themes map directly to our tag line for loving others: Joyfully (joy) forget yourself (humility) and focus on others (compassion) forever (perseverance).

Therefore, because we develop joy, humility, compassion, and perseverance by hearing, believing and obeying God, one may conclude that we love others by loving God! It is by our love for God that we are able to truly love others! And so, the highest calling of a disciple, Loving God and Loving Others, can be slightly rephrased as the following

Loving others by loving God

The significance of this is important. This statement implies that we cannot love others unless we first love God. It is our love for God that empowers and even compels us to love others. More than this, love for others is evidence of a love for God. Hence, Jesus words on Matthew 25 where he states that we have loved Him when we loved others. His statement here is based on this foundational truth that God’s people, those that love him, love others – it’s just what they do. Being a disciple means accelerating this trend…forever.

Treasure in Earthen Vessels

One of my favorite bands is Jars of Clay.  They get their name from 2 Corinthians 4:7…

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” 2 Cor 4:7 (NASB)

Paul’s point here is that God has chosen us (as ordinary, fragile, and insignificant as a clay pot) to hold and distribute His gospel so that He would receive all of the glory for it’s power and not us.  But, you do not even have to leave Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to see something else that this body of ours “contains”.

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” 1 Cor 6:19-20

And so, God has chosen (for reasons that are hard if not possible to comprehend) to use fallen, broken, sinful, frail people to hold something as significant as not only God’s universal message of justice, grace, and mercy but also the very Spirit that regenerates and transforms us.  This is the same Spirit who participates in Creation and who resided among men only in the Holy of Holies before Christ.  Amazing…absolutely amazing.

What could be more amazing?  The fact that I, and I’ll bet many of you, do not think on this very often let alone allow it to affect our moment to moment behavior.  How can it be that I get so caught up in the meaningless, being tricked into thinking that it is somehow more significant that the fact that God has called me to be a vehicle of His gospel and His Spirit to a fallen, lost, Hell-bound world?  How can it be that I worry more about the price of a tank of gas than the price Christ paid for my sins.  How can it be that I worry more about how I’m performing and measured by my boss at work than I am my boss who redeemed me, resurrected me, called me, and indwelled me?  How can it be that I worry more about what other insignificant earthen vessels think of me than what the infinitely significant contents of my own vessel thinks of me?

I’m often reminded of a couple simple and practical points that I have used throughout the years to move my attention away from the vessel and toward it’s contents.  I’ll share them here and pray that He would use them to help you as well.

First, frequent and regular prayer matters.  As busy as life gets, too many times I am duped into thinking that my relationship with God is strong enough to skip daily prayer for a season so I can “get things done”.  That’s a lie.  I don’t care how “mature” you are, we all have to be reminded of the treasure within us or we will forget.

Second, every moment of our lives represents an opportunity to live through the strength of what lives within us rather than the weakness of it’s container.  We do not have to change anything about our circumstances to fully glorify God. 

Did you know that a single mom changing the diaper of her 6-month old has the same opportunity to glorify God as does Billy Graham sharing the gospel with millions of people on TV?  This relatively unknown single mom and Mr. Graham are made of the same insignificant earthen material and possess the same gospel and Holy Spirit.  How could one glorofy God and the other not?  It’s all in the heart and motives for doing what you do.  Are you doing all you can, wherever God has placed you, to hear Him, believe Him, and obey Him?  Are you genuinely concerned about how much you reflect the Spirit’s joy, compassion, humility and perseverance?  If you change that diaper out a selfless concern for the baby, joyfully content with the role God has given you then you will be more pleasing to God than a person sharing the gospel with millions of people only because of the attention or money it brings him.

At the end of the day, especially when the world begins to become confusing, I come to the same conclusion that Solomon did:

“The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.”  Ecclesiastes 12:13

Any believer, no matter their job or circumstance, can and must fear God and keep His commandments.  In this way, we live by the power of that which lives in us and not by the frailty of the vessel itself.  This is how we glorify God, and all of us have the same opportunity to glorify God to the same extent. 

And so, my encouragement for the day is to seek God and his commands, then live them to the best of your ability right where you are moment to moment.  Let’s leave the excuses behind and help one another in the journey.

Deeper Dive on Growth Themes

In my last post, I introduced the concept of a growth theme.  Think of themes (joy, compassion, humility, perseverance) as the more concrete sub-components of the growth dimensions (knowledge, character, and behavior).  And remember, growth on these dimensions within the themes is a result of hearing, believing and obeying God.  Later, I’ll go a little deeper on hearing, believing and obeying God…the things we do.  But first, lets look a little closer at what we are trying to become (increasingly joyous, compassionate, humble, and persevering).

Joyfully forget yourself and focus on others forever.

The above statement is something I made up as a kind of personal mission statement.  Notice how it includes each of the four growth themes…joy, humility (forget yourself), compassion (focus on others), and perseverance (forever).  We are followers of Christ if we do this increasingly, genuinely and in the context of God’s truth.  Note that I did not say we are “saved” because of it.  We’re “saved” because we professed faith in Christ and He gave us life by His grace alone.  What I’m taking about here is actually following Christ after we have been regenerated.

Now, let’s look under the hood.  Are four themes really enough?  What about love, wisdom, righteousness, contentment, faith, dependenance, generosity, etc?  As I said before, we created a mind map to organize these characteristics so that we could get our arms around the different facets and begin to eat the elephant one bite at a time, so to speak.

Here is a link to that mind map: Themes v0.3

Remember, this is one of an incalculable number of possible arrangements.  This is just one that works for our purposes.  I’m happy to take feedback on it, because I do want to improve it…but, let’s not miss the forest for the trees either.

And so you will see that we’re framing contentment as a joy issue.  If you do not have God’s joy, it is possible that the underlying cause is a contentment issue.  With this kind of vocabulary, we can use it in a number of different ways to help people.  Here are a few:

Assessment: Helping Disciples Know Where They Are

We can develop a means of helping people understand where they are in their walk with regard to joy, humility, compassion, and perseverance.  This then drives where/how they spend their time addressing areas of weakness (rather than simply ammassing knowledge by an endless stream of “bible studies”).  The intent of “assessment”, would be to help someone understand that contentment is a bigger issue in their life than say generosity.

Guidance: Helping Disciples Know Where to Go and How to Get There

Guidance can be attached to the same vocabulary.  Guidance (e.g. passages of scripture, teaching, books, podcasts, disciplines, ad-hoc experiences and advice, etc)  can be provided on how to become more generous, for example, and loaded into a shared repository.

Search: Helping Disciples Find The Best Stuff Fast

Now that guidance has been loaded against a specific vocabulary, and a person understands their need using the same vocabulary, an extremely efficient search capability can be put into place that helps a disciple find exactly what they need almost immediately.

There is alot more to be said, but alas…it will have to wait until next time.  Until then, I will continue to pray for all of you as you strive to become more like our Savior.

Themes of Spiritual Growth

Let’s pick up on a thread that I started several days ago re: spiritual growth.  Remember that we discussed two basic principles:

  • spiritual growth occurs along three dimensions: knowledge, character and behavior.
  • growth on these three dimensions occurs by iterations of hearing, believing and obeying God.

And, we used the following as a picture to illustrate the basic concept.

Iterative Growth Model
Iterative Growth Model

Now let’s break down the components of knowledge, character, and behavior so we can get to something that each of us can use in our daily lives and help others to do the same.

Several months ago, some faithful buddies and I brainstormed “christian attributes”.  We asked, “what are the characteristics you would expect to see in a follower of Christ?”  Obviously, many attributes came to mind, including wisdom, righteousness, humility, generosity, love, contentment, etc.  We then organized them into four major themes: joy, humility, compassion, and perseverance.

Therefore, when we talk about growing in knowledge, we’re really talking about growing in knowledge of what it means to be joyous, humble, compassionate and persevering.  When we talk about growing our character (internal attitudes and unseen behaviors), we’re talking about developing a joyous, humble, compassionate, and persevering character.  When we talk about growing in behavior (externally observable behaviors), we’re talking about acting joyous, humble, compassionate, and persevering.

Clearly, there are many, many ways to organize these attributes.  This is just the way we did it, and I think it works pretty well.  In future posts, I can share the detailed “mind map” that describes how we organized the attributes and dealt with “super-themes” like righteousness and wisdom.

Now, remember the second principle that describes how we grow in the three dimensions and their four components.  Generally speaking, we grow in knowledge by hearing God; we grow in behavior by believing Him; and we grow in behavior by obeying Him.  Therefore, we grow in our knowledge of what it means to be joyous by hearing what God has to say on joy; we grow in chracter with respect to joy by genuinely believing these truths from God; and, we grow in joyous behavior when we obey these new truths that we genuinely believe.

I have lots of examples from Scripture and from my own experience to share, and will do so over time, but for now let’s start with one from Acts.  Do you remember Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16)?  They behaved in an extraordinary way.  First, rather than grumbling (which I’m sure I would have been), they are singing and praying.  Then, when the earthquake hits and the prison doors are busted open, they did not flee.

Now look, I’m excited by the growth God has caused in me over the past several years, but I am nowhere near this level of mature behavior.  Paul and Silas were so focused on the welfare of their guard, they essentially sacrificed themselves for him…a non-Jew and a non-Christian.  Why on earth would they a) be singing in prison; and b) not leave when God “obviously” was trying to set them free by way of the earthquake?  In the first case, they had learned to be “content in all circumstances” (we bucketed contentment within the joy theme).  In the second, they had serious compassion for the jailor and knew what “the right thing to do was” (see my previous post).  Why were they so joyous and compassionate?  Because they knew the promises of God and they genuinely believed them.  They had already invested years into knowing God’s word and practicing the disciplines required for training themselves for just such a moment.  Of course, Paul (at least) had the additional experiences of supernatural encounters with God, but these are not necessary to grow to the point Paul was.  We can all get there by studying God’s word, proactively training ourselves to believe it, and them acting upon it in any circumstance.

And so my encouragement is simply this: know God’s word, believe what you know, and obey what you believe.  Over time, learn a little more, believe a little more and obey a little more.  Just keep moving forward and never stop. 

If you need help, please raise you hand.  I, and many others joining this community, are here to help you!