Your heavenly Father’s goal is for you to mature and develop the characteristics of Jesus Christ. Sadly, millions of Christians grow older but never grow up. They are stuck in perpetual spiritual infancy, remaining in diapers and booties. The reason is that they never intended to grow.
Spiritual growth is not automatic. It takes an intentional commitment. You must want to grow, decide to grow, make an effort to grow, and persist in growing. Discipleship — the process of becoming like Christ — always begins with a decision. Jesus calls us, and we respond: “ ‘Come, be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.”1
When the first disciples chose to follow Jesus, they didn’t understand all the implications of their decision. They simply responded to Jesus’ invitation. That’s all you need to get started: Decide to become a disciple.
Nothing shapes your life more than the commitments you choose to make. Your commitments can develop you or they can destroy you, but either way, they will define you. Tell me what you are committed to, and I’ll tell you what you will be in twenty years. We become whatever we are committed to.
It is at this point of commitment that most people miss God’s purpose for their lives. Many are afraid to commit to anything and just drift through life. Others make halfhearted commitments to competing values, which leads to frustration and mediocrity. Others make a full commitment to worldly goals, such as becoming wealthy or famous, and end up disappointed and bitter. Every choice has eternal consequences, so you had better choose wisely. Peter warns, “Since everything around us is going to melt away, what holy, godly lives you should be living!”2
God’s part and your part. Christlikeness is the result of making Christlike choices and depending on his Spirit to help you fulfill those choices. Once you decide to get serious about becoming like Christ, you must begin to act in new ways. You will need to let go of some old routines, develop some new habits, and intentionally change the way you think. You can be certain that the Holy Spirit will help you with these changes. The Bible says, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”3
This verse shows the two parts of spiritual growth: “work out” and “work in.” The “work out” is your responsibility, and the “work in” is God’s role. Spiritual growth is a collaborative effort between you and the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit works with us, not just in us.
This verse, written to believers, is not about how to be saved, but how to grow. It does not say “work for” your salvation, because you can’t add anything to what Jesus already did. During a physical “workout,” you exercise to develop your body, not to get a body.
When you “work out” a puzzle, you already have all the pieces — your task is to put them together. Farmers “work” the land, not to get land, but to develop what they already have. God has given you a new life; now you are responsible to develop it “with fear and trembling.” That means to take your spiritual growth seriously! When people are casual about their spiritual growth, it shows they don’t understand the eternal implications (as we saw in chapters 4 and 5).
Changing your autopilot. To change your life, you must change the way you think. Behind everything you do is a thought. Every behavior is motivated by a belief, and every action is prompted by an attitude. God revealed this thousands of years before psychologists understood it: “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.”4
Imagine riding in a speedboat on a lake with an automatic pilot set to go east. If you decide to reverse and head west, you have two possible ways to change the boat’s direction. One way is to grab the steering wheel and physically force it to head in the opposite direction from where the autopilot is programmed to go. By sheer willpower you could overcome the autopilot, but you would feel constant resistance. Your arms would eventually tire of the stress, you’d let go of the steering wheel, and the boat would instantly head back east, the way it was internally programmed.
This is what happens when you try to change your life with willpower: You say, “I’ll force myself to eat less … exercise more … quit being disorganized and late.” Yes, willpower can produce short-term change, but it creates constant internal stress because you haven’t dealt with the root cause. The change doesn’t feel natural, so eventually you give up, go off your diet, and quit exercising. You quickly revert to your old patterns.
There is a better and easier way: Change your autopilot — the way you think. The Bible says, “Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”5 Your first step in spiritual growth is to start changing the way you think. Change always starts first in your mind. The way you think determines the way you feel, and the way you feel influences the way you act. Paul said, “There must be a spiritual renewal of your thoughts and attitudes.”6
To be like Christ you must develop the mind of Christ. The New Testament calls this mental shift repentance, which in Greek literally means “to change your mind.” You repent whenever you change the way you think by adopting how God thinks — about yourself, sin, God, other people, life, your future, and everything else. You take on Christ’s outlook and perspective.
We are commanded to “think the same way that Christ Jesus thought.”7 There are two parts to doing this. The first half of this mental shift is to stop thinking immature thoughts, which are self-centered and self-seeking. The Bible says, “Stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”8 Babies by nature are completely selfish. They think only of themselves and their own needs. They are incapable of giving; they can only receive. That is immature thinking. Unfortunately, many people never grow beyond that kind of thinking. The Bible says that selfish thinking is the source of sinful behavior: “Those who live following their sinful selves think only about things that their sinful selves want.”9
The second half of thinking like Jesus is to start thinking maturely, which focuses on others, not yourself. In his great chapter on what real love is, Paul concluded that thinking of others is the mark of maturity: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”10
Today many assume that spiritual maturity is measured by the amount of biblical information and doctrine you know. While knowledge is one measurement of maturity, it isn’t the whole story. The Christian life is far more than creeds and convictions; it includes conduct and character. Our deeds must be consistent with our creeds, and our beliefs must be backed up with Christlike behavior.
Christianity is not a religion or a philosophy, but a relationship and a lifestyle. The core of that lifestyle is thinking of others, as Jesus did, instead of ourselves. The Bible says, “We should think of their good and try to help them by doing what pleases them. Even Christ did not try to please himself.”11
Thinking of others is the heart of Christlikeness and the best evidence of spiritual growth. This kind of thinking is unnatural, counter-cultural, rare, and difficult. Fortunately we have help: “God has given us his Spirit. That’s why we don’t think the same way that the people of this world think.”12 In the next few chapters we will look at the tools the Holy Spirit uses to help us grow.
Warren, Rick. 2012. The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.