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Living as Gospel People (Part 1/5)

“But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 3:18

My, how we’ve grown!

We are heavier now than when we first arrived. The face in the mirror is different than the one we were born with. Regardless of how much or how little we can bench press, our current strength levels must seem superhuman compared to the floppy arms and legs we once had. Every metric of our physical capacity has increased measurably. The growth is undeniable. And if it weren’t, we would worry. Growth is a sign of health. Being stunted indicates a problem.

How much does a soul weigh?

Growth is not as obvious with our souls. There is no scale to step on. Progress is harder to measure. There are seasons of struggle that in hindsight prove to be progress not recognized at the time. There are other seasons we think we are surging, but God smiles at our baby steps. Our souls are intangible with murky depths. There’s a mystery about them. When Nicodemus was confusing the physical with the spiritual, Jesus reminded him that the spiritual life can be mysterious. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn.3:8). But the mystery of soul growth does not mean it’s unknowable. As Jesus acknowledged, even the wind has a sound.

These paragraphs are meant for those who long to grow spiritually. They have been granted new life by trusting in Jesus Christ and now want the fullness of Jesus’ life within them. They reflect the ache of Paul’s heart, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed within you” (Gal.4:19). They want to be presented before God as mature in Christ (Col.1:28). They recognize that a flourishing soul is a priority of faith (Phil.3:12). If you count yourself as one who hungers for spiritual growth – read on.

Souls are not static

The good news is that souls can grow. They are meant to grow. Being made alive in Jesus means that our souls can change. Our souls are in motion. They can be enlarged or diminished, wander from God, or lean towards Him. They are nudged by our environment, moved by our desires, and steered by our choices. All of this can happen within a day! Ancient Christian guides spoke of “consolation” and “desolation.” There are moments our souls feel “with the sun” or “without the sun.” We can be consoled in peace and the warmth of God’s love. We may feel times of desolation, that God is hidden by the clouds. That is not to suggest that our souls are fickle, but they are fluid. Even as our bodies are susceptible to change, improvement, or decline, our souls are as well. That is good news. Take hope in it. Your soul is not fixed in its current state. Neither the sense of excelling nor failing is permanent. Souls can be moved and shaped to follow God’s design and our own holy intent.

Where do I desire growth?

What are the areas in which our souls can grow? Spiritual formation involves three broad categories: our doctrine, mission, and virtue. We are to grow in, “What I know, what I do and what I am.” Each of these is an essential aspect of Christian development, and they are all informed and grounded by Biblical truth. It’s a mistake to think that these happen in equal portions. Young faith may emphasize the doctrines of Scripture. Need and opportunity may prioritize missional growth. Lately we have seen a re-focus on personal virtues that has been long neglected. These three areas form a triangle, but each side is not always equal. The sides may shift in priority, but there are always three. They can’t be separated, nor do they strictly follow one after the other. Doctrine and mission go hand in hand. Virtue may blossom over time, but there is no stage of growth where it should be missing.

The question for our consideration is this, “Where do I need to grow in this stage of my Christian walk? Am I lacking in doctrine, mission, or virtue?” Granted that for all of us, there is a shortfall across the board, but it is still a good question to hold before God in prayer. When you call out to God for help, what do you need? In a visit to the doctor’s office, often the first question is, “What’s wrong?” God may steer us with a similar question. The first practical step for soul growth is to name our need. Jesus stands before you and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mk.10:51). Whatever your answer, only God can do it.

Soul work is God’s work

We are gospel people. We have come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through a particular message. It can be phrased in various ways, but the core gospel message is this: We cannot do and be what is required before God. God Himself has supplied what is required through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. We receive the righteousness, life, and forgiveness of Jesus through faith in who He is and what He has done. It is an act of complete grace on God’s part, unconnected to any effort or merit within us. We are saved, all of God. Salvation is His gift.

The gospel is the message we believed to enter this new life. But the gospel remains the message by which we live this new life. The way we entered salvation is the same way we grow in salvation. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col.2:6). Our tendency is to shift gears once we become Christians. We try to self-manage the growth of our soul. We receive the gift of new life and in effect tell God, “I can take it from here!” But if we did not have the power to save our soul, why do we think we have the power to grow it? The gospel truths remain. We are incapable to do what is expected and needed. What we cannot do on our own is given to us through Jesus. Faith remains not just the doorway to new life, but the pathway as well (Rom.1:17). The growth of our soul is beyond us. It must be done for us. God alone can do it.

You may have agreed with everything in the above paragraph, but if you are like me, your attitude and actions suggest a different message. I felt responsible to shape my own soul into godliness, as if the fruit of the Spirit was mine to produce. By my decisions, actions, thoughts, engagements, and abstinence, I could (and should) tailor my soul to fit the shape Jesus had for me. No one taught me that; they didn’t have to. It was rooted within my default nature and assumed to be my responsibility. The irony was this. As I spoke with friends and strangers alike, stressing that they couldn’t save themselves but needed a Saviour, I was doing the opposite. I was trying to make of myself that which only God can do. It took me years to realize that as only God can save a soul, only God has the power and pace for my soul’s maturity.

Work out your salvation!

Some may fear that I am making the Christian life too passive. “Just let God do all the work!” I am not advocating passivity, as if we can float into fullness. The work is God’s to do, but we participate in our soul’s health and growth. It is not simply done to us, but done with us. We respond to His grace and initiative. As we participate in our physical well-being with diet, exercise, and good life habits, even so for our souls. There are disciplines we give ourselves to that nurture our souls. These disciplines are not the power of growth but the means by which God’s power is granted by grace. Life, physical and spiritual, is God’s to give and maintain.

So enough with setting the context. I said we would be practical. What can a believer who wants to mature do? Here are six steps for soul growth every believer can take.

1. Keep saying “yes” to God

Our hearts are shaped by our intentions. You want to mature in Christ – keep that desire in the forefront. Repeat it to yourself. Repeat it to God. Say “yes” to the plans God has for you in every circumstance and situation. It may not be easy or painless, but persevere. Keep saying “Yes!” to God. The more we say “yes,” the deeper our desire grows. By saying, “yes”, we recognize that soul work is God’s to do. Our work is to believe and receive. Remember the gospel. Live by faith.

2. Put yourself in the places of grace

Those who want to learn to speak French immerse themselves in the language. They surround themselves with the very thing they want to do. Not only has God provided grace, but He has given the means of grace for us. Surround yourself with them. Saturate your heart and mind with Scripture. Give yourself to prayer. Let the place of worship and the people of God become familiar to you. Diminish those things that dull your desire or distract your soul. We are simply naive if we think we can avoid or ignore the means of grace and still flourish spiritually.

3. Aim for consistency

In the exercise of spiritual practices, nothing surpasses the impact of consistency. Casual engagements and sporadic spiritual habits are not the answer. Most of us have grand intentions to pray, give or serve, but the actual doing of it is sporadic. I have found that consistency matters more than quantity. When it comes to shaping our souls, praying 15 minutes a day is more effective than an hour once a week. As God enables you, aim for consistency in your Bible reading, prayer and worship.

4. Practice the power of returning

We will fail at consistency. Our good intentions won’t be played out perfectly. Welcome to the human experience. When we do fail or forget, we tend to fall into self-incrimination and guilt. We think that there is no sense in continuing if we can’t do it perfectly. That’s just pride talking. The pathway forward is to return to our intentions. Ask God to help us start afresh and simply begin again. In the times we are weary or begin to think that “not much is happening,” the best we can do is continue. Should we stop, just begin again. God promises that we will find strength in the returning (Isa.30:15).

5. Be patient with God’s pace and plan

Microwaves have spoiled us. Amazon “same day delivery” has set a false standard. Those who want their souls to grow, want it to grow now! We are in far more of a rush than God is. We crave instant results, but fruit grows at its determined pace. We have a schedule and agenda we want God to follow, but God is not confined to our expectations. He has the power and pace for the changes He wants to bring us. He seems to know what He is doing, so trust the heavenly Gardener (Jn.15). God has been known to go silent and seem still. His apparent inactivity confuses us. Persist through the times of waiting and wilderness. His delay or apparent distance need not be a result of our failure or sin. It is an essential ingredient for growth for every pilgrim. The clouds may hide the sun, but the sun remains.

6. Rest in hope

As mentioned, nothing replaces faith for living this spiritual life. Hope is the future tense of faith. We anticipate what will be because of what God has already said. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil.1:6). If the maturity of my soul was up to my own abilities and means, I would have no assurance that it would happen. (I know my track record!) But if God has promised, then it will be. God will answer the desire He has placed within us. I need not be anxious about becoming all that God wants for me. He will do it.

The conversation of “How to Grow Your Soul” is large, but vital. We have made a beginning. We grow our soul by living as gospel people. Asking and trusting God to do what we cannot; and responding with actions of faith to His grace and promise. Our next article will help us understand what it means to Live Inside Out.


Part 1/5

Scott Tolhurst

Scott Tolhurst

Scott and his wife have spent almost 50 years following God together through life, marriage and ministry. They’ve hop scotched across Canada and landed at the water’s edge on Vancouver Island. They’ve harvested the riches of family (5 grandkids!) and the delights of God’s people. Life has not always been clear but the fog has been pierced with these truths. The heart matters. Kingdom work is God’s. Nothing can replace faith. It never ceases to amaze Scott that, if his life is a gift, how great the Giver must be!

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