Crises of Faith Are Yardsticks for Growth
By J. I. Packer
How does one measure spiritual growth?
The question assumes that we do grow spiritually, that there is something to be measured. But can I take that for granted? Scripture tells us to grow—“grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” says Peter. But I suspect that, with all our passion for bodybuilding and personal development, very few of us are seeking to grow in the way that Peter tells us to. So very few of us are actually doing so.
Human parents would be very upset if five or ten or 20 or 40 years after birth their babies were still babies; it must also grieve our heavenly Father when his born-again children are content to mark time in immaturity rather than aim at spiritual advance.
May God joggle our consciences, and joggle them hard, about this! Meantime, however, back to my original question: how may growth in grace be discerned? How may we know that we grow?
To get a handle on this question, we must start by asking: what are the changes in a person’s life that show sanctification in progress? This is a bigger question than can be properly answered here, but we can point to at least three areas of necessary change. Each is double-barreled.
First, growth in grace means increase in humility, and in the passion for praise. A pair-of-scales effect operates here. The closer one walks with God, the more sensitive one becomes to sin. One’s estimate of oneself sinks lower because of the depths of sinfulness that one now sees within oneself. As one’s view of oneself goes down, so one’s gratitude for God’s love in salvation raises up in greater adoration.
Those who are growing spiritually tread in their inner life the path of punctured pride and passionate praise, and become ever more ardent in effacing themselves in order to exalt their Savior-God.
Second, growth in grace means increase in faith that will forfeit worldly security.
Fifteen years ago a man in an electronics shop said to me, “what you have faith in is what you’d bet your life on.” He was right! Growing in faith in the God of all grace produces willingness at his call to enter situations of material insecurity and, by human thinking, of risk. Once it is clear that the call really is from God and is not just a foolhardy fancy of one’s own, those who are growing in grace will obey the summons and, as Oswald Chambers put it, “smilingly wash their hands of the consequences. “That is not irresponsibility; it is, rather, faith in action, the kind of faith by which, we are told in Hebrews, “Abraham obeyed when he was called . . . and . . . went out, not knowing where he was to go.” Such faith sees obedience as top priority, and trusts God’s care. It embraces the path of obedience as the place of real and ultimate safety, however hazardous and indeed ruinous it may look from outside. In this sense all who grow in grace bet their lives on God constantly.
Third, growth in grace means increase in love that gives. Folk wisdom divides humanity into two classes, the givers and the takers, and many born-again Christians seem to remain takers rather than becoming givers. But those who are advancing into Christ-likeness renounce self-absorbed self-seeking. They actively love God and others, giving up to the limit of their time, talents, and treasure to honor God and help humans. Cheerful self-denying generosity, that gives and goes on giving even then, marks all who are growing in grace.
On now to crunch-point. Physical growth is discerned by measuring height and weight; how is spiritual growth measured?
The true answer is that it cannot be measured. Growth in grace is a mystery of grace, which it is beyond us to monitor in either ourselves or others. Observables, like zeal, knowledge, self-image, and behavior patterns, are ambiguous: they may be carnal at bottom, though spiritual-looking on the surface. The heart of growth is growth in the heart, which only God can search and know.
However, something of our spiritual stature may be discerned by our responses to what we call crises of decisions and Scripture calls temptations. Those who deal with crises, or temptations, better than they once did show that they have grown in grace in the interim.
Example: Abraham. Twice, early on in his life of faith, to save his skin he passed off his wife as his sister, free flesh ripe for the royal harem. Neither humility nor adoration nor obedience nor faith nor love was expressed in that action. But some decades later Abraham was ready at God’s call to sacrifice Isaac. The difference between that first response and later response to crises of decision showed that over the years Abraham had grown in grace.
Do you and I really grow in grace? I wonder.
This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, January 1989.