I was at a local school today, talking with children. I was struck by my own upbringing, how much I drunk in the world’s view of growth.
When I was little, everything was about growing up. Growing stronger and smarter. Running faster. Improving my skills and abilities. This growth was about study, practice, work, effort, and repetition. In short, it was me reaching my potential.
And it worked, temporally speaking. I ran an 8-minute mile in grade school, but a little over 4 minute mile in high school. Look! I grew faster! Not only that, I grew in other ways. I read more, achieved more, did more complex math. You get the point.
There’s a problem with all that effort and work at growth. More than one, actually. But the problem I want to focus on here is that it doesn’t last. All of my thinking when I was young was toward peak ability. That peak ability, in my mind, was future, but in reality, ended in early adulthood.
I mean, that’s peak ability, right? Age 26? 28? After that, it is downhill. I don’t mean just physically, although certainly that’s true. The 4-minute mile in my teens could have been duplicated in my 20’s, but I’m in my 40’s now. I would be thrilled with a 7-minute mile. Studies show that we don’t learn as fast, absorb as quickly, or retain as well as we grow in years.
I think of my grandmother, who as she grew older, developed Alzheimer’s disease. At the end of her journey, she didn’t remember my name.
Here’s what I’m trying to bring out: what the world sets forth as ‘growing’ has a falseness to it that is really easily seen because it simply doesn’t continue or even last. As we grow, we get less able to function in some objective meritorious sense, not more able. Unless we take a very immature view that peak growth ends in our twenties. Thus it is really sad to see older adults, Christians even, still think that this kind of growth is the growth we attain to.
Christian growth isn’t about getting bigger, stronger, or better. Why then would we stick around when we got older and less able? Scripture actually presents growth in another way. Christian growth may be best be stated not as getting better but as getting smaller. That’s right, growing smaller. Our growth, and it continues our whole lives, is toward our death. Toward us not worrying about us, but depending on Jesus. Maturity is maturity in Christ, not personal goodness or accomplishment at all. Self-forgetfulness, not self-fulfillment.
This is captured in John 3:30, when John the Baptist famously said that “he must increase, but I must decrease.” That’s the thought. Jesus increasing, me decreasing. Jesus growing in my life, me growing smaller.
Hebrews speaks of the same idea. We must “go on to maturity,” the author writes in Hebrews 6:1, and what he means is not again talking about our dead works, our getting cleaner, our getting better, our resurrection and judgment. What he means is leaving us behind, and focusing in on what Jesus has done. Are you really leaning on his once-for-all sacrifice? Growth is growth in dependence on Jesus. We need to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. Not ourselves.
When Peter writes of the good news, he links it to the truth that “all flesh is like grass and its glory like the flower of grass,” that is, we ourselves are all withering away (1 Peter 1:24). This is the same thought. We grow, but we grow in the knowledge that we fail, we falter, we lose our ability; at the same time, the gospel is forever.
So real Christian growth is maturing in our view of Christ in us, in our dependence on Jesus, holding fast to what he says is true. We grow in the depth of seeing our failure and his sufficiency.
We do grow, in worldly terms, for a season. It is not wrong to grow in a worldly sense, to see our abilities and accomplishments increase, to enjoy these bodies and minds God has given us while health and strength and lucidity abound. But we should never forget that our real growth is towards our decreasing and him increasing, as we more and more trust in the only hope we have, Jesus Christ.
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)