Don’t Mistake Experience for Growth

It’s a sad truth that many churches are full of people who have professed saving faith in Christ, attended and served faithfully for twenty to thirty-plus years, taught Sunday school, and read their Bibles, but have not been transformed at all. They’ve gained experience in doing Christian things but haven’t actually grown as a Christian. They’ve mistaken experience for growth.

Peter instructs Christians to “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:5–8, emphasis added).

In God’s economy, it is the Christian who is constantly growing, not constantly doing who is the most effective. It reminds me of a quote from James Clear in his book Atomic Habits: “Too often, we assume we are getting better simply because we are gaining experience. In reality, we are merely reinforcing our current habits—not improving them.” 

We have the capacity to do the same thing spiritually. We think we are growing in the Lord by going to church, attending Bible studies, and reading the Bible. But how many of us have been doing these things for years without any meaningful growth or discernible improvement in our virtues or walk with the Lord? 

A NEED FOR APPLICATION

It’s not enough to ask yourself, Do I believe in the Gospel? You must also ask yourself, Am I living in step with the Gospel? Christianity requires not only an assent to the truth of the Gospel but also an application of it to our lives. Our hearts, minds, and lives must be changed. And this changing isn’t a one-time event.

Yes, the Gospel is something “which you received and in which you stand.” It’s the foundation our Christian life rests upon, but it’s also the means “by which you are being saved” (1 Cor. 15:1). In other words, the Gospel is continually at work in our lives, building upon the foundation that is laid. 

I’m afraid too many believers have fallen into the same trap as the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40).

Christ affirms to us that you won’t find life by merely reading, studying, or memorizing the Bible any more than you’ll find treasure by merely reading, studying, or memorizing a map. You must actually travel the route the map reveals to you before you end up at its destination. Likewise, we must study the Scriptures with the intention of finding what (or more accurately who) they are pointing to—Jesus. 

This should make us wary of determining our maturity by how much knowledge of Scripture we have. There is no life found in Bible memory, knowledge, or trivia. If your knowledge of the Bible doesn’t act as a stepping stone to help you land on the worship, adoration, and reverence of Christ, then you’ve only become more self-righteous, not more holy.

David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock make this same observation in their book Faith for Exiles:

“Sometimes we mistake being on the path—say, attending church—for making active progress as a disciple. But many young people (and older adults, for that matter) are dutiful churchgoers while remaining spiritually inert.”

They continue, saying “church involvement is a necessary but insufficient condition for resilient discipleship… It is difficult, if not downright impossible, to shape hearts and minds with only a few hours a week to work with.”

In other words, merely reading your bible and going to church isn’t going to cut it. For true growth to take place, something more has to happen.

A NEED FOR SUFFERING

In short, you have to suffer.

Pain and suffering are part and parcel with spiritual growth and maturity. You can’t grow without it. Paul tells us as much in Romans 5:2–4: “And we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” 

Look closely enough at this and you see that what Paul describes is quite an amazing process. “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (v. 2b). This is the beginning of the Christian’s walk with the Lord. Upon recognizing our depravity, repenting of our sin, and placing our faith in Jesus Christ for the atonement of our sins, what are we left to do but to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God?

This rejoicing is the first posture of worship the new Christian takes and then strives to maintain throughout the rest of her life. This is where we must begin in our walk with the Lord. But notice the rest of the process Paul lays out. Rejoicing in our newfound hope is not all we rejoice in, “We also rejoice in our sufferings.” Why? “Because suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Notice that the product of suffering is endurance, and the product of endurance is character, and the product of character is hope. Work that backward and you’ll begin to see the importance of what Paul is describing.

Do you want hope? Build character. Do you want character? Strive for endurance. Do you want endurance? Experience suffering.

What Paul describes for us in Romans 5:2-4 is a process of growth. We begin our Christian walk by rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God, then as we follow Christ, we experience suffering (2 Tim. 3:12). If we successfully endure that suffering, then character is produced. We become more like Christ; we actually grow. All of this results in a greater hope, which brings us back to the first step, to repeat this process over again.

A RESISTANCE TO PAIN

It’s a failure to adopt this method of growth that has caused the problem we see. The reason we see so many in our churches who have maintained a stagnant spirituality for years is because we’ve tried to exchange the suffering that is required for our growth with experience.

By doing so, we’ve effectively cut ourselves off from the endurance that produces character, the character that produces hope, and so on and so on. We’ve stunted our own growth.

Our twenty-first-century Western culture has become good at discovering silver-bullet solutions to our pain. We’ve created a pill for everything that ails us, we’ve developed countless distracting hobbies to take our minds off the hurt, we’ve become professionals at avoiding pain.

This has infected the church’s spirituality in a way that has robbed us of the painful disciplines needed for growth.

  • Solitude is hard. Retreating from social media and the serotonin rush that comes with each notification is too much for us to give up.
  • Fasting is painful. Depriving our bodies of what it physically needs in order to gain what it spiritually needs seems unappealing and uncomfortable.
  • Praying before each meal is laborious and monotonous enough, let alone praying without ceasing through the night with no sleep. How awful!
  • Selling our possessions to simplify our lives and give to the poor? That’s someone else’s cross to bear, not mine.
  • Fighting against lust and pornography seems impossible in our over-sexualized society. Why try?
  • Confessing our sins to one another is way too vulnerable. Temptation? Maybe we’ll let someone in on that, but the fact that we’ve actually sinned? Nope, too damaging to our reputations.  

A NEED FOR COMMUNION

The point is that the kind of growth Peter and Paul speak of stresses the importance of determined discipleship: an intentional and sometimes painful pursuit of Christ and the grace that living in his Kingdom affords us. And what’s ironic is that this kind of pursuit of Christ and the development of the virtues Peter listed may actually call for some of us to start doing less. It’s the pain of cutting away our idols and our distractions that clears the path for us to find more of Jesus, it’s what enables us to identify with the suffering servant in a unique way that we wouldn’t be able to apart from our suffering.

We’re so busy doing things for him, that we don’t have the time to actually commune with him. Yet without this communion, we cannot change (2 Cor. 3:18). We cannot learn the way of Jesus without spending time with him, and once we find him, we won’t make it very far if we aren’t willing to sacrifice.

What could you become, or better yet, who could you become, if you were intentional about trading in your participation in hollow rituals and instead creating the margin in your life for deep, perhaps painful, but joyful communion with Christ?


This post was first written for and appeared on Gospel-Centered Discipleship.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.