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Are You Still Growing?

Do you remember backing up against a wall as a child to see how tall you were growing?  It was the visual proof that you really were growing up and becoming someone you had not been before.  You felt the excitement of realizing that you were becoming bigger, taller, & stronger. You remember the joy of someone who loved you bragging what a big boy or girl you were growing up to be.

Well, those days are long gone.

Or are they?

While all of us have reached the full measure of our physical height and maturity, none of us have reached the full potential of our spiritual maturity. No matter who you are or how old you are physically, you still have the capacity to grow spiritually, every day.

But are you?

Is your soul actually growing? How do you know? How do you measure it? How does it grow?

Those are important questions, because our soul is pretty important. As Jesus once said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

Writing about matters of the soul has forced me to take a hard look in the mirror at my own soul. Am I growing as a soul? What helps my soul to grow? What doesn’t? How can I tell?

The answers to those questions could easily take up a whole book, but let’s briefly look at three things:

Lies to Reject About Soul Growth
Truths to Embrace About Soul Growth
A Way to Measure Soul Growth

Lies to Reject About Soul Growth

Let me start by looking at four common misconceptions about the growth of the soul. I see people making these same mistakes over and over. I’ve caught myself in them too. Why? Because they’re appealing, they seem to make sense, and they are commonly taught in one form or another. But if you are going to make any progress in the growth of your soul, you must recognize all of these falsehoods and reject them:

Soul growth is not automatic. That would be great if it were true, but it’s not. I’d like to think I can just lay back and let the lessons of life or church sermons or being baptized or being a good person somehow mature me. But they won’t. I think we all know people who are eighty and have attended church all their lives, but yet frankly have made no progress in the growth of their soul. If you just let life pass you by you will one day suffer the same fate. The real truth: you must take purposeful action to grow your soul.

Soul growth can’t take place overnight. True soul growth is no different than physical growth: it takes time. The journey to true maturity is joyful but long: there are no secret shortcuts. Any person or book or seminar that tells you there is a secret or principle that will unlock overnight success, that will put you on the fast track to being a spiritual giant is LYING to you. Walk away. The real truth: you must be in it for the long haul.

You can’t choose your own path to soul growth. This lie is everywhere in our culture today. Walk into any bookstore or tune in to Oprah and you will find a smorgasbord of different “paths” to spiritual maturity. But trying to choose our own path is as old as the Garden of Eden: Eve wanted to become wise, and she chose her own path. But every path save one, no matter how attractive or how it seems to bring results, ultimately ends in destruction. The real truth is as Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

Knowledge is not the same as soul growth. For people who love to seek knowledge like myself, it is all too easy to confuse accumulating more knowledge with actual spiritual growth. But let me make it crystal clear: while you cannot grow without knowledge, knowledge by itself will never result in the growth of a soul. Why not? The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1 states that knowledge by itself only results in pride, and pride will never grow a soul. The real truth: knowledge is only one part of soul growth.

Truths to Embrace About Soul Growth

I am totally inadequate to say in a few words what many who are so much farther along the path to God have taken books to say. But here are a few “essential ingredients” that I know that no one can achieve true, lasting soul growth without. Here are six truths that we all can confidently embrace about spiritual growth:

God is the first “essential ingredient” to soul growth. Although most of us would acknowledge this truth, I mention it for three reasons. One: anyone who is pursuing soul growth while leaving God out of the equation will ultimately fail. Two: All soul growth that includes God but does not put him as the center and focus will likewise be incomplete. Finally, we have to realize that ultimately it is God who works in us to change us, and no soul growth is possible unless He is at work within us.

Humility is the next essential ingredient in the growth of our souls. As I said before, pride and spiritual growth are fundamentally incompatible. True humility is not feeling “bad” about yourself, but knowing and embracing who you are and who God is. This is why Jesus said the first step to receive the blessing of God and the kingdom of heaven was to be poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3).

After we see God for who He is and see ourselves for who we are, we will desire a cleansed soul. True humility before God includes recognizing that our souls are by nature in rebellion against Him and stained with evil. We see the blackness in our heart and see that it will forever block our communion with God. We realize that any effort to grow spiritually will be useless unless our hearts are cleansed and the penalty for our rebellion is paid. This is what Christ did for us by His death.

The other result of true humility is seeing that we are actually spiritually dead and need spiritual life. A spirit who is not connected with God is dead, and Jesus made it clear that no matter how a person believes or feels about God, that He is the only path to connection to God. Only by loving and embracing Christ through faith will we be brought from spiritual death to life.

Once we are spiritually alive, we cannot grow without spiritual nourishment. The most important spiritual nourishment is to behold the glory of Christ. What do I mean by that? I mean to focus our mind and heart on all the glorious things about Christ: His love, His power, His justice, His dying for us, His rule over all. Why do I say that grows the soul? Because the Bible says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that as Christians we are, “beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image.” There are many other things that God has given us, from singing to hiking in a forest to seeing children at play, that all nourish our soul. But none of these good things can take the place of focusing on Christ.

Just like a child’s physical body needs both food and exercise to grow, our souls need both spiritual food and spiritual exercise to grow. That is why Jesus commanded us in Luke 10:27 to love God and love others. His commandments were not meant to have us simply think loving thoughts, but to take loving actions. Only as we live purposeful lives to love God and others will our souls reach full spiritual maturity.

A Way to Measure Soul Growth

But how do we know whether we are on the right path with our soul? How do we measure the growth of a soul? Although there are doubtless many useful ways, I would suggest starting with the way Jesus recommended over & over: examining the fruit of our lives. The way for us to truly know the growth of what’s inside is measuring what’s on the outside— our actions.

Here’s one example for you to try: use Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit in Ephesians 5:22-23, and then ask yourself these questions—

Compared to five years ago, am I more loving toward people who are difficult for me to love?

Do my words and my actions express a deeper sense of joy day to day?

Do my actions show that I am at peace even in the midst of stormy situations?

Am I known for my kindness more than five years ago?

Are my actions becoming more soaked every day in goodness?

Am I being more faithful to my family, my friends, and my God?

Is harshness and anger fading from my life and being replaced by more gentleness?

Is my life marked more and more by self-control?

Let these questions be your “wall” that you back up to see your soul’s growth. Better yet, give this list to someone who knows you and who will give you some honest feedback.

Don’t let your soul slip away in the everyday business of life. Take the time to do the only thing for yourself that will survive into eternity: take the time to grow your soul.

Should I Pop a Pill or Say a Prayer?

That’s the choice that thousands feel they are forced into every day.

I know, because I hear their stories, and I’m the one they are trusting as their guide, as their physician.

Susan (not her real name) was in last week.  She had been stable for eight years on clonazepam, which had helped lessen her daily battle with anxiety.  However, she was concerned that being on an “addictive nerve pill” was not honoring to God.  And so I was asked again the question that I had been asked so many times before, “What should I do, doctor?”

I understand where she and so many other of my East Tennessee patients are coming from, for I too grew up in rural Appalachia in a “Bible Belt” culture where to emotionally or spiritually struggle in any way meant something was wrong with you and your relationship with God.  I’ve also seen the flip side within the halls of academia, where fragile hurting souls were shattered by a psychiatrist who had the audacity to tell them they could not even speak the word “God” while they were on “his” hospital floor since “he” was their god while they were under his care.

So, what did I tell Susan in the brief time I had with her?  Did I tell her that if she just prayed a little bit harder, memorized just a few more Bible verses, trusted God just a little bit more, she wouldn’t need drugs?  Or did I tell her to forget her religion and her God, and realize that she was a complex mesh of chemicals, and she needed a drug to help regulate her faulty brain chemistry?

I told her neither, because both of those answers represent a cruel false dichotomy which influences many people’s minds regarding the care of souls.  The reality is that we are both body and spirit, material and immaterial, incredibly complex meshes of chemicals and yet something that can’t be reduced to mere chemicals. We don’t have to give up our spirituality to acknowledge the reality that medical science has something to offer hurting souls, and we don’t have to give up our medical science to acknowledge that our hurting souls need more than the latest drug.

Here is the essence of what I told her:  We are here to love God and walk with Him.  From the earliest teachings of Christ and the church fathers that has been clear.  It’s also been clear that loving God and walking with Him is hard, sometimes very hard.  In theological terms, we live in a fallen world in fallen bodies with fallen souls.  Or put another way, every one of us live with a body that has imperfect brain chemistry, living with people who don’t always treat us as we need to be treated, and with a spirit which still doesn’t understand, love, and obey God as we ought.

In light of this reality, the question of whether to take any type of psychotropic drug is simply, “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?”  In essence it is no different than the question to take a diabetes drug or say a prayer or change jobs or forgive someone— any decision should come down to “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?”  For some people, a drug like clonazepam just dulls soul pain that needs to be dealt with instead of masked, and actually would draw them away from God.  For Susan, the drug helped clear her mind and allowed her to focus on her work, her family, and her God with more freedom.

Yes, I know it’s a simple question, but sometimes simple questions still are the best ones.  “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?” sidesteps all the science vs. faith debates and replaces them with a simple question that can guide any person of faith who is also seeking help from medicine.  In the end, that’s what it’s all about for me, and for you: to learn to live wisely in our journey to love Him and walk with Him.

Trees and the Soul

tree by wtl photos via Flickr 

I’ve always loved trees.

I loved climbing them as a boy, loved falling in huge leaf piles under the giant maple in my grandfather’s front yard, loved to look at them and draw them.  As a man I love to walk among them, admire their beauty and photograph them.  I’ve even planted a few along the way.

I guess I’ve long sensed that trees are good for the soul.  But this evening I was reading Matthew 12:31-32—

Jesus put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.  It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

And I thought, “I know that Jesus is talking about the whole church, everybody, in this parable, but I wonder if it could apply to an individual person too?”  I wondered…

And then another image floated in my mind, of a scene from the animated movie Joseph – King of Dreams.  It’s not in the Biblical account, but the script writers envisioned that Joseph nurtured a seedling in his prison cell, and watched over the years as it grew into a beautiful tree.  The scene, obviously done as a picture of Joseph’s life, had deeply touched me in the past, but I had never thought to consider why.

And then it hit me: the tree is Joseph’s soul.  Although it took years in a prison cell, God was nurturing Joseph’s soul, healing and cleansing and strengthening it, until it was strong and beautiful and mature and capable of producing fruit.

And then it really hit me:  it was my soul too.  It’s what God is doing to me too.  He is taking the mustard seed of the Kingdom, of His Spirit, implanted within me, and so carefully and lovingly nurturing it, being patient to allow it to grow strong and healthy and beautiful and fruitful.

All of a sudden, Psalm 1:3 took on a whole new meaning to me:

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

I was overwhelmed at God’s goodness in my life, and I pictured my soul as that strong, healthy, beautiful tree, that God for over 40 years has been daily nurturing, fed by the stream of the Holy Spirit.  God is good.

How do you picture your soul?  If you are a child of God, know that He is patiently nurturing you too into an eternal work of strength and beauty for Him.

What God Thinks of Pragmatism


def.  the doctrine that practical consequences are the criteria of knowledge and meaning and value

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  I mean, we all want to be practical, don’t we? What could be wrong with that?  At least, that is increasingly what our entire society is built upon, blatantly in some areas, more subtly in others.  And, if we are not careful, that is what our own lives can be based upon.

Pragmatism is deeply rooted in the human soul.  It was in Eden that the first “pragmatic” decision was made.  “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”(Genesis 3:6 ESV)  Adam and Eve were very practical, but very wrong.

The Bible is filled with misguided pragmatism.  Here are just four examples from the dozens that are in the Scriptures, four different types for us to be on our guard against:

1. To Abandon God When He Delays His Action—Misguided Impatience

In Exodus 32 it had been forty days since Moses had went up to the mountain of God, and the children of Israel called out for leadership.  This God is taking too long, we don’t know what has become of Moses, let’s do something.  And so they abandoned God, and 4000 men died that day.  How many times do we try to force God’s hand, when a job isn’t going as planned, when we are still single after so many years, when a wayward child still has not come back home?  Whenever we take a step beyond God’s will in the conviction that we must solve the problem, we will be judged by God.

2. To Use Satan’s Devices When the Going Gets Tough—Misguided Fear

In 1 Samuel 27 King Saul was surrounded by his enemies and didn’t know what to do.  Terrified, he consults with a medium, which was against both the laws of the land and God’s law.  From the dead Samuel judged him, and told him that he had sealed his greatest fear by his disobedience—he would die the next day.  Struggling through tough times, fearful of the future, how many Christians have turned to addictions, to lying or cheating, to violations of either man’s law or God’s law, and then saw the consequences of their worst fears coming true?  And how many babies are being aborted each day by pragmatic people who know that their choice is the most “practical”?

3. To Try to Do God’s Work Through Man’s Wisdom—Misguided Concern

In 2 Samuel 6 we come to a passage that many people are uncomfortable with.  The Ark of the Covenant is being transported to Jerusalem.  However, it is being transported on a cart, against the written law of God.  The cart shakes, the ark is about to tumble off, and a priest named Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark and touches it.  He is instantly struck dead.  All us pragmatists shout, “He was only trying to help! He had a good heart!  He wanted to do what was right!”  And God’s reply to the argument of pragmatism was swift and obvious.  God’s work can only be done in God’s way.  Unfortunately, this brand of pragmatism is rampant within the church today.  If it increases attendance, if it “brings people to Christ”, if it allows us to reach this worthy goal or that worthy goal—all done in the name of pragmatism, often without asking whether or not the book or program or campaign or philosophy is Biblical or not.

4. To Try & Serve Both God & Money—Misguided Greed

In Acts 5 we come to a very pragmatic couple.  They want to give some money to the church and be justly recognized for it, but surely it isn’t a big deal if they keep a little for a rainy day.  As we all know, it was a big deal to God.  Lying to the Holy Spirit, motivated by their desire to try and serve both God & money, was not a little matter.

God doesn’t think much of pragmatism.  If you noticed, in each of the examples the pragmatic people turned out to be dead people.  In whatever form it takes it comes down to rebellion against God.  How can we guard against it?  By realizing how pervasive it is, by saturating ourselves with Scripture, by taking wise counsel, and by continually bathing ourselves in prayer that we might humbly walk with God and commit to following His will no matter how “practical” or “impractical” it first appears.