Notes on Spiritual Growth

Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos | 09 January 2022

Atheists who are avowed materialists, and seek to debunk the whole ideal of Christian spiritual life, have asserted cynically: “we are what we eat.” In the last fifty years or so, however, medical science has put a decidedly positive meaning on that dictum. Yes, indeed, we are what we eat, whether healthy or unhealthy foods. Your health and prospects for a long and active life are very much determined by a healthy diet and a good dose of exercise!

As Christians, we believe that our body is a gift from God, to be honored as a vessel of God’s grace, and to be cared for with habits of good health. But we also believe that each human being is endowed with a soul and capable of growing into a rich spiritual life, guided and energized by the God’s Spirit. We are what we eat, but we are also what we think, and what we feel, and what we choose, and what we say, and what we do, in being receptive to God’s love and the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit.

Our whole world of thoughts, feelings, choices, words and actions express our character and also help shape our character as persons living with others in family, friendships, work, and community. Everything is connected to everything else. Life is a seamless unity. Just as the discipline of a healthy diet and adequate exercise are required to maintain a healthy body and a sound emotional outlook, so also a discipline of spiritual exercises and daily spiritual engagement with God’s presence and power help us to grow toward a life of grace to be God’s witnesses and co-workers on earth.

Let us first consider what Christian life is all about. In a weighty passage in his Letter to the Romans (5:1-5), the Apostle Paul defines Christian life as a gift and a task. The gift is our spiritual communion with God, already accomplished in Christ, by which we have been justified by faith and are blessed with peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. In the words of St. Paul: “we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 5:2). But Christian life is also a task that issues from the gift. Because of this gift of salvation, when it is real and active, according to St. Paul, we receive the strength to continue to grow spiritually while we attend to the daily challenges and difficulties of life with cheerfulness and hope. As St. Paul puts it: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5).

To live Christian life as gift and task is no easy matter. Elsewhere the Apostle Paul refers to the Corinthian Christians, experiencing the common human inclinations to jealousy, quarreling, and divisiveness, as “infants in Christ” and needing to grow up (1 Cor 3:1). Christian life involves a process of growth with ups and downs, joys and sorrows, victories and failures, getting off track and getting back on track. The counsel of the saints is never to give up, but as often as you fall to rise up, always counting on the mercy and the grace of God. Just as in the case of those who struggle with diet and weight problems may often fail and feel utterly miserable, so also in the case of the spiritual struggle with prayer and Christian living, you and I can fail in our expectations and feel totally darkened and abandoned. The answer is not to wallow in despair and self-pity, and certainly not to give up the good fight for the salvation of our souls, but to put our trust in God’s love again and again, remembering what God has already accomplished for us in Christ, and that nothing can separate us from God’s immense love for each of us in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:38-39). Only we need to walk humbly before God, to be properly aware of our weaknesses and sinfulness, to confess our specific sins and shortcomings daily to God, and to recommit to mend our ways asking for God’s forgiveness and renewing power in our lives.

The first spiritual guideline is about keeping the goal before our eyes. The goal is not to measure up to a long list of do’s and don’ts, a struggle for merits and rewards, which can lead to a spiritual dead end and despair or alternately to legalism and self-righteousness. The goal is to nurture a personal sense of connection and relationship with the risen and living Christ. The goal is a personal friendship and communion with our loving Father in the grace of the Holy Spirit. We think, choose, speak and do those things that honor Christ and do not grieve the Holy Spirit. We look to grow from spiritual infancy to spiritual adulthood. We want to allow Christ to “be formed” in us (Gal 4:19) shaping our character according to His holy presence and virtues. The goal is to present our whole selves as “a living sacrifice and spiritual worship” to God, not conforming to the values of the world but being transformed by the renewal of our minds in Christ (Rom 12:1-2). It is not only an individual goal but also a corporate goal to grow as a Church, leaders and flock, growing to the fullness of Christ in faith and unity, and building up the whole body of Christ in love and mission (Eph 4:1-16). At the core of the spiritual struggle is what St. Paul prays for in Ephesians 3:14-19: “that Christ may dwell in our hearts…being rooted and ground in love…to know the love of Christ…that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

 

A second spiritual guideline is about organizing our time, tasks, and priorities. A sense of peace and stability in spiritual life cannot be obtained without setting a reasonable order in our daily lives according to our particular stations and responsibilities. Good order begins with simple things such as a fairly regular time for going to sleep and rising each morning. It is helped by the discipline of regular and healthy meals. It requires serious commitment to diligent accomplishment of our work in our various occupations, but also to taking time for exercise, relaxation, and recuperation. The centerpiece of these practical tasks is developing a discipline of quiet time with God—a “holy hour” of reading, reflection, and prayer. The holy hour is holy because it is devoted to personal communion with God, the abiding source of renewal and strength for true Christian living in a complex and confusing world.

. If you keep television viewing and other really unhelpful entertainment to a minimum, there will be much time to nourish the mind and heart with good books, building up a healthy worldview of principles, priorities and values, and strengthening the soul with heartfelt prayer in seeking God’s forgiveness, guidance and transformative power.

A third spiritual guideline is about being attentive to and guiding our inner dispositions, thoughts and feelings. The saints called this discipline “invisible warfare”—that is to say, “guarding the mind” or “guarding the heart” by being alert and vigilant to fight off intruding evil thoughts while making room and welcoming good thoughts and prayerful dispositions. For example, do not compare yourself with others and be thankful to God for the gifts and opportunities God has given you. Avoid gossip, criticizing, talking about others, complaining, and wasting precious, which is yielding to the devil and his works. Keep a clear conscience and a warm feeling toward God. When falling to sin, whether in thought, word or deed, immediately repent of it to God deep within your being and begin the warfare again. If serious sin is involved, you should think about holy confession to your priest or an intimate Christian friend. Live each day by faith, hope, love and joy, knowing that God loves you dearly, Christ is near you, and the grace of the Holy Spirit surrounds you. Victory in spiritual warfare is ultimately God’s victory, wherever God’s grace finds humble, receptive, and obedient hearts.

How can I make a concrete beginning in the spiritual quest? The first priority is to worship regularly at your local church in a focused and meaningful way. In your private devotions begin by setting a regular time for reading and prayer and committing yourself to become knowledgeable in the Scriptures. As you read each chapter, ask yourself these questions. What verses are most striking or meaningful and why? What is this chapter all about? What is God teaching me through this chapter? How can I apply what I have learned in my life? Keep a diary to record verses and insights. Ask God for His guidance and strength. Be faithful and treasure your “holy hour” with Him. Your outward circumstances may not change, but the quality of your life can change and be transformed in ways that only God can accomplish, to whom be praise and glory in all and for all.

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