Planning Toward Spiritual Growth

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The crucial thing is that, as disciples, we have a plan for carrying out the decision we have made to devote ourselves to becoming like our master and lord–to increasingly live in the character and power of Christ. Disciples are those who, seriously intending to become like Jesus from the inside out, systematically and progressively rearrange their affairs to that end, under the guidance of the word and the spirit. This is how the disciple lives.

Dallas Willard, “Discipleship as Apprenticeship” in Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews, and Talks, p. 284

When I was a seminarian, I wrote a twenty-eight page “life vision” document. I offered my autobiography, analyzed my life’s ups and downs to that moment, considered my gifts and opportunities, articulated my understanding of my call, outlined my goals, and presented a vision for what my life with God might look like. In the few years following this assignment I returned to this document now and again. It’s on a hard drive somewhere in the bottom of a drawer now. I did find it a helpful exercise at the time. It got me to think carefully about my intentions.

In the past five years, I have relied upon a personal “rule of life” document that contains daily, weekly, quarterly, and annual commitments that are practical, measurable and move me toward growth in my life with God. It is one page long and hangs on the wall in my home office. Most of the commitments found there have been integrated into my routines. I live in “close contact” with these commitments. So when I review this document, it is often to quickly gauge the degree to which I am living in accord with the practices I have identified, to notice if I am off track, and to make course corrections as necessary, all to the end of keeping me on track concerning my big goal, which is becoming the person God has made me to be in Christ Jesus.

Having a plan to “increasingly live in the character of power of Christ” is not constraining. The plan I have developed has been a prayerful undertaking. It has been born of trial and error, careful study, and a yielding of the self to Jesus and his leadership. Because it is not written in stone, it is subject to change if God leads in a different direction. I have asked Jesus to make me more like him. He has a clear view of what that might mean. I do not. My understanding is partial, at best, and in certain crucial respects even at the present moment, likely mistaken.

My decision to devote myself to becoming like Jesus began with the realization when I was young that Jesus knew what he was talking about. He was to be obeyed, not because he was God, though that fact is not inconsequential. Rather, Jesus appeared to me then to be undeniably good. His life had authority. I consider this an evidence of grace. Then, later, I began to see that Jesus not only was very wise and reliable as a moral teacher, and not only offered a way of salvation after death, but invited me to experience life with him now in his present, open, and available kingdom.

In the school where I serve now, we invite students to develop a personal covenant or rule of life. We ask them to discern the contours of their life with God and to begin walking the path that Jesus invites them to tread. This plan for discipleship includes the practice of the Christian spiritual disciplines. It also includes the act of envisioning Jesus himself, leading the student along life’s way, not only toward an eternal destination, but in becoming a particular kind of person suited to dwell in eternity, a person displaying Christ “in” them to those whom they encounter, whether at a hospital bedside or a check-out line, in five o’clock traffic or on a pew.

Most Christian people I know are living according to a “way,” having integrated certain habits, practices, and ways of living and being which orient them toward God. The majority of their commitments “stuck” as a result of participation in a community of faith. If asked, they will share that they pray, or routinely worship God, or even study the Bible. They may feel as though they are failing or flailing, but if asked, they will certainly say that they are followers of Jesus Christ, that they desire to know him more fully and resemble him more closely.

But if pressed, I wonder how many of my friends would say they have a plan, that they are “systematically and progressively seeking to rearranged their affairs” to align with Christ and the character of Christ so that he would be made increasingly manifest in their lives. I wonder how many would see that as a sensible or possible outcome of discipleship to Jesus, or as a worthwhile undertaking.

If we desire to work in a particular field and need to receive training in order to have a job in that field, most of us would know we’d be required to save money or secure a loan, go through an application process, complete a course of study, and then use a credential to help us to get a job. Or if we wanted to play a piece of music, or learn a language, we would feel confident in identifying the kinds of things we’d need to plan on and for toward those given ends, and how to evaluate progress in reaching our goal.

We do not possess that same confidence when it comes to Christian discipleship. But this need not be so. The elements needed in order to become like Christ are available to us, for he is available to us. We have access to Jesus and his life through reading the gospels. But we also have access to him through prayer, for he is “with” us. God is with us. If we wish to grow like Christ and live more fully in his kingdom, we simply ask, and he hears us. He will help us to identify the means for growth in him. Those who ask, receive. Those who seek, find.