While on a retreat I was paired for conversation with a delightful man full of grace and wisdom. I later learned that he was an influential member of a political group I had all but cursed earlier in the week. At first, I was sad and conflicted. How could we really be friends, given our differences? The next morning in prayer, as I wrestled with the Lord over what to do, I heard, “Grow up, Stephen. Grow in my love.”
After all these years as a follower of Jesus, I am still learning what it means to grow in Christ. Dallas Willard described growing in Christ as a “golden triangle of spiritual transformation.” By embracing our situation, opening our lives to the guidance of the Spirit, and practicing spiritual disciplines, we continually “take off the old human nature with its practices and put on the new nature” (Col. 3:9-10, CEB) of a life lived in the likeness and integrity of Christ. All three sides of the triangle are essential to the process of transformation.
On the first side of the triangle we embrace our situation. Through the hard knocks of life God can challenge our self-sufficiency and stretch our ability to empathize with the suffering of others. We are not embracing the situation when we blame other people’s wrongheadedness or immaturity for our troubles or trials. Jesus could have grumbled that life was unfair to him, complained that sinful people were unworthy of him, or asked God for a loftier, less humiliating assignment. Instead, as Paul reminds us, “[Jesus] emptied himself . . . becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). And James wrote: “My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
On the second side, we open our lives to the guidance of the Spirit. Jesus knew that we would need a helper as we strive to live a Christlike life. When he departed, he gave us the Spirit, the same helper that had helped him (John 14:25-26). At his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove (Luke 3:21-22). When launching his ministry, Jesus acknowledged the Spirit as the source of the courage and guidance he would need daily to respond in God-like ways to the people he encountered (Luke 4:2-22). A prayer that helps me start my day begins, “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.” The simple reminder that God is already at work among us stirs in me an openness to participate in what God is doing in the world.
The third side of the triangle reminds us to practice spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are the ways we imitate Christ, share in his life, and make ourselves available to the Spirit for the transformation of our hearts and minds — especially in the areas of our lives where we are self-absorbed. By meditating on scripture, we open our narrow minds to the mind of Christ. Through prayer, we open our little hearts to the bigheartedness of Christ. When we serve our neighbors in need, we open our fists to the hands of Christ and join in the work of mending the world God loves. With these and other spiritual disciplines, we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 13:14, NRSV) and day by day — guided by the Spirit — we grow in Christ’s likeness.
Questions for Reflection:
1. When has an encounter with the Lord or some other life event challenged you to grow up? How did you respond to that challenge?
2. Which side of the transformation triangle is most natural for you? Which needs more practice as you grow in Christlikeness?