Spiritual Growing Pains – Brad Jersak
I have this painful memory circa 1975 when, as a middle school adolescent, I was sidelined from a series of exciting outings (including my annual Halloween junk food haul) due to excruciating leg pain associated with growing. And skinny though I was, my growth spurt even featured stretch marks at the top of my thighs. But it was the deep and untreatable ache that haunts me most.
In my book, A More Christlike Way, I spend a chapter exploring alternative metaphors to the trendy word, “deconstruction.” I looked at art restoration, home renovation, extreme makeovers and, my favorite, dry-cleaning my daughter-in-law’s vintage wedding dress. A summary of that reflection appeared as the cover article in the February 2019 CWRm, viewable HERE. In a recent blog post, my friend and PTM president Greg Albrecht introduced another very helpful metaphor: he used growing pains to describe the discomfort of spiritual growth.
- I believe that many of our readers can relate to the spiritual growing pains he’s suggesting. Let’s briefly expand on what this means for us.
- It’s Growing. The Scriptures tell us that the Christian life includes growth toward maturity through the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit. Our growth includes shedding beliefs and behaviors that no longer suit who we’re becoming. The important point here is that growth is good and it’s completely natural. Yet we’ve often misjudged growth in ourselves or others as a regression or ‘backsliding’ because of how we must let go and leave behind familiar forms and convictions that we had associated with faithfulness.
This surely describes what we see in Galatians when the Judaizers judged Paul’s gospel for rejecting their covenant markers (circumcision and kosher diets) as requirements for inclusion into the faith. To his opponents, Paul was ‘falling away’ and leading others astray … but in reality, his gospel had grown beyond their outmoded ideas of what constitutes a ‘true believer.’
- It’s Uncomfortable. We outgrow the old clothes of our spiritual adolescence as they become increasingly constrictive. I would now feel suffocated buttoning up the shirts and jeans and doctrines that once felt comfortable as I entered pubescence. Today, I would burst out and pop through the seams of my 6th-grade wardrobe, just as I have spilled out of the fear-mongering zeal of my early dispensationalism.
Jesus used a similar metaphor, using clothing patches and wineskins to illustrate the need to make room for growth or expansion :
No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ (Luke 5:36-39)
His point is this: as we grow, at some point there’s just no patching up the old clothes or reusing the old wineskin. We do need to follow Jesus into the newness of his covenant. That too can be uncomfortable … and even painful.
- It’s Painful. The primary discomfort of growing pains is NOT that our clothing gets too tight. It’s an ache that penetrates all the way to the bones. So too, our spiritual growing pains don’t derive merely or primarily from the discomfort of wearing what no longer fits. The greater agony comes from internal disorientation and external opposition. And it truly is painful.
Inwardly, reordering our faith can create inner turmoil as we move from our old certitude into uncharted territories that involve the risk of greater trust. That can be as scary as walking on water, but if we fix our eyes on Jesus, those terrifying changes can also be filled with curiosity and wonder at how truly expansive the grace of God can be!
Outwardly, spiritual growth can be hurtful when we are misunderstood and misrepresented, especially by those we once knew as beloved companions on the Way. The growing pains of rejection and slander are truly hurtful. It’s why the Jesus Way is also called the Way of the Cross. It is our opportunity to fellowship in the sufferings of Christ and to pray with him, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
- Finally, we can’t shrink back. Or if we could, we musn’t. So says the author of Hebrews (10:39) to those whose Judaism had grown into new covenant Jesus-following. Some were sorely tempted to abandon Christ because of intense pressure and persecution. They thought to go back to the more insular faith of their parents and grandparents. Something safer. The same problem arose in Thessalonica, but in their case, the temptation was to revert to the temples of their previous paganism. This Christianity thing seemed just too hard in their social contexts.
But the apostles insist that it’s inconceivable. How can you shrink back into the old clothes of sacrificial religion once you’ve grown into the freedom of faith in Christ? A kind of spiritual agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) was beckoning them back to a temple-sized religion. To go back, to shrink back, he says, would be destructive.
It seems ludicrous in hindsight but the temptation persists. Our growing pains tempt us to pine for the old days of our previous religious certainty or our faithless agnosticism. And I want to say, with the apostles, we can’t. We mustn’t. The nostalgia is a deceptive mirage. It creates amnesia around the bondage we escaped. Those rickety slave ships are already sinking in the storms of the 21st century. Far better that we endure the storms, and to fixate on the eyes of Christ, who amidst the blast of galeforce winds, says, “Be not afraid. I am with you.”