Are you committed to growing spiritually? Are you more like Jesus today than you were yesterday?
It’s an amazing blessing—and a miracle—that people are able to grow spiritually. When you do your part, God does his part to restore his image in you. Pastor Rick Warren discusses three things that have to change for you to grow spiritually—as well as three tools that God uses to help you grow.
Read more to learn what it means to grow spiritually and how to do it.
Grow Spiritually to Be Like Jesus
This might sound like an ambitious goal, but remember that you were made in God’s likeness. You can see evidence of this in several ways:
- You have intellect—the ability to think and reason.
- You can love and be loved.
- You have a sense of right and wrong.
You become more like Jesus when you take on the same values and character in your own life. This doesn’t mean you’ll give up who you are to be just like Jesus—after all, God gave you a unique personality that he wants you to use. Rather than changing your personality, you’ll be changing your character to become more Christlike through character development.
Your character already exists inside you but isn’t shaped in any particular way. Throughout your life, God will put new challenges in your way that will help you put the pieces of your character together—ultimately, his goal is that you’ll arrive in heaven with a character as close to Jesus’s as possible.
The Choice to Grow Spiritually
It’s not possible to become more like Jesus just by willpower alone. Only the power of the Holy Spirit is strong enough to affect the changes that God wants for your character.
You may feel that the Holy Spirit has never worked through you before. Like many people, you probably believe that the Holy Spirit shows up in brilliant, grand gestures. Rather, the Holy Spirit’s power shows up in our lives in quiet and reserved ways—every time you choose to grow spiritually.
- This choice looks like taking a small leap of faith to complete a seemingly impossible task, pushing forward when you feel weak or afraid, or choosing the right thing to do. The Holy Spirit doesn’t help those who are waiting for power or strength before they act—it’s activated by those who feel weak but act anyway.
Growing spiritually isn’t the easy choice, but it’s the right choice. It allows God’s Spirit to live through you and give you his power, wisdom, and love so that you can complete the task ahead. This strengthens your character—as time goes on, you’ll feel less afraid of the challenges God puts in front of you.
Change Your Character by Changing Your Behaviors
Your character is a sum of your behaviors and habits—these must change to become more Christlike if your character is to become more Christlike, too. There are three parts to changing your behaviors.
Part 1: Reject Your Old Behaviors
To grow spiritually, you must commit to changing. This is a crucial point of your spiritual life because it’s the kickoff point of your spiritual maturity. Unfortunately, many people choose not to commit to their spiritual growth, which causes them to miss out on their purpose in different ways:
- Some people don’t commit because they’re afraid and end up without meaning or purpose in their lives.
- Some people half-commit, or have paradoxical commitments—such as both wealth and spiritual maturity—which leads them to feel constantly frustrated and unable to truly master any of their commitments.
- Some people commit to the wrong things—such as power, wealth, or pleasure. At the end of their lives, they don’t have the promise of eternal life, and their temporary earth commitments disappear, leaving them unfulfilled.
You must choose a full commitment to be like Jesus—otherwise, you risk missing the meaning and fulfillment that life has to offer.
Part 2: Change the Way You Think
Once you’ve rejected your old way of doing things and committed to growing spiritually, turn your focus to the way you think. Your actions are dictated by your beliefs and attitudes—therefore, changing the way you think will naturally change your behaviors and habits.
It’s important to understand here that your brain mostly works on autopilot—that is, instead of thinking through all possible decisions or reactions to a situation, your brain saves energy by automatically choosing what you usually do or whatever’s easiest.
- For example, you might automatically become defensive when you receive criticism, even when it’s warranted. Or, you might eat a cupcake that’s offered to you, instead of declining it.
(Shortform note: Read our summary of The Willpower Instinct for a deeper look at how autopilot decisions can rule your life.)
There are two ways you can override your autopilot: willpower and reprogramming. When you try to force new behaviors with willpower alone, you consciously choose to do the opposite of what your autopilot tells you to do. Instead of changing the thinking at the base of your behaviors, you’re changing only your behaviors—treating a symptom, instead of the disease.
This may work in short-term contexts—such as saying “no” to that cupcake once—but won’t work out in the long term. Your willpower simply isn’t as strong as your autopilot, so you’ll quickly wear out and fall back on automatic actions.
For long-term behavioral changes, you need to reprogram your autopilot so that your thoughts support the right behaviors. This is an ongoing project of consciously examining the thoughts that prompt your decisions and reactions, and realigning them with the way Jesus would think. There are two parts to this examination:
1) Identify and stop self-centered thoughts. Recognize when your thoughts are all about you, what you want, or how you feel. These sorts of thoughts are considered immature because they’re thoughts that an infant would have—they think only of themselves and their needs, interested only in taking rather than giving.
- For example, if someone corrects one of your ideas and you react defensively, you’re thinking about yourself—you’re driven by your feelings of embarrassment or hurt pride, or feel that your idea deserved more appreciation.
2) Make your thoughts about others. Consider how your self-centered thoughts could be more about others—how you can give rather than take. These thoughts focus on the perspective, needs, and feelings of others, and are considered mature.
- For example, if someone corrected one of your ideas, the mature choice is to react with humility and accept their correction. You realize you’re not perfect and their correction was made in your best interest with the intent of making your idea even better.
Part 3: Align Actions With Thoughts
It’s important here to think about what it means to be “spiritually mature.” Many people falsely believe that it means knowing a lot of information about the Bible and its concepts. While knowledge is important, it’s essential that you act on it.
- For example, you might have a spiritually mature thought, such as, “I should make time to visit the elderly members of my church.” This thought doesn’t develop your character if you never act on it. Instead, it’s a passing thought that gets edged out by your commitment to spiritually immature thoughts and desires, like your social life or hobbies.
Frequently reflect on your actions and ensure that they’re aligning with your thoughts. Ask yourself: Have I truly committed to being like Jesus, or am I only doing half of the work?
Three Tools of Character Development
Once you’ve committed to growing spiritually, God will use three tools to provide you with opportunities to further develop your character: God’s Word, other people, and circumstances.
Tool #1: God’s Word
Absorbing God’s Word and living by it should take high priority in your life, as it contains the truths that nourish your spirit and guide you in fulfilling your purposes. There are three everyday activities you can perform to internalize God’s Word and live your life by it.
Activity 1: Accept the Authority of His Word
The Bible is the guidebook for your life and should be where you turn when you need to make decisions or examine your behaviors. God’s word is an unfailingly reliable standard that will never lead you astray, as other authorities might, such as:
- Peer pressure: “Everyone else said I should do it.”
- Tradition: “This is how it’s always been done.”
- Logic: “It seemed to make sense.”
- Emotion: “It felt like the right thing to do.
When making decisions, always ask yourself: “What does the Bible tell me to do?” Whatever God’s Word instructs, you must do with full faith in his authority.
Activity 2: Fill Your Mind With His Word
Living by God’s Word becomes easier when you keep it, ready to use, in your mind. There are five common ways that people fill their minds with his Word.
- Be receptive: Listen to his Word with an open mind, looking for the lessons. If you feel you aren’t learning anything during a sermon or Bible study, examine your mindset. There is always something to learn from his Word, so if you’re not learning it’s because you have a closed-off attitude. Focus your mind on being open to new ideas and lessons.
- Read: Read the Bible every day. One way to stay on track with this is to create a reading plan—this helps you read with purpose instead of jumping between sections or missing out on sections that might not seem interesting.
- Study: Bible study should go hand-in-hand with your reading. Effective study involves reflecting on the information you’re reading and writing down your thoughts, questions, and insights. Your questions and insights don’t need to be especially profound or poetic—simply asking who, what, where, when, why, and how will make you more engaged with the text.
- Memorize: Having verses memorized can help you in many situations, as you have a ready reminder of God’s instructions when you need to make good choices, give advice, resist temptation, and so on. To start your practice of verse memorization, select several parts of Scripture that feel especially relevant to you. Write them on a card that you can carry with you and look at frequently.
- Reflect: Meditating on God’s Word means choosing a verse, focusing on it, and thinking about it over and over again. This firmly plants the verse in your mind and lets you explore it and understand it from many different angles.
Activity 3: Apply the Lessons of His Word
It’s incorrect to think that once you’ve read something, you’ve absorbed the lessons and understood it. To truly understand the lessons of God’s Word, you need to apply them to your life.
Each time you read and study God’s Word, think about the lesson in it. Then, create a plan to use the lesson in your life. A good action plan is specific and has three parts: It’s personal and involves one of your own relationships or character development, it’s doable, and it has a deadline.
- For example, if you read the story of the Good Samaritan, you might make a plan to help someone you don’t know within the next week to develop your capacity for helping others without receiving anything in return.
Tool #2: People
You can’t grow spiritually just by reading the Bible or praying—God wants you to grow with others because they lend you the support you need for meaningful growth. Sometimes applying the lessons of his Word can be difficult, or can expose something you don’t like about yourself such as weaknesses or corrupt morals. Sharing the journey of spiritual maturity—and all its difficulties—with a support system allows you to continue your growth in a number of ways:
- Others act as a support system when you feel too weak to make the right choice.
- They can help you understand parts of God’s Word in ways you wouldn’t have seen by yourself.
- They can give you ideas on how to implement his lessons in your life, and you can hold each other accountable to see the tasks through.
Furthermore, other people are imperfect and may irritate you or test your patience. These interactions are a true test of your character—will you act selfishly, or will you choose to act as Jesus would? Every time you respond with patience and unselfish love in these moments, your character becomes more Christlike.
Tool #3: Circumstances
God puts difficult circumstances in your way in order to put you in an environment necessary for growth. If you always lived in your comfort zone, you would never learn about enduring pain, taking on seemingly insurmountable challenges, or stretching the limits of your faith.
However, the problems God puts in front of you won’t always help you with your character development. Difficult circumstances will only strengthen your character as long as you respond to them as Jesus would. Reacting in a selfish or immature way will only create resentment or frustration that holds you back instead of helping you grow.
How to Respond to Difficult Circumstances Like Jesus
The Bible outlines three ways that you can make sure your response to problems aligns with a Christlike character.
1) Remember that God is good. Always know that God is acting in your best interest—if he’s giving you pain or not responding to your prayers for assistance, it’s because he knows that’s what will be best for your character development.
- For example, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and initially couldn’t understand the pain he had to endure. Eventually, God’s plan came into focus when he realized he was meant to help save Egypt from famine.
In these hard moments, turn your focus away from your problem and toward God’s plan—reminding yourself that there is a reason behind your suffering can help alleviate it.
- It helps to also remember that your difficult circumstances or pain are temporary, but the character you’re developing will live eternally.
2) Give thanks. God wants us to give thanks in all circumstances. This doesn’t mean you have to be thankful for the circumstance—it would certainly be difficult to find a way to be thankful for pain or suffering. Rather, God wants you to be thankful that because of the circumstance, you can learn and develop your character.
3) Keep going. You’ll likely feel the temptation to give up on your circumstances or turn away from God. Make the choice to grow spiritually—keep moving forward with faith, patience, and perseverance. The only path to character development is through your circumstances. Avoiding problems or trying to find a shortcut through them causes you to miss out on crucial moments of leaning into faith or pushing through fear.
- As a result, you’ll continue to approach problems with a “Why me?” mindset, instead of recognizing God in your circumstances and making the spiritually mature choice to ask, “What’s the lesson here?”
Remember It’s a Lifetime Project
Remember that character development doesn’t happen all at once—it’s a lifetime process that has setbacks and stagnation. It’s only when Jesus returns to earth that you’ll be able to perfectly see him and have your character transformed to be exactly like his. In the meantime, your purpose is to strive toward a Christlike character.
Because this work takes so long, it might be easy to forget about it or think that it’s okay to “cheat” now and then. It’s crucial to always remember that character matters far more than anything you have on earth. It’s the only thing you take into eternity with you.
Keeping this in mind is important because, in forgetting your commitment to be like Jesus, you become vulnerable to the influence of others, such as your family, friends, or colleagues. When you shape yourself according to your commitments to them, you risk missing out on the spiritual maturity that gives you meaning in life and promises eternal life. Regularly check in and ask yourself:
- What commitment am I fulfilling right now?
- Are my actions in the interest of character development or personal fulfillment?
Growing spiritually is simply to be like Jesus more each day. One of these days, God’s image will be restored in you completely if you choose to stay on the path he has made for you. That is certainly his desire.
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