The Process of How We Grow

What’s our part and what’s God’s in spiritual growth?

We need to shed some light on a great mystery of our faith. It is something everyone seems to wonder about, but nobody talks about.

When it comes to spiritual growth, what’s God’s part and what’s mine?

For lack of knowledge, Christians seem to fall off on either side of this horse. On the one side, God does all of the work. We simply ask Him to fix us, or we wait for an experience where he takes away our sinful desires.

Sliding to the other side of the saddle, we reduce our faith to nothing more than discipline. You stop doing bad things, and you start doing better things. More accurately perhaps, we tend to favor the rodeo sensation of perpetually shifting from side to side.

I was recently watching an episode of Dr. Phil that seemed to exemplify both approaches. The guests had hopelessly screwed up lives (which is always best for network ratings) and they had tried every self-help program imaginable to change their behavior.

Sadly, the mother’s Satan-spawn offspring still liked torturing furry animals with a darning needle. What’s the mom to do? She had come to realize that the depth of their problems could not be overcome by simple discipline. So, completely discouraged, she had come to the omniscient Dr. Phil with an attitude that said, “I’ve tried everything. I give up. Fix me, Dr. Phil, fix me.”

A Collaborative Effort

We would suggest a model called “cooperative sanctification,” which views the process of spiritual growth as a partnership. Your job is to help another in the process of spiritual growth so it’s rather important for you to understand how this partnership works, lest you ask them to do something, that only God can do, or expect God to do something for which your disciple holds responsibility.

The foundation for understanding this partnership is found in the following verse:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
(Phil. 2:12-13)

To get a better look at this collaboration, let’s go back in history about 3,000 years. We find the Israelites standing on the east bank of the Jordan River. They’ve just been wandering in the desert for forty years following their exodus out of Israel. They are poised to take possession of the land God promised them — “the land that God had given them.”

This taking of the land, or clearing the property, is analogous on many levels (as we will see) to the process by which God makes us holy and rids our lives from sin: clearing or cleansing our souls is like the Israelites clearing of the Promised Land.

Having been promised the land, it must have come as a disappointment when they found out that God had not phoned ahead to the current inhabitants and told them to vacate the premises. But it’s not quite so bleak. God promises to give them victory in their battles — to fight for them — though they will need to take the land one battle at a time. In Deuteronomy 20:1 we read:

When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.

Do you see a partnership? God does not vacate the land for them, but neither does He tell them that they must clear it by themselves. It is a project they will do together. So, how does this partnership work? Who does what? Hang on, we’ll get there.

The Partnership Looks Different Depending on the Battle

As you read through the book of Joshua, you’ll notice that in each battle there is a collaborative effort. But, you’ll also notice the collaboration can look a little different depending on the battle, or depending on the enemy.

The same is true in our battle against sin. In fighting each of our enemies — whether it’s greed, anger, jealousy or lust — we must learn the principles of holy warfare and how to fight in partnership with God. In fact, this is exactly what God wants...

Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.
(Psalm 144:1)

These are the nations the LORD left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience).
(Judges 3:1-2)

God's Part: Covert Aligning

Before the first battle (Jericho) to conquer the land east of the Jordan River, the Israelite army sent spies into Jericho to, well, spy. There, they encountered a prostitute named Rahab who makes the following statement:

“I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you.”
(Joshua 2:9)

Unseen and unnoticed, God was already at work causing fear and motivating to action. A similar idea is found in this verse from Philippians:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
(Philippians 2:12,13)

So, God’s part in our battle for holiness is to work in us to will and to act according to His good purposes. God leads us into the battle. He tells us what area needs to change. He works in the realm of our emotions to bring about conviction or a distaste for certain sins. He motivates us to want to change. He is at work behind the scenes in our circumstances, and he provides encouragement to fight the battle.

The Holy Spirit works at aligning our hearts and minds, as he did with the people of Jericho. But, you may say, “I’m not sure I always feel that alignment taking place.”

Our Part: Being Filled With His Spirit

Now we get to a “this is our part” area. The influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is somewhat contingent on our cultivation of His presence and influence. That influence can be like the slow intravenous drip beside a hospital bed, or like a flowing river.

Let me give you an example. Have you ever been to a party where the atmosphere just seemed to cultivate lust: darkness, the conversations, flirting, what people were wearing, alcohol, music, and, yes, even lava lamps (I’d better stop. I’m beginning to get aroused). There is an atmosphere that cultivates this influence. Now, let me tell you about the Holy Spirit’s influence, but first, let’s get out of this party.

There, that’s better, I couldn’t even think in there. We can cultivate greater sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s influence when we do things that involve and co-join us. Spending time with God daily. Praying and relying on God throughout the day. Giving thanks to God throughout the day. Singing or listening to Christian music. Spending time with other Christians. Memorizing Scripture. Praising God for who He is. Getting involved in ministry. These things turn our heart into a spiritual frat party. They cultivate our receptiveness to the Holy Spirit.

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Ephesians 5:18-20)

So, God works in us to will and to act, but we have a role in cultivating His presence and creating an environment in our heart that heightens His influence.

Our Part: Habitual Obedience

Now, if we follow the story of Jericho, you will note that the Israelites were given the significant task of doing laps around the city. The laps seem pointless, don’t they? But, there is a point in the pointlessness. Faith and obedience are critical to victory, but in the final analysis it is God who provides the victory.

Let’s look again at our Philippians passage: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

God is working in us to will and to act. Our role, however, is to make a habit of what God is doing in us through acts of obedience. We work out what God is working in. It is through willful actions and choices that God changes our character.

We cease to be the sort of people who sin in particular areas and we become the sort of people who turn aside from those sins. This is a major role we play in our sanctification — to make “right choices” which act out what God is doing in us. In the war on sin, habitual obedience can take different roles.

Here are a few of them:

  1. Spiritual Disciplines.
    Spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, we could consider “practice” choices (though they serve other functions). When you haven’t eaten for several days, your flesh begins to scream for food, Wendy’s hamburgers to be specific. But you learn to say, “No” to your desires, and if you give in and have Biggie fries you haven’t sinned — practice choices.

  2. Choices to Avoid Temptation.
    If I were an alcoholic — which I’m not, thank you very much — I might not have the ability to turn down a drink when one is put in my face. But, I could choose not to rent an apartment over a liquor store.

    We may not have the ability to refrain from making poor choices while on the Internet late at night, but we have a choice of whether to get on the Internet late at night in the first place. Habitual obedience — when fighting particularly vexing sins — will often be fought and won on the choices we make to keep ourselves out of harm’s way.

  3. Choices to be Open and Honest About Sin.
    Habitual obedience to be open and honest about our struggles and to bring others into them before, during, or after, will play a critical role in seeing victory over specific sins.

  4. Choices to Stop Before Completing the Sin.
    In the war against sin, the first victories are often partial ones. Yet, over time, stopping ourselves in the act, and ceasing to follow through can be the turning point of the battle. Habitual obedience — choosing to stop — breaks old habits and begins to create new ones. It is the start of a change in our character from being the sort of person who does that, to the sort of person who doesn’t.

    These choices turn God’s work in us, into external character change. Like the story of the Israelites at the battle of Jericho, it is God who gives the victory. But, our obedience — like the Israelites walking around Jericho — plays a critical part.

God's Part: The Timing

Read these verses that relate to God giving Israel possession of the land:

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run ...But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you.
(Exodus 23:27,29)

When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers...be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
(Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

You may say to yourself (after you have entered the land), My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.
(Deuteronomy 8:17)

Haven’t you ever thought, “Why doesn’t God just change me and make me different?” Well, He doesn’t, for the same reasons He didn’t give the Israelites the land all at once.

We would forget the enslaving power of sin. We would begin to believe that it had been our strength and will power that brought victory over sin. We’d lose our dependence upon the Lord. We wouldn’t use our new freedom responsibly. We would never fully appreciate what we’d been delivered from. We would be far less thankful... and the list could go on.

There is also a principle of ownership. Every acre we’ve bloodied ourselves to recapture and annex from the enemy carries with it a sense of ownership that cannot be appreciated through any other means.

When God says, “But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate...” He seems to be saying that if He simply gave it to us, we would never fully possess, or own it. There are important lessons of growth that accompany every battle, so we don’t want to fast forward through the process. Actually, we would all love to fast forward through the process, but God loves us too much to let us have the remote control.

Your Part and God's Part: A Commitment to Fight

As the Israelites took possession of the land, there was a tendency, over time, to grow weary of fighting, especially when victory was elusive. It became tempting to say, “Okay, since we’re never going to get rid of you, why don’t you just take a tiny portion of the land, and not bother anyone.” They sought a truce.

Likewise, over time, and in the face of many defeats, it can grow tempting to allow sin to set up camp in our life: we call a truce and accept that we will always be a certain way. Look at Numbers 33:55:

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land, where you will live.

God required them to persevere in the fight for the land. Likewise, He requires us to persevere in our fight for holiness. Through a variety of means, God motivates us to this end. He gives us encouragement, a fresh motivation, renews our hearts and minds, and restores our zeal.

Our part is to repent when we have settled for mediocrity or become apathetic. We are to confess and ask for a renewed heart to keep fighting. Our part is to persevere in pursuing God. Repentance, confession, humbling ourselves, and pursuing God are the vehicles to renewed zeal, not mustering more effort in a battle (an important nuance of the collaboration).

God's Part: Discipline

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds.
(Judges 6:1-3)

One would assume that having entered the land, Israel’s days of bondage and slavery were gone forever — um, no! In fact, due to a failure to fully take the land, Israel is turned over to bondage. God disciplined Israel, and this discipline often took the form of enslavement.

One of my favorite ads that I think brings out the enslaving nature of sin, was put out by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers). The visual is of a half-poured drink sitting next to a bottle of alcohol. The copy runs behind the glass, in a list, finally disappearing into the drink, reading:

This drink cost: $2.95, a marriage, a car, two children, a house...

As we are His children, God’s part in the holiness process is discipline. Just like with a child, discipline and consequences help us to move beyond certain behavior. Unlike most parents, God’s discipline is never done in anger but always out of love and for our growth. God disciplines us in a variety of ways, but a major way can be allowing a certain degree of bondage to a sin.

Bondage carries with it some important lessons. It is a prerequisite for a deep understanding of God’s grace. That deep understanding can mean knowing, really knowing, that without Christ we are bound by sin. It can be the key that unlocks the dynamics of the “Spirit-filled” life — learning to depend on God’s resources to fight against sin. And, it causes us to despise sin as our master, leading us to forsake certain sin.


The fight for our holiness is a partnership. Each battle is different, but we have tried to look at some of the major ways this partnership plays out using Israel’s struggle for the Promised Land as a paradigm.

There are other nuances to be sure, but if you can get your mind around these, it will help you to explain a great deal of what your disciple is experiencing in their battle for holiness.

Like learning to dance, as we grow we pick up the rhythm of the partnership. Eventually, we learn to stop stepping on God’s toes as He leads us to where we need to be led.

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