The Role of Faith in Spiritual Growth

Everyone knows that faith plays a significant role in our spiritual growth, but practically speaking it either occupies too much or too little of our understanding. If our conception of spiritual growth is nothing more than self-effort we will not experience life transformation.

But if every spiritual pothole is paved with “just trust God,” we will also miss out on true spiritual growth. This is not to detract from the centrality of faith in becoming more like Christ, only to understand its role, so we can better coach those whom we disciple.

In the Christian life there are certain truths that are either so formative, or so fragile, that your disciple may require special assistance in learning to hold them in the shopping cart of faith. As a mature Christian we are used to toting these truths around like a handbag (such as the security of our salvation), but young Christians need to develop the spiritual muscles that we take for granted.

What follows is a partial list of these foundational truths that require the exertion of faith, and may require your assistance. It is in these areas that the need for faith is most acute and where the lack of it will have the greatest ramifications.

FAITH AND FORGIVENESS

Few of the great battles in life are ever won overnight, so it is safe to assume that your disciples will see many spiritual failures before they finally see the flag raised, hear the national anthem, take their place on the winner’s platform and the world is joined together under the Nike swoosh. It might be a small failure or a stunningly gross one, but in either case they will desperately need to experience God’s forgiveness.

The problem with many sins is that even after we’ve confessed them, it is difficult to feel cleansed, to not berate ourselves, and not suspect that God’s still fuming over the incident. When we sin we instinctively feel someone must pay a price. No one gets off easy. What we need to decide is who is going to pay. Your disciple will therefore move in one of the following directions:

  • ALTERNATIVE #1
    “I am pig swill.” This is one of the terms I use when beating myself up for having fallen into the same trap of sin, yet again. I’ve not copyrighted the phrase so feel free to use it. In essence, I’m crucifying myself for the sin. Yes, what Jesus did was nice, but I’m going to cover the tab—check, please. Someone must pay and rightfully it should be me so I pound myself for my stupidity.
  • ALTERATIVE #2
    “You, you made me sin.” That “you” could be a person, Satan, or even God, but either way someone needs to take the fall for the sin I’ve just committed and I’ll be darned if it’s going to be me.

  • ALTERNATIVE #3
    “Now that you mention it, I’m not sure that really was a sin.” Recognize that phrase? It’s called justification. As the word implies, we decide to make a judgment over and against our conscience, declaring that what we did was actually right, or at least not that wrong. Why go to the effort? Because someone must pay for sin, unless of course there is no sin and that’s what we’re shooting for in this approach: to eliminate the offense.

  • ALTERNATIVE #4
    “I couldn’t help myself, it’s just my personality.” Let’s call this rationalizing, which is equivalent to the courtroom plea of insanity. What I’m saying is, “Yes, it was sin, but I didn’t have the moral capacity to say ‘no.’” My personality was such, and circumstances were such, that I could do no other than what I did. The effectiveness of this strategy lies in how good you are at convincing yourself that it’s really not your fault. I’m pretty gullible, so I usually believe me.

Of course what makes this all unnecessary is that someone has already paid the price, Christ. What is needed is confession. The problem is that we can confess our sins while failing to employ faith. Faith involves a choice of the will to believe that God has forgiven us through Christ’s death, while turning a deaf ear to doubts. We reckon that God is more merciful than we can imagine and believe that through Christ’s death we are completely forgiven, and “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us”(Psalm 103:12).   

We often ask our disciples to scribble out their sins on a piece of paper, and have them write the verse 1 John 1:9 across the list, and tear up the list. I see no expiration date on this exercise. It is effective because it develops the faith component of confession: a visual aid to under gird a young and underdeveloped faith muscle. It might be useful to walk your disciples through the different responses listed above to help them see where in the process of confession, they are failing to exercise faith. You must teach them confession, but you must also teach them that confession involves faith.

FAITH THAT GOD CAN MAKE YOU HOLY

Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

Most of the great heroes of the Bible share two things in common: they all wore sandals, and they were all required to persevere in their faith, though final victory was often years in the future. We, too—no matter how many setbacks we encounter—must never waiver in our belief that God can make us holy, and, if we persevere, will ultimately lead us in triumph.

Every disciple is willing to trust God for victory over sin at least once. The problem is when the war turns into Vietnam, with infrequent victories, heavy losses, and no foreseeable exit strategy. It is at this juncture that they need to know that faith is a long-term struggle and holiness a lifelong battle. Point to the many battles of faith in scripture fought and won over years, and not days. Show them how the Promised Land was taken one battle at a time.

When victory is elusive they will need someone to help make sense of it and prepare them for the long war. Without a proper perspective, they may resolve the conflict with a ceasefire, and an acceptance of behavior far from godliness. Help them persevere in the battle believing God will, in time, bring victory.

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Here is another truth into which faith must sink its teeth: we must choose to believe that our temptations and struggles are not unique and therefore never insurmountable, unfixable, or unforgivable. It is a lie to believe that any temptation is irresistible, or that we are unique in any of our struggles.

God always provides what we need to remain holy, even if it’s simply an escape hatch. Every disciple is tempted to believe that in some area of their lives, they deviate from the norm. Satan desires for us to feel alone. You might ask your disciples if they have ever felt this way or in what area they tend to think of themselves as having unique trials or temptations. Forfeit faith in this area and you’ve dangerously increased the power of sin.

FAITH THAT ALL THINGS WORK FOR THE GOOD

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

The next battle of faith is for all those who have experienced damage in their lives, or within themselves, due to sin. God can take any manure and from it grow a garden, as you participate in this promise by faith. While it may be impossible to imagine how God can bring good out of our train wreck of past and present failures, this is hardly a limiting factor. For God can do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

There is no limit to God’s capacity to redeem evil. Everything in our past can be taken and used for good. Every failure (like Peter’s failures) can be transformed by God’s mercy. Every weakness (like Paul’s weaknesses) can be a vehicle for God to demonstrate His strength. Though we must persevere in faith, and sometimes for years, the equation will always add up: crap + God = life. And faith is the means by which God enters the equation.

Through the examples of biblical characters such as Peter and Paul, and through examples from your own life, you must help your disciples strap on the shield of faith against the lie that anything in their lives is unredeemable, gratuitous, or random.

FAITH IN OUR REWARD

Now, there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Timothy 4:8).

Some years ago I was in China and like any tourist I visited the Great Wall. Along the bottom of the wall, a worker of this communist country was picking up trash. I clocked him at one piece of trash a minute, which at that rate would have taken him longer to clear the grounds than it took to build the Great Wall.

Where we visited included a maze of concession stands, tons of them—Great Concession stands. Someone told me that those who operated the stands employed principles of the free market, meaning that the more they sold and the more they charged for what they sold, the more they profited. One of the women at the booths actually grabbed my coat and dragged me to her counter. It would be an understatement to say that it was a motivated workforce.

The difference between these two workers was a chasm. Let’s call it the Great Chasm. One worked like a sluggard because he knew that he would always make the same amount no matter what he did (communism). The other worker knew that her effort would be rewarded (the free market).

The doctrine of eternal security (that we can never lose our salvation) was never meant to negate the teaching of rewards. In many places in the Bible, God makes it clear that our obedience and faithfulness will be rewarded. We are called to exercise faith in future rewards, choosing to believe that our actions or inaction will be compensated. When our minds move down the trail of “what difference will this really make?” the response of faith is—a lot. We are not told what these rewards will be, but simply given the assurance that it will be worth our while.

Teaching our disciples to maintain an eternal perspective, or to live for eternity can cultivate their faith toward this truth, provided that our definition of what is eternal encompasses far more than evangelism, for Jesus states that even a cup of water given in his name will not fail to be rewarded.

FAITH IN GOD’S GOODNESS

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).

If you go back to the Garden of Eden, (which is probably now a parking lot in downtown Baghdad) you will notice that the first sin was a distrust of God’s goodness. Adam and Eve became convinced that God was holding out on them. Eating from the tree was in their best interests. The foundation of most sin is a lack of faith in God’s goodness, and disbelief that His plans for us are really best.

When things are going wrong, we justify our sin with self-pity. We find ourselves thinking, “Well, I’m going to do this because God isn’t taking care of me anyway, and rather than helping, He’s allowing my life to disintegrate.” Such reasoning is designed by our scheming mind to bring us to a sense of entitlement to sin.

More innocuously, many of us fall prey to pessimism and distrust that what lies in wait over the time horizon is anything but good, often brought on by a nagging suspi- cion that God never did forget our sin, and payday is right around the bend.

We must fight the battle to deny or disbelieve God’s goodness, with faith, never giving an inch. Everything God does in our lives is motivated by love, and any minor deconstruction of that truth is a lie that can have serious ramifications.

In helping your disciples with this struggle, you might ask some questions to discover if their mind has a proclivity to move down this path. You might also share in what ways you tend to doubt the goodness of God. Intimacy with Christ is the best answer to any and all doubts of His goodness. When we feel close to Christ, we sense that He is on our side, and when we feel distant, we come to suspect that He is not.

Memorizing scripture is great, but passages of scripture are animated by our intimacy with Christ.

IDENTITY: IDENTITY THEFT

“I got me some of them mud flaps with the naked ladies on them. Ohhh mamacita.”

In a series of ads for Citibank’s identity theft program, the viewer sits and listens to the thief who, having stolen the person’s credit card number, recounts their various bizarre purchases and exploits. What makes the ads humorous as well as memorable is the thief’s story is told (lip-synced) through the identity theft victim, sitting forlornly mouthing the words.

In some way we are all victims of identity theft. Having trusted Christ, we are heirs with Christ of all that is in Him. Most of us never fully grasp what God’s Word says is true of us in Christ, or worse, we simply don’t think about it. We are children of God, chosen before time to be in the family of God, yet these concepts don’t make it to the starting line-up of thoughts that propel us into the day.

In the movie Cheaper by the Dozen, the youngest child is treated as the family outcast. The other kids call him “FedEx” because they suspect he was adopted and simply delivered to the family, not born into it. Over the course of time he begins to believe it, rumors become a lie, and the lie grows in power until he runs away from the family believing he has no place within it. There’s a message from an otherwise boring movie: our identity matters.

Our faith in our identity in Christ is absolutely foundational to our lives. Faith is fed by reading the Bible. “The Daily Affirmation of Faith” was written to provide a concise, clear statement of the truth of God’s Word as it applies to our victory in Christ (what is true of us in Him). Commend it to your disciples for daily reading particularly during times of deep trials and temptation when they are most prone to forget who they truly are, and believe things about themselves and God which are not true.

THE DAILY AFFIRMATION OF FAITH

Today I deliberately choose to submit myself fully to God as He has made Himself known to me through the Holy Scripture which I honestly accept as the only inspired, infallible, authoritative standard for all life and practice. In this day I will not judge God, His work, myself, or others on the basis of feelings or circumstances.

ONE
I recognize by faith that the triune God is worthy of all honor, praise, and worship as the Creator, Sustainer, and End of all things. I confess that God, as my Creator, made me for Himself. In this day, I therefore choose to live for Him. (Revelation 5:9-10; Isaiah 43:1,7,21; Revelation 4:11)

TWO
I recognize by faith that God loved me and chose me in Jesus Christ before time began (Ephesians 1:1-7).

THREE
I recognize by faith that God has proven His love to me in sending His Son to die in my place, in whom every provision has already been made for my past, present, and future needs through His representative work, and that I have been quickened, raised, seated with Jesus Christ in the heavenlies, and anointed with the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:6-11; 8:28; Philippians 1:6; 4:6,7,13,19; Ephesians 1:3; 2:5,6; Acts 2:1-4,33).

FOUR
I recognize by faith that God has accepted me, since I have received Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord (John 1:12; Ephesians 1:6); that He has forgiven me (Ephesians 1:7); adopted me into His family, assuming every responsibility for me (John 17:11,17; Ephesians 1:5; Philippians 1:6); given me eternal life (John 3:36; 1 John 5:9-13); applied the per- fect righteousness of Christ to me so that I am now justified (Romans 5:1; 8:3-4; 10:4); made me complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10); and offers Himself to me as my daily sufficiency through prayer and the decisions of faith (1 Corinthians 1:30; Colossians 1:27; Galatians 2:20; John 14:13-14; Matthew 21:22; Romans 6:1-19; Hebrews 4:1-3,11).

FIVE
I recognize by faith that the Holy Spirit has baptized me into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13); sealed me (Ephesians 1:13-14); anointed me for life and service (Acts 1:8; John 7:37-39); seeks to lead me into a deeper walk with Jesus Christ (John 14:16-18; 15:26-27; 16:13-15; Romans 8:11-16); and to fill my life with Himself (Ephesians 5:18).

SIX
I recognize by faith that only God can deal with sin and only God can produce holiness of life. I confess that in my salvation my part was only to receive Him and that He dealt with my sin and saved me. Now I confess that in order to live a holy life, I can only surrender to His will and receive Him as my sanctification; trusting Him to do whatever may be necessary in my life, without and within, so I may be enabled to live today in purity, freedom, rest and power for His glory. (John 1:12; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 9:8; Galatians 2:20; Hebrew 4:9; 1 John 5:4; Jude 24).

OUR SALVATION

We’ll conclude with the most fundamental of truths, and ground zero for faith. All things build upon this.

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12).
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13).

In describing our spiritual armor, Paul uses a helmet to illustrate the truth of our salvation: that which protects the mind, and protects us from a fatal blow. We make it a critical part of basic follow-up, because scripture affirms that it is. Let your disciples doubt that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Let them doubt that the Cubs will ever win a World Series. But, rehearse this with them until that helmet cannot be pried off their head.

HOW FAITH GROWS

Faith is like a muscle; it grows by lifting weights. Weights are the resistance—the doubts, mental whispers, and circumstances that tell us the opposite of what faith must believe.

When God seems absent and horrible circumstances swirl around us, everything seems to shout, “God isn’t here! And if He is, He certainly doesn’t care.” In those circumstances, faith curls the barbell toward the heart and says, “No, God is good. He is for me. He has a plan.” Thus, it is the circumstances adverse to our faith that become the vehicle for our growth—they are the weight on the barbell.

And so all disciples are periodically tossed into a boat and sent out into a raging storm, where God is conspicuous by his absence. We are not trying to rescue our disciples from the situations and circumstances that will cause faith to grow. Our role is to come alongside them, strengthen their feeble arms and help them to curl the heavy weights that will cause their faith to bulk-up. (I think I just described a steroid.)

God provides the weight (adverse circumstances and trials), but they must continue to lift the weight. We must spot them helping them push out more repetitions than they thought possible while making sure the barbell doesn’t pin them to the bench-press.

Alternatively faith grows through new challenges and we serve our disciples well by calling them into circumstances where they will need to trust and rely on God. They take courageous steps, God shows Himself faithful, and their faith grows.

Through the stress and strain of faith development, the truths discussed in this article are the most common fracture points, and the places your disciples may most need your encouragement to wind their way up the hill of faith.