Spiritual Growth

How to Move Toward Genuine Change in Your Life

Eric Swanson

How do you know if you are maturing personally, emotionally and spiritually? Is there some objective standard or way to measure change? And how is it that seemingly mature spiritual leaders can fall off the deep end after so many years?

Part of the problem is that we often measure ourselves by progress through a spiritual program rather than by genuine life change.

Growth is not just plodding through successive checklists of skills and activities — it involves genuine inner-life change. Spiritual and emotional growth happen in ministry programs but are not necessarily caused by them. A leader’s ability to understand, outline and expound spiritual truth is not necessarily correlated to anyone’s ability to live it. We plant and water through our programs, but it is God who causes the growth.

How can you evaluate whether you and those you mentor are emotionally healthy and growing?

Elements of Growth: Grace, Truth and Time

In his book, “Changes That Heal” (Zondervan, 1992), Henry Cloud outlines three ingredients of genuine spiritual growth and emotional health. The common elements of emotional health and growth are grace, truth and time. Real change and real growth happen only in the context of truth and grace.

Cloud writes, “Grace is the unmerited favor of God toward His people. Grace is unconditional love and acceptance. Grace is something we have not earned and do not deserve.” Of truth, he says, “Truth is what is real. It describes how things really are.” Jesus Christ transforms us by His grace and truth. Jesus is described as being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14,17, New International Version). He touched and changed the lives He encountered with both grace and truth. Repeatedly, He preceded His statements with, “I tell you the truth ...”

People are transformed by the truth — by what is real — combined with grace. Remember the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11)? After all was said and done, what did Jesus do? He said, “Then neither do I condemn you” (grace), and then, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (truth). In John 5, when Jesus healed the man who for 38 years had been an invalid (grace), He also told him to “stop sinning” (truth).

When Peter was so quick to proclaim his undying loyalty to Jesus, Jesus was quick to tell him the truth: “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:34, NIV). But not without a note of grace: “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32, NIV).

How do we grow? Paul, writing to the Ephesians, says in 4:15-16 (NIV), “Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Truth without grace, or truth that is not tempered by love, is judgment. Without grace, we become rules-oriented in our approach to spirituality. Rules without grace lead to compliance and condemnation. But grace without truth easily leads to disregarding accepted rules and conventions — no growth, no change, no limits, no consequences.

Cloud writes, “Grace and truth are a healing combination because they deal directly with one of the main barriers to all growth: guilt. We have emotional difficulties because we have been injured (someone has sinned against us), or we have rebelled (we have sinned), or some combination of the two.” Notice that it is other people who are instrumental in the growth process. We cannot grow in isolation.

The third ingredient is time. Growth always takes time. Although time by itself never produces growth, it is impossible to grow without it. The parable of the unfruitful fig tree (Luke 13:6-9) illustrates the importance of input (grace and truth) along with time.

Cloud makes the distinction between “good time” and “bad time”: “Good time is the time in which we and our experiences can be affected by grace and truth. If we have removed some aspect of ourselves from time, grace and truth cannot transform it.” In other words, any area of our lives that is not brought into the light cannot be transformed no matter how much time we give it. It is the talent that is buried that goes unchanged (Matthew 25:26-27).

Four Developmental Tasks

Cloud’s growth model is a description of four developmental tasks that every person has to complete on the road to healthy adulthood.



1. Bonding

The first task is establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships with others. This is called bonding.

Cloud writes, “Bonding is the ability to establish an emotional attachment to another person. It is the ability to relate to someone on the deepest level.” It is caring for others and having others care for you. God is a bonded being. He created us to be bonded to Him in a relationship.

Fruitfulness in the Christian life comes as the result of a bonded relationship. That relationship is called “abiding” (John 15:4-5). Where does the ability to bond come from? In Mark 1:11 (NIV), after Jesus’ baptism, the Father verbally affirmed Him with these words: “You are My Son [a sense of belonging], whom I love [unconditional love]; with You I am well pleased [affirmation].”

People who have been raised in an atmosphere of belonging, love and affirmation have the trust that is needed to be bonded with others. This trust is an integral ingredient in building relationships. Cloud writes, “If we were blessed with loving caretakers who met our needs when we were young, we develop our ‘trust muscle’ and begin to perceive the world as a trustworthy place.” We love because our parents first loved us; we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).

“If our needs were not met — if we were neglected, abandoned, beaten, abused, criticized, hated or resented for existing — then our very ability to trust and be vulnerable is injured.” God created us not only to have a relationship with Him but also to have meaningful relationships with others. It was God who first said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18, NIV). Satan’s plan is to isolate us. God’s plan is to bring us into meaningful friendships with others. Life only works when it is lived according to design. God created every living thing to live in relationship with others. Scientists call this symbiosis. For followers of Christ, it is called community.

No matter what you may have missed emotionally in your first family, there is still good news. If you have placed your trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, you are a child of God. And you’ve been placed in a second family called the church (Mark 3:31-35). The church – the gathered family of God’s children – should be a place of belonging, love and affirmation.



2. Boundaries

The second developmental task that all people need to complete is establishing boundaries. Bonding has to do with connecting with others, but establishing boundaries has to do with being separate from others. Cloud writes,

In a psychological sense, boundaries are the realization of our own person apart from others. This sense of separateness forms the basis of our personal identity. It says what we are and what we are not, what we will choose and what we will not choose, what we will endure and what we will not endure, what we will feel and what we will not feel, what we like and what we do not like, and what we want and what we do not want. Boundaries, in short, define us.

A boundary is a property line that defines where you end and someone else begins. Boundaries define what is mine and what is not mine — what I am responsible for and what I am not responsible for, what I can and cannot control. 

Created in the likeness of God, we need to understand that God loves and hates, what He chooses, wills, wants, values and thinks. We need boundaries with our bodies, attitudes, feelings, behaviors, thoughts and choices.

The second recorded time that God the Father spoke audibly to Jesus, on the Mount of Transfiguration, He recognized His Son’s separateness. “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:5, NIV). The Trinity – the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is a theological expression of both bonding and boundaries.

How do boundaries relate to mentoring and helping others grow in their faith? Sometimes we mistake a person’s inability to say no for commitment. A sign of emotional immaturity is the inability to take responsibility and make one’s own wise decisions. Symptoms of a lack of boundaries often include the inability to choose what you want to do apart from what others want you to do and the inability to say no because you feel obliged and compelled — so responsible for other people that you don’t take responsibility for your own life.

Galatians 6:2-5 (NIV) defines the balance between being bonded with others and establishing boundaries with them. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. … Each one should carry their own load.” We carry one another’s burdens when what others are experiencing is overwhelming — something they cannot bear on their own. However, we don’t carry their “load” — the responsibilities that are theirs.

In other words, every person needs to bear the consequences of her own decisions. When we fail to allow others to reap the consequences of what they have sown, we are dishonoring their boundaries. Rescuing others from their own consequences is not honoring their adulthood.

In a mentoring relationship, failure to establish boundaries is often two-sided. Mentors and mentees often enjoy being needed and appreciated. Consequently, mostly inadvertently, they create an overdependent relationship. Mentees show up and seem to cry out, “I need, I need, I want, I want.” But everyone needs to own his own growth and development. As a mentor, you identify needs and bring resources to bear, but you cannot cause growth for someone else.

You are responsible to your mentee, but you are not responsible for your mentee.

Having boundaries means that after you give your mentee an assignment to complete, you could say, for example, “Call me when you get it done and then we can meet again.” When a task or assignment is undone, you blur the boundaries and pass sloppiness off for grace when you say, “Well, that’s OK, we’ll do it together when we meet.” Of course, you are still free to serve and give, but you do it out of free choice, not out of obligation.

We need to challenge others to be committed to the Lordship of Christ and the Great Commission (truth), but the decision needs to be theirs, not ours. We are bound to Christ; He is in us and we are in Him. But He still allows us to choose Him. Never eliminate choice!

Think of the words of Joshua: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. ... But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15, NIV). When Jesus’ disciples left Him en masse (John 6:66-69), Jesus didn’t beg the twelve to stay; rather, He also gave them the option of leaving.

For growth to be genuine and lasting, the “want-to” must come from the heart. Individuals who are motivated by guilt or obligation rarely find lasting results. When people do give you disappointing responses, we need to apply the elements of grace and truth, recognizing that God’s timetable may be different than ours.



3. Black and White

The third developmental task is learning to resolve the good and evil we find within ourselves and others. Some people see everything in black and white without recognizing the myriad shades of gray. Their tendency is to idolize someone who has a spiritual platform — perhaps a certain pastor or leader. It’s as if that person can do no wrong. Once we see evidence of that person’s sin and brokenness — and we will (“Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins,” Ecclesiastes 7:20, NIV) — we are quick to write them off. The one who was “all good” has now become “all bad.” Cloud writes,

We are both good and bad. Our natural tendency, however, is to try to resolve this problem by keeping the good and bad separated. This creates a split in our experience of ourselves, others and the world around us — a split that is not based on reality and will not stand the test of time and real life. Trying to keep the good and the bad separated results in an inability to tolerate badness, weakness and failure in ourselves and others.

Some people deny the bad in themselves by never dealing with their problems. Others deny the good and focus only on their failures and weaknesses. We left perfection far behind in the Garden of Eden. A fast against pride or “one-upmanship” rarely works. Evil and the potential for evil will be present within us until the day we die and go to be with the Lord in heaven.

The developmental task here is to extend God’s forgiveness to ourselves and others. Press on, yes! But give up your quest to be perfect or have perfect relationships.



4. Adulthood and Authority

The last developmental task that all people must complete before becoming personally mature is embracing their lives as adults. Growing into adulthood is the normal process of growth.

The apostle Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:11, NIV). Cloud writes,

Becoming an adult is the process of moving out of a ‘one-up/one-down’ relationship and into a peer relationship with other adults. ... Becoming an adult is a process of gaining authority over our lives. ... Adults know what they believe, think through things for themselves, make decisions, do not depend on the approval of others for survival, and have an area or areas of real expertise.

Adults don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to do the things adults are supposed to do. When we were children, we lived in a world of “big people”: Teachers, parents, Scout leaders, spiritual leaders, police, etc. We lived “one down” with many “one-up” people. To become an adult is to recognize our mutuality with every other adult.

If God is our Father, then we are all siblings, and because there is only one Parent, we don’t need to parent other adults or look for others to parent us (Matthew 23:7-10). In the book of Acts, the word “disciple” (learner) was quickly replaced by the term “brother” as the church matured. The “one another” statements in the Bible (e.g., love one another, bear one another’s burdens) confirm the idea of adulthood. Being an adult means that we can lead, follow or just be a friend.

We don’t measure ourselves in terms of being “one-up” or “one-down.” Because we are on equal footing with other adults, we can understand the role of authority. People who are over us are not better than us or “bigger” than us. We can willfully submit to proper authority without demeaning ourselves. 

Questions to Ask Your Mentee

Henry Cloud says there are four questions we can ask to evaluate people with whom we are in a mentoring relationship:

  • How connected are they? Are they in good relationships?

  • What are they getting away with? Are they being responsible for their own loads?

  • Where are they exposing their badness and hurts? Are things coming out of darkness into light?

  • Where are they developing their talents? Are they demonstrating appropriate stewardship of their lives or looking for others to do it for them?

Next Steps:

Eric Swanson is a former Cru staff member who now serves as a leadership community director for Externally Focused Churches. He received his doctor of ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University.

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