Christian discipline is not about self-improvement.
As much as we may feel drawn to make growing in Christ the goal of our various spiritual disciplines, or habits of grace, we have something far greater that warrants our explicit focus.
Now, to be sure, growing in Christ is a wonderful thing.
It is important, as Paul celebrated to the Thessalonians: “your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing” (2 Thessalonians 1:3). It is essential, as Hebrews makes plain: “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). It is a command, as Peter instructs, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
We should never minimize the value or vitality of growing in Christ. It is indeed important, essential, and commanded. Yet we should often clarify, for ourselves and for others, who it is that makes it happen, how we go about pursuing it, and what is the greater goal, beyond growth, to which we look.
God Gives the Growth
The first thing to say is that growing in Christ is not something we can produce. We are, no doubt, involved in the process, but God is the provider. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth,” Paul says, “so neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7). Growing in holiness of mind, heart, and life — and walking increasingly in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25) — does not make us the object of praise, but God. He gives the growth. He is the great supplier behind and in whatever actions we take as means of his grace.
Growing in grace isn’t something we can calculate and produce. It’s not ultimately in our court. There are actions we take, and must take — habits of mind and heart and life to cultivate — but in the end, we are powerless.
And so growing in Christ is not something we make happen by making it our focus in life. It’s not something we feel and experience in the moment. We’re typically not aware of it as it is happening, but only later look back and say, “Wow, look what God did. He gave the growth.” He grows his kingdom in like manner. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how” (Mark 4:26–27). Yes, we scatter seed. But we’re powerless to make it grow. God gives the growth.
What Is the Focus?
How, then, do we engage in the process of our growth in Christ? If growth in itself is not our focus, what is? On this, the Scriptures are just as clear as they are about who supplies the growth. Our focus is not to be on our actions, our technique, our efforts and resolve to improve, but on the glory of Christ.
“To grow in Christ, we don’t set out to grow; we set out to taste his goodness.”
To grow in Christ, we don’t set out to grow; we set out to taste his goodness. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2–3). Just as God alone is the giver of growth for individuals and his kingdom, so Christ alone is the focal point for both individuals and his church. How does the whole body grow? By “holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:19). Jesus is the Head of the church (Colossians 1:18); she only grows as she holds fast to him (see also Ephesians 4:15–16).
The Great End of the Means
The implications are immense for the Christian life — and for the habits of grace we cultivate in hearing God’s voice (in his word), having his ear (in prayer), and belonging to his body (in the local church). The repeated focus in our spiritual exercises must be on Jesus, and not our effort. He is the greatest grace on these paths, not our improvement.
“The repeated focus in our spiritual exercises must be on Jesus, and not our effort.”
The great end of our habits of grace is knowing and enjoying him. The final joy in any truly Christian discipline, practice, or rhythm of life is “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). “This is eternal life,” and this is the goal of the means of his grace in word, prayer, and fellowship: “that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
When all is said and done, our hope is not to be a skilled Bible-reader, practiced pray-er, faithful churchman, or visibly mature Christian, but to be the one who “understands and knows me, that I am the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:24). And so our heartbeat in the habits we develop for hearing every word, speaking every prayer, and participating in every act of fellowship is Hosea 6:3: “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord.” Knowing and enjoying Jesus is the final end of hearing his voice, having his ear, and belonging to his body.
God’s means of grace, and their many good expressions, will serve to make us more like him, but only as our focus returns continually to Christ himself, not our own Christlikeness. It is in “beholding the glory of the Lord” that we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
“Spiritual growth is a marvelous effect of spiritual discipline, but it is only an effect.”
So, “train yourself for godliness; [it] is of value in every way” (1 Timothy 4:7–8). Amen. May you ever improve in Christ. And remember that your godliness is never the end. Growth is not the goal. Spiritual growth is a marvelous effect of spiritual discipline, but it is only an effect.
The heart in every habit serves this one great end: knowing and enjoying Jesus.
David Mathis’s new book Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines is now available in hardback, for Kindle, in audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
He has also written a study guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
If you’d like to learn more, sign up for an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.