Simplicity is a beautiful thing.
It’s also a very elusive thing. We live in a day and time when everything seems to be more complex than the next thing, whether in terms of technology, relationships, or what kind of coffee to buy (or not to buy). We are complex people with complex feelings about complex issues. That’s why when you stumble upon something simple, no matter what it is, it’s immediately appealing (or at least it is for me). The bright light of simplicity shines forth good and straight and true in the midst of the dull bulbs of complication.
Is it possible, though, that we also have a love of complexity? That though we express a desire out loud for life to be simpler, we secretly treasure the complex in our hearts? I think that may in fact be true when it comes to something else we have a knack for complicating – spiritual growth.
There’s no doubt of the importance of growing spiritually in Christ. One of the places in Scripture where Jesus talked about this was in John 15, using an agricultural metaphor to express it:
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vineyard keeper. Every branch in Me that does not produce fruit He removes, and He prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me.”
Simple, right? Abide, or remain, in Jesus, in whom you find life. And bear fruit as His follower. Why, then, is the concept of spiritual growth something we struggle with so mightily? Perhaps this is one of those areas in which we have some level of love of the complex, and as a result, we over complicate what spiritual growth really is. Digging into that idea, I see three possibilities for why we might indeed want to over complicate what it means to grow in Christ:
1. Our need for control.
God through the Holy Spirit is the One who ultimately transforms us. Our job simply is to remain. To abide. And to trust that our abiding in Christ will result in spiritual growth. But that’s a problem for us because it means that even with this, our own spiritual growth, we are ultimately not in control. And being in control is something most, if not all of us greatly desire.
So how do we deal with the uncomfortable reality of our own helplessness? We impose our own ever more complicated systems and measures on the process. And while those systems might have value, the dark underbelly of them all is that we can easily drift from a posture of trusting in the Lord to do His work in and through us we can move to trusting our own formulaic system, as though we can find just the right acrostic or just the right step by step process to coerce God into action.
2. Our desire to procrastinate.
Another reason we might want to over complicate something – anything – is because we don’t really want to participate in it at all. Think about a project you know needs to be done at home or work. You know you’re going to have to give something of yourself to it, that it will require a significant amount of energy, sweat, and effort, and you don’t want to put that much into it. So what do you do?
You over complicate it. You plan, you tweak the plan, and then you plan some more. You impose more and more rules to guide what you’re going to do when you eventually start doing it. And the more time you invest in complicating what’s before you, the longer you get to wait before you actually get down to business. Such is the case with spiritual growth.
True enough, it is God who does the growing in us, but He does so as we faithfully put ourselves in a position to embrace the work of the Holy Spirit. This is indeed work, but it’s not complicated work. It’s doing things like getting up early to read the Bible. To regularly sit under the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. To kill sin. Hard? Yes. Complicated? No. But at some point, we have to actually get moving and take action.
3. Our want of self-congratulation.
We are a prideful people. We want to be known and recognized for something we have done. So sometimes we impose some complicated system on discipleship and spiritual growth because we want to be congratulated for it. We want, after we have attained some spiritual level, for others to look back at all our spider diagrams and intricate plans and marvel at our diligence and fortitude not only in accomplishing our goal, but at having the wisdom to finally find the trick to get it done.
In all these three ways, the gospel shuts down our excuses and closes our mouths. The gospel reminds us that we once were dead in our sin, and that even now, we are kept in the faith not by our own effort but by God’s grace. It is this grace that fuels our spiritual growth in Christ. It’s this grace that enables us to do the work we must do, but at the same time, recognize that we are fully dependent on God and His power.
The world is complicated, and becoming more so. This doesn’t have to be.