Don’t Stop Growing
John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, once said, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
This strikes me as a great statement for Christians to cling to, for it reminds us that God is in the business of continually growing us and changing us until our growth comes to completion “in another world,” while all along the way we are loved and accepted “by the grace of God.”
As I reflect upon Newton’s quote though, I am struck by the realization that the apostle Paul would never have said such a thing…prior to coming to Christ.
The earlier part of Paul’s life was lived in the conviction that he did not need to change because he had carefully ticked off the necessary religious requirements. The issue for Paul was not the kind of person he was becoming and whether his life bore the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The issue for Paul was the satisfaction of religious requirements, and he could proudly announce that he had done his duty.
From the evidence of Scripture, when Paul began the Christian life, he did not exhibit much love, joy, peace, patience, or kindness. Having lived as a Pharisee, his early Christian life still exhibited the fruits of judgmentalness, confrontation, and argumentativeness. Right away, in Damascus, he got into such arguments that “the Jews plotted to kill him,” and the Christians had to sneak him out of town (Acts 9:23-25). When he arrived in Jerusalem, the arguments started again, and the Hellenists “were attempting to kill him” (Acts 9:29). It was only when the disciples shipped Paul off to Tarsus, we are told, “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up” (Acts 9:30-31). Even after beginning his missionary career, Paul got into such a heated conflict with Barnabas (who was given the nickname “Son of Encouragement” and who had come to Paul’s rescue when the apostles had feared being associated with him—Acts 9:26-27) that they disbanded their missionary team and went different ways.
But as Paul progressed in the Christian life, he came to understand that he was ‘not what he ought to be, and was not what he wanted to be, and was not what he hoped to be in another world, but was not what he used to be, and by the grace of God he was who he was.’
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote about his desire to keep growing: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
The Christian life is never about stagnation, but it always about change, about the character of Christ growing in us.
In First Things First, A Roger Merrill tells of a business consultant who decided to landscape his yard. He hired a woman with a doctorate in horticulture who was extremely knowledgeable. Bill Norman summarizes what happened: “Because the business consultant was very busy and traveled a lot, he kept emphasizing to her the need to create his garden in a way that would require little or no maintenance on his part. He insisted on automatic sprinklers and other labor-saving devices. Finally she stopped and said, ‘There’s one thing you need to deal with before we go any further. If there’s no gardener, there’s no garden!’” Bill Norman then applies this story to the Christian life: “There are no labor-saving devices for growing a garden of spiritual virtue. Becoming a person of spiritual fruitfulness requires time, attention, and care.” This is why Paul speaks of pressing on toward the goal; this is why Paul calls us to keep growing.
We may not be what we ought to be or what we want to be or what we hope to be in another world, but we are not what we used to be. In the grace of God, may we continue to press on toward becoming what we can be in Christ Jesus.