Having recently become a new parent, I  learnt that within a day or two after the birth that it is quite normal for a baby to lose up to ten per cent of its birth weight. The midwife emphasised the need for growth saying that the main objective in the days after birth is to ensure that babies grow back to their original birth weight and continue to grow.

Naturally, there is the need for nurture, protection  and comfort, but particular focus was directed  toward feeding, feeding and more feeding. No matter if it is night or day, how cold it is, how dark  it is, how tired you feel – feed the baby and make  him grow! There is certainly a need for dedication  on the part of the parents, particularly mothers, to ensure that their baby is fed enough to grow.

This raises a question for each of us, whether  we’ve experienced the above scenario or not: How  much dedication do we put into our own growth  – our spiritual growth? When it comes to spiritual  growth there is no point in our life when we can  put up our feet and say, “That’s it, I’ve just achieved  the perfect amount of spiritual growth”. There is no  plateau, line in the sand or giant tick box to mark it  as complete. Spiritual growth is a continuing process that starts early. Whether we are young or old, there  is the need for growth.

If we need to strive for continuous spiritual  growth – what exactly does this mean? How do we  know we are growing? What should we watch out  for that can stunt our growth?

The book of James is a fantastic resource regarding  spiritual growth. Within its pages we will find  at least 12 keys to spiritual growth. By considering  these 12 topics, we will have opportunity to reflect  on our own circumstances and look for areas on  which we can focus, improve and refine our spiritual  growth. In addition, as we strive to be like Christ, we  can see how he perfectly displayed these qualities.

James is writing this book to the believers  scattered abroad who were facing persecution. The  principles are as applicable today as they were in  those days. In these articles we will consider the  12 keys in detail, and conclude by looking at each  of them in the life of Christ.

Key 1: Count trials as a joy to grow

In James 1:2–3 we read: “My brethren, count it all  joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing  this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.”

On the surface the first key is a tough one.  Notice the word ‘when’. James doesn’t say ‘if ’ we  face temptation – he says ‘when’. Trials, testing and  temptation are unavoidable for the believer. It’s  difficult to imagine counting trials we have gone  through as “all joy”. When the pain is real, when  we feel the walls are caving in, when it seems like  there is nothing we can do about the situation – the  natural reaction is to ask God to ‘fix it’, to beg that  He make the changes necessary so the trial will  pass. No temptation or trial in itself can be a joy.

Yet James challenges us saying where there is  spiritual growth we should “count it all joy”. Is James  saying that if we are suffering a trial we should paint  a big smile on our face or wear a mask to hide the  fact that underneath we are crumbling? Not at all!  God isn’t telling us to not feel the suffering, to not  deal with the emotions or deny the sorrows. God  is looking for us to reach the point in our walk  when we can:

  • Have an unflustered heart in the midst of Turmoil
  • Learn from the trials and develop patience
  • Have a healthy perspective of the Truth for what it is, and value it.

Our responsibility can be found in James 1:4:  “Let patience have its complete work, so we might  be fully developed and complete.” We shouldn’t pine  away, wishing our circumstances could be different. James wants us to understand that by desiring to  escape from our circumstances we will never grow  and mature.

The tough times will come – they come for  everyone. Remembering that the “trying of our  faith worketh patience” helps us to grow spiritually.

James gives us words of comfort in verse 12:  “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for  when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life,  which the Lord hath promised to them that love  him.” We can truly rejoice in the midst of trial  because the battle has been already won through  Christ. We can have joy during difficult circumstances  in our walk because the ultimate prize is  available – the crown of life.

Key 2: Saying ‘no’ will help us grow

James warns us against ‘giving in’ to temptation:  “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away  of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath  conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it  is finished, bringeth forth death. Do not err, my  beloved brethren” (1:14– 16).

Back in verse 2 James used the word “temptation”  in the sense of being ‘put to the proof ’ and  undergoing a trial. Here in verses 14–16 it is no  longer a matter of being put to the proof, but it is  actually overstepping the mark, succumbing to the  trial, giving in to the flesh and committing the sin.

We find from key 1 that when we submit to  the test we will grow in our walk. On the other  hand key 2 says when we constantly give in to the  temptation we remain a spiritual ‘baby’ and we  become a puppet to our desires. Sin stunts growth  and so the moment we say ‘no’ to temptation we  have taken another small yet effective step in the  life-long journey of spiritual growth.

Our spiritual growth is stunted in this area  when:

  • We fail to recognise temptation or even consider it a problem
  • We conclude we are too weak to overcome the temptation and we simply give in
  • We continually give in to the temptation, even though we know it is wrong.

Consider it from God’s point of view:

  • God points His finger at something in our life and says, “It has got to go”. Temptation says, “It has got to stay”
  • God wants us to act responsibly. Temptation says, “Live it up, enjoy”
  • God requires that we sacrifice our natural desires. Temptation says, “indulge them”

Spiritual growth is about developing the ability  to say ‘no’ to temptation, to act responsibly and to  sacrifice our natural desires. This is why:

  • Jesus taught us to pray that our Father might deliver us from temptation and evil (Luke 11:4).
  • Jesus told his disciples to watch and pray that they enter not into temptation (Matt 26:41).
  • Paul tells us to run away on at least four occasions: (1) Flee sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:18); (2) Flee idolatry (1 Cor 10:14); (3) Flee from  the love of money (1 Tim 6:11); (4) Flee youthful  lusts (2 Tim 2:22).

God is looking for us to grow, to develop and  overcome temptation, and to flee from the lusts that  are inherent in human nature.

We can take immense comfort in the words of  1 Corinthians 10:13: “God is faithful, who will not  suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but  will with the temptation also make a way to escape,  that ye may be able to bear it.”

Key 3: Read and obey the Word of God  to grow

In 1 Peter 2:2 we are told, “As newborn babes,  desire the sincere milk of the word that ye may  grow thereby.” James adds to this: “But be ye doers  of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your  own selves.” (1:22)

The contrast that James gives is the difference  between someone who simply reads the Word of  God, and someone who reads the Word of God and  it changes them! James uses the example of a mirror  for us to consider the effect the Word of God has  on us. Here are the different approaches:

  • The cursory glance: When we take a quick look in the mirror chances are we will soon forget what we saw. The same holds true for the  Bible. If we merely skim, flip its pages and read  the odd verse – we will most likely forget what  we read. This will not help our spiritual growth.
  • The inactive gaze: When we stand there looking at the mirror for a long time we see what we look like and what we need to do. However  if we don’t do anything about it then our ap pearance will not change. If our hair is messy  and we walk away without combing it, our hair  will still be messy! In a similar way the Bible  shows us what we are like and what we need  to do. If we are reading the Word daily, but are  not obeying its words, this will not help our  spiritual growth. All the Bible readings, studies,  seminars, classes and exhortations are not  going to have an impact if we are not willing  to obey what God’s Word says.
  • The active reflection: When we remember what we saw in the mirror and take action, we will improve our appearance. The same holds true  when we reflect on the Word of God and act.  We have the opportunity to become doers of the  Word and not hearers only. God wants us to grow  by stepping beyond just reading His Word – by  obeying it and putting it into practice.

Jesus also encourages us to hear, do and grow.  In the Sermon on the Mount he emphasized the  importance of this: “Whosoever heareth these sayings  of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto  a wise man” (Matt 7:24). On the other hand “every  one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth  them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man” (v26).  The wise person obeys and takes action; the foolish  person does not.

If we are ever in doubt as to how we can be a  “doer of the word”, there is no better place to start  than by doing the commandments of Christ.

Key 4: Love thy neighbour to grow

In James 2:8 we read, “If ye fulfil the royal law  according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy  neighbour as thyself, ye do well”. James is telling us  that spiritual growth is evident when we love our  neighbour as ourselves.

It’s no surprise that James calls it the royal  law – it embraces all the other laws that have to  do with fellow man. We find this topic throughout  Scripture. It is first mentioned in the Law in  Leviticus 19:18: “Love thy neighbour as thyself ”.  Jesus said this law is one of the two greatest commandments  (Matt 22:36–40). Paul also said, “Thou  shalt love thy neighbour as thyself ” in Romans 13:9  and Galatians 5:14.

This can be a challenge for us for a number of  reasons:

  • We can consciously or subconsciously limit who we consider to be our neighbour. The lawyer raised this issue in Luke 10:29 when  he asked Jesus “Who is my neighbour?” The  answer becomes clear when Jesus spoke the  parable of the man rescued from near death  by a Samaritan – everyone is our neighbour!
  • We can fall into the trap of having a checklist of characteristics that a person must display before they are ‘worthy’ of our love. I wonder  how many Jews listed ‘not a Samaritan’ on their  checklist before Jesus gave this parable? It is up  to us to find the good in people, even if they  don’t meet our requirements.
  • Some people are hard to love. If you have a bad tempered boss at work – he is hard to love. If your neighbour plays loud music until  3am – he is hard to love. If someone at school  has a negative attitude all the time – he is hard  to love. We can only approach this challenge  by remembering that the Bible doesn’t say, ‘if  your neighbour is pleasant, then you should  love that neighbour’.

We are left with no room for partiality or  favouritism. James confirms this very thing: “But  if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin” (2:9).

So how does loving our neighbour help with  spiritual growth?

Think of God’s love for us. He didn’t wait for  us to become more agreeable, or to overcome a  particular weakness. He doesn’t insist that we improve  before He will love us. He loved us from the  beginning as we read in Romans 5:8, “While we  were yet sinners, Christ died for us”. Even though  we are sinners, Jesus still considers us his friends  and he displayed the ultimate love in laying down  his life for us (John 15:13).

To love our neighbour is to display the same  characteristics that God and Christ show. This is  why God wants us to display love – so that we  might grow spiritually and build godly characters.