Thursday, May 22, 2014

How do you measure growth?

5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, 6 knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, 7 godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:5-8

My wife does raised-bed gardening in some cedar boxes I built for her. This year we are trying three such boxes with a variety of vegetables. She is a bit of a tomato aficionado, so we have a couple of different varieties planted, though not as many as last year. She got the last of her plants in the ground recently, so now it is just water and wait.

The end goal of planting these tomato plants is red, juicy fruit that she can enjoy. It has been just a few days since the tiny plants were planted, so they obviously aren't there yet. But every day I come home from work, I can see subtle changes in her garden: a new flower here, a new shoot there. I swear the beans are growing like an inch a day.

Imagine if I were to go home today and say to my wife, "Well, looks like you failed with your tomato plants. We don't have tomatoes." Just a few days after she had them planted, she'd likely look at me like I was crazy, and rightfully so. Producing fruit take time. Just because they don't measure up to the standard today doesn't mean there hasn't been progress, and whether or not they eventually produce tomatoes is entirely up to God.

We all recognize how ridiculous it would be to demand full-grown tomatoes from a newly-planted seedling, and yet so many times an exhortation to growth on my part has been received as a demand for perfection on their part. As I wrote a few posts ago, a pastor I know asked me a while back why I was "impatient with imperfection." I have mulled that question over quite a bit for the last few months, and this is the conclusion I have come to: I'm not. My goal for myself, my family, and for those around me that God brings across my path is not perfection, but rather continuous improvement.

12 Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, 14 I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. 
Philippians 3:12-15

I can't even begin to count how many times I was certain some idea I had or some advice I gave was right on target only to find out later that I was completely off base. I have said more stupid, insensitive things than there are seconds in a day. But one thing I know and one thing I do: I know that, by God's grace, I am more Christlike today than I was 6 months ago, and by God's grace, I continually put my past mistakes behind me and press on towards the goal of being conformed to the image of Christ.

So the question remains, when I encourage others to do the same, to not be satisfied with where they are but to press on towards the goal, why does it come across as being "impatient with imperfection"? I ask this because, while this pastor was off in diagnosing my intent, he was spot on in identifying a very common response.

I am sure that some of that has been my methods. I am continually evaluating my interactions with others against the goal of gentleness. But I am also convinced that part of the "you're just demanding perfection" response is raging against a message that is pervasive in scripture: 

While God loved us enough to save us as we were, 
He also loves us enough not to leave us as we are. 

Being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) is a difficult and often painful process, and when God uses a brother or sister to highlight an area that needs to be addressed, sometimes it is just easier to condemn the messenger rather than consider the message. And for some, that may be because they condemn themselves for not having reached the goal already instead of rightly evaluating incremental growth that God has likely already produced. Jesus said that when a vine starts producing fruit, rather than just leaving it alone, He cuts off unnecessary parts to produce even more fruit. (John 15:2)

I used to be in a small group with a husband and wife team (J & N) several years ago. They are wonderfully giving and caring people. One phrase N used quite often to describe persistent difficult interactions with certain people is that these individuals were "sandpaper people" for her. It's a great way to look at those interactions. They may be rough, but if we are willing, God uses them to sand off the rough edges on us, scraping away our dead flesh so that the living light of Christ can shine through us.

When you encounter those individuals that take the time to exhort you to greater Christ-likeness, I urge you not to just see someone highlighting your faults. And I especially urge you not to slay the messenger. Rather, take the time to consider the message. Maybe it really is time to take another step down the path, to sprout a new leaf or produce a new tomato bud. Don't let satan condemn you in your flesh, for there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Instead, lay hold of the promise that God will complete what He started in you (Philippians 1:6). And I bet that, somewhere along the way, He's going to use a little sandpaper to do it.

Iron sharpens iron,
So one man sharpens another.
Proverbs 27:17 (NASB)