Process of spiritual growth

Peter’s second epistle is believed to have been written not long before he was martyred for his faith during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (The Second Epistle General of Peter, Introduction). Peter’s final instructions focused on the process of spiritual growth. Somewhat like stepping stones that mark an unfamiliar pathway, Peter identified the characteristics that result from a believer’s diligent effort to produce spiritual fruit. Peter said, “Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity” (2 Peter 1:5-7).

Peter assumed that the people he was writing to had already been born again because he told them to add to their faith virtue (2 Peter 1:5). Faith in this context is the initial reliance upon Christ for salvation (G4102), a decision to accept Jesus as your savior. Peter indicated that after being born again, a person must learn to or at least make an effort to be virtuous. The Greek word translated virtue, arete (ar-et’-ay) is properly translated as manliness or valor (G703). Arete has to do with the impression one makes on another person. You could say that it is the image of ourselves that we project to others or our appearance. What I believe Peter was getting at was that after we become Christians, we should start looking like Christians. People should notice and be impressed by our Christlike behavior.

Peter instructed believers to add to their virtue knowledge (2 Peter 1:5). The Greek word Peter used that is translated knowledge is gnosis (gno’-sis). Gnosis denotes spiritual truth and in this instance is concerned with the initial understanding that one should have of his or her faith, what it means to be a Christian. In other words, Peter was saying that Christians should understand the Bible enough to answer the question, what does it mean to be saved? The first three steps that Peter identified in the process of spiritual growth were things that almost every person that has been born again is able to do as soon as or shortly after becoming a Christian. They don’t take very much effort. Therefore, you could say they have to do with being a baby Christian, someone that has not really started to mature yet.

Peter said we are to add to our knowledge temperance or self control. Paul mentioned temperance in his list of spiritual fruits (Galatians 5:23). This seems to suggests that Peter was shifting gears and was beginning to focus on the kind of spiritual growth that is usually associated with a mature Christian. The Greek word translated temperance, “Egkrateia is the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites” (G1466). For some people this might be a rather easy task, but for others it can take a long time, sometimes a lifetime for them to get their addictions and habits under control. Peter’s next step, patience is what I would refer to as the characteristic that separates the men from the boys. Patience or hupomone (hoop-om-on-ay’) is also translated as waiting, but it is more than just sitting idly by and expecting something to happen. Patience has to do with enduring trials and is sometimes associated with God’s disciplining of his children.

According to James, patience perfects Christian character (James 1:4). “fellowship in the patience of Christ is therefore the condition upon which believers are to be admitted to reign with Him, 2 Ti 2:12; Rev 1:9” G5281). Peter encouraged believers to go beyond this point and instructed them to add to their patience godliness (2 Peter 1:6). Godliness has to do with conforming oneself to the will of God (G2150). I believe this is where the transformation of a believer’s life becomes evident to everyone around him. You could say that the Christian that exhibits godliness definitely stands out in a crowd. I think this step in the spiritual growth process is where the majority of Christians drop out or give up, thinking that it is too hard or not worth it. I can say from my own personal experience that this step is not for the faint of heart.

The next step in the process of spiritual growth is one that might seem like it should be at the beginning rather than the end. Peter said we are to add to our godliness brotherly kindness (2 Peter 1:7). Brotherly kindness or philadelphia in the Greek represents the kind of love that is usually expressed between blood relatives, but in this context it refers to all believers or the family of God. The final step in the process of spiritual growth, charity is closely linked with brotherly kindness. The Greek word Peter used that is translated charity, agape is the highest or purest form of love that can be expressed between two people. It conveys “the attitude of God toward his Son” (G26). I believe what Peter was getting at was that in order to reach full maturity as a Christian, we need to first learn how to love other believers the same way we love our own family members and then, we need to be able to love everyone else the same way we love ourselves.

Patience

James letter “to the twelve tribes which were scattered abroad” (James 1:1) was meant to be a lesson on the topic of patience (James 1:2-4). Apparently, Jesus’ promise to return to Earth was being questioned and the delay of this event was causing believers to be filled with doubt. James encouraged Christians to wait patiently in his statement, “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (James 5:7-8). The phrase “stablish your hearts” has to do with the way we think about our lives. It is likely James was referring to the commitment believers make when they give their lives to Christ. James was pointing out that even though the primary function of salvation was to secure God’s forgiveness and eternal life, Christians should expect to go through a difficult and sometimes long process of transformation before they go to heaven.

The return of Christ was misunderstood to be an event that would happen in the near future, perhaps before the first generation of Christians died. The reason it was so important to believers was likely because the persecution that was taking place was very difficult to handle. The return of Christ may have been used as a coping mechanism to get through the horrible circumstances Christians had to deal with. The problem with that approach was that it didn’t leave room for the possibility that suffering was to be expected and embraced rather than avoided in the Christian life. James wanted believers to understand that spiritual development was counter intuitive and shouldn’t be thought of as a quick and easy process that anyone can get through. His analogy of the precious fruit of the earth (James 5:7) being like the faith that Christians are developing throughout their lives suggests that the cultivation of spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, etc.) is the outcome that we need to focus on in order to survive the trials and temptations that we all have to go through.

I think patience is often misunderstood because we associate it with things that are unpleasant. I believe James’ opening statement, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2) was meant to teach us that joy and patience actually do go together. The key to understanding this strange concept may be James use of the Greek word hegeomai (hayg-eh’-om-ahee) which is translated “count it” in James 1:2. Hegeomai means “to lead, i.e. command (with official authority)” (G2233). Hegeomai is also translated as “have rule over.” You could say that exercising patience means that you take control of a situation, you don’t let your circumstances determine how you are going to behave. Another way of describing patience is long-spirited. From this perspective, you could say that patience is letting yourself be stretched spiritually. In other words, your spirit is dominating your flesh or human nature. One way of doing this is through prayer. James encouraged believers to pray about their difficult circumstances (James 5:13) and stated, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).

Spiritual maturity

James, who is thought to be the oldest brother of Jesus (Introduction, The General Epistle of James, p. 1777), wrote about the purpose of spiritual maturity and the process we have to go through to gain spiritual experience. He said, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptation; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (James 1:2-4). According to James’ teaching, we obtain spiritual maturity by experiencing various difficulties in our lives and the evidence that we have achieved maturity is our exhibition of patience in those situations. The Greek word James used that is translated patience, hupomone (hoop-om-on-ay’) means endurance, constancy (G5281). Another way of describing this quality would be stick-to-itness or not giving up when our circumstances become difficult.

James indicated the motivation for us to strive for spiritual maturity was the reward of a crown of life. He said, “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” (James 1:12). The crown James was referring to may have been a wreath given to the winner of a race (note on 2 Timothy 4:8) in ancient Olympic games. The Apostle Paul used the metaphor of a race in his exhortation to live a life that is guided by faith. He said, “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). James echoed Paul’s teaching in his identification of God’s word as the source of our spiritual strength. He said, “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).

One of the unique aspects of James’ teaching was his emphasis on doing what God’s word tells us to. He said, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22). Three times, James emphatically stated that faith without works is dead (James 2:17, 20, 26). What he may have meant by this statement was that faith was designed to do something, specifically, to bring about change in our lives. Therefore, if faith doesn’t produce change, it has become useless to us, like a dead body that can’t breath or move around anymore. James used a practical example to illustrate his point that spiritual maturity differentiates believers from the rest of the world and linked faith to something as simple as being able to keep our mouths shut when we are tempted to say something cruel or vindictive to a loved one. He stated, “The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue amongst our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature: and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: but the tongue can no man tame: it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison…Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge amongst you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom” (James 3:6-8, 13).