by Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee

Spiritual growth in the way of Jesus is a strange thing. Just remember some of the things Jesus said or did. To follow him is to walk a way that ends with a cross. To become greater with Jesus is to become less. To “advance” is to strive to be last. To “progress” as a Christian is not like working one’s way up in a hierarchy—from private to lieutenant to colonel, from sales to manager to VP, from lay person to pastor to bishop. Christian “progress” is more like that from a healthy middle age to a needy older age, or to “advance” from self-sufficiency and independence to dependence on others and on God. When Jesus wanted to place a model in front of his disciples he took a child and said, essentially, if you want to grow up, grow down, to be like this little one.

One theologian speaks of our strengths, our spiritual gifts, as “anointed weaknesses.” Precisely where we struggle, even where we fail, is where we can be most fruitful as servants of Jesus. Strange, I know, but what do you expect of a faith whose God dies? Perhaps it’s like this—at our points of strength we can feel successful, accomplished, proud. At our points of failure and brokenness we have no choice but depend on Christ’s grace. Ernest Hemingway said “The world breaks everyone. Some people get strong in the broken places.”

Growth in Christ is never a solo matter. It always involves other people. In the ancient church, St. Basil the great was unimpressed when he heard some “great saints” live alone. He asked, “Whose feet will they wash?” In church we recently read from the frightening parable in Matthew 25:31-46. The sheep at Christ’s right hand do not know they’re sheep; the goats at his left don’t know they’re goats. The only difference between the two is whether they’ve served Jesus in his poor, hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, and imprisoned brethren. Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, notes that if we’ve never moved toward Jesus in his poor, at the very least we’ve not understood the gospel properly. If we’ve truly met Jesus, we will seek to love him in the “least of these.” There are so many in need right around us here in Watauga County. In other words, there is so much of Jesus to serve!

Growth in Christ is growth toward our own weakness, growth toward Christ in his needy, growth in bearing a cross, on the way to a resurrection like his. It is no simple matter. But it is a glorious one.