Why Everything You Were Ever Taught About Spiritual Growth Is Completely Wrong

Two weeks ago, I finished preaching the most emotionally draining sermon series I have ever preached. This series wrecked my life. It took what was once a very well laid foundation and week by week, destroyed it. The truth hurts but it also helps and heals. Here is why the end of this sermon series felt more like a survival rather than triumph for me personally:

I grew up in an amazing environment. Many people would probably be jealous of it. I always got what I wanted. I was always the center of attention. There was basically little limitation that was set before me. But it’s not like I wanted to take advantage of that. The crazy thing is that when you don’t have a whole bunch of rules that are forced upon you, there is not that strong of a desire to trespass the rules.

Growing up, I was never into the party scene, never had any problems with drugs or alcohol. The worst thing you can dig up on me if you ask some of the folks that grew up with me was the occasional sneaking into a movie theater. My friends always told me that since so many people were already paying to see a movie, our measly seven dollars would not make that much of a difference and no one would notice.

I had a relationship with my parents that many parents would long to have with their kids. I grew up in a home where my dad was a preacher and an itinerant evangelist, my mom was always involved in ministry and I was the only male with four sisters. You can just imagine the amount of dysfunction that can come from that. But I made it out ok. Jesus was for them not a theological topic but rather an authentic relationship. Every time I had questions or concerns, my folks would spend endless hours addressing every issue I brought to their attention. They always encouraged and motivated me to pursue my dreams and to never lose focus of what is important in life. Except for the few tea parties with my buddies that lingered into the late hours of the night and multiple speeding tickets, that’s as much headache as I provided to them. Of course, as much as I am publicly willing to admit.

See, the desire of humans, including myself is to project the best of who we are to the people in our life. We do that to gain acceptance, approval, and recognition. We don’t want to be like those other people, much worse off than us.

I remember being about ten years old and our Sunday School Teacher from church wanted to reward us for good behavior. He promised us a trip to the local theme park, fully paid. That was a dream come true for any kid, including myself – coming from a Soviet country where the closest theme park resembled a dusty field and a poorly inflated soccer ball. But here was the catch: The trip to the theme park would have to be on Sunday.

When I went to ask my parents’ permission to go, they unanimously declined my request. Sunday is the Lord’s Day, they said – we must keep it holy and be in church. I am certain they also quoted the fourth commandment to make sure the point was driven home. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched all of my friends pile into a van and drive away.

Thinking back to that moment about twenty years later, I really don’t think my parents were trying to be mean or withhold from me that which I desired. Because the entirety of my life living with them is evidence of the exact opposite. I personally don’t remember the last time that I did not go to church on Sunday. This behavior was instilled into me from a very young age and I am thankful for it. So when my wife and I got married, coming from similar backgrounds – we did not have to think twice about devoting our Sundays to church and devoting our life to the local church.

But my question is why then is this not the same pattern from many other people who fall into a similar age range that I do?

I know of an entire generation of young people who grew up in the church, who got baptized in the church, who became members of a church, who participated in the church, but now – want nothing to do with the church.

I believe the reason for this is legalistic performance and religious behavior. For many parents, the most important thing for them to see was that their kids sang in the choir, got baptized at a particular age and attended Sunday service. It did not matter if all that was done for show. As long as on the surface, everything seemed like it was good to go.

Jesus said that nothing is private that will not eventually be made public. That’s the problem with religious performance. You get really exhausted. And then you quit performing because you realize how useless it really is.

For ten weeks, we dug deep into the ten commandments and extrapolated the implications of something that is inexhaustible. Here are three principles I gathered after the dust settled:

1. You Are Worse Than You Think You Are. No matter how good we become in managing our sinful behavior before others, God sees what others don’t and is grieved by it. But this is the great thing about grace – even though it exposes your lowest point, it does not make you feel like you are at your lowest point. Jesus is not like some pseudo friends who will turn their back on you once they realize you don’t agree with them. Jesus is a friend of sinners. The moment you and I realize how messed up we are, the less exhausted we will be in covering up the forever exposed.

2. God Is Better Than We Will Ever Admit. Every sin in my life and in your life is an attempt to find God. We look for God in the strangest of places. We look for God in achievement. We look for God in approval. We look for God in our spouse. We look for God in our church. We look for God in pornography. We look for God in money. We look for God in popularity. We look for God in relationships. We pursue God so aggressively in so many wrong places, that we miss Him when He is right beside us. You can preach the gospel to yourself until you are blue in the face and that won’t be enough times that you have heard the gospel. We must remind us of this truth daily. That Jesus is better than any sin. That Jesus is the source of joy and not the false Messiah’s that we cling to so conspicuously.

3. Spiritual Growth Is Not About Climbing Higher But Rather Going Deeper. We don’t move away from the gospel after we have heard it, we must move deeper into it.

There is always place in your life where the good news of Jesus still needs to be proclaimed, loudly and proudly.

There is always a dark cavern within your soul where God’s glorious grace needs to shine it’s bright and healing light into.

There is always an area of your life where you need Jesus to again declare to you that it is finished.

So the reality is that our spiritual growth will look more like a survival rather than a triumph. It will look more like we come out limping instead of sprinting. It will be more like stuttering and stammering, not knowing what to say instead of dropping the mic and proudly walking off the stage.

Spiritual growth is more about looking into the eyes of a fellow brother and sister and saying: “you struggle with this too?” instead of arrogantly thinking to yourself that you are so much more mature because you did not commit that particular sin.

Jesus knows you personally and He wants to forgive you, expediently. Jesus says to you and to me today – go and sin no more. The audition has been canceled. The show is over. You don’t need to perform. Jesus did. It is finished.

If you are interested in listening to any of the ten sermons I preached during this series, click here to access the full archive or click here and check it out on the Fuel For Life Podcast in iTunes. 

If you found this podcast episode helpful, please share it with your social network. 

Question: How would you define spiritual growth? I would love to hear your opinion – jump in the comments and share it. 


7 responses to “Why Everything You Were Ever Taught About Spiritual Growth Is Completely Wrong”

  1. Man, I really resonated with your story here Bogdan. I also consider myself a beneficiary of a wonderful parent and environment. Growing up, I realized how blessed I was when I started to see my friend’s lives and family. Your post reminds me of the Scripture, to whom much is given, much is expected.

    Yes, I realize that as John MacArthur wrote in His book “Slave” we must not forget our true identity. William Carey wanted these words to be written on His epitaph: “A wretched helpless worm on Thy hands I fall.” What an amazing and humbling words from a mover and shaker.

    We ought not to forget our foundations yet dream God’s vision and calling He has placed in our hearts.

    What a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing brother. I appreciate your voice.

    1. Thanks Paul – you don’t see that kind of caption on any Twitter profiles! lol 🙂

  2. James Robertson Avatar
    James Robertson

    Hey Bogdan,
    Great post! But I disagree with one of the leading statements: “I believe the reason for this [adolescents fleeing the church] is legalistic performance and religious behavior.” I think that this is a reason, but not the reason, or even the most important reason. And the reason I say that is that I grew up and later served as a youth leader in Christian denominations that are very far from the hyper-legalistic Slavic churches. My (American) churches erred in the opposite way, emphasizing grace and forgiveness, sometimes even at the expense of clearly Biblical morals. Someone sleeping with his girlfriend? Bad! … but a trite prayer and we’ll welcome them back with open arms (and mildly chastise them the next time it happens). Some teenager disrespects his father, spewing out his dissatisfaction to the youth group? We’ll all sympathize and hug him! Someone abandons Sunday worship (again) to prioritize something else? Better not call up and ask why, as that would be intrusive (and we all know Jesus was a gentleman). “Relationship, not religon”, “deeper, not holier”, and so on… I can testify that American church culture runs from even perceived legalism by panicked design! And yet, American young adults are fleeing the church as fast, if not faster, than Slavic ones.

    Like you, I looked at my church tradition, and decided that it was deficient. I came to the conclusion some years ago that children leave the church because it isn’t strict enough, doesn’t emphasize holiness enough, doesn’t have strong enough standards, isn’t different from the world (and I’m not the only one; there’s a large body of wistful American Evangelical writing to back my conclusion up).

    So we seem to have grown up on opposite ends of the Evangelical spectrum, watched our respective youth flee, saw the flaws in our respective traditions, and concluded that those flaws are the reason why the youth flee. But perhaps it’s actually neither, or more than both; upon comparing your experience with mine, a simple critique seems very simplistic indeed.


    1. James hi – thank you for stopping by and commenting. Glad we could connect.

      I see where you are coming from. I am writing this from my perspective and I am not blind to the pitfalls of America churches. I currently lead a multi-ethnic church where we have a coalition of both cultures.

      Contrary to many statisticians, I would not say that there is a mass exodus of millennials leaving the church. They are just finding new ways of expressing their faith. They are rebelling against that which they grew up in – exactly what I mention – and it’s not unique to Russian or America culture – there is enough religious, performance driven behavior to go around. And I am not excluding myself from that group, only rapidly repenting from it.

      I think young people in general in our generation are seeking authenticity. They want to know that they are heard and that their voices are validated.

      Some of the examples you mention are specific pastoral situations where it’s hard to provide a blanket statement to each situation. Every situation must be handled with the care of a surgeon – because we are dealing with sensitive, fragile lives. We must be like Jesus – a bruised reed He would not break and a smoldering wick He would not snuff out.

      That is where the real wisdom and maturity comes in – to navigate the ministerial waters to provide as much care as possible, at the same time not “kicking,” anyone out of the boat so to speak. This of course will come with time and experience.

      I hope you understand and hear from where I am coming from. Blessings to you brother!

  3. If you feel like you were raised understanding spiritual growth incorrectly maybe you should title the arcicle accordingly, something like “why everything I was ever thaught …. ” But then again that wouldn’t get as many “likes”

    1. David hi – I don’t think I was raised with an incorrect understanding of what spiritual growth was. Since it’s my blog, I have the liberty of choosing the post title that I think is best for the content. I just want to understand – did you find any value in reading the content I wrote or you just wanted to provide some friendly criticism? Thanks for stopping by – blessings!

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