We all differ in so many ways:
It is said that every single snowflake is unique and different – no two are ever exactly alike. So too with every person on the planet. God made us all as distinct and unique individuals. No one is fully the same as another. And this is true of those who are united with Christ as well. We are all at different places as we grow in Christ.
We are all on our own spiritual journey, growing at different rates, dealing with different issues, and having our own unique pressures, cares, temptations, sins and triumphs. While we all have – or should have – the same aim of becoming more Christlike, of steady growth in sanctification and holiness, we all differ in terms of where we are at in the process and how we are moving forward (or backward).
While this is a theological truth, it is also a very practical one. That is, understanding this reality should help us to appreciate better, be more patient with, and more understanding of, others – and even of ourselves. We can so easily judge others in terms of our own particular experiences and growth journey, and not appreciate that they may well be at a much different place than we are.
Again, this is not to land us in mere sentimental subjectivity and a sloppy faith where we simply make excuses for others and their sins. We should be expecting the best of one another. But we also need to cut others some slack as God may be dealing with them about some issues that we are not going through.
Also, it helps us when we see other believers who seem to have it all together and are so seemingly perfect while we seem so far behind. We are different, we are at different places in our journey, and we do need to recognise that God is not into cookie-cutter Christianity.
Moreover, things that God may be dealing with you at the moment may not be what he is doing in the life of another believer. Sure, some things are universal: we are all seeking to turn from sin and turn fuller to him and his grace, and so on. But we are each in different places and we need to be aware of that. Sometimes there are different phases or emphases in our walk.
For example, when I became a Christian just over 50 years ago, I quickly came to love theology and Scripture, and I loved teaching it. But perhaps 15 years later I got quite interested in politics, economics, current events, etc., as I had been in my pagan days.
Therefore theology lost some of its interest for me. But perhaps 15 years after that my love of theology returned big time, although I still enjoyed reading and studying and teaching in those other areas as well. So if someone 30 years ago had wanted to share some theological truth they had discovered with me, I may not have responded to them with as much interest and excitement as I would now.
So different emphases can characterise parts of our journey. And the longer I am a Christian the more I see how far I have to go. But God has been patiently working with me and slowly helping me to become more like Christ and less like my old self. We are to concentrate on our own spiritual growth and let Christ – and not others – be our main guide and model in all this.
But others have spoken about these things far better than I can. I was just revisiting a terrific book by a terrific writer the other day and he spoke on these very matters. J. I. Packer in his very worthwhile volume Rediscovering Holiness (Regal, 1992, 2009), has a chapter on “Growing into Christlikeness: Healthy Christian Experience.” In that chapter he looks at five common mistakes about spiritual growth. Four of them I will just list here:
-To think that growth in grace is always clear to see.
-To think that growth in grace is automatic.
-To think that growth in grace shields one from strains, pains, and pressures in one’s Christian life.
-To think that growth in grace may be furthered by retreating from life’s hard places, heavy burdens, and hurtful relationships.
But the one that I want to focus on here is this: “To think that growth in grace is always a uniform process, either in itself throughout the stages of a believer’s life, or in comparison with what God is doing in the lives of others. Growth in grace is not uniform in either sense.” He explains:
“As physical growth is really a somewhat irregular business, and as people are really quite different from each other, so the changes and developments in individuals that sanctifying growth involves vary from one to another in speed, in degree, and in what we may call internal proportioning.”
He looks at how the Apostle Peter changed and developed in his spiritual journey, and goes on to say this:
“The precise quality of change involved in people’s growth in grace is always conditioned by their natural makeup. It is easy to underestimate the Holy Spirit’s achievement in the lives of those who, in addition to the God-opposing, self-deifying twist of original sin, suffer from badly flawed temperaments and characters.”
Christ finds us in different places in terms of our character and personal story, and He works on us by His Spirit in the place where He finds us. Though one of us may be naturally nice in a way that another is not, we are all at deepest level wrecked vessels spiritually, each needing a divine salvage operation geared to the specifics of our condition. No wonder, then, if God’s health-giving, growth-producing work of sanctification is differently shaped in detail, and appears to proceed at different speeds, in different lives.
Since so much of this work, in others and in ourselves, goes on in the heart, below the level of consciousness, we can never measure how far it has gotten, or how far it still has to go, in any single case. Any comparisons we make between its progress in one and in another are bound to be ignorant and fallacious, so we had better learn not to make them. The only generalizations it is safe to make are:
-moral and spiritual Christlikeness is the goal in every case;
-all Christians can testify that knowing God through Jesus Christ enables them not to live and act in ways that were simply beyond them before; and
-a professed Christianity with no such testimony can hardly be genuine, and is certainly not growing in grace.
So we must keep on keeping on, ‘not comparing ourselves with others’ as Paul warned about in 2 Corinthians 10:12. But we also need to balance this with other things Paul said, such as ‘follow me as I follow Christ’ (1 Corinthians 4:16). So there can be a place to imitate and emulate others as healthy spiritual role models.
But at the end of the day we are responsible to God alone, and it is he that we should be comparing ourselves with. He is our one infallible model of what the Christian life is meant to look like. And despite our many setbacks and shortcomings and lapses and failures, we can and should believe that God is not finished with us yet, and that he is slowly but surely shaping us into the image of his Son.
As I just read again in Psalm 138:8 this morning: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.”
That is good news indeed.