You know those annoying seeds in grapefruits—the ones you dig out with a spoon? I took one of them and planted it in my house, in the same pot with a larger plant. I pushed it about an inch deep into the soil and then watched it over the course of a few weeks. You could say I was just curious (when you do stuff like that for entertainment, you really need to get out more).
Before long—voila!—a green sprout shot up about an inch-and-a-half. I was mildly excited. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a grapefruit tree in my living room? But eighteen months later, it was still exactly an inch-and-a-half. You could say there was a failure to form for a lot of reasons.
A horticulturist would point out that you can’t grow a grapefruit tree inside a house out of direct sunlight. Of course I could have transplanted it outside, but I doubt it would have fared any better through our famous Ohio winters. My tree needed a specific set of parameters to grow, which it wasn’t receiving. It was doomed to remain the size of a parsley leaf.
Failure to form is also a common Christian plight. A lot of us experience being planted, but after years of time there’s hardly enough growth to even make a small salad. For instance, when it comes to prayer, we have no idea what to say. We don’t like others and can’t get along with them. We’ve never verbally shared our faith with anyone. No one has ever guessed by watching our life that we might be a Christian. Discipleship obviously answers all these shortages. We should be interested in it. No believer should be happy with only enough growth to break the top of the ground.
I don’t want to take a deeply complex problem and offer a tinker toy solution. Still, I’m going to throw out a couple of big reasons why discipleship stalls and Christians end up frozen in their spiritual development.
The first reason involves simple ignorance. A certain amount of Christian growth requires knowledge—especially the knowledge of scripture.
Here’s an anecdote. Alex got saved. This brilliant, talented, handsome guy enthusiastically received Jesus and I was there to see it. But he was a magnet for the ladies well past the point of his being born again. Somehow he knew the crazy sleeping around was wrong, so he stopped it. But he opted for the second worst thing—serial monogamy—meaning he only slept with one girl at a time.
One day we were reading the Bible and turned to a verse in 1 Corinthians. I wanted to show him how the Lord was joined to him at the spiritual level (1 Cor. 6:17). In his version of the Bible, that verse was located on the right page. On the left page was a prohibition against fornication (1 Cor. 6:9).
Alex “accidentally” read the verse on the left. The effect on him was astounding. He was shocked. He had intuitively known his previous sexual habits were taboo, but he had never guessed that even his newly amended version was wrong as well. His problem had been one of ignorance.
Without those verses, he probably would have continued his lifestyle, telling himself all he needed was love to justify intimate relations. How could love be wrong? He hadn’t known that even love has an appropriate expression in the Bible. It isn’t interpreted however we wish. God decides, not us. There it was, spelled out right in front of him. Knowledge removed a huge barrier between him and his own spiritual development. That’s exactly why we should expose ourselves as much as possible to the Word of God.
But then the next problem arrived. Alex fought the God-given boundary of sex for marriage only, arguing that it was unnatural and too restrictive. Now he was no longer ignorant, but disobedient. He knew what was right but refused to obey it.
The only way for him to recover was to repent and then practice something new—as Paul wrote, “Put off the old man” [sleeping with his girlfriend] and “put on the new man” [respect his and her bodies and bring Christ to the center of their relationship] (Eph. 4:22-24).
Obedience to Christ is like learning to ride a bike—wobbly, nervous, and sometimes crashing over to one side. That’s why you get up and go again, by the blood of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. If you fall ten times and get up ten times, you’ve got the gist. Obedience doesn’t exist to create flawless behavioral success. We practice it to cultivate unbroken fellowship with God through the gracious gifts of God. If you do it, you can’t help but grow.
My little seedling never bore one grapefruit. It never even looked like the tree it should have been. Pity it.
Don’t get to the place where you have to pity yourself.