We Rejoice Because of the Growth of Others
Imagine standing before a newly planted tree. For the first several years, we see rapid growth; but after a number of years, the tree seems to stop growing. In the first few years, we could measure the height of tree and measure the growth by feet. But as the years go by, the rapid upward growth slows and even seems to stop. Year after year we look at the tree and see little, if any, growth. However, reality often differs from perception. What we perceive to be the periods of little growth is actually when the tree grows the most. The greatest growth in the volume of board feet comes when the tree becomes so large it no longer appears to be growing.
So it is with the spiritual growth of people. When a person first experiences the redemption of Christ, the transformation is both dramatic and highly visible. But as time goes on, it seems as though people become stagnant with little growth occurring. However, what we fail to realize is that God is still at work within the individual.
God works in the inward motives and character of the individual in ways not always clearly seen (Hebrews 4:12). We easily see the power of God at work when a person gives up a bad habit, but the real power of God works inwardly to teach a person to love the unlovely and forgive the unforgivable. The outward habits and lifestyle are far more visible than the inward qualities of joy, forgiveness, and peace. Yet these are the areas that God is most at work. The best way to see the growth of a tree is not by standing and watching it grow, but by comparing the sapling with the old growth timber. It is only then that we see the full extent of the growth.
As pastors we are tree watchers. Every day we watch the tree that does not seem to grow. Year after year the tree appears to be the same. Yet every year a new growth ring appears, testifying of substantial, although seemingly invisible growth. Like a timber grower, we cannot control the growth of the tree, but we can make sure that the right environment exists to make growth both favorable and inevitable. Only God can orchestrate the growth in the lives of individuals; however, he uses us to create the right environment to assure that growth. Philippians 1:6 assures us that growth inevitably occurs: “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Christ points us to the mystery of spiritual growth when he teaches the parable of the seed in Mark 4:26-29: “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” The growth of the gospel is inevitable, not because of what we do, but because of the intrinsic nature of the gospel itself (1 Peter 1:23).
My father, a man who learned the lessons of life in the wheat fields of Idaho, once said, “You do not have to change to be accepted by Christ, but if you accept him you will change.” He knew the laws of farming. You cannot cause a plant to grow, but if you create the right environment, the plant will grow. So it is also in Christ. The environment for growth is found in the pages of Scripture. This is why Paul boldly stated, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Growth and change will happen because the Holy Spirit is constantly creating the right environment through the proclamation of the Scriptures. When we create the environment for growth by our preaching, then growth will happen in the lives of people even if it is not readily visible to the eye. To see it, we must look closely and deeply.
The problem is that the trials and struggles of ministry create shortsightedness where we see only the problems rather than the triumphs of grace. But if we look beyond the problems, we will discover that spiritual growth happens. We do not find our joy in the numerical growth of the church and the increase of programs and facilities. It is not found by moving up the church corporate ladder by pastoring larger and larger churches so that eventually we gain recognition by our peers. Rather, our joy comes in the spiritual growth of people, in the unity of the church, and the healing of relationships (Philippians 2:2). We experience joy when people live their life daily in obedience to Christ (Romans 16:19) and walk in the truth (2 John 4; 3 John 3). Over and over again the apostles stated that their joy in ministry was not found in the success of the church’s programs or even size of the congregation, but in the people themselves (Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19-10). We do not find true joy when programs are well attended and people stroke our egos with praise. Instead, we experience genuine joy when one individual comes to a saving knowledge of Christ (Luke 15:7), when the people we serve demonstrate “good discipline and the stability of [their] faith in Christ” (Colossians 2:5).
The reason we often lack satisfaction in ministry is because we look for the wrong thing. We seek to find affirmation of our “success” rather than the transformation of one individual. We become discouraged because we focus upon those absent rather than those present. When we get up on Sunday, we become discouraged if the attendance is down rather than rejoicing for those who come desiring to know God and hear what God has to say to them. Our happiness is not to be found in masses but in individuals growing in Christ. It should cause us joy when we see one person transformed. God did not call you to ministry only to have you leave it discouraged and disheartened. He called you to ministry that should bring unparalleled joy, for you have been given the front-row seat of watching him demonstrate his love and value for each individual by working personally in their lives so that they reflect him.