Do you remember standing tall and straight against a door jamb etched with pencil markings as a child? Was there a spot in the family home marking years of growth? Perhaps you had a growth chart, able to be folded away and moved as you relocated.
If measuring height was part of your childhood, you’ll know that feeling in your bones – the pull of muscle, joint, ligament as you pull yourself up to your fullest height without allowing your heels to leave the floor: you stretch as much as possible without actually going up on your toes. You trace former numbers – dates, heights.
How far you’ve come.
Tracking growth is fun; an odd pride results. How I’ve grown over the past year, you think. Naturally, we like to take stock. You stand, back to the wall, assured of a half an inch more height from the last time you were measured.
If only it were that easy.
One day – one very dark day, that followed on the heels of many other very dark days – I chatted with a wise old gentleman. He asked how I was doing. Sometimes, even in casual conversation, I forego trite responses and simply answer very honestly. That dark day was one of the first times I ventured into that.
With heavy eyes, heavy voice, heavy heart, I met his gaze.
“I’m discovering that sometimes we grow out – and sometimes we grow down. Growing out is more fun; it’s visible, there’s evidence, there’s fruit. But I’m learning the value of growing down – invisibly, under the surface, growing roots. I’m learning the value of not toppling in a storm. Sometimes growth is expansion; sometimes growth is not falling over when the wind blasts you.”
He held my heavy gaze and nodded slowly, knowingly, affirming what I struggled to verbalize. I felt like Yoda had just observed me slowly and painfully learning a new lesson. His expression was not without empathy for the pain of invisible growth.
Seasoned Christians seem stable because they know the enjoyment of measuring growth – but they don’t depend on those outward signs of success to affirm their character. They know who gets the most fun out of measuring growth: children…and that as much as kids mark growth with measures and comparison, their parents mark their growth not only with height but with behavior, attitudes and values: when a child becomes less selfish and more generous; when a child helps a sibling instead of impeding them; when a child shows courage and honesty instead of self-preservation. How do you measure those qualities with a yard stick?
If, for a moment, you’re “Judgment Day honest” with yourself – what do you use to measure growth in yourself and other Christians? Is it:
Being debt-free and practicing financial peace?
Salvaging your marriage in the nick of time?
Getting a promotion at work as a result of your good work ethic?
Raising kids who outwardly conform to the values with which they were raised?
Helping friends and family who are going through difficult times?
Going to a church where there aren’t just people of your race?
Even, says Jesus, the pagans do that. Which means these aren’t signs of spiritual growth; they’re signs of human maturity. They’re helpful signs, like lines marking 2 Feet, 3 Feet, 4 Feet on a charming Noah’s Ark-themed growth chart. But they’re not the real spiritual growth.
The spiritual growth is the painful, invisible growth that makes our heavenly Parent smile: the slow, costly growth that C.S. Lewis’ character Eustace experienced when Aslan had to remove his dragon scales.
But, you say in a moment of utter honesty, there’s no fun in invisible growth, in growing down rather than out; no one sees that. There’s no glory in it.
And it’s true. Growing pains don’t make the highlight reel – at least, the suburban North American highlight reel. It’s true – there’s no admiration from the neighbors when you painfully forgive your brother-in-law like there was when you paid cash for a new car. There’s no praise from your supervisor when your spouse starts homeschooling your troubled teen. There’s no Hallmark cards of appreciation arriving in the mail when you finally have some freedom from a soul-starving porn addiction.
But don’t believe for a second that there’s no glory in that.
The only glory that matters is, as one Max Lucado title points out, the applause of heaven. The only glory that matters is the praise we give the Triune God for bringing us through the storm that bent but did not break us:
Hither by Thy help I’ve come
And I hope – by Thy good pleasure –
Safely to arrive at home…
Hither by thy help I’ve come: here by your great help I’ve come.
What a measurement that is: not my self-aware growth, but rather how far God’s grace has brought me.
Why is invisible growth so important? It is vital for living in a world of storms, that rocks and quakes with evil. Analyzing a growth chart can’t sustain us when the rug is pulled out from under us. Where’s the significance in a promotion when the love of your life is dying from cancer? Where’s the glory in delivering a casserole to a friend when a black academic is body-slammed to the ground for jaywalking? Where’s the joy of being debt-free when your teenager disappears for days at a time and returns in a dazed high?
A woman graciously endures dehumanizing racism: here I raise my Ebenezer…
A lonely single man spends his vacation on a medical mission trip: hither by thy help I’ve come…
A sister holds her junkie brother in her arms, praying words of healing and victory into his ears: and I hope – by thy good pleasure…
A pastor forgives soul-crushing wounds inflicted a decade earlier: safely to arrive at home.
Oh friend, I’m so proud of you.
Look at how you’ve grown…