My cousin Kathryn in discussing the struggle for personal growth recently said this: “But I would rather strive for a better me today than settle for mediocrity forever.” This instantly struck me as profound. “But I would rather strive for a better me today than settle for mediocrity forever.” See, one thing I’ve discovered about Christianity is that it is about constant growth toward an ideal, rather than the instant attainment of that ideal. I’m not going to wake up tomorrow morning to find that I am the perfect Christian man. Sure, if I’ve been a thief, I can stop stealing instantly, get a job, and support myself and immediately get past that sin. The same can be said for a lot of sins: idolatry, adultery, drunkenness, etc. But learning to “suffer long” with my fellow man? That takes work to make it second nature. As do most of the aspects of godly love. I can instantly stop sleeping around, but the struggle to control my thoughts regarding the women I see may take a while to perfect. Etc., etc.
We see this played out throughout the Bible. Abraham, the Father of the Faithful and the Friend of God, grew his faith over the course of almost 50 years. At the end of Genesis 11 he had the faith to leave everything he knew and go to a strange land just because God told him to and made him promises. But in the very next chapter, when famine came and he had to go to Egypt for food, he showed that his faith wasn’t yet complete. Fearing for his life, he lied about his relationship with Sarai, his wife. If his faith in God’s promises was complete, he would have avoided this. (God promised him descendants. As he had no children, God could not allow him to die yet.) Almost 20 years later, in Genesis 20, he repeats this sin. And while we scorn Sarah for quietly laughing at God’s promise when she didn’t know it was God speaking, in Genesis 17 Abraham fell down laughing at God’s promise when he did know it was God speaking.
While Abraham’s faith was great from the beginning, it hadn’t yet reached its fullness. That we see in Genesis 22. This was another 15-20 years in the future, and Abraham had seen God working in his life and had seen the fulfillment of some of the promises and his faith had grown. He knew that the promise of God was to be fulfilled through Isaac, but he didn’t hesitate when God told him to sacrifice Isaac. Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham just thought that God would raise Isaac from the dead. His faith in God’s promise, to be fulfilled in Isaac, was so strong that he just assumed resurrection! But it took him 40-50 years to get to that point.
We see this played out again and again when studying God’s servants. Gideon, David, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Esther, etc. Some started out with strong faith and understanding and just kept getting stronger, some started out with faltering faith and little understanding and became strong. But all grew as servants of the Lord over the course of their lifetimes.
This concept of continued growth is seen in the New Testament as well. Not only are the Apostles themselves excellent examples of this, but they wrote about it, too:
“Yea, and for this very cause adding on your part all diligence, in your faith supply virtue; and in your virtue knowledge; and in your knowledge self-control; and in your self-control patience; and in your patience godliness; and in your godliness brotherly kindness; and in your brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, they make you to be not idle nor unfruitful unto the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(2 Peter 1:5-8)
This passage clearly implies continued effort to grow in these areas. While we don’t have to take them one at a time and can (and should) try to improve in all of these areas together, none of us are going to wake up tomorrow and be perfect in knowledge. Or patience. Or brotherly kindness. But we should be continually, day by day, getting better at each of these things. It just takes work. Notice that the first thing mentioned, before faith or virtue, is diligence. The ESV says “make every effort”. It takes work, effort, to grow.
Even the great Apostle Paul, who had the confidence to say on multiple occasion “be imitators of me as I am of Christ”, knew the struggle of continued growth:
“Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on, if so be that I may lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
Also, in 1 Corinthians 9, he says that he daily buffeted his body to keep it in subjection. It was an effort, a struggle, to keep growing and to keep from losing what he had already gained. But he did keep growing. He kept getting stronger in the faith. And we can too. It just takes effort.
Next year I’ll be closer to the ideal than I am this year. The following year, I’ll be even a little better than that. In a few decades, I’ll start getting somewhere.
“But I would rather strive for a better me today than settle for mediocrity forever.”