Step by Step: Gradual Spiritual Growth
by H.H. Pope Shenouda III
Let God be your goal and proceed toward Him step by step. You definitely cannot start your spiritual life being perfect and you cannot start it by having God become everything to you. However, start by knowing and loving God and grow in this knowledge and love.
Give to God from your heart and grow in
this giving. Open your heart so God may dwell in it and widen the place of His
dwelling. Train yourself to forsake continuously some of what you like for the
sake of God until the time comes when you can forsake everything for Him. For
example, let us take fasting: Is it just forsaking some delicious food for God?
No, it is a preparation for you to forsake, for God's sake, everything that you
desire. It is a spiritual period in which you strengthen the spirit over the
body to get closer to God day after day. The less you love the worldly matters,
the more you love God. The most important thing is that you do not stop at a
certain step, but rather progress continuously.
Be like the seed that becomes a tree, then grows and grows. The Lord Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head" (Mark 4:26-28).
This is the nature of growth: the seed, the blade, the head, then the fruit. Any seed thrown in the earth does not stop from growing. If it becomes a tree, the tree continues to grow everyday, even every hour and every moment. Growth is its nature whether you notice it or not. Definitely, if you are away from it for a period of time, you will notice the growth distinctly, and the tree does not get weary of extending upwards and does not stop growing. Be like this tree that grows upwards all the time and stretches to the right and to the left. It grows from a seed under the earth to a plant above the earth.
Likewise, take a lesson from the tree that grows. Devote time to God and let this time grow gradually. Give God from your emotions and love. Struggle that this love grows day after day and that this growth appears in your life and relationship with God. However, be cautious, if you cannot grow, at least do not regress. Then the Lord will tell you, "I have this against you, that you have left your first love" (Revelations 2:4).
Truly, it is a tragedy if God's love stops growing, or cools down and regresses, and you seek one of the good old days when the spirit was inflamed and cannot find it. Then one will cry saying, "I wish I was in the earlier months in which God kept me, where He shone His light on my head. Oh that I were in the months past, as in the days when God watched over me; when His lamp shone upon my head, and where by His light I walked through darkness" (Job 29:2- 3). If you regress, when then are you going to reach the goal that is far ahead? You have known God, this is good, but please grow in this knowledge. You may ask: what are the limits of that growth? Frankly, there are no limits.
You have reconciled with God by repentance, have formed a relationship with Him by purity, and have had fellowship with Him and loved Him. What comes next? The apostle says, "That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:17-19).
"That you may be filled with all the fullness of God." What a marvelous expression! Thinking of that expression, I stand perplexed. Whenever I ponder its depth, I find it deeper than my understanding! Indeed, who is able to comprehend the fullness of God? Who can come closer to that fullness, or at least to the fullness of love which attaches man to God? "Be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). You should not only have a relationship with the Spirit, or be in submission and obedience to the Spirit, or have the Spirit dwell in you, but you should also be filled with the Spirit. No part of you, neither your heart, nor your thought, nor your senses should be free from the Spirit. The Spirit fills every part of you! What a high degree! Have you reached the fullness of the Spirit? Have you emptied yourself of everything so that the Spirit fills everything in you and you may live by the Spirit and by the Spirit, you mortify the deeds of the flesh? (Romans 8:13).
Look at St. John in Revelation saying, "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day" (Rev. 1:10). Because he was in the Spirit, he saw the heavens opened the throne of God, Jesus Christ and His face shining as the sun in its brightness. All this was because he was in the Spirit. Then, what is the meaning of "Be filled with the Spirit?" How do we reach that level? If you have not reached that level, at least do not stop, but rather proceed toward it. You have to realize that if you are walking toward a certain goal and you have reached half way through or three-fourths, you still have not reached your goal yet. You should continue your struggle toward your goal very faithfully. This saying of the psalmist will comfort you, "Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord!" (Psalm 119:1).
You should progress continually on the way to your goal, moving step by step. You must come closer to it day by day, each day more than the previous one. "Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things that are behind and reaching forward to those things that are ahead. I press toward the goal" (Phil. 3:12-14). You must come closer to it day by day, each day more than the previous one. In your spiritual growth and in your relationship with God, let your knowledge of God, your love for Him, your abiding in Him, your service and spreading His Kingdom, increase day by day.
While you are getting closer to Him, beware of the hindrances that you may encounter on the road. Beware of the distracting goals that hinder you from God. God is your only goal and you have no other goals besides Him. However, the enemy, who wants to hinder your progress, offers you other goals that may appear to be all right, but his purpose may be to hinder your concentration on God's love. So be careful. Believe me that the angels of heaven "which are sent to minister for those who will inherit salvation" (Heb. 1:14), become very surprised when they see us preoccupied with trivial matters, considering them our goals and hindering our journey toward God! Any desire not pertaining to that of God is a trivial desire that cannot truly satisfy the heart. As St. Augustine said, "Our hearts will remain restless, till they find their rest in You."
On our way towards God, if instead of progressing, we have stopped at some side goal(s) which preoccupied our time, effort, health, emotions, and attention, thus distracting us from the true goal, we shall hear what the Lord had said to His people who had wandered in the wilderness, "You have dwelt long enough at this mountain" (Deut. 1:6). Therefore, progress and reach forward to those things that are ahead. Do not allow anything to hinder you on the way and try to cast away any desire, which causes you to be lukewarm in your spirituality, or which replaces God's love. Keep God only in your heart and do not let anything compete with Him. May the Lord be with you, strengthen you, make you grow in His grace.
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