There is a tension in life between satisfaction with where we are and the need to grow in various areas. Coaches encourage and applaud athletes’ efforts and milestones while still pressing them to do more and do better. Parents celebrate and reward good grades and bolster their students for the next test or project. Performance reviews acknowledge an employee’s strengths and successes, but they also note areas where the employee needs to grow and improve. A wise coach, parent, teacher, supervisor, or mentor has to constantly seek balance, avoiding the stance of a slave-driving task-master who is never satisfied with anything less than perfection on one hand and that of the indulgent grandmother who never sees a fault on the other hand. And we need to seek that same balance with ourselves.
I see some of this same tension in the Bible, particularly Paul’s epistles.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10, Paul writes, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more.”
Paul prays that the Philippians’ “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9).
In Colossians, Paul proclaims: “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (1:27-29). Christ is in those of us who believe in Him, yet there is a sense in which we grow in maturity in Him.
In Philippians 3, Paul acknowledges that he’s still in a state of growth and hasn’t reached perfection yet. We often use his statement in verse 13, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” as an encouragement to forget the sins and failures of the past. But what Paul is setting aside in that passage is his past laurels (verses 4-11).
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11, ESV).
Our righteousness comes by faith in Christ, not our efforts. Our own efforts could never measure up. Yet there is still a “straining forward” toward growth in maturity.
Sometimes perfectionists can be thoroughly discouraged that no matter how much progress we’ve made, we’ll never get to the point where we don’t have something to work on. But we won’t be perfect until we reach heaven. Part of Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:11 is that we may “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Galatians 5:22-23 speaks of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” That fruit comes from God. But fruit also conveys the idea of growth. And growth takes time.
On the other hand, some of us are prone to inertia. “Good enough” is sufficient for some ares of life. I once heard of someone who boasted that when she made the bed, the sheets were stretched so firm and tight that a quarter could bounce off them. And I thought, “Whatever for?” I’m all for a neatly made bed, but a good-enough made bed falls far below quarter-bouncing standards for me. But “good enough” isn’t sufficient for spiritual growth. We need that prodding to keep pressing on.
In recent years it’s become common to read of our “mess” in an effort to be transparent and authentic. We’re not perfect and we shouldn’t try to put forth a false perfect image, so we need to pull back the curtain and let people see our flaws and failures. And there’s truth in those thoughts. We can more readily identify with someone who doesn’t seem to have it all together all the time. Yet it’s easy to go so far as to glory in our “mess” instead of progressing.
Or we can feel that the progress we’re making in most areas offsets the areas we’re struggling with. We all have our besetting sins, after all. One son once got upset that I pointed out the one area of his report card that needed attention instead of being satisfied with the rest of commendable grades. While I needed to remember to acknowledge the good grades, I couldn’t overlook the bad one.
While fruit in our lives comes from God, He also calls us to pursue wisdom (Proverbs), love (1 Corinthians 14:1), righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11), peace (2 Timothy 2:22, 1 Peter 3:11).
Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” We’re made perfect in Christ when we believe on Him for salvation. But while we live here on earth, we still have our old nature, which fights against the new one we received at salvation (Galatians 5:16-17). That process of growth toward Christlikeness is called sanctification. Romans 12:2 tells us we’re transformed by the renewing of our minds, and one way we do that is by changing our thinking, lining it up with what God’s Word says, putting specific Scriptures in our minds that the Holy Spirit can then use to remind us.
The standard the Bible continually points to is Christ. We’ll never be Christ. But we don’t rest in self-satisfaction with how we’ve grown over the past ten years or how far we are compared to others: we grow towards His likeness. Yet we will stumble and fall, and we extend grace to ourselves while still making progress. II Corinthians 3:18 says, “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” As we behold Him in His Word, He changes us to become more like Him.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14, ESV).