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Standards Of Life And Service by T. H. Howard

XVII Spiritual Growth

'Thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring whose waters fail not.' (Isaiah lviii.11.)

'Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.' (2 Peter iii.18.)

The truths of the Bible exist in counterpart, having at least two aspects, each of which must be considered in relation to the other, if their full meaning is to be understood. That is a very necessary statement in regard to the aspect of truth which we emphasize under the general heading of 'Spiritual Growth', or 'Growth in the Divine Life'. On the one hand, we know that spiritual experience is marked by certain crises which are in some cases like earthquakes or tidal waves; whilst, on the other hand, the law of progression must be in constant operation.

We speak of conversion as a crisis, because a man in a moment 'passes from death unto life'; or, in the Saviour's words, is 'born again'. Whatever happens before or after, there must be that definite change before any man can enter the Kingdom of God. Then, happily, many have experienced another crisis which we speak of as 'getting a clean heart'. This happens when an enlightened soul fully and absolutely consecrates itself to God, and, by faith, claims and realizes that 'the Blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin'. A man may be a long time, in coming to that point; but, sooner or later, he must reach and pass it if he is to secure that 'holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord'.

But whilst no amount of improvement in moral character can dispense with the crises referred to, we cannot rightly magnify the definite transactions at conversion or cleansing, or any other remarkable point of religious life, to the detraction of spiritual growth. Each aspect of the truth, as I have already said, is the counterpart of the other, and must be viewed in its natural perspective.

People sometimes express themselves in exaggerated language as regards both aspects of truth. A lady friend, referring to a young person of beautiful disposition, said to me, 'Ah, you see, in her case there is no need of conversion. She was born sanctified like her mother.' Quite a false notion. But it is equally foolish for persons to exclaim, 'I am converted, and a child of God; now I am all right'; or, 'Now I have got a clean heart; it is all done'. As a matter of fact, there is no more important principle to be cultivated than the law of progression or advance in the Divine life. That principle is certainly in perfect harmony with Scripture teaching, and is expressed in Peter's exhortation, 'Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ'.

Paul's words about 'growing up unto Him in all things which is the head even Christ', express the same thought; whilst John shows the ascending grades of spiritual experience in directing his words to 'little children', 'young men', and 'fathers'. These grades are not measured by years, but by progress in spiritual life and vigour and personal knowledge of God.

The Bible contains many figures illustrating this idea of growth or progress, whether applied to character or service. For example, it refers to the garden as a place where things grow, and thus illustrates the garden of the soul; to the development of a building in course of erection, 'all fitly framed together' and growing; to the growth of a fortune by wise investment, in the use of talents, two becoming four, five becoming ten, and so forth. The growth of the human body is also referred to, with its limbs, muscles, and parts developing with the head; and the growth of the student, as exemplified in the text, 'Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity'.

Then the ideas associated with a garden or the field are also used as illustrations. The Bible parables from nature are very significant and powerful. They embrace the vine and its branches, the sower and the seed, the lily among thorns, the trees planted by the rivers of water; and thus the facts of the spiritual realm are made clear to us.

I often speak of the garden of the soul. If I widen the figure, and apply it to our personal character and general make-up, we shall see the similitude of a garden which is a place where all sorts of things grow; things related to the body, and to the mind, and to life generally.

The gardener studies his ground, and the possible products and available seed. He seeks to get rid of the weeds and briers and poisonous plants, in order that the desired products may grow to perfection. So the ground of our hearts and characters must be purged from the weeds and hindering things which grow with the affections and disposition generally. Evil things flourish apace in the garden of human nature; but if they are removed, sanctified seed may be sown, and holy plants may be cultivated.

The Bible also speaks of God's saints as being in 'the garden of the Lord', as trees which His right hand planted, or growing from seed which He has sown, blossoming as the rose, fragrant as the honeysuckle and almond, and bringing forth the fruits of righteousness to the glory of His name. But whether you look at your souls as a garden, from which evil plants are to be removed, and in which the plants of God's grace are to flourish instead, or regard yourselves as trees in God's garden, the ideas are always connected with growth, enlargement, and productiveness.

Isaiah gives an illustration which is in striking contrast. Speaking of God's idea concerning His saints, he says, 'Thou shalt be like a watered garden, and a spring whose waters fail not'; but he supplies another picture of those 'who forsake the Lord' after having known Him, God saying to them, 'Ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth, and as a garden that hath no water'. Let us look well at ourselves, and find out to which class we belong.

The religion of Jesus Christ is pre-eminently good because it marks things of evil growth as things to be rooted out, and it produces qualities in the soul and character which are Christ-like, such as love, forgiveness of injuries, patience, devotion, and self-sacrifice for the good of others. These are all things which grow, and must grow, if we are to be as God wants us to be. Cleansing from evil things we must definitely seek and secure; but growth in grace and peace and Divine knowledge, and skill in service, must be sought and cultivated by us continually.

It may help our understanding of this truth if we study carefully the process in the growth of a good tree. If there is satisfactory development, three things in the tree will be discovered; namely, growth in the root, growth in the branches, and growth in the form of flowers and fruit.

1. I said growth in the root. This means that the tree must strike deep, deeper, and deeper still, so as to get an increasingly firm grip on the earth below, from which it draws much of its support. Without this the tree will fall of its own top-weight, or be uprooted by the storms which will rage about it. So, in the individual soul and character there must, below the surface, be a deepening and spreading and gripping of the spiritual forces and principles and realizations, those hidden connexions with the Divine Unseen without which one cannot stand before the storms and scorching tests of life.

One of the sacred writers speaks of a section of God's people in trouble, and in danger of being wiped out, but reveals God's purpose for them in these words, 'They shall yet again take root downward, and bear fruit upward'. It is not difficult to grasp the principle illustrated; we must cultivate a religion with roots, otherwise our experience will be superficial and shallow, and, like the seed in the parable, with no depth of earth, and having little root, will ultimately become dried up.

This really means growth in secret, growth out of sight, and reminds us of the beautiful words of Jesus: 'When thou prayest, enter into thy closet; and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall Himself reward thee openly'. There are many kinds of prayer, but here is one that helps growth in the very roots of our religion. It fits in with the Psalmist's word, 'He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty'.

2. I also spoke of growth in the branches. It is easy to understand what the growth of trunk and branches means in a tree; it grows higher, develops strength, and reaches out farther. It means the same when applied to growth in grace and character; getting power to grow stronger in resisting evil and standing for the right; stronger to say 'Yes' and 'No'; stronger to discharge our duty, and to endure hardness as good soldiers of Christ. Equally it means reaching out, stretching farther, and extending our efforts to reach and help and bless.

The banyan tree of the East affords us an apt illustration in this connexion. Its stem shoots up, its branches dip, touch the earth, and take root, repeating the process of extension until a great area is covered, and crowds may shelter beneath it. In like manner the extent of one's influence may at first be small, and the circle affected by our power be limited; but if it is wisely used and cultivated, it will stretch and grow, reaching farther and farther, and touching new people with new power and blessing.

You know the old preacher's reproach to the people who sang, 'Oh, for a thousand tongues!' and yet would not use the one they each possessed to witness for their Lord. I knew a man who wanted to go to China as a missionary, who would not testify for Christ in the neighbourhood where he lived. That meant declension, not growth. Growth comes by using the grace, stretching out and reaching forth; the power increases by reason of use.

3. Finally, there is growth in the form of flowers and fruit. God no more intended His creatures to be barren and unfruitful in religion, than He intended plants to fail in bloom and fruit. How perfectly clear Jesus makes this in His Parable of the Vine and the Branches! Of the branch which abideth in the Vine He says that when purged it shall experience a certain progression. Observe the order, 'bear fruit -- more fruit -- much fruit', and 'fruit which shall remain'. Let us ask ourselves to which of these stages we have attained, and go on earnestly to a fuller fruitfulness.

If I had space to speak of the various kinds of Nature's growth, I should point out how some fruit is for human food, such as apples, oranges, grain, and vegetables. Some blossoms are for beauty and fragrance, and in other cases flowers and fruit appear to be chiefly for seed purposes; but with almost every plant and tree the best feature is its reproductive power; that is, fruit is produced whose seed is in itself, and so multiplies its own kind.

Is not that what God wants with us? Beauty and grace and gratification, certainly, for we must adorn the doctrine; but your sanctified fruit must have the seed in itself, which drops and takes root, and reproduces itself in the world around you. Remember my last word, 'Herein is your Father glorified that ye bear much fruit'; fruit now and fruit always; so that, like the trees planted by rivers of water, you shall 'bring forth fruit even in old age'.

Oh, help us, Lord, throughout our time
To test ourselves, by help divine,
To see what fruit we bear;
What promise are we making Thee,
As ripened souls we wish to be,
When harvest home draws near.

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