Why You Aren't Growing Spiritually, and What You Need to Do About It

Have you ever had a moment where you realized the gospel was the most important thing ever? Maybe it was a weekend retreat, or a mission trip, or just time alone with God that ignited a faith that view everything differently. You had a fresh view of God’s grace and love for you, and couldn’t wait to use your life to serve God.

But as the years passed, your excitement for God faded, leaving you going through your cultural Christian routine. You still go to church, hang out with Christians, and try to read your Bible, but your current Christianity feels more social club than spiritual force. So what happened to that excited young Christian who was so committed to a Christ-centered life?

why your problem isn’t what you think it is

Admittedly, it’s easy to become spiritually flat. You’re grounded in your faith, but your previous excitement for God’s Kingdom seems a long time ago, and you don’t feel the same spiritual connectedness to God. And yet you’re not sure why. Sure, life is busy, but you followed your church’s programs and teachings, avoiding the bad and pursuing the good, but even with that, your relationship with God feels flat.

Jesus knew the challenges of maintaining a vibrant relationship with God, and in the parable of the sower, He warns you of the major pitfalls surrounding your spiritual life. He specifically uses the third soil to illustrate what so many of us struggle with, this slow fade from excited for God, to merely existing for Him.

In the third soil, the seed that gets planted grows into a plant, but thorny weeds grow up alongside it, and choke the plant before it can produce mature fruit. While Jesus’ general teaching is clear, the key question becomes, what are the thorny weeds that choke your relationship with God?

so what are the thorns?

When I moved to New York City, I had heard the hype of the spiritual dangers here. Christians warned me about the secular culture, the negative influences, and the different lifestyles that could draw me away from God. So my guard was up against everything that was “bad,” careful to not become another “Christian loses his faith” scare story.

This is how we naturally teach this parable. In our minds, the thorns that choke out faith should represent the “bad” things of our world, a secular city, atheist professors, or immoral people. But Jesus’ explanation surprises; the thorns don’t represent the bad things of life, but rather the good things: the cares, riches, and pleasures of life. What? It doesn’t make sense. Why does Jesus call things God created good dangerous to your spiritual life?

If you look at the three categories, the things Jesus calls thorns are all necessary and good parts of life:

  • Cares of life: these are the ordinary concerns of life: your physical needs, such as food, bills, housing, but also you emotional needs and concerns, such as friendships, relationships, and community.

  • Riches of life: this is more than just money, including how you make your money (work, career, and promotions), as well as how you spend your resources, (possessions, lifestyle, and social capital).

  • Pleasures of life: these are the things in life you enjoy: friendships, restaurants, travel, movies, TV, sports, recreation, concerts, hobbies, relaxation, and comfort.

There’s nothing overtly evil about any of these things. In fact, lots of Bible verses calls these things blessings and encourage you to pursue them. So why does Jesus flip the script here?

why are good things bad?

Jesus doesn’t call these good things thorns because they’re inherently evil, but because of what the human heart does with them. Jesus knows you get so busy pursuing the good things in life that you get distracted from the best thing, Him. And when the good takes away from the best, it becomes bad.

During my first year in New York, I had so many good things to do. I had to figure out this new city, meet new friends, and build my cleaning business. Soon I had real money for the first time ever, and I had almost unlimited opportunities around me to do fun and interesting things. And so I became busy, filling my life with the cares, riches, and pleasures of life. So how did these good things go wrong?

why good things go bad

Like always, Jesus wants you to examine your heart, especially its inability to ever be satisfied.

As we saw in a previous essay, every young person inherently thirsts for more, thinking they’re just one thing away from finally reaching real happiness. But when you get that, you’re happy for a while, but eventually the shine wears off and the thirst returns.

Since these good things can never satisfy your heart, they’ll grow until they take up all of your life. The human heart struggles to say, “Enough,” instead, wanting more and more every year:

  • “I’d like to be more comfortable, so I need a nicer apartment.”

  • “I’d like to have a nicer lifestyle, so I need to work longer hours in order to get ahead.”

  • “I’m stressed from working all the time, so I need another vacation.”

This game of addition requires more time, attention, money, and mental energy to manage. And before you know it, once good things dominate your life, stealing all of the nutrients away from your relationship with God.

why this is so dangerous?

After I’d lived in New York a few years, I realized I my relationship with God had atrophied. I was going through the motions of Christianity, but I’d lost my earlier excitement to live for Christ. I was going to church every week, my closest friends were all Christians, and I wasn’t do anything bad, but something was off, and I couldn’t figure out why.

The problems was that I didn’t understand this teaching from Jesus. My life was so full of good things, of the everyday needs and desires to enjoy life, that they choked my relationship with God. I had no time to connect with God, to pray to Him or listen to His voice. And as the initial shine of the good things wore off, the emptiness of being disconnected from God began to set in.

why this happens?

There’s a story in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, where an older demon counsels a younger demon on how to get people to resist Christianity. He tells the younger demon to never argue with people about Christianity, as that gets them thinking about it. Instead, the best way to stunt a Christian’s growth is to distract them, to keep them so preoccupied with the ordinary things of life that they never think about meaningful spiritual things.

And that’s what Satan does with Christian young people. Satan distracts you with the daily concerns of life, so that you never have time to spend with God. This is a dangerous trick, since Christians use the “good” label to justify their wholehearted pursuit of these things. It’s easy to inoculate yourself against conviction, since you can always say that travel, or money, or comfort is just a sign of God’s blessing, and you shouldn’t reject God’s blessings, right? Satan gets you to rationalize away your over-desires away, explaining to yourself that you’re just doing what’s normal.

how do you know if you struggle with this?

If you’re not sure if you the good things are choking out the best thing, Jesus gave a litmus test for you: are you producing mature fruit? In the parable of the sower, the good soil produces an abundant harvest of ripe fruit, while the plant in the weedy soil only produces small, green, unripe fruit.

Like plants, God created you, when you’re spiritual healthy, to produce fruit. If a healthy plant receives sunshine, water, and nutrients, it always produce a harvest. In the same way, if you’re connected to Christ, you will always be producing mature spiritual fruit. So, if you aren’t producing ripe, mature fruit, something’s wrong. Your relationship with God isn’t getting the nutrients it needs.

That’s how I knew something was off in my New York City spiritual life: I fit the outward appearance of being a “strong Christian,” but I wasn’t producing mature fruit. I never outwardly rejected God, I just never had time for Him. And so I would always push Him off until tomorrow, so that I could pursue more “good” things today.

So take a moment to look at your life. Are you producing mature spiritual fruit? I think for most young people, you’ll find that you’re much better at producing societal fruit, such as career success, a comfortable lifestyle, and exciting vacations, than spiritual fruit, like self-denial, sacrifice, and obedience.

how do you get rid of these weeds?

There’s good news, though. God is gracious to you, and He loves you not because of the fruit you’ve produced, but rather because of Christ’s fruit, His righteousness, applied to you. But Jesus wants you to evaluate your relationship with God, to make sure you’re connected to Him. Getting distracted from God is a part of being human, but like the Good Shepherd He is, Jesus will always work in your life to draw you back to Himself.

When God shows you your weeds, you’ll be tempted to try to yank them out. But if you do that, another weed will soon grow up. The problem, remember, is not the good thing, but how your heart elevates the good things above God. Satan tells you it’s on you to get yours, because you can’t trust God to care and provide for you. Because of this, the only way to get rid of the weeds is to start trusting God in each of these areas:

Cares of life: You need to give up your illusion of control over your life, and instead trust that true security is only found in God. Jesus calls you not to be anxious about the cares and concerns of your life, but to instead cast your cares onto your Heavenly Father.

Treasures of life: You need to stop believing that value comes through physical wealth, and instead believe that true riches are only found in God. If you grasp this, you’ll stop trying to store up heaven on earth, and instead trust God to give you what you need, knowing that you have an eternal inheritance that can never fade away.

Pleasures of life: You need to stop believing that happiness is getting what you want, and instead believe that true joy is found in God’s presence. Earthly pleasures are good, but their fleeting nature points you to the eternal joy provided to you through your relationship with God.

moving forward

If you’re feeling spiritually stuck, you need to find the weeds that are choking off your relationship with God, and trust Him to be your greatest treasure and source of joy. The Christian life is not getting more good things, but rather getting the best thing, God Himself.

And so, if you feel like your relationship with God has grown distant, set aside some time today to reconnect with God. Pick a time to spend with God, even if it’s just to say, “God, I’m not sure how I’m doing.” And like the Heavenly Father He is, as you find your delight in Him, He will give you every good gift when you need it.

previous essays

four steps to share the gospel in a post-christian culture

five ways your relationship with God needs to change