I was sitting in church the other day and as I listened to the pastor expound about overcoming adversity, I had some thoughts of my own about how people grow. Spiritual development is about a person going from immature to mature. Immaturity is marked by selfishness. Maturity is marked by selflessness. The motivation behind mature selflessness is love. Our goal is to become like Jesus, loving others so much that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves in order to benefit them. That is the end goal. Loving, giving of self, living for God and for others while at the same time being self-aware and accepting of self, is the ultimate goal.
Through the process of this lifelong journey, we move along that continuum in trends, not in a straight line. The process of living, of making mistakes, of overcoming difficulty, of depending on God in the midst of grief, loss, pain, suffering, and tragedy, is what moves us along that continuum. Through those things and as we successfully navigate them, we naturally develop the capacity to handle them more effectively.
This process is something Paul calls developing the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience (forbearance), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These things are the natural result of living in relationship with God and allowing Him to use the circumstances of our lives to shape us into the people He wants us to become.
One of the greatest challenges we face is a misunderstanding of what that relationship with God means. Most of us, as stated above, begin this relationship with God from a very self-oriented perspective. We want relief. We are seeking relief from our burden of sin, from the distresses in which we find ourselves, from the fear of dying, from sickness, from relationship problems.
When relief comes, some of us internalize the idea that God is someone we can go to who will make things easier by His divine intervention. Although it is true that God does intervene and heal and comfort us at times, this is secondary to His ultimate purpose for us. The idea that God is most interested in our comfort leads to a limited view of the relationship we have with God. It casts God as an overprotective parent Who is more concerned with never letting us suffer instead of helping us learn to cope with distress and grow.
Our relationship with God, first and foremost, is a relationship with our divine Parent. As a child of God we are loved. The love God has for us is such that He parents us with the end in mind. In other words, He helps us deal with life for the purpose of our becoming who He wants us to become. Sometimes that means intervening with divine action. Sometimes that means not intervening but coaching us through the situation so that we gain patience and strength.
The result of this type of “parenting” by God is that we increase our capacity to deal with life more and more effectively over time and we develop and function out of a sense of our own purpose that, in turn, gives our lives meaning.
However, purpose and meaning need to be more clearly understood. There are many times that people do good for the wrong reason. It does not change the good that is done, but it also does not fulfill one’s purpose and meaning through those altruistic acts. Also, meaning and purpose can be confused with having a cause. Being passionate about a cause is, at its core, using action and attitude against something. Although, a person can be passionate about a cause and have a meaning and purpose in life, but that is not the same thing. An individual who is religious and uses that religion to justify prejudices, is not functioning from purpose, even though that individual is devout and disciplined in his or her religious life.
Purpose can also be confused with selfish desire. A woman suffering with anorexia may see her purpose in life as reaching an ultimate goal of being “thin enough.” The woman in this case is not fulfilling a purpose in life because she is not adding anything to the world. Her actions are based on self-hatred, not on love for others.
Purpose and meaning are expressed through altruism. “How am I adding to the world?” It is, in the end, all about relationships. It is about your connection to people, not to a political view, or to a certain paradigm, or to a cause, however noble. It is the result of the spiritual ideal of considering others better than yourself. It is defined by love.
It is in this one word, love, that purpose and meaning come to true fulfillment in one’s life. It is no mistake that, for the Christian, the means of experiencing a relationship with God came about through the most altruistic act of all time, Christ’s sacrifice of His life for mankind. That act sets the standard for us to reach and is the ultimate determinant of what it means to be Christian.
Steve Wright, M.A., is a therapist at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center located in the Chicago area. He served for more than 25 years as a minister working in churches with youth, families, and as a senior pastor. As a counselor, he worked in residential treatment as a therapist, supervisor, coordinator, and program director first in the substance abuse field and then in the eating disorder discipline. Steve holds a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies from Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, as well as a Master of Arts in Teaching from Olivet University and a Master of Arts in Community Counseling from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Chicago.