The Mystery of Spiritual Growth

It was a warm afternoon in June. I was on a Zoom call and we were already an hour into a Steering Group Meeting when the agenda moved on to Item Eight – Key Performance Indicators. I groaned inwardly. Never a subject for the fainthearted, especially on a sunny Friday afternoon, setting KPIs and agreeing outputs and outcomes for projects involving people can be like buying something from a souk. A lot of haggling with no certainty as to what the product really is or what numbers to come up with. KPIs are a useful business tool and for some years now have also been an important requirement of many charity funders, but we were discussing a new project about spiritual nurture and growth for those on the margins – how do you develop a performance measure for that? As Albert Einstein remarked, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Drifting off into a brief flight of fancy, I began wondering what exactly Jesus had in mind at the start of his ministry – a new spiritual project if ever there was one. What would the KPIs or planned outputs and outcomes have been like?

  • The programme will be of three years duration
  • It will be self-funded – the lead will be responsible for finding supporters to maintain the programme to ensure long-term sustainability
  • Twelve volunteers will be taught and mentored as disciples to lead the programme
  • At least 90% of these disciples will complete the programme and continue to deliver after the lead has left
  • 50% of those hearing the message will feel that their life has improved as a result

Of course, it was nothing like this. What Jesus did say was that “the Spirit blows where it will” and his measure of success was not about numbers or impressive outputs but about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God and signposting people towards it. This Kingdom was likened to yeast or the growth of a seed – slow, steady and secretive. We know too from Jesus’s parable of the sower, that even when the seed does grow, its development into a fruit bearing plant is far from guaranteed. The outputs and outcomes are never certain and always varied. Elsewhere, in a story in which Jesus healed ten lepers, only one of them subsequently bothered to return to thank him – few funders or commissioners would be happy with a 10% outcome on “follow-up” conversations! 

Looking at the style of Jesus’s ministry, it’s surprising to see so many in the Church obsessed by the numbers game. Perhaps we’ve bought into the KPI business model too wholeheartedly, wanting to appear dynamic and aspirational for our mission, or maybe numbers are seen as a proxy measure of success and an expectation that more people equals increased income for the church –neither of which were concerns for Jesus.

The origin of the spiritually based Twelve Step Programmes of Recovery is mainly Christian and unsurprisingly they don’t tend to deliver predictable, defined numbers either. “Show us your evidence base” is the current mantra of Addiction Treatment Commissioners in the UK, yet people were getting well and recovering by working the Twelve Step Programme long before there was any other formal alcohol treatment available and when there was, some early efforts involved giving alcoholics doses of LSD! Twelve Step Recovery is not predictable, but as we’ve already seen, if the Spirit blows where it wills, why would a spiritual programme of recovery be easy to predict? God’s work always retains some element of mystery. As a manager of a Twelve Step Treatment Centre once said to me, “We do all the standard assessments about motivation and suitability for our programme, but in the end, we really don’t know who will recover and who won’t. If someone wants to change, then that’s good enough for us to start with.”

Millions of people bear testimony to the fact that they have become sober and their lives have been transformed by working a 12 step programme, arguably one of the greatest public health developments of the last century and because it is a spiritual programme, one of the most profound revival programmes too. Central to one of the 12 Traditions of AA is that notion that the message of recovery is conveyed by “attraction not promotion,” in other words, seeing the transformation in the lives of real people, not through a page full of promotional outcomes and statistics. We see this transformation in the lives and writings of Christians in recovery such as Brennan Manning, Nadia Bolz Weber, Heather King, Ian Morgan Cron and Anne Lamott who have a spiritual integrity which is deeply attractive because their faith and view of the world and themselves is brutally honest yet gentle, speaking truthfully to the reader’s own life and always pointing them to a God of immense love who is in the business of redemption and transformation.

We are all on a journey of the Spirit whether it is upstairs in the Chancel on a Sunday morning or downstairs in the Basement on a weekday evening at a Twelve Step meeting. God is there in the midst of our brokenness, meeting us with arms outstretched to bring us home. We are fellow pilgrims and travel together on our journey to this holy place. Measure that if you will.

An Inside Job

I love browsing in flea markets and junk shops. You just never know when there may be something of value hidden in the midst of all the tat and rubbish. It’s kind of ironic, really, because over recent years I’ve come to realise that my inner life also contains a great deal of clutter and trash. I may try to convince myself or others that it is a tidy, well organised place, full of unique pieces – interesting curios and charming antiques if you like, but unfortunately, it’s not really like that. Inside, there’s the cluttered rubbish of a junk shop – wrong ways of thinking, distorted memories and beliefs, long held resentments and unhelpful patterns of behaviour. I suspect too that I’m not alone in this if conversations with a few close friends or comments that I’ve read are anything to go by. As the author CS Lewis said, “on looking inside myself I found a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears and a harem of fondled hatreds.”

Jesus was well aware of our inner mess and was never fooled by those who were presenting themselves as neat and well-ordered. He responded in different ways. To the scribes and pharisees, self-righteous and proud, he was scathing: “Hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” On other occasions he was more sensitive, though just as clear about the problem. For example, when a rich man came to him asking what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus was gentle in his response when the man said that he had kept all the commandments since he was a boy. Jesus told him to go and sell all that he possessed, which got to the heart of the man’s inner problem – his wealth was a false source of security, an idol in the place of God, sadly too much for him to let go of at that point in his life. On yet another occasion Jesus spelt it out for us all when he said that “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come.”

Twelve step recovery is also very clear about our inner mess, and it is probably fair to say that the bulk of the programme is about addressing this mess rather than the specific addiction. There is a clear recognition that it is the accumulated rubbish in our lives which not only pushes us towards addiction but keeps us there and creates wrong ways of living. This may be a result of things done to us, traumas suffered even, or it may be a consequence of incorrect ways of coping with the ups and downs of life, bad decisions we’ve made and wrong actions on our part. Whatever the cause, the result is the same and dealing with our inner mess is the stuff of almost half of the twelve steps, beginning with Step Four’s “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” followed up in quick succession by the next two steps where we admit to “God, ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” moving on to a point where we are “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” It is a way of living which deals with the rubbish in our lives that many of us would prefer to bury away from the scrutiny of others.

Because it’s an inside job, we must reply upon and co-operate with God, our Higher Power to do this work within us. Prayer and meditation is the central, golden thread through which we seek knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out. This is of course not a one-off event but a daily practice, which ultimately becomes a lifelong way of living. It’s not a solo flight either. We don’t have to do it alone – in fact we were never meant to. We need others to help us, through confession, spiritual direction, sponsorship, discipling, mentoring or even just plain, honest conversations and sharing over a cup of coffee.

Unlike Twelve Step Recovery, much of Christianity has now become a private faith, something that is just between ourselves and God, but when we do involve others and share something about our inner junk – our “dead bones and uncleanness” – we begin to find freedom and healing. This is helped by the fact that we not only find an acceptance from the other person about this part of ourselves and the things we have done/think which shame us, but invariably an acknowledgement by them that they are pretty much the same. We are not alone.

As jobs go, inner change is a slow business. At times it can be disheartening, because once we are aware of our inner mess, we tend to continue to notice the junk more than anything else. “All you can do is create a space for transformation to happen, for grace and love to enter,” says Ekhart Tolle.  When we do, these mysterious currents of God’s Spirit get to work within us, highlighting our beautiful and valuable inner treasures to other people who are helped and blessed by them, even if we aren’t aware of it. Miraculously, when we change, the world changes a little bit too.