We value speed today far more than we realize, and that makes the painfully slow process of our sanctification and personal transformation confusing and frustrating.
We live in an era of such rapid technological advancement and in a society that so values efficiency, productivity, and immediate results that we can hardly help but assume that the faster things happen, the better. Therefore, we often don’t value the precious benefits of slow growth.
Speed Shapes Us
For most of human history, most people’s lives were mapped on to the relatively slow cyclical rhythms of the seasons. Life was demanding and difficult because it had a primary, and at times ruthless, focus on subsistence, and so was largely dictated by the annual migration patterns of fish and herd animals, plant and fruit cultivation and harvesting, rainy seasons, and available sunlight.
One of the things this did was produce and reinforce in the minds of people, because of sheer necessity, an understanding and valuing of slow, incremental progress toward an aimed-for reward. Food, clothing, and housing were obtained through arduous, sustained effort and care.
In America, this has all but disappeared from living memory. For generations now, a superabundance and wide variety of food has been available and largely affordable a relatively short distance from nearly every home — prepared, packaged, and FDA-approved. We do not have to work nearly as hard, nor do we spend nearly the percentage of our annual income on food, water, and shelter as our ancestors did.
On the whole, these have been immense blessings. But our abundance and increasing conveniences on every level have shaped — and in some ways warped — the way we view time. We now expect that nearly everything should happen fast and with little or no inconvenience.
But factors that are most beneficial in fueling productivity and economic growth and improved bodily health of individuals and cities are not necessarily factors that are most beneficial in fueling the spiritual growth and health of individual souls or churches.
God created us as organisms, not machines. There are millions of reasons why the fullness of time when God sent forth his Son occurred in the first century (Galatians 4:4). But one reason was so that the Son would frequently use agricultural metaphors to illustrate spiritual truths. Think of the parables of the sower (Matthew 13:1–9), the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:24–30), and the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31–32). Think of metaphors of the fruit-bearing trees (Matthew 7:16–18), the vine and branches (John 15:1–8), and the reaping of souls as a harvest (Matthew 9:37–38; John 4:35–38). And Jesus’s apostles also used such metaphors, for instance spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22–23) and fields (1 Corinthians 3:6–9).
Something that the original hearers of these parables and metaphors would have intuitively understood, because of their familiarity with agricultural processes, is their gradual, progressive nature. Many of us probably miss the meaning because the processes are so foreign to us. Christians are slow-grown, and fruit-bearing typically comes after an arduous time of maturation.
The same goes for churches. There’s a reason we call the process of starting of new churches “church planting” and not “church manufacturing.” We admire stories of explosive church growth, just like we admire stories of explosive business growth. That’s not wrong, but it is not typical. And even what looks like a sudden harvest is usually due to an unseen, prolonged season of arduous sowing and watering and cultivation (John 4:35–38).
Benefits of Slow Growth
God designed us to develop habits of obedience and holiness slowly and incrementally because the process teaches and trains us to live by faith rather than by our often inaccurate perceptions and emotions. The waiting teaches us to trust more in the truth of what God says than the impulses of what we see or how we feel.
The long-term beneficial effect of slow, incremental transformation through the exercise of habit rather than impulse develops, over time, deeper, richer, more complex and nuanced affections for God, and integrates our beliefs into our whole being. There are things I am just beginning to really grasp now, well into middle age, that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger.
God’s ways with us may not seem efficient to us. We might even think they are needlessly slow and inefficient. But none of God’s ways are needless, and God is not slow; he’s patient (2 Peter 3:9).
And he wants us to learn patience, too — it’s one of his slow-growing spiritual fruits (Galatians 5:22). Don’t be discouraged with your slow growth or with your church’s. Determine to “dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3 NASB). And bear in mind the broader principle captured in Jesus’s words to Peter: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7).
Examine the forces that shape your expectations. Do not let wrong assumptions fuel your discouragement or disillusionment. Your Christian life and your Christian church is much more like patient, faithful, slow farming than modern, efficient manufacturing. Trust your divine Farmer, your Vinedresser. He has very good reasons for maturing Christians and churches slowly, and not mass-producing them more quickly.