Pediatricians diagnose some children with FTT (failure to thrive). The causes of FTT are many and varied, including genetics, sickness, and poor nutrition. But the diagnosis itself is given in cases of arrested development — when a child’s growth measurements fall below a certain percentile.

A similar condition is true for many Christians: a spiritual FTT. Rather than abounding in love (1 Thessalonians 3:12), knowing the peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7), and rejoicing with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8), these believers are marked by inconsistent and unhealthy patterns of growth and regression.

They languish in zeal and falter in hope. Their love for others sputters along but rarely shifts into the higher gears of sacrificial generosity or service. While they have the capacity to feed on God’s Word, they have to be spoon-fed. Their faith is weak, their hope burns dim, and the winds of adversity easily capsize their joy. These are cases of spiritual arrested development. Maybe this sounds like you.

Commanded to Grow, Prone to Fail

As believers in Christ, we are commanded to grow (2 Peter 3:18). In those soul-stirring words of Philip Bliss, we do well to cry from our hearts:

More holiness give me, More sweetness within,
More patience in suff’ring, More sorrow for sin,
More faith in my Savior, More sense of His care,
More joy in His service, More freedom in prayer.

More gratitude give me, More trust in the Lord,
More zeal for His glory, More hope in His word,
More tears for His sorrows, More pain at His grief,
More meekness in trial, More praise for relief.

While we long for these “religious affections,” we often fail to thrive in them. Our motivational reach exceeds our practical grasp. Rather than grow and flourish, we struggle to keep our heads above water.

But this need not be so. It is possible for believers to thrive in spiritual experience.

Eight Obstructions to Thriving Faith

In his book, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, the Puritan pastor John Owen provides one of the most detailed analyses of spiritual experience ever written.

At one point, Owen lists off sins which prevent spiritual thriving. His list is a diagnosis, not cure. But identifying the presence of these “obstructions” is a crucial step towards the recovery of spiritual health. Consider the offenders Owen identifies (bullets added for emphasis):

  • “In general, when men are careless as unto that continual watch which they ought to keep over their hearts;
  • whilst they are negligent in holy duties, either as unto the seasons of them or the manner of their performance;
  • when they are strangers unto holy meditation and self-examination;
  • whilst they inordinately pursue the things of the world,
  • or are so tender and delicate as that they will not undergo the hardship of a heavenly life, either as unto the inward or outward man;
  • much more when they are vain in their conversation,
  • corrupt in their communication,
  • especially if under the predominant influence of any particular lust . . .

. . . it is vain to think of thriving in spiritual affections” (Owen, Works 7:455).

Owen’s list catalogs the full pathology of spiritual failure to thrive. The causes range from neglecting the means of grace to inordinate love for the world to habitual sin. But whatever the cause, the solution is the same: renewed trust in Christ and repentance from sin, expressed in prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit and diligent use of the means of grace.

Prayer Stirs the Languid Heart

The importance of prayer cannot be overstated. Prayer is the most practical expression of genuine trust in Christ. When we recognize our spiritual poverty and our deep need for God’s gracious intervention in our affections, we turn to God in prayer to obtain grace and renewal.

This, in fact, is one of God’s designs in prayer. Owen said that “one principal end” of prayer, “is to excite, stir up, and draw forth, the principle of grace, of faith and love in the heart, unto a due exercise in holy thoughts of God and spiritual things, with affections suitable unto them” (Works, 7:284). In other words, prayer moves the languid heart with earnest thoughts and feelings of Christ and his grace.

Perhaps that’s one reason why Philip Bliss, in the final stanza of the hymn quoted above, directed his aspirations for “more” to the Savior himself, in prayer.

More victory give me, More strength to o’ercome,
More freedom from earth-stains, More longing for home,
More fit for the kingdom, More useful I’d be,
More blessed and holy, More, Savior, like Thee.

If you are not thriving in your affection for Christ, work through Owen’s short inventory of possible causes. Ask the Spirit to reveal anything that is obstructing your growth. But don’t think you can remedy the problem on your own. Turn instead to the Great Physician, and express your desire for a Godward heart. Ask for grace. Stick close to Jesus and nourish your soul with the pure milk of the gospel word (1 Peter 2:2) — and you will grow.