Richard Sibbes and Malcolm Gladwell run in different circles. For one week, though, I shared a table with them (in book form) for a conversation about the pace of godliness.
In The Tipping Point, Gladwell writes about the big difference made by small changes. A one-degree difference can turn a rainy day into a snow day. Slight changes shift the outlook of the whole day. I think most people hunger for spiritual growth in the framework of a tipping point. One slight change set off an explosion of godliness, like dropping Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke. Most people, though, don’t experience growth that way. Spiritual growth happens slowly. Should it discourage us when growth happens in baby steps?
Enter Richard Sibbes. In a sermon about how the Holy Spirit transforms Christians, he counsels for contentment with a slower pace of growth. He says, “Progress is gradual in the new creature… It is God’s way in this world to bring his children little by little, through many stations.” I would love it if transformation happened at the pace of a landslide, but it’s often more gradual. Although God can transform someone drastically and quickly, his normal course is slow and steady. His pace for growing in godliness is like walking up a mountain rather than downhill skiing.
Much of our spiritual growth comes through habits like prayer, Bible reading, and corporate worship. Starting these habits can feel like a tipping point as the force of growth feels like an enormous wave. In high school, I did weight training for football. Every two weeks, I would add more weight to the bench press and squat. The extra stress pushed my muscles to get stronger. I made massive increases early, but after a few months, those increases got smaller. Instead of adding ten or twenty pounds every two weeks, I could only manage two-and-a-half pounds at best. As time goes by, growth comes in ripples, not waves.
We quickly lose heart when we expect every small habit to make massive changes immediately. When daily Bible reading or prayer is not producing instant results, we quit or throw more things in the microwave. We do more volunteering, read more books, attend more small groups until everything explodes, leaving us burnt out.
God, however, sees things from a different angle. In his wisdom, God changes us over a lifetime, not one month. Therefore, the pace of change is one degree at a time. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Knowing that the Holy Spirit transforms us over a lifetime of these one-degree changes helps us right-size our expectations. The slower pace helps keep us in the race and helps us finish the race. In the book 8 Habits for Growth, Darryl Dash says, “We grow by repeatedly practicing small actions that, over time, add up to big changes in our lives.” By trying to take longer strides, increasing the pace God has set, we trip and fall. Godliness grows inch by inch, one degree at a time.
We need this encouragement for those times when God’s work in us is invisible. Be patient and persistent in training for godliness because, inch by inch, God is causing you to grow. With enough small steps, you could cross the country. The pace is slower than a plane ride, but you still finish the trip.
God intends for you to finish your race running at your pace. If you fall on the way, get back up and keep going. One step at a time, God is bringing you closer to the finish line. One degree at a time, he is gloriously transforming you into the image of Christ. You may not run the fastest, but you will run through the ribbon at God’s pace.