Are You Seeing Spiritual Growth or Just Treading Water?

Spiritual growth or treading water
While we don’t always have control over circumstances changing, we can choose how we will respond to them. We can either stay stagnant or grow spiritually.

This post was written in the midst of our world experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it discusses topics specific to this time, its insights and scriptures can be appreciated at any time.

When I was kid I remember going to the community pool every summer and having a blast swimming with my sister or friends. 

I would often look longingly over at the deep end where the diving board was and imagine myself doing a perfect dive. But I was too scared to actually go on the diving board and jump off.

One day, when there weren’t many people around, I worked up the courage to climb up onto that diving board, jump high into the air, and land in a full belly-flop onto the water. It wasn’t quite how I pictured my first! Nevertheless, I kept getting back up on that board and started learning how to do a proper dive.

This experience taught me a valuable lesson on how persevering in the face of difficulties leads to growth. Growing spiritually is about persevering through various struggles so we can build the kind of relationship with God that will enable us to become the men and women he’s calling us to be.

When we learn to walk with God in such a way, he enables us to fulfill our destiny.  

[2] Dear brothers, is your life full of difficulties and temptations? Then be happy, [3] for when the way is rough, your patience has a chance to grow. [4] So let it grow, and don’t try to squirm out of your problems. For when your patience is finally in full bloom, then you will be ready for anything, strong in character, full and complete.

James 1:2-4 TLB


When life is challenging (i.e., think global pandemic), it’s easy to lose patience and give up on our goals. But as the scripture says, challenges in life are an opportunity to grow. While the process of growing is incredibly fulfilling and leaves us stronger, it is often paved with failures and disappointments.

Similarly, there are times in life when we are expending effort to become different, but we don’t seem to be making any progress. We call this “treading water”.

Often the difference between making progress and treading water is training. Just as someone is not simply thrown into a pool and expected to know how to do the butterfly stroke, we all have to be trained and learn how to grow.

Throughout the pandemic we have all been forced to change our lives. While we don’t always have control over circumstances changing, we can choose how we will respond to them. We can either stay stagnant or grow spiritually.

In this article we will answer 3 questions that can enable us to grow spiritually:

  1. Am I listening to God?
  2. Do I signal my Friends for help?
  3. Am I fighting for something bigger than myself?

Am I listening to the word of God?

I’ve always considered myself a passionate person. My father, a professional Jazz musician, taught me at a young age by his personal example to be passionate about what you do. This led me to travel halfway across the world to pursue what I was passionate about in my life at that point, basketball.

Since then, God has shown me that the greatest passion I could ever develop in life is to learn how to walk with Him. I have learned a valuable lesson about God: He uses what we are passionate about to help us find Him (Acts 17:26-28). And when we find God, He will help us fulfill our destiny.

Progress in any area, including growing spiritually, isn’t always as smooth and pain-free as we hope.

As I was reflecting this past week on my life, I recognized that my passion has been fading. My life has become less about fulfilling my destiny (making progress) and more about living an unfulfilling monotonous life (treading water). 

Progress in any area, including growing spiritually, isn’t always as smooth and pain-free as we hope. I’m realizing that, after facing different relational failures because of my sins of deceit, bitterness, and selfishness, it’s easy for me to want to give up.

As a fisherman, Peter had just experienced a night of utter failure.  It would have been easy to trust his own instincts and experience and decide that trying again would not be worth the effort.  However, he trusted Jesus over his experience enough to try again.

[1] One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. [2] He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. [3] He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

[4] When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” [5] Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Luke 5:1-5 NIV

In this scripture Jesus uses fishing, which was Peter’s passion, to inspire him to find God.  Peter worked hard all night long only to come back empty-handed. His description of his fruitless labor makes his exasperation and disappointment palpable. 

Nevertheless, one thing enabled him to keep going and try again. He chose to listen to God’s word over his challenging circumstances, emotions, and failures. 

The conversation between Jesus and Peter helped me reflect on my own life and how I can grow if I decide to listen to God’s word. The scripture taught me four decisions I need to make to become a different person:

  1. Choose depth over superficiality (Luke 6:46-49)
  2. Choose perseverance over quitting (2 Corinthians 4:8 TPT)
  3. Choose honesty over compliance (Matthew 21:28-31 NIV)
  4. Choose to trust God’s word over emotions. (Psalm 42:5 Voice)

Choose depth over superficiality

Jesus told Peter that what he was looking for wasn’t in the shallow waters but that he had to adventure deeper (“Put out into deep water”). Depth is about getting to what is at the core, what is truly driving us, and what is the one change we can make that would change everything. (Why is it Hard to Get Deep).

Too often we settle for the superficial answer, the superficial reflection, and superficial behavior change. Only when we are willing to live out what the scriptures teach can we identify and take on that one change that would change everything.  

Choose perseverance over quitting

Jesus called Peter to “Let down your nets”, to try again and not let his failure stop him from believing. It can be easy to let failure stop us from trying again. We have to be willing to take action, just as Jesus called Peter to do. 

Persevering is about continuing to do what God wants us to because we believe that he can always help us be victorious. If we quit, we won’t have the opportunity to watch God move on our behalf.

Choose honesty over compliance

When I choose to be a “yes man” without first working out my bad attitudes, fears and frustration, I end up giving up along the way. I admire Peter’s honesty because he often said what he thought without caring about the repercussions.

Here, before Peter chose to follow Jesus’ instruction, he first needed to express, “We’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.” Real growth cannot happen unless truth is involved. When we choose honesty, it leads to freedom, relief and clarity which enables us to grow. 

Choose to trust God’s word over emotions

Peter could have chosen to let his disappointment take over. He could’ve told Jesus he just didn’t feel like trying all over again. Instead, he chose to trust what Jesus asked for him to do (“But because you say so”).

Emotions can stifle our growth if we allow them to control our lives. When we choose to trust God’s Word over our fears, sadness and guilt, it gives us the faith to try again and keep going. 

Reflection questions

  • What area of my heart (emotions, sins, desires) have I settled for superficiality while God is calling me to go deeper?
  • What relationships, dreams, beliefs have I given up on?  In what areas do I need the faith to start listening to God?  
  • What disappointments and failures do I need to be honest about so I can learn from them and move forward?

Do I signal my friends for help?

Life always deals us unexpected challenges and times of pressure. When we are going through these hard times, we need friends around us who can help carry the load so that we can keep growing.

[6] When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. [7] So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

Luke 5:6-7 NIV

Because Peter decided to listen to Jesus and go into deeper water, he was able to have a breakthrough and catch more fish that he had probably ever caught in his life. But sometimes with new opportunities come new problems – his nets were about to break and could lead to him losing all the fish.

As we go through the process of spiritual growth, we can face different challenges such as: things getting worse before they get better, fear of what people will think, unbelief that we can ever change. But the scripture teaches us that when problems arise, we can signal our friends for help just as Peter did.

How do you react when problems occur in your life? Do you try to gut it out by yourself, or do you let down with your friends about your fears of failure, your emotions, and your mistakes along the way?

I can relate to wanting to do things on my own. When I’m trying to go it alone while facing challenges, I can think one (or all!) of these things:

  1. “This isn’t that big of a deal. I can handle it.” 
  2. “I don’t feel that much about this.”
  3. “I don’t want people to think I’m weak or needy.”

These thoughts bring me a temporary relief, but because they do not solve the problem at hand, the difficulty soon returns. It’s not until I am honest with God and my friends that I am able to grow rather than sink in my feelings and guilt. Honesty helps us to grow because it forces us to see who we really are on the inside and change the things that make us distant from God and people.

We all need to signal our friends for help at different times so that we can get the encouragement and counseling we need to move from a shallow walk with God to a dynamic one.

Reflection questions

  •  What challenges are causing you pressure?
  • How do you need to change the way you handle pressure to grow instead of stay stagnant?
  • What relationships can you reach out to and ask for help in your areas of need?

Am I fighting for something bigger than myself?

When what we are fighting for is bigger than ourselves, it helps us to keep going and strive to grow even when we are pushed past our comfort zone. Holocaust survivor and renowned writer Viktor Frankl once said that “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

Despite Peter’s failures, Jesus gave him a purpose worth living for, something bigger than himself. 

[8] When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” [9] For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, [10] and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”

[11] So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

Luke 5:8-11 NIV

Peter’s vision was small because he had undealt with fears and guilt (“Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”). Jesus saw past that and pointed Peter to who he would eventually become. He knew it would take Peter hard work, but the payoff would be a great catch, not of fish, but of helping people.

When I entered my master’s program, I knew it would be a lot of work. But because I saw the long-term goal of becoming a school psychologist and having the opportunity to help children with special needs, I kept persevering even when I had difficult papers or projects to complete.

Jesus was teaching Peter that the biggest difference a person can make is in changing someone else’s life.

Jesus was teaching Peter that the biggest difference a person can make is in changing someone else’s life. Because Peter believed that, he was willing to leave everything behind to pursue his purpose. Jesus used Peter’s passion for fishing to help him discover his true purpose.

When we choose to grow spiritually, it will always lead to other’s lives being transformed for the better.

Reflection questions

  • What guilt and fear do I need to deal with to renew my vision?
  • How can my passion lead me closer to God and finding my purpose?
  • What do I need to leave behind to be able to go all in for God’s purpose for my life?
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