God, as creator, gifts all of us with growth. Paul attributed this to Jesus in the broad context of creation in Colossians 1:16-17—“all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Julie Canlis, in Calvin’s Ladder, tells us of the church father, Irenaeus, who held that spiritual growth—as one feature of growth—only exists among thankful Christian. When believers see God as giving, and then respond with thankfulness, they enjoy unending growth [p.186]. But all who fail to give thanks also fail to grow.
So, what is spiritual growth? We all know physical and social growth, with a normal progression from birth to old age. Stages of strength and special capacities emerge, along with lively energy. Growth continues until maturity, and then we decline as energy fades and systems fail. We finally die.
Spiritual growth is different. As a starter, spiritual growth isn’t inevitable. Nor is spiritual death. Because a soul is made alive by the presence of God’s Spirit, it has the endurance of God’s life. But this original plan was disrupted in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve abandoned God’s life when they entrusted their future to another spirit, to “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). He featured living death in place of spiritual life.
By their dismissal of the Spirit the first couple retained just a physical life—the “flesh.” And God, to avoid having human immorality sustained by human immortality, cursed the earth so that all flesh faced eventual death. Judgment then follows based on whether the Spirit was restored in souls by faith in God’s Son. Faith is a “look and live” reawakening. Jesus offered this life and death polarity to Nicodemus in John 3:14-16 by citing the “look and live” story of Numbers 21:6-9.
The new feature Irenaeus added went a step beyond the look-and-live issues of faith. From his reading of the Creator and creation relationship in the Bible he added a give-thanks-and-grow addendum.
Irenaeus’s logic certainly drew from Paul’s teaching on faith in Romans 1:25. There Paul summed up the problem of human death: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” The consequence of turning away from the author of life included an instant loss of appreciation—of thankfulness—among sinners.
Paul made this explicit in Romans 1:21. Humanity “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him…” So, a failure to honor God as Creator carried a corollary of self-concern in place of thanksgiving. The two are entwined. And, to reverse the insight, the depth of any person’s thankfulness towards God reflects the quality of that person’s faith.
The context for the Canlis quotation of Irenaeus—in Against Heresies, 4.11.2—is Christ’s parable of the talents from Matthew 25:14-30. Christ’s link between conduct in this life and future outcomes in eternity pointed to the importance of being prepared. What Irenaeus drew from this story is a lesson that God who “makes us is always the same” and that we who are made by him will always receive “advancement and increase towards God.” Yet a response is key. Any recipient of a gift—or a talent—who remains indifferent to it violates God’s aim.
God’s expansiveness sets up this insight. He creates with unbounded generosity, never ceasing to share himself in his immanent, mutual communion as Father, Son, and Spirit. And he also pours out this loving communion to his creatures. We catch this in Ephesians 3:14-21. Believers are invited “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.” God, in his limitless love, wants us to enjoy as much as possible who and what he is! His motivation to share displays his divine love!
Irenaeus, however, saw a chokepoint that blocks God’s largess. When humans measure God by human standards the product is a false God. One who is a utilitarian bargainer, demanding behaviors—acts of goodness—before offering small rewards in return. Against this Irenaeus saw any growth in faith as tied to an expanding vision of God. And this vision is enlarged by thanksgiving. He who creates us then continues to enlarge us to maturity—to be more like Jesus.
What does such thanksgiving look like? It starts as a spontaneous fruit of the Spirit. And it grows as believers read the scriptures to see how Jesus responds to his Father. And as they also read the Psalms that celebrate God’s goodness. Or trace Abraham’s life, and Jacob’s life to see early selfishness swallowed up by thanksgiving and faith. Faith and growth come inevitably through abiding in both God’s word and in his love. And that includes the love of his Body, the church.
In sum, we can thank Irenaeus for a lesson from God whose word coached him. Give thanks and then enjoy the growth that will certainly follow. And embrace the truth that growth never ends!