Some reading this article may be familiar with a method of teaching math called spiraling. As a math teacher, I never used that method in the classroom, but I did once tutor a student using that approach. At first, he and I were both frustrated. His book presented one concept in the first few pages. Then it went immediately onto another concept. But he hadn’t mastered the first, and we were frustrated that the text moved on so quickly. Then, after the first few pages, the book spiraled back to review the first concept. A few pages later, it both reviewed that first concept and expanded on it. The text spiraled, coming back again and again to previously presented concepts, fleshing them out each time a little more. After two weeks of tutoring, my student was no longer frustrated, and it wasn’t because I was a great math teacher. He was getting the concepts from the book on his own. The spiraling approach that had initially frustrated him was now key to his understanding of mathematics.
I have found that God uses a similar spiraling approach in my life. He teaches me something, but then quickly moves me on to the next thing. And the next thing. However, over time, the first struggle reappears in my life along with an expanded opportunity to trust God in the middle of it. After the third or fourth time working through the same struggle, I start to deeply internalize the things God is teaching me in a way I had not during the first or even second pass.
Identity. Temptation. Idolatry. Sin. Suffering. Sickness. Strife. Redemption.
This is the rhythm of Christian life, and that rhythm is helpful in informing how we disciple others. Even as we meet someone in the midst of a particular struggle, they struggle in the middle of a much larger one. All of our smaller struggles are subsets of our larger one, and this larger struggle repeats in our lives with similar but different iterations each cycle.
Created, Fallen, Redeemed
It starts with identity. Who was I created to be? How can we help ourselves or others if we don’t first know whom we are called to reflect at a foundational level? God calls us his image bearer. He particularly calls women strong helpers after his example. At the dawn of creation, woman in perfection was image bearer, helper, and worker, exercising co-dominion over earth with the man. We will never understand Genesis 3 without first knowing Genesis 1 and 2.
Then comes the fall. What do I struggle with? How am I bent away from reflecting God’s image? Idolatry. False identity. Looking in all the wrong places for something to satisfy longings in my heart made for God alone. But how can we understand our idolatry without first knowing the relationship the one true God created us to enjoy?
Finally, there is redemption. What has Christ done for me? Who am I in him? We are redeemed by God to once again be imitators of him. But I don’t know what imitating God means for myself or others if I don’t understand my identity as an image bearer of him first. I don’t recognize what I have been redeemed from if I don’t comprehend the depth of the results of the fall in my own heart.
Getting Stuck in the Cycle
Yet, on any given iteration through this cycle, I have not plumbed the depths of each idea. So I spiral through these lessons again and again. Who was I created to be with my children? How has the fall bent me away from God’s purposes for me with them? How has Jesus made a way for me to once again reflect God’s image in my relationship with my children? Who was I created to be with my job? How has the fall bent me away from God’s purposes . . . you get the picture.
My intent is not to boil discipleship down to a three-part method. Instead, I want to provoke thought about where you might be stuck in the process and what it looks like in your life (or as you disciple others) to revisit each piece of the spiraling structure over time. Are you strong in your understanding of redemption but weak in remembering what you are redeemed for? Do you understand your bent away from God’s image more than you recognize his image? Do you know the pain of sin but not the beauty of righteousness? Do you know what God wants you to be but live in frustration at your inability to get there? Imbalance in the spiral leads to stunted growth.
Whether the topic is our own personal growth or walking in love with another, there is a rhythm of sanctification in a believer’s life. It’s not linear. It’s cyclical. And it’s not a circle, it’s a spiral. The circle is repetitive, but the spiral grows with each turn. Who did God create me to be? How am I bent away from his image? How has Jesus made a way for me to reflect God’s image once more?
When you feel “stuck,” when you feel like you are continually rehearsing the same struggles, remember this: sanctification is not an endless, repetitive circle. It is a growing spiral in which each round penetrates more deeply into our identity as fallen, but redeemed, image-bearers of God. Spiritual growth can be a long, slow process—with one step backward for every two steps forward—but as you trust in Christ, God will complete the work he has begun in you (Phil. 1:6). Remember: your spiral is not a circle!
By Wendy Alsup. First published at The Gospel Coalition.