Before Melissa and I turned 30, we were settled in the house that we thought would be our “forever house.” We were working at the institution we founded and led for eight years and figured we’d be working there till retirement. We couldn’t imagine leaving our house, our jobs, or the country of Brazil. Ten years later, we have become US citizens, earned our master's degrees, have two kids, and we’ve lived in Virginia, Montana, Kansas, and now Oregon. Our lives have changed drastically and constantly, and we have enjoyed every moment and have no regrets.
Carol Dweck, an American psychologist and professor of psychology at Stanford University, introduced the idea of growth mindset vs. fixed mindset in her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck's research has shown that people with a “growth mindset” are willing to take chances, enjoy learning new things, and are not afraid to fail. In contrast, people with a “fixed mindset” don’t like to be challenged, struggle with change, and tend to be scared of learning new things, particularly if that education disrupts their current worldview. Dweck’s book is not theological literature, but the concept is certainly true of the spiritual life.
In Ephesians, Paul encouraged Christians to be constantly trying to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:10). To the Romans he encouraged Jesus’ followers to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Finally to the Philippians, he acknowledged that he had not already obtained perfection, “but I press on to the make it my own…I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12-14). Concerning knowledge he even admitted that “now we see in a mirror dimly…now I know in part” (1 Cor 13:12).
As a pastor, I approach my work with the expectation that everyone who seeks God through the church does so with a “growth mindset.” After all, why else would a person want to attend church? The goal of gathering together on Sabbath morning to study the Bible should be to explore the deep questions about God and life, and to encourage one another to become better humans, “all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:25). It has been a painful process (yet rewarding) for me to gradually move away from a “fixed mindset” in my 20s to a “growth mindset” in my 30s and now 40s. I’ve had to allow the Word of God to disrupt many of my previously cherished ideas (which I thought were biblical). It has also been painful to realize that many who have been lifelong church members in the churches I’ve pastored have unwittingly settled into a “fixed mindset.”
One pastor who recently walked away from ministry wrote, “Most Christians don’t want their thinking challenged. They come to church to reinforce what they’ve believed their entire lives. From their perspective, the job of the pastor is not to push them to grow, but to reassure them that they are already on the right track. Any learning should support the party line and comfort them that their investment of resources in the church will result in a payoff somewhere down the line, particularly once they reach the afterlife.”
Ellen White seemed to encourage a “growth mindset” when she wrote, “We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed” (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 30).
If you were to have asked me in my late 20s, What cherished views have you had to unlearn in the past ten years? I’m not sure if I would have been able to answer with specificity. Now in my 40s, I can produce an impressive (or not-so-impressive) list of changed opinions. Though not easy to admit, it is so liberating to allow God’s word to correct us and shape our mindset.
The implications of a “fixed mindset” for spirituality are profound. A growth mindset can help us see our spiritual journey as one of continual growth and development, while a fixed mindset can limit our spiritual potential. Here are some practical ways to develop a growth mindset in your spiritual life: (1) Be open to new experiences. Try new things and step outside of your comfort zone. (2) Don't be afraid to fail. Failure is a natural part of the learning process. (3) Be willing to receive feedback. Listen to what others have to say and use it to improve yourself. (4) Focus on your own journey. Don't compare yourself to others. (5) And most importantly, open your heart to God’s correction. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb 12:6).