Spiritual Maturity: the Early Days

As a Dad, I have a lot of goals for my kids.  As I look back, I marvel at the progress they have made so far.  As I look around, I assess where they are now, and as I look forward, I envision the amazing people I know they can become.  I recognize my own limited vision and ability to help them; but, I hope and pray and strive to help them become everything God wants them to be.  As they grow, their choices will be their own.  All I can do is try to point them in the right direction.

As a child of God, I’ve come to realize He is working out that same growth process in me.  He knows how far I have come, where I am now, and what I can become.  As I make my way in this life, I’ll make my choices, for good or ill.  My spiritual growth (or lack of it) will depend on my choices.  The good news is, He offers me plenty of guidance if I’m willing to listen.

The same is true for you, my friend.  We are each on a journey, and God wants to walk it with us.  He wants to be our closest companion, and enrich our lives in ways we can’t even imagine, yet.  His goal?  To help us reach spiritual maturity.  Here’s a glimpse of the end He has in mind, as the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Ephesus.

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

These verses talk about God’s people, the Church, maturing and growing until we are found to be “measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.”  Now, that’s the text from the New Living Translation.  Here’s another rendering of the text from the English Standard Version: “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”.

I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t measure up.

One of the many wonders of the gospel, as we can see from these verses, is this: the path to Spiritual Maturity is a growing process.  We’re not expected to get it perfectly right the instant we come to faith in Christ.  I hope that’s as much a relief to you as it is to me.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to draw some comparisons between spiritual growth and the more mundane process of growing up as a person.  Just as kids grow into teens, who become adults, spiritual growth can be thought of in phases.  As we take a closer look at each one, I’m taking stock of my own maturity, and looking for opportunities to grow.  I hope you will, too.

So, let’s start with a very young faith, today, and we’ll see what growth looks like next time.

When we first come to faith in Christ, we share a lot in common with babies and toddlers.  See if you recognize any of these common traits in your own life.  Not every follower of Jesus will struggle with each one, but I was surprised to realize how many I saw in myself.

Spiritually immature believers are sometimes self-centered.

You know how I came to realize we’re all born with a sinful nature?  I can’t remember a single toddler who needed to be taught to keep their toys.  No, pretty much all the little ones I’ve ever known, including me, had to be taught to share.  They tend to focus on their own needs and get very upset, often loudly so when those needs aren’t met.

A lot of young believers struggle with a self-oriented view of God, too.  More than a few people have come to faith in Christ because of what Jesus promises to do for us.  And why wouldn’t we?  We’re looking to gain Heaven for ourselves or avoid Hell, to find peace or get help.  All of these are wonderful promises, but did you notice, they’re all about what God can do for us?

Our prayer life, too, usually starts by focusing on us.  Our younger selves bring lists of all the problems we need God to solve for us, and we tend to be more impatient with His answers.  We even look for and value a church that makes us happy.  They play the music we like, the sermons make us feel good, the people are nice to us.  We tend to start to grow frustrated when we’re corrected, even though we’re told that’s part of the purpose of the Scriptures.

If you’re focusing on yourself a little too much; don’t grow anxious — you’re in good company.  I do it, too.  So did the disciples.  From time to time, we all do.  Here’s a simple suggestion: the next time you pray, actively avoid mentioning what you want, and pray only for the needs of others.  Get into the habit of praying for others, and

Spiritually immature believers often struggle to feed themselves.

Ever watch any funny videos of very young kids trying to feed themselves?  I have, the messes are fantastic!

For the Christian, Christ reminds us that we “do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  For us, time spent in the Scriptures is like food for our spirit.  The writer of Hebrews talks about the church as though they were infants because they are still “unskilled in the word of righteousness.”

Very young believers need others to feed them, or in simpler terms, to teach them the Scriptures.  The Book seems mysterious and confusing, some parts may not seem to make sense at all until someone explains it to us.

One of the very real problems in this stage of spiritual growth is that, like a young child, we can be lead astray by bad advice (false teachings) because we don’t yet know enough to determine the difference between Scriptural baloney and Biblical filet mignon.  Honestly, some of the stuff we hear about from the Bible is a bit tough for us to chew.

There are plenty of false teachers and bad doctrines out there, and more than a few young believers have become frustrated with God when He doesn’t act the way some false teacher said He should.

Just one example: one of the most common false teachings, today, is the idea that God only allows trouble or sickness to impact those who displease Him, and He only allows good things to happen to those who follow Him… a nice sentiment, but not Scriptural.

Ask Joseph, Paul, or Peter if all their troubles magically disappeared when they started following Christ.  When a new believer is told by a false teacher to expect God to act like that, and He doesn’t, they either blame God, or they let someone convince them their own sins are the cause of their trouble.  They become angry with God, or blame themselves, not knowing the Scriptures well enough to see the deceptive message and reject the fraud.  Often, folks in their shoes simply walk away, believing God or the Bible lied to them.  (In truth, Jesus promises we will have trouble, but He also promises to see us through it all.)

To avoid this frustration, the best way to recognize a counterfeit is to know the genuine article so well you can spot the fake just because you know something is off.

As Ephesians says:

14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth.

For many of us, it’s past time to start learning how to feed ourselves.  If you find studying the Scriptures difficult, you’re not alone.  But I have some great news: getting better is much easier than you might think.

Here’s some quick advice to getting started, or getting back to basics, if it’s been a while.

Grab an easy-to-understand translation, like the New Living Translation (the “NLT”), and spend 15 minutes a day, every day reading the Bible and asking God to show you something about Himself and something about yourself.  Get into the habit of reading your Bible the same time every day, get rid of other distractions for just a while, grab a notebook and pen, and pray both before and after you read.

If you’re not sure where to start, open your Bible to the Table of Contents and find the gospel of Mark, or the gospel of John, and just take the time to get to know Jesus for a while.  In the second part of the Bible, the New Testament, the first four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are called the gospels, and they’re four different accounts of the life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus.

As you read for your fifteen minutes each day, ask the following three questions, in order:

  1. “What does it say?”  (Can you tell someone else what you read, today?  Answer the “Who, What, When, Where, and Why?” questions.)
  2. “What does it mean?”  (Are there any promises I can count on, any commands to obey, any characteristics of God to learn, any revealing comments about us?  What’s the big idea?)
  3. “What does it mean to me?”  (What does God want you to know or do with the words you just read?  How should your thoughts, words, or actions change based on what you just read?)

Don’t rush.  Write down anything that comes to mind: answers to the big three questions, or any additional questions you think up as you read, and whatever God impresses upon you.  Pray about your new questions, talk to a more mature believer about them, and share what you’re learning with others.

You don’t have to be classically trained in Hebrew and Greek to get started understanding the Scriptures, just keep learning at church and get started at home.  (There’s a reason for those apostles, prophets, and teachers Ephesians mentions — they’re there to feed us, at first, then to teach us how to feed ourselves.)

Spiritually immature believers struggle when facing trouble.

Young children tend to get upset rather easily, often over what we adults realize are rather minor problems.  A toddler who stubs a toe wails as if they’ve lost a limb.  It doesn’t take much to upset them, and it can take quite a bit more effort to calm them.

Young believers also struggle with their troubles.  They worry, panic, lose sleep, and freak out too much.  Don’t be fooled — every believer has trouble, but the real sign of spiritual maturity isn’t how few problems we have, but how peaceful we remain in the middle of them.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, and shouldn’t get us down.  When we’re just getting to know God, we haven’t seen Him move many mountains or part many seas on our behalf.  We haven’t found ourselves in the cistern like Joseph and seen God bring us out to run Egypt, yet.  We just don’t realize how much He can do, or how strangely He works.  Sometimes, we get fooled into thinking nothing should ever go wrong once we know Him, and the shock of real trouble can be quite devastating.

If you find yourself in the middle of trouble, go back to the Scriptures, get back to the gospels.  See Jesus calm the storms and calm His followers.  Read Psalm 91, or 23, or Jesus’ instructions in the sermon on the mount, especially the part about not worrying.  That notebook you take with you when you read the Bible?  Start writing down the promises of God, the needs you present in prayer, and the answers when they come.

It’s not all bad…

These are just a few of the ways immature believers of Christ often struggle.  You might not have trouble in all of these areas, but if you do notice anything that makes you squirm a little bit, don’t get frustrated.  Get growing!  Ask God to work in you to help you grow.  He wants to help you!

Before we leave this phase, I don’t want you to think it’s all bad.  There are some characteristics of younger believers that a few of the more seasoned saints might want to remember.

Young believers often keep their sense of wonder and enthusiasm.

Kids are amazed by the simplest things, from peek-a-boo to soap bubbles, everything is amazing!  Even the most ordinary aspects of life can amuse, amaze, and astonish.

Sometimes, I think those of us who have been in the church for a long time need to look at the world through the eyes of a brand new believer.  The idea that the God of the universe would want a relationship with me is incredible!

The fellowship of the local church is full of new opportunities to make friends and build relationships, and our other friends who don’t know God need Him very much.  New believers are usually much more eager to share their faith.

The Scriptures are full of awesome adventures, and newer believers are often better at imagining themselves in the middle of the saga.  The pages come alive as they can see the sorrow in the garden, the trauma of the cross, and the triumph of the resurrection.

Don’t get complacent, though.  New believers who don’t grow become stagnant.  In fact, all believers who stop growing start dying.  Not because God won’t save us, but because we’ve stopped striving to see the fullness of Christ grow in us.