Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Irony of Spiritual Maturity

When we hear the term "maturity," we tend to equate it with good behavior and adulthood. To the world - and, in fact, most believers - maturity is best defined in terms of age and conduct. We may refer to a teenager as "mature" because he is going through puberty. In this sense, maturity bears a physical definition. Then again, we may refer to a much younger child as "mature" because she acts much older than her age. In this case, maturity is defined in terms of conduct rather than age or physical characteristics. To the world, maturity, in every sense, revolves around adulthood. To be mature in the world's eyes, we must be an adult, act like an adult, or both.

Considering how opposite the world's ways are to God's, it will do us well to consult the Scriptures in search of God's definition for what it means to be mature as a believer, and in particular, what it means to be spiritually mature. When we do, we find (not surprisingly) that the world's definition of maturity leaves much to be desired.

The loftiest goal of every believer should be to come into a greater realization of God and His Son. God desires to be known, and the more we understand Who He is, the better we know Him. It stands to reason, then, that knowledge should be one of our primary endeavors. Paul continually confirms this in his epistles. To the Corinthians, Paul upheld knowledge as a spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:8). To the Colossians, he shared his prayer that they would be "filled full with the realization of [God's] will, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding... growing in the realization of God" (Col. 1:9-10). To the Ephesians, he stressed "the realization of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature of the complement of the Christ, that we may by no means still be minors" (Eph. 4:13-14).

Yet in spite of Paul's emphasis on knowledge, we also witness him telling the Corinthians that "knowledge puffs up, yet love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1). Paul's words here may be better understood with the phrasing "knowledge inflates pride, but love edifies." Growing in knowledge, therefore, requires a great deal of humility. We must be careful to always keep our ego at bay as increasing in knowledge has the potential to give us a feeling of superiority.

Paul often preached a different message to the nations than Jesus preached to Israel, but in this case we find what it means to be spiritually mature in Jesus' words as well as Paul's. Contrary to the popular worldview that maturity revolves around adulthood, Jesus informed the Jews that "who, then, will be humbling himself as [a] little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens" (Matt. 18:4, Lu. 18:17). What exactly does Jesus' statement mean? If we are to endeavor to increase in our knowledge, how can we also be like little children who are greatly lacking in knowledge?

This is the irony of spiritual maturity. To be mature, we must increase in knowledge while, at the same time, becoming more child-like. As adults, we have experienced the realities and hardships of life and tend to be more skeptical, cynical, and pessimistic. We also tend to be more arrogant because of our increased knowledge. Children, on the other hand are, by their very nature, humble because they rely on their parents and other adults to care for them and to teach them everything. They believe all things, endure all things, and hope for all things. Because of their humility, children are much more apt to live out faith and love. They are more trusting, and that trust is a key to maturity.

To the world, being more "adult" means being independent and untrusting. Behaving like an adult means adhering to societally accepted norms. For the believer, rooted in true knowledge of God and strong faith, we strive for the exact opposite. As we grow in faith, we become increasingly more dependent on our Father, more trusting of Him, and more eager to follow His ways than the world's. In doing so, we experience persecution from others who view us as ignorant and foolish (i.e., more child-like).

It is important to note that when Jesus upheld children as a model He was not promoting a childish lack of knowledge or poor behavior. He was very specific in the child-like quality He praised, which is humility. The Pharisees possessed knowledge coupled with a great deal of pride, and Jesus stressed their need for humility to be mature. In saying "we see" their sin remained.

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul refers to the Corinthians as "minors in Christ" to whom he gave milk to drink rather than solid food to eat (spiritually speaking). The reason, according to Paul, is that they were "still fleshly... walking according to man." The issue among the ecclesia at Corinth was not a lack of knowledge; it was their lack of humility which caused them to act inappropriately. They knew the message Paul had preached to them, but they reacted in a worldly (fleshly) way by letting their knowledge inflate their pride, whereas a humble response would have caused them to react in a godly (spiritual) way.

Thus, Paul's use of the term "minors" is not a contradiction of Jesus' words on children. The Corinthians Paul addressed were "minors" in the sense that they possessed knowledge of the truth but had fallen into the trap of putting their knowledge above love for one another. Like the Pharisees, they made the mistake of being too prideful because of their knowledge. Had they been mature, they would have put love above all. In this sense, they would have actually been more child-like.

From the examples of Jesus and Paul, we see that spiritual maturity requires grown-up knowledge coupled with child-like humility. If either is missing, we will remain minors in Christ. The good news is that the more we come into a true knowledge and understanding of our Father, the more child-like we will become! The more we know of God's goodness, the more we will trust Him as a child trusts his parents. The more we recognize His perfection, the more we will believe His promises as a child believes. The more we understand the wonders of grace, the more humble we will become.

In short, spiritual maturity is an ironic equation. Adult-like knowledge, plus child-like humility, equals spiritual maturity. To the world, an increase in knowledge leads to a decrease in faith; but to those who believe, the opposite is true. The more we know our Father, the more we trust Him and yearn to be His faithful children.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

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