“What is Christian Maturity?” If a close friend began a relationship with Jesus Christ and came to you asking what they ought to do to grow in their faith, what would you say? With most of us, that question results in a thoughtful pause. Somehow we have a vague sense of Christian maturity, but not a clear idea of the path that leads to it. Certainly there are knee-jerk responses that lead to us thinking about things coming from the traditions in which we were raised. Generally we hope people will begin to pray and read the scripture for understanding. Depending on our tradition, we might suggest that this person get regular in worship, in a Sunday school class, or a ‘discipleship’ relationship. We might recommend one of the more rigorous Bible study formats that go beyond a Sunday school format. We hope they’ll become more loving or more like Jesus, but to be honest, very often that is a hope that somehow as if by magic, a transformation takes place. But the sad truth is a person can know a lot of the Bible and still be a pretty un-Christ-like person. Someone can be in regular attendance in Sunday school or worship and still not bear the presence of God to those around them. In fact, many of our churches are filled with people who have been around for years and yet their lives no more reflect the priorities of God’s kingdom than they did when they started. Somehow all of us know this is not right, but we don’t talk much about it.
This may be due to an interesting tension or paradox. On one hand, we know theologically that there is nothing that we can do to produce spiritual fruit—it is the work of God in us. On the other hand, there are things that the Scriptures teach about placing ourselves in the position where God’s Spirit can have the best access to our souls. On the one hand we are not responsible; on the other we are. So what is the target? Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California developed a series of classes, Christianity 101, 201, etc. designed to build certain behaviors in the lives of his members that he would suggest lead to Christian maturity. Critics of this method reject it as simplistic and too cut and dried. One member of Rick’s church lent credence to these critiques by saying he signed up for one of the ‘01 classes’ because, “if I could become spiritually mature in an afternoon and get a card to prove it, it seemed like a good deal!” The interesting caveat was that in that simple class, this person found that spiritual maturity was something much more and his journey, which still hasn’t finished was begun. On the other hand there is a philosophical approach that is much more mystical. The path is less clear and each person is encouraged, if they want to seek spiritual maturity, to engage a professional ‘spiritual director’ who can guide their uniquely individual path to a mystical maturity. A ‘spiritual director,’ often a paid individual plays the role of spiritual mentor, directing the individual along their personal spiritual path toward greater fullness and wholeness with God. Modeled after the monastic movement where superiors guided individual monks in their journey, the spiritual director model of maturing has historical precedent and the role of spiritual mentor is one that has value. The inability of the average person to pursue this model of spiritual growth alone raises questions about its applicability to all spiritual communities.
In his book The Barbarian Way, Erwin McMannus suggests that the modern church has replaced the encountering of the living God and having one’s life transformed by that experience (so that we are captured by the heart of our Savior) with ‘civilizing’ those who call the name of Christ. Being civilized is not being matured. A third model that offers me intrigue and clarity is one that suggests the goal of maturity is not the mastery of certain data (scripture, theological concepts, etc.) nor is it the entering into certain relationships (Sunday school classes, mentoring or ‘disciple-ing’, etc.) nor is it the institution of a certain set of behaviors (church attendance, no longer swearing, etc). Instead, Christian maturity is the natural result of encountering the grace and forgiveness of God and beginning to encounter Him in the daily events of our lives in a transforming way. Maturity is learning to walk with God in one’s daily life. Historic behaviors that the Christian Community has expected in the lives of believers, Bible reading, stewardship, fasting, etc. are all behaviors that, in themselves, have no spiritual value—they can actually become what we call ‘works,’ things by which a believer can begin to recommend us and our status before God. But as behaviors by a broken, yet forgiven person that enhance one’s ability to see and hear from God in their daily life; to guide our living into His presence, they give value to the maturing process. In the same way spiritual mentoring, whether by professionals or respected Christian friends who have the privilege of intimate knowledge of our life to guide us in listening and looking for the voice of the Holy Spirit as he speaks.
The tremendous advantage of lists of activities and/or behaviors is that there are factors that can be measured. Progress can be measured. In The Unstoppable Force, McMannus suggests that Constantine’s proclamation that all the Roman Empire become baptized and ‘christian’ was the worst thing for Christianity because for the first time “people could become Christian without encountering the living God.” (p. 102) It is this encounter, in coming to the acceptance of God’s grace, in receiving spiritual sight that allows us to see the world from God’s point of view, that we become mature. This was the goal of the epistles in the New Testament—helping these young Christians to see Him walking through the world they lived in so they could walk in step with Him.
A friend told the story of babysitting a large group of children. They were all over the place. His solution was to order pizza delivered for lunch. It would take three hours and several calls to the pizza parlor before it arrived. The children were becoming more and more unmanageable. His frustration level was at it’s highest. He was getting really ‘reved up.’ When the delivery person pulled up outside and got out of the car, he said it was as if God said, “Look at him and see his world.” A brief conversation revealed that the young man was doing the job of two delivery people because one hadn’t shown up, one of the ovens at the parlor was down and, yes, his day was awful. My friend thanked him for his service and gave him an extra big tip. I want my maturity to be like that: in the midst of frustration to have God be able, because we are walking so close, to bring me up short and show the world through His eyes, and be the bearer of grace. That, it seems to me, is the essence of spiritual maturity.