Spiritual maturity might be one of those terms that sounds so familiar to Christian ears that all or most of us think we know exactly what it means. If we're not careful - and if we don't pay sufficient attention to scripture's descriptions - we fall back on patchwork images we pick up from here and there and we wind up not really knowing what spiritual maturity is. This loss has practical impact.
Not long ago I asked a group of college students which adults, in their congregations, demonstrate spiritual maturity in Christlike character. Who would they go to for spiritual guidance? None of them could name an adult that modeled Christ to them.
There could be several mitigating reasons for this worrisome response. Sadly, it isn't an isolated circumstance. I can put their response with numerous others that leave me feeling uneasy about the state of many congregations. We need ordinary,local, present examples of spiritual maturity, of Christlike character. I know they exist. I'm afraid they are not sufficiently numerous or visible.
Let's regenerate a movement. Let's make a widespread commitment to spiritual maturity such that young people have ample examples to look up to and emulate. In order to get going, let's practice careful reflection on what the scriptures say.
There are many passages that get us into this exercise. One of my favorites is Philippians 2:12-13 because it so clearly reveals how growth to maturity actually proceeds: "Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
First, we notice that these verses address the whole community. The "you" is second-person plural, which shows that we are responsible to God and to each other for our growth. The whole community is called to a life of active obedience to Christ. What would happen to our witness if whole congregations took this call with utmost seriousness?
Some people worry that talk of working out our own salvation implies some kind of works righteousness. Modern Protestant Christians in one way or another have been schooled to read scripture through the "law-grace" split. We are no longer under the law, but under grace, this view goes, referring, for example, to Romans 6:14. But that verse includes the claim that sin no longer has dominion over us. It does not set grace over against the law the way so many people seem to think. We need to shed this mistaken bias. Precisely because we are under grace, we can obey Christ. We can work out our own salvation. We can grow to maturity.
The next part of this verse makes explicit the source of our ability to work. We work because God is at work in us. We call this divine activity sanctifying grace. Grace is the work of God in us. Grace is the work of God's Holy Spirit in us and through us for others. So, how does this grace work?
Try a couple of examples. Do you feel the desire to grow in your faith? You did not generate that desire all on your own. To be sure, God created humans with a capacity and hunger for God, but sin has twisted that desire into something self-absorbed. It takes grace - God's prior action - to overcome this sinful inclination. In a Christian, the desire to grow in faith is an expression of God's sanctifying grace.
Here's another example. You're reading your Bible and a thought comes to your mind. That thought does something scriptural. It brings the nature and work of Christ into sharper focus. It sheds light on some problem you're having and helps you understand it. It moves you to desire to know scripture more deeply. These types of experience illustrate how God works in us.
In response to God's work comes our work. I desire to grow in my faith, so I take action by joining a Bible study or small group. Having pondered that scripture about Christ's nature and work, I feel a sense of awe and I'm inclined to express a word of praise and thanksgiving in prayer. I may be prompted to share my new understanding with someone who is struggling with despair. I may pray for that person and gently nudge her or him toward Christ. These are examples of working out our own salvation. The possibilities are virtually endless because Christ is at work in us.
This is but one scripture citation that points us in the direction of spiritual maturity. If we backed up earlier in Philippians 2, we would find reinforcement in the call to have the mind of Christ. Meditating on the whole passage opens up profound insight about spiritual maturity. I invite you to read and ponder it.
Until next time.