Christian Maturity—an Elusive Goal?
JUST what is “Christian maturity”? How would you define it? Do you have it? Or are you still seeking to attain it?
There is real value in our having the right understanding of Christian maturity. For one thing, the wrong understanding can lead to discouragement. It can make Christian maturity seem like a will-o’-the-wisp, a mirage, that tantalizingly moves away just when one thinks one is reaching it. The attaining of Christian maturity is no such elusive goal.
Then, too, the wrong understanding can lead to false standards in esteeming or judging others. It can cause us to fail to see and appreciate their good qualities. A false concept of Christian maturity could make a person tend to downgrade others and elevate himself in his own estimation, or to favor some mistakenly over others.
OUTGROWING SPIRITUAL CHILDHOOD
In the ordinary sense, a “mature” person is one who has come out of childhood into adulthood. Physical growth reaches a certain point and then levels off. Emotional maturity develops somewhat similarly but often takes longer than physical growth.
There is also a growth for Christians from spiritual childhood into spiritual adulthood, Christian maturity. How can you know if you have attained spiritual adulthood?
Those who are still “babes in Christ” need to be fed only the “milk” of Christian truth. Such “babes” are not sure as to what is the truth, and so they are inclined to totter and be easily led astray by the trickery and cunning of men who advance false teaching. In this puerile state they can contribute little to the growth of “the body of the Christ,” the Christian congregation, in “the building up of itself in love.” (Eph. 4:12-16) They are still “fleshly,” perhaps inclined to jealousy, strife and sectarianism and must outgrow these worldly ways in order to become “spiritual men,” not babes.—1 Cor. 3:1-4.
Are any of us like that—unstable, lacking conviction as to Christian truth, still inclined to follow men, not having entered into unity with those who are our spiritual brothers, thus not having developed the love that upbuilds and strengthens the Christian congregation? Then we do indeed need to strive to attain Christian maturity. We should realize, too, that outgrowing spiritual childhood and coming into spiritual adulthood is not automatic, as is physical growth. It requires sincere effort and cooperation on our part with God and his Son and the means they provide for attaining spiritual adulthood or completeness.
ACCEPTING THE FULL RANGE OF CHRISTIAN TRUTH
A major part of the process of spiritual growth to Christian adulthood, then, is progress in accepting the full range of Christian truth. Some Hebrew Christians of the first century failed to progress beyond the “elementary things of the sacred pronouncements of God” and so they were like those still on a ‘milk diet,’ not ready for the solid spiritual food that “belongs to mature people, to those who through use have their perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong.” For this reason Paul wrote to them, exhorting them to “press on to maturity.” How would they do this? How can we do this if we have not already done so?
The apostle showed them they should not be like builders who never get beyond the foundation of the building, in this case the “foundation” being the elementary or primary doctrines about Christ. They should pass on to the ‘superstructure’ that rests on that foundation, namely, the more advanced teaching about God’s purpose revealed through his Son, teaching that is harder to be explained than the elementary teachings.
There was urgent need to progress in this way, it was vital to do so. Why? Because they could not stand still indefinitely; eventually they must either progress or go backward. What would going backward mean? It would mean apostasy, a falling away from true faith, and that would bring destruction.—Heb. 5:11-6:8.
Of course, their advancement in understanding of these more difficult doctrines would have to be accompanied by corresponding growth in their spiritual outlook and Christian personality. Head knowledge alone would not suffice. Those advanced truths should have an effect on their lives, even as the “elementary” teachings had already had.
Today we have the complete inspired Word of God. Do we accept the full range of its teachings and are we sincerely endeavoring to live in harmony with them? Or do we pick and choose, as is the case with many today who are only nominal Christians? Such ones observe only what they want to observe but do not want to go all the way as to being disciples of God’s Son and they are therefore divided into Christendom’s many sects. Is that the case with us? Our answer to these questions will aid us to determine whether we have reached Christian maturity or not.
CHRISTIAN MATURITY NOT THE END OF PROGRESS
But is it not a fact that as time goes along we understand God’s Word better, get increased knowledge of certain truths, including some ‘fine points’ of understanding? True. Well, then, do we ever really reach maturity? Or is it always there ahead of us so that we are on a sort of treadmill, never actually reaching maturity as a goal? No, that is not the case. Let us see why not.
Consider the example the Bible uses of babyhood and manhood or adulthood (‘being full-grown’ [Eph. 4:13], which translates the same Greek word [te·lei·oʹtes] as does “maturity”). When a child grows up and becomes an adult, does this mean that such adult now has all the knowledge, experience and discernment he or she will ever have? Obviously not. A person continues to progress in his adult life.
A mature Christian also should continue to progress in knowledge, love, faith, wisdom and all the other qualities that are fruits of God’s spirit. Could we say that he thereby becomes ‘more mature’?
No, no more than we would say an adult becomes ‘more adult’ because of the experience and knowledge he adds after attaining adulthood. Is a man fifty years of age ‘more adult’ than one of forty? Or would we speak of a sixty-year-old man as ‘very adult’ and a seventy-year-old man as ‘extremely adult’? No, for this is not the sense of the word. Neither is it the sense of the word “maturity.”
In the first century, mature Christian men who showed wisdom and who were qualified to teach, to exhort and reprove, were appointed as “older men” in the congregations. (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) Did this mean they were the only mature ones and that others not so appointed were ‘immature’? No, for the qualities that these men had, and that qualified them to serve in this way, were in addition to their already being mature Christians. For example, in normal life a son who grows up, marries, and has a family of his own, may still look to his father or other elderly men for counsel and guidance in certain matters, due to recognizing their greater experience and wisdom. So, too, Christians, though themselves spiritually mature, may benefit from the help of spiritual “older men” in the congregation.—Acts 20:17, 28; Eph. 4:11, 12.
Even as a child should feel that his goal in life is more than simply to become an adult, so we should look on the attaining of Christian maturity as a desirable state but not as our ultimate goal. It is after we have become mature Christians that we can make greater strides and develop the wisdom and endurance that will enable us to render fine aid to our brothers and that will bring us to our ultimate goal, that of gaining God’s final approval to life everlasting.
Thus, we find the apostle Paul urging his Christian brothers onward to their goal, the prize of the heavenly calling, saying: “Let us, then, as many of us as are mature, be of this mental attitude; . . . to what extent we have made progress, let us go on walking orderly in this same routine.”—Phil. 3:12, 14-16.
Properly viewed, then, maturity is seen as a helpful platform upon which to work—not as a disheartening ladder whose rungs keep multiplying endlessly the higher we go.
RETROGRESS TO IMMATURITY?
But suppose a Christian uses poor judgment in a certain spiritual matter or acts in a way out of harmony with Christian principles. His action may not be sufficiently grave to warrant his being disfellowshiped from the congregation, but nevertheless it shows a failure to apply fully certain Bible counsel. Does this mark him as ‘immature’?
Not necessarily. He may be immature, for he may be young in years or he may be a ‘newly converted’ person (1 Tim. 3:6), and hence not firmly established in the truth. On the other hand, he may be a mature Christian with a long record of Christian service. It is not the gravity, great or small, of the act itself that determines what the person is—either mature or immature. True, poor judgment and weakness are characteristic of children. But even adults can be guilty of these things on occasion. Have you, as an adult, ever found yourself ashamed of having acted or spoken in a “childish” way? Yet you did not thereby return to being a child in reality; you remained an adult.
The wrong course taken by the mature Christian may be due to the fact that he has become ‘spiritually ill,’ perhaps due to neglecting study of God’s Word, or because of allowing wrong desires to enter into his heart and weaken his devotion to God and Christ. A grown-up person who gets sick can become ‘as weak as a baby,’ yet he is still an adult. He may need to feed on food suitable for babies, milk or other soft nourishment, for a time because of his illness. Similarly, the spiritually ill Christian, though mature, may for a time need others to help him and care for him, even nourish him spiritually to restore him to spiritual health and strength.—Compare Hebrews 12:5, 6, 12, 13; James 5:13-16.
Of course, instead of being spiritually ill, the mature Christian may go bad, become a delinquent or an apostate. But he does not return to being immature. A ripe (or mature) fruit that goes bad does not become green (immature) again. It becomes corrupt, rotten.—Heb. 6:1-8; 12:15.
VARIETY AMONG MATURE CHRISTIANS
So, then, we do well to avoid using the word “maturity” as a sort of “catchall” expression, so broad and vague as to be all-inclusive. Nor would we want it simply to come to stand for our own imagined ideal of what a Christian should be. Not all mature Christians will be precisely alike in their personality or their manifestation of spiritual qualities. As an illustration, two orchards, each containing different kinds of fruit trees, might both be “mature,” that is, having fully developed, fruit-bearing trees. Yet, one orchard might have more apple trees than pear trees, while the other might have more pear trees than apple trees.
So, too, mature Christians may show themselves stronger in one aspect than another as to producing the fruits of God’s spirit. (Gal. 5:22, 23) One may be outstanding in knowledge, another may be especially notable in kindness or patience, another may be exceptional in good judgment or discernment as to problems, another may be unusually generous or hospitable, another may have very good directive ability. (Compare 1 Corinthians 7:7; 12:4-11, 27-31.) Yet this variety is no sign of immaturity. It does not mean that such ones are not all ‘adult’ Christians. They do not all have to be equally strong or capable in all aspects to be “mature.” Nor are they stereotypes one of the other. Each in his own way contributes something as a mature Christian to the ‘building up of the body of Christ.’—Eph. 4:15, 16.
We must also avoid being guided by worldly standards as to Christian maturity, characterizing some as ‘immature’ because of apparent inabilities in worldly education or experience in worldly methods of doing things. Certainly if the first-century apostles were to be thrust into a modern industrialized, office-directed society of our day, there would be many factors that would be strange, unfamiliar and, temporarily at least, bewildering to them. Would this make them immature Christians? Obviously not. For Christian maturity is not determined by knowledge, experience or efficiency in modern business methods or city life. It is determined by spiritual qualifications set forth in God’s Word. These qualifications apply equally everywhere, to all persons and at all times, so that geographical location, profession or social position are not decisive.
Some first-century fishermen became mature disciples of God’s Son, while highly educated scribes and religious leaders generally failed to do so. Bible principles are what the mature Christian works with and these are applied as well on a farm as in a city, as well in a “backward” primitive country as in an “advanced” industrial nation. Thus, no Christian need feel discouraged about attaining Christian maturity because of his lack of ability as viewed from worldly standards.—Compare 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; 2:3-6; 2 Corinthians 1:12.
So, then, if we have not reached maturity, let us “press on” to it. Are we mature Christians? Then let us use our maturity to good advantage, ‘carrying on as men, growing mighty,’ aiding immature ones and continuing in the same fine routine that brought us to maturity and that will bring us to our final goal, God’s approval to life.—1 Cor. 16:13, 14; Gal. 6:1, 2; Phil. 3:15, 16.