What the heck is SPIRITUAL MATURITY?

I’ve been doin’ this ministry thing for decades. I’m a mature adult, but am I a mature Christian? What does that mean? What is spiritual maturity? I think it’s an oxymoron, and I want to tell you why.

What spiritual maturity isn’t

I’ve identified five popular Christian things that are not evidence of spiritual maturity:

1. Spiritual gifts. You’d think that people who are spiritually sensitive or spiritually gifted would certainly be mature Christians. After all, don’t we know that God doesn’t use idiots? Or people who smoke and drink? You have to be somebody special for God to use you in special ways, right?

2. One or several seminary degrees, or years teaching the Bible. Don’t we all admire people who can open the Word and take us deep into the mind of God? I have two seminary degrees, I’ve preached countless sermons, and I was a contributor to the Thomas Nelson Spirit-Filled Life Study Bible, specifically writing the study notes for the Book of Acts. I’ve written not a few books, too, but some times I’ve heard this voice in my head: Grow up!

3. Faith like Oral Roberts. We all know people who seem to have the capacity to believe God for great things. To pray for amazing miracles. There’s a cloud of faith witnesses in Hebrews 11. Consider them! And then think about yourself, how spiritually wimpy you feel. Maybe because you are. Don’t you know that if your prayers aren’t answered with some regularity, you must not be everything God wants you to be? Where’s your faith, sister? Brother?

4. Making huge personal sacrifices. Surely this gets God’s attention! For many years I taught for Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in their Discipleship Training Schools, DTS as they call it. I frequented their University of the Nations in Kona, Hawaii, an invitation I never had to pray hard about. At that location, they offered the “Crossroads” DTS for mature adults who were considering a midlife transition into ministry and mission. I was humbled by the sacrifices those families made, like literally living with three children on the old, rusty Mercy Ship Anastasis.

Or a pastor friend who grew up in a grass hut in the jungle in Africa. Or the people we met in the Frontiers candidate training, young families pledging their lives to serve in unreached Muslim communities in some of the most remote places on earth.

I feel ashamed when I’m with people like that. Yes, leading a large church was painfully difficult at times, but to take my family to someplace where we may just disappear? Well, I’m not up for that.

5. Being on fire for God. My exec pastor and I, in line at a buffet, were talkin’ church. A vibrant young woman ahead of us turned around and asked, “Are you guys born-again Christians?!” I couldn’t resist responding, “Is there any other kind?” Of course this pushed her evangelism button. So I held up my hand in the stop position and said, “Yes, we are born-again Christians, and I’m a pastor.” She told me proudly that she was in a church that was “on fire for God.” When I heard that, I felt a twinge of failure. “I’m a pastor of a big church,” I thought, “but in front of me is a true child of God.”

So don’t you kinda look up to others when they have spiritual gifts, or deep knowledge of the Bible, or amazing faith, or make extraordinary sacrifices for God and others, or have boundless passion? And haven’t you ever felt a little less of yourself when you see those things in others? Or question your own walk with God?

But spiritual maturity is not about all these wonderful spiritual things. In other words, maturity isn’t about being spiritual, whatever that may be. Christian maturity is about only one thing: love. Check out what St. Paul writes in the love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. Right there in the opening verses he lists five wonderful things that are not the full measure of any man or woman. Actually, it’s where I got my list of the Big Five above, good things that wither in the heat of the One Big Thing:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels [spiritual gifts], but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. [I’m just makin’ a lot of noise.] And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge [two seminary degrees and/or decades of being a Bible expert], and if I have all faith [like Oral Roberts or Kenneth Copeland] so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have [making huge personal sacrifices for God and others], and if I deliver up my body to be burned [yeah, on fire for God!], but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

So what is love? Glad you asked. Paul goes on:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

I read that and, gulp, it sure isn’t me a lot of the time. And I’ve been helping people understand God’s word for decades. Someone said to me recently, “It’s not what you know. It’s what you love.” And Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. I don’t do that very well, either.

The grand finale in verse 8 (ESV): “Love never ends.” I take this to mean “love has no limits.” Like God in Christ. What about God in you?

And now for the maturity part right there in the love chapter: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). What are childish ways? Anything that doesn’t fit in verse 4-7.

So how do we become mature? How does love become our supreme virtue? It’s painfully simple: When life strips away our self-trust and self-importance, and we become fully immersed in our relationship with God. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Ponder that. Please ponder that.

And James says this about becoming mature: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

Maturity in Christ is not so much about what we gain, but what we lose: “What good will it be,” Jesus tells us, “for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26) The Greek term for “soul” here is psyche, that would be everything about you and in you which defines you and is important to you. Like spiritual gifts, supreme knowledge, fantastic faith, sacrificial service, boundless passion. And what other things can you think of?

All of these things are good and helpful, but if they dent my relationship with Jesus, they’re nothin’.

So what is Christian maturity? Let me suggest a few thoughts.

1. Maturity is relating and responding to people and circumstances just like Jesus. How many of us have mastered that one?

2. Maturity is emotional intelligence. What’s that? Allow me to drift away from being “spiritual” and share a couple things from the Harvard Business Review.

When asked to define the ideal leader [or a gifted, mature person?], many would emphasize traits such as intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision—the qualities traditionally associated with leadership. Such skills and smarts are necessary but insufficient qualities for the leader. Often left off the list are softer, more personal qualities [love? Fruit of the Spirit?]—but they are also essential. Although a certain degree of analytical and technical skill is a minimum requirement for success, studies indicate that emotional intelligence may be the key attribute that distinguishes outstanding performers from those who are merely adequate.

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman first brought the term “emotional intelligence” to a wide audience with his 1995 book of the same name… In his research at nearly 200 large, global companies, Goleman found that truly effective leaders are distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence. Without it, a person can have first-class training, an incisive mind, and an endless supply of good ideas, but he still won’t be a great leader.
[Here are the] five components of emotional intelligence that allow individuals to recognize, connect with, and learn from their own and other people’s mental states:
• Self-awareness
• Self-regulation
• Motivation (defined as “a passion for work that goes beyond money and status”)
• Empathy for others
• Social skills, such as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks

There’s a famous Bible passage about emotional intelligence: 1 Corinthians 13!

3. Immaturity is acting like a toddler. There’s a Bible passage for that, too, also in 1 Corinthians. Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters [who are feuding with one another], I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly [sarkikos, that is, fleshly, carnal)—mere infants in Christ… You are still worldly. [Why would Paul says this?] For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

4. Maturity is getting along with others—and loving and forgiving them when they can’t get along with you. Bear with me as I repeat myself: Love has no limits. Is God’s love limited? Is God’s love in you for others limited by things in you that hide God’s love? Paul makes this clear in his second letter to the Corinthians.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

The last phrase takes my breath away. When I read it, I have to fall to my knees: as though God were making his appeal through us. Me, letting you see the relentless love of God? When I feel like having you arrested and serving a life sentence? Or worse? Never forget that Jesus prayed for the people who were nailing him to the cross: “Father, forgive them.” Think about it. That prayer was for you and me, too.

5. Christian maturity is this: Love God with everything in you—and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. What’s that called? The Great Commandment! What’s the key word in the Great Commandment? Love! Faith, hope, love; the greatest of these is love.

So how do we do this? How do I do this? With great difficulty, because I do not want to die to myself and hide my life in Christ. Yet, through the years, some scriptures have taken the edge off my carnality. Please read them slowly and answer this question: What is God saying to me about my relationship with him and others? What should I be confessing to God and asking for his forgiveness and cleansing? What are some things God is telling me to do? To do differently?

• Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

• For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

• I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20)

• The Spirit however, produces in human life fruits such as these: love [yep, here’s where it all starts), joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, tolerance and self-control—and no law exists against any of them. Those who belong to Christ have crucified their old nature with all that it loved and lusted for. If our lives are centered in the Spirit, let us be guided by the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25 – J.B. Phillips).

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