The story is told of a group of tourists who were getting off their tour bus to walk through an beautiful, old village. As they began walking down the street they saw an old man sitting near a fence. One of the tourists asked in a patronizing way, “Were there any great men or women born in this village?” The man answered, “Nope, only babies.”
Everyone enters the world in pretty much the same way, but what happens after that can vary dramatically. So much depends on our parents and the communities we are born into. But the truth is, great men and women are forged over time as they experience life’s joys and challenges and continue to make choices and establish habits and priorities that help them grow and mature and eventual become “great”. One trait I’ve read over and over from highly successful people is that they live life with purpose and intentionality and never settle for mediocrity.
The same is true for us as followers of Jesus. If you look at those most worthy of emulation in Scripture – people like Jesus or Paul – one thing that stands out from their lives is that they lived on purpose and were always moving forward (Consider Mark 1:35-39; Luke 9:51ff; Hebrews 12:2b; Philippians 3 (especially verse12). Even as an apostle who had accomplished so much for Jesus Paul says he had not yet reached the goal, he pressed on for more of what Jesus had to offer.
Here is my take on the stages of spiritual maturity in most believers’ lives and why it is important to keep moving forward in our relationship with Jesus at each one.
1. Infant stage – Newborn babies are cared for and loved. There isn’t much they can do on their own. After birth their bodies grow and they begin to learn muscle coordination so they can crawl, walk, feed themselves, etc. Initially they do not have words to voice their needs. Crying is their way of communication eventually moving on to grunts and motions.
Spiritually this is where we are new believers in Jesus. We are infants craving “spiritual milk”, learning about God and how to relate to him. During this time we learn to “feed ourselves” by beginning to read the Bible; we learn to communicate with God through prayer and worship; we learn how to relate to other believers through service and ministry. This is a period where we are especially dependent on others to mentor and disciple us.
As we begin to discover the riches of God’s Word and become part of God’s family, there is normally a desire to serve. We learn that the Spirit inside us is not intended to be just for us, but to flow through us to be a blessing to others…
2. Child Stage – In life, when we move from the infant stage to the child stage, we begin to act independently and care for ourselves. We learn to better communicate and ask for what we want; to voice pleasure and displeasure. We learn we sometimes have to do things even when we don’t feel like it and to separate imagination from reality.
As we follow Jesus, we need to move beyond dependence on others for our spiritual sustenance and begin to walk with confidence. We pursue Christ in our Bible reading and in more fervent prayer. We begin to explore our spiritual gifts and opportunities to serve. We discover that our faith is intended to be given away in words and actions. We also discover that things don’t automatically go well just because we love Jesus. We have to endure challenges and tough times. Our faith is put to the test and we have the opportunity to press in and walk with Jesus and his people.
3. Adolescent Stage - As children grown, they begin to take on more responsibility for themselves and others. They learn to act independently and to form more and more their own values and opinions. There is a growing desire for independence and autonomy and when that is restricted there can be rebellion. Adolescents often learn to manipulate the system to get their own way. At this stage the consequences of one’s actions become more serious and yet there are often adults to help cushion the blow when things go badly. It is also important that adolescents learn the value of delayed gratification. This is a stage where many get stuck in their emotional maturation – in so many ways an adult and yet still a child. Good parenting and guidance are incredibly important.
In our growth in Jesus, we also face a time very much the same. We are mature in many ways and give evidence of growth and yet have a long way to go. The temptation is to pull away from mentors and to feel like we have things under control. We’ve experienced some wonderful things with Jesus, maybe even weathered some storms…and we’re content. We end up settling into a pattern that keeps us steady and doesn’t rock the boat. We’ve got enough Jesus to bless what we’re doing, but not so much we have to really change. We know the lingo and we can talk the talk even when we aren’t walking the walk.
At this point we need good mentors more than ever. We need friends and companions on the journey who will spur us on toward deeper relationship with Jesus. We need people whose very lives inspire us to want more. Unfortunately we often have friends who are spiritually at the same place we are or even a bit behind us which serves to feed our ego but not encourage us to press on for more.
4. Adult Stage – When adolescents become adults, they enter a world where they must become responsible for themselves and their choices. They are independent but can choose to be interdependent – whether in a work environment, among friends, or in a marital relationship. They begin to think more selflessly as they become responsible for others – a spouse or children, for example. A mature adult understands the world is not a fair place; one person can’t do it all; saying no to one thing is a yes to another; and I am not the center of the universe! In the adult stage, people often have their own children and get the privilege of guiding them through life.
In our spiritual walk, if we press on through the adolescent stage we come to a place where we discover the joy of serving, the beauty of interdependence, the significance of living within our limitations. We enjoy the Lord and our deepening relationship with him, but we also know there’s much more to come. We have a sense of purpose and a desire to serve but also to empower and encourage others to use their gifts too. It isn’t about us, and there is joy seeing others experience a deepening relationship with Jesus.
5. Elder Stage – The truth is that people don’t reach this stage often enough. Perhaps it’s because we rarely think we’ve done well at the adult stage; perhaps it’s because no one did it for us; perhaps we’re just worn out from life…but too few of us actually choose to become mentors and sages for those who are younger and at earlier stages in the journey. There comes a time when we have the opportunity to mentor others in their stages of maturing. As parents we might do this haphazardly with our own children, but this is an opportunity to guide others who are in the adult stage. We have the privilege to walk alongside them and share with them the things we learned along the way. The reality is we learn by trial and error, but it is an incredible blessing to have a mentor who can help prepare us before things happen and debrief with us afterward as we try to make sense of it all.
Where would you place yourself on these stages? You might ask a close friend what he/she thinks if you aren’t sure. If you don’t have anyone close enough to be able to say or if you are afraid of what a friend might say, that might tell you a lot!
Where would you like to be? If you aren’t where you’d like to be, what kinds of things could you do to move forward?
Let’s not be complacent with our spiritual maturity. Let’s be like Paul who wrote, “…one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13b-14).