For when by reason of the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need again that some one teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of solid food. For every one that partaketh of milk is without experience of the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But solid food is for fullgrown men, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:12-14).
The New Testament speaks many times about the need for Christians to grow and mature in the faith. We Christians are aware of them, and most recognize the need for spiritual growth. Yet do we truly understand the imperative of spiritual growth and maturation? Do we, consciously or unconsciously, delay or hinder our own spiritual growth or the growth of others?
Spiritual growth, like physical growth, tends to come with growing pains. God was not foolish or naïve about His creation, and He recognizes that growth happens more in times of suffering or difficulty than times of peace and security (cf. James 1:2-4, Hebrews 12:4-13, 1 Peter 1:7-8). True spiritual maturation can be scary, discomfiting, and painful. Yet what are we to expect when we have been called to “take up our cross” and follow after Jesus (Matthew 10:38, Matthew 16:24)? Unlike physical growth, spiritual growth is not a given. Spiritual growth must be developed and encouraged if it will come to pass. Let us consider many of the imperatives regarding spiritual maturation.
Maturation comes with practice. Consider again Hebrews 5:14:
But solid food is for fullgrown men, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil.
I fear that too often we buy into the world’s perspective about growth and development. The world expects people to devote the early years of life to abstract studies, and later to enter the workforce and apply that which was learned. To this end, I fear that many convert to the faith and maintain the same perspective: “well, I’m not old enough in the faith yet to do these things, so I’ll spend some time learning about it and then do it.” Such logic is misleading– Christianity was never meant to be some fossilized concept to be studied abstractly. Study is not even mentioned in Hebrews 5:14– it is assumed, since one cannot discern good and evil if one is not trained in what is “good” versus what is “evil”– but the Hebrew author considers maturity as something gained “by reason of use,” or “by constant practice.” Consider what James says in James 1:22-25:
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But he that looketh into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and so continueth, being not a hearer that forgetteth but a doer that worketh, this man shall be blessed in his doing.
Notice the contrast: those who “hear” versus those who “hear and do.” Learning comes through practice. We recognize that the first few years of physical life are critical for the proper physical formation and development of human beings– this is no less true for the spiritual life. When we were freshly baptized, did we establish good habits of practice? Did we go out and try to preach the Gospel, even if our efforts were quite feeble? Were we willing to have our faith challenged? How do we treat those who are young in the faith around us? Do we try to promote their growth through practice? Why should we be surprised to find people sitting in the pews and doing little else for decades if such persons did not establish good practices early on and were not encouraged to do so?
Maturation comes with encouragement. Consider again the need for assembling in Hebrews 10:24-25:
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.
Notice again where the Hebrew author lays the emphasis: provoking each other to love and good works. Assembling to exhort and encourage. Biblically-based encouragement and exhortation is food for the soul. Why do you think that Jesus uses the image of food and drink constantly (John 4, John 6, John 7:37-38)? We need food and drink to live. Therefore, to live spiritually, we need spiritual food and drink– and the source of such food and drink is God’s Word. The message of God is to be preached to feed people spiritually!
What kind of “food,” therefore, is being presented to the members? How are the opportunities for spiritual development being used?
Elders, what kind of thought is put into spiritual growth in terms of what is taught, preached, and encouraged? Is there an emphasis placed on maturation? Are classes being designed to challenge the members to grow, or are they just holding patterns? Are there other activities outside of the assembly that challenge the members to grow?
Preachers, do you consider the need for brethren to grow spiritually, or do you just preach that which is milk (cf. Hebrews 6:1-4)? I have heard many laments about “soft preaching” and how so many are now preaching only that which is “positive.” The alternative to such “soft preaching” is presented as being “tough” preaching on “the issues” (defined as that which makes “us” distinct from “them”). But is that really the alternative? In reality, preaching on “the issues” exclusively is itself a form of “soft preaching,” for those present in the church are more than likely already believe such things, and the preacher is preaching to the proverbial choir. The preacher will certainly receive great accolades for preaching such a lesson, and why not? No toes are being stepped on, and no challenge is really given for spiritual improvement. Paul, on the other hand, strove to preach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:20, 20:27). Even when he was condemning false doctrine, as in Galatians 1-4, he found time to exhort the brethren to proper conduct in life (Galatians 5-6). Any kind of extremist preaching– all positive, all negative, all “issues,” all conduct, all anything– is imbalanced and not providing good spiritual sustenance. Preacher, if the range of preaching topics were compared to food types, would your preaching be considered a balanced meal or is it too strong on some foods and too weak on others? Whether we like it or not, too many either get all of their spiritual sustenance or a good part of it from the preaching done in the pulpit and the teaching in Bible classes. If such is the case, would the brethren get a balanced meal? Would they be encouraged to grow and develop in the faith, or stick to a holding pattern?
The encouragement provided in our assemblies needs to fulfill God’s purposes– stimulation to love and good works, and growth in the faith. This can only be done when the brethren are being challenged to grow by the instruction and exhortation provided.
Encouragement is not limited to the assembly. Do we interact with each other outside the church building? Do we find other opportunities to strengthen each other and encourage each other to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Peter 3:18)? For plants to grow and flourish, they require the right climate in which to do so. Maturing in the faith also requires a climate that encourages it. Are we doing what we can for ourselves to grow and to encourage others to grow along with us?
Maturation requires challenge. On the whole, human beings are a stubborn lot. More is learned from mistakes than success. This reality has not been lost on God.
Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations; Knowing that the proving of your faith worketh patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
As humans, we tend to be averse to change, especially the forms of change that unsettle and disturb our current “peace.” How many never obey the Gospel because they recognize that they would need to change in order to be servants of Christ? We cannot commit to Christ and yet act as if we will reach a point where change is unnecessary. As Paul says:
Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded (Philippians 3:13-15a).
If Paul said such a thing, we should consider it also.
Consider also the challenges that Paul suffered. He speaks of the trials he experienced in 2 Corinthians 11:23-30: stoning, beatings, shipwreck, constant emotional turmoil and concern, among other things. He also experienced the “thorn in the flesh,” according to 2 Corinthians 12:7-8, and it remained despite his protestations, for the Lord had something else in mind for him:
And he hath said unto me, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Wherefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
“My power is made perfect in weakness.” We can only grow in Christ when we are brought low, and rarely do we find the strength to bring ourselves lower without some form of challenge. We may have a physical weakness, a trying situation, a spiritual temptation, or a form of persecution– what will become of our testing? Will we grow in our faith? That is the expected outcome, but it can only happen if we truly trust in God.
The Bible uses the image of the refiner’s fire to describe maturity in 1 Peter 1:6-7, and the image is appropriate. It is only when we are put “in the fire” that we see what we are truly made of, and whether what comes out is precious or worthless. This is why persecution strengthens the church– sadly, some will fall away under difficult circumstances, but such shows the shallowness of their faith. Such “were really not a part of us” (1 John 2:19). Those who remain are battle-tested, and will receive the crown of life (cf. Revelation 2:10).
Salvation requires maturation. Spiritual maturation is an imperative because without it few will be saved. Consider Jesus’ famous parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). There is the “road soil,” the “rocky soil,” the “thorny soil,” and the “good soil.” In Jesus’ explanation of the parable, we see that all unbelievers are lumped into one category– “road soil” (Matthew 13:19). This means that everyone else hears the word of God and accepts it. The challenge, therefore, is not in such persons becoming Christians, but remaining faithful as Christians!
What happens to the “rocky soil” and the “thorny soil”? There is nowhere for the seed to grow! The rocky soil has too little depth; when difficulties come to such a believer (and difficulties will come), such a one falls away (Matthew 13:20-21). The thorny soil is too preoccupied with the world; there is a willingness to mature but no priority given to it (Matthew 13:22). The seed finds its best home in the good soil, because the climate is right for growth– that is, spiritual development (cf. Matthew 13:23)!
It is little wonder that Paul describes a day of testing that is to come, when the strength of the structure of faith of every believer will be tested by fire (1 Corinthians 3:11-13)– our growth or lack thereof will be exposed by God! A lack of spiritual maturation is often the root of spiritual stagnation and death. Crises of faith will demonstrate whether one will be rocky soil, thorny soil, or good soil. What are we doing to prepare ourselves for such events? What are we doing to encourage others to prepare for such events, or to guide and encourage them as they experience trials? Spiritual growth and maturity are not to be taken lightly– they are divine mandates, and our success or failure individually and collectively hinges upon its promotion and development. What shall we do so that we may grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18)?