She was walking up the street on a Saturday morning in a small town in the mountains of Virginia. She was thirteen years old, but she was wearing a tighttting dress more appropriate for a woman of thirty. The color of her handbag matched her high heels. She was not a child playing dressup. She was a teen trying to appear older, saying, "Look at me; I am a beautiful and seductive nineteen-year-old." That scene took place fify years ago, but I recall that sad image whenever I see anyone with a false understanding of what it means to be mature.
The Bible teaches that man is born with a nature to rebel against God and His reign. This sin nature permeates every part of our being. There is no part of our thinking or doing that can escape its influence. Thus, we are prone to define our lives from infancy by standards that are alien to God and His Word. Many of us spend years, even decades, shaping our lives by sinful paradigms. For instance, how does one grow into mature personhood? All too often, it is the worldly culture around us that sets our standards in the march to maturity. In high school, we may learn that it is "grown up" to have sex. In college, we may learn that it is "grown up" to be an erudite, well-read intellectual. In our early vocational careers, we may learn that to be mature in this world we must have success, power, and money.
Think through those different stages of imagined maturity that we have just considered. How many of our friends were really "grown up" in their high school sexual exploits? How many of our classmates really matured simply according to the number of books they read? The modern university has matured into intellectual snobbery that looks upon "the trades" as work done by illiterate peons. But the truly "mature" in success, power, and money led us into the financial disaster of the Great Recession.
That is the fallen world into which Jesus came, calling mankind to a different manhood—a different maturity. Jesus said we must start by dying to our self-centered ways of thinking and living. He said we must be supernaturally reborn as the Holy Spirit changes the very core of our being. Jesus, the second Adam, is the true picture of mature personhood. Read the Gospels. In His life, we see true maturity. He is the model the Holy Spirit uses to mold us. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are true radicals in this fallen world. They literally turn the way of the world upside down in calling men and women to godly maturity.
Read the following verses. As you do so, have this one thought in your mind: The Holy Spirit is cutting away our worldly image of what it means to be mature people and is remaking and re-clothing us to look like Jesus.
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. . . . In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge a er the image of its creator. . . . Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. . . . And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:3–17)
I love that picture. Just as we change clothes, in the power of the Spirit we are to take off our former way of living and put on the new life that we learn from Christ. It is through this daily taking off and putting on that we move toward maturity.
This is a serious matter. When we follow Christ and become a part of His church, we have the tendency to simply baptize our worldly paradigms and idiosyncrasies and name them "Christian." James and John had followed Jesus for some time. They were two members of the triad that formed the core leadership of His disciples. But, in the name of faithfulness, they brought their ego-driven, CEO attitudes to the table when they asked Jesus if they could be His two "main men" when He came into His kingdom. Their idea of being mature was to be the most powerful men in His realm.
The turf wars that exist between staff members of a large church can be very much like the vying cliques of junior high school. There is the senior minister of a large church who is so controlling that he is unable to work with the elders appointed by the Holy Spirit to assist him in leading the congregation. He can be very much like a six-year-old throwing a tantrum if he doesn't get his way.
We are seduced into thinking that the position itself is synonymous with maturity. We think that attaining the rank of elder, deacon, minister, or theologian is what makes us mature. That is a worldly paradigm that we have brought into the church and baptized in an attempt to make it holy. It is not holy. Satan has wrought havoc in the church using the immaturity of ministers, elders, deacons, and theologians who had no idea of how spiritually infantile they were.
Sometimes, the church has told us that certain spiritual gifts are a shortcut to Christian growth and maturity. Others in the church have said that if we become intellectually adept in a certain theology, we will be mature. Maturity does not come with attaining a certain position, a particular spiritual gift, or a theological expertise. Our model of maturity is Jesus, and the maker of our maturity is the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, the hammer and chisel used by the Spirit are quite painful. We see Jesus' maturity in every aspect of His life—in the mundane and the sublime, when facing the constant pressure of the crowds and when facing Satan alone, while boldly claiming His deity before the Sanhedrin and while remaining silent before Herod, when entering Jerusalem as the Messiah to the hymns of the crowd, or when dying on the cross to the jeers of evil men. Thus, Jesus models maturity in every possible situation we may encounter. And the Holy Spirit will be there in each situation with the hammer and chisel of His Word, conforming us to the image of Christ.
Amy Carmichael (1896–1951) was a missionary to India. She wrote:
Sometimes when we read the words of those who have been more than conquerors, we feel almost despondent. I feel that I shall never be like that. But they won step by step by little bits of wills, little denials of self, and little inward victories by faithfulness in very little things. They became what they are. No one sees these little hidden steps. They only see the accomplishment, but even so, those small steps were taken. There is no sudden triumph, no spiritual maturity that is the work of the moment.
She was saying that our journey as followers of Christ through this fallen world is not easy.
Our maturity is indeed a battle. We not only struggle with the pressure from the world to conform in thinking and action to the culture, but we also are in a daily conflict with the remnant of a sin nature that resides deep within us. Like the sirens of the Odyssey, those false paradigms seductively call to us from the powerful cultural forces which surround us and from the base desires that still live in our own souls.
John said, "We know that when [Jesus] appears we will be like him" (1 John 3:2). What a great day that will be. We will take on the maturity of Jesus. Even if our neighbors currently perceive us to be mature, there is a huge chasm between what we look like now and what we will look like when Christ returns. There will be a cataclysmic change in our individual lives. I cannot imagine living with no sin in my heart. Whatever maturity we know in the present will pale in comparison. But, for now, there remains the need to repent every day. And that is part of our maturing process. Self-righteousness will make no progress toward maturity. We show our children and others a clear path toward maturity as they watch us admit our failures and confess our sins. It is ironic—confessing our ongoing immaturity in itself is a sign of maturity.