In Christian circles lots of achievements tend to impress us. We often associate those with spiritual maturity. Here are a few achievements that come to mind:
- Bible knowledge
- One’s ability to pray long, lofty prayers
- A grasp of Greek or Hebrew
- The ability to speak in tongues
- A Bible school or seminary degree
- Tireless service to the less fortunate
- Fasting food for long periods of time
I think you get the idea.
But there are two major problems with such a list. First, it’s easy to go through the motions of practicing these disciplines hypocritically. Some years ago, I was having coffee with a man who was gushing about how much he loves God’s Word and studies it religiously every day. But further into the conversation he revealed that he was shacked up with his girlfriend. And when I gently challenged him about his lifestyle from Scripture, he got angry with me and stomped out of the coffee shop.
That list sounds all too familiar when we compare it with the practices of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law in Matthew 23. Jesus warned His followers not to do what they do, “for they do not practice what they preach.” Hypocrisy and spiritual maturity have nothing in common.
The second major problem with relying on such a list as the gauge of spiritual maturity is that we can perform those things purely with human effort. In Galatians 3 and Philippians 3, the apostle Paul warns us that we should put no confidence in human effort either for our salvation or our sanctification (i.e., the process of maturing in Christ).
Instead, we must place our confidence solely in Christ. In Galatians 3:3, Paul pleaded with the Galatian followers of Christ, “How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (NLT)
And in Philippians 3, Paul explains that we serve God by His Spirit and we boast in Christ Jesus without putting any confidence in our own human effort (vs. 3). Paul continues:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.
When Paul exclaims, “I want to know Christ,” he’s not referring to an initial salvation experience. Instead, he’s describing what every believer should strive for—an ever-deepening relationship with Christ. The Lord wants us to grow in our relationship with Him and become conformed to His character. We do this by drawing closer to Him, for in His presence we cannot remain unchanged.
When we are abiding in, remaining in Christ, He transforms us. Through spending time with Him, we become more like Him. This puts that list of spiritual disciplines in their proper light. Reading and studying God’s Word, prayer, fasting, fellowship with other believers, and any other spiritual discipline all have one primary goal in mind—to help us deepen our relationship with Christ.
Paul says in Philippians 3:15, “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things.” We don’t gauge our spiritual maturity based on how much or how well we practice disciplines of the Christian life, or by comparing ourselves with each other. No, our spiritual maturity is a matter of how well we know Jesus and are becoming more and more like Him.
And Paul admits, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But 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 3:12-14)
Spiritual maturity is not a destination we’ll reach here on earth, but we should all be on a trajectory of life change as we pursue an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. To that end, Paul urges us, “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.” (vs. 17)
Only Christ gives spiritual maturity and that comes through an ever-growing relationship with Him.