Maturity Templates

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The writers of the New Testament were far less interesting in painting detailed portraits of the immature than they were in holding up verbal pictures of fully-grown, spiritually mature disciples. (The churches to which they wrote provided more than enough examples of immaturity!) The challenge of the inspired writers was to help their readers “begin with the end in mind” by describing what spiritual maturity really looked like … giving them a goal at which to aim their lives.

measuring boyWhatever “maturity” actually meant to these writers, it didn’t resemble the gift-filled but transformation-empty version of spirituality championed by the Corinthians. It shouldn’t be mistaken for the obedience-oriented but grace-abandoned legalism of the Galatians. It didn’t look like James’ right-worded but wrong-deeded readers.

The Apostles and leaders of the first-century church had very definite views of what fully-grown, Christ-like Christians looked like. Scattered throughout the New Testament are “thumbnail” sketches of spiritual maturity, apostolic yardsticks for measuring how much progress disciples were making in the direction of “perfection.”

The Beatitudes

Matthew gave us one of these “measures of maturity” in Matthew 5:3-10 as he reported Jesus’ portrait of the ideal disciple:

Blessed are the poor in spirit …  
Blessed are those who mourn …
Blessed are the meek …
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness …
Blessed are the merciful …
Blessed are the pure in heart …
Blessed are the peacemakers …
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness …

Here, Jesus outlined the character marks of the kind of disciple he intended to build. Four characteristics of how mature disciples relate to God (humility, penitence, submission, focus); four characteristics of how such disciples relate to others (compassion, honesty, harmony, persistence). If these attributes define what a spiritually mature disciple looks like, can we “back track” and define what less-than-fully-grown disciples look like … disciples at different stages of spiritual development?

A very preliminary definition of immaturity/maturity (based on the Beatitudes) might take the following form:

Beatitude

Immaturity

Maturity

Poor in Spirit

Denial of sin and need

Confession of sin and need

Mourning

Difficulty in repenting and changing

Eagerness to repent and change

Meekness

Self-willed

God-willed

Hunger

Hungry for earthly things

Hungry for righteousness

Mercy

Unresponsive to others’ needs

Deeply responsive to others’ needs

Purity

Willingness to hide and lie

Commitment to honesty

Peacemaking

Conflict-averse or Competitive

Committed to relational peace

Persecution

Deterred by persecution

Undeterred by persecution


The Fruit of the Spirit

Paul provides another way to think of spiritual maturity when he lists the fruit of the Spirit. Here (he says) is how someone filled with the Spirit, fully-shaped by the Spirit will look. They will bear character-fruit grown by the Spirit’s sap upon the limbs of their lives.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23)

There is a great deal of overlap here with Jesus’ Beatitudes: peace/peacemakers; kindness/mercy; goodness/purity of heart; faithfulness/persecution, although Paul’s take on maturity differs slightly. Again, however, if these attributes define what a spiritually mature disciple looks like, can we “back track” from these fully-formed fruit and define what less-than-fully-grown disciples look like … disciples at different stages of spiritual development?

A basic definition of immaturity/maturity (based on the Fruit of the Spirit) might take the following form:

Fruit

Immaturity

Maturity

Love

Unloving (or self-loving)

Loves in Christ-like, selfless ways

Joy

Joy absent or tied to circumstances

Joy rooted in character

Peace

Personal and relational turmoil

Personal and relational tranquility

Patience

Impatient

Long-suffering

Kindness

Unresponsive to others’ needs

Deeply responsive to others’ needs

Goodness

Behavior defined by situation

Behavior defined by character

Faithfulness

Faithful when easy

Faithful when hard

Gentleness

Harsh with others

Tender with others

Self-control

Lacking self-control, undisciplined

Exercising self-control, disciplined


Paul’s “Put Off/Put On” List

Paul provides another sketch of spiritual maturity in his letter to the Colossians:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry… anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator…. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another…. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col 3:5-14)

This list has the advantage of describing two poles of spiritual maturity: the immature (immoral, impure, lustful, angry, slanderous, and dishonest) and the mature (compassionate, kind, humble, etc.). Again, there is overlap with the descriptions of maturity we’ve already surveyed (e.g., “peace” and “compassion” appear in them all in one form or another). Interestingly, the characteristics Paul describes for maturity and immaturity do not always correspond directly to each other; he seems to think of the old self and the new self in very different categories.

Once again, a simple definition of immaturity/maturity (based on Paul’s “Put off/Put on” list) might take the following form (attributes specifically mentioned by Paul are italicized):

Immaturity (Old Self)

Maturity (New Self)

Sexual immorality, impurity, lust

Purity, self-control

Evil desires and greed

Desire for righteousness, treasures in heaven

Anger and rage

Gentleness and patience

Malice and slander

Forgiveness

Filthy language

Only what is helpful for building others up

Lying

Honesty

Indifference

Compassion

Thoughtlessness

Kindness

Pride

Humility

Apathy

Love


Peter’s “Add to” List

Finally (for our purposes, although there are other descriptions of maturity to be found in the New Testament writings), Peter offers us not only a list of character traits but also a sequence of development from less to more mature stages:

Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2Pe 1:5-8)

Once more, there is overlap here (as you would hope and expect): goodness, perseverance, and kindness, for instance, are included in all of the lists. “Love” is mentioned explicitly in three of the lists, “self-control” in two. What Peter adds is a progression towards maturity, implying (for example) that “faith” is the required minimum for disciples, but that “faith” can exist in an immature disciple without self-control or godliness. Such qualities must be “added” if spiritual growth and development is to occur.

Yet again, a rudimentary definition of immaturity/maturity (based on Peter’s “Add to” list) might take the following form:

Attribute

Immaturity

Maturity

Faith

Little faith

Great faith

Goodness

Behavior defined by situation

Behavior defined by character

Knowledge

Little knowledge, “puffing up”

Deep knowledge, wisdom

Self-control

Lacking self-control, undisciplined

Exercising self-control, disciplined

Perseverance

Unresponsive to others’ needs

Deeply responsive to others’ needs

Godliness

Worldly, fleshly

Christ-like, spiritual

Brotherly kindness

Harsh with others

Tender with others

Love

Indifferent

Committed and compassionate


Summary

Rooting a definition of maturity in Scripture seems a “trustable” way to proceed. You might prefer to find another “thumbnail” to use (Rom 12:9-21 and Eph 4:20-5:21 are examples that come to mind). But even though your starting point may differ, the process is similar. For our purposes, these four “templates of maturity” will suffice.

I want to play a little with the first “template”–the Beatitudes–and think about how this template might help us define infant, child, youth, and adult. Only when we have identified maturity to this degree can we talk meaningfully about evaluating our people, diagnosing their particular stages of spiritual development, and prescribing specific courses of action to help them grow up in Christ.

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© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.