Stages of Spiritual Growth (2)

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The New Testament writers compare spiritual maturation to physical maturation. Just as all humans go through certain physical “stages” (infant, child, youth, adult), so too—these writers insist—Christians go through spiritual “stages” that correspond in significant ways. We’ve already learned that (in both spheres) infants need milk and require very basic teaching; children are enthusiastic but think in childish ways; adolescents are strong but inexperienced and easily tempted; adults are (or, at least, should be!) mature, wise, capable of solid food, and able to make good judgments.

By casting our net a little wider—beyond those scriptures that make this comparison directly—something truly interesting occurs. A great deal is said in the Bible (in a general way) about those who fall into each of these categories. Perhaps by listening to what the Bible says about infants in general (for instance), we can pick up some valuable information about those who fall into the specific category of “spiritual” infants.

Infants:

infantInfants in Scripture are a case of good news and bad news.

On the one hand, there are many positive characteristics and benefits ascribed to babies in the Bible. They are a blessing from God (Ge 9:1; 49:25; Ps 127:3). They bring hope (Ex 2:2; Ruth 4:16; Mt 1:20; Lk 1:13ff; 2:25ff) and joy to those around them (Jn 16:21). They are lovable and provoke compassion (Ex 2:6; Isa 49:15; 66:12).

On the other hand, the Bible also portrays infants in a less positive light. They are (almost by definition) terribly vulnerable: kings kill them in the biblical narrative (Ex 1:16; 2Ki 11:1ff; Mt 2:16); they die of disease or frailty (2Sa 2:16ff); they can be sold into slavery (Job 24:9). Infants cause great pain and fear (Gen 3:16; Isa 13:8; Jer 6:24; 49:22). While they can symbolize innocence in Scripture (1Cor 14:20), infants also symbolize naivety and ignorance. They are sometimes a burden (Nu 11:11ff; Mt 24:19). They are driven principally by hunger and desire.

And, above all, infants are needy. They need milk (Isa 66:11; Heb 5:12; 1Pe 2:2). They need constant attention. They need teaching (Ro 2:20; Heb 5:12). They need blessing (Lk 18:15).

If these general characterizations also apply to spiritual infants, a few observations are possible:

  1. Infants are the church’s greatest opportunity and her greatest vulnerability.
  2. The most immature Christians are a blessing from God and our hope for the future.
  3. But they are also vulnerable; their faith is tenuous; they are susceptible to sickness and folly.
  4. They can cause the church pain while they are being born and nursed.
  5. They are ignorant and make decisions on the basis of immediate hungers and desires.
  6. They require our constant and ceaseless love, attention, teaching, feeding, and care.

Children

childIn a similar way, the biblical depiction of children is a mixed bag.

Scripture has many positive depictions of children: they are watched over by God (Mt 18:6); are a source of hope (Isa 9:6; Lk 1:17); and can give God praise (Mt 21:15-16). They are capable of doing what is right (Pr 23:24; 1Jn 5:1) and can learn to be obedient (Dt 6:1-2; 30:1-3; Eph 6:1; Col 3:20; 1Ti 3:4). They can be consecrated to the Lord by godly parents (1Sa 1:24-28; Lk 1:76-80). They have a quality that God loves—humility (Mt 18:2-4). Sometimes, they can grasp things adults cannot understand (Mt 11:25). Jesus enjoyed blessing them (Mt 19:13-14; Mk 10:13-16). And children can (and should) tolerate more than milk (Ge 21:8).

But there are also characteristics ascribed to children that are decidedly negative. They (like infants) are terribly vulnerable (2Ki 11:2; Mt 2:16-18; 18:6). They are known for foolishness (Pr 22:15; Jer 4:22)—a pattern that, once set, can last a life-time. They can be rebellious and refuse to listen (Isa 30:9; Mt 10:21; Mk 13:12). They sometimes inherit the sins of their fathers (Ex 20:5).

Most of all, children require constant attention. They must be disciplined and corrected (Pro 22:15; Heb 12:5, 7, 8). They must be taught (Ge 18:19; Pro 22:6; Joel 1:3; Eph 6:4). If faith and the traditions of the community are to survive, they must be passed on to children in deliberate, intentional ways (Ex 12:24-27; Dt 4:9-10; 6:7; 11:19; Ps 78:4-6).

Again, if these general characterizations of children also apply to spiritual children, a few observations are possible:

  1. Children are a great blessing to the church but they are also a great responsibility.
  2. We should revel in their positive qualities: the hope they provide, the humility they model, the insights they can possess.
  3. We should encourage their praise and obedience, blessing and consecrating them to God at every turn.  
  4. At the same time, we must be aware of how vulnerable they are, their tendencies towards foolishness and rebellion, the willfulness that is inherent at this stage.
  5. If we are to pass on faith, spiritual children require our constant teaching and discipline.

Youth

teenIn Scripture, “young men” or “youths” are referred to frequently. And, once again, there are characteristic strengths and weakness noted.

The young are attractive, strong, and brave (2Sa 2:14-16; Pr 20:29; 1Jn 2:13-14). They are capable of great boldness (1Sa 14; 17). They can be trusted with important tasks (Josh 6:23; 1Sa 25:4ff; 2Ki 9:1-10; Ac 5:6-10; 7:58). Youth is a time for joy (Ecc 11:9) and to “remember your creator” (Ecc 12:1). The young can do battle and take godly stands (Dan 1). They are capable of visions and dreams (Joel 2:28).

On the other hand, the young are known for stubbornness (Dt 21:18), impetuousness (Ge 34), inexperience (1Chr 22:5), and poor priorities (Mt 19:16ff). They are capable of shocking sin (1Sa 12:12-17; Ps 25:7), rebellion and betrayal (2Sa 15; Isa 3:5), and foolishness (2Sa 1). They can be indecisive (2Chr 13:7) and fatigued (Isa 40:29-31). They are often governed by lust (Eze 23; 2Ti 2:22) and can grow bored with truth (Ac 20:9). They tend towards short-sightedness and make poor advisors (1Ki 12). The young can look impressive on the outside while lacking character within (1Sa 9:2). Submission and respect do not come naturally to them (1Pe 5:5).

Once again, if these general characterizations of the young also apply to spiritual youths, a few observations are possible:

  1. In the young, the church has strong, brave, and capable warriors.
  2. Their dreams, boldness, and inherent joy are a great asset.
  3. When properly taught and trained, the young can accomplish important spiritual tasks and take godly stands.
  4. However, the church must be ever aware that there are certain tendencies characteristic of youth that must be disciplined: impetuousness, impiety, rebellion, and lusts.
  5. We cannot afford to judge the young on externals but must watch closely for character and commitment.
  6. As with children, youths need constant teaching and encouragement.
  7. The church can utilize and celebrate their strengths but must stay alert to their weaknesses.

Adults

adultAs we look at the concept of adulthood in Scripture, it is important to distinguish between the ideal and the reality. Many of the people we meet in the Bible—who by reason of time should behave like adults—are actually adults in age only; their behavior is firmly stuck in some less mature stage of development. (While mostly composed of chronological adults, the Israelites were known as the children of Israel for good cause—they often behaved in childish ways.)

That said, the Bible has very definite ideas about what adulthood should look like. This is the stage of life by which people have accumulated a measure of wisdom, knowledge (Ro 15:14), and experience (Ecc 1:16). They can digest solid food (and teaching—Heb 5:14). Life has subjected them to trials and testing, and taught them perseverance (Jas 1:2-4), resulting in maturity and confidence. They have learned the right priorities (Mt 19:21; Php 3:7ff) and know the difference between good and evil, wise and foolish (Heb 5:14). They have learned to control their emotions and their tongues (Jas 3:2). Mature adults know how to be on guard, stand firm, show courage (1Co 16:13).

Much more is said in Scripture about spiritual adulthood than any other stage of spiritual development. Mature disciples have put childish ways behind (1Co 13:11) and are capable of understanding a “message of wisdom” (1Co 2:6). They can discern spiritual things (1Co 2:14). They understand and persevere in the will of God (Ro 12:1-2; Col 4:12; 1Co 16:13). They know Christ (Php 3:10), have been transformed into his image (2Co 3:17-18), and live his life (Eph 4:13). They have taken off old, sinful ways and put on new ways and a new mind (Ro 12:1-2; Col 3:9-10). They live in holiness (2Co 7:1) and peace (1Co 1:10; 2Co 13:11) and patient tolerance (Ro 15:1). They are strong (1Co 16:13; Eph 6:10ff; 1Pe 5:10), wise, and not lacking in anything (Jas 1:4). They long to finish well (Ac 20:24; 2Ti 4:7).

Spiritual adults are the end result of a long and often arduous journey towards maturity. They have weathered life and all its vicissitudes. Their wisdom is hard-won and life-tested. They love God’s word and trust it implicitly. His priorities are their priorities. His way is their way. They live by the Spirit. They understand the need to finish strong.

Look closely at the chart (link below) and ask yourself: “Which stage of spiritual growth is descriptive of me?

[Stages of Spiritual Growth Chart]

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