Stages of Spiritual Growth

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The universal metaphor used in Scripture to describe spiritual maturation is the metaphor closest to hand: the growth stages experienced by all human beings, starting with birth and continuing to maturity. These stages include infancy, childhood, youth, and adulthood.

You bump into this metaphor at various places in the New Testament, used by numerous authors:

Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. (1Co 3:1-3)

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. (1Co 13:11)

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1Co 14:20)

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (Eph 4:14-15)

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Heb 5:12-14)

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation… (1Pe 2:2)

Infants, in the above passages, require spiritual milk. They cannot digest “solid food.” They are vulnerable to false teaching and vacillating in their ways. They can handle only elementary truths—like teaching on repentance and baptism (Heb 6:1-2). Children think in childish ways. They reason poorly. Adults are spiritual. They think in mature ways. They eat solid food (and can understand teachings that are spiritually discerned—1Co 2:13-15). They are teachers. They speak the truth in love. They know well the difference between good and evil.

Stages of Maturity in John’s Letter?

John seems to be using this metaphor in addressing different segments of, differing levels of spiritual maturity in his congregation:

I write to you, dear children,
      because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
I write to you, fathers,
      because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
      because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, dear children,
      because you have known the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
      because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
      because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you,
      and you have overcome the evil one.

There is healthy debate about John’s use of the terms “children,” “fathers,” and “young men.” It seems clear that he is addressing different segments of his audience. But are these terms to be taken literally … is John speaking to actual children, fathers, and young men? Or is John referring metaphorically to people at different stages of spiritual development? There are scholars who argue that “children” refers to those recently initiated into the Christian faith, whose sins are forgiven and who confess faith in God. “Fathers” (in this view) would refer to those who have walked with God for a long time, growing deep in their knowledge of him. “Young men” must refer, then, to those who are doing battle with the evil one (stronger and less vulnerable than children) but who have not yet attained the wisdom, maturity, and spiritual experience of fathers.

Based on what we read in John’s letter, he is addressing disciples who struggle with “walking in the light,” confessing sins, trusting the forgiveness of Christ when they do sin, obeying Christ’s commands, loving each other, loving the world, refuting false teachings, and maintaining assurance about their salvation. If John is not just boxing with straw men in this letter, if he’s actually addressing issues that readers of this letter found problematic, then it is easy to understand why John would have to address a range of stages of maturity in this church.

Stages of Maturity in a Parable of Jesus

Though employing a fundamentally different metaphor (agricultural rather than developmental), the parable of the Sower may well distinguish between levels of maturity in a manner similar to the passages above. After speaking the parable, Jesus “interprets” it for his disciples:

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Mt 13:18-23)

Interesting that—here as in the epistles—there are four different types of people referred to, four different kinds of “soil,” four different levels of response to the seed. The first type of soil (like the “infants” of the epistles) is characterized by passivity, helplessness, and vulnerability to outside forces. The seed is snatched away. These people are stillborn in the faith.

The second type of soil (like the “children” of the epistles) is enthusiastic, receptive, eager. But there is no depth, no root, to their faith and when troubles arise (pain, difficulty, disapproval), the response is rapid abandonment. Like children grown bored or discouraged, this soil is described as fickle and unstable.

The third type of soil (like the “youth” of the epistles) hears the word and allows it to set down roots. The problem here is not passivity or helplessness. Nor is it fear of pain or disapproval. The struggle here is with competing values, more mature temptations. Worry. Greed. The illusion of security that possessions can give. These choke out the word, strangle its roots, and stifle the effectiveness of a once vigorous growth.

The final soil (like the “adult” of the epistles) survives the faith-robbing attacks of outside forces, weathers the troubling storms, and resists competing temptations that would crowd out the word in their hearts. These people hear the word, understand it (a defining characteristic of “adults” in the epistles), and let it thrive. They are “fruitful” (again, an adult quality). And they provide seed for the future from the bounty of the seed’s fruitfulness in their own lives.

Thus, in passages related to spiritual growth and development, the writers of Scripture borrow from the physical realm to describe distinct stages of maturity: the infant, the child, the youth, and the adult.

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