The Maturation Instinct

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In most respects, we are programmed for growth. There is—in each of us—a genetic code that pushes us from immaturity to maturity … from undeveloped to fully-formed.

  • The crawling of an infant that turns eventually into tottering steps.
  • The awkwardness of adolescence that becomes the grace and ease of young adulthood.
  • The amateur mistakes of the novice that mature into the competence of the veteran.

DNAPerhaps it is easiest to see this press for maturity—this instinct for growth—in the physical realm: tiny baby, pudgy child, pubescent teen, strong adult. But even a moment’s reflection will demonstrate this same instinct in the intellectual, social, emotional, and artistic realms as well. Everything in us, everything about us, is struggling to grow and develop and mature. Take away the tiniest urge towards growth in any of these areas and we recognize immediately that something has gone terribly wrong.

Is there a similar “growth instinct” for the spirit? Is there a sense that you and I are hard-wired for spiritual growth and development? Does this same press and striving to mature occur in the spiritual realm? If this press is missing, does that raise any alarms for us?

The biblical answers to these questions would be “Yes” and “No.”

“Yes,” spiritual maturation is meant to happen in Christians … expected to take place. The authors of the New Testament make it clear that progress from immaturity to maturity, from spiritual helplessness to spiritual competence, should be the norm. Listen to the language of the Apostles:

“We pray that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience…” (Col 1:10-11)

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

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2Pe 3:18)

 “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity…” (Heb 6:1)

Even that giant-in-the-faith Paul was never satisfied with spiritual inertia in himself. His personal path was deeply committed to constant growth, to persistent development.

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…. One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal…” (Php 3:12-14)

The Apostles devoted an immoderate amount of time to ensuring that this kind of spiritual growth and development occurred in the lives of believers. All you need do is think of Paul and the Thessalonians:

“We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day… You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God.” (1Th 2:10-12)

Every New Testament epistle is primarily a “maturing document,” written with the intent and purpose of growing young believers into full-grown, holy, loving, and Christ-like disciples. Paul, Peter, John, James, the Hebrews writer—all addressed either green believers who needed to ripen, or ministers charged with helping those same believers grow up. The New Testament as a whole is not an evangelistic book … it is a maturational book!

So spiritual growth (like physical growth) is expected in Scripture. It is seen as normative for those who follow Christ. But if such development is normative, it does not happen naturally. Spiritual maturity doesn’t follow the same course as physical growth which, given a few basic conditions, occurs automatically. In the Spirit realm, there is no maturational ‘gravity’ that exerts its force upon disciples with universal and inevitable results. Sometimes Christians don’t grow up. They get stuck. Old habits and attitudes do not die. New habits and attitudes do not form. Immaturity becomes characteristic rather than transitional.

When that happens, when Christians who should be growing fail to do so, the Apostles do not simply shrug and wink. They do not pat the immature on the head and imply that a state of perpetual immaturity for some is either condoned or tolerated. Rather, they react with surprise, disappointment, and rebuke.

“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.” (1Cor 3:1-3a)

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

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” (Gal 4:19)

“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)

Immaturity, lack of growth, failure-to-thrive does happen among disciples of Christ. But the Apostles never approve of it, never baptize it as inevitable. Habitual immaturity is not what God intends. Never does immaturity provoke anything in the Apostles other than mourning and redoubled efforts to help people grow up.

Thus, while spiritual maturation is expected of Christians, it does not always happen, is not always easy, and is never a natural process that can simply be assumed. Even when disciples are cared for lovingly (“as a father”), even when nourished diligently, even when encouraged and trained and disciplined, spiritual maturation is not inevitable.

“Growing up in Christ” requires three significant influences, all exerting themselves on our innate, God-breathed capacity for spiritual development. It requires the Spirit of God working on and in us to stimulate spiritual growth. It also requires personal intent—our willingness to partner with the Spirit to pursue God’s purposes for our lives. And, finally, spiritual development requires a community of people dedicated to the goal of perfecting people in Christ. [Link to next article.]

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