“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” 1 Cor 3:1-3
Many years ago, I was leading a large group of adults in a study of 1 Corinthians 3, where Paul bemoans the lack of spiritual maturity in the church. I asked the group three questions:
- What are the marks of spiritual maturity?
- How long does it take?
- Do you consider yourself spiritually mature?
I wrote their responses in one column on a whiteboard. The answers to the first question were along the lines of developing the Fruit of the Spirit, developing hunger for God’s word, practicing spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study and so forth.
When I asked about how long it takes, responses were all variations on the theme of “Well, it’s an ongoing process.” Similarly, very few adults were willing to say, “Yes, I am spiritually mature.” One said, “Christians are always arriving, never arrived.”
These answers were not wrong. Paul consistently writes about God perfecting the work he began in us (Philippians 1:6); not having already been made perfect (Philippians 3:12-13); and attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13-14).
All of these are true statements. None of us have arrived. We are always pressing on toward the upward call.
I wonder, though, if we sometimes use these verses as an excuse for not being ready to lead a Bible study, or share Jesus with an unbeliever. “I just don’t know enough” we say, or “I’m not confident enough to share my faith.”
But are we overthinking what it means to be mature? In that Bible study, I changed the question. I said, “So, what if instead of a group of Christians, we were a group of biologists, trying to decide when an animal was biologically mature? What would be on the list?”
This time, the list was pretty short:
- No longer depends on mother’s milk
- Capable of reproducing
If we take the marks of maturity out of the realm of the ideal and into the practical, the scorecard changes:
- Are you studying God’s Word for yourself, or are you wholly dependent on a teacher breaking it down for you?
- Are you reproducing?
As far as biology is concerned, if you are doing those things, you are mature. If not, you aren’t.
Maybe the conversation would change if we stopped talking about spiritual maturity and started talking about spiritual adulthood.
A Tale of Two Vertebrates
When I Googled the phrase “fastest animal to maturity,” I learned about the African Annual Fish. These little guys spend their entire lives in rain puddles left behind after the rainy season in East Africa. They hatch from eggs that have been dormant in the mud since last season. Within seventeen days, they are capable of laying and fertilizing eggs of their own. And when the puddle dries up, they are gone.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Olm salamander, which is found in the secure, isolated caves of Eastern Europe. They can live for as long as 100 years, but don’t begin reproducing until around 16 years of age.
The lesson? When time is short, we get busy. When we feel like we have all the time in the world, we take our time.
The problem in the church is that we would like our churches to be more like caves—secure, protected, cool, comfortable, and separated from the rest of the world. However, the Bible describes the world and our place in it much more like a rain puddle. Consider these verses:
- “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (Eph. 5:15)
- “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity” (Col. 4:5)
- “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12)
- “You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:13)
I wonder if it’s time for us to own up to the responsibilities that come with being grown-ups? The writer of Hebrews seemed to think so:
Although by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the basic principles of God’s revelation again. You need milk, not solid food. Now everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced with the message about righteousness, because he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature —for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)
Are you a spiritual adult?