The Full Riches of Complete Understanding
As with many spiritual questions, I think part of the problem is that our cultural understanding of maturity conflicts with the Biblical ideal. So what is maturity not, that we might think it is?
It is not independence. In the UK there is a concern that so many ‘children’ are remaining at home with their parents long into their 20s and even 30s. Our culture tells us that living with mum and dad is a sign of immaturity and is thus a Bad Thing. This can carry over into a subconscious belief that reliance on God is also a bad thing (in line with the oft-quoted criticism that Christianity is a crutch for the weak). It’s not the fact of being independent that turns people from teenagers into mature adults when they leave home, it’s the process of facing and dealing with difficulties – having to budget, having to choose a balanced diet over junk food, having to negotiate with flatmates who takes the rubbish out, how the bills are paid, and what happens when the milk runs out or the floor gets dirty. Taking on challenges is essential to maturity, and it seems that as our capacity increases, so do the challenges. Paul’s thorn in the flesh wasn’t a sign that he was immature and unsuccessful in his walk, but that he was still utterly dependent on God, despite his maturity.
It is not perfection. Jeremy Simpkins spoke powerfully at a recent Newfrontiers conference about what it means to boast in our weakness. Our culture tells us that weakness is bad, that we need to hide our weaknesses and play to our strengths. When a Christian – especially a Christian leader – is willing to be honest and open about his struggles and weaknesses, though, it is usually a sign of maturity. That doesn’t mean we can stop striving for high standards of output, simply that we should stop trying to pretend to others that we are perfect. They know it’s not true, but it takes maturity for us to admit it, especially in public.
It is not intellect/knowledge. I once heard a definition of the difference between intelligence and wisdom: intelligence is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad (or as I saw on twitter the other day – knowing that ketchup is not a smoothie – ugh!). You can have barely a shred of intelligence but be incredibly rich in wisdom, which is of far higher value to the church, and which is a by-product of maturity.
It is not success. The goal of the Christian life is not to get through the difficult times and into a life of ease, robust health and prosperity. There’s a heavy dose of ‘fellowship in his sufferings’ that goes alongside maturity. Our culture tells us that struggles make us stronger, but the expectation is that these struggles are steps along the road, and maturity is signified by the fact that we no longer struggle but glide through life hassle-free. That model is just not borne out by the examples of any of the heroes of the faith.
So what is maturity? What will be some of the characteristics we see in each other as we grow in maturity? David Holden preached recently on this from Colossians 2 and listed the following:
It is being knit together in love. It involves learning from and teaching others, growing in unity and dealing with our differences. Interestingly, Paul’s desire in his letter to the Colossians is “that they [the “holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse”, those at Laodicea and “all who have not met me personally”] may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding” (my emphasis). Wisdom, it seems, develops through relationship, through understanding how others view the world, and learning how to discover the truth together.
It is understanding God’s mystery. David described this as understanding the narrative of the Scriptures and the overarching will of God, and living out our part of the plan.
It is being strong and established in truth, not allowing other thoughts and ideas to knock us off course, but living for God’s purposes.
It is overflowing with thankfulness. This also relies on a strong understanding of God’s narrative and truth. The mature person does not get bogged down by his or her circumstances, but is thankful for the reality of God’s lordship over time and space.
It is overcoming the powers that affect our culture. Col 2:8 says “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces [or ‘the basic principles’] of this world rather than on Christ.” Our culture has got some pretty firmly entrenched ideas which can bog us down or send us striving after entirely the wrong things. Maturity comes alongside learning to read our culture, understand its values and minister to it without being deceived by it and lured into agreement with its values.
None of these things is incompatible with a deep dependence on God. In fact, all assume and require a depth of intimacy in relationship with him which involves constant communication, submission to his will, and a readiness to follow wherever he leads. Perhaps then, to return to my cycling analogy, the picture should be less of a child seeking to cycle away from his father, and more of a lover choosing to share her lover’s tandem.