EHS: Becoming an Emotionally Mature Christian
6/7/2018 7:32:02 PM
June 3, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: 1 John 2:12-17
The difference between an infant and a toddler is astounding. The difference between a toddler and a young adult is similarly astounding! We don’t expect infants to behave like toddlers. Nor do we expect toddlers to behave like young adults. We just don’t expect that of them!
But sometimes toddlers behave like infants. They have meltdowns and scream and cry. Similarly, young adults have been known to behave like toddlers at times. But what if your toddler always acted like an infant? What if your young adult never developed beyond the abilities of a toddler? What about adults who always act like children? We would know something is wrong! We would be terribly concerned. We wouldn’t be satisfied with, “Oh, they’ve been born. That’s all that matters! They’re alive!” No, we’d be concerned as to why they were not developing and maturing!
And yet, when it comes to our spirituality, how often do we see Christians who should be mature, acting like spiritual toddlers or infants? How often do we, ourselves, throw spiritual temper tantrums (or real ones)?
Frankly, one of the reasons that the church in the West has lost so much ground over the last century is due, in part, to Christians who act like spiritual infants and toddlers. The church, the body of believers, has lost credibility because too many Christians who’ve been Christians a long time, are not maturing and developing spiritually. But, contrary to what our response would be to adults who didn’t mature developmentally, Christians often throw up their hands and say, “Well, they’re born again. That’s all that matters! They have new life!” We’re not concerned as to why they are not developing and maturing emotionally and spiritually.
In fact, when confronted with such immature Christians, we often cover for them! We ignore their immature activities, we appease them, we try to sweep it under the carpet. And in the end, not only is the individual never helped to grow spiritually, but the church community as a whole suffers.
This should not be so! Jesus’ doesn’t want us to remain spiritual infants. He wants us to grow and mature. The “theological” word for this is sanctification. What it means is being transformed by the Holy Spirit in our character so that we are more like Jesus. But the Spirit only works with those who are cooperating with him. He will not do violence to our will. So we are often left as spiritual infants because we are not using the tools the Spirit gives us to cooperate with Him to become more like Christ. It’s gotten to the point where we don’t even know we’re supposed to be growing up! We don’t even realize there’s a problem, that most of us are spiritually stunted.
But there’s good news! “Jesus loves you just the way you are, and too much to let you stay that way.” Jesus loves us when we are spiritual infants (actually, he loves us even before that- while we were yet sinners Christ died for us!). Spiritual infants are saved, their future is eternal life at the resurrection.
Jesus loves us too much to let us stay spiritual infants. He wants us to know the Father, so grow in the Fruit of the Spirit, to overcome evil, to love others as we love ourselves. This includes finding healing from our brokenness, overcoming the sin that dwells within our hearts, overcoming the effects of others’ sin upon us, causing wounds and brokenness of another kind. Jesus would have us grow in joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
Jesus loves the church, but he’s not satisfied with churches filled with anger, gossip, control, backbiting, sexual immorality, greed and the like. Jesus wants us to grow up! He wants us to stop living like spiritual infants and toddlers!
To be honest, this is nothing new. Since the first days of Christianity, churches have struggled with growing and maturing spiritually. Many passages of the New Testament are focused on the need to grow spiritually, even after coming to Christ. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, Paul refers to the Christians in Corinth as spiritual infants, only able to handle spiritual milk, not spiritual meat as they should be able to.
Turn together to 1 John 2:12-17. This is another passage that speaks of growth, of different stages in spiritual maturing. Later, in Chapter 4, John speaks at length that if we love God, we must love one another, that God himself is love.
What It Says
The first thing to note is that children or infants in Christ is a term of endearment. As Christians, we are adopted by God. Through Christ we can all say, “Abba! Father!” All Christians, all believers, are the adopted sons and daughters of God, the King of Kings. That makes us all princes and princesses in the Kingdom of God. This is a good thing, this is nothing to dismiss. Being a child of God is awesome. Being born again, born of the Spirit as John describes in his Gospel, is wonderful and that new birth is what makes us infants in Christ.
Our passage says, “I write to you dear children because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.” Remember, becoming an infant in Christ means our sins are forgiven. We are redeemed. This is the biggest and most important thing in the whole world. And this forms the foundation from which we build upward. All of our talk of growing spiritually, of maturing spiritually, is based on the foundation of our salvation in Christ. We must never forget that as we speak of further growth.
Now, the second group John addresses are fathers in Christ. Who are these? These are both men and women who have matured spiritually. They have deep wisdom and experience in Christ. They know Christ who is from the beginning. They have a deep experience of Jesus that is shaping them to be like him.
The third group or category John speaks to are “young men in Christ.” These are, again, not necessarily just men. It’s an image, an illustration for growth in spiritual maturity. Young men in Christ are passionate and strong in the faith. They have begun to overcome sin in their lives. They are starting to see success verses indwelling sin through the work of the Holy Spirit making them holy.
Honestly, many Christians never reach this point. Many never become young men in Christ, overcoming sin. How do I know? Because our churches are so full of people who are angry, filled with rage, or malice, or greed or lust. The divorce rate in the church is just like that outside the church. There are too many children who have grown up in church who have been abused by supposed Christians. Our churches are not winning people to Christ because of how amazing our relationships are. Few of us have matured to the point we are overcoming the evil one, either in the world or in our own hearts.
Young men in Christ have the word of God dwelling in them, reshaping their hearts, their wills, their desires and imaginations. The word of God is producing in them the Fruit of the Spirit.
John goes on to speak of not loving the world. One might wonder what that means, because in his Gospel, John writes that God loves the world and that is why he sent Jesus. We are to love people, even “worldly” people. We are to love creation, which will one day be redeemed and renewed. What we are not to love is the world shaped by evil and sin. We are not to love the present age of sin. We’ve spoken before about the two overlapping ages, the age of sin and the age to come, the age of God’s authority and kingdom. These two ages overlap from the time of Christ’s death on the cross to the time of his return. When he returns, the present age of sin will end and only the kingdom of God will remain. We are not to love the age of sin, “the world” with all of its sinful structures, systems and regimes.
In contrast to loving this world, we are to persevere in obedience to God. This is the only thing that lasts. Obedience to God is what matters in the end. Those who do the will of God live forever in his kingdom. This is not about works. This is not about earning our place in God’s kingdom. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ. However, once we have new life, we are expected to persevere. We are expected to learn obedience and how to do the will of God. That is, we are to mature spiritually.
And what is the will of God? To love God wholly and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
What It Means
Since the early church, there have been problems with growing spiritually and becoming spiritually mature. The church in Corinth, to which Paul wrote his two letters, was in disarray. There was conflict with in the church and between the church and Paul. Not only were they spiritually immature, but they thought they were actually more mature than Paul! 1 Corinthians, as a whole, is a warning to those who thought their spiritual gifts and service made them spiritually mature. That’s not the mark of maturity, love is.
So the church in the West today, although spiritually immature, is in good company. There is help out
there. Let me use an image to help us understand.
In the past, when speaking of evangelism, we’ve spoken of a scale from 1 to 100, with the cross at 50. Getting to 50 on this scale represents coming to Christ, becoming a Christian. Evangelism means cooperating with the Holy Spirit to help people take steps towards faith in Christ. It means helping people move from 1 to 50. In the NT, Paul uses the image from farming of planting seeds, watering them and then harvesting. There are stages along the way to coming to Christ.
Now, on the other side of 50, from 50 to 100, we see stages of growth as Christians. There are infants in Christ, a term Paul uses in 1 Cor 3, children in Christ, young men in Christ and fathers in Christ. There is growth on the other side of coming to faith, there is more cooperating with the Holy Spirit, only now instead of just coming to faith in Christ, the goal is becoming like Christ. The goal is to have our character refreshed, renewed and transformed so that our thoughts, feelings, wills, desires, preferences and imaginations are like Christ’s.
Let me reiterate, no matter where you are on this scale, Jesus loves you just the way you are. But let me also remind you, he loves you too much to let you stay that way! If you’re not a believer, if you’re between 1 and 50, even if you’re way down near 1, Jesus loves you just the way you are. But too much to let you stay that way. He wants you to keep moving towards faith in him.
Similarly, if you are a believer, if you’re an infant or child in Christ, Jesus loves you just the way you are! And too much to let you stay that way. His desire is for you to grow to be like him.
That loving others is the measure of spiritual maturity means that we cannot become spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature. Emotional immaturity interferes with loving others. We can serve, we can be gifted, we can give generously to God, while being emotionally immature. But loving others, making their well-being our primary concern, requires emotional maturity. That’s what Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Emotionally Healthy Relationships are all about!
In Lesson 7 of EHS, Pete Scazzero connects the dots. To be an emotionally mature Christian, we must see others in terms of “I/Thou,” rather than our natural, fallen tendency, so relate to others in terms of “I/it.” Most of us, most of the time, relate to others as “its.” We relate to them in terms of how they affect us, what they can do for us, whether or not they are an inconvenience to us, etc. But maturity means seeing them as “Thou.” Seeing them as wholly formed in the image of God, loved by Christ and of incredibly value just by being human. When we see them as image bearers of God, we are concerned with their well-being, we love them, are patient with them, kind to them, etc. (Think about 1 Cor 13.)
Loving God wholly and loving others is the mark of spiritual maturity. This is how Jesus summed up all the laws, rules and commands of the Old Testament! Loving others is actually quite hard. Loving God is not as hard because God never lets us down, he’s not in our face, he’s not inconvenient or selfish or difficult. But other people do let us down, they are in our face, they are inconvenient, selfish and difficult. And we have to love them anyway! That take emotional maturity, but that’s what spiritual maturity is all about.
Our spiritual maturity is not measured by what we profess, but by what we practice. We may hold all the right doctrines, we may be able to fathom all the theological mysteries we come across, but if we are not loving others as Christ loved us, we are just making noise. Yes, we must learn and grow in knowledge of Jesus and what the Bible says about him. What we profess is important, but only in so far as it tells us how God loves us so we can love him back and love others too. Knowledge alone puffs up, make people arrogant. It is when we put that knowledge into practice loving others that it becomes useful.
Being other-centred is not something we can generate on our own. We can’t muster up enough will-power to truly become other-centred. Self-centredness is the heart of sin. The temptation to be like God is self-centred. It takes a work of God the Holy Spirit in us to radically alter the very orientation of our nature to be other-centred.
So what are we to do? How do we grow into spiritually mature Christians? First, let me start by saying that being an infant in Christ is a wonderful thing! IF you’re not yet a believer in Jesus, let me tell you that being born again, being born of the Spirit and becoming an infant in Christ is out of this world. It is nothing to downplay. Seek after it!
Second, if you’re an infant in Christ because you’re a new believer, welcome to the family! WE don’t expect you to be spiritually mature as soon as you come to Christ. If you’re a new believer, enjoy your newfound
status as a child of God, adopted into his royal family. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not spiritually mature yet, but know that is the goal. It’s not Jesus’ will for you to get to 50 or 51 and stay there. Your journey is not yet complete. Why? Because Jesus loves you just the way you are, and too much to let you stay that way!
Third, wherever you are at spiritually, no matter your spiritual maturity, if you are a believer, thank God. Because it is the work of God in you to come to faith in the first place. Be grateful. Show God gratitude for saving you and bringing you to the place you’re in now. Jesus is keen for you to grow spiritually, so start cooperating with him and watch him move within you to become more mature.
Also no matter what your level of spiritual maturity is, don’t let yourself fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others. You don’t know what is in another person’s heart. So don’t compare yourself with others. As CS Lewis pointed out, some people’s sins are more visible than others, more public than others. We only see the outside of a person, God sees their heart!
Instead, evaluate your spiritual maturity based on the degree to which you love other people. I’m not talking about having warm, affectionate feelings for other people. I’m talking about how much you’re life is dictated by your concern for the well-being of others, in particular their spiritual well-being. And the best test is to see how much you love people who are difficult to love. Do you see people as created in the image of God? Do you see them as Christ sees them? Because he loves them just the way they are! And because he is so concerned with their spiritual well-being, he’s not willing to let them stay that way. Are you?
Infants, physical and spiritual infants both, only see others in terms of what those people can do for the infant. Infants see their parents in terms of providing them, caring for them, comforting them, etc. And that’s entirely appropriate for infants! But if they don’t grow out of that attitude, they grow up to be spoiled brats.
Children, toddlers, are also very self-centred. They see others in selfish terms too, but are beginning to learn how to communicate with those others, develop some empathy for them, and learning to interact with and even obey their parents. Spiritual children are also learning empathy and how to interact with others. They are also learning the early stages of obedience. But that’s it.
Young men [and women] in Christ are learning to serve others, to share with others, to reach out to others. They are passionate and energized to serve God and his people.
Fathers and mothers, though, see people differently still. A father or mother sees their own children through love-coloured glasses. A father sees his son or daughter and decides that, if necessary, he would throw himself in front of a train to save him or her. Parenthood prepares us to be other centred in a way that few other things can. I think that might actually be one of the key characteristics of a father in Christ- how you see infants in Christ! How you see others in Jesus, as beloved children, like one of your own.
Do you see difficult people as your own infant child? That’s how God sees them! That’s how Jesus sees them. That’s how the Holy Spirit wants us to see them. He wants us to look on someone else and be moved with compassion for them just like we would be moved if we saw our own infant child. That’s what it’s like to be like Christ.
The more I grow spiritually, the more I mature as a Christian, the more I will see others, including difficult people, with love-tinted lenses. That’s how Jesus sees them and that’s how Jesus sees me. Jesus loves me and them just the way we are, and too much to let us stay that way. Amen.
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