Christian Spiritual Maturity is a term I use in place of the Evangelical – Christian Discipleship, or the Catholic – Christian Spirituality. In my experience they are essentially talking about the same thing. In both cases they are wrestling with the question of what Christians need to do in order to grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ, and so enter more deeply into a relationship with the Father? Or in other words, how do we become the mature christians God intended for us to be?
I began my own exploration into Spiritual Maturity through the book Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, so I shall begin this web page by quoting the first paragraph of his book.
“Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”
In David Runcorn’s book Spirituality Workbook he makes a similar point.
“Jesus often taught that things of most value are not lying around on the surface of life…Our dilemma is that there are few areas in our culture that know how to nurture depth and honour the time that is needed to cultivate it…When so much needs to happen on the surface there is real pressure to neglect the hard, steady work of putting down deep roots for our living and praying.”
Philip Yancey tells this story in his excellent book Reaching for the Invisible God.
“My Pastor in Chicago, Bill Leslie, said he often felt like an old hand-operated water pump, the kind found in some camp grounds. Everyone who came to him for help would pump vigorously a few times, and each time he felt something drain out of him. Ultimately he reached a place of spiritual emptiness, with nothing more to give. He felt dry, dessicated.
In the midst of this period, Bill went on a week-long retreat and bared his soul to his assigned spiritual director, a nun. He expected her to offer soothing words about what a sacrificial, unselfish person he was, or perhaps recommend a sabbatical. Instead she said, “Bill, there’s only one thing to do if your reservoir runs dry. You’ve got to go deeper.” He returned from that retreat convinced that his faith depended less on his outer journey of life and ministry than on his inner journey toward spiritual depth.
In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where I live, well-diggers drilled down 640 feet before striking water for our house. Even then the water only trickled until they used a technique called ‘fracking’, short for hydro-fracturing. Pumping water down the well shaft at very high pressure, technicians shattered the granite into gravel and opened seams for water flow. As I watched, pressures that to me seemed likely to destroy the well actually tapped new sources of water. I’m sure Bill Leslie would appreciate the analogy: extreme pressure, seemingly destructive, forced him to seek new sources of strength – the very reason he had pursued spiritual direction in the first place.”
So Christian Spiritual Maturity is the heading I have chosen to describe the many ways in which Christians over the centuries have sought to make that transforming journey into the deep. This is not about Salvation, as Rick Warren makes clear in his book/course The Purpose Driven Life. He quotes Philippians 2: vs 12-13 “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Then writes…
“This verse shows the two parts of spiritual growth: ‘work out‘ and ‘work in.’ The ‘work out‘ is your responsibility, and the ‘work in‘ is God’s role. Spiritual growth is a collaborative effort between you and the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit works with us, not just in us.This verse, written to believers, is not about how to be saved, but how to grow. It does not say ‘work for‘ your salvation, because you can’t add anything to what Jesus already did. During a physical ‘workout,’ you exercise to develop your body, not to get a body.
When you ‘work out‘ a puzzle, you already have all the pieces – your task is to put them together. Farmers ‘work‘ the land, not to get land, but to develop what they already have. God has given you a new life; now you are responsible to develop it ‘with fear and trembling.’ That means to take your spiritual growth seriously! When people are casual about their spiritual growth, it shows they don’t understand the eternal implications.”
Of course, people had been pursuing the goal of spiritual growth for a long time before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We can see it in the relationship that God had with Moses and the prophets – their spiritual lives moulded by the solitude and silence of the desert. But as the Christian church grew and spread across the middle east and Europe, different spiritual disciplines developed to help people open up to the transforming and guiding work of the Holy Spirit in reaching this goal.
Returning to Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline, he lists these spiritual disciplines as follows:
The Inward Disciplines: 1) Meditation. 2) Prayer. 3) Fasting. 4) Study.
The Outward Disciplines: 1) Simplicity. 2) Solitude. 3) Submission. 4) Service.
The Corporate Disciplines: 1) Confession. 2) Worship. 3) Guidance. 4) Celebration.
Alternatively you can break the subject of Christian Maturity into its different traditions: Orthodox; Franciscan; Benedictine; Quaker; Ignatian; Cistercian, etc. In another of Richard Foster’s books Streams of Living Water, he uses different labels for these traditions:
The Contemplative Tradition – Discovering the Prayer-Filled Life.
The Holiness Tradition – Discovering the Virtuous Life.
The Charismatic Tradition – Discovering the Spirit-Empowered Life.
The Social Justice Tradition – Discovering the Compassionate Life.
The Evangelical Tradition – Discovering the Word-Centred Life.
The Incarnational Tradition – Discovering the Sacramental Life.
Of course, it is not essential that we study the lives and ideas of those who have gone before us. The problems we face in our ordinary lives, the relationships we have, our times of rejoicing and our times of sorrow, all have the capacity to mould us and draw us closer to God if we respond to these experiences with trust and hope in the loving Father who is always with us. So it is the choices that we make every day which will either keep us moving on our journey into the spiritual likeness of Christ, or will send us in the opposite direction. There are things that we can do which will help the process along, and things that will get in the way of that process happening. For this reason, it makes sense to look at the lives and ideas of those who have gone before us to see what we can learn from them.
Some years ago in the United Kingdom there was a mass slaughter of sheep to prevent an infection spreading. As I watched the story unravel on the television I was surprised to discover that one generation of sheep teach the next generation about the area they live in. Sheep need this guidance from those who have been around for a while, and in the same way we can benefit from those who have travelled the spiritual road ahead of us. Without their advice we might not think of spending time studying the Bible or praying. We might pursue wealth, with all its entanglements, rather than the freedom that is found in a simpler lifestyle. We might strive to increase our status at work rather than discover the quiet confidence of our status in God. We might grasp for fleeting fancies rather than know the a contentment which is not dependent on what we have acquired. We might seek for God at the top of the ladder of life, unaware that he is the suffering servant who freely places himself at the bottom of the ladder. These are all discoveries that others have made on their spiritual journey and we can learn from them.
So…to finish with some words of St Paul:
“Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
(Philippians 3 : 17-21 TNIV)