Wednesday, March 23, 2016

CHRISTIAN MATURITY: NOT WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN TAUGHT

What is Christian Maturity?


How you define Christian maturity significantly influences how you see the Christian life, how you read your Bible, how you deal with your failures, how you deal with the failures of other Christians, and how free you will be to be open and honest with other Christians and non-Christian friends. I suggest that there two general ways to answer this question, two very different roads, and two very different affects on you.  The following verse typifies the first.

"I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength." -Philippians 4:13

This beautiful verse was among those I memorized as a young Christian at university 35+ years ago. As a reserved, conflict-avoiding person, this verse really spoke to me. Now that I was a Christian those paralyzing hesitations could be a thing of the past. Christ in me meant that I could handle the difficulties of life. I had the Holy Spirit; I had a new heart and a new nature; God would always be with me. That word strength was attractive to me. To avoid being intimidated by my weaknesses I meditated on this verse and rejoiced in it much. For me Christian maturity was the process of growing in the strength of the Lord. Step by step, with Christ getting all the glory, I could stand firm in Him, in His grace, in His strength. This was what I thought and what I remember hearing others teach and tell me. Do you resonate with this? Can you even think of another way to think of maturity?

Fortunately in those early days I memorized other verses that spoke to me from other angles and they kept me from putting too much emphasis on that word strength.

"But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." -2Corinthians 12:9-10

This one taught me to see my weaknesses as assets and to celebrate them. It affected me much, but it would be many years before its place in Christian maturity dominated my thoughts and words. I now think that Christian maturity is becoming ever more sensitive to my weaknesses and my desperate need of Christ who is strong. Here is the clear choice of the two options.
  1. Christian maturity is growing stronger and stronger with Christ's help.
  2. Christian maturity is growing ever more sensitive to how very weak every Christian (especially self) is and how desperately needy each is of Christ moment by moment.
Please don't fool yourself and think that these are similar. Once you notice the significance of  number two you will grasp how radically different they are. In the last week two Christian men told me of two pastors who committed suicide--one was connected by marriage to one pastor and the other by denominational ties to the other. Both pastors couldn't handle the pressure of needing to be strong. Yesterday I was speaking with a friend who writes for the religion section of the Mormon Church's newspaper. He wanted to discuss Mormons, Evangelicals and politics for his article, but we strayed quickly into our usual conversation about self-righteousness as the big sin problem in churches and in life in general. When I mentioned that Evangelicals generally believe number one above, he expressed surprise and declared that such is what Mormons believe. He was intrigued when I told him of my move from #1 to #2. In the past we have spoken much about the need for honesty about sin in light of the standard of perfection, and so #2 seemed to make sense to him for a Christian to believe.

In my dominant Mormon culture many Christians are from a Mormon background. They are Christians because they came to realize that they were fakes and failures. They then trusted that Jesus did all the work for them and found freedom and joy. Suddenly they are part of us. As they hear us say and preach that with a new heart and the Holy Spirit they can now obey the Lord and do what is right, and that maturity is growing in strength with Christ's help, what do you expect they might sense? Mormonism ingrains in its members that if they have real intent then God will help them keep all the commandments. Since they had been crushed by failure and phoniness under that teaching, how could our words not bring back those haunting memories?

Fruit of Each View


Here are some symptoms that reveal that you are thinking that maturity is a process of growing stronger and stronger with Christ's help. Evaluate yourself. Do you consider yourself to be an obedient Christian? If so what standard do you use? Do you struggle with thoughts that you are a horrible Christian and wonder if you will ever be a good Christian? Do you wish that you were a stronger Christian? Do you hesitate to speak openly and specifically about your weaknesses? Do you tend to make excuses for your failures? When you see other Christians, especially pastors, fall into "serious" sin, do you wonder how they could do that? When you sin do you have the thought that you need to read your Bible more or pray more? Do you think that of others? Do you see your weaknesses as a hindrance to growing as a Christian? Are you worried that other Christians might see you as weak? Is your testimony about the positive changes in our life? Is confession a duty, even a drag?

It is possible to see your weaknesses as the place of celebration in life, and be inconsistent, as I was, in a confused middle ground. When I heard #2 expressed, I embraced it immediately as the hidden cry of my heart. It had been there but I couldn't get it out without help. Do you see the clear distinction between the two options? Is #2 now the cry of your heart, and do you hope to never again say or think #1? If so then welcome to the party.

Here are some positive symptoms that indicate that you may think or are ready to think number 2. Do you see in yourself the seed of every sin you notice in others or can think of? Do you see yourself getting worse in the Christian life rather than better? Do your tiny sins that are invisible to others bother you? When you see other Christians, especially pastors, fall into "serious" sin, do you feel pity and know that such could happen to you if you forget your weakness? When you see Christians nearby sin, do you feel the urge to speak of the cross to comfort them? Do you know for sure that you are not an obedient Christian because perfect love is the standard? Do you find it easy to share your weaknesses and failings with others? When others point out your sins, do you freely welcome that criticism, knowing that you are worse than they know? When others share their failings with you, do you tend to smile and remind them that Jesus is all they need? Is you testimony about God saving a helpless sinner.  To you is confession of sin a glad reminder of your weakness and Christ's finished work? Is confession of sin a joy rather than a drag?

Pretending Away Weakness or Strength?


We all waver in our thoughts, but what you declare openly in your calm clear moments will be what you use to comfort, encourage, and teach yourself and others in times of trouble. If your principle is that Christianity is about becoming strong with Christ's help, then your weaknesses naturally will be seen as a hindrance. What we see as hindrances we tend to ignore, hide or pretend away. Also we tend to pretend that we are more mature than we really are. In this view we tend to confidence in our strength, which sure sounds like pride. Do you see the implications and how this view of maturity can lead to fear, isolation, pride, and false humility?  On the other hand, if your principle is that maturity is about increased awareness of weakness, then you will see  you weaknesses as good, and not see any need to hide them or pretend about them. You will celebrate them and boast in them--but that is what Paul did. If you have confidence in your weaknesses,then who would dare call you proud? Don't we actually call that humility? In this view confidence in your own strength or improvement is seen as bad and something to avoid and suppress. If you do that and boast about your weaknesses and even exaggerate them, and then on top of this you fool yourself into actually thinking that you have no good points in yourself to to trust in--if you actually convince yourself of this--would that really be a bad thing?

If you are tired of shallow relationships, excuse making, and pretending to be something you are not, then I suggest that you consider changing your view of Christian maturity. You may then be surprised at how easy it is to be honest about sin, how easy it is to forgive others, and how much you enjoy life and other people--even when they are failing. But feel free to fight against your weaknesses. As for me, I don't like the pain.

Christian maturity is becoming ever more sensitive to my weaknesses and my desperate need of Christ who is strong.


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