What does a mature Christian look like?
When I read the Old Testament prophets, their images sometimes arrest me. A case in point: Isaiah 61.
In this passage the prophet addresses an exiled and dispirited Israel. He says that the Spirit of God has commissioned him to “bring good news to the oppressed.” His message, he says, is to give them the “oil of gladness instead of mourning.” He declares to “all who mourn” God’s plan to restore the ruined city of Jerusalem.
Then comes this striking phrase:
They [the returning exiles] will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. (Isaiah 61:3)
There it is, that image “oaks of righteousness.” The mature oak is a strong, sturdy tree. It sometimes can grow to great height. We have one in our backyard. And it produces a wealth of acorns at this time of year.
All of that sturdy tree is contained in the acorn. But what a contrast that mature tree is to the seed. The acorn is the embryo of a tree. The grown tree is the picture of magnificent maturity. God never intends the acorn to remain an acorn. It is to grow into its intended destiny.
Asking an Important Question
This image raises the question for me: What qualities define a spiritually mature person?
In my own denomination (the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.), our Book of Order has a chapter describing the mission of the church in its educational and pastoral care. The text contains this striking sentence: “The nurture of believers and their children in the Christian community is a process of bringing them to full maturity in Jesus Christ” (paragraph W-6.1003). I have highlighted the phrase in italics to call attention to it.
What is this full maturity in Jesus Christ? In fact, what does a mature Christian look like? I consider that an important question because how we understand full maturity will guide the goals and the methods we pursue in our “our process of bringing them to full maturity in Jesus Christ”. I am not sure many Christian educators or pastors have taken time to ask that question of themselves.
It is also an important question to ask because there are millions of Christians in the world today. They live at innumerably different levels of spiritual maturity. Yet their actions and their behaviors, commendable or not, shape how the world at large as well as fellow Christians see our faith.
If we want to challenge some of the immature and discreditable things Christians do and say, do we know on what basis we make our challenge? Are we judging others on the basis of our own inchoate prejudices? Or do we have a clear and thoughtful sense of what a “fully mature” Christian looks like?
It’s not an easy question to answer. For one, the answer may vary from person to person depending upon a person’s unique calling in life. We do not expect the mature fruit of a tomato seed to look exactly like the mature growth of an acorn. And for another, we find several different pictures of maturity in the Biblical texts. It is not easy to unite them into one simple, coherent whole. But let me hazard a few thoughts that come from my own reading in Scripture.
First, maturity is not the same thing as giftedness. A person may have many extraordinary gifts or talents that set him or her apart. But those gifts may say nothing about the emotional maturity or character of the person. History offers many examples. Mozart, for example. There have been few musicians more gifted than Mozart, but that does not say Mozart was a paragon of emotional maturity in his behavior.
Nor is spiritual maturity to be equated with deep piety. One may be deeply committed to a life of piety. That can bear admirable fruit in the character of a Christian, but not necessarily so. We can all think of people who, like the Pharisees in the gospels, are obsessive in their devotional practices, yet in their behavior give Christianity a bad odor in the wider world.
Some Initial Thoughts on an Answer
So what does spiritual maturity look like to me?
I find myself turning to Psalm 1 for one picture of maturity. There we have mature believers, people who meditate day and night on Torah, compared to trees that are planted by streams of water. (Note again the image of the tree.) Because they are so planted, they possess a basic stability. When the gales come, the winds may assault them, but they do not uproot them. In this respect, they contrast with the wicked who are rootless. The wicked blow about in the gales like lightweight chaff.
Also the trees of the righteous prove fruitful. They are productive in their work. They accomplish things.
I find it fascinating that three different psalms (Psalm 1, 52, and 92) all employ the image of the rooted tree as an image of spiritual stability just as does the prophet in Isaiah 61. In Psalms 52 and 92, those trees draw their stability by their being planted in the house of the Lord.
The second passage I draw upon in my understanding of spiritual maturity is Galatians 5:22-23. There the apostle Paul names the fruit of the Spirit. That fruit consists of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Note that these are not primarily actions. They are traits of character that will express themselves in the believer’s action. Once again note that when the apostle uses the word “fruit,” he is drawing upon the image of a fruit tree.
Although the Galatians passage draws my attention to traits of character, I also think maturity can express itself in particular actions. And here I find myself returning to Jesus’ teaching on the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28). The spiritually mature person is able to do two things well. One is to love God with all of his or her being; the other is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
There may be much more to say about this question. But they are my initial thoughts. What are yours?