As much as we try to avoid any hint of superiority in matters of faith, the fact remains that we are called, as we mature, to grow in an ever-deepening understanding and experience of our faith. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that we are to make a clear distinction between what is elemental to our faith and what is food that leads to maturity (5:12–14). From beginning to full maturity, the spiritual goals of our faith need to be clearly taught and understood by all who journey toward God.
Whereas Catholic and Orthodox believers have deep-rooted traditions of holiness with saints as models of maturity, Protestants are often left with a much more curtailed vision of the spiritual life. After learning the elemental teachings of the faith, our main focus seems to be on converting others so that, in turn, we can teach these same elemental truths to them. There is nothing wrong with this objective in itself but, if it becomes the only thrust of our spirituality, it will result in a thin expression of our faith.
A saint’s example
In the earlier centuries of Christianity, to grow in your faith, you might seek out a saint – one who was mature in the wisdom of God and who had grown in his or her own life’s response to prayer. Others could learn and model themselves after these men and women who were expressions of first-hand knowledge of God. Implicit in their spiritual direction was Paul’s invitation to “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Many saints also became teachers around whom disciples seeking maturity in their faith gathered. As these saints modelled the fruit of spirituality in their lives, they encouraged a similar longing for maturity in others. From the zeal of their own pilgrimage, these saints blazed a trail for believers who recognized in them the qualities of spiritual life they desired for themselves. The hunger of their students created the many schools of prayer that now anchor our Christian history.
If we compare the quest for holiness we see in historical Christianity to the objectives expressed in many of our present-day models of growth and maturity, we find that modern pep rallies, motivational seminars, conferences, and classroom teaching seem to be of a different order. Have we lost sight of the far-reaching possibilities that exist for maturity in our faith? Have we neglected the well-trod path of the saints – those whose lives express the quest for unity with Christ – for the familiarity of elemental teachings? Shouldn’t Christian maturity lead us also toward unity with God’s spirit, rather than simply to a better understanding of the tenets of our faith?
The book of Hebrews encouraged the early church to grow beyond the elemental teachings of their faith and to embark on the grand journey that leads to a life more and more in step with God’s. This is also the way forward for 21st-century Christians. We too need to be reminded that spiritual growth is not simply a matter of learning the elemental truths over and over again, but of modelling for one another the bred-in-the-bone reality of what a life devoted to “Christ being formed in us” might actually look like (Galatians 4:19).
Who are the Christians who will model such maturity for us in our day? Who will offer themselves to bear such fruit for the sake of others? Who will demonstrate, in their own pilgrimage, the vitality of a life of continual conversion, so that others will be inspired for themselves? Who will show us, as we grow older in our faith, how to still bear fruit (Psalm 92:14)?
Our first-hand knowledge and experience of Jesus’ dwelling with us is meant to increase to the point where we can say with the apostle Paul that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). A growing desire for such intimacy should be the obvious trait of our maturing love for God. It will lead us increasingly in the direction of deeper relationship with the object of our love.
Faith assures us that, in every generation, the Lord calls forth men and women to offer their lives in response to this invitation. In Jeremiah 30:21, the Lord asks, “Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?” May those who have ears, hear God’s Word to them this day.
“Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity.”