Ancient Wisdom, Today’s Grace: Surprise!

by Phil Ware

When is it okay to think that we’ve arrived at spiritual maturity?

“Daddeee,” Megan said in her sweetest voice and using her pet name for me, “are we nearly to MiMi’s yet?”

Megan loves her MiMi. It didn’t hurt that as she grew up, Megan’s MiMi lived in the country in an old farmhouse with lots of outside space to explore with her cousins. On this trip many years ago when Megan was quite small, we had been stuck in Austin traffic trying to break free of the city and enter the Texas Hill Country on our way to western Texas.

Our four-hour trip was taking longer than usual. The traffic was horrible. How do you explain that to a four-year-old? She had no understanding of time other than right now, soon, or forever?

All I could say was this:

No, darlin’, it’s going to take us a long time to get to MiMi’s. It will be dark when we get there. But I promise we will stop and get supper along the way. I’m sorry, but we’re still a long way from MiMi’s house.

Thirty or forty minutes passed, and it was the old “rinse, wash, repeat” cycle. Meg asked pretty much the same question. Finally, she tired and everything became more of a whine, “Daddy, are we ever going to get there?”

Our little girl was one frustrated, tired, and “way-past-ready-to-be-there” little girl. As irritating as the dramatics of the whine became, there was no sense in getting upset with her. Being angry wasn’t going to shorten the trip. It sure wasn’t going to make my job of getting us there safely any easier. Little kids can’t understand the passage of time. Understanding the true distance of mileage doesn’t compute. Megan was not going to be persuaded by what seems to be solid adult logic. She wanted to see her Mimi. She was tired of a car seat. She was ready to be there. Thankfully, Donna knew how to draw Megan’s attention to something else and keep her distracted for awhile.

A child’s impatience with the time it takes to get to grandma’s house is understandable. However, the growing impatience of those of us who are older who don’t want to examine anything new is another matter.

“Oh, I studied that eons ago and settled it in my mind way back then. I don’t need to go back and revisit that issue. It’s already been done and the issue is settled in my mind. You’re not going to change me on this one.”

“Yes, I believe in daily Bible reading, but the truth is the truth. It doesn’t change over time. I discovered what the Bible said about that a long time ago. I don’t need to study through this material again.”

“No way am I going to look at that again! The last time we talked about that issue, a bunch of people got upset. Some folks even left our church over it. When all was said and done, we came down in the same place we always have come down on that passage. It was a big waste of time, energy, and effort that left a bunch of people upset.”

There can be a myriad of similar answers. They’re used to challenge the need to look at Bible verses and spiritual issues with fresh eyes. All of them have one basic assumption:

I’ve arrived at a mature decision about that issue and it’s settled. I don’t need to revisit the issue or think through it again. After all, I’ve been a Christian for decades and a member of this church for many years. I shouldn’t have to bother with this!

Now that I have been involved with many different congregations, I’ve heard this “it’s settled” approach to almost every challenge to study what the Bible says. Folks who think they’ve figured everything out a long time ago dish out this reasoning with the underlying conviction that they are mature in the faith. They feel that they shouldn’t have to be troubled by any challenge to what they believe. Some, in fact, consider this opportunity to revisit practices and interpretations of doctrines as downright disrespectful. For some, it is a sure sign that evil liberalism is swallowing the church whole. I guess we’ve forgotten our roots going back to our Berean brothers and sisters who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

Ironically, the apostle Paul is the one who reminds us that spiritual maturity is acknowledging that we HAVE NOT ARRIVED AT OUR GOAL. That we must press on in our passion of trying to be like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18):

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. (Philippians 3:12-15 — emphasized added).

Paul, someone whom we are to imitate (Philippians 4:9; 1 Corinthians 11:1), makes painfully clear that having decided something years ago and wanting to settle down in that position or practice isn’t being mature. In fact, the opposite is true. Thinking we’ve “obtained” or “arrived” or “taken hold” of our goal is immaturity. Mature disciples are always reaching, straining, examining, reconsidering, and seeking the character and compassion of Jesus. They’re willing to change anything to grow in conformity to the example and teaching of Jesus. Putting the matter simply and clearly, to think we’ve arrived is to be arrogant and immature.

Until we arrive at the full maturity of Jesus, we can’t settle down.

Ouch!

When we follow Paul’s conviction and refuse to settle or assume, several powerful blessings can come to us as we pursue Christlikeness:

First, we don’t just get older; we can be formed into someone better. Paul talked about the outer nature wasting away. However, we can be renewed from the inside out a little more each day by the Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). He reminds us that the Holy Spirit is transforming us little-by-little to become more gloriously like Jesus as we focus on becoming like him (2 Corinthians 3:18). As we age and the challenges of our physical limitations begin to set in, we don’t have to resort to cynicism or depression. We can be transformed ever more completely to be like our Lord Jesus in our attitudes and actions. We might not be able to do much to change our aging bodies, but we can partner with the Holy Spirit in the dance of transformation that brings us to be more like Jesus until we go home to be with him.

Second, we should approach our time in the scriptures as an adventure in which the Holy Spirit is working to bring us some new insight, blessing, or challenge. The Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17) is also at work helping us understand the message he wants us to hear and do with passion (1 Corinthians 2:12-16; cf. Hebrews 4:12-13). We may have read a passage of scripture a thousand times, but because of the Holy Spirit’s work using God’s word, the Spirit can have a fresh and challenging insight or call to action waiting for us if we open our hearts to the “Breath of heaven” to work in us through the word.

I am thankful that I have not arrived! My body is older, but my spirit thirsts for the Holy Spirit to refresh me, convict me, move me, and do his work in me. So, I try to live by the following convictions:

Being mature in Christ means that I will always be open to finding fresh water from God’s deep well of truth! So I seek truth in God’s word and expect to be surprised by the Holy Spirit revealing something that challenges me to grow and change!

If you are an older church leader, I urge you to join me in calling folks in every age group to give up the immature rant of “I’ve already decided that!” Let’s recognize the statement, “I don’t need to look at that again!” as immature and short-sighted. Thankfully the Lord has provided me with heroes who didn’t just get older but got better as they aged. They took risks for the kingdom. They changed some long-held ideas and interpretations because they heard the Spirit’s call to be more like Jesus. They went on mission trips in their eighties. They kept learning and changing as they became more like Jesus. They kept studying and pressing on to learn what Jesus was calling them to do, to feel, and to become. For them, life is a never-ending adventure that ends up like Jesus and being with Jesus (1 John 3:1-3).

As we work on living and leading in congregations during times of transition, we must remind our people that we are not trying to get everything settled for all time before we move forward. We are trying to hear God’s call to us on our journey to be faithful to who Jesus is, how he ministered, and what he taught. Until we arrive at the full maturity of Jesus, we can’t settle down. There’s no time and no justification to think that we’ve arrived at our goal, taken hold of maturity, and obtained full conformity to Jesus. True spiritual maturity is knowing we’re still on our way to being the person Jesus has called us to be. Let’s not miss the journey and cause those around us to stumble by becoming an impediment to those seeking “to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus”!

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