Children grow. Their bodies get bigger, stronger, faster, and more coordinated in a steady march to physical maturity. Appetites are satisfied by food and applied through exercise.
But growth is never so certain in our inner makeup. Educators, for instance, have identified stages of cognitive growth: how we grow in our thinking skills. They point to an invariable sequence from infancy to adulthood. The final two stages are concrete operations and formal operations. The first of this pair refers to a person’s ability to understand and solve practical, tangible problems—to memorize, do arithmetic, describe and recreate. The second involves more complex exercises of analysis, synthesis and judgment— the ability to solve algebraic equations, to find patterns in seemingly random fields, and to create new products from formerly disconnected elements. But, unlike our physical growth, some people never move into formal operations. Why not? We can’t be certain but seems that a lack of appetite and exercise helps explain the lag.
Another inner realm of personal growth is the spiritual. Most observers locate our moral and emotional development here—as the value-sensitive motivational center of the soul. These facets of spirit progress from the basic need-responses of infancy to the vastly complex responses, dispositions, and drives of adult life. The mature person displays what we refer to, collectively, as “maturity”—a balance in life that handles upsets and opportunities with evident equanimity and wisdom. We all know a mature person when we see one; and we also know that many adults are less than mature. Spiritually immature people lack stability: their life priorities change in line with fads and fancies; they make poor judgments in how they spend time, resources, and handle relationships. They lack an effective moral compass.
How is it that some people reach moral and emotional maturity and others never do? Once again the answer is uncertain but it is clear that losses of nurture and exercise play a major part in failed growth, just as in partial cognitive growth. What ultimately differs in spiritual growth, however, is the presence or absence of God’s Spirit.
Paul alluded to this as he wrote to the Corinthians about the union of God’s Spirit with our human spirits—as in a marriage (1Cor 6:15-20)—so that for those who have this union there is also communion with God. This, in fact, was the starting point of Paul’s letter—in 1 Corinthians 1-2—and the measure by which he distinguished those who follow Christ from those who do not. Those who share in this communion, Paul wrote, are those who are truly “mature” through access to the “secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:6-7). And what’s more the Spirit of God displaces the influence of the “spirit of this world” so that “we might understand the things freely given us by God” (v. 12).
Paul has, in effect, challenged us to rethink what it is to grow up. In a fallen world we move through the complex and interrelated set of growth events noted already: our physical, mental, social, and spiritual progressions. But each of these reach a finite peak—our human maturity—followed by a decline into physical death. It’s a cycle that has been repeated through the ages and one we understand and appreciate—at least up to the final stage: death.
An annual and accelerated reminder of this cycle is the budding, growing, and maturing of a fruit. When maturity is reached, all who taste the fruit are pleased. Fruit that aren’t eaten go soft, degrade, and die. Jesus drew on this agricultural reality as a metaphor for our union with him—in his allusion in John 15 to the vine, the branches and the fruit produced by those branches. What differs for humans is that the plant cycle is not meant to end. In Christ our growth goes on forever—something appropriate to being united in one whose life and love are unending!
Needless to say, then, every form of human growth is meant by God to be a beginning point for our spiritual growth. Yet it is only by our union with God’s Spirit that we begin the growth of eternal life—into Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19).
How does this stage of our growth go forward? In the same way our earlier stages worked: by appetite, nurture and exercise. What changes, once we shift away from the life guided by the spirit of this world—and what Paul spoke of as a living death in Ephesians 2:1-3—is that we are now hungry for true love: the love of God. With that new appetite we find that we love having communion with him—available to us as his Spirit takes his Word to feed our new spiritual appetite—and communion (Greek “koinonia”) with others who know him.
With this in mind we need to turn to Paul’s summary of God’s design for growth.
And [the Lord] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way unto him who is the heat, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
Real and lasting growth, we find, is growth birthed in mutual love: in Christ’s love for us and in our love for each other. It is this latter love—for each other—that the exercises needed for growth take place. Each of us, now in communion with the Spirit, have the spiritual resources we need to care for others. Our fruit—returning to the metaphor of the vine in John 15—is a growing maturity within the community of faith. The measure of this maturity is Christ’s own life: what he valued and how he lived is now expressed in the Church, his body.
Let me end with a reminder that we now have the nurture of the Spirit himself within us as we grow in our eternal growth. The Spirit is using what he has written through the hearts of earlier prophets—the Scriptures—to feed our spirits. Yet we are still living out the progression of our human growth—the physical life—and we realize that it ends in death. That requires food as well. Included in that realm of our “flesh” is its spiritual aspect. The spiritual food we ate when we were still dead towards God is also doomed to die.
What is that spiritual food? It is what every neighbor of ours who has yet to meet Christ is still eating. It includes a broad variety of spiritual nutriments: secular education, secular entertainment, secular social exercises and more. And in as much as this “un-Spirit-based” spirituality is rooted in the spirit of this world, it lacks the fruit of the Spirit and koinonia as its outcome. It is what Jesus called worthless branches—destined to be gathered and burned.
Children grow and Christians grow, so our ambition is to engage in the growth that is lasting, nourished by Scriptures and exercised in love.