“Therefore let us leave behind the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity.” Hebrews 6:1
Spiritually, when I was nine-years old I walked the aisle of my church and made Jesus mine. I became a Christian.
Physically, when I was nine-years-old I was probably a little over 4 feet tall, and weighed about 50 pounds.
Tomorrow I will turn 59, half a century of living after being that little kid.
Physically, I am 5’ 10” and weigh 145.
Spiritually, I am ?
Measuring spirituality is very hazardous. We usually reduce it to memorizing a catechism or Bible verses. We count church services attended, or use other religious metrics. I think all of these are important. Religion, in spite of the bad press, gets lots of things right. It provides a structure, instruction, and tradition, all of which can translate into a spiritually more mature person.
Of course, that’s not necessarily the case, for I can go to church, earn degrees, and engage in lots of other religious activity and still be mean as a snake. In Jesus’ parable, the hyper-religious Pharisee was not justified, but the contrite publican was. Both were in the same place, doing the same thing, but they had vastly different hearts, and that made all the difference.
So religious activity can certainly help, but it’s also a highly uncertain indicator of real spirituality.
Let’s go back to my nine-year-old self. There was not a time in my young memory when I didn’t know about God, Jesus, the stories of Easter and Christmas. I grew up with them. My parents were Christians, church-going Baptists. I was in church the second Sunday of my life, and have been there pretty much every Sunday since then. I certainly didn’t have a highly developed theology as a nine-year-old, but I gave all of myself as I understood myself to God as I understood Him.
I’m very glad to have that firm starting point in my life, but how sad it would be if I today still lived with the limited understanding I had 50 years ago. It would be just as sad, and ludicrous, if I were still a little over 4 feet tall and weighed 50 pounds.
However we measure it, let’s agree that spiritual growth is necessary. This expectation is clear throughout the scripture.
The author of Hebrews in the passage for this GraceWaves wrote of leaving behind elementary doctrines. He went on to suggest repentance, faith, resurrection, and judgment as some of these. Obviously, all of these doctrines have a place in our faith, but the writer indicates that there is so much more to learn. We can check off all the doctrines and still have a long way to go.
The expectation of growing insight shows up in an interesting way in the gospel of John. There the disciples would witness one of Jesus’ signs (as John calls the miracles), and John would add “and they believed in Him.” The disciples had been faithfully following and believing in Jesus prior to the miracle, but John realized that each sign took them deeper into Jesus, as it were. Their belief became a deeper belief. I very much like that idea.
The language of salvation in the New Testament is also quite interesting. Syntactically, we were saved, are being saved, and will be saved. Yes, there is a point in time when I became a Christian. I was saved. But it is equally true that today I am being saved, that is, the saving presence of God in my life continues. Finally, in the future I will be saved as God completes this work in me. I'm saved. Again. Growth is implied and expected.
Finally, the New Testament provides us with two very clear examples of spiritual growth. We see John and Peter with all their flaws when they walked with Jesus. We also see them through their writings 30-50 years later. They clearly were not of the same temperament. They grew.
But what exactly is this spiritual growth? Grace has to be the key, for it is the most puzzling doctrine of our theology. To paraphrase Tillich, we begin by accepting the fact that God accepts us even when we are unacceptable. I still sometimes struggle to accept that! The lure of binary thinking leads me to judge myself and others when grace tells me to accept. Accepting and applying grace is clearly one of the main struggles I face, and so must be one of the main ways I grow.
Let’s approach it this way. Grace is like a vision for the world. In my graceless vision I tend to look at all things and all people in terms of their value or cost to me. How much trouble is that person going to cause me? Will this financial decision ease my future? When the center of my universe becomes me, I invest myself in endless judgments about what makes me comfortable.
Grace, however, enables me to accept, to appreciate, and even to enjoy all things in their particular expression. That’s easy when something is pleasant, but it also works when I’m challenged. When the genuinely irritable event or person does come into my life, I can observe it without attaching myself to it. Observed in grace, the irritable event or person either passes along, or, and this is the true wonder, becomes part of the grace-transformation. They don’t negatively affect me, and in fact may respond to God’s grace through me as a flower turns to the sun.
Whatever spiritual growth looks like we should all agree that we cannot continue to feel God’s closeness today based solely on the experience we had at the beginning. Reading a different author, attending a retreat, learning to meditate, etc. are all ways that we can challenge ourselves to gain new insights into an infinite God.
What I had as a nine-year-old was both completely sufficient and totally infantile. I made the first step in a journey that takes an eternity. Let’s all keep walking.
Dr. Terry Ellis
February 12, 2017