What does maturity look like? How do we know if we are maturing? The Apostle Paul seemed concerned with it as he wrote to his young protégé named Timothy. Like Paul, Peter spoke of it when he invited his audience to “grow up” into salvation. Books are continually written about the topic and sermons on the subject are frequent. I suspect it would be hard to nail down exactly what maturity is but perhaps we can consider a few truths that if embraced might indicate a level of maturity.
Let me first offer my definition of maturity that runs counter to what I believed as a youngster growing up in the church. Maturity, I have come to understand, is a growing awareness of my sinfulness that leads to an even deeper appreciation for God’s mercy and grace. That might be worth pondering.
What else defines maturity? Paul wrote to Timothy these words: Continue in what you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you learned it. He does not delineate what it is Timothy has learned from him and from others, or what convictions govern Timothy’s growing faith. So, let’s go for our own list knowing there are more or we might each say it a bit differently. I am going to borrow from a Franciscan brother, Richard Rohr, who suggests in his teaching and speaking about the Judeo-Christian faith that there are five markers of maturity that one must embrace in the faith. I want to borrow four and add two of my own. But here is the twist: see if you can identify the lie that stands in opposition, a lie that can pull us away from the truth because it sounds enticingly true when it isn’t.
Here is the first: Life is hard! In the beginning (Gen 1 & 2), everything was right and good. In the end, (Rev 21 & 22), everything will once again be right and good. We don’t live in the beginning and we haven’t reached the end. Therefore, life is hard! The story of which we are a part is good but it contains difficult chapters. We might deem such chapters as bad; they are not. They are hard. Life is hard. At the same time, lest we lose balance, there is much to be enjoyed. And we should; just don’t mistake it for the belief that life should be better than it is. That day is coming. It has not, however arrived yet.
The lie? Before reading on, take a shot at trying to identify the lie for you, in your own words. Here is mine: if I do the right things, follow God, work hard and make the right connections, then things should turn out as I expect. Anything less is unfair. That unfairness then justifies how I respond to life and others in ways that are inconsistent with God’s ways.
Truth #2: Life is not about me! From 1948-54, 10,000 adolescents were interviewed, asked to respond to the question, “Do you consider yourself to be an important person?” 12% said yes. In 1989, the question was revisited. Nearly 80% of those surveyed answered in the affirmative. Today, we are driven by the words from William Earnest Henley’s poem, Invictus: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul. Maturity requires us to fight against what infiltrated the heart back in the days of Adam, which was to turn away from God and make life about oneself. Mostly, we do this in subtle ways, with a self-serving energy guiding our actions. As we well know, good actions can be motivated by really selfish energy. Here is a good habit to do: Every time you read the word sin in the Scriptures, substitute the word “self” because that’s what sin is, a commitment to oneself above all else, everyone else.
The lie? It is critical that I matter. I have a voice and I should be heard or seen by others as important. If I am not, it is my primary task to make sure I am lest I come face to face with this gnawing reality/terror that I really don’t matter all that much.
Here is the third: I am not in control! We think we are. We work to be in control. To be in control though, we have to shrink our worlds down to manageable proportions and that usually excludes what matters most: loving relationships that offer freedom. My mind went to the rich young ruler who had everything we think would make life work (youthfulness, money, power, even religion) and yet something was not right in his soul that drove him to Jesus. The invitation by God through the Spirit is to let go of what we have our fingers tightly wrapped around and in so doing, admit we really aren’t in control. One of the purposes of suffering is to reveal where we are grasping so that we learn to trust.
The lie? Stay busy with what I can manage in order to avoid getting in touch with deeper desires of my heart over which I have no control. And certainly don’t give my heart to others; rather give it to things the world says are important, thus avoiding injury at the hands of others.
Truth #4: I am going to die! Enough said. We have an infatuation culturally with not facing this reality even in the words we use about death. But death is as much a reality as life/birth. To remind oneself of this truth is to not take oneself too seriously. It also requires we admit the first three truths, namely, that life is hard, it is not about me, and I am not in control.
So what is the lie? Live only in the present without thought for the future. Or, when the present is hard, live romanticizing one’s past, "the good ol’ days", when life seemed good and everything was in front of you. Live for now, seeking jolt after jolt so as to never have to feel the truth that this world is not one’s home.
Because we are human and sinners, we are going to make mistakes is the fifth truth. Some of these mistakes are sinful. We are selfish people and we don’t love well. We must learn to forgive and be forgiven. We must accept disappointment without becoming angry and making another pay. But there is another side to this story. We are also human, which means we are finite. We just aren’t all that good or gifted at certain things and its okay. That is why there are others around us. We are meant to compliment each other, not compete against one another. We need what others bring to the table without beating ourselves up for not being good at what someone else is. Wouldn’t it be great if we could say, “I am not very good at that and I am glad you are.” Wouldn’t it be freeing if every time I heard someone praise another person I didn’t have to feel threatened?
The lie? Admitting mistakes is unacceptable because it means I am potentially vulnerable to not being important or needed. And admitting mistakes comes dangerously close to the dreaded possibility of experiencing what I most fear: condemnation.
Truth #6: I must live aware of the secret signature of my soul! What does that mean? I stole the phrasing from CS Lewis who wrote, We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose it, we lose all. I am, Lewis is, speaking about our thirst. It is our thirst not for this world and its goodness but for God and for oneness with Him and each other. It won’t be satisfied here. I must admit (Heb 11:13) and accept this truth. This secret signature is, rather, a honing device toward home; it is our ticket to heaven, according to Revelation 22: Let the one who is thirsty come; let him who desires take from the water of life without cost.
The lie? Thirst is satiable. Thirst is a problem, or it is present because I have done something wrong or made a wrong turn in my faith. It is dangerous and needs killed lest it lead me down bad paths. And besides, it sure seems like others have found a way not to feel it so perhaps I am missing out on something.
We don’t simply acknowledge these because we've heard them. We must, day after day, keep coming back and reminding ourselves to “continue in what we have learned and become convinced of.” We easily forget. We drift away almost unknowingly from these truths. Sometimes we have an experience that tempts us to believe they don’t have to be true. There could be another way. There isn’t. Remind yourself so that depth develops in your soul and you can then speak wisely to others, inviting them on the path toward maturity with God and others.
Grace and peace to you. Live in the patience of your good God.