I might be wrong on this, but I’m willing to bet that most followers of Christ are quite eager to learn how to grow stronger in their faith. At some point in their journey with Jesus, the original disciples cried out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). There was something about spending time with him, and watching him in action, that made them hunger for a deeper, richer life than they were living.
But how do we grow? That’s the million dollar question, and based on the fact that there is so much spiritual immaturity in the church, it would seem that we aren’t doing an especially good job at providing solid answers to that question.
The New Testament suggests that the early Church had a good strategy in place for helping their people grow stronger in Christ. We find evidence that they provided clear growth goals or targets for new believers. Follow Jesus and you’ll begin growing in at least three areas of your life: Christlikeness/holiness, fruitfulness, and knowledge (Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-10, 2 Peter 3:18).
Another invaluable tool they provided their people for spiritual growth was the idea that there are three ages or stages of spiritual maturity that a believer will go through as they grow in their faith: spiritual childhood, young adulthood, and parenthood. The clearest description of this comes in 1 John 2:12-14.
“I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.”
The Spiritual Child
Notice how the spiritual child knows that they are forgiven, but that’s about as far as they’ve come in the early days of their faith. Learning the full difference between holy and sinful behavior, and learning how to spot temptation when it comes calling and how to overcome it, are lessons that they’ll master as they make their way in spiritual young adulthood, but not yet.
Their understanding of God is also childlike. Whereas before their conversion, if they thought of God at all, it was probably as a vague, distant, philosophical construct, now they realize that God is a lot more real, and powerful, than they ever imagined, as close and loving as a Father.
The Spiritual Young Adult
Spiritual adulthood dawns as the believer begins to notch some wins over sins on their holiness belt. Yet ironically, when it comes to sin, there’s something else they’re beginning to realize. As a spiritual child, they thought of sin as largely an outward thing – sin was their road rage, or looking at porn, or gossiping about co-workers.
Now though they’re beginning to see that a much larger part of their sin is imbedded inwardly, in their hearts. The outward behavior is just an ugly weed of something far more sinister, with deep, ugly roots. And being rid of it will require Jesus taking them on a much longer, and more complicated journey.
On the positive side, the spiritual young adult has grown in knowledge. Not only are they thinking biblically now, having gotten familiar with Scripture and how to feed on it themselves, but they’re thinking theologically also. They’re learning how to interpret God’s Word properly, and how to discern truth from error, and the difference between hills to die on and hills to grow on. And they’re perceiving an ever-widening, ever-deepening grasp of God’s nature and work.
They’re experiencing his presence more also, along with a growing desire and competency to share their faith with this broken world, which so desperately needs Christ.
The Spiritual Parent
The spiritual father or mother “knows him who is from the beginning,” John says, and says it twice, so the point can’t be missed. The spiritual child knows about God, and is starting to learn basic truths about him. But the spiritual parent knows God. It’s a knowledge that is far more than the cerebral grasping of data. “Knowing” as the Bible generally describes it is a level of intimate sharing that goes so deeply that it actually reproduces life. (“Adam knew Eve, and she conceived and bore a son.”) It is a knowledge gained over a lifetime
This is a person who obeys God not out of duty, or ritual, or legalism, or fear of judgment, but out of love, for Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey me” (John 14:15). When you sin, it’s not that you love your sin too much, it’s that you love your Lord too little.
It’s a maturity modeled by Abraham, who after a lifetime of serving God, and following him into some crazy places, faces his greatest test toward the end of his life, when God says to him, “Give me your son.” His son, Isaac, had been the focal point of Abraham’s entire life, and the epicenter of his entire faith journey with the Lord, who had promised to give him this son. Yet the next morning, Abraham saddled up, and took Isaac to the place God had commanded, without hesitation. No anger at God. No bargaining. Just worship, love, and trust.
It’s a maturity modeled by Job, who also after a lifetime of serving God, faces his greatest test (detecting a theme here?), and learned in its aftermath how little he actually knew of God. When God at last appears to him, Job repents and says to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” I thought I knew you, Job is saying, but I was so full of myself. And filled with so little of you.
It’s a reminder that the older you grow in your faith, the more humble you become. And forgiving. And gentle. Though you mentor and encourage others right and left, and people seek you out because you’re strong, you’re wise, they call you a “holy man or woman”, you never, ever, ever forget that all is of grace. It was toward the end of his life, not its beginning, that Paul called himself, “the chief of sinners”.
You began your spiritual journey poor in spirit, needing Christ, and having his people around you. Your journey will end that way as well, with Christ as your all in all, surrounded by his people. Even when you do all that you are commanded to do, you say, “I am just an unworthy servant of my Lord. Without him I am nothing. With him, I have everything I need.” What’s more, you realize that throughout eternity, you will search out the height, depth, length. and width of the love of God in Christ, and will never reach the bottom of it. You know God, but you also know how little you know (Psalm 131).
How Knowing These Ages Can Help You
Knowing these spiritual ages would be beneficial for a variety of reasons. It would give the individual believer a sense of where they are in their spiritual journey, and what they ought to work on to continue growing. It would remind church leaders that there is no one-size-fits-all discipleship approach, but that thought should be given to customize how they teach and train their people depending on their spiritual age. Knowing the three ages is also an encouraging reminder that the Christian journey is a journey which no one will complete on this side of eternity.
So what are you waiting for. On your mark, get set, grow.
P.S. Here’s a chart you might find useful which helps show some of the specific characteristics of each of the three spiritual ages.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.