A third possible spiritual condition is that of a spiritual child.
You remember how John says, I am writing to you children. The person you are discipling might be spiritually dead, a spiritual baby, or they might be a spiritual child. Now of course, I am just trying to provide you some practical help, some things to think through. These aren’t cast in stone, but I am trying to give some guidance to your discipleship.
One of the fundamental characteristics of a spiritual baby and a spiritual child seems to be ignorance of the truth. When you are discipling, think about the person’s relation to truth. We saw in 1 Corinthians 3:1, spiritual children could only handle milk and in Hebrews 5, the basic teachings. If we go over to Ephesians 4, we see another description of a spiritual child. He says in verse 14, we need the church, so that “we may no longer be children.” O.k., what does it mean to be children. Here’s his description, “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” Children are very easily fooled spiritually. They are unstable spiritually because they don’t know what is true and what is not, theologically.
One of the things about children is that they will like almost anyone who is friendly and who gives them something, and spiritual children are like that as well. They will often like a teacher more because he is nice or because he is positive, then whether or not he is telling them the truth.
Hebrews 5 describes spiritual children like this. Hebrews 5:12 and 13, “You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.” So a child is what? Someone who is unskilled in the word. “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
So a spiritual child lacks discernment, that’s one of his fundamental characteristics. When they are getting good teaching, they hunger for it but when they are getting bad teaching, it’s hard for them to tell the difference. They are just hungry and they keep stuffing themselves with whatever is given to them.
Now they usually have a little more knowledge than a baby, but still there’s not always a good understanding of some of the nuances that come along with knowing something really well. What you find with a spiritual child is that they will often end up majoring on minors and then minoring on majors. They will get too excited about things that aren’t all that exciting and not excited enough about stuff that really is.
They sometimes focus in on one Christian leader or pastor and it is like they find their identity in their attachment to him. There’s still a worldly way of thinking about them, where instead of finding their identity in Christ, they are finding their identity in people. (That’s what the Corinthians were doing, I am of Paul, I am of Apollos.) They sometimes have more knowledge of what their pastor says or other Christians say than what the Bible says. They tend to get on bandwagons and become very narrowly focused on just one area of the Christian life. They often think they know more than they really do.
They usually have a hard time knowing how to apply what they are learning to their life. They may have more understanding of biblical information, but sometimes there are huge gaps between that knowledge and their everyday lives. (I think that’s what we see in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. They are having these divisions, because they weren’t applying the gospel to the way they thought about things.)
There still is this childish self-absorption going on with spiritual children. I think of the Corinthians, how when they came together for the Lord’s Supper, they were so self-focused, that some of theme would eat and eat, when other people were going hungry, all they could think about was their own stomachs.
Spiritual children are often pretty interested in self-promotion. There are often motivated to do spiritual things by a desire to be seen and to get a reputation as spiritually mature. You remember how with the Corinthians again, they had these spiritual gifts, 1 Corinthians 14, you can check it out, but they were more interested in coming to church to show them off, than they were to use them to build others up.
Because they are self-absorbed, they are pretty focused on their rights, and what they want to do is more important than other people’s good.
They often believe that others aren’t caring enough for them. They will often blame their problems on other people. They are eager to serve, but they also are quick to give up when things get difficult. They lack endurance.
They will frequently have a consumer mentality when it comes to the church. That means they think more in terms of what can the church do for me, than they do how can I serve God in this church.
They often don’t see the danger of sin. This of course is what a simple or foolish person is like in the Proverbs, they are easily deceived by the pleasures of sin and in Corinthians, these people who are described as infants, they were rebuked by Paul because they weren’t taking sexual immorality seriously in the church.
They say things like:
“I just love this particular teacher. Because when I listen to him, he makes me feel so good.”
“Who are all these people coming to my church? Tell them to go somewhere else.”
“My church isn’t taking care of my needs.”
“I understand the Bible is important, but do we really need all that teaching?”
“It’s mean for you to say that person is wrong. The Bible says you shouldn’t judge.”
“I didn’t like the music today because it didn’t use the instruments I like them to use.”
“I am strong. I can be around bad stuff and it doesn’t really bother me.”
“Temptation isn’t that tempting to me.”
“Don’t talk to me about all this doctrine. I don’t need all these stories. Just tell me what to do.”
“I don’t have the time to study the Bible to see whether you are right or not. I am just going to trust what my pastor says.”
“It’s my right. If they have a problem with what I do, then that’s their problem!”
What spiritual children need from you is to help them become a vital part of a spiritual family. They need desperately to learn how to live in a church family. They need help learning how to feed themselves spiritually. They need someone to show them who they are in Christ and to appreciate what they have in Christ. They need encouragement in how to walk with God, how to have deep and lasting relationships with other believers, the nature of sanctification and appropriate expectations for their own spiritual growth and the growth of other believers.
When you are working with a spiritual child, again a lot of instruction is needed. Children need to be taught. Children need to be encouraged and they need to be admonished, and so your teaching of spiritual children will include a lot of that, affirming where they are doing well, but also don’t be afraid to say this is wrong, just make sure to show them why.
Gently instruct, but instruct.
They may need some firm accountability at this stage. So what you might do is get together with them, and actually give them something specific to do, a kind of homework assignment related to whatever you think they need to learn, and then follow up with them to see if they have done it, and if they haven’t, challenge them and help them do it. You are going to want to learn to balance, telling them exactly what to do and then also letting them learn on their own and learn some things the hard way. I think of how Paul says the strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and there may be times with a spiritual child, you have to bear with them while they learn. But there are other times where what they are doing is so dangerous, you have got to just step in and say this needs to stop.
Sometimes at this point in your discipleship of someone, when they are children, it’s good to get them reading a difficult book or listening to lectures together. Part of the purpose of this may be to show them they don’t know quite as much as they think they do. Don’t overwhelm them, but expose them to the fact that there is much more to learn. And help them learn how to think. You are going to want to show them that thinking deeply about truth is enjoyable but it also is a discipline and takes work.
Another thing to do with a spiritual child is help them learn how to benefit from our Sunday gatherings. This is going to be a big part of their life in the future, and a lot of people have never received help knowing what these gatherings are all about. You can maybe show them how to listen to a sermon. You can teach them how to take notes. You can also help them come up with plans so that when they come on Sundays they can have a ministry here, maybe giving them the challenge of meeting two strangers at church and then calling on them to follow up.
One big thing with spiritual children is to help them learn to endure in doing good. Steadfastness is a major biblical virtue. So give them ministry opportunities, but then as you do that, also give them clear instructions on how to go about doing what you are asking them to do, and then come back to it, and make sure you follow up with them on how it went.
In terms of their relationships, you are going to really want to help them learn to love others. Watch out for them being too harsh, without really caring about the person to whom they are speaking. There are a lot of terms Paul uses to say we need to put off in our relationships with others, but sometimes we don’t know what those terms mean in practice, and so you are going to want to help them evaluate their speech, is it malicious, well what does that mean and on and on you go. You are going to want to help them notice others. This is a new way of thinking for them, caring for someone outside themselves.
All of this of course assumes time. And with spiritual children, you want to look at your schedule and think, how can we organize it that we do get some time together?
It may be that you set up a once every couple week meeting, and when you do, you might be deliberate about what you discuss in those meetings. Now of course the goal isn’t just getting through a curriculum, but almost using that curriculum as a bouncing off point to talk about all of life. And there are all kinds of things out there that you can be talking about with spiritual children, like the spiritual disciplines, how to read your Bible, how to pray, or you can work through a book on the attributes of God, the sovereignty of God. You can barely ever go wrong when you are discipling anyone just to go back to the Bible and find out what it teaches about God.
Now working with spiritual children isn’t always easy, because remember that children tend to be self-absorbed and if you know anything about self absorbed people, you know that they can sometimes love you and sometimes get pretty upset with you and it doesn’t always have so much to do with you and what you are actually doing as it does with them. You can just watch the way people treated Paul, and how they misjudged him, so there are going to have to be times when you come back and lovingly say, hey, you know the way I was, what you are saying, feeling now, this is not right.
Children need someone to imitate. They are not usually the best example, so make sure you as you work with them, that you are not ending up imitating them, but that you are showing them a godly way to live. What can happen with children is you do what they do, they yell, you yell, they are grumpy, you are grumpy, no, you need to be the example.
Children also need to be pushed to grow, but make sure you are speaking in a way that they can understand and giving them homework and opportunities that are appropriate to where they are at spiritually. We can sometimes get frustrated with spiritual children too quickly because they can’t do something, when the problem is, we haven’t given them good enough instructions how. It is like with your own children how you have been doing something so long it is easy and you tell them to do it and you think it is simple, but they have no idea, and you need to remember that with spiritual children before you get too frustrated, you need to help them understand step by step.