One of the primary goals of discipleship is to help someone else mature spiritually.
But what does spiritual maturity actually look like?
There’s a sense in which that question is easier to answer and difficult at the same time because there is so much in the New Testament that talks about it.
The way John describes it, if we go back to 1 John 2:13.
“I am writing to you fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.”
So spiritually mature people don’t just know truth, they know God. There is truth there and there’s a relationship there. They love God.
I think Paul describes spiritually mature people in many of his prayers, when he tells people what he’s praying for them about, he’s basically praying for spiritual maturity in different words.
Like Philippians 1:9 and 10, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
Spiritually mature have abounding love for God and others, love that is smart, that is wise, that is thoughtful, they are able to tell what is best, they are filled with fruit that comes out of Christ’s working in them, and brings to glory to God.
Besides Paul’s prayers, we can look to Paul himself as an example of someone who is a spiritual parent. He describes himself as a spiritual father. And what do we see in Paul?
In terms of his attitude towards himself, he wasn’t arrogant. He saw himself as nothing more than a servant of Christ and a steward of the mystery of God. In other words, he didn’t seem himself as a big deal and he wasn’t trying to get anyone else to think that. He just wanted to be faithful, and with spiritual parents, you will see that, they are more concerned about doing what Christ wants than anything else.
It’s interesting as you look at Paul throughout his life, there seems to be an increasing awareness of his own sinfulness and how little he deserved the grace of God, and that again is typical of spiritual parents. They are not proud of themselves. They are very aware of their flesh. They don’t think they are beyond sinning.
With Paul, again we look at his attitude towards his own life, what was it, to live is Christ and that’s spiritual parents, their life is focused, how can I honor Christ? They are not desperately clinging to life in this world, to be honest, they would rather be with Jesus than here. Their minds are set on heavenly things.
They are not motivated by a desire to get God to like them, instead they are trusting completely in Christ’s righteousness, and what they want more than anything else, is to know Christ and to see Christ in His glory. Paul puts it like this in Philippians 3:14, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of Christ Jesus. Let those of who are mature think this way.” This is how mature people think. They are not proud of themselves, they have stopped depending on what they have done, and are fully resting in what Christ done, they know their citizenship is in heaven, and they eagerly are waiting for a Savior from there.
When you look at Paul’s attitude towards others, you see the way a spiritual parent thinks, he longs for them to be mature, and he takes steps to help them become mature. I think of how when it came to the unsaved, Paul said at one point, he almost wishes he could be cursed so that they could come to the knowledge of the truth and when it comes to other believers, he describes in Colossians 1 and 2, the way he struggles and toils for their spiritual growth.
There are a number of other passages that help us understand what it means to be spiritually mature. For example, Hebrews 5:14 says, “Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good and evil.” So, mature people eat solid food, they love truth, they are able to understand and process it, they are people who are discerning, and they are discerning because they have practiced spotting the difference between good and evil.
In Colossians 4:12, Paul says that Epaphras was praying that the Colossians would be mature, and “fully assured in all the will of God.” So there, a parallel description of maturity, or at least something that goes along with it, is a full confidence about what God wants.
James 1:2ff talks about a mature person as being one who has learned to count it all joy in various trials, and has developed endurance by continuing to trust God in the middle of the trial.
Look obviously, we are not talking about someone who is perfect, they are in heaven, but someone who is steady, intentional, humble, who loves God and is excited about grace, lives a Spirit-filled life, whose relationships are basically in order, is able to feed himself spiritually, wants to make disciples and is interested in other people and their spiritual growth, he is able to be serious about truth and also eager to maintain unity, is seriously committed to the good of their local church, they are people who are longing for the return of Christ, and basing their life on that future hope. They know how to share the gospel. They have a deep love of the cross, you don’t have to convince them of their need for Christ, they are very merciful towards others, they have relationships with people not based on what those people can do for them, they have a heart for the least of these, they are sincere, love peace, gentle, you are able to reason with them, they are not stubborn for no reason, they are merciful towards others, patient, they follow up on people, they don’t always have to be first, they have a strong desire for the people they are working with to mature.
People talk about what they love and so when you listen to a spiritual parent, you might hear them talking about what God is doing in their lives, but not as a means to brag on themselves, but instead to see Jesus honored.
They say things like (and remember, some of these are from Jim Putnam’s book, Real Life Discipleship):
“Will you pray for me as I seek to explain the gospel to someone this week?”
“How can I pray for you?”
“How can I be of encouragement to you?”
“I was so challenged by the Word today. I am going to go home and think and pray specifically about how I can change and put what I have learned into practice.”
“I know I need to disciple my children. Will you hold me accountable for that? And when you see me not doing that, will you help me by challenging me to pursue it?”
“I have a person in my gospel community who is really good with children. I am going to sit down and talk with them about ways in which they can use their gift in the church.”
“Please forgive me for this specific sin I committed against you. Will you pray for me that I can change?”
“I love this truth and it has shaped my thinking in this way.”
Now, don’t think that just because someone is spiritually mature, that they don’t need relationships and encouragement. For one thing, none of us are completely spiritually mature yet. There are places where we are mature and places we aren’t. For another, in the Bible, a wise person isn’t someone who never has need to change or be rebuked, but instead he’s someone who knows how to rebuke and even loves rebuke and is changed by it. So, please don’t leave spiritually mature people out there on their own.
One thing you can maybe do to encourage a spiritually mature person is to try to find ways to help them. With Paul there’s no way he could have done everything he did on his own, he was constantly asking for prayer, and then he had these friends around him who were co-laborers, and you might just want to come alongside a spiritually mature person and look for ways you can be of service.
A way you can serve them for sure, is through encouragement, advice. Spiritually mature people need someone to bounce things off, they may need you to point out areas where they aren’t as mature as they think they are, they need constant refinement in their thinking and in their ministry, they need discussions where you talk about the important things of life.
It’s a privilege to be involved in the lives of other people, and to think that God would use us to help people grow, it is huge. It’s not something we should take lightly, we need to be willing to work hard, by pursuing people, by asking questions, and by processing the information we receive, thinking, specifically about who they are, where they are at spiritually, and what they need if they are going to keep maturing in Christ.