Good News About Growing Up by Tom Bergler
I have some good news for you. Jesus wants to help us all grow up. But for many, that might not sound so good. Greeting cards bear messages like “Growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional.” One woman in her forties, unprompted, declared to me, “Of course, I’m never going to grow up.” T-shirts bear the slogan “Immature: a word boring people use to describe fun people.” Try asking a room full of college students to raise their hands if they think they are adults. They won’t know what to do. Adulthood and maturity have a bad reputation.
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH YOUTH MINISTRY?
A few years ago I asked a group of freshmen college students in one of my classes, “What are some of the traits of spiritual maturity? What does a mature Christian look like?” The students did not like these questions and pushed back with comments like these: “I don’t think we ever arrive in our spiritual growth.”: “We’re not supposed to judge one another”; “No one is perfect”; and “We can’t be holy in this life.” These students had grown up in church and attended good youth ministries. But those ministries had – I hope unintentionally — taught them that spiritual maturity was an invisible, unattainable level of holiness or even perfection, something that could only be achieved in heaven.
The problem is, that just isn’t true. Spiritual maturity is not only fully attainable in this life, it is to be expected in the normal course of Christian growth. It’s not just for spiritual all stars. It’s available to all of us. And that is really good news. In fact, it’s part of THE Good News, the Gospel – at least the apostle Paul thought so. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a quick walk through Philippians 3, a passage in which Paul starts by talking about the Good News of the free gift of salvation and ends by talking about maturity.
Paul starts by warning us in the strongest terms about anyone who tries to make us think we need to earn our salvation, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2, NRSV). Paul had in mind here those who were requiring Gentile Christians to become Jews in order to be saved. To drive home his point, Paul lists his own spiritual credentials, “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (v. 5-6). But, probably to the great surprise of his readers, Paul says all of that is nothing to him – like inedible table scraps to be thrown into the street for stray dogs (v. 7-8).
WHY DID PAUL RENOUNCE HIS GREATEST SPIRITUAL CREDENTIALS?
Not because he thought living a holy life was worthless or unattainable. Just the opposite. He rejected human attainment because he was captured by the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” and desperately wanted to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ” (v. 8-9). But Paul’s righteousness in Christ was not passive. The more he got to know Jesus, the more he wanted to know him and to run harder and harder after him: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death . . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 10-14). He claimed that he had not “already obtained” this complete union with Jesus and denied that he was “perfect” (v. 12).
So far this sounds a bit like what my students said, “we never arrive”; “We can’t be holy in this life”: “Nobody’s perfect.” But then Paul says something surprising, “Let those of us who are mature be thus minded” (v. 15). Paul assumes that at least some of his readers are already mature, so they will agree with his teaching about the Gospel. And whatever “mature” means, it can’t mean “perfect” or already having reached the goal of fully knowing Christ and becoming fully like him. We can see from this entire passage that a mature disciple knows Jesus personally and understands the Gospel well enough to avoid both works righteousness and complacency. The Good News is that Jesus saves us despite our failures. The Even Better News is that Jesus does not leave us stuck in our sinfulness. He transforms us in relationship with him by the power of his death and resurrection.
According to Paul, spiritual maturity is not only attainable in this life, it is a necessary and normal part of becoming Gospel people, people who are consumed by the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. Spiritually mature people are better at receiving God’s grace to become more and more like Jesus. They are free and eager to run hard after Jesus because they have tasted how surpassingly wonderful it is to know him. American Christians like to say, “it’s not a religion; it’s a relationship.” And so it is. But it is the kind of relationship with Jesus that transforms us and makes us spiritually mature. So what are we teaching young people about the Gospel and spiritual maturity, about what to expect in that “relationship with Jesus” that we want them to have? Do they know why it is Good News that Jesus wants to help them grow up to spiritual maturity? Spiritual maturity is not “arriving”; it’s launching into a deeper, more powerful relationship with Jesus than ever before.