Over the past several months, I've taken a break from regular writing and blogging because I've been pondering the importance of Christian maturity. The apostle Paul himself stated that one of the central goals of his ministry was to "present every man complete in Christ" (cf. Colossians 1:28-29). This raises some basic questions: (1) What does it means to be "complete in Christ"? (2) Are we all aiming towards the same goal? (3) What is the role of the church and pastoral ministry in fostering maturity?
If we offered these questions to American evangelicals, I think that we would find that we often do not agree on these topics, and that many Reformed Christians would disagree with how those in our Reformed tradition have answered these questions.
A cursory glance of the New Testament shows that patience (along with the closely-related virtues of endurance and perseverance) is one of the most valuable Christian virtues in connection to Christian maturity. In the parable of the soils, we are told the seed in the good soil represents "... the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good hear, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with patience" (cf. Luke 8:15). The Apostle Paul tells us that God arranges the tribulations in our lives in order to produce patience (cf. Romans 5:3-4). Moreover, Christians are exhorted to be "imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (cf. Hebrews 6:12) with Jesus Christ being the pre-eminent example of patience (cf. James 5:7-10;
In contrast, our American society has been conditioned to expect immediate results. As Sinclair Ferguson writes,
"... we are encouraged to become replicas of the icons of our time, molded by the transient fashions they create. A pathetic sameness and unoriginality emerges as we are swept downstream in the flow of society's priorities."
In other words, we have a culture that is image-focused and impulsive, which is contrary to disciplines that are required to produce character. Consequently, we have a society that does not produce many men and women of character. There are few individuals whose moral integrity make them stand out from the crowd and are worthy of emulation.
However, If we were honest with ourselves, this criticism would apply to us as well. There are few Christians in our society whose integrity rises above mere societal norms. In what ways do we observe our lack of patience? First, we observe this in the lost disciplines of Christian piety, particularly of Christian meditation. Second, we observe this in the impulsiveness of Christian work and ministry.
Patience and Meditation
To put this bluntly, we fail to give enough time to prayer and Bible-reading, and we have largely abandoned the practice of meditation. The common feature of these three disciplines is that they require patience over an extended period of time in order to see their fruitfulness. For the Reformed tradition, meditation was a daily duty for every Christian that enhanced every other duty of the Christian life. Edmund Calamy describes daily, deliberate meditation as "a reflecting act of the soul, whereby the soul is carried back to itself, and considers all the things that it knows" and such deliberation dwells upon God, Christ, and truth like "the Bee that dwells upon the flower, to suck out all the sweetness."
The Puritans stressed the need for meditation because (1) it is a Biblical command, (2) the preached Word will fail to profit us without it, and (3) our prayers will be less effective without it. In reflecting of the practice of the Puritans, Joel Beeke writes, "As oil lubricates an engine, so meditation facilitates the diligent use of the means of grace, deeps the marks of grace (repentance, faith, humility), and strengthens one's relationship to others."
The consensus within the Reformed tradition is that it is impossible to become a stable, mature Christian without a diligent cultivation of piety through these disciplines. However, these disciplines are often treated as merely optional today. Some would say that this standard of piety is not practical for our busy world and is impractical due to shorter attention spans. While there may be an element of truth in this statement, we need to acknowledge two points. First, the truth is that we are frequently immersed and engrossed in our own personal interests for extended periods of time. Second, we should be honest to admit that the marked decline in these spiritual disciplines are tied to our expectations. In other words, we expect that spiritual growth and maturity should occur faster than it does, and we lose the motivation to continue when we don't see our desired results.
Patience and Impulsiveness
Impulsiveness among young Christians has always been a struggle; for this reason, God's purpose in the earliest part of our Christian life is to lay a foundation of humility and patience on which He will build in the future. Often, in God's providence, many young Christians to labor in relative obscurity as God uses trials and difficulties to build Christian character. If we examine the Scriptures, we will notice how often His preparation of individuals is slow (such as the lives of Joseph, Moses, and Paul). This is meant to train us to see that God's timetable is not our own and through this process, we will learn patience.
However, in our impulsiveness, we unwisely encourage new Christians--particularly gifted young men--to engage in public activities so early on in their lives that their spiritual growth becomes distorted and the quality of their long-term fruitfulness is diminished. This impulsiveness has only become amplified through the platform offered by social media. The learning of patience during times of obscurity has now been replaced by immediate public validation through social media and blogging. These dangers are not new to us; Paul counseled Timothy not to place young Christians at spiritual peril by exposing them to the temptations of public position and the attendant danger of pride (cf. 1 Timothy 3:6).
Our greatest need is to be patiently shaped by God's word and providence. If we are not patient here with the processes in which the Holy Spirit uses the word to transform us, then our development will be stunted and our fruit will be sub-standard. Is it any wonder that there are fewer Christians (and Christian ministers) whose life and doctrine are worthy of imitation? We cannot short-circuit God's purposes in producing godly character. Humble submission and patience are always required to see an abundant harvest.
These considerations also apply to Christian writing. Just like it takes time to produce godly character in our heart, Christian writing takes patience reflection, observation, and meditation to be useful. How much of our blogging and social media commentary is more of a reflection of our hastiness and impatience rather than a desire to honor God's word?
If maturity was the great goal of the apostles' ministry, then it ought to be a goal in our lives as well. Let us therefore pursue maturity, and become mature in Christ.
Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is Associate Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the College of Charleston, and writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.
A Small Book about A BIG Problem by Ed Welch