The Imperative of Maturity

By: Mike Bishop
*originally published on November 2, 2020

Accepting God’s invitation to a life of true freedom

Have you seen the “campaign” bumper sticker that reads, “Any Functioning Adult — 2020?” It garners a chuckle, but there is also a deep truth behind the joke. We want our leaders, especially our political ones, to grow up and act like adults. Based on the selfish and destructive ways people treat each other, we could all use some lessons in maturity.

The Bible says the goal of following Jesus is to become “mature” (2 Corinthians 18:9, Ephesians 4:13, Hebrews 6:1). But what does that mean, exactly? Knowing more about the Bible? Being able to share your faith? Having wisdom and discernment? Not cheating on your taxes?
The Greek word used throughout the New Testament for “mature” is teleios. It means “brought to its end, finished,” and “wanting nothing necessary to completeness.” It’s the same word Jesus used in this famous and challenging verse from the Sermon on the Mount:
“But you are to be perfect [teleios], even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48, NLT)
Perfect. That’s teleios.

Wait, wait, wait. Doesn’t the Bible also teach us that we’re sinners and we always do the things we don’t want to do? How in the world can anyone hope to become mature if it means perfection? Isn’t God just setting us up for failure?
Look around the world and it’s easy to see how well attempts at human achievement have worked out. We mostly just want people to stop killing each other and occasionally do something productive for society. Forget being perfect.

     Yet, there it is. “Be perfect.”

Jesus was not joking or being deceptive. His intention is for every human being that puts their trust in him and his way of life to become perfect. Indeed, if the goal of following Jesus was not perfection, it would rightly be cataloged among the very long list of human efforts to better ourselves that simply do not work.

So what does this kind of maturity look like in practice?
“The intention of God is that we should each become the kind of person whom he can set free in his universe empowered to do what we want to do.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God)
Did you catch that last part? God wants to set us free to do what we want to do. This is what humans long for, but completely bungle because of our idolatry. We desperately want to be free and live in freedom. Instead, we choose slavery to our passions and selfish desires.

The goal of following Jesus is not to become his robot or slave. The Bible says we are his ambassadors, co-workers, and friends. But there is only one way for that to work out well for God and us. We have to become mature. In order to experience true freedom, the freedom God desperately wants to give us, we need two things:

1. An abiding obsession with and submission to
the kingdom of God, the way of Jesus as taught
in the Bible, and the power and leadership of
the Holy Spirit. (See Matthew 6:33)

Maturity starts with understanding our place in God’s world. We are his creation and everything we are becoming finds its genesis in him. Everything Jesus taught, lived, and died for should become our obsession.
His life, death, and resurrection opened the door for us to become fully human. We are, after all, made in the image of God to be his image-bearers. His gift of his Holy Spirit fulfills God’s promise to his people:
“He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.” (Deuteronomy 31:8, NLT)
These facts about God and his kingdom are immutable. This is the way he operates, which is why Jesus said the availability of God’s kingdom is “good news.” We are not left alone in the universe to fend for ourselves! In fact, God has perfectly designed his kingdom to be beneficial to us in every way.

However, maturity does not happen as if by magic. God does not snap his fingers once we confess our allegiance to him and say, “Ok, now you’re mature.” If that were the case, there would be no need for this article. Alongside our obsession with Jesus, his kingdom, and his Spirit, we also need this:

2. A reformed character around the “new man”
or “new woman” that is a gift of God, but must
be “put on” intentionally and systematically
through effort with the aid of grace. (See
Colossians 3:9–10)

Dallas Willard made this incredible, life-changing statement many times in his writings: “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Christians have historically, at least since the reformation, been very allergic to anything that sounds like “works”. Yet, it is precisely “works” that are the means and fruit of mature Christian life.
Remember, everything about growing in maturity starts with an obsession with Jesus and his kingdom. We cannot earn our way into God’s family by doing anything. In the same way, we cannot earn our maturity through gritting our teeth and trying to be mature.

Anything worth doing requires effort. This is true for cooking, singing, playing an instrument, golf, woodworking, or caring for your dog. Why would it not also be true for maturity in Christ?
Pastors and church leaders generally do not teach their congregations that following Jesus is hard. That does not attract “seekers” as they say. Yet, it is not an exaggeration that everything in the world outside of God’s kingdom is arrayed in battle against us becoming mature. It is an injustice to sugar-coat the truth.

When Jesus taught his disciples the difference between the wide road leading to destruction and narrow road leading to life, he wasn’t talking about the exclusivity of his message. The destructive road is wide because it is the path you will take if you do nothing. Like water runs downhill, passivity follows the interstate highway of death on cruise control.

The road that leads to life is narrow because it has to wind its way up through the treacherous mountains of the human heart. The effort involved can be extreme, painful, and humbling. There will be times when you want to quit and go back to the highway of death. But then, you round the corner and witness the beautiful vista of true freedom.
God has given us a new identity in Jesus which is perfect in his sight and the fullest expression of you possible. But like a new, tailored suit, two things must take place for it to be utilized and enjoyed. First, you must take off your old clothes and throw them in the dirty hamper. Then, you must take the suit out of the closet and put it on.

Good character is essential to maturity. It is, in fact, the fruit of becoming mature in Christ. As we work with him to transform our character from old patterns of sin and idolatry into the fruit of the Spirit, we put on the new identity we have been given. By his grace, he will enable us every day and in every situation to grow in this manner.

Will we ever taste perfection this side of the new heavens and new earth? No, but it’s possible to grow as mature followers of Jesus in our lifetime. In fact, it’s not only possible, it’s essential. God has extended the invitation to live as free humans in his world. Will you accept? The suit is already hanging in your closet. It’s time to put it on.

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