The Marks and Methods of Spiritual Maturity
In my younger years, I thought that spiritual maturity meant having all the right answers, both to the big questions of faith (Why is there evil in the world if God is good?) and to the daily conundrums (How should I respond to my child’s failing grades?). As a result, I tried to live that way for many years. But having the right answers implies that those answers must be shared with those who have wrong answers or no answers, and that was not always welcome. Indeed, it often did more harm to the kingdom than good. Having all the right answers also promotes intolerance for those who cannot get on board with those answers; we begin to believe that people have brought their troubles on themselves because they are illogical and wrong-thinking. In the end, I was miserable and I was making the people around me miserable.
I asked some friends what qualities come to mind when they think of spiritual maturity. They gave me answers such as faith, wisdom, perseverance, consistency, trust in God’s provision and direction, peace, calm in times of trouble. “Right answers” only made the list in this way: “He or she seems to know what God would probably say about what’s bothering us.” My list as I was brainstorming included many of those same qualities. As I reflected on the spiritually mature people I admire most, one idea seemed foundational to all the others: love. Spiritually mature people are empowered by the love of God to love others.
The interesting thing about that is that no two people experience or express that love in the same ways. In general, the spiritually mature people I know, besides the qualities already listed, seem to be comfortable in their own skin, service-oriented, humble, diplomatic, confident, kingdom-focused, empathetic, grateful, and forgiving, but those qualities come wrapped in different bodies, different personalities, different vocations, different politics, different denominations, different income levels. Understanding how the spiritually mature practice dwelling in God’s love and sharing it with others can help us in our journeys towards spiritual maturity.
Most spiritually mature people take seriously their time with God. They practice “pray without ceasing” and “search the Scriptures daily” with intentionality, regularity, and commitment, and often Scripture and prayer are intricately woven together. This is how they receive God’s love; this is how they learn it, understand it, experience it, enter into it. They understand that God’s love is revealed in Scripture, particularly in the story of his incarnation, so their time reading and meditating on Scripture helps them to hear God’s loving voice. They also hear answers to specific prayer requests, direction, correction, correct thinking, even “right answers,” but those who have been walking with God for a long time hear even these things as God’s love. More importantly, they learn intimacy, apart from which one can no longer be sure of love. Just as a man and a woman who neglect time together begin to doubt their love for each other, so we doubt God’s love when we have not learned to dwell in his presence.
The forms this intimacy with God may take are manifold. Some may practice specific contemplative disciplines such as lectio divina, “reading in the quest for God . . . reading for holiness . . . sacred reading;” the Jesus Prayer (“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” or some variation), “a way of focusing attention on God and combating distraction,” including the distraction of words; or modern approaches such as SOAP (“Lectio Divina Light”)—Scripture reading, Observations, Application, Prayer. Others may take a more incarnational or sacramental approach in which “the crying need to experience God as truly manifest and notoriously active in daily life” is addressed. A shining historical example of this is in the life of Brother Lawrence, who practiced turning his inward attention towards God whether he were reciting a Psalm or washing pots and pans “having accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of God”; he could even “take up a straw from the ground for the love of God.” Still others will approach the Bible in a more formal study, through seminary or Bible study programs such as Bible Study Fellowship. Those who “sit under the Bible for sustained periods . . . will be formed by the experience.” In one way or another, those who combine Scripture with prayer hear God’s voice and are able to receive his love. I believe it this daily renewal of the intentional experience of God’s love that enables spiritual maturity.
Then as God’s love permeates the Christian pilgrim, that love can spill over into genuine kingdom service towards others. Spiritually mature Christians serve others out of the abundant resources of God’s love. They may do this in many ways. They may evangelize, seek social justice in any number of ways, provide meals for a sick neighbor, give sacrificially to their churches and other worthy causes, become intercessory prayer warriors, work as teachers, ushers, servers, musicians, pastors, and other roles in their churches, and seek to serve God in whatever occupation they have, in church, government, industry, and so on.
Indeed, one of the marks of a spiritually mature Christian is a sense of vocation—of calling. If we see vocation as the voice of God “calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God,” a calling which can only be discerned in process, trial and error, prayer, and love, then we can turn our love towards the world more effectively than if we are trying to serve God and others in ways we think we “ought,” but are not actually created and gifted to do. Refusing to understand our God-given limitations arising from our uniqueness (as opposed to the ones imposed by others) makes us “more likely to exceed [our] limits and to do harm to others in the process.” The spiritually mature Christian can serenely say “no” to opportunities that would, because he or she is not fit for that opportunity, damage the reputation of the kingdom of God. But in ways for which he or she is suited, the answer can freely be “yes.”
An important distinction must be made here; not every service-oriented Christian is spiritually mature. Some try to prove their maturity by their service, but this has it backwards; they lack the fuel and motivation of God’s love, and so become frantic when things do not go well, or resentful at the expectations of others, or frustrated at the lack of recognition they receive for their efforts, or “dry,” or “burnt out.” Although even the most mature Christian can become weary and need a focused time of recuperation or renewal, and we all need to create “rhythms of work and rest,” those who lack a regular experience of God’s love tend to serve in their own strength and eventually become unable to handle the natural stress of service.
Those who have learned to spend time regularly at the fountain of God’s love also get to know God in such a way that they become humble. They recognize God’s vastness and greatness and are awed by it. Therefore, their service to others is marked by humility; it does not seek recognition but instead diverts any glory to God. They are also grateful people, grateful for God’s love and his condescension to us, to live among us and redeem us, to be present to us, when he has no obligation to do so other than the “obligation” of his holy and good nature. That gratitude spills over into their lives in others ways; they express gratitude to others easily. Because of their humility and gratitude, they acknowledge the work that God has done in their lives and can therefore have empathy for others who are on different stages of the journey or indeed on different kinds of journeys altogether. Because they have meditated on the freedom of God, they do not insist that others’ experiences mirror their own to have validity.
Spiritually mature people, having invested in intimacy with God through Scripture and prayer, share many of his attributes. They are wise, gentle, perceptive, forgiving people who easily wait upon the Lord for his provision, for his action, for his timing, for his answers, and expect that, although God will do as he pleases, he also has our best interests at heart. Like Antonius, the spiritually mature may pray for miraculous healing but are “neither boastful when healing occurred nor disgruntled when no healing occurred” because they recognize that healing belongs “only to God.”
Love marks the spiritually mature Christian, and it is a love that mimics the love of God in that it is incarnational. The most significant aspect of God’s love for us is not his gifts or benefits or any other way of thinking of what he can do for us, but his presence: Emmanuel—God with us. The mature Christian has spent time in God’s presence and in turn offers his presence to a hurting world. He or she sits beside the bereft in hospital waiting rooms and funeral homes, prays for God’s presence when easy answers are not available, and listens without needing words to bring comfort. As friends of God, the spiritually mature can become friends of anyone in need of God’s love and presence.
My Own Spiritual Growth
Although there are many tools that can be useful on the journey towards spiritual maturity, the essential element of almost all of them is drinking at the fount of God’s love through Scripture and prayer. This year I have made it my nearly daily habit to read and meditate on a portion of Scripture and then use that meditation to pray the Scripture back to God. Intercessory prayer has naturally flowed out of that. I have tried the SOAP method of journaling, something I initially resisted but have found quite useful in concretizing my intentional time in God’s presence. Nothing I write in that journal is particularly profound; I have no expectation that future generations will be so inspired by those scribblings that they will publish and widely distribute them. But the act of writing helps me to stay focused, to remember that I have actually interacted with a portion of Scripture, have actually prayed about a specific thing, have actually had the loving presence of God at my side. Without my expecting it, it has also become a record of answered prayer, which is another way God reminds me of his love. Another benefit is that, when I become frustrated or frantic or distraught or harried, I no longer so often think, “Woe is me! Why doesn’t God DO something!” Instead I think, “I need God. This is not who I want to be.” The rhythms of my life call me back to God’s presence.
My plan for future growth is to continue with these new habits and learn to listen to my life; it (or the Holy Spirit in it) often tells me what I need. I will consider “the way of the heart,” as Nouwen calls it, to be a necessary focus; ironically, it seems that to be truly selfless, I must insist on time alone—alone with God, that is. I will make way for solitude, silence, and prayer. I have already considered entering a formal relationship of spiritual direction, for the purposes of vocational discernment—an immediate need as I consider why God has me in seminary—and for recognizing the voice of God in general. I have prayed often for spiritual discernment and wisdom as I consider my own life choices and as particular circumstances arise. For instance, can the Spirit guide me when I have to make a decision about whether to give this particular homeless person money? In this I have been led by the example of one of my mentor pastors in my internship, and I have adopted it as a specific goal for this year.
I left my job to attend seminary full-time, and I am grateful for a kind of leisure that has come with that choice—a leisure to order my day differently, more openly, more attuned to the Holy Spirit. A different set of struggles comes along with that, but the time I have to spend in intentional communion with God has provided some progress against those struggles. I am learning to be more fully myself, to be comfortable with my particular personality, gifts, limitations, life circumstances, and struggles, to recognize the hand of God in all of that. I want to become the kind of person I admire—a person of peace, wisdom, confidence, humility, joy, gratitude, empathy, forgiveness. I want to become a person overflowing with God’s love. I recognize that I have a part to play in this process, as God enables me to make room in my life for him.
Barton, R. Ruth. Sacred Rhythms : Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Foster, Richard J. Streams of Living Water : Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. 1st ed. ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.
Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Springdale, PA.: Whitaker House, 1982.
Louth, Andrew. The Wilderness of God. London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2003.
Maas, Robin, and Gabriel O'Donnell. Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Way of the Heart. 1st Ballantine trade pbk. ed. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak : Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
 Robin Maas and Gabriel O'Donnell, Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 45.
 Andrew Louth, The Wilderness of God (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2003), 56.
 Dr. John Bangs in a lecture on spiritual disciplines, Fuller Northwest, September 2010.
 Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water : Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith, 1st ed. ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 237.
 Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Springdale, PA.: Whitaker House, 1982), 10.
 Ibid., 7.
 Foster, 232.
 Ibid., 185.
 Ibid., 137.
 Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak : Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 10.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 R. Ruth Barton, Sacred Rhythms : Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 130.
 Foster, 30.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 1st Ballantine trade pbk. ed. ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003).