Called to Maturity

In the last post in this series exploring different facets of vocation, we looked at the calling to be Christlike: that, if, through sin, humanity marred our original vocation to be God’s representatives on earth, Christ has restored that vocation, so that by living like him, we can recover that purpose for which we were made. But, this is easier said than done. We can take on a Christian identity through repentance, faith, and baptism, but two thousand years of real-life experience tells us that it isn’t so simple. There is a ‘now-but-not-yet’ aspect to all of this. Just as I was ‘me’ as a baby just as much as I am ‘me’ now but also needed to grow up to express that ‘me-ness’ in its fullest potential, so too do those who come to identify as Christians need to grow up into the fullness of Christ’s potential in them. As I wrote in my post introducing the series Growing with Intention:

As much as we might wish the Holy Spirit would simply transform us, whether at the moment of baptism or in some other experience, that desire doesn’t mesh with two thousand years of on-the-ground Christian experience. Instead, that history tells us that real spiritual transformation is a slow and painful process, if it happens at all.

And so, today, I’d like to explore this process of growth through the lens of vocation: the call to maturity. (Once again, this post will bring together a lot of ideas from previous posts, so I will quote extensively from previous work.)

The calling to grow up in life and faith has good precedent in the New Testament. In fact, this tension between already being ‘in Christ’ yet still needing to grow up ‘into Christ was one of the major difficulties addressed in the letters and sermons that make up much of the New Testament. Here is a sample of texts where this challenge is expressed explicitly as the need to grow up in faith:

  • For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5.12-14)
  • until all of us come … to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …. (Ephesians 4.12-15)
  • It is [Christ] whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1.28)

But what does this genuine Christian growth look like? To return to one of the guiding principles of our faith, “a tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12.33). We can safely say that if ‘growth’ bears bad fruit in our lives and relationships, it is not genuine growth. Likewise, we can safely say that if ‘growth’ bears no fruit at all, it is not genuine growth. The growth into Christian maturity is not growth for the sake of growth, but growth for the sake of fruitfulness — it’s not turned inward on ourselves, but out towards the world. As I previously noted about this:

Growth for growth’s sake is not only unsustainable and unrealistic, but is dangerous and unhealthy. We can’t undertake a culture of more. Growth for growth’s sake is cancer. In contrast, healthy growth is growth for the sake of the other. This is where the analogy of bearing good fruit becomes helpful. In order to bear good fruit, a tree certainly needs to grow, but that growth isn’t the point: the point is to produce fruit. And ultimately, the fruit of an apple tree isn’t an apple, but another apple tree. We grow and we live out that growth in order to raise up others into their own growth and maturity. Certainly the most obvious way this plays out in our lives is raising up the next generation, but if we think of how deeply interconnected we are to all of the created world, and if we take seriously the Scriptures’ claims that salvation has a cosmic scope, this loving care and concern will extend beyond our families and immediate communities, and beyond even the whole human family, but to the entire cosmos.

Not only is our community life the place where we demonstrate our personal growth into maturity, but it is also the arena for our maturation, the crucible where it happens. It’s easy to be loving and compassionate from within the safety of my apartment. But, it’s much harder outside, whether dealing with rude customers in a store, dangerous drivers on the streets, or personality conflicts in the church. Without these spurs for growth, we simply can’t grow. When it comes to personal development, interpersonal relationships are where the rubber meets the road.

This maturation process involves a wonderful paradox. On the one hand, it makes us more and more like Jesus, as we grow up into our Christian identity and live more and more as he lived — bringing good news to the poor, healing the sick, freeing the oppressed, and so on. But, on the other hand, this growth in Christlikeness does not make us something other than who we are; rather it frees us to be truly human and truly ourselves. Again quoting a previous post on this topic:

[T]he point in the end is that we are to grow up into the full maturity of the true humanity of which Christ is both the prototype and perfect completion. To the Christian mind and heart, Jesus is the perfect — complete, whole — human person. And certainly, from the Gospel stories, we see Jesus as a mature adult human in the best senses of those words: he is generous, joyful, assertive, humble, loving, knows who he is, and on and on. He lives out the fruit of the Spirit wholly. He embodies all of the character strengths that researchers in positive psychology have developed as an attempted set of universal markers of human wellbeing. He embodies the upper reaches of human growth in all the lines of development proposed by developmental psychologists. (Indeed, there is an ancient Christian belief that Jesus was incarnated, born into humanity, so that he could fill and bless every season and stage of human life with his divine life.) He represents a complete person — and not just from a Christian perspective that understands this on faith, a priori. But this wholeness and completeness is offered to us too. The language …in Ephesians 4.11-16 is filled with metaphors of growth: equipping, edifying, arriving, becoming, being perfected, maturing, growing up, and increasing. So, for Paul at least, the whole point of the Christian life is to grow up into maturity, to become by grace all that Christ is by nature. While we will all manifest this growth in different ways and bear different fruit according to the gifts we’ve been given and vocation to which we’ve been called, all this is in service of our primary vocation, which is to grow up to the perfection that Jesus represents.

Some might bristle at the seamless movement in the last paragraphs from spiritual growth to psychological growth. And indeed, many Christians have questioned — if not rejected outright — the value of psychology to the spiritual life. While I think it’s always important to examine our sources with a questioning eye, I reject the notion that these two disciplines are disconnected. As the Jesuit writer Wilkie Au, rightly insists: “Truth is a seamless garment and … authentic religion and authentic psychology, each in its own way, shed light on the truth of the human condition. Truth has nothing to fear from itself” (By Way of the Heart, 5). And again:

Those who take Christian faith seriously should not denigrate human growth as something merely secular, something unrelated to religious maturity. Because the glory of God, as St. Irenaeus reminds us, is the person fully alive, our vocation as human beings entails a commandment to continuous human growth. Human life is a gift from the creator, who couples the gift of life with a call — a call to us to be co-creators, freely fashioning our lives into something beautiful for God (19).

This type of growth calls us to a more genuine life of faith, because faith can only exist in the presence of vulnerability in the face of uncertainty, complexity, and mystery. We see this in Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au’s eight “movements of growth”: the movement away from facades; the movement away from ‘shoulds’; the movement away from conformity for the sake of acceptance; the movement away from people-pleasing; the movement toward openness to experience; the movement toward trust in oneself; the movement toward trust in God’s faithfulness; and the movement toward accountability.

This paradox — that genuine maturity makes us not only more Christlike, but also more ourselves — opens the door at last to specific, or particular vocation, to the things which we aren’t all called to do and be, but to which we as particular persons are called to do and be. This is the primary sense in which we use the word ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’, and it’s to this we will turn in the next posts.

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