We have an old tradition in the Radmacher household. We like to write on the wall. We like to record things on the wall, specifically, on the door jam. Every birthday, my kids are eager to line up on the door-jam with their heels against the wall so that we can measure just how much they have grown. We love to measure our progress or growth in a variety of different areas, physical growth being just one of them. We relish those marks and we cherish the ritual of taking that measurement. My kids love it so much that they will sometimes try to measure themselves. Just the other day, I noticed some mysterious markings that had been made with a big black Sharpie in wobbly handwriting and for birthdays that hadn’t yet arrived. I had to laugh inside, because I knew that they had been at it again.
Interestingly, we have no wall in our lives on which to measure spiritual growth. We have no growth or achievement marks that read things like the following: 1) Listened the first time. 2) Spoke kindly to his sister. 3) Forgave a wrong that was done to him. We have no ruler with those gradations, because we have no agreed-upon standard of spiritual maturity. Yet, aren’t those marks equally important as the marks of physical growth, nay, perhaps even more important?
Are there marks of spiritual character that are concrete and measurable? Can I calculate the spiritual maturity of someone else? At first blush, that might sound a little judgmental, but think again. When you’re interviewing someone for a job, or meeting them on a first date, or electing someone as president, wouldn’t it be great to have reliable marks by which you could measure their spiritual maturity? There are actually quite a few of these if you know where to look, and I think that the Apostle Paul shows us three in his epistle to the Colossians.
1) Is there a history of whole relationships?
In Colossians 3, Paul gives us a list of character qualities which are wonderful, but vague. “As the elect of God, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another.” How do you actually know if you are growing in these things? Do you ask, “Am I more meek than I was last year?” Well, the answer will always be “yes,” won’t it? Why? Because we can’t measure ourselves. Whenever my kids try to measure themselves, they take the ruler and set it on their heads, but they can’t see that it isn’t level. It always reads as taller than they actually are. The same is true spiritually.
But there is one telltale mark in this list of character qualities: “Forgiving one another.” Do you want to know how to judge the spiritual maturity of someone? Ask yourself the following question: Do they have a history of whole relationships in their past or broken relationships? How many people are they not speaking to in their history? How easily are they offended? Do they hold onto grudges? Are you always afraid of saying or doing something that might offend them? How quickly or easily do they dish on people from their past in their conversations with you?
Conversely, how about those people whom you could never offend—who always think the best of you? They don’t leave a trail of broken relationships. They leave whole relationships. That is a telltale mark of spiritual maturity. There is a person that I’m describing with the above, and that person is me. Some years ago, I found that I had a string of broken relationships in my past. I sought out those people and pursued reconciliation. I did it because I was beginning to understand the gospel in my heart—what Jesus had done for me by way of forgiveness. The bottom line is that spiritual character reveals itself in a track record of whole relationships.
2) Is there a steady pattern of peacefulness?
Peace in the world is entirely based on our circumstances. We tend to be peaceful or not based on the things that are happening in our lives. I am peaceful if I have a good job and am getting positive affirmation from my employer. I am peaceful if I have a good relationship where I am noticed and appreciated, and am fulfilled in a balanced and equal partnership. I am peaceful if my surroundings are tranquil and there isn’t noise or commotion like car alarms or leaf-blowers or children fighting. As a result, worldly peace is always evaporating. We are always chasing peace, leaving a pattern of peacefulness in our lives that is uneven at best.
Paul has another prescription for peace. “Let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body.” The word “rule” here means to act as an umpire. It was a word used in the games to denote someone who would make a decision with regards to a contest. It means that someone is actively governing the things that are allowed access to your heart. What we are talking about here is the presence of the Spirit of God entering your life in a powerful way.
The second mark of spiritual maturity is not “peacefulness” per se, but is there someone besides yourself ruling over your heart? Is there someone governing the fears and worries that are allowed access to your heart? You know these thoughts: That something bad is going to happen. That no one will ever love you. That you will be a complete failure. That God isn’t really good and doesn’t want your best. These are the fears and worries that disrupt your peace. And when circumstances do fluctuate, have you made a discipline of going to God in prayer, surrendering to the presence of Jesus in your life? People who are spiritually mature tend to have this in common: their first response is prayer. As a result, they have a steadier pattern of peacefulness because it is not based on their circumstances.
3) Is there a deep investment in spiritual community?
Finally, Paul says this to the Colossians: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” That phrase says so much about the spiritually mature. Is the Word a real focus of meditation, a daily discipline in life? Does Scripture dwell “richly” within you? I could say so much about what this means, but I want to draw out one aspect only of this thought. Notice how Paul continues: “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” There is a “one another” in this sentence. I find it very interesting in this passage that spiritual character reveals itself in a connection with other people, particularly in the community at worship. One of the hallmarks of those who are spiritually mature is that they are deeply invested in spiritual community.
Look, God has provided three essential resources for you to spiritually mature, none of which are optional. They are the Word of God, the Spirit of God and the people of God. That third discipline might be something of a surprise, because in our western world we mistakenly believe that we can grow in intimacy with Jesus outside of community. However, it is in community that the life of Jesus will take root in our lives. I don’t mean any kind of community. I don’t mean nice or polite community. I mean transparent community. I mean invested community. I mean community which is not afraid to get its hands dirty. I mean grace-filled, gospel community which is focused on the cross of Christ. I mean real community.
This is really the subject for another article, but in my opinion, most of us won’t experience significant spiritual growth outside of transparent spiritual community. You need people in your life with similar values who love you and love Jesus enough to honestly reflect what they see. You need a structural relationship that allows for that kind of interaction, not a superficial one, but a connected and vulnerable one. You need to have empowered someone to stand with you by the door jam and hold the ruler on your head to show you how you measure up. You just cannot do that for yourself. You will always over-estimate your own growth. An investment in real spiritual community is yet another way to measure spiritual character.
Are there concrete, objective ways to measure spiritual character and maturity in yourself or someone else? Yes there are. Look at the track record of relationships. Look at the pattern of peacefulness. Look at whether or not there is an investment in real spiritual community. These are the marks of spiritual maturity.
Daniel Radmacher © 2017