Thomas E. Bergler is associate professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, Huntington, Indiana, where he has taught youth ministry for ten years. He is also senior associate editor for The Journal of Youth Ministry and author of the new book The Juvenilization of American Christianity.
In this, the second in an occasional series of EerdWord guest posts from him dealing with the topic of juvenilization (read part one here), Bergler explores why the pursuit of spiritual maturity — a pursuit that runs counter to the juvenilization that so commonly characterizes American Christianity — is so vital for Christian believers.
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It’s bad enough that juvenilization keeps many of us trapped in spiritual immaturity. What’s worse is that we like it there. In addition to learning that spiritual maturity is attainable in this life, juvenilized Christians need to learn that it is desirable. In a society in which words like “maturity” and “adulthood” all too often connote other words like “old” “boring,” and “stagnant,” people need to be captivated by a biblical vision of spiritual maturity.
In fact, spiritual maturity is the opposite of stagnation. After talking about how he regards all of his earthly attainments, even his religious attainments, as garbage, Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Paul so passionately desires this deeper union with Christ that he throws himself into the process of spiritual transformation: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Then he says something that many of us forget when we think about this well-known passage: “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind” (Philippians 3:10-15, NRSV).
Spiritually mature Christians are more likely to share Paul’s value system: nothing compares to Christ (Philippians 3:7-8). Baby Christians can have strong feelings about Jesus. Mature Christians have reoriented their lives around Christ and are ready to start running hard after him. Reaching the launching pad of spiritual maturity is the best way to grow in Christ.
If we really dig into what Paul meant by knowing Christ in his death and resurrection we learn that maturity allows a special kind of connection to Christ — a kind of connection that is simply less available to the spiritually immature. Here is what Paul says in another place:
We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you (2 Corinthians 4:8-12).
Paul is saying that as he shares in Jesus’ mission, he experiences suffering, but that suffering does not destroy him. Why? Because it is in moments of suffering for the gospel that he experiences both the death of Jesus and his resurrection. Indeed, he believes that the very resurrection life of Jesus Christ is visible in his body as he serves Christ faithfully. He thinks that as he experiences the “death” of suffering for Jesus’ sake, the very life of Jesus is somehow imparted to others, including the Corinthian Christians to whom he ministered. And one of the ways he experiences the resurrection life of Christ is by seeing it in the lives of those he has loved and discipled.
Putting together these two passages, we can conclude that Paul connected most deeply with Jesus and was most powerfully transformed into the image of Christ as he experienced suffering and resurrection power through his gospel ministry. There are some ways of “knowing Jesus” and his resurrection power that can only be experienced through the kind of sacrificial service for others that hurts. Only spiritually mature people enter into this profoundly beautiful spiritual connection with Christ. The immature are still too focused on the question: “What’s in it for me?”