Spiritual Maturity

Posted on February 15, 2015

When did the word “Christian” cease to mean “Christlike”? How can so many grow up in a church culture and so few be truly spiritually mature? The answer must be found in our understanding and view of what it means to be spiritually mature, and how spiritual maturity is obtained.

Spiritual maturity is of course most demonstrated by the consistency of the fruits of the Spirit, (Galatians 5; Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, etc.) moving though our souls, and our ability to discern and connect to the movement of God’s Spirit in all circumstances. In many cases expressions of spiritual life may appear contrary to commonly accepted definitions of maturity, as evidenced by Jesus ongoing choices that concerned the religious leaders of His day.

How does it happen that the actual move of God in transforming a human soul can end up so at odds with what religious leaders are willing to recognize as spiritual maturity?

I would submit that we seldom recognize, much less practice making a distinction between Spirit and soul. Stated another way, we may not have ever learned that there is a vast difference between achieving change through exerting intellect and will, and achieving change through surrendering to the move of God’s Spirit inside us. Outwardly these two things may look exactly the same. Inwardly, one is humanism, the other is what Jesus died to provide for the human race.

Even in the measure mentioned above, fruits of the Spirit, and discerning spiritual things, we can be fooled into soul-centered life acting as a substitute for spiritual growth and development. I’ve seen far too many passive aggressive people, who, because they appear outwardly calm, believe they are operating in peace, while they passively wound people around them. I’ve seen far too many people who claim to operate in great spiritual discernment, telling great tales of hearing and responding to God, while in the very moment of their telling, are completely unaware of their own self-aggrandizement, as well as unaware of their effect on the people in their present circumstances.

Part of our dilemma, is that in our search for experiencing life with the God we are coming to know, we all at some level want to gain an understanding of what He is like, what He is doing, and what He wants of us. And far too often, our channel for knowing this comes from observing outward expressions, without taking the time to see or know inward processes or motives.

The scriptures tell us repeatedly that while man looks on the outside, God examines motives. This does not simply mean that God is checking our conscience. It means that He is very invested in where inside the human being our outward actions originate.

As soon as an inward move of God becomes observable on the outside, whether through actions or words, the mind starts to observe and try to understand. Senses inform cognition, and cognition turns to “understanding”. Based on our understanding, accurate or not, our understanding begins to shape our will.  When we operate out of cognition, understanding and will as a way to produce behavior, we are operating in the realm of the soul, not the Spirit.

Cognition, understanding and will are not evil things. They simply are not spirit.

Before I go much further, I must say that when I use the word “understanding” I am not referring to actual understanding, but rather, I am referring to the process of internal synthesis in which we assign comprehension and meaning to what we observe. This assignment can be accurate or wholly inaccurate, and in either case it is our “understanding.” Simply stated, I am not necessarily referring to “right” understanding, I’m simply referring to the process of understanding.

“Right” understanding would include more than just accurately understanding an idea, it would also include understanding context and overarching purpose. A three year old can understand that a hammer is used to pound nails, but may not necessarily understand that you should not hit every single nail you happen to see.

All this to say that the process of cognition, understanding (synthesis) and will are not in any way evil, or wrong, but that they cannot and will not produce spiritual maturity. Yet far too often, this is not simply the process we know, it is the process we reproduce and encourage.

Spiritual maturity is the result of reading the bible and praying right? Those who do a lot of that and avoid bad behavior are more spiritually mature. Right? This is only true if, in reading the Bible and praying we are actually engaging the Spirit, and not simply performing acts of the will out of self-driven motives. If we do these things in order to look mature, impress others, or win arguments, we may be actually strengthening our immaturity, while we and others around us, applaud us for being very mature.

When we try to understand spiritual things in material ways (non-spiritual) we will always misunderstand. Spiritual things can only be understood by a spiritual mind. Spiritual things processed through material thinking will always reduce what it sees to less than it actually is.

As soon as we translate ideas into words, we have given the first step toward potentially turning Spirit into law. Again, words are not the problem, thought process is the problem.

If we are to rightly apply the process of cognition, understanding and will to move towards spiritual maturity, here is what we must think process and do. We must understand that when God connects to the inner part of a man, He restores and begins restoring in us the spiritual nature for which we are designed. Then we must understand that the mind is not the instrument that most adequately interacts in this process. It is the spirit, and the spiritually formed mind that will lead us into spiritual maturity.

From there, we must understand and apply our will to recognizing and surrendering our internal drives to His internal workings.

The mind strives for closure and certainty. The spirit hungers for connection and aliveness. The mind wants to “get it right” the spirit wants to “receive, process and express”. It is like the difference between the musician who wants to perform a piece with technical perfection, versus the musician who wants to learn to fully express the music that is within him.

Spirit is not definable in cognitive terms. Because spirit is a higher level of functioning, it cannot be accurately described by the language of the lower level of intellect. So those who function only at a cognitive level are prone to mistakenly think that believing in spiritual things is a result of ignorance, when it is in fact a quantum leap in thought process.

To grow spiritually is more of a journey than a destination. It is more a “way” of searching than it is a set of practices. Spirit is such an elusive, yet central aspect of the human being. It is the open-ness to live in the search…the unwillingness to settle on knowledge and will, that I believe gives us access to more of God’s Spirit and less soul. This “way” of growing means that rather than arriving at certainty, we may actually find ourselves always living in the unresolved tension of “am I doing this right?…”

 “The unspiritual self, just as it is by nature, can’t receive the gifts of God’s Spirit. There’s no capacity for them. They seem like so much silliness. Spirit can be known only by spirit—God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion. Spiritually alive, we have access to everything God’s Spirit is doing, and can’t be judged by unspiritual critics.” 

1 Corinthians 2:14-15 | The Message

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12 | New American Standard


  • Angela Roberts

    This makes some things so clear. It draws a great picture of the difference between our ritualistic, humanistic way and God’s leading through the Spirit. It’s so encouraging!! 😀

  • Learn Differently! What am I learning FOR? (To win arguments? OUCH.)

    “It is like the difference between the musician who wants to perform a piece with technical perfection, versus the musician who wants to learn to fully express the music that is within him.”

    The goal of the learning informs the HOW of the practice. I’ve lived and practiced as someone who values technical perfection. It’s pretty much all I knew and boy did I excell in religiosity. It kills the music, though. While technical perfection is certainly not a poor value to have, if that’s ALL I have then what I produce will be dull and lifeless. No one will care to stick around and listen. The lives I do encounter, I’ll tend to point out mistakes and be critical, all the while telling everyone that *I* know the *right* way and, lucky for you, for your convenience I’ll just go ahead and tell you what that is.

    Gag. What a turn off.

    But… being spiritually alive with “access to everything God’s Spirit is doing”?!? Expressing beauty and power and grace and the music of the life-giving God freely giving abundant life? Music to my ears and life to my heart. Sign. Me. UP.

    I’ll practice and play that glorious game any day of the week.

  • I should probably start writing on my own blog now. Thanks for the prompts. =)

  • Anna Davenport

    I have had my fill of the soul-centered life. It is soul-crushing. As I have released my grip the knowledge of good and leaned into who I am in Christ, I find myself more and more free to become the ME that He created and redeemed me to be. Lies I have believed for as long as I can remember have fallen like scales from my eyes and I am changing right before my very own eyes! Things like “when you wear your hair around your face it makes you look fat”…”I am not the creative type”…and experiencing fear when I come into His presence without having my act together. All these are RECENT lies exposed and renounced. The result of what I have learned from you over the years, and more recently from Dr. Caroline Leaf

  • bb

    “…we may not have ever learned that there is a vast difference between achieving change through exerting intellect and will, and achieving change through surrendering to the move of God’s Spirit inside us…”
    Yes.
    It seems that exerting intellect and will also means that my focus is narcissistically on myself, while surrender implies a natural focus on Jesus.
    Exerting will is bad news because it has failed me so many times.
    Surrender is good news.

  • Ted Crawford

    Wow! The last post was 2 years ago? I was gonna say that what Bob is calling “understanding”, I’m coming away with as “interpretation”. And if Bob were still around after 2 years and read this, I would ask him to check my interpretation… ,er… understanding.

  • Ted Crawford

    I find Jeremiah 9:23-24 to be a clarion call in our world of “DO STUFF…GET STUFF…BE STUFF”. Contextually, it’s planted right in the middle of a devastating scenario of judgement and punishment resulting from Israel’s idolatry. I come away with God telling Israel, “Your going down hard for your idolatry, but this is the cure; KNOW ME!” Isn’t self-worship the root of idolatry? Isn’t truly knowing Him the cure?