We may think that someone is spiritually mature when they don’t seem to struggle with negative emotions or when they always have a verse or a solution ready for any faith crisis. But is this really what a mature spiritual leader looks like?
“Too often Christian maturity is perceived to mean stoicism or emotional neutrality. There seems to be a misunderstanding in some evangelical circles that Christians should ‘have it all together.’ Unfortunately, when struggles come and inner turmoil is experienced, people may feel compelled to hide their confusion and pain to not be labelled as unspiritual.”
—Gingrich & Gingrich, Skills for Effective Counseling: A Faith-Based Integration
I have to admit that my basis for maturity as a young Christian was someone’s ability to give a quick answer to my questions about faith, to provide a solution to any of my problems, and to be emotionally neutral.
Getting angry, sad, or depressed was seen as a sign of a lack of faith, and it is not that the person is made to feel unwelcome because they are deemed “immature.” But because there is a lack of conversation about the role of grief and suffering in our faith, experiencing negative emotions or having no answers to someone’s problems seems taboo, especially when you’re a leader.
But what does it really mean to be spiritually mature?
Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Spiritual maturity is reflected in our ability to love God, love ourselves, and love others. Pete Scazzero in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality talks about the importance of weaving together “contemplative spirituality and emotional health” in order to grow in the ability to love well.
Emotional health is concerned about self-awareness. That is, we become more emotionally healthy as we learn to acknowledge and manage our feelings. We become aware of how our past affects our present. We recognize both our strengths and our limitations. We see self-destructive patterns that affect our well-being and relationships with others, and break free from them. We learn to set boundaries, express ourselves well, and manage conflict better.
Contemplative spirituality is concerned about spiritual disciplines that increase our understanding of God, His love, and His perfect will. It is taking time to commune with Him and position ourselves to hear from Him and be aware of His presence in our life throughout the day. It is developing a healthy rhythm of life that allows us to love others out of experiencing God’s love for us.
Contemplation allows us to fix our eyes on God instead of on ourselves or on our situation. Emotional health allows us to love ourselves and to love others better. If we fail to weave emotional health into our contemplation, we may remain unaware of thought patterns and self-destructive behavior that negatively impact our relationships and our personal well-being. If we fail to weave contemplation into our pursuit of emotional health, we may forget that ultimately, real transformation is only possible through the Holy Spirit by the grace of Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.
How do we know that we are growing in maturity?
When I first fell in love with Jesus Christ, I treasured my time with Him. I would eagerly read the Bible and learn at His feet. I just loved being with Him, being a child of God. But when I started leading others and actively got involved in ministry, doing things for God started to take up more of my time. I ended up being burned out and I had to take a break from leading, because I felt that I was hurting the people I led rather than helping them.
I didn’t understand it at first. I still read my Bible. I still had my prayer list. How did I get to the point of breaking down? Later on, I realized that even my quiet time had become a time of doing things for God instead of a time of enjoying being with Him. I took my eyes off the Source of life, thinking that my life depended on being able to cross off items from my “Christian tasklist.”
We have effectively slowed down when we become aware throughout our days of God’s presence in everything we do, allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us in our interactions with others and in fulfilling our tasks.
Delving into our past, our negative emotions, and our toxic thought patterns can lead us to despair. How can we love ourselves when we are faced with our sinfulness and deep insecurities? If we can’t love ourselves, how can others love us? And how can we love others deeply when we are so afraid of rejection and failure?
This is the beauty of the gospel. In these lowest points in our journey towards emotional health, contemplating on how wide and long and high and deep Christ’s love is will be able to anchor us in the stormy seas of despair. Our past may be ugly. Our hearts may be dark. Our thoughts may be toxic. And yet Christ still chose to love you and I. He proved it by dying on the cross. And He still loves us today! That’s our ultimate confidence.
Jesus Christ not only proved His love by dying on the cross. He rose to life again, overcoming the power of sin and death. That means everyone who follows Him has that hope for true freedom over any baggage from the past or any bondage from sinful patterns.
What an amazing gift! We are not only anchored in His love through the storms of life; we are also guaranteed freedom from attaching our value and our purpose to anything temporal, whether on good things (pleasures, relationships, or accomplishments) or on bad things (suffering, traumatic past, failures).
The path towards maturity entails hard work. We will often find the process messy. We will need to exercise humility before God and before others a lot of times. But learning to love well is worth it. Let us not miss out on the blessing of love this journey of faith brings.
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