“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect (Gk. teleios) result, so that you may be perfect (Gk. teleios) and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1.2-4).
“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature (Gk. teleios) man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4.11-13).
We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete (Gk. teleios) in Christ” (Colossians 1.28).
God’s reason for saving anyone is to make them like Jesus so that Jesus is seen as most worthy to be like (Rom 8.29; 1 Co 15.49; Phil 3.21; 1 Jn 3.2-3). And if that is God’s greatest desire then he puts that same desire in the Christian by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Christian’s greatest desire is to be conformed to Christ in all spiritual maturity. We want to be like Jesus because God is making us like Jesus.
We’ll not be perfectly like Jesus in this life. Rather this life is a proving ground of Christ’s worth so that when we see him we will be most prepared to worship him for eternity (1 Peter 4.13). Until then, God is in the process maturing us so that we stand more firm in the gospel. We will find more strength in and need for Christ who has saved us.
In one sense, spiritual maturity is like our physical maturity. It takes a long time, daily discipline and a thousand unseen progressions. But in another important sense, spiritual maturity is not like our physical maturity. Maturity in this life is growing more independent from those things we were once dependent. We want our children to grow less dependent on us, able to make wise decisions on their own, provide for their needs with their own hard work and ingenuity. We must not liken God’s maturing us in the same way.
God is not maturing us into independence and self-sustenance. God matures us into greater dependence on him and all he is to us in Jesus. (Of course, that is our goal as parents as well, but we guide our children prayefully hoping they’ll “own” the same convictions). Spiritual maturity is not the growing ability to handle life on our own, without help from God and his means of grace. Spiritual maturity is the growing dependence on God and his means of grace. God matures us by the decrease of self and increase of Christ, his excellencies and provision. We mature when we grow less fearful of this world, less wobbled by circumstances and more secure in Christ, trusting all the more God’s sovereignty to bring us home safely for eternity.
But, like phsyical maturity, spiritual maturity (completeness, perfection) doesn’t just happen. As much as we’d like otherwise, we don’t wake up one morning complete or mature in Christ. God uses means of completing or maturing his children. And two of those means are identified in the biblical references above.
God matures us through trials and suffering (James 1.2-4; cf. Romans 5.3-5; 1 Peter 1.6-9). If we want to mature in Christ (and if we’re Christians, that will be our greastest desire) then we will welcome anything that serves our greatest desire. Therefore, we consider trials “all joy” because they serve our greatest desire: being made complete in Jesus. And James is clear that trials themselves don’t necessarily mature us in Christ, but only insofar as those trials are considered “all joy.”
How can Christians consider terminal cancer, fatal car wrecks, miscarriages, lost jobs and house fires “all joy”? Because they are God’s means of serving our greatest joy: conformity to the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom we are bondservants. The reasons why we would not consider them “all joy” is because either (1) our greatest desire is not conformity to Christ, or (2) trials are undeserved or purposeless to serve joy. All the while God is on record, like it or not, that in order to be like Jesus we must be forced to consider the worth of Jesus over all things. And God will have his way in the Christian soul. Considering any and every trial “all joy” is part of the working out of our salvation, the salvation God himself is working out in us (Philippians 2.12-13).
God also matures us through the church (Ephesians 4.11-13; Colossians 1.28). The same word is used to describe the goal of trials and the goal of the church. The Greek word teleios (complete, mature, perfect) describes the result of both trials and the purpose the church. Trials and the church serve the same end: our completeness or maturity in Jesus. God certainly uses other means (Scripture, prayer) but these two are probably the least considered in considering spiritual maturity.
In fact, most often when trials come up on us we try to escape both the trials and the church! We don’t want the pain or letting anyone see us “off our game.” And when we do so we abandon two of the primary means of God’s grace to make us like Jesus. As long as we stiff-arm trials and maintain a weak view of the church we will perpetuate spiritual immaturity. We want to be like Jesus but not if it means the Calvary Road in front of everyone.
Yet, God has provided trials and the church to help us become like Jesus. The church helps us (or should!) let endurance complete its work (James 1.4) so that we enjoy maturity in Christ. The church must refuse to let us give up, bail out or escape trials. Rather our brothers and sisters come alongside to help keep pace in the journey. We shouldn’t always try to help folks escape trial, but help them remain joyful as it serves their greatest desire: being like Jesus.
Christ’s joy was to see the Father glorified for all he is and has done in the Son (John 17.1). Jesus left us his joy (John 15.11; 16.24; 17.13), which means our joy is to see the Father glorified for all he is and has done in Jesus. We rejoice to be made like Jesus so he will be made much of by all those he saved. If Christ’s joy was served by the cross (Heb 12.2) then how will trials not serve the same for us?
Let us repent from retreating from trials. And let us avail ourselves fully of God’s means of grace to make us like the Son. Receive trials from God with great joy and do so in the community of faith whose goal is the same: maturity in Christ. We are all part of the exilic community, traveling together in the wilderness until God brings us into the new heavens and earth. Until then, as strangers and aliens in this world, this journey is one big trial in itself. Let us endure well so that the Promised Land will be all the sweeter.