We used to be sinners, unworthy of God's love. But God, through His divine grace, called us into His fold, and we responded with the determination to be His followers. The memory of this tremendous conversion experience stays with us as long as we take our Christian identity seriously. We may, however, react inadequately to the experience of grace and love. We have recognized that God is a merciful God. He is also almighty—so lofty and transcendent that we feel our lowliness. His power and goodness, manifested in His redemption, sometimes appear so overwhelming that we feel all the more humbled and dependent on Him. We feel secure with this sentiment. We regard our self-abasement as a virtue that makes us more deserving of God's grace, and our nothingness in contrast to His almightiness as the appropriate definition of our relationship with Him. Gradually our understanding of God as an active, all-giving figure and ourselves as passive, receiving beings is reasonably justified.
This is indeed a misconception. It prevents us from being mature and responsible Christians. Hebrews instructs us to "leave the elementary principles of Christ and go on to maturity" (Heb 6:1), emphasizing the importance of growing from spiritual childhood to adulthood (Heb 5:12-14). The apostle Paul specifies that mature manhood should be understood against "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13). In other words, continual growth and progress is required of us, and Christ is the criterion by which we measure our growth.
We should remember that Jesus Christ, although God incarnate, matured through stages of growth. He was not born a mature man. Nor did He acquire His power and wisdom without much ado. Rather, He was conscious of His weakness but aimed to accomplish His goal through continuous effort. In His childhood, He was studious about spiritual learning, "sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions" (Lk 2:46). He first realized the importance of being in the "Father's house" (Lk 2:49). He already knew then how essential it was to absorb spiritual knowledge, in view of the mission entrusted to Him. This self-awareness and concomitant effort kept Him growing "in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man" (Lk 2:52).
In His manhood, Jesus evangelized. As powerful God, He performed miracles whenever and wherever occasion deemed fit. But this does not mean that He accomplished His work effortlessly. His preparation for the holy work was far beyond what we would expect. In order to choose the twelve disciples, for example, "He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God" (Lk 6:12). Did He not know whom He should choose? Or was He so indecisive that He needed God to strengthen His will? The true picture is that He wanted to show us the importance of growing, particularly when encountering difficulties. The two places He frequently visited, the temple in the daytime and the mountain at night (Lk 21:37), bespeak His effort to consolidate His work and His preparation. These two activities, work and prayer, support each other. They also show that Jesus' growth was always dynamic and goal-oriented.
Jesus regarded growing into maturity as absolutely essential. At one time He led His three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, to a mountain whereupon He was transfigured. "As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening" (Lk 9:29). Moses and Elijah appeared with Him in glory (Lk 9:30-31). Jesus' transfiguration indicated what He was about to accomplish in the near future. But Jesus was also showing His disciples how essential it is to grow spiritually, to the extent of becoming "dazzling white." If the Master sets a good example, can His disciples do otherwise?
At the last stage of Jesus' life, He learned to grow into absolute obedience, the hardest lesson of all. Although He had been growing all the time, the final task proved so insurmountable that He hesitated and struggled in His heart. With beseeching prayers, He asked God for more power to complete the assignment. "And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Lk 22:44). A life-or-death struggle appeared before the disciples' eyes, although, unfortunately, they had all fallen asleep. Persisting in continuous growth, Jesus struck His last blow and broke through His physical limits to the final consummation. Because of this, the mission of salvation was realized.
Jesus' growth was a process from humanity to divinity, an arduous and circuitous process. By determination and ceaseless effort, He trod His way to full maturity. Jesus' example is our model, and we have a lot to learn from Him in these times.
In the first place, we have to be keenly aware of the era in which we are living. Jesus once lamented that His contemporaries were a "faithless generation" (Mk 9:19). More careful observation reveals that, from the spiritual perspective, our generation and the generations to come might be even more disheartening. This new age, characterized by scientism, cultural pluralism, thorough secularization, nihilism, etc., poses a great challenge to our faith. Pursuing spiritual maturity in an environment like this naturally demands more strength and devotion. A longer preparation and struggle are inevitable, and it is wise to recognize this fact from the outset.
There can be no argument that, in such a complex world, the pursuit of knowledge is necessary for our maturity. Here knowledge is not for knowledge's sake, but for the benefit of helping our faith grow. In a narrower sense, knowledge of the Scripture, "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16), is a fundamental requirement. It is the source of power by which we judge and evaluate. In a wider sense, other types of worldly knowledge, including those of language, history, philosophy, world religions, and social and natural sciences, should be respected and learned in earnest. They are important means through which we come into contact with the world and by which we conduct our daily lives. A truly mature believer is one who is able to combine spiritual and worldly knowledge to work for his or her own good.
In the process of growing, Jesus on the one hand constantly prayed to God and, on the other hand, invited His disciples to join His effort. Prayer is indeed the breath of Christians. It is the source from which we derive our spiritual life. In view of the challenges we face, its importance cannot be overemphasized. Praying is the creation of an inner sanctuary where we and God engage in an intimate dialogue. It is a holy place which is qualitatively different from those places where we conduct our daily activities. The hour of prayer, likewise, is a holy time God and we enjoy together. Extracting ourselves from our routines, we cherish this wonderful moment and devote ourselves to the spiritual exercise. It is only in the holy place and during the holy time that we recover our real selves—selves easily forgotten in the secular world. Through prayer we renew our spirit and strengthen our will to go on to maturity.
We should also be reminded that it is important to have spiritual companions with whom we can grow together. Jesus' co-workers were mostly spiritually weak, but He never ceased inviting and encouraging them. In contrast, we are fortunate to be surrounded "by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1), be they ancient Christians or current church members. Their experiences we should share. These accumulated, collective experiences are the inspiration by which we "run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Heb 12:1). Growing into maturity should not be a lone act. It is God's purpose to call us as a group to be His disciples, because He knows that we might easily lose heart. With mutual support, we are not afraid to stumble but are strengthened to pursue our course.
The future is full of challenges. The world will be more complicated and, spiritually speaking, more dangerous. But Jesus is the beacon which guides our path. Since He has run the good course and set a good example as an ever-growing man, we have good reason to be courageous and follow His footsteps faithfully. Whatever difficulties we may encounter and whatever decisions we have to make in our lives, we are assured that Jesus went through the same process and came out triumphantly. He would surely like to see us, too, grow into full maturity.