“…I am writing to you, young men, because you have had victory over the evil one.” (1 John 2:13 ESV)
A distinguishing feature of mature Christians is that they no longer live under the control of the prince of this world and his world system. In the state of Christian childhood, there is very little in a person’s character and outlook, to show them apart from the people of this world. The flesh hangs around them, metaphorically speaking, like a thick ugly cloak never allowing the radiance of Christ to shine forth. Led by their emotion, and motivated by selfish ambition, their faith has not yet reached the core of their beings, to transform them.
“I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” (1 John 2:14 ESV)
The ‘young men’ in contrast have moved from spiritual passivity and self-centred lifestyles, to do their share of work in the Lord’s vineyard. They occupy positions on the battlefield, determined to conquer the enemy’s territory. Unfortunately, in our age, Christians at this level of maturity are fewer than in past generations. Although the Church has grown numerically, the proportion of those able and willing to undertake the responsibilities of spiritual adulthood has declined. There are many reasons for the present condition of the churches, but a key factor is that there are too few fathers to nurture new Christians, and help them grow to their full spiritual stature.
We will now briefly study how Christian maturity is achieved. It is necessary to recognise that continuous spiritual growth should be the norm for all Christians. Just as it is normal for a healthy child to grow, anyone born of the Spirit ought to grow in the things of the Spirit. Stunted growth in a child suggests poor nutrition, lack of healthful conditions or exposure to disease; likewise lack of spiritual growth points to an underlying spiritual malaise or illness, and needs to be properly treated.
How does Christian maturity manifest? The central focus of a growing Christian ceases gradually, but increasingly to be self. One becomes conscious of a desire to serve others, to see them benefit in a spiritual sense, and this desire flows out of a deep awareness of, and gratitude for the great love God has for us. This knowledge changes our perspective and priorities; we become increasingly willing to prioritise the welfare of our neighbour over our own. As our focus moves away from self and the things of this world, the grip of sin gradually weakens its hold over our lives, for all sin is the outworking of natures given over to self-love or a lack of love for one’s neighbour. “Love does no harm to its neighbour… “(Romans 13: 10). The essence of Christian maturity is therefore a shift in one’s focus and vision from self to God and one’s neighbour.
In order to grow spiritually, we are taught in the epistles to consistently attend to 4 areas of Christian living –
Dealing with the flesh
Living by the word
Resisting the devil
Pursuit of righteousness
Dealing with the flesh – In the previous post, we learned about the importance of getting rid of spiritual afflictions such as – malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. This healing of the soul is necessary for spiritual progress, and in past centuries, Christians, especially those who entered religious life, took great pains to ‘mortify the flesh’. Some of the spiritual exercises they undertook might seem strange to us, but they clearly recognised the benefits of practising self-denial. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians who were given to an excessive tolerance of fleshly weaknesses –
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate [self-controlled] in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 NKJV).
So the world and the flesh will assail us to restrict our spiritual progress. How are we to deal with such a constant assault upon our spiritual faculties? In 1 Peter 2:11, he writes – “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul”.
The key word here is ‘abstain’, which simply means saying ‘no’. Everyday in our intercourse with the world, we are forced to make choices that nourish either the flesh or the spirit. To the extent that we are aware of sin, we must practise saying ‘no’ to the flesh. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15 ESV). We must learn to say ‘no’ simply as an act of obedience, whatever our feelings may be. Through such acts of self-denial, we will reap a veritable harvest of righteousness and peace, if we do not give up.
Prayer is our main resource in the battle against fleshly passions. Each of us struggle in different ways; so we must pray daily for help with these struggles and never give up when we fail. Overcoming is not an easy task, and we must not pretend otherwise. God’s Spirit is patient with us, and we must learn to be patient with ourselves. When we falter, we must not wallow in discouragement, but rise up and move on, trusting in God’s forgiveness and Christ’s advocacy on our behalf. Every victory, however small strengthens our inner resistance to sin, and brings us a step closer to final victory.
Going further, Paul exhorts us to flee from specific temptations – the seeds of which are all pervasive in our age – idolatry (in our times, this mainly takes the form of the self-worship, promoted by secular humanistic philosophies), sexual immorality, and the love of money. Many Christian leaders have succumbed to one or all of these, bringing the gospel to disrepute. These sins can so deeply ensnare one’s spirit and are difficult to eradicate, once we make a habit of yielding to them. If the seeds are allowed to take root in the spirit, a deep sense of deception takes hold over the person’s mind, that they become oblivious to impending spiritual danger. It often takes a direct intervention of God to set such a person free – He sometimes uses a stronger dose of suffering, than otherwise necessary, to deliver souls that have become ensnared. This is a merciful act of God to prevent His child from suffering eternal loss.
Living by the word – The resetting of our minds is an imperative for growth and maturity – “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8 ESV). Throughout the Bible, the word of God is presented as the tool to counteract earthly distractions and enemy attack. Adam and Eve stopped heeding God’s word, and this led to the fall. Joshua was commanded to never let the book of the law depart from his mouth, to meditate on it day and night, so that he might be ‘prosperous and successful’ (Joshua 1:8). Jesus deflected each temptation from the enemy with the words – “It is written…”
“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV).“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 ESV)
It is amazing how quickly newborn babies grow feeding on just milk, and similarly a Christian who feeds – studies and meditates – on the word of God, grows and thrives in spiritual matters. Our minds are transformed – we learn to depend on God and make wise choices. As we grow in discernment, we are better equipped to reject what is worldly and demonic. There is a deliberate putting away of childish things, and an acceptance of adult duties.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV).
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… ” (Colossians 3:16 ESV). Our aim in studying the word is to internalise it, so that it is built into the very fibre of our spiritual being. The power of the indwelling word to transform our thoughts, language and behaviour cannot be over emphasized.
Resisting the devil – The Christian who sets out to have his or her mind transformed by the word will inevitably come under some form of enemy resistance. God permits such attacks to the extent that we are able to bear it, to help us develop a spiritual backbone. James shows us the antidote to the enemy’s venomous darts – “But he gives more grace… Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you… Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:6-10 ESV)
While we are commanded to flee from youthful lusts, sexual immorality, and the love of money, which wage war against our souls; we are taught not to run away from the devil, but to stand our ground in resisting him. When the enemy tempted Jesus, He fought back using the word as a sword. As James makes clear, our resistance consists, primarily in 1. Submitting to God, 2. Choosing humility over pride, and 3. Depending on grace. So when we cultivate a proper inner attitude through prayer and study of the word, we receive wisdom and discernment in applying the right ‘word’ and strategies to push the enemy back.
Pursuing righteousness –“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you” (Matthew 6:33 HCSB).
Christian life is primarily a pursuit of righteousness. Our righteousness is found in Christ, and accessed by faith in Him from first to last. God imputes to us the righteousness of Christ when we receive Christ and His finished work on the cross on our behalf. To complete our race, we must remain in the faith – that means to continually depend on Christ for our supply of righteousness, rather than either establishing our own standards of righteousness or straying into worldliness.
In practical terms, this means we must constantly turn our minds to Christ, calling on Him not only in the hour of need and temptation, but opening our hearts to Him each day for fellowship and guidance. This close association with Christ on a daily basis, perfects us on our way to maturity. When the Sun of Righteousness shines on our lives, we naturally mature, ripen and produce the fruit of righteousness.
Father, help us put away the works of the flesh and pursue righteousness in Christ. Help us feed on Your word each day, so that we may be strengthened to overcome the evil one. Amen.