The main analogy for spirituality and spiritual growth in the Bible looks to organic or physical growth: as a child becomes an adult through stages of increasing maturity, so a spiritual person has stages of growth that lead to “fullness” or “maturity”. Paul uses this analogy in Ephesians 4 as believers are called into “mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13).
Yet, in a surprising shift, the analogy is not one of individual growth but of corporate growth: of a “body” that consists in unique elements working together to achieve a collective maturity with Christ as “the head”. The power and substance of that growth was summarized by Paul in his rhapsodic prayer of Ephesians 3: the Spirit inhabits the souls of believers “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” and with his presence comes Christ’s love “that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Peter also speaks of organic spiritual growth with the language of spiritual new birth achieved by “the living and abiding word of God” so that believers are to be like “newborn infants” who “long for the spiritual milk” of God’s goodness as revealed in the word (1 Peter 1:3, 23; 2:2). The same imagery is used in Hebrews 5:12-14 but with a next-step in view as the author chastises his readers for their immaturity: “You need milk, not solid food . . .”
We should look at one more text—from Paul again—that offers the imagery of spirituality as a brighter and brighter quality of life. He used the portrayal of Moses whose face glowed after being in God’s presence. Paul’s point is that Moses’ glow faded when he left God’s presence. We, however, have God’s presence in us by a Spirit-to-spirit union that changes us increasingly into “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”(2 Cor. 3:12-4:6).
Yet this sort of Christ-like spirituality is hard to find today. I know there are lots of folks attracted to “great worship”—that is, to the experience of hearing lively songs and good performers—but these hardly ensure spiritual growth. Real maturity exhibits the substance and discernment that Christ displayed. So music is fine but it can be a spiritual placebo.
I also know there are lots of folks who love learning. But the question still needs to be asked: are such well-trained people necessarily more like Christ at the end of their degree program, or their training activities, or the sermon series? Perhaps they are but the measure of lively spirituality in the Bible starts with Christ’s love poured out by Christ’s Spirit so that the fruit of his life is spontaneously evident through our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the like (Galatians 5:22).
Paul reiterated the point in 1 Cor. 13 when he warned against taking extensive knowledge, charismatic presence, and stoic disciplines to be more central than selfless love. Yet this measure of love is all too scarce today. I know of too many seminary graduates and pastors who seem not to qualify here.
I fear, in fact, that many church leaders today are not spiritual leaders. We have good speakers, good administrators, good educators, good visionaries, good disciplinarians, and goodness knows what else. But very few people in the church today display the sort of “glory to glory” transformation the Bible offers us. Very few people today are ready to die for others with the selfless devotion that comes from being captured by Christ’s love.
Am I making this judgment out of my own presumed spirituality? No. I confess to being far too opaque in my own spiritual life to be the sort of winsome magnet to Christ’s love that Paul and Peter invite. The judgment is being made, instead, by the world around us. When they look at the church they too often see creedal clubs, moralistic enclaves, and petty practitioners of religiosity. So they judge us by walking away from what we offer.
What if they were to see Jesus? What if the passion and power of Jesus was to be “glowing” through his body on earth? What if we were a people captured by his word and defined by his love? If that were true of us—with Christ’s Spirit carrying us forward—then the world would again have an authentic spirituality to consider.