For Mature Audiences Only
Pastor Gerald Brooks

Gerald Brooks, D.D. is the founding Pastor of Grace Outreach Center, an interdenominational church in Plano, Texas. The church began in 1982 and throughout the past 27 years has grown to a weekend attendance of over 4,300. Grace Outreach Center has creatively targeted youth and children as the focus of its ministry.  Pastor Brooks is well-known for his passionate heart to help other pastors, and he mentors and teaches ministers across the country through church growth seminars, roundtables, and monthly leadership lessons. Pastor Brooks is the author of eight books and a contributor to the New Spirit Filled Life Bible.  For additional information visit www.growingothers.com.  The article, “For Mature Audiences Only” is a chapter from Pastor Brooks’ book, “Leadership According to 1 Corinthians 13.”  To order this book, please go to http://www.growingothers.com/oldteonle.html.

“When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.” 1 Corinthians 13:11

Most of us quickly associate the title of this chapter—“For Mature Audiences Only”—with the content of a movie. We’re accustomed to seeing this phrase on a theater or a TV screen, and we recognize that it’s providing a warning about the themes in a particular film or program.

A word like mature, however, suggests different things to different people. We all interpret phrases and concepts differently. It’s these many interpretations that make communication confusing. For one person, maturity brings to mind warm thoughts about a family member, perhaps a grandparent or even a mentor who has generously blessed others with the wisdom of their lifelong experience. For someone in the Baby Boomer generation—a group that is not exactly embracing the notion of aging—maturity might not have such positive associations. These folks might begin thinking of hip-replacement surgery, other medical problems, and being confined to a nursing home. A teenager, however, looks forward to his maturity and the arrival of his approaching twenty-first birthday.       

It’s no surprise that each of us has different definitions of maturity. Our differing experiences and backgrounds contribute to us assigning different meaning to words and to circumstances. But have you ever stopped to consider what maturity means to God? What qualities would mark a person whom God considers mature? In verse eleven of 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul begins revealing some insights into the biblical view of spiritual maturity. 

Counterfeit Maturity

“When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child,” writes Paul. “But when I became a man I put away childish things.” One of the first things apparent from Paul’s words is that it’s appropriate to have different expectations of mature individuals.

As a parent, I’ve had the privilege of raising three wonderful kids. Any parent knows that when a child is small, they do things that appear cute and funny. We might find ourselves egging our children on with our smiles, our laughter, and our nudging of other people to watch their antics. At the time, we don’t consider that we might be setting ourselves up for future heartache. Why? Because if certain “cute” behavior continues when our children are older, it’s no longer endearing. What we encouraged when they were little doesn’t cut it when they’re teenagers or young adults. As our children grow, our expectations change. When expectations change, behavior must also change. In our natural world, we recognize when it’s time to put away those childish things. However, it’s not as easy to define what “childish things” means when we’re talking about spirituality. Because of that, there are some widespread misconceptions about spiritual maturity. So, our first task is to define what spiritual maturity is not. Then we can begin examining what it is. 

There are three common misconceptions about spiritual maturity. Many Christians, as well as Christian leaders, frequently confuse maturity with:

  • The passing of time
  • Talent
  • Knowledge

Both Christians and church leaders sometimes think that spiritual maturity is primarily just a matter of regular church attendance. According to this logic, anyone who regularly attends Sunday services, prayer meetings, and Bible studies is a mature believer. All you have to do is show up.

The writer of Hebrews clearly takes issue with this notion. In chapter 5:12-13, he writes, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” These verses tell us that growing old and growing up are not the same.

The believers addressed in the book of Hebrews likely could tell people about their experience with Jesus and probably regularly met with the other believers for worship. Yet that wasn’t sufficient to qualify them to help others to grow and develop in the faith. These folks weren’t ready to disciple; they needed to still grasp many fundamental principles of Christianity. They couldn’t get around this fact by talking about how long they’d been believers or recounting their dramatic conversion experiences. They still needed to grow up in the faith. When it comes to maturity, let’s not confuse growing up with showing up. Maturity involves more than marking the passage of time.

Spiritual maturity also involves more than talent. Even a quick reading of a newspaper or news magazine reveals how much our society is obsessed with celebrities and personalities. Whether they’re musicians, actors, or athletes, we’re flooded with details about what these talented folks think, how they vote, and what they buy. For some folks, a celebrity endorsement is sufficient reason to select one product over another. Too often, society transforms a talented celebrity into a role model. They become equally obsessed with headlines and stories that reveal that this celebrated man or woman is really just a regular person with problems like theirs. 

In Christian circles, we can make the same mistakes. We see someone who’s gifted, who’s talented, or who has a great testimony and we talk about how God has given them a special anointing. I’m not saying that we can’t admire people who have gifts; I’m only saying that we need to keep it in perspective. We can and should encourage, enjoy, and support talented believers. But let’s not think that someone who is gifted in one area is gifted in every area. Being able to excel with a specific gift doesn’t mean you’re not struggling in other areas.

No one has it all together, regardless of how gifted he or she might be. People can have formidable strengths in music, for example, while the rest of their lives might be falling apart. Talented people are not exempt from messing up. Being gifted and talented is not the same as being mature. 

It’s also easy to be impressed by knowledge. Have you ever talked with someone who knew much more about Scripture? Maybe they had memorized more verses than you, had deep understanding of the historical context and meaning of the Old and New Testaments, or could hold their own in debates with secular college professors on evolution or apologetics.

We can become so impressed by someone’s knowledge that we make the mistake of thinking that these learned believers are mature. Knowing truth and living truth, however, are separate matters. The truth that someone has in his or her head needs to be lived out. Information does not equal transformation. Knowledge and maturity are not the same.

Traits of Spiritual Maturity

Now that we’ve described what maturity is not, our task becomes a bit more difficult. If we’ve been satisfied with a counterfeit, it’s tougher for us to grasp the essence of the genuine article. Adopting a new concept is hard—simply because we’ve become so accustomed to equating maturity with marking time, with being talented, or with amassing information.

Our journey to identify spiritual maturity can also be difficult for another reason: Seeing the truth about maturity may make us uncomfortable. It reminds me of a quote attributed to President James Garfield. “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” I’ve noticed that when people are facing an uncomfortable truth, they have a tendency to think about how it applies to someone that they know. They think about how they wished they had invited someone to hear a sermon, think about how they can get the CD, or plan to buy that person a copy of the book. Starting with the fall in the Garden of Eden, people have always tried to sidestep the truth and focus it on someone else.

I want to encourage you to first let the truth about maturity reveal the things in your own life that the Savior might want to prune and nurture into further godliness. Let Him have His way and bring you into maturity. Ask Him how He wants you to apply what you’re learning. Make it a matter of prayer. Then, when your personal harvest comes, you’ll be ready to share what you’ve become with others.

Scripture associates five traits with spiritual maturity:

  • Commitment to seeing things through
  • Control of the tongue
  • Not complaining
  • Patience
  • Continued growth

Commitment to seeing things through. Maturity involves sticking with things; it’s about being committed to finishing what we start. Galatians 6:9 says, “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” Here, God is encouraging us to persist, to persevere, to not give up. Perseverance is a vital aspect of maturity; if we aren’t committed to continue, we won’t attain maturity.

Marriage offers some great illustrations about this type of commitment. As a pastor, I’ve had a great deal of experience in dealing with people’s marriages. I’ve seen two important qualities that are needed for us to continue to persevere in marriage. One of them is honesty. Many times, we just are not completely honest. We’re not honest with ourselves and we’re not honest with others. If we’re not willing to be honest, it’s going to be difficult to make it through this journey of marriage, as well as in our journey toward maturity.

Most of us want to think that we’re honest, both in our marriages and with ourselves. Here’s the problem. Most books on marriage agree that 40 to 45 percent of whatever a couple argues about during their first year of marriage will continue to be a source of disagreement through the rest of the relationship. If they began disagreeing about some issue in their first year of marriage, there’s a good chance it will still be a source of irritation on their thirtieth wedding anniversary. On their golden wedding anniversary, they’ll still be arguing about the same basic stuff.

What does that tell us about compatibility? Are we really compatible if we’re continuing to have 45 percent of the same arguments for years? Are we honestly willing to admit that we’re still dealing with the same irritating issues with our spouses? When a young person says he wants someone that he’s compatible with, I tell him that the only way to ensure that is to marry you. Once you add another person, there are going to be problems. My wife Geni and I like what Billy Graham says when asked about his marriage. He says that he and Ruth were lovingly incompatible. That’s the best definition of marriage that I can think of. You recognize that she’s going to see things differently than you see them, and that he’s not going to agree with you on everything.

Despite the constant conversation that you’re going to have around 45 percent of your re-occurring issues, you’re still married. You have to choose to be lovingly incompatible at some point. Oneness in marriage, said Paul, is a mystery. We don’t know how two become one. People haven’t quite figured it out. It’s a God thing.

In addition to honesty, I’ve realized that it’s also important to have a sense of humor if you’re going to persevere in marriage and to finish anything in life. We can’t take ourselves so seriously that we’re not able to laugh.

When Geni and I celebrated our thirtieth anniversary, we gave each other cards. Geni gave me a card that looked so sweet. On the cover, it said something like, “If I hadn’t found you,” and it had pictures illustrating the different possibilities. Inside it said, “You’d be driving someone else nuts.” Not to be outdone, I found one with a picture of a couple in their rockers, a pair that has obviously been married for a while. The husband, who is reading the paper, says to his wife, “It says here that married people live longer than non-married folks.” Inside the card, the wife replies, “No, it just seems longer.”

Regardless of what we’re dealing with, honesty and a sense of humor come in very handy. Whether you’re dealing with business deals, decisions about school, or issues in a marriage, it’s critical that you persevere. Wherever you are in life, there’s always some reason to quit. That’s why the ability to stick with something is a clear sign of maturity—because everyone has a reason to quit. I’ve never run across anyone who didn’t feel they lacked a reason to quit. The people who finish, the people who mature, are those who don’t. They choose not to use that reason to quit. They stick with the task until it’s finished. Maturity involves sticking with things; it’s about being committed to finishing what we start.

Controlling the tongue is another trait of maturity. This is especially important when others are being critical. James 3:2 tells us that anyone who does not stumble in their words is a mature person. Some translations even say that person is “perfect.” 

We live in a world where people are steadily becoming more and more critical. Everyone seems to believe that they have a right to say whatever is on their mind, regardless of the time and place. There’s no longer a pervading sense of decency or etiquette. The Bible presents Christians with a different path—the path of maturity. What does maturity look like in this context? For a Christian, especially for a Christian leader, it means that when people begin unloading on us, we don’t fight fire with fire. We choose to walk a different path by selecting our words. We don’t play the games that many people play. We don’t get into the one-upsmanship or into baiting and arguing. The reason we don’t do it is because God tells us that those are dangerous paths to walk. They’re dangerous because life and death are in the power of the tongue. Our tongues can cause life or they can be the source of a cruel death.

There are strategic places where we should pay close attention to our words. In any conversation, the most important words that we speak are our first words and our last words. Our first words set the tone for the entire conversation. With our last words, we determine the ongoing atmosphere of the relationship. When it comes to choosing words, I find it helpful to think about what’s called “the two-minute warning” in sporting events. When the two-minute warning sounds, players know that they must be very strategic, just as we have to be very strategic with our words.

Scripture says that we need to realize the power of our words. They can be full of sweetness, like a honeycomb to the soul. Or words can also be piercing; they can be as sharp and destructive as a sword. Mature people understand that words have significance; they know that they can build people up or pull them down. Mature people are mastering the content and the context of what they say. They watch their first words and their last words. They know that if they work at getting those words right, the words in the middle are easier to manage. Even in a critical world, mature people don’t revert to a worldly style of communication. They watch their words.

Not complaining is another mark of spiritual maturity. Philippians 2:14 tells us, “Do all things without complaining and disputing.” It would take a lot of effort to mess up what that verse is saying. It’s clearly telling us not to live as chronic complainers. Christians shouldn’t be the ones that are always in the complaint box.

As a parent, I’ve raised kids through the teenage years. It wasn’t a struggle for me to get my kids to do the things I wanted them to do. But it was a struggle to get them to do things without constantly complaining. We could get them to clean up their rooms, but listening to them gripe while they were doing it was hard. Where do you suppose these kids learned to complain that way? Is it possible that they picked it up while sitting around the dinner table or in the car, listening to us?

Rather than complaining, we need to be fully committed and engaged to make the most of our contribution. That’s not the way that some people think, however. They’d prefer to act more like consultants. They want to walk in, describe what needs to be done to someone else, and then leave. Now, I’m not against consulting. What I’m emphasizing is that as a guiding principle of life, we can’t resist being involved or habitually complaining whenever something needs to be done. We can’t complain when we have to contribute. 

Patience is also an essential aspect of maturity. Many people in our society find it difficult to wait. Everyone is in a hurry. Nobody wants to wait for anything, including waiting in line in stores. Recently, I read a book that explained some of the psychological aspects of retail sales. The part of the book devoted to customer service mentioned how irritated people become when they’re forced to wait in line. 

Wanting to know more about this experience, they ran some tests, with some very intriguing results. The authors actually timed customers while they waited in line. As a customer left the store, they briefly interviewed that person, making a point of asking them how long they were in line. What they discovered was that no one had an accurate estimate of how long they waited; everyone distorted and exaggerated the time. People who they timed at a ninety-second wait said they were waiting nearly five minutes. 

I was sharing this principle one night with a group of leaders. After the session, one of the men approached me and gave another example of time distortion. He was in a restaurant where he felt the service was painfully slow. At one point, he asked for something from the waiter and then set the timer on his cell phone. When the waiter returned, he looked at the timer. What he experienced as about five minutes had actually taken only one minute and forty-five seconds.  

I’m not someone who enjoys waiting either. But I’ve had to learn that my clock is not God’s clock. That’s why Scriptures encourages us to wait patiently for the Lord. All of us have a choice: We can keep looking at the clock or looking to the Lord.

Continued growth is also a necessary trait of maturity. That’s what Paul is focusing on when he writes about moving past childish things in 1 Corinthians 13:11. The maturing process has to involve trading one set of things for another. We can no longer behave like children when we’re expected to be adults. We can’t say everything that we think, express everything we feel, or have everything that we want. That’s childish behavior and immature thinking. Instead, we must decide to choose the narrow path and continue walking toward maturity. And walking in maturity means making the types of choices consistent with growing up in all things.

* * *

Maturity is not an easy path. But it does have its reward. Maturing means that you have stopped living entirely for yourself. It means that you’re creating a life that outlives you.  In chapter twenty-four of Joshua, we read about the death of Joshua, who led Israel into the Promised Land after the death of Moses. We learn here that Joshua died when he was 110 years old. Although his life was over, he still had an impact that endured beyond his life. Verse thirty-one says, “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua.” Joshua had such an effect on these other men that they continued what he had been doing even after his death. 

Does Joshua’s legacy inspire you to think about your own legacy? Have you considered what impact your life will have after you’re gone?  Maturity involves living your life so that your life outlives you. Ultimately, the effect of your life will be seen in the people that you leave behind. That is the real test of maturity. 

This article is a chapter from Pastor Brooks’ book, “Leadership According to 1 Corinthians 13.”  To order this book, please go to http://www.growingothers.com/oldteonle.html.