Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at roger@preachitteachit.org.

Dear Roger,

I believe in God. I believe Jesus as my savior and that he sacrificed himself for our sins. When I go to church, though, I find many people to be hypocritical. I know I'm not perfect and neither are they, but as a teenager (16) what can I do to show people I take this seriously? I pray and I'm starting to read the Bible for myself, but sometimes I find myself secluded from everyone. Like I'm different and even my friends, but I don't want to be alone.

Sincerely, Andrea

Dear Andrea,

It sounds like to me that you're in a church filled with spiritual children. No wonder your heart is spiritually aching. I'm so sorry. Unfortunately, you are exposed to people who choose to remain spiritual children instead of growing up to maturity as spiritual mothers or fathers. Try not to be disillusioned by them. Grieve for them.

You are well advised to look for others with hearts like yours — desiring to go on with Christ at any price. While the journey may at times be lonely and difficult, you are not the only one on the path. Pray and keep your eyes open to find spiritually like-minded followers of Christ. They are there.

A.W. Tozer wrote: “Every man or woman is just as spiritual as he or she wants to be.” Pray for God to make you a spiritual mother at any price. This is one prayer I guarantee He will answer.

I've decided in responding to your letter to include an overview of why so many Christians fail to mature in Christ as well as some of the distinguishing characteristics of the three main levels of maturity mentioned in the Scriptures.

Let me begin with an observation that I've observed during 40 years of leading seminars and disciple groups on the topic of spiritual growth:

Most Christians are not nearly as spiritual as they think they are.

Let's imagine that I have 100 people in the class. During the initial session I ask everyone to close their eyes and raise their hands in turn to designate how far along they are in their spiritual journeys.

"How many consider yourselves to be spiritual children?" Twenty-five hands raise.

"How many consider yourselves to be spiritual young men or women?" Sixty-five will raise their hands.

"How many consider yourselves to be spiritual mothers or fathers?" Ten signify by raising theirs.

Five weeks later, after I have detailed the characteristics of each spiritual level, I repeat the test. Their perceptions have radically changes. "Raise your hands," I say to them.

"Spiritual children?" Plus or minus sixty-three hands.

"Young men or women?" Plus or minus thirty-four hands.

"Spiritual mothers or fathers?" Three.

God intends to mature His children from infancy to full-blown spiritual maturity. He grieves when His children choose otherwise.

In Hebrews 5:11–14, the author was desperately concerned about young Christians who were lagging behind in their spiritual growth:

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

The Greek word translated here as “slow to learn” is often translated as “lazy.” These young Christians were lazy. The writer of Hebrews expected them to grow up, learn the foundational truths, and be well on their way to maturity. But by their own choices, they’d quit. They were stymied, moving backwards on their spiritual journeys.

Peter pleaded with his hearers to grow up. As infants, they could handle only milk. He encouraged them to grow up so they could chew on the deeper things of God (1 Peter 2:2).

Paul declared that Christians who refuse or neglect to grow up are in danger of becoming hardened and insensitive to the promptings of God (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

Baby Christians, who choose to remain babies, do so for many reasons.

  • Some drop out early because they can’t handle the persecution that comes with following Christ.
  • Others drop out early because earthly distractions are so alluring.
  • Some babies aren’t lazy at work or at home or with their hobbies; but they are lazy and inattentive to spiritual things. The Bible is to be studied and learned diligently. The spiritual life is to be cultivated and lived with endurance and consistency.
  • Some are proud — so full of themselves that they rarely seek the Father’s guidance.
  • Others imagine that whatever they don’t already know and experience is not really necessary.”
  • But, far and away, the reason most spiritual children fail to mature is because the cost is too high.

Jesus said to potential followers, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23). Where did Jesus take His cross? To Golgotha. What did he do with it there? He died on it. So, must we.

Dietrich Bonheoffer: "When Jesus Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die."

My mom refused to pay the price and the last years of her life were pain and misery.

In the latter days of her life she refused to use her walker. It wasn't long until she fell and broke her hip. Shortly after the surgery, she was in agony. Nevertheless she was forced to get up and walk the hospital hallways in order to rehabilitate her rapidly deteriorating muscles. The alternative was never to get out of bed again.

During the first session with the physical therapist, my mom yelled again and again, “Stop it! Stop it! You’re hurting me!” The young woman patiently explained that she had done this many times and knew what was best. My mom replied, “You do not know best. I know better than you do what I need!” She refused to get out of bed.

Later that night, I was exercising Mom’s leg. She was not happy. She wanted to be left alone. No matter how I moved it, she hurt; she cried out in pain; she begged me to stop. Then, she started calling me “Idiot!” I was shocked! She had never called me names in my life!

I patiently explained how I loved her too much to stop — even if it did hurt. She looked at me with anger and said slowly and deliberately: “And I thought you were the good son.”

Mom chose not to tolerate the pain necessary for a good recovery. The cost was too high! She walked with a painful, shuffling gait for the rest of her life.

Fortunately, not a few choose to go on to maturity at any price and they produce fruit — and a lot of it (Matthew 13:20–22).

According to Jesus there are at least three levels of spiritual maturity. He said to Peter: I am a Shepherd; you be a Shepherd, too. … Feed my Sheep. … Tend my Lambs."

Jesus has sheep, lambs and needs shepherds to mature them.

God designed spiritual growth to move through three specific, well-delineated stages. In 1 John 2:12–14, John spoke to spiritual children, spiritual young men and women, and spiritual mothers and fathers.

I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

Spiritual Children

  • Spiritual children experience God as little more than an acquaintance or at most a casual friend. Full intimacy will come later.
  • Spiritual children know that their sins are forgiven and that God is their father.
  • Spiritual children are refocusing their eyes from Earth to Heaven.
  • Spiritual Children often show signs of immaturity -- like hypocrisy.
  • All spiritual children are dependent on others for their care and feeding.
  • Spiritual children are still learning how to apply the Bible to their lives.
  • Spiritual children struggle with commitment. (A hush descends on my classroom whenever we discuss tithing and giving generously to the Lord. Many of the students are thinking rather highly of their spiritual progress until I point out that little givers are, by definition, mired in spiritual childhood. This is a big sticking point for my students. At this point their self-evaluated spiritual level tends to plummet.)
  • Spiritual children struggle with knowing and understanding Biblical beliefs and doctrines.
  • Spiritual children tend to be fearful and insecure. (Fear and insecurity usually spring from a lack of faith. For example, spiritual children wonder, “Can I afford to give? I’m afraid that if I tithe, I might not have enough left over to take care of my needs.”)

Spiritual Young Men and Women

  • Spiritual young men and women are exercising their spiritual muscles by constantly utilizing the spiritual disciplines.
  • The “Word of God” lives in spiritual young men and women. (In John’s writings, the term “Word of God” consistently refers to the Person of Jesus Christ. Of course, the term Word of God also refers to the Bible. Spiritual young men and women are becoming very close friends with the Bible as well as with the Word of God Himself, Jesus Christ.)
  • Spiritual young men and women have overcome the Evil One. (This is another stand out revealer of one's level of spiritual maturity. They know how to fight Satan on his terms and win.)
  • One demonstration that men and women are growing toward maturity is an “others-centered” mentality.
  • Spiritual young men and women develop a generous heart that motivates them to excel in the grace of giving.
  • Spiritual young men and women know the truth of who we are in Christ.
  • Just as spiritual children show signs of immaturity, so do spiritual adolescents. The fact that they are not yet spiritual mothers and fathers often manifests as pride.

Spiritual Mothers and Fathers

  • Spiritual mothers and fathers experience the depths of an infinite relationship with God the Father Himself. Twice John repeats: “You have known Him who is from the beginning” (1 John 2:13, 14).
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers manifest the fruit of the Spirit.
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers are clothed with humility and grace. They remind others of what Jesus is like.
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers are more likely to live above difficult circumstances. They live the victorious Christian life.
  • Spiritual parents partner with Jesus in the care and nurturing of others.
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers guide lost sheep into the kingdom of God. This is the essence of evangelism.
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers view life and experiences from God’s perspective on the resurrection side of the Cross.
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers refuse to be dogmatic because of their growing understanding of the infiniteness of God.
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers weep with Jesus when He's in pain.
  • Spiritual parents sense Christ’s pain and compassionately minister to Him as well as to others.
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers long ago waded through the questions, struggles, doubts, self-reliance, self-centeredness, and self-condemnation that cause so many to stumble or turn back from the journey.
  • Mothers and fathers long to experience the resurrected life of Christ at any price.

Andrea, the growth process outlined in the Bible implies a long-term commitment. Nothing less than wholehearted devotion will suffice. The process is not for the faint of heart. However, along the way, you will increasingly experience the deepening love and resurrection power of Christ. Over time (like 25 years or so) you can’t help but develop an irresistible urge to become like Christ at any price.

I hope that these characteristics might be helpful to you in knowing both your spiritual level and the great things in store for you as you follow Christ.

Also, this list may explain the behaviors of some of the Christians around you -- including hypocrites. Most hypocrites continually display infant and childhood behavior.

Andrea, the issue of spiritual maturity is so important that I've decided to answer your letter in four parts. this is part one. Parts two through four will expand the characteristics of each level of maturity in the hopes that you and others will a clear-cut understanding of your personal spiritual level and what comes next in the journey.

By the way, Andrea, you might enjoy reading Hinds' Feet On High Places by Hannah Hurnard. this book is an allegoric road map of spiritual maturity in story-book form.

May God bless you beyond measure.

Love, Roger

Ask RogerDr. Roger Barrier recently retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.

Publication date: May 30, 2012