Growth in the Spiritual Life

Heb. 5:11.---'Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing.'

St. Paul had the same experience. To the Corinthians he had to say, 'I brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not with meat; for ye were not yet able to bear it: nay, not even now are ye able; for ye are yet carnal.' This was not the educated man's supercilious disdain of the ignorant: it was, on the contrary, the lament of the sympathetic teacher who recognized the uselessness of revealing advanced truth to men who had not taken the initial steps.

Necessarily, the teacher who suffered this experience in its most painful form was our Lord Himself. Even of those whom He had taught with care He is compelled to say, 'Are ye also yet without understanding?' And even at last, when for many months He had day after day sought to widen their view, He had simply to keep to Himself much that was burning in His own heart. 'I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.' Some of the very points which perplexed the modern mind, or which have caused discord during the entire history of the Church might have been made perfectly simple had these disciples been readier scholars.

In correction of this common fault of backwardness and indisposition to learn, the writer of this Epistle bids us observe two facts.

The first fact is that growth is expected in the Christian. Indeed, he tells us that if we are not growing we are dying. There is no third condition: he has in view only the alternative, either we are going on to perfection, or we are falling away.

Let us then go on unto perfection, for it is impossible to renew those who fall away. This is the law of all life. Nothing is born mature. It passes through a period of growth, and it must grow or die. The parent who is delighted with the innocent helplessness of his child, and rejoices in its efforts at speech, becomes seriously alarmed if this lisping, tottering, help-requiring state threatens to become permanent.

Would that cessation of growth in the spiritual life created as much dismay! Would that it seemed as monstrous and unnatural to have our discernment of our spiritual condition as keen and direct and true as our vision of the body. What do you honestly believe you would see yourself to be? Have you spiritually made the growth due to the time you have been a Christian, or are you still a child? Have you grown up to maturity? Have we grown beyond our associates, or are we conscious that they stand head and shoulders above us? Physically, we once needed to be lifted if we were to see or touch certain things: we should be humiliated were it so still; but is it so spiritually? Or do we now need to put ourselves into a constrained attitude when we wish to attend to things that once were on our natural level? Are we able to do the spiritual work of the world? Do we find ourselves now standing face to face with things that once towered above us and seemed unattainable? Can we stand alone now? Are we 'men in understanding,' able to see for ourselves what is good, having within ourselves a strength sufficient for all the needs of life? The being born again is not everything; the growing after birth to maturity is much more, is the end for which birth is alone valuable.

The writer incidentally furnishes us with two tests of maturity. The one is that the mature are teachers of others. 'Considering the time which has elapsed,' he says, 'since you became Christians, you should now be teachers of others.' The growth man does not need his father to earn his food, and his mother to take him on her knee to feed him; he earns food for himself and for others. So the mature Christian is independent of his former teachers, and can himself instruct the ignorant. At first sight this test of maturity seems to give a fairly good result. Teachers abound---parents, Sunday school teachers, ministers, journalists who volunteer theological instruction, the countless contributors to our magazines, and authors without number. Every one seems to have something to teach. But if you subtract from this mass of teaching all that is mere echo and all that is erroneous, how much remains? How many of us---for this is the writers question---how many of us have for ourselves solved the problems of Christianity in our own time, and are therefore able to teach others? How many men are there among us to whom a perplexed soul would go, sure of finding light and help? We all of us feel from time to time the extreme difficulty of believing what our fathers believed; where are the men who can give us a firm footing again? There are such men, happily; but are they not few indeed in comparison with the mass of Christians? But, according to this writer, every Christian has a duty not only to himself, but to the world. He must grow spiritually, not only to preserve himself from being a monstrosity, but that he may be able to help other men.

The second test is that the mature man 'has his senses exercised to discern good and evil.' That is to say, by habitual use his senses have acquired such quickness that he has an instinctive nausea for what is unwholesome, and a relish for what is nourishing. The child in its earliest stage has to be fed, unconscious of what it is getting, and not able to choose; in its next stage the parent has always to be telling the child, not always with effect, what to eat and what to avoid. By the time manhood is reached, experience over a wide range of foods has produced an instinctive sense of what will nourish and what will injure. The adult exposes himself to be ridicule if he is always asking, "Will this or that do me harm?" So, says this writer, the mature Christian should not be dependent on others to tell him whether this or that doctrine is injurious or helpful. The mature Christian does not need to be told what to believe and what to reject. He needs no priest to act as nurse, to taste his food for him and tell him what to receive and what to do, in what sense to understand God's Word and how to use it. He is a man to choose for himself, and to discriminate between good and evil.

The second fact regarding the Christian life which this writer wishes us to observe is that this growth, which is essential, depends on the truth we receive. He compares Christian truth to food: that is, Christian teaching does for the inner man what food does for the body. The body cannot grow without food; neither can the spirit come to maturity save by the reception of spiritual truth. But he divides Christian truth into two grand kinds, and these he represents by mild and solid food. Milk represents traditional teaching: it is the product of that which has been received and digested by others, and is suitable for those who have no teeth of their own and no sufficiently strong powers of digestion. Like infants, they can receive only what others have thought, having no independent power of their own to investigate for themselves and form their own opinion about things. This milk, or traditional teaching, is admirably adapted to the first stage of Christian life, but cannot form mature Christians. The other kind of teaching he compares to solid food, which the individual must chew and digest for himself. It is true, physically, that poor and thin diet makes poor and thin blood; that if a man is to spend much strength he must eat heartily. Spiritually it is equally true. Growth comes by nutrition. Without partaking of sound and wholesome truth the spirit cannot grow or be strong.

It might be said that all he means is that in order to right moral conduct and growth of character, sound moral principles and suitable precepts are requisite. If the savage who has been accustomed to eat his enemy and bury his own children alive is to grow out of that condition, he must be taught that these practices are wrong. This, however, is not the meaning of this writer. He does not refer to the direct inculcation of duty, but to the teaching of doctrine; and he says that the Christian grows in proportion to his reception of sound doctrine. You may begin with very small and diluted doses, with milk, but if the Christian is to do any good, if he is to grow to a vigorous maturity, he must learn to receive solid food; and what is in the writer's mind is not practical precepts, but the doctrine of Christ's priesthood, precisely such a doctrine as men who know nothing about it are apt to denounce as antiquated, fantastic, technical.

If in the past sound doctrine has been too highly esteemed, the opposite error is more likely to betray our own generation. Men never seen to themselves to be monotonous and wearisome if they repeat six times a week that doctrine has not always been accompanied by genuine spiritual life: as if it were a discovery that milk does not put life into a statue or a doll, or that spring rains do not make posts grow and blossom. No sane person affirms that doctrine gives life, or that wherever there is abundance of doctrine there is proportionate abundance of righteous living. This were to make the same mistake as to suppose that because without rain the harvest cannot possibly come, therefore the more rain you have, the better the harvest, or that the wettest parts of Scotland are also the most fruitful. What is affirmed is this: that the truth we receive and use is our true spiritual nutriment, without which we cannot make growth.

What nonsense we used to talk when we said that "it did not matter so much what a man believed, that the great thing was to live well!" We had the tiresome contrast between creed and conduct, a contrast which I have no doubt had at one time a moral value, in a community, for example, in which traditional faith had never been disturbed; but a contrast which had no sense whatever, and might easily become the minister of evil in a community which was only too ready to hear that the delicate barriers of the soul had no sanction in God, that those high doctrines concerning God and man, concerning Guilt and the difficulty of forgiveness, were no longer so sure, that, in fact, they didn't know everything down there.

And now, in the midst of all this palaver, the world has gone wild, has broken loose. And where has it broken loose? Through what sluicegate has the black flood poured? Through what bulwark, ruined now, and shattered, and undermined? Simply for this reason, namely---the world today is not unanimous about God.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha