One of the strongest impressions that I felt throughout 2020 was that, despite having been a Christian (and even a pastor) for years, I am still in a relative state of spiritual infancy. And not just me, but most of the Church!
Certainly our immaturity is not something to be celebrated, and yet, for some reason it has been for me a source of continual joy. On the surface, it feels like a horrible thing, or perhaps it appears self-deprecating to some degree. But when the thought comes to mind that I am still so “young” in Christ, it causes neither sorrow nor despair. Instead, it actually brings me a great level of comfort and hope.
I am sure you could find blogs about the signs of spiritual infancy, insisting that we should be more mature than we are. It is not that this is wrong; there is a time and place to speak of it this way. But here, I plan to take a more encouraging approach, with the ultimate goal of maturity still in mind. Here are three great joys of spiritual infancy that I have personally experienced in the past year.
Joy #1: No more discouragement
It doesn’t do anyone any good to think of themselves as further along than they are (see Romans 12:3). I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but there is one that has been highlighted for me recently. When I think of myself as more spiritually mature than I actually am, I judge myself according to a higher, stricter standard. Then, when I inevitably don’t live up to it (because I can’t), I get discouraged and down on myself, unable to see how the Father sees me.
Just as an example, I remember in my struggle to overcome pornography, I would have periodic seasons of purity, where it seemed that I finally had attained victory. But then one slip-up would occur, and it felt like, in an instant, I had lost everything that I had gained. This feeling is hard to explain, but it is soul-crushing, to say the least. The thought that months of growth could be brought to nothing in a split second was almost too much bear, and it made me reluctant to keep trying. I am sure that you can relate regarding some particular area of your life, as well.
What I now know is that I was just interpreting these events incorrectly. The times when I “acted out” again weren’t signs of regression; they were signs of immaturity. They didn’t mean that I was acting infantile, despite having grown up into adulthood. They meant that I was still an infant, and therefore still needing to grow. They didn’t mean that any ground had been lost; they simply proved that there was still ground I had yet to gain. Only because I mistakenly thought of myself as grown, or mature, was I so discouraged to find myself still doing childish things.
There are things we expect of adults that we would never expect of a child. And there are things we expect of a child that we would never expect of an infant. An adult should be able to share their belongings joyfully, while a child you might expect to get jealous or throw a fit. An older child should be able to pour a glass of milk without spilling, whereas a toddler is certain to make a total mess. A toddler we expect to understand the word “no”, but an infant we have no expectations at all. You get the point.
Obviously it is not ideal when my kids act inappropriately or selfishly, or when they fail at a given task. But it is usually not surprising. The vast majority of what they do is neither impressive nor exemplary by the standards used for adults, but am I disappointed in them for this? No. Am I surprised? Not in the least. Am I upset? Only when I, too, am being childish and wanting things my way.
The truth is, I fully expect them to mess up, multiple (if not countless) times a day. And I don’t hold it against them, for they are in the process of learning. Doesn’t it make sense that God would view us the same way? If anyone knows our “age”, spiritually speaking, it is God. So by and large, I think it is safe to say that he knows what he can expect of us.
Throughout much of my spiritual life, I was inclined to label every failure as a “setback”, when in reality, it was just evidence of where I had been the whole time, maturity-wise. I projected all of this onto the Father, as well — how disappointed he must have felt when I sinned; how shocked he must have been when I failed to do everything right. But let me tell you this now. When you make mistakes, God is not surprised, nor is he discouraged. He is not wagging his finger at you saying that you should be ashamed and you should know better. Rather, he is eagerly waiting for you to acknowledge your age, and then simply to ask him to teach you what you assumed you should already know.
Joy #2: Innocence
It is hard to know exactly when a child loses their innocence, but in the spiritual realm, the children of God never do. I know this may be hard to wrap your mind around, but when you are born again, you become as innocent as any baby the world has ever seen. This is how God sees you because it is actually how you are.
A lot of shame and guilt that Christians experience is not really the product of truth, but of an incorrect view of themselves. They equate their mistakes to willful disobedience, when actually, they are the result of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities that come with being an infant. For believers, our sins are the result of a lack of knowledge/faith/wisdom/maturity, not a lack of goodness or righteousness. They do not come from an evil heart, but from an unrenewed mind.
The following excerpt is from my recent book, which I think speaks to this matter well:
“There is no need for guilt or condemnation; only a need to think better and grow in faith. We are “transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s]” (Romans 12:2). In this sense, also, we have not yet been perfected. It is not so much that we have been defiled, but deceived. We have not been in sin but in infancy. We have not been evil but ignorant. We have not been wicked but weak. We have not been complicit but gullible. I am speaking, of course, to those who have already been cleansed by the blood. We do not need more cleansing now; we need more faith.”No Longer I, pg. 88
What joy to know that my desires are pure! What joy to know that I am not guilty, that my sin has been taken away! What joy that my Father does not judge me for my errors! He leads me, disciplines me, corrects me, teaches me. But he does not judge me nor condemn me because he knows that I am innocent. His heart is soft towards me. Abide in this truth — by simply believing it is true — and it will change you. Rest in your innocence, which comes from your oneness with Christ, and turn to your Father who knows you have a pure heart.
Joy #3: Not Having to Understand
Our son, Judah, who is close to a year and a half now, has been teaching us a lot about what it is like to be a child of God. Something that recently came to mind is how long it has taken him to begin understanding what we are saying to him, despite the fact that we’ve been talking to him since the day he was born.
Think about it. Over and over and over again, parents speak to their babies, and it takes months for the children to make out even the first word, years for them to understand the majority of what is being said. But this doesn’t mean the parent isn’t talking, or that the child is failing.
At times in the spiritual life, it can feel as if God doesn’t speak very much to us, or perhaps that he isn’t very clear. I want so badly just to know his will, to know what he is saying in any given moment. But what I often interpret as silence or lack of clarity on God’s end is actually just because I don’t understand him yet. I haven’t learned his language entirely.
What’s the solution to this? Well, how does any baby learn their parents’ language? (1) Presence. (2) Trial and error.
First, they just sit there and absorb. If we want to learn God’s language, then the first thing we need to do is simply be with him. And we should not expect that we will have any clue what he is saying or doing for quite some time, despite the fact that he is saying and doing quite a lot. What we can, and should, do is enjoy just being with him, without feeling all the pressure to know and understand what is happening. Rest. Pay attention. Listen. Absorb. And little by little, you will piece together his language.
Second, at some point, they begin to test, to see if a means b, y means z, etc. It’s a trial and error kind of thing. To learn God’s language we must be willing to guess and take risks, trusting that he will correct us if we are wrong. If we think he is saying something, then in faith, we can just go with it, as long as we always remain humble and open to correction. It is all part of the learning process, and God is delighted in each of our attempts. My encouragement to you is that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23, ESV). But whatever proceeds from faith is pure, and God will honor it. It is “by testing [that we] discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2, ESV).
Do not get caught in the paralyzing trap of feeling like you need to hear him clearly or understand exactly what he is saying before you can have peace, make a decision, obey him, etc. If you think you hear something from him, and you can proceed in faith, then go for it. God can do more with your faithful mistakes than he can with your “reasonable” level of caution. After all, you’re just a child like me. Let’s embrace it, and trust our Father.
Focus on growing in faith, not on producing the fruit.
Don’t get me wrong, it is quite humbling to acknowledge that you are still in spiritual infancy, or childhood, or wherever you actually are, when you thought you were much further along. But it is not soul-crushing like the thought that you are constantly disappointing and surprising your Heavenly Father (which you are not), never gaining any ground, failing to produce fruit that you should be producing, etc. It is quite freeing to let go of burdens/responsibilities/expectations which you are too young and weak to carry, and to see yourself truly as the Father knows you are.
Does this mean we get complacent in our infancy? No. Do we still strive for growth? Always. But we do so in truth, and the truth is, we may have some more growing to do before we can expect to see the kinds of fruit that the gospel promises. And that’s okay. Do not focus on producing the fruit of maturity. Focus on growing in faith; enjoy the process; and one day the fruit will inevitably appear.