"Maturity—Knowing Our Limits" or "How Much Meat Do You Get?"

by

Book of Steps, Discourse 12.5-6:
5. Just as a nurse who brings up a child teaches it to eat bread as something superior to milk, so does this visible church teach her children to eat something better, and far greater, whereby they can grow up…. But what nursing mother who has many children, some thirty years old, others only thirty days old, is going to be able to set before them all one and the same food? If she were to set before them just solid food alone, then her thirty day old childe would die, whereas the thirty year old would grow; but if she provided only milk, then the thirty day old one would live and grow plump, whereas the thirty year old one would die in agony. This is the reason why our Lord and his preachers, who serve as leaders for everyone, instruct the thirty day old child as follows: ‘Do not eat with adulterers or mix with prostitutes, drunkards and accursed people, or with any whose actions are evil’; but to the thirty year old they say, ‘Take on the sickness of the sick, and be all things to all men; (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9; 9:22) do not call anyone a pagan or unclean (Acts 10:28) or evil, even though he may be so. Hold everyone to be better than (Phil 2:3) yourself, and in this way you will grow in stature.’
6. Thus they instructed everyone in accordance with what was appropriate for him. If someone thirty days old were to go off to the house of evil men, he would perish; but if a thirty year old goes to the house of evil men, he may convert them; and if they are not converted, he himself will not perish, for he has become a fully grown man in the spirit. [The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, trans. by Sebastian Brock (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1987), pp. 50-51.]

Sorry for the long quote, but I believe in giving a proper context for a quote and this time it seemed necessary to give more so that you would know what this writer was trying to say. The Book of Steps is a document written in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic in the province of what would be modern-day Iraq in the late 4th century A.D. It is one of those documents that are written for spiritual nourishment, training in righteousness one might say, for Christians’ growth. The reason I have quoted it here is to introduce you to such writings and also because I think this unknown Christian writer had something important to say. I’ll take two approaches to the topic under discussion.

First, I think this talks to us about knowing our limits and staying within them. From a confessional standpoint, I find that I have had many times when I have gotten myself in a situation where I was “in over my head.” I thought I was more prepared for a certain situation than I actually was. For instance, when I was in Iraq working at a hospital there, I really struggled with how to talk with two soldiers whose five friends had all drowned in a horrible accident when their armored vehicle rolled over into a canal. I had been notified myself only an hour or two before I had to go and talk to these two people. It was difficult to say the least and I think God helped me when I spoke with them, but I still felt inadequate to the task. As my deployment drew on, I learned how better to handle such situations, but one still is never fully prepared to face death and talk with people who have faced it.

On a lighter note, I remember as a teenager in high school how hard it was not to succumb to peer pressure. When I hung around with friends at school, who were inevitably not Christians, I used horrible language and really struggled with trying to maintain any sense of being a Christian amidst so many who were not concerned with morality of any kind. I was like the thirty day old mentioned in the quote above.

This is the type of problem I think that so many otherwise-well-intentioned Christians of all walks of life have when they succumb to pressures of the culture around them, even particularly in the form of an extra-marital affair. We are often shocked when we find out that a minister or a loved one we know of has had an affair and is getting a divorce. We self-righteously think, “I would never do that,” and wonder how such a person could have fallen so far. When we see a fellow believer that struggles with alcoholism or some other form of addiction, we think, “That could never happen to me.” But that is where we have a problem. The preacher who gets caught in sexual sin or the alcoholic that never intended to be such thought they knew their limits. They thought that they could handle more than they could. Paul, in the context of dealing with the Corinthians who are succumbing to outside pressure from people who mock their belief in the resurrection, tells them, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33, NRSV) We have signposts along the way, little urgings from God to warn us that we are in over our heads, but we tend to ignore them until it is too late. Good Christians friends, ones who are more mature than us, are essential sounding boards to help keep us in check.

The second trajectory I want to take is the idea of growing by actually delving into deeper portions of Scripture, you know, the wrestling with God thing. So often in our churches and our Bible classes we hear the same things we’ve always heard. We read the same texts, hear the same comments, interpret them in the same way, and never get beyond the milk of Scripture. We have thirty year olds who are trying to live on milk and are not getting the nourishment they need. For instance, we gloss over the differences in our gospel accounts of the same incidents in Jesus’ life and act like the stories are exact in every detail. They are not. When will we wrestle with this and get beyond ignoring the differences in the text to grow into understanding why the gospel writers wrote the things they did the way they did? If Mark 16:9-20 was not in the earliest Greek manuscripts of the gospels, why is it in all of our Bibles? Is it Scripture? Why or why not? Getting beyond the thought that Scripture dropped out of the sky from God to really struggling with how God communicates his word to us through human authors, transmitted by fallible humans using imprecise writing instruments and paper, this is starting to get to some meat. Going beyond reading for information, i.e. which king reigned during what time and did what during his reign, to looking in broader strokes about what Scripture says about the nature and character of God—this is meat. Going to Job and struggling with why God picked a fight with Satan at Job’s expense and then never gave Job a real answer to his question—this is meat. God is not someone whom we can control, quite the opposite. We grow by struggling in our relationship with him, learning to trust him more each day. Without wrestling with the harder questions of Scripture, we do not grow into being able to face the difficult situations in life. We’re trying to grow up on milk without ever eating solid food.

I can honestly say that I was not completely prepared to deal with all the death and dismemberment I saw when I was in the hospital in Iraq. But if I had not already wrestled with the problem of evil in my academic education, I would have been paralyzed and completely lost, not knowing what to do or say to minister to the soldiers in Iraq.

As a final example, we wonder why so many Christian marriages fail today. I am convinced that at least part of this reason is that we have failed to grasp the concept of self-sacrificial love that was embodied in our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul goes back to the cross to solve every problem he encounters in writing to the churches. Philippians is a particularly relevant one in this discussion. To deal with a problem of two of its members fighting, Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2), Paul gives many examples of self-sacrificial love, culminating in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11:
5 This think among yourselves which also Christ Jesus thought, 6 who being in the form of God, did not consider being equal with God something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans, and being found in appearance as a man 8 humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death of a cross. 9 Therefore, God both highly exalted him and graced him with the name that is above all names, 10 so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and in earth and under the earth 11 and every tongue confess, “Jesus Christ is Lord” for the glory of God the father. (my translation)

Learning how to put that love into practice, we then grow up in the Lord, and are capable of facing even the most intense situations, perhaps converting others, but at least not losing our faith in the process. May God bless you with an environment in which you can grow and become more like Christ!

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2 Responses to “"Maturity—Knowing Our Limits" or "How Much Meat Do You Get?"”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Duane.

    Given today’s “church” format, this is especially hard. An “adult” Bible class in fact consists of thirty-day-old babies and thirty-year-old folks, and they just all look alike. It is very hard (as you well know) to do this sort of thing w/o either strangling the babies or starving the adults.

    Thanks for the astute observations. Meat for breakfast!

  2. Duane McCrory Says:

    Al,

    It is extremely difficult if there is only one adult Bible class. I think some ways to deal with this are to have life groups or two or more adult Bible classes that vary in their depth. Of course, you have to have the people who can teach such classes or life groups. It is certainly a challenge.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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