The Pursuit of Mutual Encouragement: A Mark of Spiritual Maturity

I hadn’t noticed it until recently, but Paul says something unexpected in the first chapter of Romans. The apostle first introduces himself to the church (1:1), then underscores his theological and spiritual credentials (1:2-7), and expresses his genuine love for the believers in Rome (1:8). Paul longs to see these brothers and sisters, and he reports that he has prayed toward that end (1:9-10).

Paul had good reasons why he wanted to see the Christians in Rome; he desired to strengthen them through the impartation of a spiritual gift (1:11) and the preaching of the gospel (1:15). That makes sense. What I find remarkable is what Paul says immediately following verse 11.

For I long to see you, that I may impart some spiritual gift to strengthen you–that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine (Romans 1:11-12; emphasis added).

What is stunning about this highlighted sentence is that it came from the most eminent and gifted of the apostles. Paul’s commission from the living Christ, his profound theological insight into the Old Testament Scriptures and the gospel, and his vast missionary experience would have put him leagues beyond these lowly Romans. Certainly, they had much to learn from him, but in what ways could he be encouraged by their faith?

But this question itself is probably an expression my own pride and spiritual immaturity. See, I am wired to think of spiritual maturity as a kind of spiritual superiority. Biblically, however—from the Proverbs through the New Testament—spiritual maturity expresses itself in the keen ability to learn from and be encouraged by all Christians, whether those Christians are older or younger in age or in the faith. In other words, the more mature we get, the more humble we become, and this humility will manifest itself in the ability to receive wisdom and instruction from anyone, regardless of age.

I was reminded of this important truth when our college ministry gathered a few weeks ago to honor our graduates. About mid-way through our “Senior Night,” a fellow leader—a local physician and graduate of Stanford University, thirteen years my senior with significant ministry and teaching experience—stood up to say a few words to two graduating members of his small group.

A good portion of his address, however, characterized Paul’s spirit in Romans 1:12. This leader confessed that over the past year he had learned as much from them as they, he was sure, had learned from him.

What? Surely he had misspoken. These young brothers were his disciples, not the other way around. He had faithfully taught them the Scripture every week over the past academic year; they weren’t instructing him during these weekly Bible study sessions.

But he had been instructed. He confessed he had learned much from the example of one young man’s sober-minded approach to his academic work, his labor as a collegiate athlete, and his life as a Christian. He thanked the other brother for his example of gentleness and mentioned his own need to grow in this area.

This wasn’t pseudo-humility; this was spiritual maturity, expressed in this leader’s total indifference about being recognized for his superior knowledge or piety. He was at least thirty years older than either of these young men and had a grasp of the Scripture that surpassed the most diligent disciple in the group. No matter: he desired to be encouraged by their faith just as much—and probably more so—than they did by his.

This is wisdom. This is the mark of spiritual maturity. Spiritual superiority had no place with the apostle Paul, and it should have no place with us. Humility opens vistas of wisdom, learning, and spiritual growth for the disciple of Christ, and we will know we are moving in the right direction when it is easy for us—like it was for Paul and this local doctor—to be encouraged by another Christian’s faith.

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