I spent the Summer of 2003 traveling around the Northwest United States as the preacher on a revival team. In one of the small towns where we stopped I met a man known affectionately as "Papa John." Papa John was a frail elderly man who had to carry an oxygen tank on wheels around with him anywhere he went. Yet Papa John woke up early every Sunday morning to spend the hour before church driving around his town picking up youth for the Sunday morning service. He would lug his oxygen tank to his minivan, situate himself and his tank in the front seat, then head out to give rides to those who had no other way of getting to church. The morning we left Papa John's town, the church's senior adult ministry, invited me to come speak at their weekly breakfast. Before we left town, they stopped and prayed with us.
A few weeks later, I had a very different experience. Rather than serving a specific church that week, our team had arrived in the city to help with a citywide evangelism initiative. Part of our week had us paired with a group of older, out-of-town volunteers, not all that much younger than Papa John and his friends, though certainly in much better shape. My team decided to have a car wash in a church parking lot as a way of trying to create opportunities to meet people. The volunteers refused to help or offer any ideas about activities we could do, instead. One even tossed his keys at me, told me to wash his car, too, then walked away before I could respond! The only time I saw one of the volunteers talking to anyone who came to get their car washed, I could overhear him constantly interrupting the young man, saying, "Nope, you're going to hell!"
That summer I met many older Christians like Papa John and his friends, but also many older Christians like those out-of-town volunteers. How could various groups of older Christians be so different? They all possessed the Holy Spirit. Almost all the older people I met had grown up in church. How in the world could these various groups of people who all claimed to know and love God, as well as love people, act so completely opposite of each other?
I learned an important lesson that summer—getting a year older doesn't mean getting more mature. Being a Christian for 50 years doesn't automatically guarantee you'll look much different spiritually than the day you first believed. Clearly it is the power of the Spirit of God alone that transforms and matures us. However, I think the Bible is also clear that we can choose to cooperate or not with the Spirit as part of that process.
We can choose to obey God as He reveals His will to us, or we can make excuses as to why we don't have to. We can hand over our hurts and wounds to God, or we can clench them tightly until they come to define who we are. We can make a habit of forgiving, or a make habit of being resentful and bitter. We can learn to be humble, teachable, and submissive, or we can remain proud, unteachable, and rebellious. We can choose ourselves, or we can choose others. We can learn to rely on God's strength, or we can continue to pay lip service to the idea of depending on God while trying to do everything on our own. (By the way, I've personally perfected exactly zero of these.)
Who we will be in this lifetime is largely a culmination of choices we make to fight or cooperate with the Spirit of God. I'm assuming that when I turn 40, 50, 60, and older, I don't get a series of cards from God where He asks me to check if I want to look like Jesus for the next ten years, or choose to wallow in spiritual immaturity. Instead, who you and I are at 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, or even 100 is the product of how we lived and the choices we made along the way.
The great thing about being transformed into spiritually mature people is that it's guaranteed to happen completely when we finally see God. However, how mature we become in this lifetime is not guaranteed. Examine the way you're living. Are you cooperating with the transforming power of the Spirit at work in you, or are you fighting Him? Are you someone who inspires those younger in the faith than you, or are you a discouragement to them? (And regardless of how young or old you are, I guarantee someone is watching!) Are you a help or a hindrance? It's unlikely to be any major life decisions that provide the answers to these questions. Instead, it will be the daily choices we make, until we wake up one morning 5, 10, or 50 years down the line, the culmination of all those choices.
The good news is that the same Spirit whose power is transforming you can empower you to choose to cooperate with Him! The tragedy is that some who are indwelt by the very Spirit of God will live and die looking very little like Him.