There is a condition found in some infants called “failure to thrive.” It can be extremely dangerous if left unaddressed. Johns Hopkins Medicine defines this condition as “decelerated or arrested physical growth and is associated with abnormal growth and development. The reason for failure to thrive is inadequate nutrition…Failure to thrive has many different causes, and sometimes more than one cause may contribute to the condition at the same time. If an infant is not offered enough food or is not willing to eat enough food, or vomits repeatedly, there will not be enough calories to support growth. A child who is unable to absorb enough calories will also not grow as expected” (http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/pediatrics/failure_to_thrive_90,PO2297/). I have come to realize this is not just a physical ailment. This alarming condition is present in the spiritual realm as well.
Consider the text of Scripture found in Hebrews 5:11-14:
About this we have much to say and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
The author of Hebrews had introduced the idea of Jesus as our great high priest “after the order of Melchizedek.” The author had much more to say about this priestly comparison (which will resurface again in Chapter seven), but was reluctant to continue with the explanation because of the dull hearing of the audience. Evidently, the readers had not made sufficient progress in their faith because the author accused them of still needing to be taught “the basic principles of the oracles of God.” Two important principles surface in this passage, principles to which believers today would do well to pay attention.
First, believers should be good listeners and thereby, good learners. The audience to which the letter of Hebrews was written was not following this principle. Their hearing was “dull,” meaning it was lazy and sluggish. A.T. Robertson characterizes the readers as having “no push in the hearing, slow and sluggish in mind as well as in the ears” [A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933) Heb 5:11-14]. For this reason, the audience had not made reasonable spiritual progress. Sadly, they still needed to be taught rather than being able to teach others. They were still nursing a bottle rather than cutting into a steak. Again, Robertson laments, “Alas, what a commentary on modern Christians…Because [they are] still babes and not able to chew ‘solid food,’ without intellectual and spiritual teeth” (Robertson, Word Pictures).
Second, believers should not be babies. Certainly all believers begin their spiritual walk as infants, but they should never remain at that level. That would make about as much sense as parents never feeding their newborn child and expecting them to be able to function in life without proper nourishment. Just as one must grow physically, one must also grow spiritually. The author compares different kinds of food which are appropriate for different levels of growth and maturity. Solid food is for the mature. Mature adults can distinguish good from evil. Children, however, must learn this skill as they are taught by someone older and more experienced. The author employs here the perfect passive participle form of the Greek word γυμναζω in order to demonstrate the manner in which the mature are able to discern good from evil. We derive the English word “gymnasium” from this Greek word. The senses (powers of discernment) of the mature have been trained by means of constant practice or exercise.
Spiritual growth does not just happen automatically because of the passing of time. Each individual believer, upon being rescued by the wonderful grace of God, is given the opportunity to begin to grow in their knowledge of Christ and his Word. This only happens by reading, studying, and meditating upon the Word of God. Robertson explains, “By reason of use one gains such skill” (Robertson, Word Pictures). Many Christians today seem to have neglected their own personal spiritual growth by delegating that responsibility to the pastor of the church they attend. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Each one of us is personally responsible and accountable for their own spiritual growth. It is time to take ownership of our faith. It is time to press forward, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.