Spiritual Growth: From Milk to Solid Foods

September 2, 2020

A Commentary on Chapter 3 of Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)

Paul is speaking to the Corinthians as a neophytic people. They are relatively new to the faith and still carry with them the idiosyncrasies of their previous worldview. As has been said lately in many self-help circles of today, their growth will include just as much unlearning of old things as learning new things. He speaks as a parent in a way. He calls the people of Corinth “Infants in Christ” (v. 1) and that, like infants, they had to start with milk not solids (cf. v. 2).

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Speaking from experience, I was taken aback at just how much a parent must guide their child in learning how to be human. Much less learning to speak, read, write, and pray; parents have a hand in teaching their children how to eat, when to sleep, and a general teaching to avoid harm or injury. Even with premature newborns there is a need for parents to guide their children in how to swallow and suckle. As the children grow to learn language and basic activity, they are not just learning it in a general idyllic sense. They learn their parents’ manners of speaking and acting which include habits–good and bad. I have two daughters one four and the other two. When I discipline the older, sometimes raising my voice and using non-verbal sounds of exasperation, she echoes those same sounds to her younger sister who in turn makes the same sounds. Needless to say, I have to be very careful of the way I speak and act because they will imitate in a very exacting way. When the Church says that parents are the first and primary educators of their children, I can vouch. Children learn basic humanity from their parents, for better or worse.

Paul employs this analogy with the people of Corinth. They are still “very young” in their spiritual age. They are not yet ready for the solid food that is the full measure of adulthood in faith. But what precisely is Paul referring to when he mentions “milk” and “solid foods”?

Even prior to being reborn in baptism, the potential followers of Christ are still very much rooted in the worldview of their parents, whichever culture that may have been. This means they were perhaps taught in the ways of pagandom, offering their sacrifices to the various gods of the pantheon, observing superstitions of various spirits, or even embracing the relatively new worldview at the time of the philosophy of the Greeks. Corinth was a port town and so, like a modern metropolis, it would have been an ancient cultural mixing pot of numerous kinds of people and ways of thinking. To survive and make a living in such a city, it very much required one to be versed in the ways of the world, namely in money and trade.

When Paul comes to them, who is himself versed in Hellenist culture as well as Jewish custom and now, of course, an apostle of Christianity, Paul is speaking to them in a way that Christianity would be palatable. Prima facie, this sounds deceptive and entrapping, like Paul is leaving out the downsides of Christianity, and marketing only the pleasant aspects of this way of life. However, this is certainly not the case. As he mentions in the previous chapter he has already spoken to them of the Crucified Christ. and it is this One that the Church follows. Despite all of the differing cultures that may have been represented at the Church in Corinth, crucifixion and its horrors would have been universally recognized. So there was no deception as to the big picture of the Christian way of life so, again, what is Paul referring to as milk and solids for the Christian?

St. John of the Cross writes about the nature of growth in spirituality in his work, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. He too uses this analogy to speak of where a neophyte must begin and how God, like a parent, will guide His children with the ultimate goal of being like Himself. And like a parent, God begins with what we are capable of and what we are actually able to comprehend at the time of the beginning of our spiritual journey. And it is important to remember the spiritual “age” does not necessarily correspond to physical age. As one grows up physically, spiritual growth must be willed, freely sought after, and embraced as a gift from God. It does not “just happen” like growing up physically does. This is why we might see young people who are advanced spiritually and older adults who are still immature, spiritually speaking.

God begins our spiritual life in us by allowing us to experience the sweetness of His grace. As the psalm says, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 34:8). Children who experience a great displeasure or something that frightens them will be much more prone to reject future occurrences. This is why many pediatricians themselves will not give injections but will have a nurse do it instead. This is because they do not want to be associated with the potentially traumatizing experience of the prick of a needle. Again, I know this from experience and the memory is real. But again this is not a deceptive tact. Because God above all knows that the ultimate end of this way of life is the most perfect good which is union with God Himself–heaven. The initial graces of the spiritual life are very sweet. Learning basic doctrine and theology can be very palatable, exciting, and fun. God allows the neophyte to “taste” heavenly life by allowing the pleasure of zeal associated with this new beginning. But as with all endeavors of a fallen humanity, routine can become, I daresay, boring and dry.

This is the moment when God begins to wean us off of the pleasures of graces. This is a very important step in the spiritual life and it happens at different times but God will only do so when the neophyte is ready to go on to the next stage of life in Christ. Again, to explain we will return to the milk and solids analogy. Milk is very sweet, fatty, and requires no effort to enjoy, that is, there is no need to chew and is not difficult to digest. For infants it is everything they need. As nutritious as it is, is not enough for older children. They will eventually need the nourishment and the associated independence of solid foods. They will need other vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, and so forth that is not found in milk. However, this comes at some effort. Teeth is needed and an education on how to eat these foods. And most foods do not taste as good or sweet as milk. The taste and consistency of vegetables is a common obstacle to the most nutritious diet. To return to the spiritual side of this analogy, “children” in the faith of the Church, must be educated in the faith in a palatable way as they are still learning to be a “spiritual” people rather than merely a physical being driven by instincts, passions, and hungers. To be weaned off of the “sweet” and initial graces means to be offered much more substantial, but potentially painful graces.

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Grace is the life of God. As Francis Chan has recently discovered, the Christian Church has since its inception believed that the communion of bread and wine is actually the body and blood of Christ. It is only the last 500 years that a (rather major) strain of Christians have started to believe otherwise. This is the chief way that God gives us and “hands over” divine life to us, so that we may grow in the likeness of Christ. Christ came as fully human but also fully God to reveal to us what grace will make of us–children, the sons and daughters, of God. The “routine” of prayer and Christian living will seem to become boring and dry because God withholds the sweetness of the graces so that we come to seek God Himself and not just the pleasures and “highs” associated with Him. This is a training, or education in, being grown to the “full-stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Christ is not just a human being who experienced the pleasures of heavenly living here on earth. Christ, in His humanity, lived, willed, enacted, and fulfilled the will of God. In the utter freedom of his person, Christ laid down His live in love, saying, “not my will but yours be done.” Divine love transcends animal instinct and is naturally perceived as painful to our physicality. However, this divine love–charity–is precisely where the spiritual life is headed and is what our “adulthood” in Christ actually consists. God, who is love (cf. I John 4:8), calls us to be like Himself precisely in that love. We become more like God in so far as we grow in our capacity and ability to love. The act of love is the fulfillment of our spirituality.

Unlike the many lighthearted romantic comedies would have us believe, real and true love is painful. It is not because of the love we have for God. Pain and suffering is caused by sin. Love is painful because God, calling us to be like Him, calls us to love ourselves and neighbor who is difficult to love. This is the solid food we are called to eat. To learn penance, sacrifice, discipline, perseverance, and “suffering for” is precisely the path to divine love because that is how God loves us who loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:19). The paradox of heavenly living here on earth is that this love that we find naturally painful, is truly spiritual beatitude. The paragon of heavenly beatitude lived here on earth is the crucified Christ. This is why a crucifix (as opposed to a simple cross) is found in every Catholic and Orthodox Church. To love as Christ loved is the “solid” food of the adult spirit of the Christian, which requires a daily taking up of the cross (cf. Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23).

To become this “adult” Christ ultimately means to become powerful as God is powerful. Again, this is not in the ways of worldly power. Scripture tells us that God has power to do all He wills (cf. Psalm 115:3). This discipline and education in a love painful to our physical being is a training in the mastery of ourselves so that we may be able to do everything that we will to do. St. Paul himself wrote about the difficulty of this, and in so doing speaks a reality of human frailty. He says, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15). Many people succumb to addictions, laziness, vices, and at times are very remorseful and grieved by the fact that we are do (or not do) these certain things. However, adulthood in a human spiritual sense is to do what we will to do which, being made in God’s image, is fulfilled completely in loving as Christ loves–which is in obedience to death, even death on a cross (cf. Philippians 2:8).

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