Ages and Stages in our Spiritual Development
1] We must never undervalue or otherwise make light of the spiritual development of the very young. I can remember taking part in a Sunday School "night" before I had even started kindergarten; plainly the Sunday School "night" was important to me. I can remember weeping copiously, when only five years old, because I had forgotten my church offering; plainly not being able to worship God through my offering dismayed me.
When I became a parent I noticed a similar spiritual quickening in my own children. One day when she was only three our daughter Mary beamed at Maureen and me, "Daddy loves me; mommy loves me; Jesus loves me!" Because Mary was only three I didn't ask her if she really grasped the hypostatic union of the two natures in the Incarnation; I didn't even ask her if she grasped the consubstantiality of the persons of the Godhead. Nevertheless because she was only three I was thrilled to see signs of her spiritual awakening.
When children are as young as Mary was at that time they don't digest huge slabs of theological meat; they don't reflect upon conceptual complexities; they simply associate a word with an experience. Mary associated the word "Jesus" with the experience of being loved.
Simple as such an association is, it remains crucial. It's crucial not only when we are very young but at any stage of life. Only a few days ago I was unusually upset; "distressed" wouldn't begin to describe how I felt. Maureen came alongside me (metaphorically speaking) and said simply, quietly, "I'm your wife." "Wife". One word that was immediately associated with an experience spread over three decades; one word immediately associated with an experience of unparalleled intimacy and solace and help.
When three-year old Mary beamed, "Jesus loves me" she couldn't have said anything about atonement or redemption or justification. But she had had an experience of her parents' love; she had been told of Jesus' love; and when she put the two together she indicated that the love of Jesus for her was more than a word.
Needless to say Mary's "Jesus loves me" emerged from a context; it emerged from a consistent context. A repeated inconsistency in her parents' love for her would have pre-empted the conclusion, "Jesus loves me." Consistency generates the context, the atmosphere, in which the very young child's spiritual development advances.
Plainly consistency is important. If the child is subjected to repeated inconsistencies between the words he hears and the experiences he undergoes, he will be confused; more than confused, wounded; more than wounded, spiritually arrested. If the child hears words about truthfulness, love, forgiveness, yet finds himself in an atmosphere that contradicts all of this, then he is a spiritually disadvantaged child.
Adults are disappointed when the person they trust acts in such a way as to contradict that person's word and therein violates the trust. Children, however, aren't disappointed; children are devastated. The truth is, adults are frequently devastated too. Where would I have been in my distress a week ago if Maureen had said, "I'm your wife" and I didn't know whether that meant Jekyll or Hyde?
What counts in the spiritual formation of the very young child isn't the handing over of reams of information; what counts is a consistent context, an atmosphere, where the child can associate a gospel-word with a vivid experience.
2] As children become older they move beyond merely associating word or name with experience; they move into a community of faith where they belong, where they have a part, where they see themselves to be essential.
The child's "taste" of belonging can be very simple: the CGIT vesper service, the White Gift service, the junior choir, coming to the front of the church Sunday-by-Sunday for the children's story. Simple as the act is, it anchors the child in the truth that she's not alone in the Christian venture; she has companions on the Way. What's more, since the desire to belong is deep in all of us (properly deep, rightly deep in all of us), and since it's easy to fall into belonging to much that isn't edifying and may even be degrading, it's all the more important to belong to some feature of church life.
Several years ago when Gary and Cathy Clipperton returned from their year in Australia I asked Gary if he would provide leadership for the youth group. I shall never forget Gary's reply: "I can organize them and supervise them, but I can't `Christianize' them." I responded, "Just keep them together as a group and we'll get them `Christianized' some other way." My daughter Catherine went to that youth group for five years. She would have walked on broken glass to get to the meetings. It didn't bother me that she wasn't being programmatically "Christianized" there. (Needless to say there was always an implicit "Christianizing" underway.) When Catherine began grade thirteen Mary began grade nine. I wondered if perhaps Catherine might prefer to be without Mary in the youth group. In fact Catherine always treated Mary generously and genuinely welcomed her to all the outings. I have always treasured that youth group (albeit "unchristianized"), for it invited my children to "belong" there. You see, as a pastor I deal every day with parents whose teenaged children belong elsewhere and can't get pried away from the "elsewhere". (If ever you doubt the fact and nature of the "elsewhere" where young people may belong, come with me to criminal court or family court.)
As children feel themselves to belong to the community of faith they begin to see that Christian existence isn't merely an idea in the mind; it isn't even chiefly an idea in the mind; it's a way of life to be lived. Children begin to see that believing, belonging, and living are one.
Several years ago the confirmation class of our congregation had been admitted to church membership for only a week or two when the congregation had a congregational meeting to vote on the matter of making the church building wheelchair-accessible. The project would cost a great deal of money. Some people spoke in favour of the project, others against it. Just about the time the vote was being called the teenagers (church members for only a few weeks), trooped into the meeting en masse, sat down in a block in the first row, and voted as a block in favour of the project. Streetsville congregation stood tall that day, because not one older person remonstrated, "Why should they be voting when they aren't going to be paying?" The younger people plainly belonged, and just as plainly reminded us older folk that believing, belonging and living are one.
3] As young people grow even older they enter yet another stage in their spiritual development: questioning. Everything has to be questioned, looked at from fifty different angles, disputed, probed, tested, contradicted, X-rayed, queried. And there's nothing wrong with this.
In the confirmation class just concluded the liveliest discussions pertained not to doctrine (revelation, sin, repentance, etc.) but rather to disputed matters that are disputed just because the gospel collides with the world; just because gospel-understanding collides with the world's self-understanding. For instance, the question was raised about Chinese Marxism (I had just visited China) and how a Marxist understanding of human nature differs from a Christian understanding of human nature. Soon a related question was voiced: how does a Marxist understanding of history differ from a Christian understanding of history? how does the Kingdom of God differ from a classless society? how does the lordship of Christ differ from the dictatorship of the proletariat? I readily understand why such topics intrigue younger people: these topics probe the most startling collisions in life. (Frankly, doctrine is not the most pressing matter for 16-year olds.)
I taught a grade 8 Sunday School class for two years. At that time I myself was in fourth year philosophy and then in my M.A. year. Our weekly Sunday School lessons had to do with the gospel of John. I had the teacher's book; the youngsters had the student's book. And they weren't the slightest bit interested in the subtleties of John's gospel. One day a bright boy in class pontificated all-knowingly that Sigmund Freud had pronounced all belief in God to be nothing more than the insecure person's projection of wish-fulfilment. Immediately I pointed out to this fellow that all reductionist arguments cut both ways. If belief in God is nothing more than the wish-fulfilment of those who want God, then by the same argument atheism is nothing more than the wish-fulfilment of those who want to be rid of God. Freud dismisses all belief in God as the invention of the insecure? Why don't we dismiss Freud's atheism as the invention of the fearful who are afraid that God just might be and might even be God? All reductionist arguments cut both ways. Suddenly a light went on in the grade 8 class. We all agreed that such matters were far more fun than the intricacies of John's gospel.
A week or two later a fellow whose parents had Marxist sympathies informed the class that all philosophy and all theology were nothing more than the self-serving rationalizations of the economically privileged, which rationalizations the economically privileged deployed to perpetuate their privilege. In other words, Marx had exposed the truth-claim for philosophy and theology as groundless. At this point I replied, "Has it ever occurred to you to subject Marx's own philosophy to Marx's critique of all philosophy? Has it ever occurred to you that according to Marx's argument his understanding is nothing more than the self-serving rationalization of the economically disenfranchised -- and therefore equally devoid of any truth-claim?"
For years I have known that Sunday School lessons aren't nearly as exciting for teenagers as the collision between the Christian faith and the world's contradiction of it.
Relentless questioning (including questions carefully designed to "stump" older adults); ceaseless disputes; outrageous disrespect for tradition; corrosive criticism of long-cherished assumptions: all of this is not only part-and-parcel of spiritual development, it's necessarily part-and-parcel of spiritual development. For it is only as such queries are taken seriously that growing people mature.
4] When I speak of maturity I mean assured faith. I mean the settled conviction that the truth of Jesus Christ is just that: truth. I mean inward authentication that the Lord of the cosmos is mine because I am first his.
After people have emerged on the far side of protracted groping and guessing, anxious questioning and doubting disagreement; after people have moved beyond this they often tell us, "It all fell into place" or "Finally it clicked" or "At last I got the picture." When people speak like this they are telling us that they are now convinced of the core of the gospel; and they are now possessed of assurance concerning their inclusion in it. They are convinced of the truth; they have been convicted of their spiritual need; and they can now confess with assurance the same faith that has captured the minds and hearts of Christians for centuries.
To be sure, more than a little has to be understood at this stage. We must understand who God is, why he incarnated himself in the Nazarene, how he can be known, why sin is sin and how faith differs from mere assent. Nevertheless, the emphasis at this stage isn't on understanding; the emphasis is on settled conviction, assurance, care-free self-abandonment to the one we no longer doubt or dispute. At this stage we aren't left hoping it might be true that God so loved the world as to give himself to the world in his son; at this stage we are exulting at the marvel that "he loved me; and gave himself for me!" (in the words of the apostle Paul.) At this stage we don't have to be coaxed into worshipping or argued into praying or threatened into obeying. At this stage we simply unselfconsciously worship, pray, obey, do, love, rejoice, trust. At this stage it all comes naturally, for our new nature, true nature is that of the child of God.
This sort of maturity doesn't mean that we are now a spiritual giant; it doesn't mean that we've "arrived"; it doesn't mean that we are superior. But it does mean that something huge and grand and glorious has been settled.
5] In everyday life we like to think that as we grow older we leave the younger boy or girl behind. When we are 30 we like to think the 13-year old is long gone. Psychologically, however, it isn't true: our adolescence, even our childhood, is never far away.
Not only is it not true psychologically, it isn't true spiritually either. Even when we are possessed of mature faith we still need to wrestle with perplexities and challenges and contradictions. Even when we are possessed of mature faith we still need to belong to the community of faith and learn afresh that believing, belonging and living are one.
And when we are very old and very mature in faith events will still howl down upon us and leave us needing the immediate comfort of the immediate association of word and experience: "Daddy loves me; mommy loves me; Jesus loves me."
In our difficult days, on our tumultuous days, we need to be able to wander into the sanctuary on a Thursday afternoon, too upset to pray, and simply find ourselves comforted and edified and encouraged by whatever we associate with this building or its people or a word we've heard pronounced here or someone we've met here.
Jesus said that we must become like children if we are to enter the kingdom. The truth is, even as we mature in faith we must also remain children at the same time.
Spiritual development is a development that ultimately leaves nothing behind. Maturity, sophistication, reflection, settled assurance: these are certainly to be gained, even as our earlier ages and stages are never lost.
Victor Shepherd May 1997