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Spiritual Growth and Human Development

Humans develop in stages. Not exactly big news – everything that develops does it in stages. But did you know that for each stage of human development, there is a corresponding stage of spiritual growth too? And the most important of these comes first! Order the eighth of the series Spiritual Growth and Human Development and learn about the stage of human development, from 22-34 years of age, and the corresponding spiritual piece.

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We’ve been working our way through a series titled Spiritual Growth and Human Development . The premise of this series is that, at each stage of human development, humans are biologically wired to learn age-appropriate things about God. An adjunct premise to this is that, if we know what a person can learn about God at each age, we can help them learn it. That’s what this whole series really has been about.

Now so far we’ve covered from birth through late adolescence, which is twenty-two to twenty-five or so – whenever the brain is finished with most of its wiring. In all of these stages we focus on what adults can do to help children, which is how it should be. But now we’ve come to full adulthood. We’re covering young adults today – from twenty-two to thirty-four. So what can we learn about God at this stage? And who will help us learn it – since we’re adults now and not having people help us, but helping others?

I want to read you a quote. The person who said this is Eric Erickson. He’s the originator of the framework that we’ve been following through this entire series. It’s called psychosocial human development , because a lot of the things we’ve talked about aren’t just pertaining to the psyche. They’re pertaining to the psyche and our society. In some cultures there’s no such thing as adolescence. People don’t experience that. But in ours we do, because of the way it’s structured.

So Eric Erickson developed the concept of psychosocial human development. He was an amazing person. The more I read what he’s written, the more I like him. His primary work is called Childhood and Society . Remind me to put that on the Website. (Yes, we do have a Website now. It’s www.liferesource.org . Please check it out as soon as you’re able. You can download all our presentations right onto your computer in MP3 format without having to spend a stamp. You can sign up for our mailing list. We’re going to build a resource archive of questions and answers. And we’re going to put a lot of our materials on there. So I’m hoping it will be really helpful to everybody.) Back to Eric Erickson. Here’s what he said.

”In youth you can find out what you care to do and who you care to be.” That’s what we’ve covered already through late adolescence. “In young adulthood….” And I think he’s talking about what we would call late adolescence. “In young adulthood you find out whom you care to be with – at work and in private life.” So far, so good? “In adulthood, however, you learn to know what and whom you can take care of.” So, as we move past college, and toward work, and toward marriage, and toward childbearing, we stop being taken care of. And, if we’ve negotiated the previous stages of life successfully and solved the crises that come at each age, and we arrive at adulthood developmentally ready, then we’re prepared to start taking care of others – mates, children, coworkers, fellow Christians, etc. We no longer need to be taken care of so much. But we are ready to take care of others.

It’s interesting the way this man – who, I don’t know about his religious affiliation, or whether he was a Christian or not – but that is how he saw adulthood. It was one of taking care of, not being taken care of – of giving rather than receiving. And so, because that’s true, something intensely spiritual can happen at this age if we’re ready for it.

When Erickson talks about “taking care of,” he’s talking about a relationship – a connection – that is intent on helping, and building up, and adding to and supporting other people. So we become givers, helpers, providers, nurturers. The focus is supposed to go towards connecting with other people – to help them, to make a contribution and to participate in a productive way.

Now, I’m not saying, by the way, that people younger than this can’t be giving and loving. Some of the sweetest, kindest things that have ever happened to me have been done by young people. But theirs is usually a reaction to something that I did for them first. When we become adults, we’re supposed to be able to do those kinds of things whether we get something back or not. Our focus is on getting. It’s on giving if we’re developmentally advanced and not delayed. The adults are the ones who give first.

Let’s quickly go through the developmental tasks. And then let’s look at the crisis. And then after that, let’s look at the state of the church today. I’m going to say this tactfully. Let’s look at the state of the church today and understand that many of us who call ourselves adults are really just grown up babies, whose mindset is to take and take from others, and have our way without respect for other people. Is that tactful enough? It could have been said a lot more strongly, believe me.

So the stage we’re working on is young adulthood from twenty-two to thirty-four. And here are the developmental tasks. The first one is to explore intimate relationships . What does that mean? Well, emotional closeness, shared interests, a shared vision of the future, and – if the intimacy is between people of the opposite sex, and if they’re married or about to be – then there would be a measure of romantic intimacy – or if married, sexual intimacy.

What is intimacy? Let’s define that term. This is very, very important. Intimacy is openness between two people without fear of being changed or controlled. We love them the way they are and we’re not afraid that the other person wants to change us, because they don’t love us the way we are. This kind of relationship most often happens in marriage. But if, you leave the sex part off, it can happen at church between people, too. Intimacy isn’t just about being married. It’s about having open, close relationships where you’re not afraid you’re going to be steamrolled or controlled by others – or manipulated. So it can happen at church, but does it? How many people in our congregation do we really love – have shared interest with and shared vision of the future? We’ll talk more about that later.

The second task of people this age is childbearing . Most people do decide to have children during this age. And that is a huge, exhausting, challenging undertaking that leaves us all, eventually, with regrets and a newfound humility. I know one minister that said he started out with no kids and five theories on childrearing, and ended up with five kids and no theories. So it is humbling. And we also wind up with a great deal more love than when we started out, I think, because we have to learn how to sacrifice.

I knew a woman once, who told me that she had a terrible time with her father growing up – who was very neglectful of her emotionally. And it was only after her son became an adult that she realized that she had done to her son what her father had done to her. He [her father] didn’t do it maliciously and she didn’t do it maliciously, but it’s just like God says – that stuff gets passed down to the third and fourth generations. We’re also going to take dozens of sermons to talk about parenting in the future. But for now, we’re going to keep moving past that topic.

The third area of developmental tasks of young adulthood has to do with work . Work determines a lot about the style of life that we live. You see young people working on that one a lot. Work is one of the big five life choices that a person has to make when they’re starting out. So it’s a very important thing for people. We’re not going to spend much time there either.

And then the fourth and final developmental task is what’s called lifestyle . What is lifestyle? Well, for the purposes of our discussion, that has to do with these things: the pace and tempo of life people live. Some people live life in a small town with a job where they work from eight to three or five, come home, and then they sit and watch television or go out and garden or whatever. And other people live in New York City where they’re up by five-thirty and they don’t get home until ten at night, and they work, work, work all day long. Lifestyle has to do with the balance between work and leisure. It has to do with the focus of energy on specific areas. Some people are really interested in computers. Other people are really interested in gardening. Other people are interested in something else. And then the fourth thing is the development of social relationships at varying degrees of intimacy. Some people keep themselves so busy they can’t have friends. Other people are able to connect at a very deep level with others. It’s all a part of a person’s lifestyle.

I was telling a friend that part of my ability to relate to young people, in my opinion, comes from the fact that I – even at my advanced age – know how to have fun. I have a wide array of things that I like to do for fun, and don’t feel like I’m living life well unless I take time to do some of those things from time to time. Now, one of my very best friends says that his fun is his work. And his wife says that he doesn’t know what down time is. So that’s two different kinds of lifestyles there that we’re looking at. I’ve been trying to get him to come have some fun with me in New Mexico , but so far, it’s all been for naught. Now, my work is fun, too, but for me there’s more fun than work. But that would be an example of the difference in lifestyles. Young adults are usually working at figuring all of this stuff out.

So there they are – the four tasks of young adulthood: exploring intimate relationships, childbearing, work and lifestyle. Let’s move right along now to the psychosocial crisis of this age. And when we talk about this so far in these sermons, we’ve always had two opposing poles, right? And the crisis is to resolve these two things in one’s life. So the one pole, on one side, is intimacy – the ability to experience an open, supportive and sometimes tender relationship with another person, without fear of losing one’s own identity in the process.

Somebody sent me a post from one of these COG forums a few days ago. A young man, who’s a noted apologist for one of the larger COG organizations said, “It’s so much easier when there is one man in charge and just tells us what to believe and do.” Esau sold his birthright for a pot of beans, but here’s somebody who has given it away to other people. It’s just easier to let someone tell us what to believe and do. It’s certainly easier than studying your Bible and learning for yourself what it says. That is really not how it is supposed to be.

Somebody like that can’t explain it to their kids for one thing. It stops with them. We’re all supposed to retain it ourselves. That’s what God is after. He wants us . He doesn’t want a carbon copy of somebody else. He wants us . That’s what He wants most of all.

Now I’ve noticed – because of not only the brain wiring, but the chemicals involved in the brain – that a lot of times girls and young women most often have trouble with this one more than guys do. Although we just cited an example of somebody who’s given it up – and he’s a guy. There’s always so many people – parents, boyfriends, fiancés, bosses – who want to make women and girls over, and talk them into doing things that they don’t want to do, and going places they don’t want to do, and being the kind of people they don’t want to be. I’m reminded…how many people have seen the movie Million-Dollar Baby ? How did I know that? Frankie was a boxing a coach and Maggie was his pupil. And in Million-Dollar Baby Frankie would always say to Maggie, “You remember now what I told you to do.” And Maggie would always say, “Yes, boss. Protect myself at all times.” And that’s what I think some young girls and young women need to do.

If you think about the definition that we gave of intimacy – being in a close relationship with someone without fear of being changed and controlled – then it is impossible to be intimate with a self-centered person – a taker, a manipulator – that person who always has to have things their way – and have you their way. Any thought of intimacy with a person like that is an illusion . It isn’t going to happen. And there are narcissistic organizations, too – not just people. There are groups that want to make you be like them.

I found something really interesting in the text that I have been using for the framework for this series. For thousands of years, loving relationships have been described in songs and stories – probably foremost would be Country & Western music, right? But social scientists have now latched onto the concept of love, and of course, they had to measure and quantify and categorize it, right? So, in the textbook, I found ten things that love is. I want you to listen to them. “Love is promoting the welfare of the loved one. Love is experiencing happiness with the love one. Love is a high regard for the loved one. Love is being able to count on the loved one in times of need.” You think about what God says about divorce and how it’s abandonment. “Love is being able to count on the loved one in times of need. Love is mutual understanding of the loved one.” So it’s something we do, too. “Love is sharing self and possessions with the loved one. Love is receiving emotional support from the loved one. Love is giving emotional support to the loved one. Love is intimate communication with the loved one. And love is valuing the loved one in one’s life.”

Now isn’t that pretty good? And couldn’t a young girl, who’s interested in a young guy, think about a relationship in terms of those ten things? With good benefit? It’s not as fun to listen to as a Country & Western song, but it definitely gets right down to some really important things, doesn’t it? Not very romantic when it’s put that way. But I just think if young people would examine their relationships in the light of these ten things, it would help them a lot to not only see who they love and who they don’t – and maybe who they don’t know how to love yet – but it would also help them see who loves them, and who doesn’t, and who isn’t capable of it.

Okay, so that’s a little bit about intimacy and what people need to accomplish, as young adults, in marriage and with friends. I was at the Lexington Family Weekend and I ran into a bunch of young men that I’ve known over the years – met them at camp and one place and another – and I didn’t know that a lot of them knew each other. But they’re all very tight I found out at this weekend. It’s very interesting to see how close they are and how much they keep up with each other. And that’s a form of intimacy.

So the opposite pole of that is isolation . If you can’t be intimate and close to people, then the opposite pole is isolation with a wide rainbow of relationships in between.

Now what have we talked about? We’ve talked about how we’ve been created for relationships in past sermons, haven’t we? And that’s exactly what this is pointing to. To be a fully functional, healthy, developmentally mature adult, we have to have relationships with people. We were created for that. God made us this way – so that we would want to be in His family and so that we would be able to be in it successfully. And when we’re unable to relate well to other people, we tend to, or head towards, isolation.

Did you know that twenty-five percent of the US male and female adult population, at sometime during a month, feel lonely? It’s a huge amount of people when you think about it. Many people are chronically lonely. They have a number of contacts, maybe, but not the desired level of connection or intimacy with people. Again, a close relationship – an intimate relationship – is one in which a person is able to be open without fear of being changed.

Depression is another by-product of isolation. And women, according to the statistics, more women tend to suffer from depression than men, because men take it out in aggressive acts, where women get depressed. A guy goes and robs a convenience store. A woman drinks too much and goes to bed, or takes too many sleeping pills, or is just sad.

Some of the things that women have commented about when they feel depressed – the reasons are – they feel that they don’t measure up. Where does that come from? Well, that comes from being around people who don’t like you the way you are and want to change you all the time. That’s where that comes from. They feel that they need to put the needs of the man in their life ahead of their own. Where would anybody possibly learn that? They try to maintain the relationship by avoiding conflict and inhibiting their own view – just to keep the peace. So they don’t become their real self. They have to put on a mask in order to live in the relationship. They have to put up a false front, they say.

Sometimes women talk about feeling like they are a piece of clay that just gets mashed all out of shape by somebody. Being that way is what causes depression from isolation. Remember the definition of intimacy is not being changed or controlled or manipulated by someone else. So if you live in that, it makes you depressed.

Sexual disorders are a by-product of isolation. The two biggest sexual disorders in the country are a loss of desire and compulsive sexual behavior. That’s where sex is not related to intimacy, but to anxiety. You know, that’s the guy who gets chewed out by his boss and then goes to a massage parlor – a lot of that in our society. People get their wires crossed about sex.

And then there are situational factors. Sometimes people go through divorce. I hear a lot of single adults in the church saying, “I can’t find anybody in my faith to marry.” There’s people that work all the time. There’s a very well-known, up-and-coming young woman in the presidential staff right now – you see her on TV all the time – she’s single – doesn’t have time to even think about any relationships – put her whole career out there as the big thing. That would be a situational factor.

Another thing, besides situational factors and depression and the rest, would be divergent interests. Sometimes people can’t find anybody that likes the same thing that they like. Sometimes when people are married, and interests diverge, then people start to feel isolated.

How do people resolve this crisis between intimacy and isolation? Well, the central process is labeled mutuality among peers . What does that mean? Well, mutuality means mutual empathy, where we understand each other’s experience. Mutual regulation of needs – you know, it’s not where somebody always gets their way, but where there’s mutual regulation. Giving and receiving pleasure within the relationship – not all one way. Equal contributions to the relationship – strengths and resources contributed. Where we’re meeting each other’s needs – everybody feels good about the relationship, because they’re getting from it what they need. Now, a lot of people in the church think we’re just supposed to give, give, give. Why did God create Eve? Because Adam had some needs. He was incomplete. And so was Eve. So, it’s not wrong for us to have our needs met in a relationship. In fact, if one person always winds up getting what they want out of the relationship, eventually the other person is going to feel disappointed, left out, hurt, resentful. So it has to work for everybody for it to work for anybody. And then finally, mutuality means to accept each other’s weaknesses.

Now, in infancy – way back in the very first sermon that we gave – we used the term mutuality to describe the relationship between mother and infant, didn’t we? But if you apply that word to this definition, it doesn’t fit, does it? Because mom brings all the resources to the relationship. Mom is the one who has to regulate all the needs. She’s meeting the needs of the baby, because the baby can’t meet its own. So how does that work? Well, it works because mom is committed to the infant’s well being. That’s how that works.

When I talked in the sermon on teenagers about how a lot of adults talk about all these things that teenagers have about them – they don’t know how to pay their own way, they don’t know how to show appreciation, blah, blah, blah – so a lot of adults, in working with kids, feel unfulfilled and unappreciated. And that’s because they’re not committed to their development and have not grown up. An adult job is to take care of, not be taken care of by someone younger. It’s the parents’ job to teach kids those things, by the way. Until they learn it, we need to be committed to them and take care of them. And as we get older, then it’s natural for us – if we’ve navigated all the other challenges of growing up – to start thinking about contributing, on a personal level, to our relationships with other people. Like Erickson said, we learn who and what we can take care of as adults.

So relationships, as we get older become more mutual and more contributing to the other. And emotionally healthy adults – adults who have not suffered developmental arrest along the way – take care of each other.

I ask the question: As a young adult, who takes care of us? Well, we take care of each other when we become young adults. None of us is completely capable of taking care of ourselves in every situation. We all need help. So part of our job, as an adult, is to take care of other adults, too. That’s what a mutual relationship means.

Let’s talk about the church now that we’ve understood what these terms mean and what these developmental drives and tasks are all about. Let’s take the concepts and terms we’ve learned and apply them to our experience at church. Let’s go to 2 Peter 1, verses 5 through 7 for a minute, if you would.

II Pet. 1:5-7 – Peter says, But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. Brotherly kindness we could call mutuality, couldn’t we. We have a brother and we’re kind to that person. We’re in a relationship with them that’s mutually beneficial. We’re giving and so are they. And that of love, we could call intimacy – where we have a relationship of mutuality with someone and we’re not trying to control them. We’re happy with them as they are.

We talked a few weeks ago about authenticity, too – the ability to talk to people openly about the things that are really important to us. And if the relationship is also intimate, then we can talk about those very real issues without fear of being manipulated or controlled or hurt by our divulgence of our personal feelings.

Let go to Romans 12, verse 10:

Rom. 12:10 – Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love. People in the West do not know how to be affectionate with each other. I think I mentioned this before, but there was a study done a number of years ago. They did it in coffee houses all around the world. They went into coffee houses and they counted – there’s a guy sitting there with a little clicker, and he sat there for one hour running a stop watch – and they counted the number of casual, social, physical contacts between one person and another in an hour’s time. Buenos Aires – 56. Paris , France – 57. A small town in Florida – 2. Coffee shop in Hayes , Kansas – 3. So is it any wonder that the rest of the world thinks that Americans and British people are cold stones? Compared to them, we are! We think it’s normal. They think it’s weird. Paul didn’t grow up in the United States , so I think if he came to a small town in Florida , he’d think it was weird, too. He talked about the holy kiss. And he talked about the brethren falling on his neck and hugging him when he left. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love in honor, giving preference to one another – not trying to make people over into the way we are and how we think, but in just honoring people by allowing them to be the way they are and to love them as they are – not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer, distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. So, who’s going to take care of people in the twenty-two to thirty-four age bracket – and for that matter, all other adults? Well, we’re going to take care of each other if we’re converted – if we know how to be mutual with somebody and intimate. Now are we like this as a group of people? And I’m not just talking about the group of people I’m looking at today. I’m talking about all of us in the COG church at large.

How are we as a people? Do we even know each other well enough to pray effectively for one another? Are we really a close group? Or do we barely know one another?

One area that just stands out to me glaringly is the area of doctrine. I think that we have really – in our seventh day/holy day observing group of people – have really dropped the ball. Now, I don’t mean that we’re weak in doctrine. I mean that we focus on it to the exclusion of what’s really important. And you might say, “Well, it’s important to do what God tells us and to believe the truth.” Well, of course it is! Absolutely it is! But look at us. Look at how old we are. Most of us have gray hair. Do we not yet know what we believe? Of course we do! There aren’t any of us here that don’t know what we believe. So a comment like that really misses the entire point of what I’m trying to get across. I know what I believe. And I believe you know what you believe. So, why would I feel compelled to try to change your mind – unless I’m not the kind of person that can be intimate – unless I’m some kind of controller that has to make everybody over to be just like me? We need to be free to be ourselves without being molded or changed by the relationship.

In all this business of “I’m right and you have to be like me,” there’s one word that you can put to that – sickness . It’s pathological. People that have that bent cannot have healthy relationships with other people. And that really goes back to what we always want to point out. It’s impossible to live godly when we are emotionally unhealthy, because all the commands of God and all the expectations of God are good for us – and healthy for us. Wouldn’t it just be a lot more spiritually healthy and pleasing to God if we were all happy to follow what we know is right? And let other people do the same thing as well so that we can be closer and more connected, instead of sundering ourselves across the landscape?

We have the same Bible that teaches one right way, and yet we have thousands of divergences about what it says among ourselves? Do you know what that means? That means that thousands of us – maybe all of us – are going to be told we were wrong on this or that point when Christ returns. Are you willing to break relationships for that? Well, if you are, that’s sick and that’s foolish. That’s what it is. We really need to hang our heads in shame.

I will tell you this. If we would begin to act like emotionally and spiritually mature adults, our children would be the huge benefactors from it. And as it is, they have been spiritually decimated by our immature, childish, pathologically controlling desire to be right and to impose it on other people. Children and teenagers need a safe, stable, spiritual environment where they can have peer and adult relationships. And, as we split and divide and scatter, we are tearing at their spiritual underpinnings.

What can we do about that? What can we do? I’ve despaired a lot about this in the last ten years. I know that I have never changed a controller into somebody who learned how to connect to other people and to let go of that. And I know that when I’m around them, they make my life miserable as they try to suppress my spirituality. So, what can be done? Well, I think that there is something. I think there is.

At LifeResource Ministries we are going to talk about spiritual balance. We’re going to talk about spiritual and congregational health. We’re going to talk about focusing on the purpose for our creation, which is loving relationships. And we’re going to plow right down the middle with that as best we can. And you know what’s going to happen as a result of that? People, who value those things will be attracted to it, and people who don’t will be repelled. The unhealthy people will be repelled by that. Spirituality repels those who are spiritually unhealthy. And so a community of believers, who value relationships, mutuality, friendship, humility, peace, love, will have a source for resources and support. I don’t mean that we’ll be the only ones. There are lots of them out there already. But I hope to join that group of people that believe that way. I’m attracted by their spiritual health. And I don’t mean that we’ll become a group, because I’m not trying to start one, but I’m hoping we can become more of one in spirit. So that’s the thing that I think I can do to help heal the wounds of division that so many of us have suffered for so long.

Those who are in that twenty-two to thirty-four age – young adults – group have a huge part to play in that. You have the opportunity to look around you and see the spiritual carnage that’s resulted from the way my generation has done church. And you can say, “Enough of this!” You can begin reaching out to other people your own age. And you can start building those mutual intimate relationships, where people don’t have to believe just like you believe.

I was talking to a sixteen-year-old the other day and I was lamenting that she was – I thought – isolated, because her church is fractured and split. And she said to me, “I have friends all around the country that I talk to on Internet chat who don’t really care what church I’m in.” Way ahead of a lot of us, who think we are so great because we have uncovered some little doctrinal thing, and we’re willing to argue with somebody else and quibble about words. Way ahead!

People in this age group can begin to reach out to other people their own age. And they can build those relationships, as God instructs us to do, and thereby take a healthier church into the future. And you can do that so that your children won’t have to suffer as you have because of our weakness.