Giant tree on a green hillside with the sun shining through the branchesSpiritual & Natural Development

Thirty-five to Sixty

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 ninth of the series Spiritual Growth and Human Development and learn about the stage of human development, from 35-65 years of age, and the corresponding spiritual piece.

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Today we’re continuing our series on Spiritual Growth and Human Development. This is the ninth message of the series. The developmental stage we’re going to look at today is middle adulthood, which is thirty-four through sixty. The question we ask, as we come to each new stage is, “What are we to learn about God naturally at this stage of our development?” So that’s what we’re going to be talking about.

What’s the point of this entire series? Well, it’s to help us all, at whatever age we’re at, to connect more effectively with God, to make our life a better life, to please God, to use our lives to better serve God and others, to make our families stronger, to make our congregations stronger, to make our relationships with each other stronger.

We’ll continue to use the framework we’ve used throughout this series. First, we’re going to take a look at the developmental tasks of the stage, and then we will look at the developmental crisis that happens when people are not able to meet the developmental tasks.

We generally think of childhood as a time of great change, and it is . But so is adulthood. We generally don’t think about that. But we’re always learning, changing and growing. So what are the developmental tasks of people between thirty-four and sixty? Well, the first one we want to look at is managing a career . Everybody in this age has to manage a career after a fashion. And there are certain things that happen in our careers that are important. One of those is interpersonal relationships .

I had a really interesting experience last week. We went to the CEM Family Retreat in Arkansas and we met many people we had never met before. And all of them seemed to be excited about God and about learning more about how to live to please God. I’m not used to seeing such fire in a group of people. It was interesting to see them very excited for us and what we’re trying to do, because we’re getting fired up, too, and seeing the vision of what can happen for the church. Our new career is all tied up with all these people, because they’re the very ones we want to serve and help. We met children. We met teens. And we met adults – some younger and some older. Very, very nice to see that. So I’m fifty-nine. I’m still in this category for a little while longer. And I find in managing my new career that I’m very tied to interpersonal relationships. We all have to learn to get along with others in our work life.

The second thing is managing authority relationships . And of course, I’m at the end of this developmental stage, and everything seems to be happening to me late, it looks like. And I’m sure some would say that I’ve failed this one, since I recently left a church to start LifeResource Ministries. But I see it as just one step in the process of management. I always wanted to do this and I finally have a way to do. It’s interesting that I’m finding out that even there – even though we have this ministry and we’re our own nonprofit now – I still have to submit myself to other people. But everybody has to learn how to manage relationships with people who are over them in authority. So that’s a big issue that adults talk about a lot all the time. In my private counseling practice, that’s one of the big things that comes up – “I like my job, but I hate by my boss.” You know, I can’t get along with him – the boss that’s Hitler’s cousin – that sort of thing. It seems like it’s never-ending. The authority issues at school are huge. It seems like people always have trouble with that.

Another one is meeting new skill demands . The world is a constantly changing place, and we always have to learn new skills to remain viable at work. We never can stop learning. There isn’t a time when we get out of college and now we know what to do, and that’s all we ever have to learn. Very important in this age to stay viable skillwise. We’ve had to learn how to start a nonprofit, which is a record-setting amount of hoop jumping. We’ve had to learn how to produce mass mailings and how to make CDs and how to manage a Website. And we’ve had to upgrade our computer skills and equipment. I’m also, right now, going into a new phase in my counseling training, where I’m going to be learning more about family therapy. I’m having to learn all over again how to relate to teenagers, because I let that slide from my life for awhile. I know that the things that I’m going through here, in talking about, are so much a part of the lives of people my age. We’re always having to learn more and upgrade more and do more to stay viable, because things change. It didn’t use to be that way so much in our society. When my grandfather was alive, he learned how to farm and that’s all he did for the rest of his life. There was no artificial fertilizer. Nobody probably learned much about farming in his lifetime. It was always the same. But now it’s different. Now you have to go to college to be a farmer. There’s always new stuff coming out. You have to be a college graduate to try to figure out how to drive the combine, because it’s computer operated.

Midlife career changes. More and more, people are doing this. Some people see it as a trial and others as a new growth experience. Very much a part of what’s going on with people today. Sometimes people change careers two and three and four times during a lifetime because of changing situations.

Let’s see…my brother-in-law. He was a minister. And then he started a heavy equipment company, where first he was building sub-divisions and putting in streets and sewers and things like that. Then he started doing work for the telephone company. And finally he got into fiber optics, and then eventually, building cellular telephone towers. And each of one of those is a whole different kind of business. He had to learn all that stuff over the course of his life – his career. So, a lot of changes going on in the world today for people. And all of that takes a lot of energy and lot of effort.

Another thing that we think about when we talk about managing our career, is work and family life. All of these things are sort of a juggling act. And this one is too. We have to make the best use of our limited time to produce results across a number of areas of life. There’s way too much to do and way too little time to do it. Family is important and it also takes income to support a family. And both of them take time. So how do you make all that work together?

I was reading on the Dads and Daughters Website. It had a quiz for dads so they could evaluate their relationship with their daughters. There was a section for fathers who don’t live with their daughters. One of the questions was, Do you initiate contact with your daughter five times a week? You got maximum points if you could answer yes to that question. So that takes time. It takes love. Children, generally, will not initiate. So that’s the parents job to do that. And we all have to figure out how to do that and work in the world.

I remember, a long time ago, reading Lee Iacoccas’s autobiography. It mentioned in there that he called his daughter every day while he was at work – his adult daughter. He just made a practice of staying in contact with her. And I thought, “Wow! If the president of Chrysler could do that, I ought to be able to do that as well.”

So that’s another thing. How do you juggle work and family life? Our kids need us, and yet we need to be able to buy them the things that they need. We have to feed them – take care of them.

The second major area that people in this area are concerned with is the nurturance of the marriage relationship . What is a successful marriage? I read you what love was last time, according to the developmental social psychologists. So I thought I would read you their definition of a successful marriage. According to them, “a successful marriage is a relationship in which there is a strong commitment to an enduring marital dyad” – I bet alacrity is in here somewhere, too – “in which each person experiences increases in fulfillment and satisfaction. There is a strong emphasis on developing an effective strong interpersonal relationship and on establishing and maintaining an open communication system, the ability to give and receive affection in an unconditional way, to accept the full range of feelings toward each other – both elation and anger – to appreciate common interests and differences, to accept and affirm each other’s uniqueness, to see the other as having equal status in the relationship.” Those are the components, they say, to making a successful marriage.

The nurturing of a marriage is comprised of several things. The first one we’ll talk about is a commitment to grow, both as individuals and as a couple. When people try to limit the other, so as to control them, or keep them the way they are, that’s hurtful to us, because we’re all hard-wired to grow and to develop. When somebody is always trying to stifle us, or make us be the way they want them to be, or control us, then that’s hard for us to fit well together. God has made us so that we want to grow, so that we’ll fit into His eternally dynamic, growing family. And when we try to stifle that in other people, it ruins relationships.

I had a lady come to me this last week. She started a very successful business. She used to work for the university and she quit that and started this business. And she now has contracts for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work. And it’s she and her son, whom she hired to work with her. And they just subcontract all this work to other people. They first came to me months ago because they were having trouble – mother/son relationship stuff – and then they quit because they thought they had it resolved. Well, she came back this time and she told me this time that he has slowly undermined her control over the business, and in essence, has taken over everything. She doesn’t have any say-so in any aspect of how the business works. And he won’t let her do anything important in the business that she created and is really run on her credit rating. She said over the weekend that her husband wanted to go to a car show. And she agreed to go. She hates car shows, but she wanted to spend time with him. (Are we starting to see a picture here about this person?) She agreed to go with him, because she wanted to spend time with him and keep peace in the family – since he wasn’t willing to do what she would rather have done. She said that when they all go out for fast food, the husband wants to go to one place, and the son wants to go to another, and the son’s girlfriend wants to go to another. So she doesn’t even chip in, because three arguing about where to eat is enough. So she never gets to pick where she gets to go. So she was rushing around, trying to get ready to go with them – mopping the kitchen floor early in the morning – and she opened the refrigerator and a number of items fell out on the floor and made a big mess. And her daughter came in and found her sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor crying. And she wanted to know if I thought she was depressed.

You just see so much of this – women and girls bending themselves to the will of these controlling males’ influences – her son, her husband. A good man tries to help his wife be all she can be. And a good woman helps her husband, as well, to accomplish these things.

This is a Godly attribute that we’re trying to learn at this stage of our lives. We’re trying to learn how to nurture our marriages so that we can all be the best we can be. And who else is doing that with us? That’s right. God. He is up there doing His best to promote our growth. And in marriage we have a chance to be like Him in that way.

The second area, of effort toward marriage, is effective communication . We talked recently, in this series – or during this series – about authenticity – the ability to talk about important issues, rather than hiding our hurts and our feelings from each other. People who defend themselves by holding all that stuff in usually fail in marriage at some point. Sometimes it takes a long time. We have to learn how to be open, to show who we are and do it in a way that can be heard and accepted by our mate. And that is no mean feat. That’s very much a part of a happy marriage – learning how to talk to each other, and to show what’s really going on inside, and to be open and honest about our feelings.

Another thing that they mention in the definition there is the creative use of conflict . Conflict is going to be a part of any intimate relationship where people feel free and equal. And that is the definition of intimacy – where people can feel free and equal. If people know how to use conflict, then problems become connecting points instead of problems. You take the problem – you take the conflict – and when the conflicts are talked out, then they tend to resolve. And the result to that is usually more closeness, more respect and more understanding for the other person.

Some people don’t know how to resolve them. They just try to go past them. And a lot of times, when that happens, everything normalizes again. You can’t stay mad forever. Everybody calms down. But when conflicts are passed over like this, without processing them and talking them out, then they kind of remain like a small stone in our shoe. And after enough of them accumulate, going on becomes impossible. You can’t walk because of the pain. So those conflicts are going to make us or break us. If we know how to take conflict and resolve it by being open and working our way through them – being honest with each other – then they make us closer. But if we just try to get past it and stuff it – you know, think, “Well, she’ll get over it,” or “He’ll get over it,” – “They won’t stay made forever” – then eventually they accumulate and resentment builds up and they tend to kill the relationship.

Did I tell you about the man and woman that came in a few months ago? They were arguing about how much money they should spend on their kids’ education. They hadn’t planned for it and now the wife was feeling like they needed to do more, and he was feeling like they needed to learn to fend for themselves. And they’d been having this discussion for five years without resolving it. They’re relational styles were to just…at the first sign of anger or hostility, they would just withdraw. So there would be two people that were mad with hurt feelings. They had so many stones in their shoes they couldn’t wear them anymore. And they were ready to throw in the towel on their relationship. They were ready to bag it. So, we started working our way through those problems one by one. And I taught them a way to communicate with each other called empathic listening . And I gave them homework assignments to go home and work on that stuff. In about ten weeks – I mean, they had a lot of junk piled up from years gone by – when they finally got through all of that, guess what? Love came back to them. They got all that junk cleared away and they started feeling good about each other again. And it was so nice to see that. We just can’t break the rules. We have to work those things out – the creative use of conflict.

I remember one other thing I want to say about conflict. When one person gets upset with another in a marriage, and won’t tell them why their upset, that tends to anger the person who doesn’t know what they’ve done wrong and it also erodes their confidence in their ability to connect. That just takes it down faster. It’s very important to be able to talk about our feelings in marriage.

The third thing we want to talk about in this stage of life is expanding caring relationships . Middle adults – people between thirty-four and sixty – have lots of opportunities to take care of and help other people. And the question for most of us is, “Will we?” and “How will we?”

I was talking to a man recently, who is married, but doesn’t have any children – he’s an older man. He’s past this stage, actually. And he was telling me about a very young daughter of friends of theirs. I think she’s three years old or so. He was telling me about how much fun he’s having with her at church services and other functions. And listening to him talk, it’s obvious that she’s taken a fancy to him. And as I saw his eyes sparkling, I realized that he’s taken a fancy to her, too. I was just watching his animated manner and thinking about how good they were for each other. Yet, so many of us, as adults, we simply pass by the children of other people without a thought. So, sometimes I think we don’t even ask the question, “Who will we help and how will we do it?” Those of us in middle adulthood are equipped to learn about caring relationships – the ones where we are the givers. And that is very high-level spiritual activity.

Let’s go to II Peter 1. This is a familiar scripture for some reason.

II Pet. 1:5 – But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge self-control, and to self-control perseverance, and to perseverance godliness, and to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. By the time we’re sixty – and even younger than that in this stage – we should have had a lot of time to work on these things. We’re supposed to be equipped to do that. That’s a developmental task for people my age. We’re supposed to learn how to take care of other people. And if we don’t, we are going to run into a crisis. It says, in verse 8:

V- 8 – For if these things are yours and abound, you will neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ loved children. So we need to become fruitful in the things of Jesus Christ. So loving children would be one of those things, wouldn’t it? So this is the time of our life when it’s easy for us to learn how to love as Christ loved – not so easy when we’re a teenager or when we’re three, but much easier at this age for us to learn these things.

One of the most challenging and growth-inducing experiences for us is parenting. And that is a caring relationship. At each stage of a child’s development, the skills and approaches parents need to use to help their kids change. And they change without us knowing about it. We’re still thinking they’re back here, and they’ve moved on without us, and now what we’re doing doesn’t work. And so we have to figure out another way to deal with them that’s going to be helpful for them. And the kids react to it negatively, but they don’t know why. And we don’t either. So it becomes very challenging. To make it even worse, each kid is different and needs different treatment than other children that are at the same stage. So it’s very, very complicated. On one hand, parents must allow enough freedom so that children and teens can learn how to exercise judgment. And on the other hand, they must be ready to give support when children fail to meet their expectations or show poor judgment. Parents must maintain a degree of authority about standards for their children and teenagers. And they have to balance freedom, support and limit-setting in a constantly changing situation so that their children can become increasingly independent while still finding the support and reassurance that they need from their family. Kids stretch parents.

I can remember, after my last child left for college, wondering if I knew anything about parenting. And I remember a friend telling me that he started out with no kids and five theories about parenting. And later he had five kids and no theories. They shot them all down. So, very challenging – one of the hardest things that people have to experience in this stage of life – and yet of the most beneficial for us, too – to have to learn to stretch that way, and flex, and go with the flow, and figure them out, and learn what they need, and how to help them.

The other thing that affects people in this age group a lot is the need to care of aging parents. My parents were old enough to be my grandparents, so this came to me while I was just getting into this stage. I think I was thirty-five when my father died. He was first. And I think it’s probably been the most traumatic part of my life to date, actually. They were old. They were sick and incapacitated. And they lived a long way from me and my brother. So there was no one in the end to care for them. So it was very difficult. They planned very well for their financial support in old age, but they completely failed to take into account their need for family support as their physical capacities diminished. And so did my brother and I. And I still have a lot of guilt about that. If there was a part of my life I could do over again, that would be one of them. And people have said, “Yeah, but you had a job, and you had to live somewhere.” No, I didn’t have to live there. And I didn’t have to have that job. I don’t have it now. If we’d have just been a little more alert, we could have done better. But that’s one of the things you have to learn as you go, I guess.

It’s interesting that the research in this area shows that when parents don’t need or want support in old age from their kids, their relationships with their kids are usually better. You can think about the aged parent moving in with the children, who have kids themselves, and who are burdened with time constraints. So my parents were independent. They didn’t want to be a burden on us, but they were in the end. They couldn’t help it. What they didn’t want happened to them.

We want to be independent and not be a drag on our kids as we get older. And our kids are pressured by careers and parenting. They don’t need the stress either. And still, that said, God tells us that we’re to honor our parents if we want to live a long life. That’s something that’s first order priority stuff. We have to take care of them. We’re responsible for them. We need to show them honor all their life – a very important thing. And I see people, now in their fifties and sixties that I know, who are just coming to that time in their life where they’re having to face diminished capacities on the part of their parents.

I remember one time, going to a Social Security office to find out how I could get my mother enrolled in a care facility, and there seemed to be no way. And I asked the lady, “Well, what do other people do when they get in this situation?” And she said – and she wasn’t being sarcastic – she was trying to help me – she said, “They struggle with it.” And just knowing that I was not alone in that was somewhat helpful to me. It’s something that’s just a part of life sometimes that we have to deal with.

The fourth thing that people this age deal with is the issue of managing a household. And I’m not going to say much about this, because it is so mundane as related to spirituality. But, thinking about it, I’ve met a number of people over the years who were so weak in this area, and they were so chaotic, that it actually did impinge on and diminish their spirituality. In one case, the house was so confused, the roles of helpers were so blurred, they couldn’t get to church! They couldn’t have people over. They couldn’t find things when they needed it. All the work was piled on one family member and that increased her stress, and stress on the family. That’s what happens when you run into a developmental failure at this developmental stage. They were not able to manage the household. And all the literature says that that’s a developmental crisis. That’s something we all have to learn how to do.

Okay, well those are the things that people my age are generally processing and working on. We’ve left some things out – there were about a hundred pages in the book that talked a lot more about those things than I had time to talk about – but we got a general picture.

Now let’s move on, as we always do, to the developmental crisis. The developmental crisis is between the two poles of what they call generativity and stagnation . What is generativity ? Generativity comes from generate, which means to bring into existence. So generativity encompasses proactivity, productivity and creativity. It’s a commitment to the betterment of future generations. It’s making the world, the home, the family, the church a better place. People in my age group have to think about this. And they either produce or they become stagnant. You find middle adults. They may be trying to make their work more productive, or they may be trying to be more helpful. They want to make a difference. We’ve noticed a large number of people on our mailing list are very generous with us. And we believe that they want to help make a difference in the church, and so they’re contributing to this effort that we’re involved in – to try to help the church pass on its values to the next generation.

We could really see this at the Family Retreat. There were many people there, interestingly enough, who attended who did not have families – just there to be supportive – to try to make a difference, to help out, to fill the chairs, and to talk to people and to fellowship.

You may find people in this category trying to rebuild relationships with adult children that didn’t go so well early on, but are now trying to be generative – to generate something. We’re trying to be proactive in our efforts with our adult children and to be creative in how we approach them. People in this category you’ll find working at rejuvenating frazzled marriages. The kids may be gone by now and now there’s more time to focus on each other, and to try to make up for lost time in that area. We may be trying to add to, or enhance, the environment of our congregation. All of these tendencies…they all look outward, don’t they – away from self. And it’s so interesting that God provides us a spiritual gift so that we can use that to fulfill that desire that we have in us at this age to do something for other people – to make things better. He’s hard-wired us, so we want to make a difference. And then He gives us the spiritual power to do that in the church. Isn’t that great? How He’s done that?

Okay, the other side of that is stagnation – a lack of psychological movement or growth, rather than an outward focus – toward helping and building up and being proactive – the focus goes inward. And it becomes about what we can get or acquire – energy spent on maintaining rather than being creative.

I have a friend who works for a company, and as he gets older, he has become increasingly tied to that company. He believes his retirement security hinges on being a part of it. And so much so that he’s had to compromise his values to remain in this company that he thinks that he has to have. And guess what? He’s getting depressed. He’s not producing as he once did. The compliance he has to exhibit doesn’t suit him, but he can’t seem to break the spell. And so he’s stagnating, because he’s not being proactive about his own life. Now we can’t expect other people to be proactive about our lives, can we? It’s our life. We have to live it. So it’s nobody’s fault but his own. And I think he knows that. And I think that’s why he’s tending to be a little depressed.

So, okay. Those are the two poles. We’re either going to be generative and try to make things better – try to fix the mistakes we made in the past, try to better others, try to help, try to help our children, try to help our church, be productive at work – make a difference wherever we go…. And what’s the process by which we avoid stagnation and go this way? Well, the book calls it “personal environmental interaction and creativity” – so, to interact proactively with our environment and to use our creativity to solve problems and move forward.

If we’re at odds with somebody at work or at church, we can go to those people and work for resolution. If we have friends that we’ve offended, we can go and talk to them. If we’re estranged from our children, we can initiate contact and express care for them. And we can do it consistently over time until it starts to make an impact. If we think the church needs to focus more on loving relationships, we can talk to people about it and express love to them. There’s always something that can be done. If we’re worried about someone we love, we can pray for them and we can try to draw close to them and support them. If we know our attention will help somebody, we can give it to them. If we hold controversial opinions about issues that are not central to the faith, we can withhold expressing those opinions to promote peace and unity, rather than narcissistically imposing ourselves on other people. There’s just so much good stuff we can do to make a difference, if we will.

I think, in our culture, we think everything good has to be started by some kind of organization or program. That simply is not true! You make a difference by interacting with people one at a time . That’s how it happens.

I was talking with Ron Dart at the CEM Family Retreat last week, and I said, “You know, looking at all this gray hair in the church, I wonder if the focus of LifeResource Ministries – which is to help people pass on the faith to the next generation – hasn’t come along too late.” And he told me, rather, that it was coming along in a knick of time. And so this positive reassurance he gave me reminded me that we only have to do the good things that God places in our reach each day – nothing more. All we have to do is the good that we can do right now. And then He is going to take care of the rest. Isn’t that just the most comforting, greatest thing? We don’t have to manage the universe. We don’t have to solve all the problems. All we have to do is be nice to the people that are looking at us, and be supportive and be helpful, and try to help them, and do the things that God puts before us. And He’s going to take care of all the problems. He’s going to help the people more than we can. He’s going to make things go the way He wants. And that’s always good for God’s people.

And it’s also good to know – and I’ll just say this in closing – that God has not only hard-wired us as adults for generativity, but He has provided a generative spirit to provide the power we need to do His will.