It occurs to me that just as our bodies and minds develop over time–just as we grow physically, mature emotionally and educate ourselves intellectually–so also our faith passes through a series of stages as we age.
I realize I’m painting here with a broad brush, whether I’m talking about physical and intellectual progress or the journey of faith. Not everyone hits puberty at the same age. Not everyone attains the same level of formal education. And sometimes when we’re in one stage, we fall back to a previous one. In middle age we may regress to adolescence (a mid-life crisis) or we may suffer a job loss that sends us back to college.
The same is true of faith. We may not all experience each of the following stages, or at least not experience them at the same chronological age. Or we may bounce back and forth between stages. All that said up front, here’s what I see about faith:
1) Childhood faith. As children, we’re naturally inclined to believe. If we’re fortunate enough to have parents who take us to Sunday school and teach us about God at home, we accept as truth whatever we’re told. It’s a simple, sweet faith, largely uncritical. But then, as kids, we also believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
2) Adolescent faith. In our teens, as we struggle to decide who we are apart from our parents, we question everything we’ve previously learned about God. We rebel. We pull away. Many adolescents openly doubt God and the tenets of their church. They quit going to services. They experiment with other religions.
3) Early adulthood. Young adults tend not to argue with God so much as ignore him. We’re busy finishing graduate school, establishing a career, getting married, having children. We’re still young enough to think we’re invincible and destined for greatness. We’re not rebelling; we simply find God more-or-less irrelevant.
4) Middle age. We may find ourselves more settled, socially and financially. Yet we also realize how limited we are. We discover we’re never going to become president of the corporation. Our children leave home. We endure a divorce. We experience weak backs and deteriorating knees. Many middle-aged people find that the externals they thought were so important–work, houses, even children–don’t sustain them spiritually. They turn again toward God, looking for transcendent answers, for help for their souls.
5) Latter years. These often are portrayed as the golden years. The reality can be different. As retired people, we may feel cut off from our former lives. We’re confronted with debilitating health problems. Our money is limited. We realize we’re going to die. Many older people, I think, find God is now their sole (and soul) comfort. Our faith deepens, yet it’s a much wiser faith than that of our childhood. It’s tempered, refined. The older people I encounter tend to be among the least judgmental people I know.
These stages aren’t, of themselves, good or bad. They just are. They’re natural. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a teenager. There are advantages and disadvantages to being middle-aged.
Maybe we’d do well to recognize where we are on this continuum, accept it for what it is, and trust that, ultimately, the Lord will always guide us safely back to him.