Youth is something of an obsession in Western societies; even within the church there seems to be a disproportionate amount of effort focused on young people. But, while engaging the next generation is obviously of immense importance to the sustainability of the body of Christ, this obsession with youth does not take account of how God works in our lives.
Our God is one of transformation. Indeed, in following Christ, it is impossible to escape the fact that the whole idea of transformation is foundational to our faith and the concept of redemption. In the Bible, God tells us that we are at this moment being transformed into the very image of Jesus; that as we die to sin with Christ, our entire nature is being transformed. For example, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, the Apostle Paul writes, ‘We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Notice that Paul talks about this process of transformation as being one of ever-increasing glory. While many of us may be able to pin point the exact moment of our conversion, the reality is that this is only the beginning of a process of transformation that takes places by degrees, as day by day, year by year we are transformed inwardly over a lifetime, gradually taking on the nature of Christ.
In Romans, Paul writes, ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Rom. 12:2). The Greek word used for this renewing is anakainosis which refers to a gradual process of renewal and in 2 Corinthians 4:16 we are told that, ‘Inwardly we are being renewed day by day.’
Sanctification takes time. It is a process that requires us to be in the world but not of the world; to exist day to day as part of fallen humanity but to become progressively more holy, to increasingly live our lives in contact with, and in obedience to, God. We need to have lived a certain amount of life in order to achieve this renewal.
Since the dawn of time, mankind has nurtured the idea that each of us has a potential spiritual journey, and the concept of development passages or stages on the journey of spiritual growth appears in many world religions. While the Bible does not overtly talk about the different stages of faith, scripture does point to the fact that as Christians we need our faith to mature. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul exhorted young Christians to reach ‘unity in faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the full measure of Christ.’ At which point he says they will ‘no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves’. (Eph.4: 13- 14) It is only when we reach maturity of faith that we can attain the fullness of relationship with Christ that God intends.
Stages of Faith
It was the Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung who popularized the phrase ‘the two halves of life’ but many of the world religions recognize that perhaps our most profound connection to, and deepest relationship with, God develops after the middle years of our life.
For much of the first half of our lives, we are preoccupied with the business of living; carving out our place in the world, finding our ‘tribes’, laying down boundary lines and trying to then secure them –– in our work, love, home and even church life. And it is often not until the second half of life that we truly recognize that our hunger and need for meaning cannot be satisfied by the things of this world. This does not mean that we don’t have a faith life before this point, or that we don’t have a relationship with God, but it is an indicator that we need to have lived a certain amount of life, and to have made some mistakes, before we are equipped to really begin to grapple with the most profound questions of meaning.
The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls this our ‘second naiveté’, and those who have reached this stage of life often display a mindset that is characterized by a greater willingness to embrace the paradoxes and mystery of faith; an ability to accept that his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways his ways –– that ‘as the heavens are higher than the earth’, so are his ways and thoughts are higher than ours’ (Is. 55:8-9).
When we reach this stage of our faith journey, we are better able to live with the paradox of an all loving God who also has created a universe in which suffering is all too manifest, and to accept the creative tension between a scientific and a faith based world view, between the concept of an absolute truth and a world in flux. And we are more able to inhabit a reality shaped by radical contradictions of Jesus’s great beatitudes – a reality in which the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted and those who mourn inherit the greatest blessings of God’s kingdom.
One of the great tragedies of Western cultures is the relentless focus on the morning of our lives, but this is a far from a universal phenomenon. The Korean, Indian and Greek cultures for example, all honour and venerate older family members. And within many churches, positions of spiritual guidance are still taken by ‘elders’.
In fact the failure to recognize the accumulated wisdom of the years seems profoundly counter intuitive from both a practical and spiritual perspective and the Bible teaches us to revere elders who have walked long with God. As Job so succinctly expressed it ‘Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?’ (Job 12:12).
Of course our churches need to focus on the faith of the young people; in fact the Bible repeatedly emphasises that we must ‘tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power and wonders he has done’ (Psalm 78:4). God lays the responsibility for the faith of the next generation firmly in the hands of those who have the necessary life experience and maturity, recognising the value and contribution of the depth of wisdom that comes with faith later in life. But it is only we embrace the value of our lived experience, that we will in turn be able to help the next generation to find their own maturity in faith.
Kate Nicholas is a best-selling Christian author, broadcaster and public speaker. Her books; memoir Sea Changed (shortlisted as Christian Biography of the Year 2017) and Sea Changed: A Companion Guide – Living a Transformed Life, are available at Christian bookstores and online at eden.co.uk and Amazon worldwide. Her forthcoming book Soul’s Scribe: Connecting Your Story with God’s Narrative will be on sale in October. For further information on Kate’s books, TBN series Living a Transformed Life and speaker events visit www.katenicholas.co.uk.