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Spiritual Adolescence:
Growing Up In God!
by Steve Highlander

The Church of Jesus Christ is in the midst of transformation.  Things are not what they were and they are not yet what they are going to be.  I can think of no better word to describe this than ADOLESCENCE.

Adolescence is a TEMPORARY period of dramatic change. It is about coming of age.  It is about that person growing up to become what he or she was destined to be in a physiological sense. We don't expect full grow adults to come out of the womb.  No mother says "I am expecting a teen." (Thank God they aren't born full grown for a number of reasons.) However, no mother expects her baby NOT to grow into a strong mature person. This said, the natural process requires a few years of growth and development.  Learning and education are part of the process; as is trial and error.  Muscles get stronger and the brain develops, increasing in comprehension. Skills are recognized or acquired and honed. This is a natural part of the process of becoming a healthy, mature, productive part of society.

The same thing occurs spiritually.  Even the same terms are used scripturally. Jesus said, "You must be born again." John 3:7  Peter said, "As newborn babies desire the sincere milk of the word that you may grow by it." I Peter 2:2 In another place Paul said, "strong meat (chewable food that needs to be digested) is for men of full age." Hebrews 5:14   Peter said, "Grow in the grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ." II Peter 3:18

Paul shares an important insight in I Corinthians 13:11: "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Unfortunately this verse often gets bogged down in the controversy of spiritual gifts and we miss the full impact of what he said. In a general sense Paul was saying, "As I grow up things change.  It was perfectly all right for me to act as a child when I was a child, but no longer is that acceptable behavior."  More on this verse in a little bit.

The Dynamics of Adolescence

Going back our theme of adolescence we want to apply this to our spiritual lives.   Adolescence is characterized by several key dynamics.  These dynamics translate directly into our spiritual lives as well:

1.      Its Universal: Everyone goes through adolescence.  You are not alone in the experience.

2.      Things Change: Things are not what they were and they are not what they are going to be.

3.      Transformation Takes Place: This may seem redundant to change, but things can change without being transformed.

4.      It's Temporary: Fortunately, as tough as adolescence can be, it is relatively short compared the overall life span

5.      It Involves an Identity Crisis: One of the most profound characteristics of adolescence is the developing of a personal identity; and that involves finding out whom and what you were meant to be.

6.      It is Greatly Impacted by Peer Pressure:  While peer pressure is not exclusively reserved to adolescence, it seems to be much more profound in the developing years, especially in relationship to the identity.

7.      The Process is not Generally Comprehended by Those Experiencing it.  It is generally hindsight that allows us to make sense of what really happened and put things into lifelong perspective.

Let's take a more in-depth look at these dynamics.

Adolescence is Universal

Everyone goes through adolescence.  it is a part of life, like potty training and learning to walk.  Spiritually, you too have gone through, are going through, or will go through a time of change and transformation.  Of course there can be change without transformation.  Some people never grow up. We all know a 60 year old hippy or a housewife that acts like child, throwing tantrums and demanding her own way. As the saying goes, getting old is mandatory, growing up is not.  The same is true spiritually.  There are 40 year old baby Christians sitting in pews today.  They haven't grown spiritually in years.

That is not to say that we each don't get the chance for spiritual transformation.  As I have already said, growing up is optional. God doesn't force any of us to mature. There are many reason people never grow spiritually.

Many people are never told they need to grow up.  They are handed a doctrinal statement, a service schedule, a tithe envelope and a short list of do's and don'ts and told that was the essence of church.

Others were told that it was all about salvation.  They got saved and are awaiting their trip to heaven.  To me, they much like the man in the parable of the talents (money).  Two men went and traded with their money and made a gain for the master.  The third was scared and hid his money, so he wouldn't lose it.  When the master reckoned with servants, he praised those that had made a gain with what they had been given.  But the man who hid his talent was so pleased he didn't lose it and that he was able to give it back.  However the master wasn't pleased. He called the servant wicked and slothful - not exactly what the guy had hoped for. Today I am afraid there are many Christians sitting in churches that have done absolutely nothing with what God has given them and they think He will be pleased because they didn't lose their salvation.  Salvation is just the beginning of real spirituality, not the whole thing.

Some don't want to grow.  They are self-satisfied and think they have it all already. Enough said.

The fact is that every Christian has the opportunity to mature; it is not an exclusive club.  Perhaps this article is your opportunity to recognize what God is trying to do in your life.

Things Change

Adolescence is a time of change; and change can be very bewildering.  There are not a lot of people who like change as a rule.  We are much more content with our comfort zones of sameness.

There is a time for this change physiologically and the time is not the same in each person.  There are "late bloomers."  To expect everyone to mature at the same rate, time or place is unreasonable.  This is important for two reasons. The first is that spiritual leaders need to have patience and not try to force growth.  The second is that we need to have some patience with ourselves.  Spiritual transformation is a work of the Holy Spirit, not self effort.  Many burn themselves out (and annoy the heck out f the rest of us) trying to produce spiritual maturity by self effort.  They end up being religious, critical, self-righteous and legalistic.

However, change must happen.  Paul said it best in I Corinthians 13.  He related there was a time he spoke as a child, understood as a child and thought as a child.  Once again there is a spiritual parallel.  When we mature spiritually these things change: the way we think, the way we understand and the way we talk.  Salvation is wonderful, but it is just the beginning.  There is the "sincere milk of the word," as Paul tells us, and most people still enjoy a fresh glass of cold milk from time to time.  But it is not enough to nourish a growing person. 

As we mature the focus of our Christianity begins to shift from us to God.  From what Jesus did for us to what we can do for Him.  Our understanding begins to change.  We begin to see God's bigger plan and our part in it.  We move from convert to disciple.  From saved to servant. Our issues take second place to God's issues.

Psalms 131:2 (KJV) says this: "Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child."

Here David relates spiritual growth to the weaning process.  In the weaning process the child goes through a  time of emotional discomfort that he does not understand.  The baby is not physically hurt nor deprived of food.  The turmoil has to do with his expectations and experience NEEDING to change so he can grow properly.

At first the mother holds the baby to her breast, and feeds him warm milk.  She cuddles and coos and speaks to him.  She rocks him and stokes him and loves on him.  There is a bonding that takes place.  Then one day mom sticks a bottle in his mouth.  HMMM, this is different, but okay.  Then comes the day mom doesn't hold the baby and feed him.  She lays him down and places a bottle in his mouth.  The baby screams.  Why? It’s because of confusion.  “Doesn't mom love me any more?  Where is the breast! Where is the warmth! Where is the attention and the cooing over me.  I DON'T LIKE THIS!  WAAAA!”  The process is repeated when the bottle is taken away.  Some children take a long time to get over needing a pacifier.

Spiritually speaking the weaning process takes place when God stops breast feeding us.  He may pull back in His presence for a time.  The special feelings we had when we got saved may begin to wane.  Prayer may not be as dynamic.  Bible reading becomes more of a chore.  WHAT IS HAPPENING?  DOESN'T GOD LOVE ME ANYMORE? WHY CAN'T THINGS BE LIKE THEY WERE?

Because God needs us to grow up! 

He wants us to learn to walk on our own; to stand strong even when we don't feel it.  God wants us to grow in faith.  Remember, faith is "evidence of things not seen."  Hebrews 11:1 

The weaning process never really hurts us, it matures us.  Unless, we give up and give in.  That is why it is so important to understand the process of weaning and the process of spiritual adolescence.  If we could see into the spirit realm, I think we would see a lot grown Christians walking around sucking on spiritual pacifiers, needing to be coddled by the ministry to feel loved and important.  They've never been weaned.  Unfortunately too many pastors believe it is their job to keep these babies on the bottle or at least keep shoving the pacifier in their mouth. Ministry today often perpetuates baby Christians.

If you expect to grow spiritually, things must change.  Get over it.

Transformation Take Place

As I said earlier, things can change without transformation taking place.  The most fundamental thing Jesus wants to do is transform us into His image.  In Romans 8:29 says, "For whom He foreknew, He also predestinated to be conformed to the image of His Son..."  The word 'conformed' in the Greek is SUMMORPHOS, which is made up of two words, one being MORPHOS, the word from which we get metamorphosis. This is transformation from one thing to another.  While a biologist may technically disagree with the use of the word metamorphosis to describe adolescence, the thought is there.

The concept of metamorphosis is that a creature undergoes a change.  A tadpole morphs into a frog.  A worm changes into a butterfly.  You can't say that it is a different creature, but things have differently changed. One form was preliminary to the other.  One is incomplete the other complete.  Once again these things can be likened to our spiritual journey.

The first miracle Jesus did was to transform water into wine.  It happened at a wedding (John 2). Sadly most people are still auguring if it was really wine or grape juice and have missed the entire point of the miracle.  For His first miracle He took the most common substance on the face of the earth and TRANSFORMED its very nature into the very best and rarest wine.  There are two important things to see here.  First we are told the water was being purified after the ceremonial tradition of the Jews.  The lesson is that legalistic ritual will never transform us.  The second thing is that Jesus transformed its very nature.  He didn't add a few packages of Kool Aide and flavor the water.  Too often people settle for a religious flavoring instead of a transformation of their essential nature.

"Don't be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind...."  Romans 12:2 Here we find the word 'transformed' in the Greek is METAMORPHOO, the exact word we get Metamorphosis from.

Paul often used contrasting words to make a point.  Here he used "conformed" and "transformed" to hammer the concept home.  Conformation is outward change brought about by applying pressure.  Like modeling clay can be conformed to various shapes by squeezing and pressing it.  That external pressure can change its shape, but it can't change its nature; it will always be clay.  Peer pressure often conforms us - for the good or bad; however it can never transform us.  Kids are often pressured to drink or try drugs or sex because of the peer pressure.  On the other hand positive peer pressure in a church setting can cause people to conform to religious standards externally, but it can never change their heart. This is why when a person gets away from church they often revert to pre-Christian behavior.  A heart transformation never took place. 

In an interesting passage of scripture Paul tells the Galatian Christians this, "My children, for whom I again travail until Christ should be formed in you...." Galatians 4:19  Here Paul uses the word MORPHOO that is translated 'FORMED'.  These Christians were saved, but Christ had not yet transformed them.  They were born again, but not mature.  Spiritually they were in a dangerous place.

Here then is the essential difference between religion and spirituality.  Religion starts on the outside and applies religious pressure to bring conformity.  It says, "do this and don't do that" and somehow the external discipline will soak inside and change us.  It simply doesn't work that way.

Spirituality on the other hand starts on the inside.  Jesus says, "Let me come into and change your heart."  That internal transformation will then begin to work its way out, changing the way we think, understand, talk and act.

Weaning is a time of spiritual and emotional growth, but adolescence is a time of transformation of thought and purpose.  We are made into the image of Christ during these times.  The cross is applied.  The flesh nature dies and new resurrection life begins to take its place.  Slowly, the way we think, act, speak and understand transforms as we wait on the Lord during these formative days of spiritual adolescence.  They will come, and if you live through them, you will become a man or woman of God. Understanding that you are in this time is vitally important to allowing the process to work in your life.

Transformation takes place during this time of spiritual adolescence.  Let it do its work.

Spiritual Adolescence is Temporary

Praise God - the good news!  Adolescence doesn't last forever.  You will get through it.  You will be changed if you don't give up.  It is a sad fact that suicide is the leading cause of death in teens.  They don't make it through this critical time.  Spiritual suicide is a reality too, as people often give up and quit; walking away from God because they don't understand two critical things. The time is temporary and there is a process that MUST take place.  The very purpose of this message is to help you (or someone you know) understand that things will not always stay the same. 

Even the cross had its end.  Jesus understood the process, though from a fleshly point of view He didn't particularly like it.  In the garden He prayed with great drops of blood streaming down His face, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from me...."  Hebrews tells us this about Jesus' attitude and admonishes us to have the same mind, "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." Hebrews 12:2

Jesus looked through the cross.  He looked beyond the cross.  He understood it was temporary.  We can do the same.  The times of cross bearing in our lives are always temporary, however afterward it yields to resurrection life.  it is a true saying: No death, no resurrection life. Could it be that the life we long for is waiting on the other side of the death to the flesh we try so hard to avoid?

I can not tell you how long your spiritual adolescence will last. I have a sneaking suspicion it lasts just long enough to get the job done. I also have a suspicion that we can shorten or prolong its duration by understanding the process, seeking the Lord and yielding to His purpose in our lives.  While we can not generate spiritual transformation in the flesh, we can certainly hinder it in the flesh.  It is imperative we understand and cooperate during the process, even if that simply means waiting patiently at times.

It Involves an Identity Crisis

Puberty is a physiological process. Adolescence includes puberty, but is more comprehensive.  Adolescence is a time of change from child to adult both physically and emotionally.  It is temporary and intermediate.  It doesn't last. This is why adolescence is so hard physically and spiritually. A young person going through adolescence is not what they were and they are not what they are going to be.  With one hand they are reluctant to let go of the childish things, yet they want to grasp adult things with their other hand.

I remember vividly the year I really understood there was no Easter Bunny.  My mother wanted to know if I still wanted her to hide the Easter eggs.  I said, "One more year."  The desire to hang on to childish things we enjoyed is universal.

One of the most significant issues of adolescence is the issue of identity.  It is a time when a young person is trying to define who they are and what they believe.  Often the beliefs, values and standards instilled by their parents are brought into question; and this includes God.  No longer can they just take things at face value. They must question to see if they believe these things for themselves.  Their parent's faith was good to a point.  But remember, God has no grandchildren - only sons and daughters.  Every person must come to the place where they believe for themselves, forming their own convictions and making their own commitments.

This is extremely important during spiritual adolescence.  The Christian begins to grow and mature and it is natural to look at things that have been accepted as the status quo and revaluate what they have been taught in some areas.  There are two dangers at this point.  One is to reject what they were taught outright just because they can.  The other is to question nothing and plod along spiritually without every testing the waters.  Remember, dynamic Christianity must reside in your heart, not your head.

Too often the growing Christian is met with scorn when questioning the status quo.  When difficult questions arise about some church practice or belief, they are told to get in line and just believe.  They're told not to rock the boat.  Of course not everything that pops into your spiritual head is automatically legitimate.  We need to honor our leaders and be careful about not chasing every wind of doctrine. People going through adolescence physically or spiritually need to be encouraged to trust the Lord to keep them in the truth.

Peer pressure plays a big role in adolescence.  I saw a cartoon once where the teenager comes out with spiked blue hair, a nose ring and baggy clothes.  The parents and teen argue and the teen says, "Why won't you just let me be an individual?"  The next scene shows the teen outside with his friends who all have spiked blue hair, nose rings and baggy clothes.  We tend want to be individuals, as long as we look like everyone else who wants to be individuals.

It is unfortunate that adolescents, adrift on the sea of change and looking for answers, seek advice from their peers who are in the same boat.  To those of us looking in from the outside, that doesn't sound like a good plan.  However that is what most people do. 

This issue of identity is critical.  Who am I?  What am I going to do with my life?  What do I believe about the world, God, politics and life in general? These are all issues that the adolescent grapples with.   Spiritual adolescence involves many of the same questions.  What does God want out of my life?  What is my spiritual purpose? Do I have a destiny?  What do I really believe?  Is my church right?  Is it time for a change?  These and other questions need answers because the pat answers we learned in Sunday school don't seem to be as real any more.  Remember, this is okay, because a person must move from believing something because they were told to, to believing something because they hold them as convictions.  God will take beliefs and transform then into convictions during this time.  Good ideas will never spur a person to greatness, but convictions will.  This is often the reason people fall away from God during their teens or early 20's.  Their beliefs never became convictions.

Discovering who you are in Christ is central to spiritual maturity. Our spiritual identities involve a number of things.  Our primary identity is as sons and daughters of God.  We also need to discover that we are "the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus." Often it is a struggle to come to the place where we believe that we are not right with God based on our own merits, nor are we righteous because we do or don't do certain things. Maturity balances this absolute sense freedom from performance based righteousness with the fact that God still desires us to live right and serve Him.

Another identity crisis arises when we try to apply the various concepts presented in scripture.  At various times the Bible identifies us as The Bride of Christ; the Body of Christ; soldiers; unprofitable servants; bond slaves; kings; priests, etc.  It is easy to see why many people end up getting a concept of one identity and structuring their entire Christian experience around it.  There are those who think that Christians just ought to rule and reign, and those that think we should just humbly serve.  The militant ones approach everything as a battle. The priestly bunch tends to want everything to be ritualistic.

So are you a bride or a soldier?  Someone wiser than me said, "You are a bride in army boots."  Each of the identities presented in the Bible is true and valid for every person.  The difficult part (and this is where adolescence comes in) is not just concentrating on one identity, but learning when to "put on" a certain identity.  Certainly there are times to serve and times to fight.  There are times to humble ourselves and times to stand and take our God given authority in the spiritual realm.  "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven..." Ecclesiastes 3:1

Our identity also includes our spiritual gifts, ministry gifts and calling.  The spiritually mature have wrestled through these issues and are comfortable in their own spiritual skin. Paul give us great piece of advice for those coming to this place of maturity, "For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith." (Romans 12:3) Paul did not say we were not to think highly of ourselves.  He said not to thinking more highly than we ought to.  Accurately assessing who and what we are in God is fundamental to maturity.  To accept that God made us something, without getting an ego about it is critical.  Every young ministry must deal with the fact that God is using them, but it really isn't about them.  Remembering that God once used a donkey to rebuke a prophet helps balance this out.

Spiritual adolescence is a time when all of these conflicting concepts start to work themselves out in us. The same two dangers exist here.  The one is to allow everyone around you to define who you are and the other is to do nothing and just plod along never discovering your divine purpose or destiny.

It is Greatly Impacted by Peer Pressure:

Since we've already discussed the effects of peer pressure in conjunction with the other issues I won't say much here.  I will repeat that peer pressure is external and molds us - either in negative or positive ways. However, that external pressure doesn't really change us on the inside. Peer pressure in a church setting has a tendency to force conformity to the ideas of the group producing a self righteousness and creating a spiritual facade without the power of the Spirit in the life.  Paul tells us these people have a form of Godliness but deny the power thereof (II Timothy 3:5).  It is interesting to note that the word "form" here is MORPHOSIS in the Greek. It is transposing the outside without changing the inside.

My wife and I got saved in a fundamental, independent Baptist Church that was pretty legalistic. The church did not believe women should wear pants at all.  While we were in that church my wife and I held the "conviction" that this was a standard of righteousness required by God.  When we left the church a few years later and got around others that seemed to have a realistic Christianity, but didn't think it was wrong for women to wear pants, our "convictions" changed.  So, did we experience genuine spiritual conviction, or religious peer pressure?  Convictions don't change so easily.

Be careful to balance respect for spiritual leaders and older Christians with a solid sense of defining your own convictions during the time of Spiritual adolescence.  Some growing Christians tend to act a lot like rebellious teenagers who don't want to hear anything their parents have to say.  The Bible tells us that stubbornness is as idolatry and rebellion as the sin of witchcraft (I Samuel 15:23).

Of course there is positive peer pressure in church.  Just remember that peer pressure can conform us, but it can not transform us.

The Process is not Generally Comprehended
by Those Experiencing it

It has been said, "Hindsight is 20-20."  Generally speaking those going through adolescence don't understand the process unless they are told AND comprehend it.  They usually don't do as well unless they cooperate with it and take some things in stride. 

One aspect of adolescence that appears tied to the identity crisis is the fact that every little issue seems life threatening.  Adolescents tend to over-emphasis small things and under-emphasis the important stuff.  For example, for some teens, getting pimple can cause their world to crumble for a day.  Breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend (the 4th one in as many months) can be devastating.  Never mind that the person probably won't meet their future spouse for some time.  In spiritual adolescence, single issues become defining, and sometimes, fellowship is broken over them. I find it interesting that those who think they are so spiritually mature are the ones who often divide the body over petty differences.  Paul's advice to the Ephesians seems appropriate for us during this time.  "...with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Ephesians 4:2-3

Another old saying is apropos here. "I can't see the forest for all the trees." In both physical and spiritual applications, many "kids" entering adolescence are not prepared for it.  The process and issues have never been explained.  They have no idea what to expect or understand that this is a temporary time and to be patient.

The very purpose of this message is to explain that process and the issues one will face as that grow to maturity in Christ.

Because the spiritual adolescent is left to wander in the dark he or she often struggles deeply in their faith and identity.  Some never make it through this time, remaining spiritual children; thinking as children, speaking as children and understanding as children.  Others fight the "War of Independence" and run off on their own without accountability or support.  They become the proverbial "Lone Rangers."

The good news is that God is faithful and He is a part of the whole process.  He leads and guides.  He knows exactly where you are going and how to get you there.  As your heavenly Father He has the wisdom to make spiritual adolescence what it is supposed to be: a temporary time of transition to spiritual maturity.  Don't make the mistake so many young people do.  Listen to your Heavenly Father closely.  Guard your heart. Allow God to take you from spiritual childhood, to spiritual maturity during this season in Church history.

A Special Note to the Spiritual Mature

We've already said the spiritual adolescence is universal.  However it is also important to note that, unlike regular adolescence, spiritual adolescence may occur more than once as God takes us through the process of maturing in different areas.  You may be leader in the church right now.  Perhaps you have walked with God for 50 years, yet you sense many of the things in this message apply to you.  Don't fight it.  We all have areas of maturity and areas where we need to grow.  Christian maturity does not happen overnight any more than a baby goes to college, gets married and finds a spouse in a few months.  Neither does God deal with everything in our lives at once.  Becoming like Jesus is a life-long process.

I truly believe that God is bringing a new reformation to the Church in the 21st century.  In this respect we are all adolescents in that we have not yet been where we are going.  In the truest sense we are not what we were, but we are not yet what we are going to be.  We are, as a world-wide Church, in adolescence. A time of transformation or metamorphosis as God prepares his end-time church for the task at hand. 

There are two pitfalls to avoid.  Once is to allow our pride to stubbornly insist that we are mature and know everything we need to know to serve God in the future.  The other is to cling to our present reality in terms of what we believe and how we do church.  From the time of the reformation in the 1500s God has moved to restore biblical truth and experience to the Church in waves. He did this one movement at a time.  By the second and third generation of a movement the doctrines and practices were often crystallized, but the vitality had been lost.  These 2nd and 3rd generation Christians began to cry to God for a fresh moving of His Spirit, and when they did, God started revealing the next step. Every generation of Christians have had to decide to either embrace what God was doing or resist it and remain with the previous revelation and experience. You and I, in our day, have the same choice.  The entire denominational system was formed by those who settled into a previous experience and refused to go on with God.

My prayer for you echoes the sentiments of Peter and Paul:

"But grow in the grace and in the knowledge
of the Lord Jesus Christ."
I Peter 3:18

"Let us go on to perfection, not laying
again a foundation....."
Hebrews 6:1

"That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine....But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ...."
Ephesians 4:14-15

Blessings on your journey to maturity.

Your eternal soul is the most precious thing you have.  If you need help contact us and someone from our ministry will be glad to answer your questions and talk with you about what is going on in your life.

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