Why Growing Up Is a Lifetime Project
by Michelle Van Loon | March 22 2023
In the 1965 classic rock anthem “My Generation,” the band The Who famously sang about hoping they’d die before they got old. Those lyrics claimed to be celebrating rising youth culture while warning listeners never to become calcified in the way in which they lived their lives—though they also seemed to serve as a soundtrack for rock stars who lived hard and died too young. But the song had an obvious message for all of us: Youth is a virtue. Aging is a curse.
A couple of generations ago, adolescence ended at 18 as older teens entered college, military service, or the workforce. Today, adolescence extends well into the mid-twenties,1 while the ages of those chalking off other markers of young adulthood, such as first-time marriage,2 have climbed to 30 for men and 28 for women. I’ve heard some older people—in other words, people of my boomer generation—lamenting these changes and the myriad of cultural reasons for these shifts. At the same time, quite a few of them believe hanging on to their youth is an achievable goal with just the right cocktail of meds, mindsets, and cosmetic procedures.
Youth has never been God’s goal for us—spiritual maturity is. The good news is that this kind of maturity is a lifelong project. Though it can be adjacent to physical aging, the two are not the same. You can be advanced in years and immature in soul.
Psychologist Eric Janozzo defines it like this: “Maturity is the behavioral expression of emotional health and wisdom. It is the capacity to know one’s own emotional experience, to be oriented by this experience to some aspect of the truth, to place this truth within the context of other truths, and finally to act in accordance with one’s values.”3 It’s an emotional and a mental process of getting to know ourselves and the world and people around us. But there’s another aspect to consider.
Just as physical and emotional growth have identifiable developmental stages, so does the process of spiritual maturity. James Fowler’s landmark 1981 book titled Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning highlighted distinct movements in our lives that can grow us from finding security in religious rules-following to discovering ourselves at a crossroads of belief, often at midlife. On the other side of that crisis, spiritual growth can continue with fresh purpose, as we move toward generous, generative love as an expression of our deepened faith.
One big takeaway from Fowler’s study, as well as the body of work that’s been built on his foundation since then, is that spiritual maturity isn’t a destination, but an ongoing process throughout our lives. As I’ve aged, I’ve had to come to terms with the ways our culture’s high value on youth has shaped the way I understand myself. Hoping to die before I get old discounts the gift of the second half of my life. Growing up as I get old has become my goal.
Spiritual growth isn’t tied to physical age, but to faith and life experience. It’s possible to get stuck at a particular stage of growth. A crisis of faith, for example, can leave a person choosing to remain stuck, weary, or cynical. Growth often comes through discovering dependence on God through life’s tests and trials.
A prime example: Abram. We first meet him in the pages of Scripture in Genesis 12, when he was 75 years old and living in Ur (now modern-day Iraq). He was living among extended family, and there was no hint in the initial account that anything had challenged his spiritual status quo to that point … until God spoke to him, and told him to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household to go to the place God would reveal to him as he journeyed into the unknown (Genesis 12:1–3).
Additionally, God promised to make this aging, childless man a blessing to the world and the father of a people. Abram took his wife, Sarai, his nephew, Lot, and a small contingent of others with him, and in obedience to God’s command, he left home. Joshua 24:2 tells us that Abram’s father, Terah, worshiped other gods. Abram was no longer taking his cues from his father’s faith. The crisis of God’s call propelled Abram’s faith into meaningful, visible action.
Thirteen years after pilgrim Abram first stepped into the unknown by faith, God changed his name to Abraham. Abram means “exalted father.” At that point, Abram had fathered one child with his wife Sarai’s maid, Hagar (Genesis 16). When God gave Abraham, now 99 years old, a new name that meant “father of multitudes,” God was referencing the promise he’d made to Abram at the beginning of the journey.
This new name, as well as the mark of circumcision given during this exchange, signified the covenant God had made with him. It also highlighted the way in which Abraham had grown in intimacy and trust in his relationship with God (Genesis 17:5–8). God didn’t call Abram to circumcision the same day he called him to leave Ur. But God knew Abraham had grown in trust as he’d been learning to follow God step by step in the wilderness.
The Bible doesn’t bypass the reality that Abraham’s spiritual growth was messy at times. Mistakes and wrong turns are a normal feature of the journey toward a wise, mature faith. In fact, Abraham made a literal wrong turn when he left the land God called him to and set off for Egypt. Once there, he feared his wife’s beauty would make him a target for violence, and tried to pass her off as his sister. This charade didn’t end well, but that didn’t stop Abraham from repeating the mistake sometime later when he told the same lie to another ruler. Ultimately, Abraham made a series of choices driven by his desire for self-preservation rather than out of a reliance on God’s provision.
But spiritual growth continued in his life. After his circumcision at age 99 and the promise by God that 89-year-old Sarah would become a first-time mother, the couple received the gift of a child: Isaac. They may have been advanced in years, but their faith was still growing.
That active faith met a test that likely would have crushed a less-mature Abraham when God called him to what is now present-day Jerusalem to sacrifice Isaac. Even though it seemed that what he was being asked to do was the opposite of the promise that he would be a father of multitudes, Abraham obeyed, expressing an almost-childlike trust in the character of the God he’d walked with for decades. He passed the test, Isaac was spared, and God miraculously provided the animal sacrifice Abraham offered instead.
Maturing faith looks a lot like childlike trust. The final movement of Abraham’s life came as he died at age 175. Genesis 25:8 says, “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.” This poignant summary of the end of Abraham’s life gives the sense that he’d continued to grow in faithfulness to the One who’d called him to leave Ur half a lifetime earlier.
That kind of maturing trust is different than the stubborn selfishness of an earlier, childish stage of spiritual growth. Childishness in an adult says, “I’m done learning, growing, and changing.” There are lots of reasons we can choose to stop growing: grief, depression, exhaustion, or unprocessed disappointment with the way life is unfolding. You may consider seeking professional counsel or simply reaching out for the prayerful support of a faith-filled friend if you find yourself feeling stuck over a long period of time.
It seems counterintuitive to our notions, but the journey toward spiritual maturity is marked by childlike curiosity, a humble pursuit of wisdom, and an ever-deepening compassion. In other words, it sounds a lot like what King David wrote in one of his songs, Psalm 131:
My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.
David’s song lyrics overwrite those of The Who, reminding us that the goal isn’t dying before we get old, but learning to grow while we’re alive. David paints a picture of the ideal relationship between ourselves and God: a content child trusting the care of their parent. But that contentment isn’t complacency. Instead, it’s growing in confidence in the One who is at work at every step of our messy and beautiful journey toward maturity.
1 Bret Stetka, “Extended Adolescence: When 25 Is the New 18,” Scientific American, September 19, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/extended-adolescence-when-25-is-the-new-181.
2 “Median age at first marriage: 1890 to present,” U.S. Census Bureau, accessed March 10, 2023, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/time-series/demo/families-and-households/ms-2.pdf.
3 Eric S. Jannazzo, Ph.D., “What Is Maturity? Authentically creating a refuge in an age of anxiety,” Psychology Today, June 13, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-full-spectrum/201906/what-is-maturity.