AORTA Adolescence: The Perpetual Practice of Growing into Christ

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It may be too late to have a happy childhood, but it is never too late to have a turbulent adolescence!

We as a society have lost sight of what it means to grow up. And that’s a good thing!

The gift (and curse) of the Enlightenment is that each of us must answer the question: who do I want to be when I grow up?  It is tempting to envy our ancestors and traditional cultures who had well-defined “markers of maturity”, e.g., marriage, mortgage, and making money.  There is enormous security, stability, and support in having society validate who you are supposed to be.

But there is also enormous danger, especially for Christians.

The Myth of Maturity

The Bible explicitly tells us not to conform to the world, but to be transformed into the image of Jesus.  I have become convinced that one of the greatest barriers to true discipleship in the church is the myth of maturity.  We think there are certain people who are “spiritually mature” enough that we should be like them; or worse, we think we are so mature that other people should be like us!  This leads to us feeling pride when we succeed, shame when we fail, and like impostors when we’re not sure. None of these further the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps that is why Jesus warns us to call no man father, because our natural tendency is to use earthly fathers (biological or otherwise) as the measure of our own maturity; instead of Christ.

While that sounds like a grave sin — verging on idolatry! — it is a completely understandable one.  Jesus, after all, was a vagabond bachelor preacher who died at 33; society would go extinct if we all followed his example. And having imperfect role models seems vastly preferable to having none and growing up wild; or never growing up at all, an increasingly attractive option for many young men.

But maybe we’re just asking the wrong question:

  • Maybe maturity is a pursuit, not a destination.
  • Maybe the greatest danger is not failing to grow up, but thinking we already have.
  • Maybe the right question — or a least a better question — is who do we want to become as we grow up?

Redeeming Adolescence

For a long time I dreamed of eliminating adolescence by finding a magical way to transition my children swiftly into adulthood.  But now I think I had it precisely backwards.  If the ultimate meaning of life is to continually become more like Jesus, then the reality is that we should always be in a state of unsettled transition. The goal is thus not to have less adolescence, but more — and better!

As a parent, I find this fantastic news.  This means adolescence is not just a phase I have to watch my kids go through, but an ongoing process they can watch me go through.  Which is the only way we really learn anything of value.

In particular, I now see maturation as a series of practices I am still struggling to master, which they can learn alongside me. Hopefully this will help us look together at Christ in hope, rather than at each other in shame and frustration.

I have begun using the acronym AORTA for these practices:

Struggle Need Practice Facets
Desire Meaning Ambition
  • Joy
  • Love
  • Glory
Shame Worthiness Openness
  • Spirit
  • Word
  • Body
Insecurity
(Anxiety)
Belonging Risking Vulnerability
  • Curiosity
  • Generosity
  • Commitment
Inadequacy Competence Thankfulness
  • Learning
  • Character
  • Compassion
Identity Peace Awareness
  • Self
  • Christ
  • Others

These practices (using slightly revised terminology) come from my work on Spiritual Christianity. As our friends in Eastern Christianity and other traditions remind us, following Jesus is foremost a way of being in the world, not a set of concepts. What if our Western obsession with technique was used to help us become more like Jesus? What might we become if we traded the Pharisaical need to be right for the Savior’s process of being made right?

How would the world see us? How would we see ourselves?

What kind of destiny would our children inherit?

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