In the first letter of John, the author addresses three distinct groups of people in the church: ‘little children’, ‘young men’, and ‘fathers’.
It is generally believed that the letter was written by John the Beloved, the youngest disciple of Jesus and the last surviving apostle, to the churches near Ephesus around A.D. 90. The letter is couched in the language of a spiritual father who is concerned about the welfare of his children.
On face value, the age categories appear to reflect the varying levels of spiritual maturity in the congregation. ‘Little children’ are new initiates to the faith; they are conscious of the unconditional love of the Father and are thankful that their sins have been forgiven. ‘Young men’ are warriors in training; they have been strengthened by the word of God and have overcome the enemy. ‘Fathers’ are mature saints; they have come to know God and understand his eternal purpose through the crucible of suffering (1 John 2.12-14).
However, I have come to recognise that there is a link between the natural and spiritual stages of life. One cannot divorce the natural from the spiritual any more than one can disengage the soul from the body. Natural development and spiritual growth are parallel tracks that frequently intersect and overlap. Thus, wisdom (an attribute of spiritual maturity) is often associated with aging (a biological process), as in Job 32.7-9; “Age should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom.” The same passage also warns, “Men of many years are not always wise, nor do the aged always understand justice.” Clearly, we don’t always learn from our mistakes!
The biblical concept of ‘elders’ conveys the same idea: older men, who, by virtue of their extensive experience and well-rounded character formation, rule a community with truth and justice (Deut 21.19; 22.15; Josh 20.4). Hence, it is quite possible that the little children to whom John was writing were in actual fact, ‘little children’, and the young men were really ‘young men’, and the aged fathers were grey-haired, stoop-shouldered granddads! In many cases, spiritual maturity is a reflection of the biological clock.
Like John, we are faced with the challenge of pastoring people who are at different stages of their natural and spiritual development. And believe me, one size does not fit all! Too often we stand up like Sicilian gangsters and machine-gun people with a hail of bible verses, principles, and formulas, and expect to hit the target, forgetting that every single individual is at a different point in their journey, and that every point in the journey throws up new challenges and opportunities.
A theoretical framework for human development
During the second half of the 20th Century, Erik Erikson, a German-American psychologist, promulgated a theory on the psychological development of human beings. He identified eight, predictable stages that people experience throughout their lifetime, ranging from infancy to late adulthood. According to Erikson, each stage is characterised by a particular psychosocial crisis that must be resolved.
Significantly, if the challenge of one stage is not successfully completed, it may be expected to reappear later in life.
I have found Erikson’s template very useful in helping clients and parishioners resolve the past when it reappears in the present. For example, a person who is experiencing issues with sexual intimacy in marriage (early adulthood stage) may have had issues with trust in the infancy stage, or worse still, suffered exploitation in the early childhood stage.
A person who is struggling to form a solid sense of self and a clear identity in the middle adulthood stage, may have grown up in a restrictive, overly-protective family in the adolescent stage. A person who is questioning the value of their life in late adulthood may have experienced conditional, achievement-based acceptance in middle childhood.
Clinical and developmental psychologist James Marcia observed that in each psychosocial stage after adolescence, a person’s identity is reworked with respect to resolution of the new lifespan issue. Thus, a person’s first identity is not their last. To use the apostle John’s analogy, one’s identity as a ‘little child’ is different to one’s identity as a ‘young man’, and indeed, as an ‘aged father’. Moving from one developmental stage to another involves a disequilibration of the existing identity structure and the building of a new identity structure that is congruent with one’s increased level of self-awareness.
If a person is experiencing an ‘identity crisis’, it may be a signal that they have reached a new stage in their developmental life cycle. The challenge for pastors is to help people navigate the life-death-life-death-life course that characterises the evolution of our species, and to guide each and every one to maturity in Christ Jesus (Col 1.28).
As the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it:
To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.