Most of us do not become truly aware of the need to grow spiritually until we are at least in our adolescence. Spirituality is not child’s play. Spiritual growth is a process, like everything else in our lives. It develops in phases. It is frequently activated when we face a crisis, a trial, or a great test. Maybe a tragedy hits us or an issue that we cannot cope with in our own strength. Whatever it is we become aware that we need God and his grace. If we try to force this on children prematurely I am convinced that we will do serious harm.
It is right and good that we teach children about God. It is right that we teach them the Bible, especially the Gospel stories about Jesus. It is also right that we raise their curiosity. It is even right that we catechize them in sound doctrinal understanding of the faith. What is wrong is an attempt to push them beyond where they are mentally and emotionally. We can, and sometimes do, kill a child’s interest in spiritual reality by pushing them too hard, too soon. I think the best analogy here is sowing. We teach them the Word and sow it in their young hearts. They do not understand spirituality or spiritual life. In excessive zeal for making sure that our children are protected, or “made a decision” for Christ (which is even worse), we can do untold harm. And when they ask lots of questions and struggle as adolescents we should never be surprised. Horrendous fights with them will not make them spiritual. Relax and love them as they try to figure out life.
Real spiritual growth is not religious activity or pious expressions of religion. Such practice mimics the real and falsely satisfies a need to be in control religiously. “Unfortunately, many people think that they grow close to God by performing religious practices and doing religious things. That is not spirituality” (Never Alone, Girzone, 13).
Joseph Girzone makes an interesting observation that I had not previously considered. He notes that Jesus spent decades growing up in Nazareth and you would think the townsfolk would know about his eminent holiness. Yet when he began to teach they asked, “Where did he get this from? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” His holiness had not made a great impression outwardly. Girzone adds, rather provocatively I believe, “You might wonder how Jesus could have kept His exquisite spirituality hidden during all those years, so that even his playmates were shocked by His apparent newfound interest in religion. What made it possible for Jesus to keep His spiritual life hidden from the eyes of those who lived so close to Him that His holiness was genuine? It did not depend on showy external practices” (Never Alone, 13).
True spiritual life grows, virtually imperceptibly, beneath the surface of our lives. We think our myriad of activities make us more spiritual. We could not be more wrong. Doing a host of good things, even reading the Bible and praying, will not make us spiritual We treat these disciplines as if we were taking a pill each day and the results of the pill will be clear to us and everyone else. If we think this way we are likely to be very nervous about our spiritual life and overload ourselves with even more burdens than we were ever meant to carry. The modern emphasis on spiritual disciplines is right but when it is used in the wrong way it create neurotic Christians. I have known more than my share of such people, pious and judgmental.
Remember, we always come to the Father as prodigals. This will continue throughout our entire life. It is not just the beginning of real discipleship and spirituality but it is the complete way itself. Where we begin is where we should continue. If you are off track come back to where you began and run home to the Father. He is the Father of prodigal sons and daughters and he is waiting for you to come home right now!