The Years Of Adolescence
The very word adolescence, always creates interest because it designates one of the most difficult stages in human development. A minister friend of mine with three teenage daughters says he always gave thanks to God everyday that he is not an adolescent girl. A mountain woman said she was glad she had her children before they discovered this modern disease known as adolescence.
Yet when I looked up the word in the dictionary I found that it means simply "the process of growing up," from the years of puberty to the years of maturity. It is the time when the boy becomes a man and the girl a woman: and what makes the period a difficult one is that one day the child is a boy, the next he wants to be a man, and the following day he is something in between.
You will find a pattern for these growing lives in the New Testament. When Jesus was twelve years old, Luke says that he went with Joseph and Mary to Jerusalem to observe the passover to be initiated as a "son of the law." On returning to Nazareth the writer describes his life as a teenager in these terms: "And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man."
You are acquainted with the triangle of the YMCA, the three sides of which express the ideal of growth in body, mind, and spirit. You remember the boy scout pledge, to keep himself "physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight." These two symbols have done their noble part in fashioning growing life, but here in the example of the Galilean is an ideal yet more complete.
Luke tells us, for example, that Jesus increased in stature. This word stature embraces his entire physical development, and it is a good place to begin.
Early adolescence is a time of rapid growth. From 12 to 15 boys increase in weight 40 percent and in height 14 percent. This fact explains some of the things you parents have been wondering about. It explains his big appetite, for example. If you feel like sending your boy from the table because his plate comes back for seconds before you have served yourself, remember that boys between 13 and 16 require more calories than a laboring man needs.
It is a matter of regret to me that some of the pictures we have of Jesus have been circulated so generally. They give the impression that he was weak physically. He looks anemic and undernourished and has even been described as "that pale Galilean." So it was a relief to me to discover that these pictures have no claim to being true to life. The oldest likeness of our Lord which we have was not made until many years after he had lived and died, when no one had any idea what he looked like. At the time when the first painting was made, the ideal Christian life was the ascetic which was based upon a renunciation of the body as material and therefore evil.
But when you remember the conditions under which Jesus lived and worked—as a young man out of doors, as a carpenter in his shop, as a teacher who was so busy he had not time so much as to eat—you realize that he must have been anything other than a physical weakling. There is nothing unholy about good health, because the laws of health are the laws of God; and it is a religious duty to follow that diet and exercise which make for a strong body. "Jesus increased in stature."
In the second place, along with physical went mental growth. "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature." This word "wisdom" refers to his intellectual development. According to Luke, his adolescence was a normal one and it is plain that he did not allow his piety to become a substitute for a growing intelligence.
In the Palestine of his day there was current a proverb to this effect: "If you want to get rich go north; if you want to be wise, go south." Jesus grew up of course in the north in Galilee; and yet while he lived in an environment which encouraged business as the ideal, he did not neglect the intellectual. It may surprise you to know that he was acquainted with three languages well enough to use them. His knowledge of the Old Testament shows that he had read it in Hebrew, which had given way to Aramaic as the common speech of the day. And with the coming of Greek, Palestine became bilingual.
The fact that Jesus knew two languages well enough to speak them and had a reading knowledge of a third accords well with the findings of experts today. They tell us that mental growth is very rapid in early adolescence and continues into later years.
You have an illustration of that fact in the visit of Jesus to the Temple at the age of twelve. During the days of the passover week the learned doctors of the law would sit in the outer courts where groups could gather about them for discussion. It is in one of these groups that his parents find the missing boy, and the record says that "all that heard him were amazed at this understanding and his answers."
It is a mark of the child that he accepts what is told him without question, but when he becomes an adolescent he develops a capacity to think for himself and work out conclusions on the basis of reason. This fact is a cue for the parent to shift gears. A common complaint from the adolescent goes like this: "Mother and Daddy don't believe we can think and don't give us credit for knowing anything. They tell us what is what and that's the end. They never give us a chance to say what's on our minds." The facts of life suggest that an adolescent deserves to be listened to.
There is one statement in this story of Jesus in the Temple which catches my interest. It says that as he was sitting in the midst of the teachers, he was "both hearing them and asking them questions." Once again, that is typical. In a book on the Psychology of Adolescence, I found this sentence: "If, in this process (of thinking things through for himself), he encounters problems and difficulties that stagger and unsettle him for the time being, this is simply a part of the price which he has to pay for the privilege of growing up."
A wise parent will understand that fact and accept it. He will not be shocked if his adolescent raises questions about the Bible or the creed or the church and seems to doubt some of the time-honored doctrines. He will remember that "Jesus was both hearing them and asking them questions." He will tell himself that God has given us the command to love him with all our minds, and you can no more think for him than you can digest for him. The intellectual ferment which is true of the adolescent is our cue to see to it that the doors of our homes and our church and church school are high enough so that when our young people walk in they can keep their heads on their shoulders.
In the third place, Jesus increased not only in wisdom and stature, but "in favor with men." People are more than intellectual and physical beings; they are social beings as well. The word social comes from the Latin socius which means fellow, fellow-being; and indicates that we live not like Robinson Crusoe on an uninhabited island, but in the midst of other people. Aristotle said long ago that "one would not want to live without friends:" and it is a fact of life with the adolescent that he grows socially. That is why your son or daughter hangs on the phone interminably when you are waiting for a long distance call, and why the group or the gang is so important to each.
Finally, there is a further item in this four-square life of Jesus. Luke says that he increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God as well as with men. In addition to his physical and intellectual and social nature, there is the fact that the adolescent is a spiritual being as well.
The gospel story says that at the age of twelve Jesus was found in his Father's house, concerned about his Father's business; and psychological experts confirm this fact today. They tell us that the first definite religious awakening comes at the beginning of adolescence. At twelve or thirteen most children who have been brought up under religious influence want to join the church. A second period of awakened interest comes at sixteen or seventeen, and a third around twenty. In one study of conversions of 6,000 young people, 5,000 came between 12 and 20, and only 1,000 between 21 and 34. Another way of saying the same thing is that if a young person does not come to terms with Christ before his is 20, the chances are 5 to 1 that he will never do so.
Conversion means nothing more nor less than a turning to God. It is this area of the spiritual, I think that the parent will find his best answer to his chief problem with his adolescent. That problem lies in a declaration of independence. The time will come that the young person in your home will cut the apron strings and defy your authority. If you are wise you will realize that his demand for freedom is normal. It is a part of his growing up and becoming an individual. It is as natural for a sixteen year old to disagree with his parent as it is for a two year old to submit to them.
But that new independence bothers you. You have always told this child of yours what to do, but now he is kicking over the traces and defying your authority. He is so young, inexperienced and will get lost in the moral middle which is life today. What can you do to give him the guidance he needs when he is no longer willing to accept your own?
That is where God comes into the picture. If you can transfer the authority which you have always exercised from outside his life to the authority which God can exercise from within his life, then you've got your answer. If you can help him to see that God in Christ represents an ideal of absolute honesty and absolute purity and absolute kindness and unfailing forgivingness and that in accept ing Christ he is pledging himself to obedience to this ideal, then you can let him go in the quiet confidence that he is in good hands.
Years ago I read a sentence from Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick which has stuck in my mind word for word. What he said was this: "in the home where I grew up I was taught to obey something inside me, so that when I left home I took it with me."
Blessed is the adolescent who grows up in a home such as that.
John A. Redhead, Jr. Protestant Hour