When my younger son was an early teen, he often complained that his legs hurt. This was a serious problem because his life revolved around basketball. The doctor said these were growing pains and that as he got older, they would disappear. It took several months, but the doctor’s prediction came true. My son grew to 6′ 1″ and played a mean game of basketball (and now tennis) into college and beyond.
The moral of this story is that growing pains are inevitable – and they can hurt. They manifest themselves not only in our physical lives but also in our spiritual and emotional lives. For example, a friend recently shared the painful and disappointing recognition that she is still experiencing emotional reactions to life that she has worked hard to grow out of. My son’s family is stretching emotionally because a beloved child and sister is leaving the family nest for a new environment – college, three and a half hours away from home. She, too, will experience growth (sometimes painful) as she leaves the familiar loving support of a family, friendships, school, and a church behind.
We can learn a lot about growing pains from Jesus’ disciples. His call to “follow me” placed them all in environment far different from their life experiences.They were stretched by their growing recognition that their religion was inadequate. Jesus’ teachings required mental elasticity; they were sometimes reluctant learners. Jesus’ interactions with people tested their assumptions about cultural values and pushed their willingness to step forward and treat people differently. They were challenged by issues of their roles in the “band of brothers.” For three years, Jesus demanded increasing maturity from them. We can see from the Gospel accounts that this growth, while exciting, was painful.
As apprentices of Jesus, we are often challenged to accept and deal with our growing pains. As we mature in our faith, we may have to grapple with theological issues we had accepted and assumed our entire lives. New narratives push out old stories we have been told about ourselves and about God. The Bible takes on nuances we have not noticed before. Awareness of new social issues beg to be thought through. New understandings of community arise.
Spiritual and emotional growing pains are inevitable and they can hurt. Sometimes they can break us. Perhaps this is why some (like Judas) refuse opportunities to grow. But brokenness cracks our defenses and can change us forever, as Bryan Stevenson points out:
“Embracing our brokenness creates a need for mercy. . . . I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others. Maybe we would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized. . . . We could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable” (Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy)
Growing spiritually and emotionally requires choice. First we must decide to be different. Then we need to develop habits of self-examination. Is what we are doing on a daily basis life-thwarting or life-giving? Can what we are thinking be found in the mind of Christ? Is what we are feeling a result of the Spirit’s presence or a remnant of our ego? If our personal inventory reveals the need for change of behaviors or habits or attitudes or defense mechanisms, we must prepare to face our growing pains fearlessly. We dive into the Trinity and practice what we learn. We surround ourselves with a community of Christ-followers that will support and challenge us. We take one day at a time. And when we see progress, we share our joy and hope with others so they, too, can deal with their growing pains with a willing heart.