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Chapter 10: Growing Through the Stages of Life

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Time is a dressmaker specialising in alterations. –Faith Baldwin

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

According to Paula Poundstone, adults are always asking little kids this question. (She reckons it’s because they’re looking for ideas!) But have you noticed a curiosity about the enquiry and its answers? “I want to be a fireman/policewoman/teacher…” In our western culture it’s all about what we want to do rather than who we want to become.

So just exactly when did we become “grown-up”? Was it at some pre-ordained age? Maybe 21, or 18? Or is maturity more complex and variable than simply sticking a label on us at a certain birthday and calling us “adult”?

For many years it was taken for granted that human development went through the four stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence and finally adulthood. The last one was supposedly a stable state. Once we got to it … that’s who we were. However, since the latter half of the twentieth century there has been a growing awareness that adulthood itself comprises a number of steps toward greater maturity – each one often, though not always, identified with a particular age period. [1] Much research has focused on trying to understand these different stages and the transitions that accompany them.

Life, of course, is a rich tapestry that cannot easily be divided into neatly categorised sections. People are all so very different in their development. Some mature more quickly than others, gender and cultural differences influence the pace, as do changes within a culture from one generation to another. For example, Gail Sheehy suggests that the crises usually met at age forty in the 1960s and 1970s now seem to be experienced at age fifty in the new millennium.[2]

The point remains, however, that there are a number of predictable development issues which come along in most people’s lives. While it’s true that there are variations between men and women, and from one culture to another – so that we may meet these issues in different ways and at slightly different ages – nevertheless meet them we all will. Life is definitely not static once we attain adulthood.

These stages of growth and development can change our lives in unexpected ways. As a result, they can have a dramatic impact on our sense of identity … and therefore on our SoulPurpose.

Who am I?

There are three major transitions in life when identity issues are up for grabs. During these times our SoulPurpose, and with it our career and life-planning decisions, come into sharp relief.

The first is the transition that occurs during adolescence and early adulthood, when we are concerned with entering the workforce.

The second is at midlife when we tend to take stock of our lives. We become aware, slowly or suddenly, that we no longer have time to do all the things we want to. The urgency of passing time causes us to examine which of our goals are really important to us.

The third is at what used to be called retirement, but is now often referred to as the third age. Because people are living longer, this transition can involve making new choices that may include a mixture of paid and unpaid work.

Let’s look at each of these three critical life stages and consider how they affect our identity, and with it our SoulPurpose.

Adolescence and Identity Development

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Erik Erikson wrote that the major crisis of adolescence is the forging of an identity. This identity can be expressed as the beliefs and values that a person stands for, and the direction in which that person chooses to go.

James Marcia picked up on Erikson’s findings and elaborated on them. He suggested that even though forming an identity was the goal of adolescence, not everyone was successful and that an individual could achieve (or get stuck in) one of four identity states. He described them as:

1. Identity foreclosure

Mike left school when he was 16, largely because his father told him to go and get a job. So that’s what he did. One of the local banks was advertising for tellers. He applied and soon found himself behind the counter of a downtown branch. He didn’t particularly enjoy the work but he gained some degree of competence and soon found himself promoted. Twenty-five years later Mike realised he hated the job he had to go to each day.

Identity foreclosure is where we shun exploring alternatives and take, often uncritically or without any reflection, whatever principles, values or direction which the authorities in our life pass on to us or direct us to. This can be particularly relevant in the SoulPurpose process. In later years, adults who have “foreclosed” on their identity at adolescence may be the ones who make a sudden career change at midlife. They have finally begun to explore alternatives and have arrived at their own sense of SoulPurpose, rather than something just handed down to them.

2. Identity moratorium

Sue is 25 years old … and has a reputation for making “weird and wacky” decisions. Some of her family harp on that she has “never grown up”, and there’s an element of truth in this. Sue’s choices, like her inexplicable job changes, indicate that she has postponed thinking through who she is and what she is made for. Her unrealistic explorations are simply delaying the inevitable –deciding what she is going to do with her life. Sue has, indeed, not allowed herself to grow up.

Sue’s identity is stalled in what Marcia calls an identity moratorium – a stoppage which is hopefully temporary. Because she is only 25, Sue’s family and friends have so far made allowances for her, arguing that she is still young and has time on her side. But the longer Sue’s moratorium continues, the less tolerance others will give her. After all, we can’t put a hold on grappling with our identity forever – though sadly there are individuals who don’t move on, often drifting from job to job without any seeming connection between them.

3. Identity diffusion

Murray is literally going nowhere in life. He is drifting aimlessly without any sense of urgency. Murray is neither looking at career alternatives nor is he even interested in doing so. He represents identity diffusion, a state of not having yet faced up to a core part of adolescence – the awareness of the need to do something with one’s life. Part of the reason for Murray’s total inertia and disinterest may be that he is yet to experience a crisis or major challenge to the way he is living.

4. Identity achievement

Julie, on the other hand, is passionate about making her life count for something. She has taken a while to work out what she wants to achieve in life, but has now set a clear course towards Christian development work in an Asian country. Julie is only 24 but she has grappled well with what kind of contribution she can make, and with what values and beliefs will drive her life. She has reached what Marcia calls identity achievement, through exploring some alternatives and then making a commitment.

Exercises like the ones in this book can help facilitate this process, by helping people like Julie take some time for self-reflection in order to move on.

The following chart summarises the distinction between these various states of identity.

Identity States

Experienced a Crisis

Searched Alternatives

Made a Commitment

















It’s natural at adolescence that quite a lot of focus is given to preparing for a “career”. However, we are anxious to make clear in this book that career is not to be confused with our whole life’s work. Ultimately our SoulPurpose is expressed through a mixture of paid and unpaid work. The degree to which people find fulfilment of their SoulPurpose through a career differs from person to person. For some, investment in activities outside of paid work is a more important component than for others. Striking a healthy balance through which we can give expression to this at different stages of life is a subject we’ve already given some attention to in chapter 8.

It’s also important to note that identity development encompasses more than just what we do. Despite our childhood focus on the future job, once we finally do become train drivers or prime ministers or astronauts we discover there are much deeper issues that concern us – especially how we relate to others, and what we come to believe. All such issues are up for consideration in the transitional years.

Midlife Identity Development

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Adolescence is not the only time in our lives when identity development and the search for SoulPurpose come to the fore. It also occurs at other stages, especially midlife.

The period of midlife can be any number of years and is usually located any time between the ages of 35 and 60. It’s a staging post – kind of like a half-time in the game of life (as Bob Buford puts it). This growing awareness of being half-way along life’s journey evokes different responses in different people. Lillian Helman the American Playwright wrote, “If you’ve invested yourself in life, you’re pretty certain to get a return. If you are inwardly a serious person, in the middle years it will pay off”.

That may be so, but how many of us actually feel more like Dante (the 14th century poet) who wrote “Midway in life’s journey I was made aware that I had strayed into a dark forest, and the right path appeared not anywhere”? This transition can be a perplexing and disorienting time.

Midlife has received huge press over recent years. Unfortunately much of it has been rather sensational, focusing on “midlife crises” – like the businessman who runs off with his secretary and the company money, leaving his wife who “just doesn’t understand me”.

Most midlife experiences are nothing like so dramatic. A better term for describing the more predictable experiences at this time may actually be midlife consciousness. This is an important and valuable time of re-assessment, a time for taking stock of where we are going in life. Is our direction of the last two or three decades really where we want to go?

The questions midlife often raises are quite different from those of earlier years. By 40 most of us have experienced a number of successes and satisfactions … as well as our share of dashed dreams and failed expectations. This mixture of joys and disappointments combines with the growing realisation that our years are limited. This is the context in which we find ourselves pushed to re-assess what our life is all about.

Depending on how much we perceive we have achieved, this can be a threatening experience. There will be feelings of grief where dreams have not been attained, or somehow lost along the way. There will be a sense of waking up to the realisation that some of the dreams we held were never our own but were pressed upon us by others (as well as the relief of finally letting these go). There may also be anger at wasted or lost opportunities.

Men in particular often experience a shift from their earlier dreams of “success” to re-adjusted dreams of “significance”, often involving a new clarity on what are the important values to live for. Words such as relationships, legacy, contribution begin to figure more prominently in their vocabulary, and achievements, goals, success somewhat less.

Many of the people who participate in life-planning courses are working through their midlife consciousness. Often earlier career choices were shaped by influences other than meaning-of-life factors – things like money, family expectations (or a reaction against these), location, etc. Now, at midlife, work acquires new meanings. Am I making a worthwhile contribution (to my family, to society, to God’s work)? How much time do I have left to achieve the things I want to achieve?

Erik Erikson calls the crisis of this time a struggle between “generativity and stagnation”. Generativity is the sense that one is making a worthwhile contribution to those who follow – whether expressed in parenting younger generations, or through employment or voluntary community work. Stagnation is the sense of sliding into retirement, of unwillingness to keep growing and learning– and is similar to what others call “inner death”.

Midlife may have a number of different implications for women. For those who have been raising children it means a time of taking stock of their life as their family becomes independent. Many of these women return to employment with a vigour more reminiscent of young men in their twenties.

For those women who have delayed child bearing and rearing, the approach of midlife signals a time of making a decision that will no longer wait. Other women who have remained single out of circumstances or choice also face the end of their child-bearing years, and may need to grieve this lost opportunity. Similarly, for an increasing number of women who have left childbearing until later, infertility takes a toll. The work that once claimed their time may now lose its attraction. For the previously contented career woman, midlife may signal a change to a more “meaningful” occupation – this perception will be defined in different ways of course. Some women who have spent two decades establishing themselves at work may now long for time with their families. Their career isn’t working for them anymore.

Frequently for men the frenzied approach of their early work years can no longer be sustained at midlife. Energy levels drop and there is usually a growing sense of one’s own mortality. Many men become aware of the sacrifice they have made in terms of their time with their family in order to pursue work goals. This causes them to rethink the whole work question. For some the financial security they have established during their early work years, or a sudden redundancy settlement (or second, or third redundancy…), means they can now afford to consider other occupations that previously were not so realistic. Others find that their paid employment does not offer them any chance to make a meaningful contribution. For these men, family, voluntary work and/or leisure-time occupations may become the way they can express generativity.

In marriages a subtle reversal may occur in the focus of each gender. The man may become more aware of the importance of relationships, even if it is the golf gang, while the woman suddenly has a drive to achieve more outside of the home. These differences can be heard in the conversations of midlifers. A man may talk of the way his life was task-driven, of the emphasis on individuality – and he may now affirm the importance of community and connecting with others. Meanwhile, the woman may be longing for a little individuality, having been absorbed (and sometimes enmeshed) in relationships for most of her life.

Midlife consciousness need not be all about loss and regret. If anything it is a time of opportunity. It’s about offloading things that are no longer useful, in order that we can continue with the journey without being weighed down. Midlife means an appraisal of all aspects of our lives – work, relationships, physical health and well-being, spiritual growth, and more. The questions midlife raises should bring clarity to the big issues of life – who am I, what am I living for, and where am I heading? It can be a time of creativity as in partnership with God we re-fashion some of those old dreams into more authentic packages. The things of value from what has gone before can now result in renewed wonder, as we move into a new phase of life with a fresh appreciation of how wondrously we have been put together.

A British television documentary series called Seven-Up has traced the lives of a number of individuals from the time they were seven years old, interviewing them at seven-year intervals. In the most recent programme (reflecting on the period between ages 35 and 42) there were some fascinating changes. At 35 a brashness and fearlessness still pervaded some of the participants. By age 42, there was a softening of attitude that almost approached defeat in some and graciousness in others. Even the previously most unlikable personalities seemed to become more likable. The rough edges had been knocked off them, though the knocks of life had in different ways left scars of one kind or another. Midlife consciousness was having its effect!

Perhaps the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (in Genesis 32) is a helpful picture of midlife consciousness. It can be a time of turmoil, and when it fully engages the traveller you can be sure that there will be some rigorous wrestling done. Almost all of us survive the scuffle, even if we carry with us a limp as a sign of what we endured. Most of all, we walk away with a new identity. Jacob becomes Israel. We too will move to a new and richer level if we allow ourselves to engage in reassessment at the time of midlife. And we too have the potential to walk away with renewed SoulPurpose even if we are not totally unscathed.

Transitioning Into the Third Age

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In the third age, people have the opportunity to retire – and also, often, to stay in paid employment, perhaps part-time. Retirement can be couched in either very negative or overly optimistic terms. Some see it as the end of their productivity, while others view it as the holiday they longed for. Neither are particularly healthy or realistic perspectives.

If you have put time into understanding and developing your SoulPurpose, you will have a thread that provides real continuity beyond paid employment. Leaving your job doesn’t mean that your sense of purpose stops. It will go on – just in a different form. This may be through a mixture of part-time jobs, voluntary opportunities, and more informal contributions as a parent, grandparent, friend, mentor, etc.

Our SoulPurpose will remain in spite of the changing outward forms through which it is expressed. It can open up doors to new groups of people, and new opportunities. For example, Mary left her job as a primary school teacher in her late fifties, but has taken her love of teaching and her artistic gifts to a new venture. She has begun her own drama group for children after school. This still gives her a regular opportunity to be involved in teaching and encouraging children, but with fewer hours (and ones that suit her). She also finds she has been able to start a weekly group in her church for people at the same life stage as herself, a group which offers companionship and opportunities for occasional service projects in the community.

If you understand your SoulPurpose, you are likely to cope much better with the transition into the third age. Regardless of whether or not you are viewed as a “mover and shaker”, your worth as a person will remain.

Many people in later maturity suffer from a crisis of despair, experiencing deep regrets and often a sense of futility about the way they have lived their lives. Having a well-developed SoulPurpose can avert much of this crisis. It allows people to look back over their past and recognise a real sense of purpose. They are able to see how their experiences have become integrated into a meaningful whole – like a patchwork quilt where the variety mingles with a sense of unity and completeness.

Erikson calls this state ego integrity. We can see God’s providence at work in our lives – even in the not-so-positive experiences – and discover the truth of Paul’s statement that “…all things work together for good for those that love God and are called according to his purposes”. Life comes full of jumps and starts, and twists and turns – so don’t expect a totally complete and tidy package! Nevertheless you can look forward to a strong sense of having experienced an abundant and full life.

Stages of Faith

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Not only do we develop physically, mentally, emotionally and socially through different stages of our lives, but we also grow spiritually. So it’s important to reflect on how our faith develops through the years, for this is a major factor in growing a SoulPurpose.

For many years Sunday School teachers and youth leaders have known about the development of faith from childhood through adolescence and on into early adulthood. However, only in more recent years has serious research been done exploring ways in which faith continues to change through our adult years. At the forefront of this research has been James Fowler – a sociologist of religion.

Fowler suggests that as faith develops, changes occur in the following areas:

(1) the way people think;

(2) their ability to see another’s point of view;

(3) the way they arrive at moral judgements;

(4) the way and extent to which they draw boundaries around their faith community;

(5) the way they relate to external authorities and their truth-claims;

(6) the way they form their world view;

(7) the way they understand and respond to symbols.

Fowler’s research has led him to conclude that there are six stages of faith. However, there is an acknowledgment that not every person will grow through every stage. Furthermore, people mature at different rates and at different stages of life.

Fowler’s stages of faith have been summarised in the following way: [1]

Stage One: The Innocent. This is found in pre-school children whose faith is derived largely from their family experience and shaped by the talk that goes on around them, the stories that are told and the rituals and symbols that are part of their lives. It is a disorganised collage of images that include real and imagined events. Faith here has to do with powerful images and symbols rather than concepts or logical thought.

Stage Two: The Literalist. This can begin as early as six years old. Children at this stage begin to separate fantasy from reality, though they still reason in very literal and concrete terms. To the influence of the family is now added the impact of teachers, school, television, movies and books. Their faith particularly involves identification with the stories of their faith community. They identify strongly with people who are like the significant adults in their life. They are aware of – and often critical of – people who are different.

Adults who remain at this stage prefer a community where a strong, literal interpretation of scripture is encouraged. This stage offers security for the individual and encourages deep conviction and commitment. It emphasises rules and authoritative teaching. The main image of God is that of a stern and just (though loving) parent.

Stage Three: The Loyalist. This stage occurs during adolescence and beyond. It comes at the time when we develop a new self-awareness, as well as the ability to think abstractly. We begin to clarify what we believe. However, we are also highly influenced by the opinions of respected teachers, other students, parents or church leaders. These are the ones to whom we look for guidance and affirmation.

People at this stage find security in belonging to a community of like-minded believers. Their faith is often tenaciously held … but without serious analysis, without the conscious act of “standing outside it” and engaging in an in-depth personal critique of it. Their vision of God is usually as an external transcendent being. They often invest a lot in their faith community and it plays an important role in their lives. Conflict in the community is very threatening to them.

Stage Four: The Critic. At this stage we find ourselves standing to one side and critically reflecting on our faith. We are no longer willing to have second-hand beliefs, merely borrowed from influential people. Faith is personally owned. This can be a difficult and lonely stage since we are likely to become critical of the community we have identified with. We begin to detach ourselves from it and to dismantle some of our previous beliefs.

This stage is often associated with leaving home – either literally or metaphorically. For example, young people may go away to tertiary study, get married, or start a new job. It involves developing a new respect and trust for one’s own intuition, feelings and judgements rather than such a heavy reliance on the views of others. People at this stage appreciate freedom to express their own views in forums that encourage questioning and interaction. They start to enjoy encounters with the beliefs and practices of people they previously stayed away from. They don’t sit easily in any leadership structure that pushes for conformity.

Stage Five: The Seer. At this stage we are much less defensive about our own beliefs and more open to others’ perspectives on reality. Though confident in our beliefs, we begin to demonstrate more humility as we become more aware of the depth of the unconscious and the unknown. Our faith is increasingly able to live with ambiguity and paradox. Truth is no longer a question of “either-or”, but “both-and”. Symbols, myths and stories take on a new relevance. We begin to love mystery and the vastness of the unknown.

Stage Six: The Saint. This is rare. It usually occurs only late in life – if at all. Mother Teresa is often offered as an example. This stage results when a preoccupation with self gives way to a sense of mystical unity with all things and the complete acceptance of the ultimate authority of God in all aspects of life. This last stage is more speculative and less empirically grounded than the other stages and not particularly relevant to our purposes.

Whether Fowler’s categories are exactly correct or not, it is clear that people do go through stages of revising their understanding of faith. Frequently this can leave them feeling quite confused and vulnerable during the times of transition – especially if they don’t understand what is going on for them. Sometimes it can feel or look as if they are losing their faith, because it does involve some letting go of existing beliefs.

However, it is generally more helpful to view this as part of the process of moving from one understanding to another. This is a positive and healthy thing, though we do need the help of committed companions and wise counsel in the midst of such transitions.

It is not the purpose of this book to explore Stages of Faith in detail. However, it is clear that the Bible is the story of people on a journey of faith, resulting in a growing understanding of God and His purposes.

The Bible clearly talks about the development of individuals’ faith in similar terms. Luke notes that “…Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and favour with God and with people”(Luke 2:52.) The Apostle Paul tells the church at Corinth, “(We)…are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Peter writes, “Add to your faith goodness; and to goodness knowledge; and to knowledge self-control; and to self-control…” (2 Peter 1: 5-6). And the writer of Hebrews reproves his readers: “You need milk not solid food!...(for) solid food is for the mature, who by constant use train themselves to distinguish good from evil" (Hebrews 5:12-14).

We are people in the process of growing. Always changing. Always deepening and developing our understanding of our faith. The stages of faith we find ourselves growing through will inevitably impact on how we see and pursue our SoulPurpose. So it is important that we recognise how faith factors may influence the way we respond to transitions and crises in our lives – just as much as the other factors we have looked at, such as changes in career, and personal and family issues.

This is Your Life: Questions for Personal Pondering

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The exercises and questions below are designed to help you consider your own development and its impact on where and how you serve.

A. General age and stage issues:

  1. Think about the stage of life you are at and how that affects the way you live. What are the opportunities unique to this time of life? What are the limitations of this stage? How can you make both opportunities and limitations work for you?

  2. Consider those you relate closely to – family and friends. What ages and stages are they at? How does this impact on your own SoulPurpose? (Note: The families we live in are systems just as our bodies are, and what happens to one member affects what happens to the others.)

  3. Make a time line of your life, marking in at least every five years. Think back over your life, and identify some of the different stages. Did you find crisis points at some of the ages and stages mentioned in this chapter? In light of what you have learned here, what are the changes/crises in your life that can be understood as part of natural maturation and development? [Note: keep the copy of your time line. In chapter 12 we will suggest you look at it again.]

  4. If you recognise yourself to be at a crossroad in one or more areas of your life, take some time out to reflect and pray it through. (We urge you to do this, even if other commitments make it difficult to find time. When you fail to pay attention to a transition time, the discomfort will not go away. It will continue to surface in your life.)

  1. If you are in the midst of a transition, recognise that any feelings of grief and discomfort you experience at this time are quite natural. If you find yourself continually stuck and unable to move on, approach someone you trust – a friend, minister, or counsellor – to talk things over.

Note: All the hints for dealing with transitions that we will cover in the next section of this book are also relevant for adapting to different ages and stages.

B. Faith Stage issues

  1. Where do you think you are in your faith development? (Remember this is a very subjective call and most of us oscillate.) Why do you think you’re where you’re at?

  1. How is your Christian faith different now to 5 years ago? 10 years ago? 20 years ago?

  2. In what ways are you yourself now different?

  3. Think about the way you see the world and your role in it. How is this different now from the way it has been in the past?

  4. In what ways have your temperament and background helped shape and influence your faith?

  5. How has your particular experience of church, parents and other religious authority figures early in your life, shaped your later faith responses and choices?

  6. Can you identify any experiences, insights, points of growth, relationships, etc., that have contributed to the development of your faith over the years? (Or to put this another way, what factors have caused you to grow in your faith?)

  7. Can you identify ways in which your image of God has been shaped both positively and negatively by people who have had an impact on your life?

  8. Some people have grown up with a black-and-white closed-box mindset, where to question one belief is to question everything. Others have been raised with strongly grounded beliefs but still an openness for movement and debate. Has your experience created space for you to ask questions and to develop your own understanding of things, or not?

Feedback from friends: personal reflection in a small group

Take time in your group to discuss the following questions, allowing each member opportunity to identify his/her own experiences and insights.

  1. How is your Christian faith different now to 5 years ago? 10 years ago? 20 years ago?

  1. In what ways are you yourself now different?

  1. What are some of the best things you have learnt in life? (Both your own personal discoveries, and insights you have gained from others.)

  1. Do you have difficulty accepting people at a different “stage of faith”?

  1. What are the problems for a church that arise from having and encouraging people at different stages of life and of faith? What are some ways of coping with those problems?


Life Stages

Gail Sheehy, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (Bantam/Dutton, 1974)

Gail Sheehy, New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time (HarperCollins, 1995)

Faith Stages

Alan Jamieson, Faith Development: Resources for those on the journey

This is a good introduction to the subject of faith stages, using a variety of different sources.

James Fowler, Stages of Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981)

This is Fowler’s original book on faith stages. (He has written a number of others since.)

Chapter 11: Navigating Through Life Transitions

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Life is change; growth is optional. Choose wisely. (Karen Kaiser Clark)

There’s a light-hearted (and thoroughly apocryphal!) story about a man out hunting in rugged countryside. As he pushes his way through deep undergrowth he stumbles and suddenly, to his horror, finds himself slipping over a bluff. His rifle flies in one direction, his pack in another, and he goes straight down. In desperation he manages to grab hold of a tree branch growing out of the side of the cliff. There he is, dangling precariously over a hundred-metre drop onto jagged rocks.

He looks up and realizes he can never make it back to the top. There’s nothing to grip onto and the cliff face is crumbling and unstable.

He looks down and nearly passes out with fright. He could never survive the fall.

In panic he calls out, “Help, help! Is anybody there?” It’s an instinctive reaction. He knows he’s far from any human assistance.

Not surprisingly, then, he nearly falls off the branch when a voice from above booms back, “I’m here. What do you want?”

The man can’t figure out where exactly the voice is coming from but he hasn’t got time to worry about that. Instead he yells back, “I need help. I’m about to fall and I’m stuck. Please, please help get me back up.”

The voice from above is warm and sympathetic. “Don’t panic, lad. I’ll get you to safety. But you must do one thing in order for that to happen.”

“Anything, I’ll do anything. Just get me back up. What do I need to do?”

Five short words come from the voice above. “Let go of the branch.”

There’s a stunned silence. Despite his desperation it is clear that the man on the branch is taking time to weigh up his options – and the consequences they present.

Finally he calls out again. “Is there anybody else up there?”

Life is a series of crises

All of us face crises in our lives. Some crises are self-imposed because of our foolishness. Others come because of circumstances dropped on us. Still others are a natural result of our growth from one stage of maturity to another.

And, like the man in the story, in a crisis we are desperate for help. Not that we necessarily want the solutions God may offer! Yet one thing is constantly true. It’s a general rule that when we are at a point of great uncertainty we are open to God in a much more real way than we are in settled times when things are going smoothly.

Finding ourselves in a desperate situation causes us to reach out to God. Our prayer moves from being a ritual to a necessity. No wonder Jesus was able to say, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.” Why blessed? The second part of the verse makes it clear. “With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” (Matthew 5:3, The Message).

We constantly forget what God is really like. We need reminders. Sometimes only by upsetting the applecart and turning our lives upside down can God make us re-evaluate what we have come to assume and accept – about ourselves, about others, about our role in God’s world. The crisis gives us the opportunity to trust God more fully, and to move in new directions.

The biblical story of crisis, change and transition

Crisis, new awareness, and a fresh start. That, in many ways, is the story of the Bible, with its catalogue of catastrophes, journeys, and wilderness experiences. It is full of disorienting episodes in which settled people are thrown into upheaval and set on a new course.

It begins with Abraham, who is settled with his family in Iraq, running his father’s business. Suddenly he is called to uproot himself and leave it all behind. “Go to a place that I will show you,” says God.

So with little more than a promise, and great uncertainty about what that might mean, the great great grandfather of our faith pulls up his tent pegs and moves west. In doing so, Abraham shows us the kind of risk-taking and journeying that faith inevitably involves.

In Canaan, Abraham and his descendants finally begin to settle into the Promised Land that God has been leading them to all these years. That is, until another crisis arrives. Severe famine hits the whole region. Elderly Jacob and his extended family are forced to head to Egypt.

However, what was expected to be a brief period of escape from the drought soon develops into more than just a visit. Egypt proves very hospitable and welcoming. The family settles down, and they grow. Soon generations have come and gone and all talk of the Promised Land is forgotten. But the increasing number of Abraham’s descendants causes the indigenous people to become resentful. They decide to exploit the Israelites, using them as cheap labour rather than allowing them to become influential and powerful. Slavery results.

This is the context in which God calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, back to the land he had promised their forebears. A major transition is under way. However, it is a transition filled with crises, risk and hard-heartedness. More than once the Israelites are instructed to “let go of the branch”, but they resist and the result is years spent wandering in the wilderness before they eventually take possession of the land. In the face of such danger and risk they plead with God to go back to Egypt – back to the relative security of slavery. Consequently, rather than the transition being a few short weeks, it becomes forty long years.

If we had not previously read the story we might imagine that here at last was a fairytale ending. And perhaps there was for a time. Through the period of the judges and the early kings, Israel becomes increasingly rich, powerful and settled. But rather than the beginning of a Golden Age full of God’s blessing, it all turns sour. Money, sex and power become the prize – instead of God. Israel loses the plot. In an attempt to remind them of their calling, God sends his prophets.

Then begins a series of bewildering and upsetting episodes where God allows some awful things to happen to his people so that they may once again learn to trust him. It ends with the Israelites being dragged off into captivity in a foreign land. Talk about disorienting! They can’t even recognize God in this new setting. All the old cues are gone. No wonder they write, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion...” Utter desolation.

Even when the Jews finally return home, crisis and transition continue. The rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the re-establishment of Jewish life takes time and brings many challenges.

Centuries later, we see the arrival of Jesus on the scene. God’s people are in familiar circumstances – living under the domination of Rome and yearning for God’s military messiah to come and push the legions of the foreign oppressor back into the sea.

However, God doesn’t act that way. Instead he does the unpredictable, and brings a very different new life out of a seemingly hopeless situation. The crisis that is the cross brings a transition to a new order, evidenced by the resurrection.

The same experiences of crisis and change shape the rest of the New Testament. The new believers face the challenge of trusting God in the midst of persecution. The young church faces the challenge of carrying the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. The Jewish converts must come to terms with a “new age” in which God will move beyond their nation. Through it all we are reminded that nothing is static. Seasons and transitions, crises and change; they are woven into both life and faith.

Crisis – looming disaster or potential opportunity?

The biblical story helps us to see that in the midst of transitions we can wake up to insights about God and ourselves, insights that we easily miss in the routine of life. In fact, pain and uncertainty are probably the best teachers we have. If we can learn to welcome them and reach out to God in the midst of them, we will discover that God is embracing us in ways he never could in comfortable times.

It’s on the journey, in the desert, through the catastrophe and grief, that we become open to God reorienting us. In no way is this process easy. But as long as we don’t shrink away from the struggle, we can find God in it.

In the Chinese script, the character for “crisis” is a combination of the two characters that mean “disaster” and “opportunity”. These are the two sides of a crisis. What seems to be a disaster, or at least has the potential for catastrophe, is at the same time an opportunity.

American writer Leonard Sweet notes that the idea behind the Hebrew word “crisis” is a birth stool. The experience of childbirth encapsulates so much of what a crisis is. There is great pain – so much so that the expectant mother may even for a time wish she was dead. But then comes the joy of bringing a new life into the world.

Crises threaten disaster, but also offer opportunity. Birth pangs produce new things. This seems to be a deliberate emphasis of the Bible about transitions. The pain and uncertainty, anxiety and anguish inherent in the crisis are used by God to birth something new in our lives.

We can be sure that during those times God knows what we are going through. He does care. He does hear our cries for help. And he will come to rescue us. When we are at the end of our tether God proves his ability to guide. The disorientation that comes during crises and transitions is the very tool he uses to re-orient us.

Looking back on your life: a personal reflection

  1. What are some crises you have faced? What has helped to support and guide you through them? (Or did they throw you?! If so, looking back on them, how could you have coped better?)

  2. Are there any biblical passages that have offered you reassurance in the midst of crisis? What are they?

  3. Are there any biblical characters whose example has offered you help and reassurance?

  4. Underline any parts of this chapter that have particular relevance for you. Why are they significant?

Feedback from friends: personal and group reflection

  1. Give members of the group opportunity to share their discoveries from the personal reflection questions above.

  2. Do the personal stories prompt ideas of how the group might be supportive of its members in future times of crisis or change?

  3. Taking into account what you have read in this and the previous chapter (and what know from your wider reading and life experience), what crises and changes may lie ahead for members of your group? What knowledge and preparation could help you as you enter these transitions?

  4. Are there any crises you as a group have faced? Did they produce any new development? (If this question is not relevant to your group, it may be appropriate to ask it about a church or organization you may all belong to.)

  5. Consider the situation your group (or church or organization) is in at present. Knowing what you do about the group, its past and the situation it is currently in, what changes may lie ahead? Do you see new directions which God might want you to investigate? What stresses would any such change cause, and how could you best deal with them?

  6. Time to dream. Imagine that you personally, or your group, have just arrived in your neighbourhood. You have no commitments to any plan or programme. You have no responsibilities to any group or organization. If you were beginning with a completely clean slate – knowing what you do about your neighbourhood, in what ways and with what aims might you set out on this new phase of your life?

Chapter 12: The Only Constant is Change

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All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another. (Anatole France)

The news hit him like a locomotive train. Trevor was flattened. He had worked for the company for over fifteen years. Of course there had been rumours amongst the staff about the state of the finances, but no one ever seriously entertained the idea that they might lose their job. So when Trevor and half a dozen other employees were called in to the boss’s office, his words left them dumbstruck.

For the next few days Trevor found it difficult to focus on anything. Money wasn’t the immediate problem – it would be six weeks before his job was officially history, and then he had four months of redundancy pay. But somehow the news had disoriented him. Trevor had never intended leaving the company. He’d enjoyed the job and felt challenged by it. And now he just couldn’t think what to do. For a whole week he couldn’t even bring himself to tell his wife what had happened. On top of everything else, he was experiencing a frightening loss of motivation. He could barely bring himself to do even the most automatic of duties.

Over the next two or three weeks Trevor’s workmates noticed that he had become increasingly distant from the everyday chatter of the office. Sometimes irritable, other times just not quite there, Trevor found himself in a surreal state – almost as if he was suspended above the office in a kind of no-man’s land – looking on but not really a part of things.

Of course there were moments of anger too. Particularly at home in his discussions with Pat. She felt cheated, betrayed by the company, and she urged Trevor to be more aggressive in his final dealings with them. She’d always relied on Trevor’s income. He was the provider for the family. He was the strong one. When she discovered he’d kept it to himself for a whole week, at first she felt hurt. Then, as Trevor’s disorientation sank deeper, she realised she needed to take the supporting role. What should she do? Would she have to go out and find paid work? What would other people think?

Gradually Trevor began to function again. As the days passed and the inevitability settled in, he tried to focus on the “what’s next?” question. Almost imperceptibly at first, but with growing determination, he moved on. While he would later acknowledge that he underestimated the level of grief he would experience, Trevor’s primary concern in his last couple of weeks at the office was what was ahead, not behind.

It was at this point that a conversation with a close friend touched a chord, and gave Trevor the confidence to resist jumping into the first job that came his way. Mark mentioned how critical it was to take time – to process the options, and to discover what would be the most fulfilling way to use his resources in the next season of his life.

Looking back, Trevor realised that this was the best advice he could have heard. He was 43 years old and there were a multitude of considerations both he and Pat had to work through – among them issues of “fit”, life-stage and family. The redundancy money gave them the freedom to take their time and, amongst all the disorientation and grief, to embark on a new journey of discovery, finding where they could serve best. The end result, some twelve months later, was a situation very different from their previous season – one that they couldn’t have imagined and certainly wouldn’t have had the confidence to pursue if it weren’t for the redundancy. A year later, Trevor and Pat were able to see how God had led them by his providence in quite remarkable ways.

The only constant is change – get used to it!

Trevor’s situation is far from unique. In the Western world the structure of career is changing quickly. The stereotype of a person employed in one job for his/her working life no longer applies. These days people are likely to change careers several times in their lifetime. Not only that, but the concept of holding down one 40-hour-a-week job is in danger of extinction. The reality is that many people now have more than one paid job – either in the form of several part-time ones or by virtue of contracting out their services rather than being employed by a specific company. The variations from one person to another are immense.

In the midst of such rapid change, it’s imperative that we understand how best to deal with transitions, for the way we navigate such unchartered waters will have a major bearing on our capacity to develop a SoulPurpose. All changes, even those that we eagerly look forward to, tend to set off a chain reaction inside each of us. Knowing what we are likely to encounter in a time of transition will help us make it a growing experience.

Transitions come in many shapes and sizes. Some are a change in location: moving house, town or even country. Some are a change in role: a student takes up employment, a mother leaves paid work to care for a child, a father retires, an adult son takes up the task of caring for a parent who once cared for him.

Some transitions are ones we plan and initiate, such as getting married, having a child, or changing jobs to gain a more desirable position. Others come totally from left field, hitting us like a crunching, winding tackle. A loved one dies suddenly. We are made redundant. A crisis at our job jolts us into seeing how desperately unhappy we are in what we are doing. The shocks can be pleasant ones too: like receiving an offer of a new job without even looking for one! Or surprises that bring mixed and conflicting feelings: an unplanned pregnancy, or a job shift to another place.

Sometimes maturity and personal growth cause the transition. The skills we’ve developed have become too restricted by the job we do. Or the way we related to people in the past is no longer satisfying, and we need to discover new, more effective ways. Or our old expression of faith no longer matches the way our spiritual understanding has grown.

Transitions can result from burnout (stress, overwork, a poorly managed work/rest ratio); rust-out (boredom and lack of challenge) or being kicked-out (redundancy, bankruptcy, or being squeezed out by others). Life crises such as the death of a parent, partner, child or sibling can be the catalyst for a transition, as can the realisation that what we are doing doesn’t really fit who we are.

Regardless of what type of change we face, there is the potential for good and bad. Transitions are disorienting. It’s easy to lose our bearings and our focus on SoulPurpose. Things are out of control – or at least they feel that way. Much loss and grief may be involved. However, with such danger comes a wonderful potential for new insights, new beginnings, and new ways of serving.

Understanding the Stages of Life Transitions

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William Bridges, a consultant and writer, notes three major stages in a transition. [1] First there is the leaving/loss.

  • If it is a change we have a choice about, it begins with growing discontent over our situation. This is the fuel that gets us going, forcing us to make a change. (Of course sometimes we try to ignore this discontent – at least for a while.)

  • The leaving stage is also marked by disengagement from our current state. This enables us to take a more objective view and begin backing off.

  • A side-effect of this process, according to Bridges, is disorientation. In fact, he suggests that there may be a frightening loss of motivation and direction, as we begin to question whether our life is really going anywhere.

  • A further part of the leaving process is the dis-identification and loss that results from leaving a particular role, place or group. It’s often scary to see how much our identity and the way we define ourselves is so wrapped up in the role or situation we are leaving.

  • Disenchantment, states Bridges, is an inevitable result of the leaving process – in which we begin to discover that things were not as they seemed. We need to move on, though we are unsure what to.

This leads us into a neutral zone where disorientation becomes the major feature. Disengaged from what we were previously committed to, this may be a time of reflection. We may appear unavailable or distant to others. The cause of this is our disengagement and the need for time to ponder. In the midst of it all we may well have doubts about where God is in this, and will certainly experience a degree of discomfort as we seek to integrate and make sense of the change. Grief at our loss will also have its impact.

Bridges warns that though we may wish to rush through this part of the transition, there are grave dangers in doing so. For if we give it the time required, eventually we discover we’re in a land of new beginnings, with fresh vision, energy and a renewed direction. A degree of anxiety and apprehension may persist for some – even if we sense the new possibilities. But our cold feet will eventually grow warm. Hopefully it will not be long before we are able to look back and see the new possibilities that have arisen from our time of anxiety.

Career Cycles

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Caple is another writer who has thought a great deal about transitions, particularly as they relate to changing our career.[1] He suggests that we are in fact, continually undergoing a transition process – a kind of Career Cycle.

Caple notes the following parts of the cycle:

  • Discontent – with what we are doing.

  • Exploration – beginning to seek out possibilities.

  • Commitment to change – letting go of the past and setting sail for some (often unknown) future.

  • Renewal – a re-discovered sense of well-being and confidence. The traveller is refreshed and experiences increased energy.

  • Consolidation – coming back to reality, time to settle down a little.

  • Recommitment – acknowledging completion of the whole process, and dedicating ourselves to the tasks ahead.

  • Discontent … and so it goes on.

Though both Bridges and Caple identify valuable steps along the path of transition, neither would suggest that every change includes every step. As you adapt this information for your own life, remember that each situation differs. A time of transition for you may include some of these stages, and omit some. Occasionally all may be present.

Caple’s suggestion – that transitions, particularly those relating to occupations, may have a cyclical nature – is consistent with the concept of seasons/times that Ecclesiastes writes about:

“There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot…

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh…

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them…

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak….” (Ecclesiastes 3:1ff.)

“A time” – the phrase carries with it a sense of divine appointment. God intends for us to have times of activity and of rest, times in our lives of great energy, of accomplishment, but also times when we pull back for a period of replenishment, to reflect on what has happened and to prepare and envision the future. There are seasons in our lives for various things, and rhythms of living under God’s grace.

The exodus – a transition paradigm

As we noted in the previous chapter, in one sense the Bible can be viewed as a series of crises and transitions. And the dominant one in the Old Testament – at least as far as the Jewish people are concerned – is the exodus of Israel from Egypt which brings them eventually to settle in the Promised Land.

This is a powerful example of the transition of a whole people, and of God’s dealings with them. First there is a call to change. Initially it is muted, but the increasingly harsh treatment by the Egyptians stirs up discontent among the Israelites over their present situation. A longing for something more arises. God provides a leader to channel the rising voices into a movement demanding change.

Other elements of the story illustrate many of the steps along the transition process. There is the pull of the status quo, trying to keep the people from change (Pharoah’s determination: “I will not let you go”). Passover night represents the reaching of a commitment to change, and the crossing of the Red Sea represents the point of no return. They then enter the vacillating experience of the neutral zone – in the desert, where doubts arise about God’s provision, questions surface, complaints are voiced. (“We want to go back to Egypt!”)

Then comes the pull of new beginnings –the Promised Land is close. But there is deep anxiety and apprehension about the challenges that lie ahead, with reports from the spies about giants in the land (“What kind of promised land is this?”). Their cold feet lead them back into the wilderness, wandering aimlessly (so it seems) for forty years.

However, eventually the new beginnings can be grasped again. There is fresh energy and vision. Crossing the Jordan, taking the cities and the land, settling down and establishing their life as a free people under God – all this takes time. But it happens. Israel enters a new season together as the people of God. The transition is finally complete.

Going around a lo-o-o-ong bend…

We would all like our times of transition to be smooth and speedy. Like turning right at a T-intersection. A decisive, definite and deliberate change in direction. Over quickly, and on to new sights...

Some may indeed be like that but most are, as the word “transition” implies, a process or period of evolution. A change of season is like driving round a slowly turning bend. It takes time (though generally not as long as the forty years in the wilderness!). It can also be very frustrating because not until we are right around the corner do we see what’s up ahead.

Like so many things in life, a transition is much easier to view in retrospect. The lack of vision and direction we experience is eventually forgotten as we move forward into new territory. Looking back we discover God’s hand at work – when all we could see in the midst of it was confusion.

Helpful Hints for Those in Life Transition

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So how can we best handle the uncertainty of change?

Just knowing that most transitions comprise the three different experiences (endings, a neutral zone, and beginnings) is helpful and reassuring. However here are some other suggestions for the journey. We’ve developed them from William Bridges’ checklist.[1]

Ensure that some familiar things remain in your life

We can cope with only so much change and uncertainty at any one time. That’s why it may help to keep some structures and routines unchanged during the transition. This might be a regular meeting with a group of friends, family celebrations, a routine of some kind as simple as going for a walk each day, and so on.

Beware of the temptation to make things happen

There are times when the longing for security beckons the traveller to turn back to the familiar, or to race ahead – seizing hold of any kind of future that appears to offer the same sense of security. This is a time when the ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty becomes important.

Remember that you are on a well-trodden road. The temptation to make things happen is a normal experience in transitions. Don’t turn back just because of the discomfort associated with leaving the familiar. Likewise be wary of running ahead in an attempt to feel better. A time of reflection allows you to gain from the past before making decisions that will affect the future … whereas running ahead may propel you into a situation similar to the one you’re leaving, just because it feels familiar or secure.

Understand the origins of your discomfort

The transition experience is not normally a comfortable one! As a result, you may easily misdiagnose change as something wrong or disturbing. It’s easy to equate stability and security with “godliness”. But when you leave behind old ways of doing things and embrace new ones ... suddenly the ground feels shaky!

Be aware too that the changes you are experiencing may create some confusion for those closest to you. They are accustomed to certain ways of relating to you. As you change, so will your responses. Family and friends need to learn to adjust to this. At first it may cause them understandable discomfort.

Your time of transition may even uncover some friendships that are not strong enough to handle growth. Remember that your change will affect those around you. Be prepared for (and understanding of) their reactions, which may include hurt, resentment and rejection. Other relationships may grow stronger through your transition.

Be kind to yourself during the transition and recognise your vulnerability.

Some insects make their great leap of growth during the time between the shedding of their former skin and the growing of a newer larger one. At this time of transition they are particularly vulnerable to predators. In the same way, our times of transition give us great potential for growth. But they are also times of vulnerability. Being aware of this will help you be kind and patient with yourself.

Give yourself space to work through the changes at a pace that is manageable for you. This includes practical things like sleep, diet, fresh air, exercise, rest and recreation … and time by yourself.

Consider both the pros and cons of change.

It’s easy to fool yourself into change by stacking the positives against the negatives. In the same way you can resist change by piling up the negatives against the positives! So be honest and try to think beyond the obvious pros and cons.

If the change is something you particularly desire, then explore the potential negatives. That way you’re less likely to be ambushed by unanticipated moments of grief. (Grief is inevitable when any ending occurs.) If the change has not been voluntary, try to see beyond the obvious disadvantages to the possible opportunities. This may not be possible at first, but should become so with time. Remember Trevor and Pat in our story at the beginning of this chapter. You will adjust.

Talk to someone you trust.

We all need a listening ear. Find someone who is prepared just to listen – and to cheer you on as you make your own discoveries. Such a friend may also help you see the costs and benefits of changes that you find hard to see. When you are in the midst of transition you can become embroiled in the day-to-day details of just getting through, while others who know you (but who are less involved) can help by reminding you of the big picture. The support of encouraging friends who can pray and listen as you go through uncharted territory is beyond reckoning!

Reflect on what can be learned from the situation.

Some people make changes to move away from a difficult situation or relationship … only to walk into a carbon copy further down the track. Taking the time to carefully think it all through can help avoid this risk. Here again wise counsel from a trusted friend or counsellor/minister/careers advisor can help you be honest with yourself. Is the new beginning just a replay of an old scenario, or a genuine new start?

Examining your life: times of transition

  1. Choose a transition you have experienced in the past five years, and think through the following questions. (Remember that every transition is unique and the models suggested by Bridges and Caple aren’t intended to be comprehensive or prescriptive in any way. If parts of their models don’t fit your experience, that’s fine!)

  • What were the causes of this transition?

  • Did you instigate it or was it the result of external circumstances?

  • What aspects of the process identified by Bridges and/or Caple occurred in your transition?

  • Looking back, in what ways was God at work in the change that took place? What leads you to believe this?

  • In what ways has the transition brought new beginnings to your life? (Think particularly here of Connection, Fit, Service, Balance and Encouragement – see chapter one.)

  • What would you do differently if you were to go through the same transition again?

  1. Look back at the time line you constructed in chapter ten. Now add to it times of transition in your life that were not simply normal development and maturing. For each transition choose a title which describes the main learning the situation brought you. Mark the transitions which you feel you’ve not yet come to terms with. These are starting points for prayer, and possibly helpful if you decide you would like to talk through the issues with someone you trust.

  2. In what ways can you identify “seasons” in your life up to this point? What were some of the key features of each of these seasons? Think here of ways the seasons stretched and grew you, how your faith was changed, what you achieved, etc.

  3. Think about your current season/time. Are any of the lines of Ecclesiastes 3 especially relevant to where you’re currently at?

Feedback from friends: personal reflections in a small group

Select for group sharing one or more of the four questions in the exercise above. Then in your group session allow members the opportunity to explain their experience. Offer to each person the support and assistance of the group as you help him/her understand more fully the lessons learned and the transitions made.

Question for further discussion: What are some of the main reasons transitions happen? Which reasons are largely external and which ones are internal?


William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Addison-Wesley, 1980)

William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (Addison-Wesley, 1991)

J. Caple, Career Cycles: A guidebook to success in the passages and challenges of your work life (Prentice Hill, 1983)

Gail Sheehy, Pathfinders: Overcoming the Crises of Adult Life and Finding Your Own Path to Well-Being (Bantam, 1981)