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.)