As a teenager and as a young college student, I noticed a recurring theme in all of the Christian teaching I received:
Your choices can make you or break you.
Sunday School teachers and pastors and studies warned about the importance of choosing the right friends and making the right choices at group gatherings and parties and in high-pressure social situations. Peer Bible studies taught how to choose the right sort of boyfriend and how to conduct the right sort of relationship. Think about your choices, I heard over and over again. Even the small ones. They determine who you will become.
Those lessons were important to me growing up. And the message to consider choices carefully remains important to adolescents, who grow up in a crucible where – even in the most worldly, secular sense – their choices do determine a lot about their future. Choices about what to study and how hard to study and how much to prepare and what college to apply to (or not!) have a significant impact on what they will claim as a profession. Friends can influence hobbies, behaviors, and attitudes. The kind of boyfriend or girlfriend you choose or don’t choose can influence how you approach relationships, what type of person you look for, and maybe even the person you choose to marry.
The thing is that these lessons on choices, or at least the urgency of them, often disappear once we reach adulthood. I suspect that’s because, among Christians, there’s a sense that we’ve “made it” if we head into our adult years with our faith and our lives mostly in one piece. Gone, we like to think, are the high-pressure days of navigating social pressures and expectations and building our future. Gone are the dangerous, life-derailing temptations that threaten to damage the future and our relationship with God.
Except that isn’t really the case.
Our choices matter as adults, too. And we face choices of great import that our younger selves never really contemplated. To what degree will be place our satisfaction or our identity in material wealth and gain? To what degree will God have a say in our finances? What sort of marriage will we build? How will our relationship change with our parents and our families as we grow – and they do, too? How will we raise our children? What will we center our lives around? How do we maintain and develop friendships? How do we draw boundaries? How do we find a church and a role within that church? How will we define our priorities, respond to social pressures, and approach others with compassion, grace, and mercy?
These choices build our selves, too, and they determine the nature of who we will become and be in all of the remaining time here on earth. In that way, they’re just as significant and defining as the choices we make as teenagers: we are, every day, faced with opportunity to mold ourselves into what God wants and dreams for us to be. We’re not “defined” or “finished” once we reach adulthood; there’s an enormous amount of growing left to do.
I have done more spiritual growing in my thirties than I can remember doing since college; I know believers who are changing and shaping themselves in marvelous ways as they approach their forties and fifties and sixties and even their later years. Social pressures and high-stress situations aren’t limited to our teenage years: ask the executive who has to face the CEO, the mother who is trying to raise a wild child, the thirty-something who realizes that the potential for drug and alcohol addiction isn’t limited to the teens and twenty-somethings.
Luke 2:52 tells us that, as He grew, Jesus “kept increasing in wisdom and stature.” I love the imagery of that line: He was growing as He grew! His spirit was keeping pace with His height. And up until His death on the cross, every choice He made was deliberate, considered, and absolutely life-defining. Every action He took, every event or person He prioritized, everything He said: all of it was relevant, fundamental, to defining the Savior that He was.
When I think back to the refrain of my teenage years – your choices can make you or break you – what I hear in them is the reminder I still very much need as an adult: that I ought to consider carefully the things that I do and say, because they play a part in making me. They are defining the person I am becoming. And I’m being prideful if I act as though those lessons are for teenagers.
I’m not beyond them.
None of us are.