Ahh, the joys of adult children. I adore my little children, especially during the early years when they still think I am wonderful. The tween years can be challenging, but have many joys. Then the teen years hit, and Mom and Dad have to learn serious self restraint to keep from banging their heads on the wall. Finally, our offspring make it to adulthood and begin the morph from our children to our friends. It’s a beautiful thing to watch these changes, and as I look at my adult children I am grateful that God was beside me every step of the way.
Recently my daughter had to write a paper for her college class and asked me to proofread it for her. It was based upon an article that outlined psychologist Lawrence Kehlberg’s six stages of moral development. As I read her paper, I was fascinated at how accurate these stages were, both for physical growth from childhood to adulthood, but also how accurate they were from a spiritual growth perspective.
Stage one morality is morality that is motivated by fear of punishment. The individual obeys because they are afraid of the consequences. All mommies understand that when their children are very small they cannot understand the whys and why nots of what they can and cannot do; rather a gentle swat on the bottom or slap on the hand deters the child from inappropriate or dangerous behavior.
From a spiritual perspective I believe many Christians are baptized simply because they don’t want to go to hell. This is a good motivation; I don’t want them to go to hell either! But it is simplistic and demonstrates a child-like attitude toward their Christian walk.
26 For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Hebrews 10:26-27
Baptism does indeed save us from hell; from the “fearful expectation of judgment.” But wait, there’s more . . .
Stage two morality, according to Kohlberg, is still motivated by a fear of punishment, but now there is also a desire to get something out of it. For example, a child might consider whether the disobedient act is worth the spanking he’s going to receive after he is caught. If the cost outweighs the benefits then he’ll obey.
Spiritually speaking, I have seen young Christians go through this stage. In fact, I’m positive I went through it also, as I was baptized as a young teen. We obey God because we’re afraid of the punishment, but now we begin to try to look for loopholes, or ways we can still do what we want without incurring God’s wrath. I see people do this a lot when they try to justify their behaviors; sometimes the mental gymnastics we go through to justify what we want are worthy of Olympic gold medals. But what is our motivation?
Stage three morality makes a developmental leap. In this stage we are no longer as motivated by consequences or selfishness, but now we begin to see how our moral choices are viewed by and affect the people around us. In this stage we are motivated by the opinions of those around us and a desire to please them. This appears to be the stage when children are entering adolescence and are beginning to be more motivated by peer pressure. All parents know how important it is to help our children choose friends wisely, especially at this stage!
In this spiritual stage I see young Christians beginning to carefully watch the people around them in the church. They sometimes understand that certain behaviors are right or wrong based upon how the people around them conduct themselves. They might not understand yet why these things are right or wrong, but they see how a Christian conducts herself and conforms to that behavior.
Stage four is related to stage three in that it is morality based upon the people around them, but it expands to include a larger community. Rather than just restricted to family and friends, it also includes society as a whole and is based upon knowledge that the laws and restrictions placed upon us are there for a good reason and thus should be obeyed for the good of all the people. Stage four is where many people stop in their moral development.
In our Christian lives I believe the same is true. Many people recognize that God’s laws are just and right and obey them because they believe that by doing so they contribute to church unity and are being pleasing to God. This is good motivation and is supported by scripture:
32 Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. 1 Corinthians 10:32
There are two more stages of morality as outlined by Kohlberg. Stages five and six are called “Postconventional Morality,” and the focus shifts back from the social perspective to the individual perspective. Rather than being selfish in motivation, however, the individual examines the meaning and reasons behind the regulations that govern their lives. In stage five, a person will consider what the purpose is behind a law, and then decide if the law should be obeyed. An example of this might be someone who understands that we drive more slowly in a school zone for the safety of children who might be present, and so obeys the law because it is right morally. Conversely, if the individual decides that a law is morally wrong they might decide to disobey, as in the case of Christians who defy the government when its laws contradict their moral convictions.
In our Christian walk this stage is an important shift. It is when we start understanding why God gave us the rules He did, and obey them because we know that they are righteous and just. We begin to grasp God’s amazing wisdom and see how we are just like tiny children in comparison.
Stage six is the final stage, and is the pinnacle of our moral development. At this stage the individual has advanced to the point of moral maturity and acceptance of the responsibility for one’s own actions. We, at this point, know what is right and wrong, why it is right and wrong, and make our choices based upon these principles. Our behavior is no longer based upon what others think about us, but rather what we think about us. We have established moral principles and use them as the basis for our lives.
From a Christian perspective, this is the stage when we have achieved spiritual maturity and are prepared to stand alone, if necessary, for what we believe is right. This is the point at which we no longer are swayed by society’s standards and the opinions of our peers and make our choices based upon what we know is right and wrong. Examples of Christians who have reached this kind of spiritual maturity might be the men and women we see who teach the Word of God boldly and accurately; people who know the Word, believe it and can teach it with wisdom and clarity.
After reading the article (and Amanda’s homework assignment), I realized these stages are an accurate representation of the stages we go through spiritually as well as physically. We all need to try to grow in our faith and knowledge so that we can achieve this kind of spiritual maturity. If we’re not growing in Christ then we’re stagnating, and this kind of Christianity is not pleasing to God, Revelation 3:16. Let us all strive to grow closer to Him, as well as closer to one another through Him.
by Fern Boyle