Christian adulting

June 19th, 2017

Thanks to the internet, language evolves at high speed. Adulting is now a verb. It means to behave like an adult or do the tasks associated with being an adult.

Linguists and sociologists find this kind of word transformation fascinating, because it reflects more than just fads. It indicates changes in our society. As this Time article points out, the patterns of the last several decades have been accelerating, in large part thanks to the economy, the shrinking middle class, and growing inequality: young people marry and start families later, if at all. They have more difficulty finding and keeping jobs. The traditional markers of “adulthood” elude their grasp, and they are conscious of the fact that they will likely not be better of than their parents economically.

One result of this social angst expressed on social media has been the rise of the word adulting, which gets used in a variety of ways — either lamenting that one cannot properly adult, rejoicing that one is getting the basic tasks of life done, or indicating an ironic distance between the way one feels and the way one is expected to act.

Language snobs who dislike the verb should consider that the word “parenting” has only been a word since 1959 — several decades after the word teenager entered the lexicon.

In the dubious way we label generations, I’m “Generation X.” I sympathize with millennials’ public crisis of finding adulthood perplexing. That magical moment where you feel like you are adulting competently can be elusive, and you begin to suspect that everyone is faking it. Thanks to popular speakers like Brené Brown, who celebrates vulnerability, and Amy Cuddy, who talks about body language and feeling like an imposter, there seems to be more courage to share our fears and failure to adult on social media.

I think this word adulting — and the ambivalence behind it — is a gift. If Christians framed more of their theology and practice in terms of adulting, of growing into spiritual maturity, I think we’d understand our faith much better and more humanely.

First of all, we’d understand that we are all works in progress. As a parent, I want my teenager to learn certain practices and habits that will help manage an adult life. But I also understand that learning these habits takes time. Christian practice likewise takes time and repetition. Bible study, daily prayer and devotion, worship and sacrament, all are practices that become part of who we are. Saying, “Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” every week during Communion shapes how I see and understand the world. While I may commit myself to knowing and following Christ in a moment, the work Christ does in me takes a lifetime.

Second of all, we’d understand how doctrine and practice relate to each other organically. Rather than arguing about whether we are saved by works or faith, we could acknowledge that grace is something that grows both faith and works in us over time. Rather than pit Law against Grace, or free will against God’s sovereignty, or Jesus’ humanity against Jesus’ divinity, we’d understand that these are two sides of the same coin.

Imagine if we posed similar questions about becoming an adult: “Is it balancing a checkbook, making a budget or keeping a calendar that make you into an adult, or are these simply things that adults do because they are adults?” This is a nonsense question. Clearly, learning to keep a calendar, or other disciplines that reflect personal responsibility, are part of growing up. They do help shape our character inasmuch as they help us take care of business and become habits. But they themselves are not the things that make us adults.

I can imagine someone adulting well who does not do those things — especially if they live in a different culture — but they probably do some other kind of responsible disciplines. Balancing a checkbook is neither necessary nor sufficient to adult successfully, but it does represent a pattern we associate with being an adult. Someone who does such things is either responsible, or on their way to being responsible.

Christian maturity is a big theme in Paul’s writing. He talks about, “building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son.” He says that, “God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). In his famous “Love Chapter,” he says that mature Christian love means putting away “childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

Like real adulting, Christian maturity is something that seems elusive. If you make too big a deal of being mature, you probably aren’t there yet. It’s something that sneaks up on you without your realizing it. It may even feel like you are “faking it until you make it.” It has to do with adopting certain practices and practicing them until they are habits. Habits, in turn, become character.

There is one more way that the Christian life is like adulting: We all fail at it. At some point, we will act like spiritual toddlers throwing a temper tantrum. We may look around and wonder why it seems hard for us while it’s so easy for others. But the truth about Christian adulting is that we only get there by humbly acknowledging that we all fail at it. We’re in the same boat, coaching each other and cheering each other on for each tiny act that brings us closer to maturity in Christ. 

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