Though few in number, there are enough biblical accounts of child and adolescent experiences to formulate a biblical perspective on the spiritual development of children and youth. In particular, the accounts of Joseph, Samuel, David, Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus show us that the biblical chroniclers considered preadult experiences to be significant and instructive for future generations-particularly for their showing God to be active in the lives of young people. The message of the biblical chroniclers seems to be that the spiritual experiences of the young prepare them for the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood and that adults have a responsibility to nurture and direct youth so that youth respond to God's call. Three examples of childhood experiences and three of experiences in adolescence will suffice to make this message clear.
THE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES OF SAMUEL, JOHN THE BAPTIST, AND JESUS
The childhood experiences of Samuel in the Old Testament and John the Baptist and Jesus in the New Testament affirm that youth are called to respond to the divine presence as it is revealed in and through their formative years:
"And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men" (1 Sam. 2:26). "And the child (John) grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel" (Luke 1:80).
"And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52). The accounts of the childhood experiences of Samuel, John the Baptist, and Jesus depict spiritual experience not as an end in itself but as preparation for full adult participation in the community of faith and society. Also, and as the preceding quotes make clear, these stories suggest that for the biblical chroniclers, growth refers not to physical growth but to spiritual growth or development. Samuel grows in stature, John the Baptist in strength, and Jesus in wisdom-but all three (stature, strength, and wisdom) have a central spiritual meaning.
The biblical accounts also make clear that parents and adult mentors play central roles in nurturing the spiritual development of the young. Hannah, Elkanah, and Eli superintend young Samuel's spiritual development. Elizabeth and Zechariah promote John's intense relationship with God, and Mary, Joseph, and a number of teachers set the stage for Jesus' adult life as a servant of God.
These accounts, though similar in important respects, offer different and complementary principles regarding the support needed for children to develop spiritually. In the case of Samuel, the message is that formative religious observance and activity can set the stage for children's ability to receive divine revelation, guidance, and direction. The message is that mystical experience can come to children provided they have prepared themselves or been prepared to receive the divine call.
Samuel's childhood is spent in the Temple where he serves as an apprentice to Eli the high priest (1 Sam. 1:18). In both Jewish and Christian traditions, children are to be encouraged to participate in religious observances and worship. The practical experience gained enables the testing and development of a child's gifts and skills. Accordingly, Samuel is permitted to serve as a "boy wearing a linen ephod" even before he experiences the voice of God. In the famous account of Samuel's hearing God's call (1 Sam. 3:1-18), the chronicler indicates that "Samuel did not yet know the Lord: the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him" (1 Sam. 3:7). Acting as a spiritual director, Eli counsels Samuel on how to respond to God's call-showing that adult mentors provide needed support in the spiritual development of the young by helping them understand and respond to God's call.
The biblical account of Samuel's childhood also confirms the Jewish and Christian conviction that God seeks to bless the development of children who dedicate their lives to fulfilling the divine purpose. 1 Samuel's depiction of Samuel's development concludes thusly, "The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground" (1 Sam. 3:19). The New Testament's account of Jesus' development illustrates additional biblical principles of spirituality in childhood. The gospel of Matthew, in seeking to promote the Christian claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish Messianic expectations (Matt. 1:22-23; 2:5-23), locates Jesus' spiritual development in childhood within the larger development of Israel as the people of God. The events during Jesus' infancy recapitulate Israel's formative Genesis and Exodus experience- both in the nativity event and in the flight from Egypt in response to the threat of being killed by King Herod (Matt. 2:13-23). The message here is that a child's spiritual development takes place within the context of the spiritual development of a child's family, community, or people. Developmental themes are, then, bequeathed to children by parents, extended family, ancestors, and whole cultures and nations. As a result, children are provided the possibility of living these themes out in new and creative ways.