Rites of Passage – From Boys to Men

knighthoodI was looking at my 14-year-old son this weekend.  It was the kind of look a parent occasionally gives when they are “soaking in” the gift before them.  I was having a flashback to when he was a baby.  Then I recalled a funny memory when he was a toddler.  Today, he is a freshman in high school, by all definitions, a teenager.  And then my brain started to go to the future.  In four years, he’ll be in college or in the work force.  And then it hit me.  The boy before me will one day (soon) become a man.  But when?   How?  What do I need to do to help him transform?  Or am I already doing it?   Is there a class he should sign up for?   Is there a test to take?  Is there a certificate I can print out?   If you make a boy with “snips and snails and puppy dog tails”, how do you make a man?

In some cultures, there is a specific rite of passage that signifies when this change occurs.

  • For a Jew, a Bah Mitzvah ceremony at age 13 would be the clear rite of passage into adulthood.  
  • Among the cattle herding Barabaig culture of East Africa, their rite of passage is a bit more difficult.  The boys’ heads are shaved and their foreheads are cut with three deep horizontal incisions that go down to the bone and extend from ear to ear.  This mark leaves permanent scars that identify a male as having received “gar.”  Sometimes, the incisions are deep enough to show up on the skulls.
  • Among the Luiseño Indians, boys have to lay on red ant mounds and not cry out from pain as they are repeatedly bitten over long periods of time. They were also given toloache, a powerful hallucinogenic drug that made them ill and apparently sometimes caused their death.
  • Among some Australian Aborigine societies, a boy would have several of his incisor teeth knocked out with a sharp rock by the adult men who were instructing him in the duties and obligations of manhood and the secrets of their religion.

Most of these rite of passage rituals were intended to be painful in order to increase the importance of the transition to adulthood.  If that is the ticket to manhood today, my son might prefer to remain a boy.  After all the money spent on braces, I’m grateful I am not an Australian Aborigine.    

In America, our rite of passage is not so clear.  When does a boy become a man in the land of the free?   When he first shaves the whiskers off his chin?   When he can drive?  When he can vote?  His first real job?  When he has his own checking account?  College graduation?  Marriage?  Sadly, even after some of these landmarks have been passed, many males are still only bigger boys.   In spite of turning 16 or 18 or 21, many males are no closer to manhood simply because they are older.  Regardless of achieving certain cultural milestones (even marriage!), many still act like selfish boys nowhere close to the standard of manhood required for such an endeavor.

What is God’s rite of passage into manhood?  How does God grow a boy into a man?  Apparently, through trials of faith.  Knowing God, this should make sense.  Humans are always focused on the physical, while God is infatuated with the spiritual.  We are focused on the flesh, while God is all about the spirit.  As God reminded the prophet Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7) 

In the book of Daniel (chapter one), you find the story of 3 Jewish boys better known by their pagan names; Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego.  As Jewish exiles in captivity in Babylon, they are ordered by the King to study in the palace.  They were specifically chosen because of their age and special characteristics.  Before chapter one is over, God refers to them as “youths” on four separate occasions.  The implication is clear, God considered them boys. 

While they were at the palace, the “king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table.”  Though the food was fit for a king, it was not fit for a practicing Jew and the dietary restrictions placed on them by the Law of Moses.  Because of this, “Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.  Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other youth your age?  The king would then have my head because of you.”

Daniel then said to the guard, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the youths who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.”  So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.

At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the youths who ate the royal food.  So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.

To these four youths God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.

God, the king, even Daniel agreed with the assessment – they are mere boys.

In chapter 3, King Nebuchadnezzar had made a golden statue (90 feet tall x 9 feet wide) for the entire nation to worship.  At the appointed time, on a musical cue, everyone was to bow down and worship the idol. Those who refused to bow were to be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace.  The musical cue was given and out of an entire nation, apparently only 3 were left standing; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  In spite of their tender age and lacking adult role models, these devout Jewish boys refused to bow to any god but their own.

The boys who chose to honor God with their diet were equally committed to honoring God with their feet.  Their decision to stand was clearly life threatening. 

  • Within minutes, these defiant boys would be identified.  Within minutes so would their faith. 
  • Moments earlier, they blended in with the crowd.   Moments later, they stood out from it. 
  • Their bodies looked like that of a boy.  Their spirit was that of a man. 
  • Their age was that of a child.  Their faith was that of an adult. 

Their rite of passage into manhood had begun.  Notice the change of description God gives boys who exercise such faith.  

  • Nebuchadnezzar was told of their civil disobedience, “These men , O king, have disregarded you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.
  • Then Nebuchadnezzar in rage and anger gave orders to bring Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; then these men were brought before the king.”

Boys would “cower” before a king.  Men will not.  As the King interrogated them about their decision to stand, he gave them one more opportunity to recant their defiant decision.   His satanic threat could not be missed.  His tone could not be more serious.  His intimidation could not be more real, Now when you hear the sound of the music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Their response is as impressive as it is unflinching, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.   If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Threats can intimidate a fearful boy.  It does not move a man a faith.  In spite of a private audience with an enraged dictator, they trusted God with the results. 

Their manhood is further etched in Scripture, “Then these men were tied up in their trousers, their coats, their caps and their other clothes, and were cast into the midst of the furnace of blazing fire.  But these three men , Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, fell into the midst of the furnace of blazing fire still tied up. Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astounded and stood up in haste; he said to his high officials, “Was it not three men we cast bound into the midst of the fire?” They replied to the king, “Certainly, O king.” He said, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!  The satraps, the prefects, the governors and the king’s high officials gathered around and saw in regard to these men that the fire had no effect on the bodies of these men nor was the hair of their head singed, nor were their trousers damaged, nor had the smell of fire even come upon them.”

Before the testing of their faith, they were boys.  Afterward, they were regarded as men. 

Boys, have you passed through God’s rite of passage yet?   Apparently it is not an age requirement or the ability to jump over some cultural milestone.  It seems to have less to do with your body and more to do with your spirit.  In God’s economy, it seems to be less physical and more spiritual.  If that is true, how old are you really?   By human standards, you may be 14 – but would God consider you a man of faith?   By a human calendar the culture may say you are a man – but are you so in God’s eyes?

Remember, we are to have a child-like faith, not a childish one. (Matthew 18:3-5)   Just like in our physical world, God’s goal is maturity… in faith.  This was Paul’s frustration with the church in Corinth when he wrote, “I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly — mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?”  (I Corinthians 3:1-3)

God is looking to change boys into men.  Unfortunately, too many boys have too few men to look to as guides.  Too many boys remain boys far too long in our current culture.  Too many men look to an incorrect standard to measure their masculinity.  Sadly, we have somehow equated manhood with success or sexual prowess when God appears to measure it via spiritual maturity.

Adult, how old are you really – in God’s eyes?   You might be an adult in your body but are you really one in your spirit?

At age twelve we are told that “Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:52)

The Apostle Paul declared, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.” (I Corinthians 13:11)

As I groom my son to become a man one day, I’m tempted to take him fishing.  Or hunting.  Or show him how to shoot a gun.  Or use a hammer.   Or change the oil.  Or rotate the car tires.   All good things for men to know.   But without passing the baton of my faith, what have I really given him?