The Christian Life is often described as being a journey. It’s a journey with Jesus; a journey of change; a journey of being ‘transformed’ into the likeness of Christ. We are actually intended – designed, if you will – to grow spiritually. And the Christian can walk secure in the knowledge that Jesus is the One Who will carry the work to completion:
“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6 (KJV))
Now, if you ask any Evangelical Christian about God working change in a believer’s life, he will certainly agree enthusiastically with the idea. The potter’s wheel (Jer 18:1-6), the Refiner’s Fire (Mal 3:3), being ‘…transformed from one degree of glory into another’ (2Cor3:18); these are just three Scriptures that contribute towards forming standard Evangelical doctrine on God’s transforming of believers on an ongoing basis, and there are many more such Scriptures. This is a well-established part of the Christian life, and you won’t find many dissenters on that point.
But the thing is, many believers don’t actually think beyond this concept; they have no idea what this transformation will actually look like in practice – and in any case it’s also going to vary from one person to another. What Jesus works in one person is always, almost by definition, going to be different from what He works in another (Jn 21:22); we are all different and Jesus meets each of us at our point of need.
An example of part of this transformation process is undoubtedly the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, which I have written about before here and here. And since this Dark Night is not actually all that well known about within Evangelical Christianity (although more people are discovering it for themselves simply by going through it), many believers either give up the walk entirely, or they stagnate at that point and can grow no more until they pass through it, if indeed they ever do. Or they live with their doubts and questions and just accept them, but this is not progress in the transformative sense. In my old Evangelical circles, they always used to say that until you have let God do the work He wants to do at the moment, He will not let you progress any further until you’ve jumped that particular hurdle in your life. While I don’t believe that God is actually that two-dimensional, I do sort-of agree with the sentiment behind it in that until you have grown in a particular area, you can’t really make any more progress in that area because part of your ‘toolkit’ of essential background will be missing. But of course, Father is pretty creative when it comes to finding solutions to our individual hurdles, and He does offer us a path through – but still He prefers our co-operation. If we insist on sitting still, He will usually honour that, but your spiritual growth will be delayed in that area until you let Him do what He wants.
So, what does spiritual growth actually look like? Well, by definition, growth implies change. The believer’s attitudes, doctrines, belief systems, trust, faith, will all change with growth. Like with the Dark Night, one of the main obstacles to change is this: that this change is not always understood nor welcomed by fellow believers. The person may be accused of ‘backsliding’ or of ‘falling away’; he may be threatened with ‘hell fire’ if he does not return to his conformative ways; conforming, that is, with the beliefs of the group he is with at the time – church or whatever. In some ways, this is understandable as the group as a whole feels threatened by anything ‘different’; maybe they feel that ‘false doctrine’ may be brought in which will threaten their carefully-constructed faith/doctrinal/belief structure, and the whole thing will come crashing down like the proverbial house of cards. You can’t really blame them; in some ways it’s actually an animal herd-instinct kind of thing. But the simple fact is that someone undergoing spiritual growth will change. It’s the normal way of things. And it may cause the changing believer to feel alienated, rejected and alone. Sometimes this is exactly why some people simply live with their doubts or other change pressures; they want to conform, they have a fear of rejection and so they stay where they are. And the irony here is that many Evangelicals – I remember it clearly from my time under that banner – would say that ‘if you’re not moving forwards, you’re backsliding’. Personally, I disagree with their physics/navigation in that idea, but the irony still stands. And we should not be trying to please men – which is what the ‘herd instinct’ wants to do – but God (Gal 1:10; Jn 12:42-43, Lk 16:15)
But the thing is that, no matter what the believer’s acquaintances think, this change is real and it’s God that’s doing it. So what’s the answer? Well, as usual, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. What if Evangelicalism has become so insular, so inward-looking, and so suspicious of outside influences, that Evangelical Christians in general are unaware of what’s happening? What if, in fact, unbeknownst to Evangelicalism in general, it is a recognised phenomenon that spiritual growth implies (often radical) change?
Well, in fact, this is indeed the case. It is indeed well-recognised that an individual’s faith and belief structure should normally go through doubt, questioning, revision and similar changes. We are mere mortals; how can we ever imagine that we can understand the vast mysteries of God in one go? So, in order to make this stuff a little clearer, and to reassure my readers that this is indeed a normal part of Christian growth, I would like to advance the idea of the ‘Stages of Spiritual Growth’ in this series – which may span several weeks, or even months – and the instalments of which will likely be interspersed with articles on other subjects.
In this series, then, I will be exploring this idea of the Stages of Spiritual Growth*, which is actually one of the most important discoveries/observations for a modern believer to be aware of.
To quote Dr. M. Scott Peck, from whom we are going to be hearing much more in this series,
“Just as there are discernible stages in human physical and psychological growth, so there are stages in human spiritual development… But I first came to an awareness of these stages through my own personal experience.
“The first of these experiences occurred within I was fourteen and began attending Christian churches in the area. I was mainly interested in checking out the girls but also in checking out what this Christianity business seemed to be about. I chose one particular church because it was only a few blocks down the street and because the most famous preacher of the day was preaching there. It was in the day before the “electronic church,” but this man’s every sermon was broadcast over almost every radio frequency across the country. At fourteen I had no trouble spotting him as a fraud. On the other hand, up the street in the opposite direction was another church with a well-known minister–not nearly as famous as the first but still probably among the top thirty in the Who’s Who of preachers of the day-a Presbyterian named George Buttrick. And at age fourteen I had no trouble spotting George Buttrick as a holy man, a true man of God. What was I to think of this with my young brain? Here was the best known Christian preacher of the day, and as far as I could discern at age fourteen, I was well ahead of him. Yet in the same Christian religion was George Buttrick, who was obviously light years ahead of me. It just didn’t compute. So I concluded that this Christianity business didn’t make any sense, and I turned my back on it for the next generation.
“Another significant non computing experience occurred more gradually. Over the course of a decade of practicing psychotherapy a strange pattern began to emerge. If people who were religious came to me in pain and trouble, and if they became engaged in the therapeutic process, so as to go the whole route, they frequently left therapy as atheists, agnostics, or at least skeptics. On the other hand, if atheists, agnostics, or skeptics came to me in pain or difficulty and became fully engaged, they frequently left therapy as deeply religious people. Same therapy, same therapist, successful but utterly different outcomes from a religious point of view. Again it didn’t compute–until I realized that we are not all in the same place spiritually.
“With that realization came another: there is a pattern of progression through identifiable stages in human spiritual life. I myself have passed through them in my own spiritual journey. But here I will talk about those stages only in general, for individuals are unique and do not always fit nearly into my psychological or spiritual pigeonhole.
“With that caveat, let me list my own understanding of these stages and the names I have chosen to give them…”
And that is where we are going. I will be examining why we feel and behave the way we do as believers, why we face so much opposition from our peers, and why these changes in our lives can produce so much fear, uncertainty and division amongst people who love and care for us, and are fearful of, and disturbed by, the changes they see – fearful either for us, or for themselves. And I will also be hoping to encourage you by reducing or even removing completely that fear, and to help you to reassure others too in a similar way. And, who knows? This knowledge may even help us on the path towards reconciliation between the various warring factions of Christendom.
This is an exciting project for me, which I have been thinking deeply about for a long time, and it will be hard work, but equally it will be well worth it. I believe that education is a very important tool that can open up entirely new areas that we never dreamed possible, and that’s my intention with this series. You will doubtless find yourself reading certain things and thinking (maybe even out loud!) “Oh, yes! That’s exactly how I feel!” And in so doing, your eyes will be opened, your understanding increased, and your Christian maturity deepened.
That’s my prayer for you for this series.
*Note that, in this series, I will be using the terms ‘Stages of Spiritual Growth’ and ‘Stages of Faith’ interchangeably. This is quite deliberate.
4 thoughts on “The Stages of Spiritual Growth”
“one of the main obstacles to change is this: that this change is not always understood nor welcomed by fellow believers. The person may be accused of ‘backsliding’ or of ‘falling away’; he may be threatened with ‘hell fire’ if he does not return to his conformative ways; conforming, that is, with the beliefs of the group he is with at the time ”
It is ironic that I experienced this when I broke with the Tibetan Buddhist tradition where I spent 12 years as an ordained monk in order to return to a “Jesus” based spirituality.
Instead of hell-fire it was “negative karma” for many lifetimes for forsaking my ordination vows and for going against my “guru”.
Different terms, same tactics!
I left because of a deepening understanding that a spiritual path cannot be locked within a rigid “only-one-correct-way-to-grow” mentality, and that the states of mind that Buddhism said we can attain are not actually attained at all, but given freely to us by a Living Presence behind it all.
But the result of being rejected by the tradition I was leaving was the same.
I think it demonstrates that there is a larger principle at work here that is happening to people regardless of the tradition they are currently in. They are being called to step away from any rigid thinking and are being led to an inner experience of the Living Presence within.
Interesting. You have mentioned the ‘same sh1t, different wrapper’ observation to me before, and this to me is ample evidence that these spiritual growth ideas are wider-spread than merely in Christianity. Thanks for a great comment!
Excellent article, Tony!
Ta bud 🙂