The Stages of Spiritual Growth – Discussion and Reflection

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series The Stages of Spiritual Growth

Over the last few months, I have been writing my series of posts on the Stages of Spiritual Growth, and we have come a long way on our journey of discovery in this fascinating subject. We’ve read about what it can be like in all the different stages, their characteristics, their advantages and disadvantages, the transitions and the hurdles on the path. We’ve heard about the frustrations, the joys and the challenges, while all the while acknowledging that these are but stages in a journey; a path and indeed a lifetime of discovery of the wonders of God.

It’s been quite a ride.

So here, then, I present a final essay in which I will make some concluding comments about how we can apply our new knowledge.

And I’m sorry it has taken so long to get this piece to publication – but I have had to put a lot of thought into it. Some of it’s recap; some of it is comment and application.

Perspective

When talking about the Stages of Faith/Stages of Spiritual Growth, I think it’s very important to remember two related points.

Firstly, the ‘Stages’ concept is only a model (shh!) [1] and it does not necessarily apply to everyone. Not everyone goes through the Stages in the same way, and some do not go through them at all, in the strictest sense.

Secondly, we must be careful not to try to place others on some sort of ‘progress scale’ that in fact they may not even be on. For example, ‘She’s going through Stage 4’, or ‘That’s typical Stage 3 behaviour’. Having said that, we may well recognise for ourselves our own place in the growth Stages, but that’s fine because that’s about ourselves, not others. Anyway, the take-home message is that the Stages are not intended to be used for labelling people; this is something I am quite averse to anyway, because to my mind, labels introduce limitations and increase preconceptions and judgmentalism. The Stages of Faith are not intended to be yet another set of criteria for Christians to use to judge others. So let’s not go there, ok?

Equally, though, there needs to be a consciousness, especially in Church leadership, that some people do indeed go through these Stages, and virtually all Christians must and will grow in their faith as part of their Christian walk, even if it is not via recognisable Stages. As we have already seen, what this will look like is going to be different for each individual, but the main manifestation of such growth is going to be change. You can’t have growth without change, because growth is by definition a change from one state to another.

A Safe Place

Having studied this subject in considerable depth, I have come to the place where I believe that not everyone is called to change in the way that movement through the Stages would suggest. For most people, just getting on with their normal Church life is all that God requires. Here’s an excerpt from a blog by my friend Peter, whose article I will link to in my references at the end of this piece:

“I am very conscious of the need to recognise that only some committed Christians are being called outside the walls of traditional Christianity at this time. The journey is often referred to as a time of detox or a wilderness experience […] Many people have attempted to describe how faith changes, matures and develops through life. Fowler uses ‘Stages of Faith’ (that tends to suggest a logical hierarchical approach), others have referred to styles or zones of faith (less rigid and allowing for overlap).

“For many people their experience of faith changes with adulthood – sometimes radically and unalterably transformed as they move into new ‘phases’ of faith.

“The great majority who attend church regularly could probably be described as in a ‘conformist stage’ where they are acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and where there is the security of being part of a like-minded community. I see this as a valid position for many church-going Christians that should not be disturbed.

“Many are committed workers with strong loyalty to their church community, often with deep but unexamined convictions. They often focus on relationships with God and the important people in their lives – a strong sense of the church as an extended family – there to support each other.

Because of this, they tend to find conflict and controversy threatening to them. They tend to see opposites such as good and bad; sacred and secular; Christian and non-Christian; saved and unsaved. They don’t have an independent perspective.

“(This seems to be a reasonable starting point although it is certainly open to discussion – perhaps it is particularly true of some Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches).

“Problems are thought to arise when some (possibly prompted by the Holy Spirit) become dissatisfied or disillusioned. Because of the ‘walled in’ secure feeling, it often takes a major upset for any transition beyond this stage to take place.

[…]

“The nature of pastoral care needs change over time – the need to understand the differing perspectives – we can all be vulnerable at times – the need for patience! There seems to be a need for Safe Havens – especially for older people?. A need for ministry at many levels – beware of the risk of concentrating only on those in the earlier stages.” [2]

And this is fine. It really does take all sorts, you know.

Stifling Growth

Problems, however, can arise – with both self, others and ‘leadership’ – when the person moving through the Stages is part of a congregation where they have what I might call ‘over-accountability’, or overbearing leadership structures similar to that found in what was formerly called the ‘heavy shepherding’ movement.

People in congregations which practise such accountability are usually highly ‘conformist’ and, as such, they seem to think that what they have is the ‘ultimate’ faith beyond which there is nothing better, and they would find it extremely hard to move out of that Stage and would possibly stagnate, barring a move of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I know this because I was once like that. For such congregations, the problem seems to be that they think there’s nothing else beyond what they have and so it’s harder for them to accept the growth of others – especially members of their group, but also including outsiders too – into faith regions beyond what they have themselves experienced. They feel secure in their knowledge and they usually feel threatened (either consciously or unconsciously) by people being ‘different’, even (and especially) if it’s one of their own number  that has changed/is changing. Invariably, this results in people, who are moving onwards in their faith walk, in a way that the group ‘don’t like’, being labelled as ‘backsliders’, ‘heretics’ or other derogatory terms including the questioning of their salvation. This is so common it gets boring to see. And yet it’s understandable; there is a very real, though usually unacknowledged, fear in some congregants’ minds where they fear departing from the ‘norm’ in case they ‘get their theology wrong’ or ‘get their doctrines wrong’, which is tantamount to ‘getting God wrong’ and then (oh guess what) hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to Hell you go 😉 Needless to say, this kind of background stifles growth almost completely. [4]

In fact, the idea of spiritual growth means that we have to assume that we haven’t got it all right, something that Fundamentalists find difficult. Paradoxically, then, those who firmly believe that their doctrines are set in stone, and believe that with all their heart, are in fact those who will find it more difficult to grow spiritually. In fact, hard-set and firmly held beliefs actually make spiritual growth virtually impossible. We need honesty and repentance to grow out of that mindset.

Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when He spoke to the ‘Rich Young Ruler’ (Mt 19:16-22; Mk 10:17-27; Lk 18:18-23), or that the sick need the doctor, not the healthy (Mt 9:12; Mk 2:17; Lk 5:31). Those who believe they do not need Jesus’s help to change – because they don’t see the need to change – also end up missing out on His company; the Bible is full of examples of God saying that He draws near to those who are less than perfect. God humbles the proud, but lifts up the humble (James 4:6). Maybe that’s what that means.

But, at the same time, I do not believe it is possible to ‘decide’ to move on in our spiritual growth. Everyone grows differently in their faith, and much of the impetus for growth actually springs naturally from our simple everyday walk with Jesus. He leads us where He wants us to go. Maybe the best we can ‘do’, for want of a better term, is to decide in advance that we will co-operate with what the Spirit says to us, even if that appears to contradict our current belief systems – which is in fact what we should expect to some extent, since growth and change mean that things will be different, and that invariably involves belief changes. That, and the confidence in God that allows us to function without fear in the growth environment. There is a lot of depth to Jesus’s words in John 16:12, where He said, “I have so much more to tell you, but you are unable to bear it right now”. Meditate on that for a while…

The Old ‘Me’

One of the problems I have found with looking back on my former Stages is that I do feel some animosity towards (a) the person I was back then, and (b) the fact that there are other, equally obstinate, people still in those Stages who are just as dogmatic and unbending as I was then. It’s not so bad when they keep to themselves, but sometimes it seems they just can’t. But equally, I do not now consider myself to have reached any kind of stage of perfection or anything like that; I have simply grown. And so the temptation to judge my old self, or those like my old self, must be avoided because there is no ‘supremacy’ involved, nor should there be. In a way, we need to keep the good stuff from previous stages while discarding, or at least holding at a distance, the rest. And you can’t fully understand the next stage until you are actually in it, and even then it’s a learning curve.

Remember Love

To summarise this latter set of ideas, remember Love. Under the umbrella of God’s Love for us, and our love for each other as believers, let’s just love one another, and not criticise or judge. Sometimes we need to recognise where our temptation to criticism is coming from; usually it’s a fear of something ‘different’ that threatens our comfortable, secure mindset. I understand that, believe me. As an Autistic person, it’s actually worse for me to cope with than it can be for others. But, as part of loving one another, and as part of encouraging one another’s growth, it’s necessary for us to move outside of that self-protection instinct, and at the very least to not criticise others just because of our own insecurities. If we are threatened by someone else’s growth, maybe we should look at what the root of our own security is, and how that is being threatened by what someone else is doing or even thinking.

The Surprise of the Supernatural

Another point is that the person who interprets the Bible in the Literalist, Inerrantist manner (that is, they take the Bible word-for-word literally, and affirm that it is without error [3]) often has no room for imagination, no belief that the stories they read in their infallible and inerrant Bible could ever be true, or happen for real, for them in their existence here and now. This, possibly unconscious, position of seeing the supernatural as irrelevant is held despite a dogged insistence that the stories of supernatural occurrences, that the Bible is so full of, are in fact true, and actually did happen. In a lot of ways, this is the ironic tragedy of absolute Biblical dependency, in that anything that is not ‘in the Book’ is not valid, or worse, is ‘evil’ or ‘of the devil’. Because of this attitude, it’s as if these people are locked in a dark box which takes (usually) a supernatural breakthrough by the Holy Spirit to enlighten their hearts. That will probably come as quite a surprise!

Despite this, keeping – and in some cases treasuring – the ‘good stuff’ from previous stages is important. For example, the unlearned and automatic and complete trust of the small infant in Stage 0 is exactly the kind of trust exhibited by those in Stage 5/6; in fact, the earlier trust is in many ways more pure, and could therefore be learned from and emulated as being ‘better’ than that in later Stages. Another such example could be that the person learned very many Scriptures before their ‘wilderness experience’ (Fowler’s Stage 4) and they find that those Scriptures are still present, in their mental library, even after decades or more of deconstruction. That was certainly my experience, and I am so glad that it is the case. In this way, the ‘good parts’ of the ‘legacy’ of the previous Stages can be preserved and used by the believer in later Stages.

Learning and Growing

And it’s broader than that. Our whole lives of learning – about life itself, not just about faith issues – are always founded on lessons learned, habits picked up, attitudes assumed, and just life experience in general. We do not see our past experiences as being useless despite their sometimes being obsolete; instead we see them as necessary stones on the path towards maturity, that can be re-used or discarded later in life as required, or not. And the walk of faith is no different. We should expect that some of our ideas, doctrines, dogmas and concepts will become less important over time, and eventually we outgrow them as we learn new things. And there are also things that will always stay with us and be useful.

My personal view is that the Stage to be at is the one you are in at the moment. I think that ‘movement’ from one Stage to another is something that we don’t decide for ourselves, it just kind of happens – maybe being led by God as He reveals new things to the believer.

I also think it’s easier to look back on ‘earlier’ Stages and accept what we thought back then as foundational to who we are now, even though we may have been ‘mistaken’ in some of our beliefs in those earlier Stages, or at least we have moved on from those positions.

The converse, sadly, is not normally true: people at ‘later’ Stages are often seen by those in ‘earlier’ Stages as being ‘backsliders’ because they appear to have ‘drifted’ outside the cultural norm of their faith community. It is also sad that this means they are often seen as ‘heretics’ and are ostracised, where in fact they are actually more mature and have so much to give to their faith communities in terms of edification and growth. The mistrustful attitudes exhibited by those ‘stuck’ in, say Stage 3 (the most common one where its incumbents accuse others of ‘backsliding’) are only depriving them of their own ability to move ‘forward’. In a very real way, they are being ‘left behind’ (oh the irony!). Key to all this is to think what personal spiritual growth could look like; what does it look like if we are ‘changed from one degree of glory to another’? True growth never involves remaining exactly as we are.

The Wisdom Bit

Let’s finish the present discussion on this concept with some wise words on this subject from a couple of friends of mine. Firstly, Jeff Turner:

“One does not despise or loathe their childhood, unless of course it was one of abuse. Rather we look upon it with great fondness and nostalgia. In the case of abuse, it is more than understandable to look upon it with loathing and hatred, but for the one whose childhood was relatively happy, it would be disrespectful, to both the biological process of growth, as well as to our caregivers, to look back and complain how binding it was, and how liberating it is now that we’ve woken up to the wonders of adulthood. If one were to become an evangelistic adult, and went about trying to convert children to adulthood, we would say they’ve lost touch with reality, and were guilty of robbing children of something extremely important and vital.

“In the same way, looking back at your spiritual life and loathing a certain stage of development, is a foolish and unproductive exercise. Blasting one’s past self for not being as enlightened, awakened or rational as one’s present self is, as Alan Watts put it, akin to a bird hating the egg from which it hatched. It’s irrational. Were it not for the egg, you wouldn’t be where you are. Certainly don’t glue it back together and crawl back inside of it, but don’t, at the same time, think of it in terms of disgust. And certainly don’t start an anti-egg campaign, lest you rob the world of birds altogether!

“You aren’t better now, you’re just older and more experienced.

“Some people grow up in secular environments and become religious. Some grow up in religious environments and become secular. Both think that the other is the unenlightened one, and that they are freer and more liberated than them. Both see the reflection of their past self in the other’s present position, and think of it as infantile and constricting. But the one whose position they view this way views the other’s position as something childish that they’ve moved past.

“We are all on a journey, and I’ve a belief about where this journey ultimately ends for all of us. However, in the meanwhile, don’t think of your spiritual and philosophical “childhood” as something worthy of mockery and derision, but rather as that which brought you to where you are. Without them, you wouldn’t be you. And future you ought to remember this when looking back at the very confident, present you as well. You may feel more liberated now that you’ve left behind a certain belief, but someone else feels just as liberated for having left behind the beliefs you presently are revelling in. People are not slaves simply because they think in ways you no longer think, and vice versa. We are all going somewhere, and since none of us begin at the same place, we will not progress at the same pace.

“May we all learn to love the former versions of ourselves, and the reflections of them that we see in both our neighbor and ‘enemy’ .”

 

And more from Chris Martin:

“None of us have it all figured out. We can learn so much from each other. But only if we understand we are all at different stops along our journey. Doctrines, theology, beliefs…we’re all brought up believing certain things about God and who He is. We have a number of different influences, whether it’s parents, culture, environment, pastors, teachers, etc.

“Something I’ve learned over the last couple years, and some days still learning, is to be patient with others. Not to assume. To walk in grace and understand we don’t have to agree on everything in order to press on together.

“Fighting and arguing isn’t doing anyone any good at all. Let’s be peacemakers”.

 

“Everyone is at a different point on their spiritual walk, and it is folly to reject that upon which our current faith structure is built. I think for me personally, the problems come when non-understanding people, who are where I was twenty years ago, talk to me as if I know bugger-all about my faith, like I have just woken up one morning and decided to become an heretic after like 38 years of faith. That’s what grates on me. My problem is to not despise the person I was back then, and, by extension, the reflection of that person I see in others who are still in that place.” – Me

 

“We must be extremely careful not to come off as arrogant when we discover truth others may not yet see. We are all on a journey of discovering who we are, who Papa is, and how we can all walk together in unity. Let’s not preach grace and condemn those who haven’t reached the place where we now stand. Let’s not speak of love while bashing others for their lack of love.

“Most importantly, let’s not act as if we are the only ones who have learned truth. Let’s not act as if we are the only ones receiving revelations from the Father.

“Let’s walk in grace, mercy, compassion and love.” – Chris Martin

Recognise and Remember:

Recognise that your past was important and do not despise those who are still at those stages. Bear with those people in love (Eph 4:2, Col 3:13)

Recognise that spiritual growth involves change, and you might not like what some people’s change looks like.

Remember to respect others’ individual journeys and keep each other safe (note: this does not involve criticising ‘in love’ what their beliefs are becoming like)

Remember that God is still in control and it is Jesus Who will build His Church (Mt 16:18)

Concluding Wisdom

“Once you say ‘higher level’ (regarding one’s level of spirituality), you appeal to the ego, and all the wrong instincts in people.”
-Fr. Richard Rohr

“When you begin to refer to where you’re at on your journey as a “deeper place,” “higher level,” “another dimension,” or some other such thing, you create a space where pride, arrogance, and superiority can thrive in the name or spirituality. No, we’re journeying, and on this journey, mountains are laid low, and valleys exalted. Every place is an equal place for the sincere, it’s just that we are never all in the same place at the same time, and tend to assume wherever we’re at is the place to be.

“The place to be is wherever you are”.

– Jeff Turner

I hope this essay rounds off the series satisfactorily. If you have any comments or points to add, please feel free to comment on this or any other post in this series, as you need.

Thanks for following this subject, and I trust you have grown from reading about it 🙂

Peace and Grace to you.


References and Notes:

[1] From ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ – ‘Camelot!’ ‘Camelot!’ ‘Camelot!’ ‘It’s only a model!’ ‘Sssh!’

[2] Stages of Faith – an article on the blog Outside the Goldfish Bowl – https://outsidethegoldfishbowl.wordpress.com/stages-of-faith/

[3] Literalism and Inerrancy are all very well until one realises that different translations of the Bible very often contain different wording of the same passages (so, how can one take it literally?) and sometimes portray different meanings in one translation, from the meanings in other translations, of the same passage. So how can it be inerrant? Some people take the simple step of assuming that ‘their’ translation is the only ‘correct’ one; usually that would be the King James Version (KJV), which, ironically, is actually one of the more inaccurate translations 😉

[4] If you personally feel that you are growing beyond such a Church structure, the decision as to whether to follow your own conscience, or instead follow someone else’s conscience, is yours, and yours alone, to make.

 

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