When my brother was three, he wanted to be a boa constrictor. As an adult, he settled on becoming a doctor. At my son’s kindergarten graduation, the kids announced their future, grown-up careers: “Marine biologist.” “Architect.” Three kids in a row declared they would be archers! Every kid, from potential doctors to boa constrictors, was 100% confident this could be the trajectory of their lives. We adults weren’t going to tell the kid who wants to be a snake that it’s time to face reality. We know, as they mature, they’re going to figure out life isn’t all that simple. Archery won’t pay the bills. Humans can’t grow scales. Medical school is expensive. It’s still possible—except for the scales—but to achieve it, you’ve got to be realistic about the path you’re embarking on.
Like those kids, believers have an inner, unconscious picture of what we think Christian growth and maturing should look like. This unarticulated, inner ideal both drives us and shames us. It tells us what kind of Christian we “should” be. Most of us live unaware that it’s even talking to us. Its voice is full of measurements and comparison.
What does your inner imagination tell you about what the path of Christian maturing should look like?
For some, their inner ideal looks like this: a staircase of peaks and valleys. Ultimately, they’re headed to some higher destination. They’re reaching for that final mountaintop after having learned all the character-refining lessons necessary in the valleys of interruption. Finally! They’ve arrived at…? (You fill in the blank.)
For others, the inner ideal to which they compare their own faith journey is an arrow upward, pointing toward a superhuman life. (Aren’t we to be “changed from glory to glory”?) If we do this Christian thing right, there shouldn’t be any valleys, any doubts, any backsliding, any sickness, or any poverty. The list can go on depending on the denominational background. With enough faith and Holy Spirit, Christian maturing should be a steady ascension to…? (Fill in the blank.)
Everyone’s inner ideal may be a bit different, and all contain some truth. Life’s valleys do instruct our souls. Signs and wonders are part of kingdom living. You might be saying (correctly) your goal is to be perfected into the image of Christ. But, most of us are like a teenage girl surrounded by photoshopped magazine cover models—our view of Christian perfection is a bit twisted. Even that inner ideal probably needs a good shaking! If the end goal of your spiritual walk is perfecting it to ensure God’s blessings, fulfillment, miracles or destiny…that’s not Christian trajectory.
“Relationship with God is not a means to an end, not a way to gain treasure; instead, God is our treasure.” – Skye Jethani
If you’ve been taught you can achieve sinlessness, avoid suffering, failure, or pain…or at least walk through it on soft, billowy clouds buoyed up by the Spirit, then you’re reaching for nirvana, not heaven. To be changed by Love into love doesn’t mean you will become something beyond human, no longer touched by the passion or pain of the skin you live in or the world you walk on.
Dr. Benner suggests we are both “spiritual beings on a human journey” and “human beings on a spiritual journey.”
“Both journeys are crucial, and each should complement the other. Any religion or spirituality that seeks to make us less than, more than, or other than human is dangerous.”
Here’s another way to imagine spiritual development that walks hand-in-hand with our human development. This diagram relates to James Fowler’s 6 Stages of Faith written about in [Part 1]. And, we will look in depth into the specific stages in Parts 3 and 4.
Imagine the circle below is you. It’s your identity.
Where is God in this diagram?
He’s everywhere! He fills it all. His truth and His love permeate the entirety of the model, only we are too small to see it all at first, too small to bring it into ourselves. As we progress through these phases of faith, we grow and expand. Jesus said of Himself and the Father, “We will come and make our home in them” (John 14:23).
Imagine the size of the home you’ve constructed for God is the smallest circle, waiting to be filled up with an experiential understanding of who God is and who you are to Him. The lines between each circle represent barriers between each stage of expansion. You will feel the press of the smallness of your world at certain ages, inviting you to dismantle your last home and walk into a wider-sense of self and God. Also, greater life circumstances—both painful and wonderfully stretching—invite us into this destruction and reconstruction process. These transformations produce Christlikeness.
The Circles and Stages of Faith:
Me & Mom – When you were born, your life consisted of only the smallest circle. It was just you and mom and dad (or whomever raised you) and siblings. They defined your world and identity. Children everywhere badger their parents with the phrase, “Look at me! Look at me!” Developmentally, there’s a reason for this. Our reactions to our children define the foundation of their identity. Essentially, they are saying: “I exist because you see me, and I become what you see.” (Stage 1,2/Literalist)
My Tribe – As you grow and your world grows larger, you take on more meaning and identity derived from your friends, your culture, community of faith, etc. Once, my son was chatting to his friend about God as I drove. His friend responded for himself and his family: “We don’t believe in God. We’re Atheists.” Identity is formed at this stage by determining: “We are not that; therefore, I am this. This identity makes me feel good and safe. It makes the world make sense to me.” (Stage 3/Loyalist)
Beyond My Tribe – Some have honest relationships with those who are very unlike them. Some have life-altering challenges (sickness, death, divorce, etc.). Some will have world-view stretching experiences (extended travel, further education, etc.). Each will be an invitation to expand their identity beyond their tribe as they gather meaning from those who challenged their previous way of seeing the world or circumstances that threatened their belief system. (Stage 4 and 5/Critic to Seer)
My Enemies – Very few of us will mature into this outer circle. Those in this phase cannot help but see the image of God in all people, even their enemies. They find a way to commune with God and the world in its suffering in a manner that’s subversive to religious and political powers, yet they are deeply human and fully alive. (Stage 6/Saint – Examples are: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and of course, Jesus…)
Events that can cause faith-stage transition:
- Suffering (death, divorce, illness)
- Job changes
- Moving (especially cross-culturally or from home for the first time)
- Encounters with experiences or perspectives causing serious critical reflection on one’s beliefs and values
- Contradictions between valued sources of authority
- Grown children leaving home
- Greater life disappointments: prolonged singleness (if marriage is desired), childlessness (if so desired), career, and life choice regrets
What’s the good news about this inner picture of faith development?
Your real, messy, human life is not an interruption or detour in God’s eyes. Your life is God’s main discipleship tool for you. Rather than rise above it or hide it in shame, we were created to learn from it, offer it hospitality, feel it, touch it, taste it, laugh and cry with it…and, ultimately, discover communion with God in it all. The goal is not arriving, it’s abiding. So, you can take a deep breath. God has moved into your life, and He’s in the process of freeing you to fully move into His. In this space, there is room to live, move, and have your being.
“It’s really painful to outgrow the form you’ve called your home for such a long time. We all go through some form of this. Hometown. Perspective. Even religious practice. Religious practice is hard because all religious practice is about identity and where we feel we belong…But, the wonder and the gift of transformation is this: Awakening to the truth that your shell was never your home. The ocean is.” – Scott Painter
References and Further Study:
Benner, D. G. (2012). Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation.
Fowler, J.W. (1995). Stages of faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. (First published in 1981).