One way of looking at the spiritual journey is to view it as a journey of six stages.
The first three are primarily external; the last three primarily internal–though of course, there are deep interior moves in the first three more external stages, and there are serious engagements with the outer world in the last three more internal stages.
This pattern appears consistence throughout the history of Christian spirituality. But remember, any such scheme is an oversimplification, even while it describes a time-tested path of spiritual growth. God is always free do blow our little maps apart in order to bring us to the fullness offered us in Christ.
God will not be boxed up or caged, nor the path to God turned into a formula.
So while it’s not inappropriate to explore the path of spiritual growth, we must avoid turning that path into a journey we can engineer on our own, and we must take care not to turn these stages into tools to judge others or ourselves. What I say about these stages is meant only to help you recognize common sign posts along the way, while leaving the journey open to whatever God wishes to do in your life and in the lives of those around you.
The First Stage of Spiritual Growth: "First Awakening"
I call the first stage on the journey, the First Awakening.
At some point you wake up to the reality of God. There’s some need, some precipitating event, some intervention that unsettles you, inspires your search for God, or requires you to make sense of a spiritual experience you simply can’t ignore any longer. It’s as if you’ve awakened from a long night’s sleep to sunlight streaming through your window and you wonder why you slept so late.
There’s no telling how long this stage may last, but it generally ends when you’ve found your way into a community where you can enter the second stage which I call, “Believing and Belonging.”
There are two ways you might get stuck in stage one and fail to move on. First, awakened now to the reality of God, you may not know what to do next–there’s no one to guide you, no support for your journey. Second, touched by the Divine, you may become aware of the great contrast between God’s holiness and your own life. You may become overwhelmed, even paralyzed, by your own sense of inferiority, unworthiness, and despair.
In both cases, you need a community of people who can extend God’s grace and love to you. Through their ministry, you find courage and direction to rise up into the light that’s come to you and embrace God’s love in Christ and move forward toward the fullness of God.
The Second Stage: "Believing and Belonging"
The first stage in spiritual growth, “First Awakening,” is the point when you first become conscious of God. There’s some need, some precipitating event, some intervention that unsettles you, inspires your search for God, or requires you to make sense of a spiritual experience you simply can’t ignore any longer. It’s as if you’ve awakened from a long night’s sleep to sunlight streaming through your window and you wonder why you slept so late.
I’m writing about these stages to help you understand the way God generally works in our lives so you can better understand your own growth as well as the growth of others. Last month, I also urged you to be careful not to turn these stages into a program. The pattern of these stages is consistence throughout the history of Christian spirituality, but it’s nevertheless an oversimplification. God is always free do blow our little maps apart in order to bring us to the fullness offered us in Christ.
First Awakening usually leads to the second stage, which I call “Believing and Belonging.” At this stage in our journey we connect to a community where we learn the essential doctrines of Christianity. Here, we’re formed by our association with others, our attendance in worship, and our involvement in experiences that teach us the faith. This then leads to the third stage, “Service and Leadership”. It’s quite possible that you might find yourself serving during the second stage, and so, the stages can overlap. But in the second stage, though you may participate in a service project, assist with VBS, or lead in worship, the focus is largely on learning and belonging. Service can be a great way to learn; joining others is a great way to belong and connect.
How to Grow Beyond Stage Two
There are several ways you might get stuck in stage two and fail to move on. First, you might become zealous about doctrine. It’s interesting and fun to learn about Christian theology. It can also give you a sense of power. If you understand, say, the Reformed Tradition better than others, or if you learn exegetical Bible study methods, or study New Testament Greek, you can feel like you’ve got the upper hand in doctrinal debates. Your knowledge can become a source of pride and a tool you can use to prove others wrong and give yourself a sense of superiority. Alternatively, you might feel you never can know enough; driven by perfectionism you may find yourself always learning and never doing much with what you know.
Second, you might come to the place where you love your small group or circle of friends so much that that warmth becomes not only a source of comfort, but a way to exclude others and keep yourself from growth. Most of us don’t like change and so, once we know what we think we need to know and have Christian friends we enjoy, we simply stop growing. But Christian growth requires discomfort. In order to grow you need to do something with what you believe in order to let the Holy Spirit teach you more. In order to grow, you need to step out of your comfortable circle and serve among others and find the Holy Spirit growing you through challenging experiences and relationships.
If you do, you will move into stage three: “Service and Leadership,” and this will open up to you a whole new experience in your spiritual journey into the fullness of Jesus Christ.
The Third Stage: "Service and Leadership"
I call the third stage of spiritual growth “Service and Leadership.” When you first awaken to God it’s as if you’ve risen from a long night’s sleep. Something has stirred you and you begin to seek God. If you move beyond this stage, you enter a community where you learn what it means to believe and belong.
You can get stuck in both stages–stuck and unable to move beyond awakening because your awareness of God can make you feel so terribly guilty and unworthy that you can’t imagine God can love you. You can get stuck in the second stage if you become infatuated with doctrinal debates or worry that you can never know enough. But if you grow in a healthy way and move from awakening and into believing and belonging, you will eventually grow into a new season of service and leadership. During this season, you become highly involved in ministries of compassion or administration, evangelism or justice. You might serve on a committee, volunteer for the choir or as a Sunday School teacher, engage in a service or mission project, train as a minister, respond to a call for missionary service, or become an elder or deacon. You are, of course, still learning about the Christian faith, and may sense a real vibrancy to your growth.
Moving Beyond Stage Three
In many communities this stage is the pinnacle of the Christian life. In fact, popular books like “The Purpose Driven Life” make it sound like this stage is the goal of the Christian life. Unfamiliar with the history of Christian spirituality and growth, popular movements mistakenly bring Christians to stage three and leave them there. But there are four more stages, and unless disciples are aware of them, what can be a new awakening to faith becomes a debilitating crisis.
The next stage, stage four in Christian growth, is what I call “The Second Awakening.” It is a stage of profound growth, but is often misunderstood. Those who’ve served long and faithfully come to the point where they ask, “Isn’t there something more?” And if they don’t know that this new search is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s nudging them to a deepening of their faith experience, they may grow frustrated with their faith and drop out of church; sometimes they abandon their faith entirely. But this is just the beginning of a holy new movement of grace in their lives.
The Fourth Stage: "Second Awakening"
A mature and involved Christian once came to me privately and asked, “Isn’t there more to the Christian life than this?” Here was an elder, active in ministry, highly competent at work, well-established and respected, but who came to a point where all these things tasted like straw, felt empty, no longer life giving.
Too often those who begin to experience this arid, desert like experience in their spiritual lives ignore it and keep doing what they’re doing until they just run out of steam. Sometimes they find another cause that energizes them, or they become angry and frustrated about things at church or the denomination, and this too energizes them. But this new energy dissipates after a while and unless they find something new to excite them for awhile, that nagging sense of emptiness returns. Others figure they’re facing some kind of burnout, and they drop out of commitments that no longer nourish or satisfy and they find themselves drifting spiritually.
Too few explore their experience with a pastor or spiritual friend or director. If they did, and that friend was seasoned enough to discern the work of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life, they’d learn that rather than a problem to get through by working harder, or burnout that requires them to drop out, what they’re experiencing is a genuine sign of an invitation from God to move into a new stage of spiritual growth: stage four, or what I call “Second Awakening.”
Discovering God All Over Again
I've said that most communities place stage three, “Service and Leadership” at the pinnacle of the Christian life. But if you’ve followed this series of posts, you’ll know that stage three is not even half way along the path of what historic Christianity has understood to be the path to spiritual maturity.
That journey leads from First Awakening, through Believing and Belonging, and into Service and Leadership. But it doesn’t end there. There comes a point when the Holy Spirit invites a disciple to turn inward again in order to awaken to the depths of interior intimacy with the Holy Trinity.
It’s a stage of discovering God all over again.
Sadly, without direction and insight, many who experience this invitation to the deeper life believe instead that they’re losing their faith; they become disillusioned with God or they blame the church for not meeting their needs.
This is a stage of profound growth that requires competent spiritual guidance. The loosening of old certainties is not a loss of your faith, but an invitation toward deeper, though different conviction. Your search for direction and meaning in life doesn’t need to lead you away from the church but can lead you into a deeper life of faith. Your disillusionment with God or religion isn’t a sign of their insufficiency or failure; rather, it signals the necessary break from static attachments and religiosity so that you can open up to a new experience of spiritual abundance through faith. This, in turn, leads you to new expressions of service that flow from inextinguishable inner resources rather than from the shoulds and oughts of duty or obligation, or the zeal of newfound enthusiasm.
Along this path, you’ll need the guidance of a soul friend to help you keep your bearings.
What You'll Need to Move Forward
You’ll need at least three things to more forward through stage four.
First, an awareness that there is a stage beyond Service and Leadership, because without it you’ll think something’s gone terribly wrong.
Second, patience and compassion with yourself because this stage can be extremely disorienting, even frightening.
And third, a spiritual friendship with someone who is unthreatened by your questions and your expressions of frustration, someone who won’t try to fix you, but who understands God’s mysterious ways enough to hold you in faith, helping you believe that God is meeting you in the midst of your experience.
A sure sign that you’re moving through this stage is the presence of an expanding sense of love, for love is the only thing that can lead you along these later stages of spiritual growth.
After Second Awakening, What?
The fourth stage in the spiritual journey will carry you deeper into your heart. At Stage Four, you’re invited by the Holy Spirit to turn inward in order to awaken to the depth of interior intimacy with the Holy Trinity. This doesn’t mean you’ve not tasted God until now. But it does mean that your relationship is moving to a different level. At this stage, you’re discovering God all over again. I wrote extensively about this stage last month’s newsletter.
Stage Four, “Second Awakening,” is a deepening of your experience of the presence of God, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. As in any relationship, there are real challenges as the relationship matures. You are not yet who God’s destined you to be and God is different from what you once thought God to be.
This tension can cause disillusionment with God, church, and yourself.
Disillusionment with God doesn’t mean God is insufficient or the church is failing you; it means, rather, that you must change, and change doesn’t come easily because you are now coming face to face with the impediments that stand between you and the God who loves you.
In the posts that follow, I’ll describe an experience you will inevitably have at some point as you move through your “Second Awakening.”
Hitting "The Wall": The Role of Personal Crisis in the Spiritual Journey
At some point, usually initiated by a personal crisis or some other challenge, you will be brought face to face with a confrontation between your will and God’s. Some have called this experience, “The Wall” (see Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich in their book, The Critical Journey).
In this confrontation, a subtle idolatry is exposed—an idolatry you’ve been able to cover up until now, that’s remained hidden from your eyes, thought you’ve been bumping into it for quite some time. The idolatry is this: you want God so long as you can have God on your terms, so long as you really don’t have to change in the deep places of your life, so long as you ultimately remain in control. This is, in St Paul’s words, “Having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3.5). It is the avoidance of the Cross of Christ. You can believe in all the Cross teaches about sin and salvation, but mere belief isn’t what the Cross is all about. The Cross aims at your salvation, your transformation, your death and resurrection spiritually. You must experience the Cross yourself.
When you hit the Wall spiritually, the Cross is no longer an idea or doctrine, something that happened to Jesus long ago. You are united with Christ in his death, and you—if you walk the way of the Cross—will be united with him in his resurrection. Here you release your ego, your false and fallen self, which has tried to play God for too long now. And if you do, you will awakened to a face of God that you’ve not known up to this point, a depth of intimacy you’ve only longed for.
How to Cooperate with Crisis as a Gift of Grace
So, when you come to the wall, you will need to cooperate with the crisis as a gift of grace, as painful as it may be, as demonic as it may seem. For behind it (while not necessarily orchestrating it) is the Hand of God, guiding you to a new awakening to your life in Christ.
Again, as in Stage Four (in fact, all the higher or deeper stages), you will need guidance, spiritual direction from a competent friend, counselor, or pastor—someone who’s not threatened by your questions and frustrations, who won’t try to fix you, but who knows there’s a mystery at work within you and who can hold you in faith as you journey forward past your fears into the newness of God. But here at the Wall, it’s your spiritual practices, especially interior prayer, meditation, and contemplation that will see you through to the new you that awaits you on the other side.
When you emerge from this confrontation stripped down, leaner, cleaner, and more open to love—and if you have found a way to release your need for control and to play God—you will be able to say: “What I thought, I needed I don’t really need. What I was sure I couldn’t live without, I can live without. With God alone I am content.” You will be able to say with Jesus, “Lord, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22.42), and with Mary, “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38). This is true spiritual freedom and readies you for the new outward engagement with mission and ministry that is Stage Five.
Facing the Wall doesn’t mean that you’re now free from the impediments and distractions, the temptations and seductions that hinder your relationship with God. But it does mean that you now know how to face them when they come.
Advancing in the Spiritual Life: The Jesus Prayer as Partner
As part of this current series of posts about the stages of spiritual growth, I wrote most recently about the experience called "The Wall". At the Wall, you have to face what’s standing in the way between you and God—and that’s never easy. “It’s your spiritual practice,” I wrote, “especially interior prayer, meditation, and contemplation that will see you through to the new you that awaits you on the other side.” In the next few posts, I’ll open up to you a simple way to practice interior prayer.
The method of prayer I’ll teach you is very, very old. Old as St. Paul who taught us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.12). Old as Jesus who taught us that the “Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17.21), and that when we pray we’re not to go on babbling as so many religious people do, but are instead to enter the closet of our hearts and commune simply with God (Matthew 6.6). A form of this kind of praying is quite possibly as old as Elijah and the prophets of Israel who knew that God’s voice was best heard in “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19.12).
The Prayer of the Heart (the Jesus Prayer, contemplative prayer, etc) is the most universal spiritual “technology” for achieving what all people seek: union with God. That it’s relatively unknown today doesn’t mean it’s strange or esoteric. Nor is it only for monks and mystics. The monks and mystics all agree that it’s the most beneficial and easily practiced form of prayer available to the most active of people. For millennia housewives and blacksmiths, kings and farmers have practiced the Prayer of the Heart, nourishing a vital spiritual life, cultivating virtue, and living humble lives of love and grace, compassion and courage—bringing hope and wholeness to our often fragile and wounded, yet beautiful world.
In the posts that follow I’ll offer you a little guide to this ancient and durable practice that’s making a come back in our day—and not a moment too soon, for the state of our world sorely needs the kind of women and men who are shaped by it.
Find a quiet place. Sit still. Back straight. Begin by greeting the Light, the Beloved. Follow your easy breath, in and out. Survey your whole body, beginning with the toes and ending with the nose. Release all tension. Sink into the Presence of God. Gently breathe, giving your thoughts the freedom to come and go. Like snowflakes, you may notice them but you mustn’t hold them. Simply let them fall.
Letting them fall won’t be easy. Your mind will parade many things in front of you. To-do lists, problems you’re dealing with, dreams you have for yourself will lure your attention away from God. The barking dog next door will annoy you. Memories from long ago will entertain you. Ugly things too will crowd in upon you—lusts, fears, ambitions. Don’t fight them, judge them, or follow them. Just watch them and become aware that you’re aware of them. This awareness is the key. When you’re aware, you’re present—to God and to your self before God.
This is pure prayer. Resting. Waiting. Being.
You’re sitting quietly, resting, waiting, being in the presence of God.
And now . . . when something draws you away again—and it will (for these moments of pure prayer, absolute awareness of nothing but God, are fleeting)—simply take note that you were drawn away temporarily and return to the Beloved. Open your heart to love. Become drunk with love, full of light. Your untamed thoughts and feelings will become disoriented when they encounter a soul aflame with love; they’ll recede, I promise. You’re forgetting all but Love, and Love will tame the wild beasts inside you—your mind, your commands, and your will cannot.
Wait, wait, wait in stillness until you reach the silence which is the voice of the Beloved, then on the inhale, speak inwardly, “Jesus,” and on the exhale, “Mercy,” or some other simple prayer. The grace of God will come to you on the wings of this humble, interior prayer. These words, once planted in your heart, will become the seeds of unceasing prayer. Repeat them, following your uncontrolled breath as you rest in God.
When you’ve come to the end of the time you’ve allotted for this exercise (you might use a quiet alarm so you don’t have to keep looking at the clock), simply bring your soul to an awareness of the external world outside you. Thank the beloved Trinity and re-enter the day.
The Fifth Stage: Moving Outward (Again)
The fifth of the six stages that characterize our spiritual growth as Christians is marked by a new turn outward toward others and the creation. In this stage, your life expresses an integration of your growth so far, a deep rootedness in your intimacy with God through the Spirit.
In the previous stage, Stage Four, you turned inward after years of active and outward service and leadership (Stage Three). You were seeking more of God than you’d known before–a real experience of encounter with God that neither doctrine nor evangelical service could give you. Doctrine and service were vitally important for your journey, but there came a point when crisis or spiritual hunger made you deeply aware of an emptiness within that nothing but God could satisfy.
Your turn inward–toward more of Christ–was no easy path. Once determined to seek Christ above all things, you collided with "The Wall" of your sin and self will; you came face to face with a deep, inner resistance to God. But if you participated in this experience as a gift of God’s severe mercy; if you deepened your spiritual practices of intimacy with God through prayer and meditation (or contemplation); and if you partnered with a spiritual director or guide who helped you face your sin, confront your demons, and who held you in Christ; then you emerged into a new dawning in your Christian experience. Stage Five is this dawning–it is your emergence into a morning bright with the light of Christ.
Spiritual Abundance and Need
In Stage Five, you are now moved by the Spirit outward again in love, a love that compels you into an experience of abundance you’ve not know up to this point. In the past, it was mostly your head that directed you–”shoulds” and “oughts” kept you moving forward, caring for others, keeping your practices. But now, in Stage Five, your heart directs you, and your head serves your heart of love. There is, as Jesus promised, a “stream of living water welling up inside you” (John 7.38).
In this stage, spiritual guidance is necessary to help you discern what this Power within your is impelling you to be and do. You sense God’s greater purpose for you, but what exactly that means may not be clear to you.
You will still suffer in this stage as much (or even more) that you did before. But now you draw strength from the unfathomable resources of the Spirit, and from your real experience of ongoing union with Christ. You may even sense an “unceasing prayer” (1 Thessalonians 5.17) beginning to form in your heart–an expression of communion with the Trinity that flows within you without your effort.
Lastly, you may find yourself struggling with a nagging frustration despite the presence of God’s love in your heart. Your love for God and others, combined with your commitment to God’s righteousness and justice, may lead you to do things that are perceived as odd, dangerous, and sometimes counter to the mainstream of the society around you. In addition, you may be disinterested in things that interest most other people, and your passions and interests will probably not be shared by most of those around you. This can lead to a sense of loneliness and isolation even in the midst of a strong community.
In this stage, you will need to seek out others who are emerging from Stage Four and the Wall, people who share your experiences and who can serve as companions as you journey deeper into the fullness of Christ.
Most people tend to think of a goal, even a spiritual goal as an ascent from a lower level to a higher one, as if one is climbing a ladder or a mountain. There are biblical precedents for this. Jacob dreamed of a ladder between heaven and earth. Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to meet with God. So did Elijah. Jesus climbed Mt. Tabor with his disciples and at the top was revealed as the supreme Lord in shimmering glory while all below was shrouded in mist.
Chances are, you too have considered these stages of spiritual growth as steps on a journey into heightened intimacy with the Divine. You may be trying to climb the steps upward, exerting yourself spiritually in an effort to find the fullness of God. On the other hand, you may not be trying at all because it sounds like too much work or your resist what appears to be some kind of spiritual elitism.
Working hard as you climb the mountain or avoiding it altogether: these are twin perils as you advance in the spiritual life.
Abiding in Love: Entering the Sixth and Final Stage
These stages certainly can be thought of and experienced as an upward path. But there are dangers in viewing the spiritual life as an ascent. In our world, people tend to scratch and claw over each other to get the top of the corporate ladder, or look down with a sense of superiority over those below them. Spiritual growth does require disciple and courage, but exertion and effort and self-will nearly always end in spiritual disaster. Remember, the effort to reach the heavens with the Tower of Babel was a colossal mistake of human hubris (Genesis 11).
If Christ teaches us anything, it’s that the way up is down, the way to greatness is through humility, the way to possess All is to let go of everything.
Stage six, what I call, “abiding in love,” is the end point in the journey, the goal of the spiritual quest. When you arrive here, you realize that you’ve not been traveling up but in, to the depths of your being; you’ve been traveling down, into the fullness of your humanity. You’ve become a fully integrated person.
Becoming the Self God Made You to Be
You’ve not reached some pinnacle of perfection; instead, you’ve become more fully the self God made you to be. You own who you are. You have nothing to prove to anyone else. You need nothing to make yourself feel successful or worthy or lovable. You don’t need a new car, a better house, another spouse. You accept what you look like. You embrace your idiosyncrasies. You receive life as it is and have learned to let go of the woulda, shoulda, coulda’s. Judging yourself and judging others is no longer a need. And you’re no longer bothered by the challenges that come your way or lured by opportunities you must take advantage of or lose out. You’re not attached to things, not even your life. There’s an equanimity and a magnanimity that possess you. You’re free from everything that once held you captive.
This doesn’t mean that you’re passive and don’t care about things like injustice, or for your family or work. It means that your life is lived from an entirely different source. You’re abiding in the love of God. And this means that you will more effectively right the world’s wrongs and battle injustice and care for others than you did when there was still a lot of you, too much of your unhealed ego involved, to mess up even your best intentions.