Spiritual formation is rarely discussed in church. At least, I am sure I have taken in or endured as the case may be, thousands of sermons. The closest they seem to get is on the topic of discipleship, which is related, but not the same. We pore over books about the stages of child development or how a marriage grows, yet spiritual formation remains a bit of a mystery.
Part of the reason for this is that, like most theories about spiritual or emotional growth, spiritual formation remains a bit of theory. Like the stages of grief, the actual living out of our spiritual lives is somewhat individualistic. Many hypothetical systems exist about how we move from an immature to a mature spirituality. I’m not even sure if a consensus on spiritual maturity has been reached. But given all the dithering, spiritual formation is much easier to define than to measure. Figuring out where you are on the journey may take some outside input, but I hazard a guess that most of you will recognize yourselves somewhere on this scale.
Stage 1: The Searching
Some theologians like to start the stages with an absolute unawareness of God. However, most students of the divine tend to agree that the first step towards developing a real spiritual life begins with the recognition that something is missing. The material life begins to pall. And the questioning of one’s purpose stirs up a new kind of discontent. Suddenly one becomes open to the idea that perhaps there is more to this life than one can see. Some never move past this stage or embark on a frenzied quest to fill their lives with more things. The true seekers begin to ask questions. More importantly, they listen to the answers.
Stage 2: The Discovery
The first experience with God tends to be a bit overwhelming. This looks a bit different for everyone but usually is characterized by a moment of revelation. Whether through a book, an encounter with a believer, or even a moment in nature for the contemplatives, awe is produced. One sees clearly for the first time that something larger than oneself exists. This experience is not always pleasant. For some, their first knowledge of God comes as a conviction of their own powerlessness. They understand themselves to be lost.
If the leap into understanding God as love is not made, then many get stuck here. They feel unworthy and unlovable in the presence of a Holy God. The way out of this stage is fellowship, which is actually the next step.
Stage 3: The Fellow Travelers
In this stage, discipleship takes central focus. Because our spirits have not fully formed as of yet, we receive a tremendous amount of encouragement and growth from those further on in the journey. Spiritual formation does not take place in a vacuum. People at this stage come to church hungry and needing to be fed. Self-discovery is a part of this stage, as well, as many begin to explore any spiritual gifting they might have.
Getting stuck in this stage looks like joining a church clique, signing on to a specific denomination as the ‘answer’ or dogmatic beliefs. Like the mental maturational process of an adolescent, a spiritual adolescent is dependent on peers and practices black and white thinking.
Stage 4: The Virtuous Slog
At this phase, the focus is on good works. Achievement in the kingdom of God becomes central. While many will mouth the idea that all are saved through grace, just enough healing and integration into the body of Christ has taken place to make earning approval possible. At this point, most have left the major sins in their life and want to move into leadership. This is not a condemnation of those who want to serve the body of Christ, by any means. But getting stuck in this phase in which the emphasis is on accomplishment can lead to burnout and becoming weary in doing good.
Stage 5: The Crisis
The next phase of spiritual formation is truly the separation of the sheep and the goats. By this point, a person has poured a lot of effort into right answers and doing all the correct things. A personal crisis hits in which none of those formulas work. This phase is all about learning to live with mystery. Getting stuck here means continuing a search for concrete answers to cosmic questions. Why did this happen to me? Job is actually a very good example of this stage as he demands an explanation from God. Of course, no real answer is forthcoming, but Job successfully meets the challenge of this phase and the next.
Stage 6: The Wall
This phase requires a tremendous amount of inward searching. This is the place of genuine surrender and an understanding of the internal nature of a relationship with God. Until this point, most spiritual formation has centered around horizontal relationships. Here is where it must become vertical. In this phase, one must confront the truth that all those good deeds are as filthy rags. This is a return to the powerlessness of the self, but with the increased awareness of the power of God. New levels of healing are reached as the external supports of appearing good and staying in control fall away. However, many stay in this phase because they hold on to anger at God or, seeing the cost of true surrender to God, turn away.
Stage 7: The Center that Holds
In this phase, all the old angers have passed away. In their place, a new level of love and understanding come. A deep and abiding relationship with Jesus has moved into center focus, and it is out of that center that a spiritually mature person lives their life. The best way to describe this place is that they are at peace with both themselves and with God. The paradox of joy and sorrow live inside them as they experience with God His love for others and sorrow over the suffering in the world.
Stage 8: A Spirit of Love, Power, and a Sound Mind
In this final phase, all ties to the whims of what others think are broken. Free from the opinions of others, a person who is approaching full spiritual formation listens only to that still small voice and lives a life that is utterly surrendered to God. They are free, both from self-condemnation as well as from fear. These people are known for their wisdom and their love, both of which flows directly from God through them to others. They understand their purpose and their destiny. Not even the prospect of death discourages them. They have a rich inner relationship with the God of the universe and all else pales in comparison.
This list isn’t meant to discourage, but to encourage. No one escapes the natural phases of spiritual growth, and all are invited into God’s presence. If you recognize yourself as stuck in one of these phases, submit it to God and He will help you move along to new places of love, authority, and peace.
Henri Nouwen is one of the best: To read him is in itself an act of spiritual formation.
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