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Stages of Spiritual Growth

Over the past two years we’ve experienced what many are calling “indifference,” relative to our spiritual life. With anxiety, crisis, grief, anger, and tension infiltrating our everyday reality, doubt and disappointment have chewed into the foundations of our faith. This article will take a look at stages of spiritual growth that embrace these emotions as a path forward in our faith.

It’s not the first time the people of God have entered into a season of collective disillusionment—the Israelites moved into and out of indifference in a predictable rhythm. As their Temple worship devolved into a system of rules and appeasement, they experienced both God’s wrath and God’s grace. Today, our subtle apathy is fueled by a superficial understanding of faith—that God’s job is make our lives happy and successful. This mindset blocks a deeper awareness of self, God, and others. It’s a childish approach to a growing faith life. And as ministry leaders, we’ve often promoted systems that effectively help people remain childish in their faith. Paul’s words are prophetic: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

The deeper work of spiritual formation leads us to lay down the childish patterns of the past (though some of those patterns are important, and helped form us) and begin to address the deeper parts of our soul. Richard Rohr calls this the “further journey.” This journey allows us to move into the mystery of the Spirit, and generates a willingness to step into a more courageous and engaged way of living. Let’s pursue a deeper awareness of ourselves, God, and others by considering both the mystery of the Spirit and our practice of “abiding.”

In Faith After Doubt, author Brian McLaren offers 4 stages of spiritual growth where questions and doubt are not the enemy of faith, but rather an opportunity to journey into a mature and fruitful faith. The four stages of spiritual growth, progressively experienced, include…

  1. Simplicity – Everything is known or knowable; there are easy answers to every question; the “good” authorities (or us) are the ones who know the right answers; the bad guys/them are wrong.
  2. Complexity – Anything is doable; there are many ways to reach the goal; authorities/us are the ones who know how to do it; the bad guys don’t do the right stuff.
  3. Perplexity – Little/nothing is known or knowable; everybody has an opinion; good people are honest about their questions.
  4. Harmony – Some things are known, many are mysteries; life is a quest; there is no “them.”

These four stages of spiritual growth offer a spiritual map into a future that can help us leave behind our childish ways and nurture an intentional process for growing in our faith. Curiosity will propel us through them…

  • In what ways are you seeking to embrace new views of God?
  • In what areas of your life do you cling to certainty?
  • What makes you nervous about expanding your understanding of others and of God?
  • How does the desire to be “right” form patterns of avoidance and neglect in you?

Over the past ten years, I’ve moved toward embracing the discomfort of conversations that expand my view of God, spirituality, and what it means to love and embrace others. Many times, this has created a profound uneasiness—I’ve felt like I was losing control. In Western society, our mantra is: “You’ve got to take control of your life.” But Eugene Peterson’s version of Matthew 16:25, in The Message, gets at this really well: “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.”

The journey to find your true self begins with loosening your control over certainty and embracing the mystery of God. McLaren defines this space as harmony. Once we embrace our doubts with honesty and not judgment, we can accept ourselves as God does, which positions us to accept one another as children of God. This opens the door to living in harmony as the Spirit awakens the true self and quiets the ego. Along the way we let go of the judgment that accompanies our spiritual fears and doubts. It takes courage and a willingness to sit with the discomfort to see, taste, and live in a new space. This is the opposite of indifference—it’s harmony.

Rev. Dr. Mark Slaughter serves as the Minister of Worship Arts at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN. In addition to his 35+ years of ministry, he received a Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary, Master of Divinity and Church Music from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor of Music from Belmont University.

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