The Critical Journey



Spiritual growth is a journey. Journeys are adventures, full of surprises, setbacks, delays, obstacles, hardships, friendships, compasses, etc. But journeys are also sequential. We may go backwards at times, but to get to our destination we will go past certain markers or stages. We can better understand these stages by noticing what has happened to others who have gone through them. That will not tell us how to get to the next stage, but it will tell us what to expect. We do not go through the stages in a once and for all fashion. We may be in several stages at once and we may go back and forth between stages for a while. But we do tend to find ourselves at home in one particular stage. Also, we can slip from one stage and go make our home once again in an earlier stage.

We do not grow so much by effort or by following a formula, as we do by being open to the grace of God.

Stages are more descriptive than prescriptive.  Just as there are STAGES, there are also CAGES. These are ways of getting stuck in a stage.

Usually the transition from one stage to another is precipitated by a crisis.

Crises provide the impetus for movement as we ask new questions, we have doubts, we experience death, we wonder about meaning, we marry someone with different beliefs, etc.

It is easier to move backwards during crises because we have been there and it is familiar. It is harder to move forward, into the unknown.

We rarely can move from one stage to the next, without someone’s help.

Growth has consequences: it can be confusing, exhausting, and scary.
The impetus for growth is usually something beyond our control.

During a season of movement to a new stage, we feel a loss of control; we can block our feelings and the opportunity out, or we can lean into it and truly grow.

Stage 1: The Recognition of God/Converted life. Faith is DISCOVERING GOD. This stage “Humbles” us.

A sense of awe: like when we have a baby. A sense of need: dominated by an addiction or go through a divorce.
A natural awareness: As in nature or reading a poem. Greater meaning in life: more than life on the surface.
A sense of innocence: Our faith feels childlike. There is a sense of being on a honeymoon with God.

Caged at stage one: worthlessness, spiritual bankruptcy, martyrdom, ignorance. Moving from stage one to two requires becoming a part of a strong group; allowing life to take on more significance; finding a leader to follow.

Crisis of movement: accept self-worth, reduce isolation.

Stage 2: The Life of Discipleship. Faith is LEARNING ABOUT God. This stage “Grounds” us.

Meaning from belonging
Answers found in a leader, cause or belief system
Sense of rightness
Security in our faith.

Caged at stage two: rigid in righteousness, we against them, switchers (changing churches or groups), and searchers.

Moving from 2 to 3: recognize uniqueness, identify gifts, recognize contributions, and seek responsibility.

Crisis of movement: risk taking, acceptance of spiritual gifts.

Stage 3: The Productive Life. Faith is DOING STUFF for God. This stage “Rewards” us.

Uniqueness in the community
Value placed on work well done
Spiritual goal achieved.
Ex: starting a church, finishing seminary, etc.

Caged at stage 3: overly zealous, weary in well doing, self-centered, life as performance, loneliness from not being known.

Moving from stage 3 to 4: lose sense of certainty, experience faith/personal crisis (our answers no longer work), feel abandoned (can’t find God), look for direction (we need others who are in the same place to help us move to next level).

Crisis of movement: letting go of success, accepting vulnerability.

THE WALL The mystery of our will meeting God’s will face to face.

Types of resistance: Strong Egos; Self-deprecators; Guilt/Shame ridden; Intellectuals; High Achievers; Doctrinaire

Going through the wall:
Discomfort; Surrender; Healing; Awareness, forgiveness, acceptance, love; Closeness to God; Discernment; Melting/Molding; Solitude and reflection: We have to make time to listen to God and feel him. Prayer becomes more about listening to God. Scripture reading is more about entering into a story and being the person healed, etc.

Stage 4: The Journey Inward. Faith is REDISCOVERING God. This stage “Unsettles” us.

Most spiritual leaders have not gone through this stage and therefore are inadequate guides. They do not feel the freedom to be this messy.

Life or faith crisis. Most of us feel like stage 3 is the end. Stage 4 does not look like growth. It only comes to us through crisis. Ex: Peter on Good Friday.
Loss of certainties in life and faith.
A search for direction, not answers. We move from knowing to seeking again. We look for healing, wholeness.
Pursuit of personal integrity in relation to God. The journey at this stage is very hard to share with others. It is hard to know how to describe what we are looking for.
God released from box. Our understanding of God changes radically. He becomes more mysterious and at the same time more personal.
Apparent loss of faith.

Caged at stage 4: always questioning, consumed by self-assessment, immobilized (the risk of looking inward is just too great). MANY GIVE UP AT THIS STAGE.

Moving from 4 to 5: let go of spiritual ego (self-centeredness) (we surrender), accept God’s purpose for our lives (our confidence is in God, we laugh at our own ego), seek wholeness through personal healing and pilgrimage, be willing to commit to whatever it takes (we yield not once in a while, but moment by moment).

Crisis of movement: finding peace through giving up the search for self (we give up the illusion of control and we trust in God), allowing for new certainty in God (we become comfortable with our more ambiguous understanding of God), open to the cost of obedience (we live in a greater degree of surrender than ever).

Stage 5: The Journey Outward. Faith is surrendering to God. This stage “Transforms” us

It is similar to stage 2, but there we surrender to what we are sure of, here we surrender to what we are unsure of.

A renewed sense of God’s acceptance
A new sense of horizontal life
Sense of calling, vocation or ministry
Concern and focus on others’ best interests; a deep calm or stillness

Caged at 5: seemingly out of touch with practical concerns, apparently careless about “important” things.

Moving from 5 to 6: no striving just evolving – growing deeper, seeing God in all of life, being God’s person.

Crisis of movement: “vocation” is satisfying (we have found our calling and comfortable there), being whole seems enough.

Stage 6: The Life of Love. Faith is reflecting God. This stage “Transcends” us

Christ-like living in total obedience to God (very constant communion throughout the day)
Wisdom gained from life’s struggles
Compassionate living for others
Detachment from things and stress (we are relaxed and detached from the need of the things of this world)
Life underneath or on top (we can live in obscurity or fame)
Life abandoned (we can give up anything for God – family, job, money, comfort, etc)

Caged at 6: Separation from the world, neglect of self (our whole life is simple), apparent waste of life.

Note: Caged at this stage is not so much about appearing “stuck” as it is about appearing weird to others.

Summary: This stage is marked by extreme detachment from the world and strong attachment to God.


Others who have written on this topic:
Augustine; Kierkegaard; St. John of the Cross; Evelyn Underhill; Julian of Norwich; Scott Peck; James Fowler; Brian McLaren; Tom Ashbrook.