by Dan Appel
By: Dan M. Appel, April 22, 2014
One of the most commonly recognized ideas in science is the notion that all living things develop in stages and that each stage, and how it is successfully negotiated, affects the subsequent ones. Humans develop physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and psychologically in stages. The whole point of human development is growth from one stage to another.
Researchers such as Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget established that each stage, and the developmental work or tasks or growth in that stage, is an important step in the development of a whole, healthy human being. Each stage sets the stage for the next stages.
Erik Erikson showed that there are important tasks or developmental processes in emotional maturation that must occur at each stage if a person is to successfully transition to the next stage. If a person is stymied in mastering those tasks, he or she can become emotionally frozen at that stage of his or her development. We have all met people who were physically older adults, but who were as emotionally immature as a six year old. They are in a state of arrested emotional development.
The same kinds of dynamics occur in the spiritual realm. There are clearly observable stages of spiritual development. The point of the stages of spiritual development is just that: the development of spiritual maturity until, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:13, “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” He goes on to encourage us to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15-16).
We often talk about, but rarely describe in detail, how spiritual growth happens in our lives. Just as there are stages of growth in the maturation of corn or roses or children, so there are stages of growth in the life of a Christian. Spirituality, just like our physical, mental, emotional, and social development, occurs in defined stages. Each of these stages of spiritual growth is important—each is a prerequisite for developing a mature spiritual life—but when people fail to progress beyond a stage, when they stop their growth at any place on the ladder of growth, when they become frozen at a particular stage of their spiritual development and fail to grow beyond it, their arrested development leads to spiritual atrophy and eventually spiritual death—either the rigor mortis of legalism or the decay of secularism.
What does that growth process look like? How can I determine where I am in the process?
There are six possible stages in a Christian’s spiritual maturation. Just understanding them often helps us to understand where others are and to determine where we are in our spiritual growth.
Stage One and Stage Two Followers of Christ are Focused on Themselves
Baby Christ-followers, just like baby children, begin their spiritual journey centered mainly on themselves. Their focus in this infant stage of their development is obedience; “How can I avoid punishment?” Their predominant theme is the direct negative consequences of their actions or attitudes on themselves. They measure the degree of good or bad by the amount of punishment that accompanies what they do. They defer to those of superior power or prestige or experience when defining right and wrong.
Because the focus is on avoiding punishment, people at this important beginning stage of their spiritual life see everything in black and white. There is very little abstract spiritual thought, the issues are very simple—is this right or wrong? People at this stage can draw up lists of rules, delineating what is acceptable and what is not for a Christian, and their Bible knowledge consists mainly of proof-texts defending their positions.
Spiritually, people at this stage are inclined to “create God in their own image,” and to define what God wants or likes in terms of their own likes and dislikes, or their own definition of what is right and wrong, or areas where they have been victorious and areas where they have not.
When it comes to God, they relate to him primarily based on how he will react to their disobedience; they are primarily concerned with punishment if they do not obey Him. God for a person at this stage is most analogous to Santa Claus, who watches see if they are naughty or nice and will bring them spiritual coal if they are naughty.
When the Adam and Eve chose to rebel against God, they slipped back to this very elementary stage and suddenly were most concerned about getting punished for their transgression (so they hid), afraid of God’s reaction to their rebellion.
While this first stage is a great starting place—“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10)—people who fail to grow beyond this point remain severely stunted in their spiritual development. The medical term for this is a “failure to thrive.” As long as people remain at this level of development, their spiritual life will be a burden, an obligation, not a joy or a pleasure. It is something that is done because they have to or are afraid not to, not because they desire to.
The next stage in the development of a person’s spiritual maturation also revolves around the external consequences for their actions, but now the question is “What’s in it for me? There is little or no interest in the needs or interests of others, but a focus on his or her own needs and interests. He has very little patience with those whose interests or development are different than his own.
While Stage One is characterized by fear, Stage Two is built on greed. The emphasis is on what is mine or what will be mine. An analogy would be a toddler who obeys because Mom or Dad promises him or her a cookie or a dish of ice cream if he or she does or doesn’t do something. When playing, she wants the toys, all she can get, and she is not terribly interested in what others want.
God, to people at this stage, is somewhat like a spiritual “favorite grandfather,” who will reward their good behavior. The only time they are really interested in the opinions or needs of others is when it might further their own interests or support their own position. The person at this stage has very little empathy or concern for the struggles of others, and is impatient with those whose spiritual development or interests are different than his own. His understanding of spirituality is lock-step, everyone all alike, like Oreos in a package. If you don’t see or do things just like me, then you are wrong or at least in some way spiritually inferior. He knows what it takes to get to heaven, and he is certain that he is going to make it because of what he does or does not do.
Where Stage One is focused on the consequences of sin, Stage Two focuses on the rewards of being good/obedient. When it comes to the motivation for spiritual actions and attitudes, Stage One is focused on the “Lake of Fire,” while Stage Two is focused on heaven.
The Second Major Transition in Spiritual Maturation
Stages Three and Four are more identified with the group. People at this stage of spiritual maturation judge the morality of their actions by comparing them to the church’s (corporate or local) views and expectations. They define right and wrong by what the important group, in this case the church they identify with, thinks is right or wrong. Rather than being concerned with the consequences to themselves for obedience or disobedience, they are concerned with what the group will think of them and how the group defines right and wrong—determining whether or not they are orthodox in their beliefs and actions. Doctrines, statements of beliefs/creeds and rules are adhered to rigidly with little thought of whether they make sense or are fair or appropriate.
In Stage Three, a person’s position as a church member becomes very important, and she judges rightness or wrongness based on the approval or disapproval of those in the particular church or denomination she is a member of. Her definition of a good follower of Jesus is how well he or she fits into the church’s expectations of its members. The relative morality of what a person does is evaluated by how it will affect the person’s relationships with the rest of the group—whether he or she will respect me or not.
Stage Three followers of Jesus want to be liked and well thought of by other members of their church. They realize that not conforming or obeying the norms or rules or living up to their expectations affects how others feel about and accept them. Also, the place they find themselves in, the hierarchy of the group, is determined by how well they conform to their particular church’s ideas and norms.
As long as the individual is seen as meaning well and desiring to conform to the group’s expectations, he is generally accepted. Therefore, appearances and appearing to be sincerely trying to conform even when a person is struggling are very important to a Stage Three Christian.
In the fourth stage of spiritual maturation, the group, or in this case the church, doesn’t just influence the person, they become more important than the individual. Obeying God’s commands as understood by the church, the traditions developed by the church, creeds and statements of belief, extra-biblical authorities and church leadership become the predominate motivating force. The “good of the church” and conforming for the good of the larger group, good, and mission become most important. The individual's needs become subservient to the group’s needs and good. Statements of belief, creeds and traditions, and church policy prescribe what is right or wrong. Group response to behavior or action is focused on protecting and preserving the church. Violation of the church’s norms becomes “right” or “wrong” rather than a matter of preference, and people are labeled as “bad” or “good” accordingly.
It is a tragic fact that many churches prefer to keep their members in the early stages of spiritual maturation because they are easier to influence and channel and control at this stage. Rather than encouraging, sustaining, promoting and protecting the individual’s personal relationship with God, for a whole plethora of reasons, the tendency is to keep them beholden and subservient to the group. There is often far less stress for the leadership and for more giving if we can keep people in this stage. All too often, the church and its leaders want to be seen as the dispensers of God’s grace, the source of the only valid information about him; we want to be seen as the way, the source of truth, and the means of eternal life. In fact, without that identity, many would question the reason for their existence.
Mazhar Mallouhi describes this as being like a person selling bottled water on the bank of a river. His only hope of success becomes based on not letting people see the river so that they will buy his water. We forget that we are called by God to lead people to the water, not to be the only conduit from which they can get the water.
God never designed the church to be an ark—if you were in it, you were saved, and if you were outside of it, you were lost. Rather, the church is called by God to be a party of messengers, leading lost people to the source of life and safety and love. Our role as followers of Jesus is to personally and intentionally meet people who are spiritually hungry and searching, and then to walk together with them on the journey toward God.
In the next installment of this series, we will look at the last two stages of spiritual growth.