How Does Your Spiritual Life Grow? (Part 2)
by Dan Appel
by Dan M. Appel, April 30, 2014
Paul in Ephesians urges us to grow up into Christ, something any of us committed to following Jesus would like to do. Unfortunately, we rarely discuss how this is to happen. Previously, we looked at the first four stages of spiritual maturation. Now we look at the final two stages—spiritual maturity as God designed all of us to experience it.
The Second Major Transition – Spiritual Rubicon – The Dividing Line Leading to New Life in the Spirit
Many, if not most, people who call themselves followers of Jesus never grow beyond the fourth level of spiritual maturity in their walk with God. Those who do almost always experience a profound paradigm-shattering crisis, what some have called a “dark night of the soul.” In such a time, everything they have believed, their very relationship with God and what it means and entails is seriously questioned and their beliefs are re-examined and held up to scrutiny and redefined and expressed and personalized. It is a time where it seems like their whole spiritual house is made of crumbs rather than concrete, where their relationship with the group that has nurtured and helped them grow is re-evaluated and redefined. It is often a time of spiritual depression, a journey into a valley of shadow and death from which they fear they will never emerge. It is a place where the underpinnings of everything they have built their spiritual house on are examined to see if it is constructed on rock or sand. If a person is willing to allow God to grow him or her beyond the first four stages of spiritual development, it can open into a place of joy and peace and closeness with God, which transcends anything he or she has ever imagined or experienced.
In Stage Five, there is a tectonic shift in what motivates an individual follower of Jesus. Morality in Stage Five is determined by how an attitude or action impacts one's relationship—enhances or detracts from it—with God or one's fellow-man. It is determined on a totally different basis than rules, roles, creeds or the expectations of religious authorities or the group. The focus now shifts to one of how one's attitudes and actions impact relationships with God and others.
While at first glance this stage may appear relativistic and based on situational ethics, it is really the beginning of the stages that characterized the lives all of the spiritual “greats” in the history of this world. Suddenly, a greater law becomes the governing principle of a person’s life—the law of loving God supremely and one’s neighbor as one’s self. Now the life of a follower of Jesus becomes one's desire because the law is written on one's heart.
When deciding which course of action to take, Stage Five followers of Jesus begin to base their lives on the question, How will this enhance or detract from my relationship with God or my neighbor? Under that criterion, something that might be legally and theologically all right could be absolutely wrong under certain circumstances. For example, Paul said that there were things that were perfectly allowable under the Torah but which, because of their impact on his weaker brothers, he chose not to do.
Often the person ends up doing or not doing many of the same things she would at another stage of her spiritual development but for totally different reasons. Instead of living her life by a list of forensic do’s and don’ts on a guilt/righteousness continuum, now things such as whether an action or attitude will bring shame and reproach or honor and praise to God or her fellow man become important. Whether something will defile or adulterate her relationship with God or another person becomes the motivating principle. Whether an action or an attitude will cause her or those around her to fear God or empower them to live rich, full, satisfying, love-filled lives in him and with each other become of greatest importance.
In Stage Six, the important issue for the follower of Jesus is whether or not something brings pleasure to God and grace to others. It is spiritual altruism at its best.
Jesus said that the two great commandments were to love God supremely and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In this stage, the focus of a person’s life becomes spending time with God—being conscience of God's presence throughout the day, listening for his voice guiding him. A person begins to see those around him through the eyes of Jesus; his heart starts rejoicing with what brings Jesus joy and becomes broken by what breaks Jesus's heart. In the words of the nineteenth-century author, E.G. White, heaven for the person at this stage begins now as he lives a life of connection with God all day long.
The church in Stage Six exists to support, encourage, and provide loving accountability in the relationships in our lives, not as the means of salvation or even the major source of information about what is right or wrong. It is the place of fellowship with those who are also on their walk toward an increasingly deeper relationship with God. It is the place where we go to be encouraged and challenged to a life of love. It is the place where brothers and sisters hold up the mirror of God’s word so they can clearly see how to love and where they may not be loving. It is the place where they come together to accomplish loving deeds for God in concert with others who share their passion for him. It is a place where they can gather and learn together about him and his plan for humanity. And it is the place where they go to have their spiritual fires rekindled, their flagging spirits raised, and where they join with others of like passion for God in worshiping him.
While the group is important in that they are a part of the family of God, in Stage Six the group is not the determining factor for morality. Nor is punishment or reward. Rather, it is all about bringing pleasure and glory and honor to someone we love—human or divine. That is what the angels and unfallen beings live to do; it is their greatest joy. And it is what will consume us for an eternity. It is the highest stage of spiritual growth!
Reaching Higher Ground
The words of an old gospel song go, “Lord, lift me up and I shall stand By faith on heaven’s tableland; A higher plane than I have found; Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
God’s desire and purpose for each of us is to lead us beyond the certainty of a rules- and creeds-based religion to the adventure of a relationship based following on Jesus every day. It is a walk that, while rooted in the past stages, focuses forward and constantly strives to move beyond the letter of obedience to the life of a new heart guided and nurtured by the Holy Spirit, as we revel in God’s presence and meditate day and night on the meaning of his Word.
How can we make this journey of faith from stage to stage of spiritual maturity?
We have to be willing to make the journey. Tom Peters, the business guru, declared that the only business which will thrive in the coming chaotic years is the one that learns to thrive on chaos!
We all naturally shy away from chaos, especially from spiritual chaos. But the life of the Spirit is intrinsically chaotic. It is following the guidance of the one Jesus likened to the wind that blew in unexpected places and directions. Following Jesus, one cannot relax in the comfort of a settled existence; instead one constantly experiences the adventure of new life and new vistas and new experiences.
If we are to grow to become all that God wishes and desires for us, our preconceptions have to be fractured until we emerge from the chrysalis of our traditions and our settled patterns of living into the glorious light of his constant ongoing presence in all areas of our lives.
We can’t be afraid of the journey. The one who promises to never leave us or forsake us promises to be with us as we journey into increasingly intimate stages of our spiritual growth. Even when we cannot see the path or where it leads, we know that he is our guide. Even when a fog of uncertainty clouds the future, we can be certain that he holds the future. Even when the obstacles seem unconquerable, we know that the one who created the universe has committed himself and all of his resources to solving them.
The adventure of faith means trusting God so much that wherever he leads, by whatever path he chooses, at whatever pace and time, we would not want to be anywhere else with anybody else.
We have to be grounded in the earlier stages of growth. Children do not become adults at birth. Healthy, balanced adults are such because they have successfully navigated each stage of human development. The term makes it plain! It is development—moving through stages to other places. The human body is not ready for adult activities at birth. The human brain is not ready for abstract thought in early childhood. Human emotions are not ready for romance at puberty. A person is not ready for algebra unless he or she has mastered basic math. Each stage of a person’s development and education is built on successfully making it through those stages which precede it.
In the same way, a person’s spiritual development is grown on the stages that precede it.
We cannot be afraid of the naysayers. It is rare to find a child who understands, or even begins to comprehend, the thinking of those in later stages of their growth. In the same way, it is a rare person indeed who is comfortable with the lives of those in later stages of their spiritual journey. Just as a child will often exhibit insecurity with temper tantrums or manipulation in order to control the parents, so people in the initial stages of spiritual maturation will react, often violently, against what they see as the liberality of those in the later stages of their spiritual journey.
Jesus was rarely understood or appreciated by the orthodox spiritual leaders and people of his day. He went in new directions. He made friends with those with whom the traditional church wanted nothing to do. He went places where good followers of God weren’t supposed to go. He said things that offended and caused negative reaction. He worshiped in ways that few understood. All in the service of God.
It is probable that his modern day followers will do the same. And, like Jesus, we have to be willing to pay the price of leaving behind spiritual father and mother and brother and sister and forsaking all, to follow Jesus.
We must be committed to growth. It is so easy, so sinfully natural, to want to settle down at every comfortable place in our spiritual journey. Growth is very often painful and unsettling, but it is absolutely necessary for life. Whatever is not growing is dying, even if it imagines that it is still living. Spiritual growth means intentionally exposing oneself to new ideas and experiences, and then evaluating them by God’s Word. It means allowing the Spirit to replace the dry, unstretchable skin of one's preconceptions and traditions with a new spiritual skin that is flexible and pliable and usable by God.
We must grow! It is much easier to live a life based on rules and commands than it is to listen for the still, quiet voice of God’s Spirit as we move through our daily lives. It is much more comfortable to have a checklist posted on the wall of our minds than it is to feel for the gentle wind of the Spirit on our hearts.
Like petulant children, we do not want to grow, to give up our childish things and ways of thinking and interacting with God and our fellow man, but we must if we are to be all that we and God want us to be.
The United States Army has a recruiting slogan: “Be all that you can be!" God couldn’t have said it better himself!