Life in all aspects—physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual—develops in stages, and each stage, successfully negotiated, affects subsequent ones. Signs of growth from one stage to another are clearly observable. This article deals with spiritual development and its observable stages.
The ultimate goal of spiritual development is spiritual maturity—when we “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 fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).* That growing up, Paul further states, is to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (4:15). Peter challenges us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ ” and “like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation” (2 Pet. 3:18; 1 Pet. 2:2, 3).
We often talk about how spiritual growth occurs in our lives but rarely identify the process in detail. When a person fails to progress beyond a stage in spiritual life, he or she freezes at a particular stage of spiritual development. This arrested development leads to spiritual atrophy and eventually spiritual death.
What does the spiritual growth process look like? How can one determine where one is in the process? A Christian’s spiritual maturation may be seen as taking place in six stages. Understanding these stages helps us be aware of where we are in the onward journey of spiritual growth and strive to move toward the fullness of maturity that the New Testament speaks about.
Stage one: Seek reward, avoid punishment
As followers of Christ, we all begin at the first baby stage. Just like baby children, baby Christians begin their spiritual journey focused mainly on themselves. Their focus in this infant stage of 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 reward or punishment that follows what they do. They defer to those of superior power, prestige, or experience when defining right and wrong.
Because the focus is on avoiding punishment, people at this important beginning stage of spiritual life see everything in black and white. People at this stage tend to 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 to defend their positions.
In this stage, people are inclined to “create God in their own image,” and define what God wants or likes in terms of their own likes and dislikes, 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 on the basis of how He will react to their obedience or disobedience: they are concerned with reward or punishment.
Commonly, those in the baby stage define themselves by what they are against as opposed to what they are for. The moment Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they slipped back to this elementary stage in their walk with God. Suddenly they were most concerned about getting punished for their transgression and hid themselves, afraid of God’s reaction to their rebellion.
While this first stage is a common starting place—“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10, emphasis added; see also Prov. 1:7)— those who fail to grow beyond this point remain severely stunted in their spiritual development. As long as they remain at this level of development, their spiritual life will be a burden—an obligation, not a joy and a pleasure—something they do because they have to or are afraid not to, not because they desire to.
Stage two: What’s in it for me?
The second stage in the development of a person's spiritual maturation also revolves around the external consequences of their actions, but now the question is, "What's in it for me?" Persons at this stage feel little or no interest in the needs or interests of others, and they focus on their own needs and interests. There is very little patience with those whose interests or developments differ from their 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 promises him or her a cookie if the child does or does not do something. But at play the child wants the toys, all of them he or she can get, and is not terribly interested in what others want.
To people at this stage of spiritual development, God 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; otherwise, respect for others and their interests does not exist.
People at this stage have very little empathy or concern for the struggles of others. They are impatient with those whose spiritual development or interests may be different from their own. Their understanding of spirituality is lockstep: Everyone should like the same cookies that I like; all should see or do things just like me. If not, you are wrong or at least in some way spiritually inferior. They know what it takes to get to heaven, and they are certain that they are going to make it because of what they do or do not do.
Where stage one focuses on the consequences of sin, stage two focuses on the rewards of being good/obedient.
If stage one is focused on the “lake of fire,” stage two is focused on heaven when it comes to the motivation for spiritual actions and attitudes.
Here comes the first major transition in spiritual maturation. While stage one and stage two followers of Christ are focused on themselves, 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; in other words, whether they are orthodox or not in their beliefs and actions. Doctrines, statements of beliefs and/or creeds, and rules are adhered to rigidly with little thought of whether they make sense or are fair or appropriate.
Again, morality is predominantly dictated by some earthly authority or force outside of the individual.
Stage three: Seeking to meet group’s expectations
In stage three, the position as a church member becomes very important, and people judge rightness or wrongness based on the approval or disapproval of those in the particular church or denomination in which they are members. Their definition of a good follower of Jesus is how well they fit into the church's expectations. The relative morality of what a person does is evaluated by how this morality will affect the person's relationships with the rest of the group; in other words, seeking to meet the group's expectations and obtaining their respect.
Stage three followers of Jesus want to be liked and well thought of by other members of their church. They recognize that not conforming to or living up to the group’s expectations affects how others feel about or accept them. This, in turn, determines the place they find themselves in the hierarchy of the group—hence the need to 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 or she is generally accepted. So appearances and appearing to be sincerely trying to conform, even when a person struggles, are very important to a stage three Christian.
Stage four: Group becomes more important than the individual
In the fourth stage of spiritual maturation, the group, or in this case the church, does not just influence the person, it becomes 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, extrabiblical authorities, and church leadership become the predominant motivating force. The "good of the church" and conforming to the good and the mission of the larger group becomes the defining purpose of the life of the individual--thus a person becomes subservient to the groups needs and good. Statements of belief, creeds, and traditions and church policy prescribe what is right or wrong. An individual's response, behavior, and action must comply with what is defined by the church, and that response is essential to protect and preserve 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.
Tragically, many churches prefer to keep their members in the early stages of spiritual maturation because they are easier to influence, channel, and control at this stage. Rather than encouraging, sustaining, promoting, and protecting the individual’s personal relationship with God, the tendency, for a whole plethora of reasons, is to keep them beholden and subservient to the group.
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. In part 2 of this series we will consider stage 5 and stage 6 of spiritual maturity, which can lead to a place of joy, peace, and closeness with God that transcend anything we have ever imagined or experienced.
* Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture is quoted from the English Standard Version (ESV).