In part 1 of this series, I suggested that there are six possible stages in a person’s spiritual maturation. Just understanding those stages helps us understand where others are and determine where we are in our spiritual growth. In part 1 of this series, published in January 2016, we considered the first four stages. Many, if not most, who call themselves followers of Jesus never grow beyond the fourth level of spiritual maturity in their walk with God. Those who do grow beyond the fourth level almost always experience a profound paradigm-shattering crisis. In such times, everything they have believed and accepted—including their relationship with God and what it means—is reexamined, held up to scrutiny, redefined, expressed, and personalized. Such times can lead to spiritual depression, a journey into a valley of shadow and death from which they fear they will never emerge. If a person is willing to allow God to mature him or her beyond the first four stages of spiritual development, such a maturation process can create a place of joy, peace, and closeness with God that transcends anything they have ever imagined or experienced.
Stage five: Internalizing God’s law
In the fifth stage, there is a tectonic shift in what motivates an individual as a follower of Jesus. Morality is determined by how an attitude or action impacts their relationship with God and fellow humanity, and this is determined on a totally different basis from rules, roles, creeds, or the expectations of religious authorities or group.
While at first glance this stage may appear relativistic and based on situational ethics, it is really the beginning of the stages that have characterized the lives all of the spiritual “greats” throughout history. 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 my desire because the law is written on my heart.
Often the person ends up doing or not doing many of the same things that a person might do at another stage of their spiritual development, but for totally different reasons. Instead of living one’s life by a list of forensic dos and dont's 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 my fellow man becomes important. And whether something will defile or adulterate my relationship with God or another person becomes the motivating principle, and whether an action or an attitude will cause me or those around me to fear God or empower them to live rich, full, satisfying, love-filled lives in Him and with each other become of greatest importance.
Stage six: Loving God and others genuinely
In the sixth stage, the important issue for the follower of Jesus is whether or not something brings pleasure to God and grace to others. This is spiritual altruism at its best. Jesus said that the two great commandments are 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 conscious of His presence while proceeding through the day, and listening for His voice as He guides. A person begins seeing those around him through the eyes of Jesus. The heart rejoices at that which brings Him joy and breaks in the absence thereof.
In this stage, the church exists to provide loving accountability in the relationships in our lives. The church provides a place of fellowship with those who are also on their walk toward an increasingly deeper relationship with God, while at the same time holding up the mirror of God’s Word so that we can clearly see how to love and where we may not be loving. The church becomes the place where we come together to accomplish loving deeds for God in concert with others who share our passion for Him; the place where we go to have our spiritual fires rekindled and our flagging spirits raised, and where we join with others of like passion for God in worshiping Him.
In short, in this stage neither punishment nor reward factor into the equation. Bringing pleasure, glory, and honor to someone we love—human or divine—is all that matters. That is what the angels and unfallen beings live to do. It is their greatest joy. And, it is what will consume us for eternity. It is the highest stage of spiritual growth.
Reaching 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 on following Jesus every day. This walk, 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 through each stage of spiritual maturity?
1. We must be willing to make the journey. We all naturally shy away from chaos, especially spiritual chaos. But the life of the Spirit is intrinsically chaotic. This life follows 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, vistas, and experiences. In the footsteps of the radical Rabbi from Nazareth, we make new relationships based on a new openness to loving and accepting others where they are. We begin to see things outside of the confines of a comfortable orthodoxy and to discover that the life of a follower of Jesus is a constant evolution of understanding God’s will. We see people through new eyes that look beyond the external or immediate to the hidden and what they can be through His grace. The understanding of right and wrong based on creeds or statements of belief is shattered by a morality based on listening to Him through His Spirit and Word in the moment. 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 our traditions and settled patterns of living into the glorious light of His constant ongoing presence in all areas of our lives.
2. 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 spiritual growth. Even when we cannot see the path or where it leads, we know that He is our guide. 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.
3. 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—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. Each stage of a person’s development and education is built on successfully making it through those that precede it. In the same way, a person’s spiritual development is grown on the stages that precede it.
4. We cannot be afraid of the naysayers. Rarely do we 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 children will often exhibit their insecurity with temper tantrums or manipulation in order to control their 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, the radical Rabbi whom we claim to follow, was rarely understood or appreciated by the orthodox spiritual leaders and people of His day. He suffered violent reactions to Himself and His ideas. He went in new directions. He made friends with those whom the traditional church wanted nothing to do with. He went places where good followers of God were not 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.
5. 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 can very often be painful and unsettling, but it is absolutely necessary for life. Whatever does not grow is dying—even if it imagines that it still lives. Spiritual growth means intentionally exposing myself 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 my preconceptions and traditions with a new spiritual skin, flexible and usable by God.
6. We must act on our stated desire to grow. It is much easier to live a life based on rules and commands than to listen for the still, quiet voice of God’s Spirit as we move through our daily lives. It is also much more comfortable to have a checklist posted on the wall of our minds than to feel for the gentle wind of the Spirit on our hearts. We feel more comfortable to break down the people we meet and interact with, and the circumstances we encounter, in shades of black and white than to come to terms with the fact that virtually every person and circumstance is a gray mixture of the two.
Like petulant children, we do not want to grow, to give up our childish things and ways of thinking and interacting with God and others. But we must grow if we are to become all that God want us to be.