Everything about God contains a dynamic growth process. God likes things to mature into fullness. To ripen. There is a Greek concept of beauty as the perfect ripeness of fruit. Of course, there is decay here-but Peter promises us, that there is also a place without decay, where we have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade (I Peter 1:4). Another concept of beauty extends this earlier Greek idea to mean when a fruit is in its appropriate season it is beautiful. An older tree is beautiful if it looks older, not youthful. Growth is part of beauty. There are aesthetic ideas around this idea of growth cycles and stages of maturation. It is the same throughout the Bible. Spiritual growth is the journey. We are becoming over time, the sons and daughters of God. The Christian life is spiritual formation. Christ life becoming more incarnate in ours. We are moving towards, Paul’s, “Not I, but Christ.” We are moving towards face to Face-full union with Our Lord!
Our growth is towards moving into Union with Him and His Headship. He is moving into us, and we into Him. Our aim is moving in mystical union with all that is of His Headship–Wisdom, counsel, good living, love of others. In short, the Christian journey is into Christ! We are growing up into Headship–to be co-wise men in Christ. Wise Rulers.
We start as born again infants, and then gradually He forms Himself in more and more of us, so we are no longer living as set free slaves, but as co-heir or rulers in and with Him. (Galatians 4). Our older mentalities are being displaced over time. Our lives here, really are about making this faith genuine, as Peter wrote. Our trials are all formation for eternity. The whole earth drama of life is a stage, and its point is formation into His Living Love. There is a process of sanctification, a process of spiritual development. Paul writes much about pressing forward in maturity in Christ, which in his letters is characterized by unity with others, love of the brethren, knowing our domains of authority, feeding the poor (both literally and spiritually poor), not living beyond our means–ie living well, and often greater suffering for being in Him. Less of us and more of Him is the path. And more of Him, means more of His Suffering and Wisdom, and less of our own.
So we learn to get to the Cross faster, dying daily, so that He may live–not I, but Christ. That is the way, but what are the stages of our spiritual journey.
Some of the medieval mystics have laid out an outline. The Bible has many models or metaphors for the spiritual journey. But what is a helpful map of life so to speak. A map of spiritual growth. It obviously does not end until we are face to Face; but what is possible here on earth-in this dispensation of faith and Grace. How far can we go in becoming sons and daughters of God? And what are the stages along the way? Then were am I on the map, where are you?
You know how Proverbs eight is like Wisdom rapping about herself! I always got that part-even as a kid–that if you wanted to understand something, you needed to get at and into the junctures in between–the doors, the gates, the rims, ridges and rivers. That’s where you’d be able to see the patterns of what is really happening, to gain true perspective! It’s like when you get up on the roof of your own house, and look down at yourself and friends as characters in a drama. That’s where Wisdom dwells. Or like Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita where he rises above the battle he is in, and must ask a lot of moral questions about family killing family and so on. He couldn’t have seen that if just on the field, you know. Wisdom is positioned above the drama to be able to understand it, and give us understanding, so we can choose well.
So let’s try to climb inside Wisdom’s perspective as we look at spiritual development, and stages of spiritual growth. The human life cycle in itself is one model, if we take off disease and the decaying effects of sin. What we see at the toddler stage is complete dependence without knowledge; the middle stage, we gain understanding or knowledge, and then make choices what to do with it! We start to move into individuation from parents, and are given the choice to love back on parents from a position of choice and rulership over ourselves, then into a ruler or parenting others; then later in life we move back into a dependence and union with God, but with knowledge. You could say this mirrors William Blake’s–innocence, experience, then union model. Or the philosopher Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis stages of development. The middle part of spiritual life is the time of choice, as we gain His knowledge and chose how to live from it. We are becoming mini-kings and queens in this stage. And we begin to have the potential of gaining wisdom.
In Short, the later stages of spiritual life, are about being more fully in God. Earliest about coming into Him. The middle about growing up into Him, and learning to live out His Ways, and remove the ways of the sinful nature and the ways of the world. The middle phase is a time of self insight into our own brokenness as well, and how utterly dependent we are on Him to learn to live. I think this phase is also a phase where we learn by doing things with Him on earth. Partnering in the crime of the Kingdom so to speak. The middle also is where the ways of the world get weeded out of us through becoming unselfish servants in Him–through co-laboring with Christ. This, as we move on to greater union of being with Him. We, in the later stages are becoming more one with Him. Our dark rooms get sequentially illuminated by the presence of Christ within them. The demonic and fleshly ways in these rooms get gradually displaced by His Wholeness and Light and His Life!
Some other models: One very keen current spiritual teacher, and good writer, puts it into these five stages. His article on each stage is a nice synthesis of the medieval writers, and contemporary spiritual thinkers, such as Richard Rhur and others, on spiritual stages of development. He speaks of the need to let go of one trapeze to reach out for the next one God is swinging towards us, at each stage of spiritual growth! He writes, So those are the five stages of spiritual growth or 5 mountains on the map. Simplicity, Insight, Shadow, Surrender, and Unity. God is with us, right now, as guide and teacher and loving healer, inviting us to a life of adventure on the trapeze… to always keep our hearts open to the next trapeze.
For his article which i think is much better or more thorough article than mine, look at this writer’s essay on spiritual formation on his site: Selah spiritual formation on he and his wife’s blog: theferrands.wordpress.com
Which stage are we at, as life itself is about growth into His Life. What were the stages of Jesus Life, spiritual formation? I would suggest, they went something like this: Infancy by a miracle (spiritual birth), growing in training while under other’s supervision, with signs of future stages of growth, a season of temptation preparation for His ministry, where everything is laid bare (shadow stage; dark night of the soul), then an intense manifestation of His Union with The Father in His three year ministry. During this last stage, He also trained others, and imparted His teachings and ways into their lives, so that it would reproduce after He left earth. He also modeled perfect unity with The Father in this later stage, in a way that no one else had ever or will ever do, because Jesus was God! Jesus’ life is the ultimate model of uninterrupted spiritual growth! As He is the Perfect model for all other things!
You can also look at Paul’s life as a model of spiritual formation! Zealous youth but led by his soul. Then a dramatic spirit conversion through a visitation with the Risen Lord, on the road to Damascus, which completely realigned, and re-birthed him. Then fourteen years of training, then the desire to start moving in His true spiritual headship and apostleship. Then not I but Christ–complete union with Christ, with less and less of the sinful nature ruling over him. Then in his ministry, modeling and imparting, and training and parenting others, and writing down a third of the New Testament! One thing which was really unique to Paul, was He also had this amazing father heart for The Church which was so overtly manifested in all his letters. He was parenting the church itself. A unique calling. In short, Paul’s stages were: conversion, training, establishing his ministry, or areas of Christ Authority Paul was called to partner in planting on earth, then ministry in union with Christ, reproducing spiritual life in others, and leaving spiritual seeds behind to effect the rest of Church history. Not bad.
Paul knew the law first in youth, but not The Spirit or Jesus. When he met Jesus, the law was contextualized for him. And he was able to teach from that view. In terms of spiritual formation–Paul’s journey offers a model. He starts by seeking through religion/philosophy then encountering God, then being trained. To be trained is an essential aspect of spiritual growth! Then to go on a partner with God in fathering His Flock. So we move from seeking, to finding, to training, to serving others in Him. Paul’s life was a pattern of many things–Jew and gentile relations etc; but his life was also a model for spiritual formation.
Paul’s life was a journey from religion to God Himself. a teacher’s path. He was already motivated to learn, and grow in knowledge-but then he encountered the living God. His training then helped him start to get the thoughts and interpretations of God on all he had previously studied-to separate out what what true from what was worthless rubbish. In learning to train others, you also must be trained–in new areas as well. Paul spent many years in training, before he became a trainer or spiritual parent. In order to raise up others into spiritual adulthood, you must learn how to spiritually parent people through various stages of development. Training requires knowing what people are in their spiritual growth; are they beginners, intermediate, master servants. What are the characteristics of each?
Not just Paul’s story, but the Jewish journey itself, is of course a clear model of spiritual growth–from slavery, into the wilderness of training and God’s knowledge and equipping, across the deeper death or surrender of the Jordan, and into the seasons of possessing, occupying and cultivation of lands outside ourselves in partnership with God.
Also, there are recurring patterns of spiritual formation or growth in the lives of all the saints. We always see rebirth, a training and revealed knowledge phase, then a beginning to move in co-labor with Christ outside of ourselves, and then this overwhelming Presence of the Father in the person’s life, which manifest out to others and spiritually havens and parents all that is around them. And often, which leaves seeds for future generations. You see this with St Francis, as well as the many other men and women of God who have walked the earth.
A priest once told me, “you will gradually feel less of your own emotions, and more of His; less of your own thoughts, and more of Christ’s; less of your own suffering and more of His.” The words felt ominous at the time, but now they are comforting. Not I, but Christ is the journey towards greater union with God. We want to see more from His Eyes, feel more from His Heart, and think, more from His Mind and Ways, daily! May it be ever so in us Lord.
I do think it is also an important time to examine the stages of spiritual growth, and to keep pressing on in Him into the next. Formation, is Christ forming Himself in us over time, and in real life. Paul convicts the Corinthians of staying in spiritual immaturity. God was not pleased that they had not pressed on into more of His Formation in them. It is by Grace, as all other things are, that formation occurs. He must form Himself in us. But we are active participants, willing canvases for more and more of the colors of Christ’s life to be painted on our inner lives. As He does, these patterns of growth will be made manifest in our lives, and radiate out onto others, our cities and nations. May we be becoming salt and Your radiant multifaceted light to those around us, as it is becoming in us! And give us your courage to press further into Your Life each day, and into each new spiritual season of life, while on earth! May it be so in us Lord!
Lastly, as an afterthought-between each season of spiritual growth, are these vulnerable liminal phases of re-choosing God-when one is dangling between the old trapeze and the new one. Choosing again to go on with and in Him. These are little mini-dark nights of the soul, and they recur, and they often hault growth. People will stop, stay where they are, or regress back to earlier stages. But these trial periods are included in the spiritual journey. They are part of the path prepared beforehand to be our way (Ephesians 2:10). Don’t waste your trials as the spiritual writer and priest, Henri Neuwenn put it. These trials are meant to make our faith more genuine, to make our lives more authentically in Him, and to test us to see if we really are wanting to grow up into His Life!
When I was growing up, there wasn’t much talk of spiritual growth in the church. I don’t remember anyone offering me a spiritual map of development. Perhaps, the catholics did better with this. But, fortunately, that is slowly changing, as seminaries start to offer spiritual formations classes, and churches get more interested in not just saving people, but discipling them into maturity. This is a hopeful sign, but still many believers stay in earlier stages of spiritual development for many reasons. I think in this sense, the church is starting to think of developing and equipping the whole person, not just getting them to cross the starting line. This requires us to be becoming spiritual adults, and to learn to mentor and train those who are also growing. And it brings the joys and learnings of spiritual parenthood. It does help to see where we are heading, in order to press on, and to continually realize, we have not yet arrived. Until, we have grown into the fullness of the exact likeness of His Headship, we are still in a growth process. So we know God by examining these patterns of spiritual growth.