Have you ever wondered why some Christians seem to be more advanced in their Christian walk than others? Why do some people seem to be more in tune with God than others? These are questions I used to wonder about when I was younger. I would see older people in the churches I attended who looked like they were so full of God’s spirit. I, on the other hand, struggled to even read my Bible daily much less have an intimate relationship with God.
I also wondered why some people seemed to be in a really hard place spiritually, like God just wasn’t there for them and their spiritual life felt so dry. Wasn’t the Christian life supposed to be full of joy? Weren’t we supposed to be happy with what God did for us through Jesus?
It wasn’t until I read a book called The Critical Journey that I began to find answers to these questions. In this book, authors Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich identified six stages of the Christian life. Once I understood that the Christian life has stages that are different from one another and each have distinctive characteristics, those questions I wrestled with earlier in life began to find answers. I remember reading this book in my spiritual direction program and thinking how helpful it was in framing the spiritual journey. I could see myself in each of the stages and remembered when I was in those stages. The book also helped me understand better where spiritual direction fits into the faith journey. I will briefly describe each of the six stages and then explain where spiritual direction fits in.
Before I describe the stages, I want to caution that these stages are not set in stone. You may not relate to one or more of them. But the majority of people do tend to progress through them. It's also not always linear. You may find yourself in one stage and then, due to some experience or pain, move back to a previous stage. That’s OK and is not a sign of losing your faith. It’s also important to note that being in a higher numbered stage does not at all mean that someone is a better Christian than someone in a lower numbered stage. The Christian journey is very personal and everyone goes at their own pace or at the pace God moves them.
Stage 1: The Recognition of God
Everyone starts here. The first stage happens for someone when they--suddenly or gradually--come to the realization that there is a God and that they need a relationship with God. This typically happens through a sense of awe or a sense of need of something greater than themselves. Life suddenly has meaning for them and they have a sense of innocence. In this stage, it’s easy for you to believe in the promises you read in the Bible or hear the preacher say from the pulpit. Soon they realize how little they know about this new way of life which pushes them to the next stage.
Stage 2: Life of Discipleship
In Stage 2, people tend to go on a learning binge to learn everything they can about this new way of life. They find peace in the sense of belonging to the Christian tribe and tend to latch onto leaders and causes they find match well with this new way of life. The downside of this is that people can become rigid in their new knowledge believing that it's the only way to live or that anyone outside of their tribe is wrong.
Stage 3: The Productive Life
This stage can also be called the doing stage. It’s characterized by lots of activity, such as leading Sunday School lessons, Bible studies, and small groups and joining the choir. People in this stage feel a sense of uniqueness, responsibility, and find great value in their Christian community. They also tend to place high value on titles, authority, influence, and goals. Eventually, however, so much zealous activity leads to a weariness from so much doing. They begin to wonder if this is all there is to the Christian life which drives them into the next stage.
Stage 4: The Journey Inward
Now it's less about doing and more about being who you were created to be. Faith for someone in Stage 4 becomes deeply personal instead of exterior to oneself. The impetus for moving into this stage can be caused by a personal crisis such as death of a spouse, or a faith crisis such as beginning to question deeply held beliefs. This stage can be described as moving from a horizontal faith focused outside one’s self to a vertical faith focused inwardly on God. Suddenly, God is released from the box we built to hold God. This inward focus reveals a crisis of faith. People feel they’ve hit a wall and the old ways no longer work. Indeed, they have hit a wall, and passing through this wall is a difficult phase of the Christian life. People usually seek out a spiritual companion (also known as a spiritual director) at this stage to help make sense of what is going on.
The authors say, “The wall represents our will coming face to face with God’s will." (p. 114) They go on to say, "Fundamentally, [the wall] has to do with slowly breaking through the barriers we have built between our will and a newer awareness of God in our lives." (p. 115). Many people find they resist the wall and instead go back to Stage 4 and stay there as long as they can. Strong egos, self deprecation, shame, and doctrinaires tend to resist the wall. Interestingly, so do clergy. Those ordained in ministry feel they can not show any weakness, so when they reach the wall, they hold firm in their current beliefs and resist the messiness of the wall.
How does one know they’re at the wall? Some characteristic experiences include being extremely uncomfortable, feeling a sense of surrender, healing, and closeness to God. Many people in this stage find a new desire for silence and solitude. I believe the wall that Hagberg and Guelich describe is what many are now calling “deconstruction.” Again here, meeting with a competent spiritual companion is crucial.
Stage 5: The Journey Outward
The dark night of the wall stage is beginning to lighten. Now, people find they have an outward focus from their new grounded center of themselves. They can look back on their lives and realize they have changed for the better. Now, their primary motivation is to love honestly and live according to love. They embrace mystery, uncertainty, and unknowing. You may recognize these people as having a deep calm and stillness to their demeanor. Their sense of God and love has expanded to include people and ideas they never would consider including. Suddenly, things like doctrine, creeds, and church authorities hold no sway over them.
Stage 6: The Life of Love
Everything else is stripped away and all that remains is the simple--yet incredibly profound--truth that God is love. Nothing else matters. People in this stage reflect God's love more completely than ever. They exhibit a Christlike living, compassion for others, deep wisdom, detachment from things, and overall complete abandonment to God. Sometimes, they can be accused of wasting their life because they have such a desire to love others that they may neglect “important” things. But to them, the only important thing in life is loving God and loving others, whatever that costs them.
Hagberg, J., & Guelich, R. A. (2005). The critical journey : Stages in the life of faith. Salem: Sheffield Pub. Co.