How Spiritual Growth Happens … Overcoming Arrested Development (part 2 of 2)

This is the second in a two-part series. In the previous article, I made the point that the normal and expected pattern of our lives was to move away from not only emotional childishness, but also spiritual childishness. The goal of our lives is to grow towards wholeness or completeness, which includes becoming spiritually “mature” or “complete.”

I then made the point that, too often that growth is hindered by the fear — often stoked by misguided spiritual teachers — of entertaining or exploring our questions and doubts. The assumption is that doing so will cause our faith in God, and our spiritual union (or relationship with God) to be diminished, if not lost altogether.

My contention is that often, the exact opposite is true. What we need to do, in order to move towards a deeper, more authentic, fully integrated faith is to explore the new information and experiences, and find ways of integrating them into our spiritual lives. As I said in the previous article, this might mean letting go of some of our assumptions and beliefs (“putting away childish things” as Paul says in I Corinthians 13:11).

In my work with people as a spiritual teacher and counselor, I’ve come to see that periodically, people will reach points of serious questions about what they’ve been taught to believe about God, the Bible, and life. Sometimes this happens because of new information gleaned from studies in science, philosophy, or comparative religion. Other times questions arise, because of experiences people have, where it seems that the actual unfolding of their lives — and observations about their neighbors — seems very different than the things they were taught.

The Map and the Ground

In his book, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart,” Gordon Livingston offers a collection of life lessons. The opening chapter is devoted to the first lesson, which he titles: “If the map doesn’t agree with the ground, the map is wrong.” Here’s how he tells the story of how he learned this:

Once, a long time ago, I was a young lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division, trying to orient myself on a field problem at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As I stood studying a map, my platoon Sergeant, a veteran of many junior officers, approached. “You figure out where we are, lieutenant?” he asked. “Well, the map says there should be a hill over there, but I don’t see it,” I replied. “Sir,” he said, “if the map don’t agree with the ground, then the map is wrong.” Even at the time, I knew I had just heard a profound truth.

That is the experience — and struggle — of many people I have known and worked with over the years. The actual territory of their lives — their experiences and what they see going on around them — do not match the “map” they have (in this case, the Bible teaching they’ve been exposed to).

When our spiritual map doesn’t agree with the ground in our lives, it creates a crisis. We are taught, when this happens, that we need to trust the spiritual map, and assume that we are in error, that we just don’t really understand what we’re seeing in our lives. Sometimes this is good advice, and interpreting our experience through the lens of scripture is helpful.

But sometimes it’s not helpful at all. Sometimes the things we learn reshape our understanding of the map. One extreme example would be how Christians resisted the insights of science about the earth revolving around the sun, because of Bible passages the used the phrase “the sun stood still.”

When people reach these crisis points in life, and start to question the things they’ve been taught, they interpret this crisis as a sort of spiritual breakdown. But instead, this crisis could lean to a profound breakthrough.

Those questions and doubts need to be looked at. People need to come to terms with what they’ve learned and what they’re experiencing. If new information or experiences call into to question the things they’ve been taught, maybe they need to re-look at what they’ve been taught.

It’s not all-or-nothing

What is unique about the Bible — and the whole of Christian teaching — is it’s confounding diversity. Many — if not most — people who grow up in church contexts do not understand or appreciate this. They tend to assume that whatever slant of Christian teaching they’ve been exposed to is the only form of Christianity there is. They tend to assume that whatever method or approach to Bible interpretation they were exposed to is the the only way to understand the Bible. So if they encounter things that contradict what they’ve heard and believed, they assume that Christianity itself must not be true, and that God must not exist.

This is the damaging error of the New Atheism. It creates a simplistic all-or-nothing mentality. They poke holes in Fundamentalist beliefs about God and interpretations of the Bible, and jump to the immediate conclusion that it all must be rejected.

Maybe the Bible isn’t “untrue” … maybe we’ve been interpreting it wrongly. Maybe the Bible isn’t “untrue” … maybe we’ve been reading into it and expecting it to teach us more than it intends to teach. Put another way: Maybe the map isn’t wrong … maybe we’ve been reading it wrong.

When we come to these points of question and concern … there is indeed a spiritual crisis. But that crisis may actually lead us to a deeper understanding and experience of God and the Bible, and the spiritual life. Maybe this is the crisis that will lead us to a new stage of faith.

Stages of Faith

In 1981, James Fowler wrote the groundbreaking book “Stages of Faith,” which developed the idea that the spiritual life of people wasn’t simply linear, but advanced through various stages. This was not a new concept by any means, and Fowler was building on Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and Carl Jung’s stages of human development.

Fowler’s work has been widely quoted, and used by many to gain deeper understanding of how spiritual growth happens. He suggests that, just as human beings move through distinct stages in the biological aging process, in intellectual and moral development, so too do we move through stages in our spiritual development.

Fowler puts it this way:

“A stage then, we may say, is an integrated set of operational structures that constitute the thought processes of a person at a given time. Development involves the transformation of such “structures of the whole” in the direction of greater internal differentiation, complexity, flexibility and stability. A stage represents a kind of balanced relationship between a knowing subject and his or her environment. In this balanced position the person assimilates what is to be “known” in the environment into her or his existing structures of thought.

“When a novelty or challenge emerges that cannot be assimilated into the present structures of knowing then, if possible, the person accommodates; that is , generates new structures of knowing. A stage transition has occurred when enough accommodation has been undertaken to require (and make possible) a transformation in the operational pattern of the structural whole of intellectual operations.”

As I said, Fowler was not the first to suggest this, and he was not the last. Carl Jung before him, and psychologist and author M Scott Peck, and philosophers Ken Wilber and Jim Marion have also put together their own understanding of stages of faith. It’s important to note that they describe the stages in different ways … they don’t agree on all points, by any means. But they do agree on this one thing: spiritual growth involves moving through stages.

An Analogy From Nature

Another way of thinking about how it works for us to “put away childish things” is analogies from nature. Like an animal shedding its skin or shell, our development often comes in crisis turning point experiences.

The late educator and columnist Eddie LeShan tells this story about how she came to think of how people go through transformations. (She’s not specifically talking about spiritual transformation here, but the principle applies, nevertheless.)

“There was a time in my life when I was thinking about writing a book about middle age. I was at a social event, and I was introduced to an oceanographer who started a conversation with me, asking if I knew that lobsters have to de-shell. He told me that they get crowded inside their three-pound shells and they’re uncomfortable, and it’s not possible for them to go on living if they stay in the shells. So what they do is go out to the seas unprotected. They might get eaten by another lobster or some large fish, but they must de-shell. The whole, hard shell comes off, and the pink membrane that’s inside grows and eventually becomes a harder shell and a bigger one.

“At first, the story didn’t hit me, but soon I became preoccupied thinking about lobsters. I even was dreaming about them. I told my therapist about my dreams. She said, ‘That’s exactly what you’re writing your book on middle age about…going to the reef and taking off your familiar shell even if it’s dangerous.’ That has become my philosophy of life. You know, if you stay where you are, you’re dead before you’re dead.

“I’ve learned that the thing you need most as you age is the courage of the lobster. You’re going to go through things where you have to become much more flexible. You have to be willing to change, and courage is the most essential part of it. I believe courage implies a lack of denial, that you really are willing to face the issues, whatever they are, and the you grown from there.”

As I hope is becoming clear in all this, the experience of facing our struggles, questions, and doubts is often the crisis point that marks a transition from one stage of faith to a deeper stage of faith … assuming that we keep working on it. Assuming that don’t simply abandon the spiritual pursuit altogether. We let go of the shell we once carried that gave shape and protection, but no longer fits. This doesn’t mean an abandonment of our faith, or a disruption to our union (relationship) with God, it means a deepening and strengthening of it … unless we choose to give up the process.

This is Threatening … Especially for Certain People

Of course, not everybody understands or appreciates this. Your questions and struggles might be threatening to other people. Going through the process will involve some discernment on your part, as you evaluate who in your life are the safe people to talk to about these things.

It’s doubly challenging for people to go through this if they are in a public position of leadership. If their experience causes them to question some of the assumptions and beliefs of their particular group, they are thrust into an uncomfortable position. John Pavlovitz writes about this in his book “A Bigger Table,”

“Spiritual growth is often misdiagnosed as simple vacillation, or worse, ‘backsliding.’ When Christians, especially pastors, begin to evolve in their understanding of the Bible, their view of God, or even their core theological principles, those around them tend to hit the panic button. Often there is an overreaction around these leaders, an implication that they are somehow less faithful or less committed, when in reality the opposite is almost always true.

“In their desire to know God more deeply, to follow Jesus more closely, or to understand the Scriptures more completely, many pastors and church leaders find they are at odds with the status quo, which ironically they often helped establish. They can find themselves in the uncomfortable position of publicly arguing with their former selves. But there is plenty of precedent. In fact, we see in the apostle Paul just how the Spirit of God moves us from the trajectory we were once on, even if that trajectory was formed in pursuit of God.”

Let’s be honest: most people in spiritual leadership positions have a hard enough time doing the work they are called to do, without “going there” into unexplored spiritual territory that might disrupt the beliefs they are paid to teach. I’m reminded of the famous quote by Upton Sinclair:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something,
when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Sinclair was talking about politics, but you can see how the principle applies to spiritual teachers who are teaching in environments where there is strict adherence to the “party line” about many theological issues. We might paraphrase Sinclair by putting it this way: “It is difficult to get a person to question something, when their salary depends on their not questioning it.”

Be Reasonable

Please understand that I’m not suggesting that people deliberately and relentlessly seek out teaching that contradicts what they believe. Our world is awash in a sea of information, much of which turns in on and contradicts itself. I don’t think anyone needs to seek out information or experiences that will challenge or contradict their faith. Those things will come naturally.

All I’m asking is that we don’t shrink away from those things. I’m asking that we keep pursuing our faith, and that we seek to continually integrate all our knowledge and experiences into our spiritual life, and vice versa. I’m asking that we recognize that true spiritual growth often happens on the other side of The Door of our certainties.

A Personal Invitation

Does anything I’m writing here resonate with you? Are you struggling with unexplored questions and doubts that you don’t feel safe talking about? Trust me, you are not alone. Let me know if there’s any way I can be helpful to you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *