Arrested Spiritual Development in Christian Circles (part 1 of 2)


“Thinking is a sacred activity. The heart cannot embrace what the mind rejects.” – Anonymous

Much has been made of Jesus’ famous and poetic words in Matthew 18 — that people who want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven must become “like little children.” Jesus’ words in that passage have caused some people to highlight the value of having a “childlike faith.”

Fair enough, but Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 must be understood in the context of other teaching in the Bible that emphasizes the need for growth to maturity. It’s true that we must enter into the spiritual life like children — with open and humble and receptive hearts — as opposed to being proud and closed-minded. But the goal is never to STAY like little children — as other other passages (like Ephesians 4:11-13) make clear.

In fact, in two separate instances (I Corinthians 3:1-2, and Hebrews 5:11-14), New Testament writers express exasperation with their readers, because these readers are still in a childhood stage of growth, when they should be more like adults. They require teaching that is “spiritual baby food,” when they should be ready for solid food. This is not acceptable!

There’s a difference between having a child-LIKE faith, and a CHILDISH faith. We can maintain a childlike sense of openness and humility all throughout our lives … but we need to grow up. We need to develop.

Arrested Spiritual Development

I believe that many spiritual leaders and teachers in our world are suffering from arrested spiritual development, and are inhibiting the spiritual growth of the people they teach and lead. They are stuck in an immature phase of spiritual development, and they are passing on this same kind of arrested spiritual development to the people around them.

This happens for two reasons:

The first is because of the nature of spiritual teaching and leadership. You can’t teach others what you don’t know yourself. It’s hard to lead people to places where you aren’t able to go yourself. If a spiritual leader is stuck in early stages of spiritual life, he or she will struggle to help others move to deeper levels of growth.

But there’s another problem — spiritually immature leaders and teachers can pass on their own misunderstanding, and thereby inhibit the growth of the people under their care. That’s what happens with confusion about how faith, doubt, belief, and experience relate together and interweave in our lives to foster spiritual growth. This misunderstanding has inhibited their own growth, and they pass it on to others. They live in fear of questions, doubt, and uncertainty; believing that these undermine and weaken people’s faith.

I should know … because that’s how I grew up. That’s how I was taught. I was taught to be wary of anything that would call my spiritual beliefs and practices into question. The message was usually implicit, but sometimes even explicit: Don’t go there. “That’s not the kind of stuff you should be reading or thinking about. You should read and think about things that encourage and affirm your beliefs. Don’t dwell on those doubts!”

The Room and the Door

Think about it like this: Imagine your spiritual life like a room. Inside this room are your experiences, your thoughts, your beliefs. And there’s also a door over to the side, along one of the walls. Behind that door is where all the things that contradict or call your faith into question are. Is that a door to a different room? To a closet? To a dungeon? You don’t know. But you’re told it’s a dangerous door. You don’t know much about what’s behind it … whatever is on the other side of that door represents chaos and will likely lead to your “falling away” from faith.

Maybe you can identify with a picture like this, because you have something like this in your own house. Maybe you have a room or a closet that is your “chaos room.” You just pile things there that don’t fit in the main rooms. If someone comes over, you throw all the mess into that room, and make sure it stays closed.

What we do with our spiritual life is kind of like that: We keep space behind a door where we throw the stuff that doesn’t “work” — that doesn’t fit with the life and faith we’re trying to craft for ourselves. So spiritually speaking, this is where we throw things like our doubts, questions, and life experiences that don’t fit with the beliefs we’ve adopted.

Maybe these are experiences that seem to not make sense in the context of what we’ve been taught life should be like from the Bible. Maybe it’s disillusionment with other Christians, possibly even Christian leaders. Maybe it’s questions that come up from study we do in science. Maybe it’s thoughts about comparative religion … you hear teachers from other religions say things that make a lot of sense, or you have friends who don’t share your faith perspective, and yet they seem more happy and virtuous than other people you know who are “believers.”

Most of us are taught that it’s best to not dwell on these questions or experiences … just put them on the other side of the door. When we confront questions and challenges that aren’t easily explained, we’re told: “Just admit that there are things we don’t fully understand and leave it at that. Put them behind the door, and don’t go into that room, or spend time there. If do, it will take you away from your faith. It will pull you away from God.”

For a variety of reasons, some people have a harder time with this than others. Some people have more questions and intellectual doubts about the faith they are taught than others. Maybe they’re deep thinkers, or maybe their field of study puts them in places where they deal with information that contradicts their interpretation of the Bible.

It’s also true that some people have to contend with more difficult losses and suffering than others — they have life experiences that call into question beliefs they were taught about God’s goodness and protection. Some people find that in their lives, God seems more absent than present, and they struggle to reconcile their experience with what they are taught to expect from the spiritual life.

How do you deal with the questions and doubts?

The strategy I was taught — when dealing with an accumulation of questions and doubts that you can’t find answers for — is to put those questions and doubts out of your mind, and instead, fill your life with teaching that reinforces your current version of Christianity. This way, wherever you turn, you’re hearing repetition and reinforcement of the ideas and teaching that you been taught and agree with.

You’re not encouraged to really wrestle with the questions, and let them take you where they might lead. Instead, you’re given The Answer to whatever question you have — the “party line” from whatever religious group you’re a part of — and encouraged to accept that, and not to focus on the doubt or question. If you have to do some research, or reflection to come to terms with your questions or doubts, the advice is to come up with answers that settle your mind … and then move on. “Focus on the things that build your faith, not on the things that undermine it.”

Your spiritual intellectual life becomes like an echo chamber, where you’re continually processing messages that bolster your ideas and spiritual views … and you stay away from people, books, and any information that might call into question what you believe.

The conventional wisdom is that spiritual growth means immersing yourself in the Truth. In Christian settings, this is framed in terms of immersing yourself in the teaching of the Bible. Incidentally, what is not generally admitted is that this means immersing yourself in one particular view or interpretation of the Bible, and there may be other views or interpretations of the Bible and the given issue you are struggling with.

The Truth we are asked to fill our minds with is usually presented as the clear, obvious, and simple teaching of the Bible. But it’s usually not that simple or obvious. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde quote: “the clear and simple truth of the Bible is rarely clear, and is almost never simple.”

Whether or not you agree with the paraphrased Oscar Wilde quote, the point is this: Conventional wisdom dictates that you immerse yourself exclusively in teaching that aligns with your particular interpretation of the Christian message. And then … tuning out anything else. Any information, experiences, teaching, that call into question those beliefs needs to be rejected. Don’t spend any more time thinking about it. Don’t go there!

Going back to our analogy, the idea is that spiritual growth, health, and life requires staying away from That Door. Because whatever is on the other side of that door is probably going to cause you to have a faith that’s diminished … maybe even cause you to LOSE your faith altogether.

You don’t want that, do you? So keep the door closed.

I believe that this approach to the spiritual life is damaging to our spiritual growth.

Inevitably, we are going to encounter situations and ideas that cause us to question our beliefs. If we don’t work hard to understand and resolve these questions, and see how our beliefs actually relate to reality, we’re going to have an artificiality to our faith.

Here’s what I found, and here’s what I believe: If you’re in a situation where what’s happening in this room (your spiritual life) isn’t working, where things aren’t making sense, where things aren’t adding up, where the realities of your life are really different than what you think the Christian life SHOULD be, where the things you have been taught to believe just don’t match the reality of the world as you experience it …

  • MAYBE it’s because you’re in the wrong room.

  • MAYBE what’s on the other side of that door isn’t the diminishment of your spiritual life and your relationship with God … maybe it’s the deepening of it.

  • MAYBE instead of destroying your faith, opening the door and investigating these questions and doubts will lead to transforming it. To changing it, but ultimately deepening it.


Deconstruct / Reconstruct

Let me tell you a secret that we don’t hear talked about often enough in church: Spiritual growth is not just about accumulating more knowledge and ideas. It’s often just as much about letting go of inferior, immature, untrue knowledge and ideas.

The apostle Paul says as much in I Corinthians 13:9-11.

“For now we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

To put this in today’s terms — the journey of spiritual growth is probably going to push you into seasons where you need to deconstruct what you think and believe about God and life, and how you understand the Bible. And then — and ONLY THEN — can you reconstruct what you think and believe in a way that is more real, more honest, more MATURE.

You’re going to have to put some childish things away.

One of my favorite lines from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu reads as follows:

Those who seek knowledge,
Collect something every day.
Those who seek the Way,
Let go of something every day.
– Lao Tzu (trans. by Stefan Stenudd)

In another place, Lao Tzu says:

If we hold on to thoughts, judgments, and opinions,
our minds will be cluttered and useless. …
The only path to a satisfying life
lies in letting go.
– Lao Tzu (trans. by William Martin)

Loving God with our Mind

One time, Jesus was asked “What is the greatest commandment?” He answered by saying:

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Did you notice the manner in which Jesus tells us to love God? With all our heart, soul, and mind. God gave you a mind … surely God is not going to hold it against you if you use it. Part of what it means to love God with all our minds is that we love and relate to God in a way that honors our intellect. As someone has said,

“Blind faith is an ironic gift to give to the creator of human intelligence.”

The reality is that loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind — over the course of your life — is probably going to mean that as time goes on, you’re going to find things that you used to think were true, but now you’re not so sure about. You’re going to have times where everybody around you is just taking in the teaching and nodding their heads like they know what’s being said and agree with it, and you’re going to have to say, “Wait a minute. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or maybe, “I don’t think that’s true. That doesn’t make sense.” You’re going to have times where you just have to say, “I don’t believe it. Unless I can see or experience something that is more aligned with this … I just don’t believe it.” And you’re maybe going to have to admit that some things you used to think were true, now you’re not so sure about anymore.

I’m here to tell you that these are holy and important moments. I’m here to tell you that this door you’re looking at may not be a door to the outside, or to the dungeon … but it may be a door to a BIGGER room … a BETTER room.

(Stay tuned for part two of this article)

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