one of the hardest things about all of the tossing & turning & churning of spiritual growth and change is that it sometime can just feel so confusing and disorienting. when others around you are perfectly fine with where they are on the journey with God, church & life, but something feels awry in our spirit, we can get a little insecure and sort of wonder “what’s wrong with us?” in one of the spiritual direction classes i had at denver seminary 6 years ago we read a book called the critical journey: stages in the life of faith (by janet hagberg & robert guelich) that was probably one of the most helpful tools i have come across to give language to the spiritual journey. i sometimes tell people that the tuition money i paid was worth this one tool because it was the first time i saw in black and white exactly what so many of were experiencing but didn’t really have a framework to put it in. i created a cliff notes version in a chart for a retreat we did way back when. it’s kind of handy and you can check it out here: (important note: this post won’t really make as much sense without reading it first)
grace blogged about it a few weeks ago and it made me want to flesh it out a little more so that those who have hit the wall and are feeling a bit dizzy can get a little reminder that it’s a good thing, a great thing, a wonderful thing to take the journey inward and intensely wrestle with God, themselves. the hope is always that we can find our way to a new place of freedom, hope, connection, love. i also think it’s really helpful to remember why other people are where they are. sometimes i need to revisit this to offer a little grace to those who aren’t as dissatisfied as me & are still perfectly fine with towing the party line. it’s just where they are on the journey.
i am not going to reiterate everything that is in the chart in the copy of this post because it would be too long but here’s a quick re-cap so you get the idea (purely from my perspective, you might read the book and get a different take):
this chart really highlights the 6 primary stages in our spiritual journey:
1. recognition of God – starting to believe, there really is something bigger than just me
2. life of discipleship – beginning to learn more ABOUT God
3. the productive life – serving and doing things FOR God
THE WALL – things stop working for one reason or another…
4. the journey inward – figuring out a new way to do relationship with God, ourselves, others
5. the journey outward – learning to live, serve, love out of a totally different place
6. life of love – so poured out it’s kind of wild
a few important notes about these stages:
you can’t skip over them initially. there are no shortcuts or workarounds. you don’t go from 1 to 4 or 2 to 5. it’s a 1-2-3-4-5-6 process but once you have gone through them it is possible to skip around and revisit certain stages during different new seasons.
we can get stuck at any of these stages on our journey. they call this getting “caged”. the chart details some of the ways we can get caged at each stage. at the same time there are things that we can do to keep moving.
none of these stages are bad or right or wrong or better than another. they just are. i think an important piece to remember is that we couldn’t have gotten to where we are now (i am pretty sure that’s bad grammar?) without the first stages. sometimes i forget that without my season of learning scripture, becoming part of “the church”, and discovering what i had to contribute and working my butt off to do it, i wouldn’t be where i was today in my relationship with Jesus.
the majority of christians live their entire faith journey in stages 1-3. these first three stages keep churches in business. it is what produces workers, people who sit in the pews and learn, tithers, and volunteers who pull the ministry off.
what happens to a lot of people, though, is that somewhere along the road they hit THE WALL. this can be a personal crisis, a faith crisis, anything that basically begins to make stage 3, the productive life, stop working. most everyone, if they are honest, hit the wall somewhere along the line in some shape or form (some of us slam into it a little bit more dramatically!) but most christians are taught and trained to dance around the wall and then get back to stage 3 as fast as they can. i really believe a lot of christians don’t know quite what to do when people hit the wall. the typical response i have seen a lot: read the latest spiritual book, get into a quick-fix workshop, get an accountability partner as soon as possible, or if it’s really bad, go to a counselor for a few times to fix what’s wrong and get back to “normal” as soon as you can.
far fewer people actually do the hard courageous work of going THROUGH the wall because it requires entering into stage 4, the scary place where it feels like everything is up for grabs. all that we once knew is somehow gone or just doesn’t bring life. we don’t feel safe or satisfied or energized in the system we used to give our heart and time and money to. the way we used to experience God just doesn’t seem to be working anymore. we have way more questions than answers. we allow ourselves to feel pain & let God into some places we have not wanted to go before. sometimes we are bleeding, wounded, and wondering if we’ll ever be whole again. it is the most confusing stage and also the most glorious because it is where we begin to let go of some of the comforts that protected us so well but kept us from deeper, richer, more mysterious relationship with God. it is also the stage that most outsiders will look at us and say “what in the $#*!^!+@ is happening with them?” others will think we are crazy, heretical, lost, stupid, unfaithful & a little (or maybe a lot) like the prodigal, hoping we’ll come back home as soon as possible. i think stage 4 is when we need good guides, fellow sojourners who will stay with us and remind us this is a critical stage in our faith journey, to remind us to listen deeply and not lose hope when all that we once knew feels stripped away.
the hope is that we will transition into stage 5 where we are serving, loving, living from a new, free place that gives life not only to us but to others. in the journey outward we live from a more whole, integrated place in our faith and personal lives. we are more vulnerable not only with God but with other people & we are deeply committed to community, a slower pace, and begin to serve and love other people out of deep desire and passion instead of duty or obligation or attachment to an organization or institution. 2 corinthians 1 and 1 john 4 take deeper root: we comfort others with the comfort we’ve received and we love others because we’ve experienced Christ’s love like never before.
i believe that some of us pop out of stage 4 here and there along the way, not all at once (that is what we expected of ourselves in stage 3!). movement between the journey inward & outward are a little more fluid. it’s not like one day we wake up and go “okay, it’s all clear now, here’s my new purpose and there’s no turning back.” i think we live in stage 5 with a greater sense of freedom, compassion, depth and a willingness to not know. my professor described stage 6 as a little on the mother teresa side. pretty hard to do when we have kids at home, mortgages to pay, and some of the practical things that tie us down.
as you know by now, i am not a big formula person. i am not into “this one idea will make all of the questions of the universe perfectly clear.” so don’t think for a moment that i am ascribing this chart is 100% accurate and will change your world. i just hope it stirs up a bit of what it stirred up in me when i first read it a long time ago: a little reminder that i am not crazy. the wall is real. the journey inward is worth it. the healing, freedom, and love that springs forth from all that hard work is beautiful and worth holding on for. our spiritual walk is long, wild and important and at many turns impossibly slow. and there’s no doubt, we need patient, safe, challenging people to remind us that God is big, alive, and present with us even in the darkest, most loneliest of days.
i’d love to hear your thoughts…