How Understanding Stages of Development Can Help Us Grow Spiritually
I still remember watching my sons learn to walk. Of course when they were newborn they couldn’t even sit up or roll over. It was some months before they said their first words, “ball” and “tractor”, though now that they are 8 and 6 they often speak in sentences so fast that you have to pay close attention or you’ll miss what they are saying. Imagine how strange it would have seemed if they had started speaking in full sentences right after the doctor slapped them on the butt, or if they had walked out to the car on their own the day after they were born!
We’re familiar with the stages of normal development that occur, without much parental intervention or effort, in infants and toddlers. We often celebrate and commemorate these milestones: baby’s first word, first tooth, first steps. Even in teenagers we can often spot the ways in which they’re still developing mentally, emotionally and psychologically. But, what about in adults? Do we continue developing, too? If so, does it happen automatically, or do we have to intentionally seek out and willingly participate in such growth . . . or even find it amidst suffering? Those of us who work as staff with InterVarsity find the language and practice of “transformation” woven right into the DNA of our work with college students. We expect and desire growth in students. But, what happens after the college years? Is that the end of transformation?
Christian mystics like Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, and, of course, Jesus, thought otherwise, and even talked about levels or stages of spiritual development (for Jesus this was the parable of the soils in Mark 4:1-20). Could there be benefit to us in learning a model that identifies different stages of spiritual development, lays out some of the internal landscape and ways of viewing the world of someone at that stage, and names some of the pathways and pitfalls to transitioning between stages? I believe that there is, if even in part, to let us know that we are not alone, or not crazy, when things happen in us that knock us off balance and disorient us, or leave us in a place where we start to see and experience things differently (i.e. change our worldview).
And, what if some of our theological and other disagreements and differences in the church aren’t so much about theological differences . . . but actually about people in different stages of faith that, as a result of what has taken place in them spiritually and developmentally, see things from a slightly different vantage point? Would understanding the dynamics of spiritual and psychological growth, through the lens of stages of development, provide new perspective on some of these conundrums in the church and perhaps some new pathways for moving forward?
Understanding that my sons needed to develop in stages; roll over, sit up, crawl then stand before they could learn to walk helped me to expect the right things of them and parent them well as they developed. It also helped me know how and when to encourage and assist them. In the same way I think that understanding stages of spiritual development can be a very helpful tool for understanding our own growth journey and engaging theological and other disagreements in the church in constructive ways. I have found the stages of spiritual development to be an invaluable tool in my own journey. Might it be a beneficial resource for you and for the church as well? I'll explore the stages further in my upcoming posts.