Spiritual Development and Mature Faith

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SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT AND MATURE FAITH 

-James C. Guy 

Spiritual stage development

The study of spiritual development is a relatively new field.  Obviously, the Bible has been studied for years, and provides all we need for salvation and spiritual growth.  Yet, the study of human development may help us understand why we choose what we do, and why some fail to grow spiritually or stay faithful to what we assume they know is true.  Sometimes, our relationship with God may be no more than religious devotion.  We may be "always learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (II Timothy 3:7).  God does require obedience, but desires us to go beyond a Christianity that is based on rules, regulations, and religious activity (Colossians 2:20-23; II Timothy 3:2-7; Matthew 23:23-24; Romans 2:26-29).  He desires us to constantly seek to develop a deeper spiritual relationship with Him (Ephesians 4:22-24; I Peter 2:1-5; II Peter 3:17-18; Romans 7:6).  

There are several theories of stages of spiritual development that exist.  Most of them are based on human development in general which many of you in the health and education fields have probably studied.  Some have dealt with belief in God, while others have defined "faith" or "spiritual development" to include belief in any god, or even no god at all.  For now, I want to use David Elkind's 1970 theory of religious development that uses four stages to better understand how we develop spiritually from a Christian perspective. 

The search for conservation

The first is the search for conservation.  It is the stage of infants and toddlers and stems from the fact that children lack object permanence.  That is, when a toddler cannot see his mother, he assumes she is not there.  He does not know that he is about to be fed until the food is in his mouth.  Applied to the development of faith, an infant and toddler has no real ability to belief in God unless he can see Him (which of course, he cannot).  That is why infant baptism does nothing but get the infant wet.  The practice of infant baptism is mostly based on the doctrine of inherited sin, which the Bible teaches against (Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 5:12).  We also know that infants and young toddlers lack to ability to truly believe in God, and therefore are not capable of accepting Him.  Salvation requires a belief and acceptance of God (Acts 8:36-37), which makes baptism of those old enough to be capable of doing so the only valid candidates for Christian baptism (Acts 2:38). 

The search for representation

Elkind's second stage is the search for representation.  This stage begins during the preschool years and goes through early school age.  Children at this age have the ability to understand God only though some visual or linguistic representation of God.  The linguistic representations may include short scriptures, or may be descriptions parents and Bible class teaches use to describe God.  For example, children in this stage may understand God as "Father" because they have some representation of father on Earth.  But, they many not understand Jesus as "Savior" even though they may say, "Jesus is our Savior".  Unless they have seen someone saved from something, such as a fire, they may not have any real-life representation of the idea.  Even if they do, they cannot generally understand the idea of a spiritual savior because they do not have the ability to understand these ideas.  Their view of God is in terms of visual or audible representations such as clouds, sun rays, or loud thunder.  Their ideas and beliefs about God and spirituality are either grounded in what they can see, hear, or feel, or in fantasy.  James Fowler (1980) basically divides this period into two stages.  The first is when children are able to visualize things in terms of fantasy and imagination.  The second is when the child begins to be able to make more concrete decisions and understand more literally.  However, whatever "faith" children at this stage may have is not a truly personal faith based on understanding.  Their ideas about right and wrong are based on a punishment and reward system.  They do not often choose not to steal something because it is wrong, but because they may get in trouble.  While that may keep us, even as adults, from doing something wrong, it does not reflect a personal faith in God.  It is a "spirituality" based on fear rather than faith that many adults never seem to grow past (Romans 8:15).  While Jesus did tell us to become like little children (Matthew 18:1-4), He was teaching a lesson on humility.  In another place, He actually refers to something like this stage of faith in correcting those who could not see truth except in their child-like ways (Matthew 11:13-19ff).  They could not see anything past their own frame of reference, and the truth did not fit that.  In other words, they refused to learn anything beyond what they already believed, regardless of whether or not what they believed was right or wrong.  While the abilities related to this stage last through life, and serve as a foundation for the later stages, we never mature spiritually if we do not move beyond this stage alone in our spiritual development.  To grow spiritually, we must accept what we learn to be truth, but must be willing to look beyond ourselves and our current beliefs to learn anything more.  What we are really moving toward is a relationship with God that transcends the rules alone.     

The search for relations

The third stage begins in middle childhood and is called the search for relations.  This stage also lasts throughout life, and though it lacks the abilities of the next stage, it does allow older children, teenagers, and young adults, the ability to understand the concepts needed for acceptance of God and salvation.  For example, they develop the ability to understand the concepts of sin, forgiveness, and how their choices affect their relationship with God.  They can realize that when they commit a sin, they are not just going to be punished for doing it, but they begin to realize they have sinned against God.  Right and wrong is not just based on punishment or rewards, but they now are developing a conscious.  At this stage, we begin to understand Romans 6:16-18 which says, "Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness."   We not only obey the "form" of doctrine, but we have the ability to obey "from the heart."  Though we may not understand the much deeper meanings of spirituality and concepts of God, we do have the ability to accept His salvation.  At this stage, we have the ability to truly worship God and pray genuine prayers that go beyond the "now I lay me down to sleep" type prayers.  We must be careful not to pressure children at any given age to become a Christian, because then it comes from our heart, not theirs.  Individuals develop at this stage differently, so one may decide to be Christian at age 10, while another may be 15, 18 or even older.  The thing to remember is that if we teach our children to be baptized so they can go to heaven, and they will die and go to hell if they don't, we are encouraging a rule-based acceptance associated with the second stage.  They may "get baptized" but that is all they do.  They do not decide to be baptized to accept Jesus and be saved.  Instead, we should encourage our children to accept God because they genuinely desire to accept that relationship He offers.  It is true that we should teach the truths of heaven and hell, but that should not be the only motivation for being a Christian.  Often, adults who become Christians early in this stage later have doubts about why they did it.  Many will be baptized several times in an attempt to "get it right" so to speak.  This may be because they are doing it for a relationship with others in the church, family, or specifically the youth group.  They will often say, "I did it because everyone else was" or "I did it because my parents told me it was time."  We should encourage our children to consider accepting a saving relationship with Christ at even an early age, but let the decision be theirs.  You can't make it for them.  Teach them about God, who He is, and what it means to have a personal relationship with Him.  Then, allow their heart and their conscious convict them of their own sinfulness, their need to be forgiven, and their desire to have that relationship with God. 

The search for comprehension

The fourth stage is the search for comprehension.  This usually begins during the teenage years, and may be the reason we often see teenagers in such a negative light.  Yet, this stage is actually positive if we understand and use it appropriately.  Like the last two stages, this lasts throughout life, but many adults seem to reject it and revert back to the stage three only.  This fourth stage is the ability to look for the deeper meanings behind things; to seek to understand not only how things work, but also why they work the way they do.  People operating from this stage ask the "why" questions to better understand whatever it is they are seeking to understand.  Some refuse to move beyond the stage two and three because it is easier in some ways to just accept things for how we see them, or are taught them.  We may even have been baptized because of a good conscience and genuine acceptance of Christ, but we do not grow spiritually as Christians because we do not seek a deeper understanding of God, the Bible, and even ourselves and our own souls.  In fact, many define spirituality in terms of specific beliefs and religious acts.  Some do not have a spirituality that goes really even beyond the second stage.  They may "say prayers" and they may have "been baptized" but their life, thoughts, and heart do not reflect anything more than religion.  Religion refers to external practices for the most part, while spirituality refers to the deeper, personal, and internal relationship and understanding of things related to God.  We have this ability if we will decide to seek a greater comprehension of God and spirituality associated with this stage.   

Spiritual maturity

These stages can be illustrated in how people worship God at various stages.  At stage one, an infant and toddler does not sing.  They may scream and cry because they are hungry or want something.  They may draw pictures or eat cheerios during worship.  But, they do not have the ability to worship.  At the second stage, we see toddler mimicking the singing of the adults.  As they learn the words, they will sing most of the song.  Yet, they lack to ability to truly connect much of the meaning of the song to real life.  If you talk about God, they may start singing a "church song."  But, the song may or may not have anything to do with what you were actually talking about God.  You may say something about grace, and they may start singing "Amazing Grace."  But, if you talk about sin, forgiveness, and being saved, they will not likely make the connection with grace.  They only focus on the representations of the words themselves.  At the third stage, the person can make the connection from sin to grace.  They may actually worship God in song because they enjoy the fellowship and the connection that the worship seems to bring to God.  Yet, they may do it because it is "time" to do it, or because everyone else is doing it.  Often, even as adults, we sing and understand the connection between song and worship.  We may even understand the words to the song.  But, unless we are worshiping in the fourth stage of spirituality, we may not truly be offering our songs to God.  We are singing because we are supposed to, and we have a limited idea of singing to God.  But, we may not be spiritually, emotionally, and mentally connecting to God in the deeper sense of what worship really should be about.   

The last three stages all work together in many respects, but we must seek to have a spirituality that is not limited to any one stages.  If we "go through the motions" but do not have the relationship with God, or do not have the spiritual connection with Him, we are spiritually immature.  If we have the relationship with God and follow what we know to be true from His word, but we do it more from obligation or habit, we lack the deeper spiritual connection to God.  Rather, God desires us to have a relationship with Him that is based on all the areas of obedience to truth, relationship practice, and seeking the "deeper" things of God.  We never learn all truth nor obey it perfectly.  We never have a perfect relationship with God.  We never understand all the deeper things of God.  But, our lives should constantly be seeking to grow deeper in our relationship with Him by learning more, practicing more, and seeking to understand better who God is and who we are in relation to Him.  That is what deeper spiritual maturity is really all about.  It is what Jesus is all about.  Thomas wanted to understand this better in John 14:5-6.  Jesus tells him that He is the way (stage three), the truth (stage two), and the life (stage four).  What about you?  How deep, genuine, and mature is your faith, relationship, and spirituality?

 

(c) Copyright 2006: James C. Guy - all publication rights reserved.  Permission is granted for use in church bulletins and similar free publications, sermons, Bible classes, and other related uses.  For questions e-mail James at canalheights@mydoghouse.com 


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