My Personal Introduction to the Stages of the Spiritual Life
Some years ago, I was going through a challenging time in my spiritual and personal life, precipitated by the fact that I was inching closer and closer to the age of 40 and I was still unmarried and without children, a state of being that I never imagined would be my life. I always assumed that one day I would be married with a family of my own. Since this was not my reality, the clouds of sadness descended upon me, and I found myself in a profound state of grief. I started asking questions of God that I never had done before, felt a bit disoriented in my ministry and life in general, and was generally confused as to what was happening with me spiritually.
Thankfully, around this time, a friend of mine handed me a book he was reading in seminary called The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith by Janet O Hapberg and Robert A. Guelich. He said, “I think you might be going through something called ‘the wall’; you might want to take a look at this”. Since I trusted my friend and I had nothing to lose, I took a look at this book, and I was so grateful that I did. It explained a lot about what was happening in my soul at this time and what had in fact been happening for the last few years. I read and re-read the chapters on the wall and stage 4 over and over again during the next few months.
Since then, I have been a great fan of this book. In it, Hapberg and Guelich present a simple model for the spiritual journey. While everyone’s journey is unique, there seem to be 6 stages of the spiritual life that people may experience at one time or the other in their journey with Jesus.
I’ll provide a quick overview of each stage here, and I also recommend that you pick up the book. You might also want to read Mansions of the Heart by Thomas Ashbrook, which takes a somewhat similar approach to the stages in the Christian life, although his stages are based off of the mansions of the soul from Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle.
Before I proceed, let me provide three quick clarifications about the stages.
First, it is important to note that as we progress in the Christian life, we do not necessarily follow a strictly linear progression through the stages. In some sense, we do move from stage 1 to 2 and onwards, and we do find that the later stages of our spiritual life build upon the stages that have gone prior to them. That being said, throughout our lifetimes, we will find ourselves moving in and out of these stages to one degree or another. We might also find ourselves inhabiting more than one stage at a time.
Second, there is some sense that we cannot do anything to move from one stage to the next. This is a work of God. So, the goal of understanding these stages is not for us to determine where we are so we can strategize how to get to the next stage. Only God can bring us into a different place, in His timing and in His ways. Our invitation is to trust and rest in Him. That being said, there are ways that we can resist God’s invitations to move into deeper maturity and deeper relationship with Him. We can get stuck at a particular stage and not move forward because of inner resistances. Thus, from time to time, it is good for us to identify any potential resistances within us that might be preventing us from going deeper in our journey.
Third, God is equally present to us in every stage. God loves us and is present to us in the here and now, and He is working out His plans for us in whatever stage of the spiritual life we currently inhabit. Thus, we need not wish that we are in a later stage. Nor should we look down at others in an earlier stage. We are to be content with where God has us now, and we are not to compare ourselves to others.
Stages 1- 3: The External Journey
Stages 1-3 are a part of what we might call the external journey. Progression in the Christian faith can be seen somewhat clearly in our lives as we work to understand our faith, engage in practices that draw us closer to God, and serve others in many tangible ways.
Since the growth that happens in stages 1-3 is somewhat observable and perhaps even a bit quantifiable, our discipleship models in our churches are generally geared to those experiencing these first three stages.
Stages 1-3 consist of:
- Stage 1: Awakening to God
- Stage 2: The Life of Discipleship
- Stage 3: The Productive Life
Stages 4-6: The Internal Journey
When it comes to the spiritual life, something significant begins to change in the landscape of the soul when we start moving into stages 4 and beyond. Stages 4-6 are a part of what we might call the internal journey.
Unfortunately, stages 4-6 are generally not talked about or understood well, so when we move into these stages, we often don’t know how to navigate the path that lies ahead of us (especially the rocky path that the “wall” often brings). Thus, it is fairly common for us to seek out spiritual directors or other spiritual companions at this time who can help us discern what God is up to in our souls.
Stages 4-6 consist of:
- The Wall
- Stage 4: The Inward Journey
- Stage 5: The Outward Journey
- Stage 6: The Life of Love
For a fuller explanation of these stages, click below:
Page Written by Kristen Yates