One of the aspects of growing older is that things that confused or frustrated me in my earlier life often become clear. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it usually does. One of the most frustrating times in my life, without exception, was the 14 years I spent starting a church in Orlando. I was 32 and had:
- an engineering degree and experience with General Motors,
- I had worked on my MBA and understood leadership,
- I had a seminary degree and experience on a good church staff in a large church, and lastly
- I had taken a medium sized church and grown it dramatically as well as daughtered a successful new church from it.
With these kinds of credentials, I felt I was the best spiritual gift God could give the Northeast suburbs of Orlando. Little did I know that God had so much more in mind than simply planting another mega-church there. Hundreds of lives were changed for eternity during the next fourteen years, and God did some amazing things. However, the church never grew beyond 200, and I felt like a failure. No matter how much prayer, Bible study, spiritual discipline, strategic planning, disciple-making, emotional processing, goal setting, leadership development, or systems analysis I practiced, people came, and people went.
I have never tried so hard to accomplish anything in my life. We struggled financially, emotionally, and finally, I had no energy left. It seemed like no matter how much of myself or pleading with God I put into the church, we never gained momentum.
So I resorted to going back to school because I had learned the more effort you put in, the better grades you get. And I earned my Ph.D. in Psychometrics. I ended up on faculty at the University of Central Florida and loved it. My students and fellow faculty loved me as well. I thought I had found my niche. But then, new leadership came into the college, and all the non-tenured faculty were let go. So again, I found myself a failure.
Looking backward, I can now see what I couldn’t see at the time. I was going through a well-worn path of spiritual growth. God’s caring hand, which had built me up carefully in the disciplines of my earlier faith was tearing down all that I valued. I had read about spiritual stages of growth and leadership1 before this, but until you experience them, it is only head knowledge.
God wanted to do something much deeper in my life. Early on, he wanted to teach me disciplines, boundaries, and principles to live by; he was building the container of my life2. But as I entered the second half of my life, God wanted to build an inner life with which to fill the container. I never “lost” my faith in God; throughout the entire time, I was trying to turn toward my Heavenly Father. But to be very honest, at times, he didn’t seem to be responding in a manner I appreciated. I remember telling a friend that I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall which really hurt, and the brick wall was God. I couldn’t get over it or go around it. I had to sit and be faithful in the little things.
So, I learned to slowly trust in him when things didn’t go the way I wanted. I noticed several attitudes and behaviors inside of me that surprised me. I read God’s word and prayed differently. I learned to be faithful in the little things and not worry about the big things. I finally became content in my life of obscurity. Eventually, I experienced what Willard identifies as the four stages of brokenness4:
- Surrender (the situation to God)
- Abandonment (my whole life to God)
- Contentment (experiencing the peace of God)
- Participation (involved in the work of God, often much different than before)
This was over 20 years ago, and today I am amazed at God’s grace through this whole process. What I now know is that there are several stages of spiritual growth which have been identified throughout the ages, but every generation or individual must learn and experience them to understand them.
In fact, the earlier stages have little appreciation for individuals in the latter stages and judge them as naïve, simple, or “checked out.” However, the later stages can look back at those in the earlier stages with grace and understanding. Ironically, the latter stages can graciously look at those in the earlier stages with compassion, but not the other way around. I judged those in later stages when I was young in my faith, and I now experience it from those still caged in earlier stages.
Simply stated, we spend a lot of effort working on our security in the first half of our lives, spiritually and otherwise. We work hard to make ourselves spiritually sound and people of significance. Then through being broken, we discover that this isn’t enough. Only through being totally exasperated and resigning our expectations and control do we enter the second half, where we get to experience God’s grace in our depths for the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, far too many people get caged in the first half, where performance and production reign. As a result, they don’t experience the true grace and freedom found through being broken and restored.
Some describe spiritual development as simply two halves of life, while others identify 4, 5, 6, or 7 stages of spiritual development. Next week I will share how my six stages of spiritual growth fit into these two halves of our faith life. See you then.
1 The Critical Journey of Faith by Guelich & Hagberg
2 The Making of a Leader by Bobby Clinton
3 Falling Upward by Richard Rohr
4 Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard (my paraphrase of his writings in Chapter 8)