Seasons of Faith

by Greg Wiens

Is light a wave or a particle? The answer according to quantum physics is yes!  It is both, which is an apparent paradox. So much of life in Christ is a yes to apparent paradoxes. It is what JI Packard* called an antinomy. It isn’t just a paradox which is a juxtaposition of words that present opposing views, it is actually opposites reconciled from God’s perspective. 

Is faith developed organically or in stages?  I would posit, yes!  Let me explain. 

The concept behind the seasons of faith development goes back to the scriptures and is woven throughout the history of the church and her thinkers. In Romans 14, Paul makes the case that there are those who are stronger in their faith, and these need to bear with those who are weaker. Here he clearly distinguishes between degrees of faith development in the body of Christ in Rome. In 2 Corinthians, Paul alludes to the immature believers as babes, surely implying that there were some attributes that put them in one category of faith development rather than another. Clearly, Paul’s letters to the churches don’t divide faith development into clearly distinguishable categories and I believe we do an injustice to the scriptures when we do so.  

Faith does grow and mature, but not in stair step or locked categories. I think it is important to realize most westerners have been educated in Euclidean geometry which assumes ‘bounded set’ theory and therefore we think in delineated sets. This simply means that if you have a collection of oranges and apples, you can divide them into one of two sets, and either you are in one set or another. The same can be said of odd and even numbers, here we clearly have separate sets for these numbers and a number is either in one or the other set. We can have two sets that share the same number, however, that number is identified initially as in both sets.   

The church has adopted this philosophy completely. Either you are a member or not. You are an Elder or not. You are saved or not. You are on staff or not. You are a pastor or not. You have a quiet time or not. You are memorizing scripture or not. You are filled with the Spirit or not. You are using your gifts or not. You are discipling or not. We have many bounded sets within the church because it has expedited our measuring a person’s (or church’s) commitment, engagement, or spiritual walk. 

However fuzzy logic, which is the logic that underlies much of learning software and variable speed devices is built upon ‘centered set’ thinking. Meaning that what is important is not whether something is in one set or another, what really is important to measure is what direction or toward what center are you headed. We seek to understand and measure not whether something is inside a set or not, but is it becoming more of something or less of something. In other words, we are more concerned about where it is headed and to what degree and speed it is heading there.

So, back to considering an apple, the bounded set thinker says it is either an apple or not.  Whereas the center set thinker asks whether it is becoming more or less of an apple. This is very helpful when I begin to eat the apple a bite at a time. Or when it is growing from a blossom to an apple ready to be picked. The challenge to a bounded set thinker is at what point does the blossom become an apple? Or, at what point does it cease to be an apple as I eat it? This is no problem to a center set thinker as we can talk about how the apple is becoming less of an apple as I eat it. We can talk about degrees or ‘appleness’ and live comfortably with these nuances of states.

For me, center set theory is the mathematical model spiritual growth should be built upon.  The question is not whether you are a member or not, but in what direction are you headed. Not whether you are an Elder or not, but are you becoming more or less of one.  The same can be said of using your gifts, reading the scripture, discipling another, walking in the Spirit, etc. I even think we can talk about this regarding salvation. I leave that totally up to our Lord because I do believe there is a point in the faith awareness and embodiment, where faith is real. Too often it is defined by when one prays a prayer rather than what only our Lord knows. We should be concerned with the direction one is headed, toward Christ or away from Christ…regardless of what labels we may place on them.

Understanding this mathematical mindset, it is helpful to look at the history of the church in understanding faith development. St. John of the Cross wrote 600 years ago about 6 or 7 stages of faith development. Since that time countless writers and thinkers have put faith into various categories and most with a bounded set mindset.   

I am currently working on an instrument to assess one’s spiritual maturity with North Point Community Church. In preparation to work on this instrument, I read many authors who have thought deeply on this subject like Dallas Willard, AW Tozer, C.S. Lewis, Eugene Peterson, and NT Wright to name a few. I find that most agree with the organic concept of spiritual growth and relational concept of discipleship. But most also see various seasons of growth in a Christian’s life which are different.  

Most don’t see these seasons as only linear and one-way directional. Most would have resisted putting individuals in bounded sets. However, I am uncomfortable with some of the authors during the last four decades who have landed on a firm bounded set theory concerning discipling or spiritual growth. These authors place people in clearly bounded sets that are behaviorally identified. I see this as contrary to scripture and my study of Christians these past six decades.

In developing the six stages for our instrument**, we don’t see these stages as linear or one-way directional. Rather for us, these stages of faith development are stages of heart and mind direction. We have attempted to address the directional aspects of faith development. One may find a home in one stage but visit other stages in one direction or another continually. One may also be in entirely different stages depending on which of the 19 subscales are being evaluated. 

The instrument is intended to only be a snapshot now and would be helpful to take annually to assess in what direction am I headed? It would be inappropriate for the results of the instrument to be used to classify an individual or to label them by one season. It is intended to help an individual understand where they can head in developing their faith.  And this is best done in the loving relationship of another who can serve as a healthy mirror and guide in going there.  

*How Both Biblical Truths Coexist in God’s Grace, by J. I. Packer, 1961

**Click here for a complete description of these six stages.

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