Growing up in the evangelical bubble, only three categories were ever presented for spiritual formation… if you could call it that.
The goal for everyone was to be “on fire,” “passionate,” or sometimes even “zealous.” The people who were on fire were the ones who (claimed) to read their Bible every day, would offer to pray in the small group or class, and sign up for every short-term mission trip. I remember a group of guys at my Christian high school who would walk around carrying copies of Slave by John MacArthur in their hands. These were the people recognized as being “on fire” for Jesus.
The problem is that all of us who were around them would know that it was a facade. Many of these people were some of the meanest people we knew, and there was no moral difference between them and those who were the bad kids and didn’t care who knew. All you needed to be “on fire” was a few external markers that could be checked off to be brought into the inner circle of leadership and celebrated in front of others.
The vast majority of people fell into the “stagnant” category. This is exactly what it sounds like. Nothing. No Bible reading. No prayer. No joy in church attendance. Nothing.
“How’s your walk with the Lord?”
“It’s pretty stagnant right now.”
“Are you reading your Bible?”
“Not really. I just don’t really want to.”
That’s about it. If you weren’t displaying those markers of being “on fire,” then you were simply stagnant where nothing was happening in your faith at all. It’s like a giant pause button in your spiritual life. The only cure was to pray over someone or get them to read their Bibles more, as if the quantity of Bible reading was the most important metric of spiritual health.
But some people fell into the “backsliding” category. These were people the ones who not only weren’t reading their Bibles, but they had questions about it. Or they were questioning the Christian subculture they were in. Or they were sinning but “unrepentantly” because they weren’t in an accountability group or something.
These were the primary categories for thinking through your spiritual life. The problem is threefold:
They all focus on outward markers of devotion, not inward markers of character transformation.
All the signs of being on fire can be faked. They’re all about doing more, trying harder, and doing something different instead of becoming a different kind of person—a Christlike person. You can fake Bible reading or read your Bible in a way that isn’t transformative, but you can’t fake patience, gentleness, holiness, or joy. It confused the means for the ends and left it at that. The end-all-be-all of the Christian life became practices of devotion instead of a transformed life.
Anything not obviously positive is considered negative.
If you have doubts or questions, experience suffering, have difficulty with your mental health, or struggle with besetting sins, you are seen as backsliding in your faith. In reality, these are often times when faith is being exercised the most. Our inability to handle dissonance and discomfort keeps us from seeing pain as sanctifying. The hard knocks of life are where God’s grace shines for us the most, melting our hearts of stone with his love as we cast our cares on him.
They don’t account for various situations and stages of life.
The practicalities of the call to follow Jesus look different in different parts of life. What’s required of a college student is different than what’s required of a young mother, which is different than what’s required of a middle-aged man, etc. But when our only way of thinking about the spiritual life is in a good/bad binary, we don’t allow our life with God to naturally form around the complexities and seasons of our lives. We think the same emotions that we felt at our conversion are what we need to feel in our 30s and 40s. So we arrange our days searching for those feelings again when what God has for us differs in that season. We can’t expect our faith to look the same for a lifetime. Only having one framework to think through doesn’t allow our expectations of a life of faith to change as needed.
The Need For A Map
We need a different way of talking about the life of faith. As of now, I really like Rolheiser’s three stages for the whole of life:
The struggle to get our lives together.
The struggle to give our lives away.
The struggle to give our deaths away.
These stages do a good job of framing the spiritual life in terms of someone’s life stage. I still see the need for something naming the spiritual life itself. Right now, I don’t have any answers for this, but I’m currently reading The Critical Journey by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich. They describe 6 stages plus a bonus stage:
The Recognition of God
The Life of Discipleship
The Productive Life
The Journey Inward
The Journey Outward
The Life of Love
I’ve only started the book, so I can’t tell if this is the most helpful way of describing the spiritual life yet or not. But I know we need better language than backsliding, stagnant, and on fire. Life is far more complicated than that.
Back Again with Ian Harber is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.