To grow spiritually and become more loving like Jesus Christ we need to understand the spiritual formation stages of our development and how to resist the temptations to sin that thwart our progress.
We need to heed the Bible’s warnings that the devil and his kingdom of demons are scheming against us, tempting us to destructive/unloving attitudes and behaviors. Satan and his minions use their dark spiritual powers to weaken, or if possible destroy, our faith in God and our love for God, neighbor, and self. They shoot evil arrows to knock us down. They deceive us to entice us away from the path of following Jesus. We need to be alert, pray, and stand strong in the Lord’s mighty power! (Ephesians 6:10-18)
It’s helpful to consider the diverse temptations that we’re especially vulnerable to at the various spiritual formation stages of our journey. It seems that Satan and his demons change their strategy of attack based on what our spiritual focus and strengths are at the time. There are some main temptations that we’re more likely to experience depending upon our “home stage” at the time.
(In Soul Shepherding’s TLC Retreat on “Spiritual and Psychological Development” we teach on six developmental and cyclical stages or seasons of spiritual growth using the acronym CHRIST because the phases have to do with being formed in the image of Christ Jesus. Here’s a survey with spiritual formation questions to help you assess your journey of personal growth: “LIFE in CHRIST: Questions on Developmental Stages.“)
As new Christ-followers we often begin our spiritual formation journey with great enthusiasm!
But we tend to live “between two worlds”, going back and forth between being governed by God’s will and worldly desires. We often fall back into old patterns of sin.
We’re tempted to feel guilty and self-condemning over our destructive behavior (past and present) rather than to feel sad and seek the mercy and grace of Christ Jesus. Instead, we pridefully try harder to do better, blame others for our shortcomings, or give into temptation.
Help in Discipleship
Hope for a better life and the experience of consolation propel us into spiritual growth.
As eager disciples of Jesus we’re often energetic and optimistic in our practice of spiritual disciplines, especially in short bursts of time. We may become too heroic in our efforts to seek God and so become prideful, compulsive, or legalistic. At times our enthusiasm will inevitably fade and we’ll be pulled back into sinful patterns or become distracted with busyness.
Responsibilities for God
We learn that it’s important to share with others the grace and wisdom of God that we’ve received and to become active in serving the Lord and helping others.
But as we do this it eventually becomes quite consuming! There are so many needs and God’s work is so important!
At this spiritual formation stage we’re still overly self-reliant and don’t know very well how to depend on God’s power or serve others out of the overflow of his love. We may strain to do well or to please people and get tired. We may neglect the care of our own souls under God. We may try to stay detached from our feelings. We may lose our desire for the Lord. We may become stuck in a pride, stubbornness, and legalism.
These things lead to stress overload or burnout.
Inward Journey and the Wall
Eventually in our journey with Jesus we run into a wall; we experience an insurmountable life problem or a crisis of faith. It seems that most Christians are not able to get past the wall.
Hitting the wall spiritually requires that we go much deeper in opening up our hearts emotionally to God and devoting our whole lives to love and serve him. But we may prefer to deny emotions, pain, and needs, not realizing that unwittingly we’re resisting God’s grace. We may avoid being emotionally vulnerable with people (even those who are trustworthy and caring) and the Lord, preferring to stay in our heads, keep busy with our work, or be absorbed with the needs of other people.
When we do feel distress, injustice, suffering, or a sense of God’s absence (as in the Dark Night of the Soul) it may confuse or frighten us. It may cause despair. It tempts us to go back to the perceived emotional security and confidence of earlier stages of worldliness, cranking out familiar spiritual disciplines, or being consumed with helping other people.
Without significant and ongoing “inner journey work” we’ll become stuck on the front side of the wall. We may try to live off of the splash back of grace that comes from the people we help. We may live in quiet resignation, thinking, “Intimacy with God just isn’t for me.” We may become skeptical and cynical.
Inner restoration and growth, along with greater consecration of our lives to the Lord, enable us to return to being more active in serving others — and to do this with a new and deeper dependence on the Holy Spirit with us, loving us and empowering us as we minster to others.
The temptation at this point in our spiritual formation is to unconsciously (habitually) revert to doing ministry in the old ways of self-reliance, rather than relying upon the Holy Spirit with us and in us. Over-working, straining, anxiety, people-pleasing, taking pride in accomplishments or thinking we’re better than Christ-followers who are at earlier stages, or being disappointed if others don’t appreciate you are all signs of regression.
The opposite temptation is also a danger: we might become complacent in using spiritual disciplines for ongoing formation in Christlikeness.
At “the high places” of loving intimacy with Christ we’re blessed to practice God’s presence in all that we do and sin is seen as stupid and boring! Satan is very wily in his strategies in order to trip us up at this stage.
As mature followers of Christ we use our own pain and our empathy for others who are hurting to identify with Christ, but this can weigh heavy on us. We may neglect basic self-care and become depressed. Or spiritually, we may become stuck in a Dark Night of the Soul.
Conversely, in our enjoying of the sweetness of Trinitarian fellowship we may be prone to disconnect from the needs of other people around us.
The integrative, non-dualistic nature of mature spirituality leads some Christians to believe it’s unloving to people of other religions to say that they need to put their trust in Jesus Christ. They may reject their Christian faith or become a universalist who believes their are many viable paths to God and eternal life.