Modes of Spiritual Growth

With acknowledgements to Bernard of Clairvaux.

In this discussion, mode means aspect, state, or condition, and though the modes are commonly taken in order from I to IV, we can slip and slide back and forth, depending on many factors. There is always the danger when numbering such things that we can be guilty of pigeonholing and seem mechanistic. Nevertheless these spiritual states have been observed by modern scholars and educators for example, James W. Fowler in his Stages of Faith (New York: Harper & Row 1981), John H. Westerhoff in his Will Our Children have Faith? (New York: Morehouse 2000,), and Ronald Goldman in his Readiness for Religion (Harper San Francisco 1980), who all see a modal development in stages, progressing from infancy to adulthood. Their research is helpful and enlightening, but for me nothing describes what I have experienced better than St. Bernard of Clairvaux from the fourteen century.

Recently some physicians and therapists have been calling medical procedures, modalities, coming from model, I suspect. Something like modality is what I mean. Theses are models or approaches of thought, feeling and belief. We can experience all four ways in our lives. God certainly allows that, and knows we cannot be always be in Mode III or Mode IV. Nor does he expect us to be, accepting us wherever we are in our journey.

Mode I: Love of Self for Self’s Sake

This is the manner, or spiritual condition, of utter dependency, complete neediness, self-desire. Here we are immersed in narcissism and self-absorption. This is described by Dr. Harry Tiebout as “his majesty, the baby” in which we are the center of our own universe. This state of spirituality is like walking inside a hall of mirrors. Our own image is reflected everywhere. We see the self in all directions, and our focus may be summed up this way: I am the Lord my God, and I shall have no other gods before me. John Tillotson of the 17th century said apropos of this mode:

“Men expect that religion should cost them no pains, that happiness should drop into their laps without any design and endeavor on their part, and that, after they have done what they please while they live, God should snatch them up to heaven when they die. But though ‘the commandments of God be not grievous’, yet it is fit to let men know that they are not thus easy.”

C. S. Lewis said, “We get out of life that which we love the most and we may get our self alone.”

The danger in remaining in Mode I: Solitary confinement for all eternity.

Mode II: Love of God for Self’s Sake

This is an improvement over the egocentric self, but the ego is still first. God, in this understanding of the development of the soul, is a means, and the self is still the end. Here we have God going my way, on board for our agendas.

At this point or place, prayers of petition and confession are our prayers of choice, full of Help me, Give me, and Forgive me. God is servant, and we are still masters and mistresses. At worst, we are our own gods and goddesses. The only answer to prayer we want here is Yes, and if we do not get that answer, we believe our prayers are not answered at all. We do not see, at this point in our pilgrimage, that a No answer may be a Yes in disguise, a Yes beyond our limits of sight or understanding. Many Christians are at this juncture, still straining to meet selfish goals.

Here, although our motivation is to be with God, it is still for self’s sake alone. This is the period of life in which many serious and uptight Christians get stuck. Earnest Christians often miss God by overshooting, oversteering, overstraining, and over controlling. Too many of us live in this stressful world desiring heaven, goodness, joy, and all the spiritual gifts, but for the self first and foremost. Is the only thing you want to be saved? Rescued from Hell? Gain Eternal Life? Then this state is for you. If you get what you want, why go farther, deeper, or higher? To this phase Henry Van Dyke spoke well:

“Who seeks for heaven alone to save his soul,
May keep the path, but will not reach the goal;
While he who walks in love may wander far,
But God will bring him where the Blessed are.”

The danger in remaining in Mode II: Fanatical self-seeking with God on my side.

Mode III: Love of God for God’s Sake

When we find ourselves in this state of being, we discover God as God. Abraham Lincoln said that he was not so much worried about having God on his side as he was about being on God’s side. In this chapter, we come to know exactly what Lincoln was talking about. We are ready to let God be God. We love God as God. Now God is both means and end. Prayers of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, and self-offering all proceed from being in love with God, and for no other reason. The pilgrim in this period responds like a child on a loving parent’s lap, who, when asked by the parent why the lap sitting, responds, I just want to be with you.

Now God is all in all. God sets the agendas, and we then see ourselves as God’s servants and adoring subjects. God is sovereign, and we love it that way. God is still majesty and the end of all our beginnings, our longing, and our heart’s desire, destination, and destiny. We are lost in wonder, love, and praise. Yet, this too can be a dangerous phase, because the world, self, and all others can get lost in the ecstasy and zeal for God alone. The monk in his lofty tower who seeks only the image of God often misses himself and the beggar at the gate.

The danger in remaining in Mode III: Fanatical God-seeking, with no room to love neighbor as thyself.

Mode IV: Love of Self for God’s Sake

How can there be more? Is not Mode III the ultimate? No. The great, good gospel news is at this point or situation in our journey is that we wake up and claim the image of God in us. We experience God’s indwelling and immanent presence. We are no longer distant, adoring from afar, with a vast gulf between earth and heaven. We discover God deep down inside. We live to be as we have been created and recreated in Christ: precious and redeemed, with our precious Redeemer living with us here and now.

How do we live with Christ? As friends. Jesus said, I no longer call you servants but friends. This is Christ’s ultimate plan for us! Can this be true? Can we find contentment with ourselves as we are, as God’s adopted children and Christ’s close companions? The best news is that divinity dwells in us! When we connect on this plane and accept and embrace our salvation, our wholeness, we become overjoyed with our life in Christ.

This is Heaven on Earth. Heaven now. St. Augustine said, “None can become fit for the future life, who hath not practiced himself for it now.” Beyond the door of death, I think the Heaven we encounter at that time will be more of the same in this time loving companionship with God, with our neighbor (all Creation and all humanity) and with our self.

Is this self-centered? I don’t think so. This is the reverse of self-centeredness. We are now in the stage of the centered self with God at our center, flowing from the depths of being, from a filled self. Our cups overflow, as a fountain filled from the springs of living water within. We live in Jesus, possessing this treasure in earthen vessels, with Christ’s love overflowing through us to others in pure Intercession.

The danger in Mode IV: The Danger: Ego death or selflessness for Christ’s sake, and then finding love, community, and more love with all and for all. This is deliverance from conceit and a delicious danger worth any risk.