“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
- Galatians 6:9
What happens at this stage
This stage unfolds in two phases: a Busy Phase and a Broken Phase. The Busy Phase is—as the name implies—a time of spiritual busyness. The Broken Phase begins with some crisis (or series of crises) and involves a period of deep reassessment, resulting in rethinking our values and revamping our priorities, schedule, our concepts of God and ourselves. It’s profoundly unsettling. But it is also necessary if we are to make progress in the life of Faith. We describe the two phases below.
This is the “roll up your sleeves and get busy for God” phase. At this point in our journey, the focus becomes working diligently for God: leading bible studies, organizing functions, serving behind the scenes, teaching, counseling, evangelizing—using whatever gifts we have to serve in whatever settings God provides. This is an exciting and rewarding time. It is also a time of risk: people at this stage can get so caught up in ministry that they neglect their families, personal health, other responsibilities and their simple devotion to Christ. Or, their past emotional wounds—made worse by the pressures and hardships of working with people in ministry-intensive environments—can cripple them. Add to this the increased temptations that accompany success and the potential for pride, and you can see why the Apostle Paul warned Timothy to not “lay hands on” (put in ministry) a new believer without first testing his/her character (1 Timothy 5:22).
Common characteristics of the Busy Phase of the Deepening Stage include:
Ministry Busyness. This is probably the most active stage of spiritual growth in terms of “getting things done.” Although not as effective as we will be at later stages, our energy and zeal ensure that we get lots accomplished. This is exhilarating: because we love the Lord and want to show it, this becomes an exciting and rewarding time, particularly early on (the excitement later yields to exhaustion and disillusionment, as we’ll see in a moment, toward the end of this phase). In the Busy Phase, life is an adventure: we have the privilege of seeing the Lord work in amazing ways in and through us, and our faith grows as a result. As we demonstrate faithfulness in ministry, God gives us ever-greater opportunities to minister with increasing fruitfulness and influence, and this success can become addictive.
External Focus. Whereas the Beginning Stage is mostly about our internal character development, the emphasis during the Busy Phase is on external factors: that is, success as measured by programs, attendance, numbers of converts or other quantitative criteria. Often our ministry models are imitative of others whom we admire rather than our own thoughtful, prayerful philosophies of ministry. Our sense of identity easily gets wrapped up in what we’re accomplishing: how big our Sunday School class has grown, the number of folks we’ve led to Christ or how successfully we administrate a major event. We get lots of strokes for ministry success, and this feeds our ego needs. As a result, we can grow defensive of our “performance” and resent any criticism, no matter how legitimate. We can become unapproachable, unteachable, territorial and proud. Things like position, status, success and “getting the credit” mean a lot to us, even though we may deny it or hide it behind false humility. And we can also become judgmental, evaluating others in terms of their ministry productivity, devaluing those who don’t “measure up” for some reason.
Spiritual Superficiality. This preoccupation with external signs of success can make us superficial—living for “ministry highs” while neglecting our interior life. We may even begin to skimp on our personal times with the Lord. Alistair McGrath writes in The Journey: “In my own case, I once held the view that every hour that the good Lord sends is meant to be spent working. Sure, I got a lot of things done. But I got exhausted. And, more important, the quality of my relationship with God suffered. I was squeezing Him out of my life. I was so concerned with doing things for God that I ended up not spending time with God…I was trapped in a cycle of addiction to work.” As a result, we may allow “little” sins to creep into our lives: resentments, fantasies, lies and other character-robbing sins. We may rationalize them by telling ourselves, “I work hard so I can indulge myself a little.” This is one reason so many pastors and other Christian workers experience moral failures. Jesus modeled the way to resist this temptation. He continually pulled away from ministry activities to spend time with the Father and nurture His interior life. Luke 5:16 tells us that, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
Over-commitment. Because our ministry is so satisfying and because we are praised for “doing that”, “serving there”, or “accomplishing such-and-such task”, it is easy—during the Busy Phase—to lose ourselves in our work. We get our priorities all wrong: we begin neglecting our heath, personal needs and family. As a consequence, we may experience stress-related health problems, marriage difficulties and trouble relating to our kids who resent our over-commitment to ministry. We sense something is wrong but don’t know how to fix it. Life is too busy to pause and reflect very long. But if life doesn’t slow down—if we don’t make the necessary adjustments to take care of our health and our families—we are headed for major problems.
Growing Dissatisfaction. Tiredness, burnout and resentment are common to the latter part of the Busy Phase. During this time, Christians often have a growing sense that life just is not working. The coping skills, defense mechanisms and spiritual habits that allowed us to make it to this point in our journey no longer seem to be effective. Sensing this, many of us think: “Well, this is just the way life is,” and we put heads down, work harder and plow ahead. But increased effort doesn’t improve our situation significantly. And over time, we may grow resentful of others and of God for making our lives so hard. Like the prodigal son’s older brother in Luke 15, we begin relating to the Father as our Boss or Master rather than our friend or “Abba” (“Daddy”). It is to Christians in this Busy Phase that our Lord holds out His offer of a better way: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). He is saying to us: “Learn to live like I did while on earth, in perfect obedience to the Father through the power of the Spirit”. It’s an invitation to “die” to ourselves, “abide” in Him and experience a whole new quality of life.
The Broken Phase of the Deepening Stage is a fork in the road. It separates the early, immature years of our journey from the mature seasons of faith. Janet Hagberg and Bob Guelich call this experience “The Wall.” At this juncture, we make a definitive decision that dictates the course of our future: either settling for a mediocre, status quo existence of “kind of” living the Christian life or an all out commitment to live for God by His grace. This is a time of reevaluation and emotional turmoil. In the words of Bruce Demarest, it is “a time of searching, disappointment, confession, vulnerability, pain and uncertainty.”
At the border between the Broken and Busy phases is typically some major crisis or series of crises: getting fired from a job or ministry position, divorce, burnout, a serious illness or injury, the death of loved ones, the loss of a life-dream, a moral failure, depression or some other painful trial.
Mid-life issues often are involved, including questions of worth, self-identity and direction.
Often a failure occurs at the point of our greatest “strength”. High achievers may experience failure in their jobs. Christians who have always prided themselves on their physical strength become weak through sickness or accident. Intellectuals may get humbled. Morally upstanding believers may commit moral failures. Many of the major characters in the Bible—Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Peter, Paul—went through intensely difficult and humbling experiences to grow them in humility, love and holiness. God “tests” us though these experiences and, although painful at the time, they produce in us maturity and the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11). Whatever the specific crisis, it leads us to a major reassessment of who we are, what we believe and how we are going to live. Specifically, we are confronted with such questions as: am I still willing to trust God, now that my world has been shattered? Am I willing to surrender everything to him?
Often, during this time, we feel abandoned by God. He seems silent. Like Job, we can feel alone while God refuses to answer our “why” questions, remaining elusive and seemingly aloof (see Job 23.8-10). The author George MacDonald felt this: “I search my heart—I search, and find no faith. Hidden he may be in its many folds—I see him not revealed in all the world. Duty’s firm shape thins to a misty wraith. No good seems likely. To and fro I am hurled. I have to stay. Only obedience holds—I haste, I rise, I do the thing he saith.” (Diary, p. 2-9). This time of angst has been described as the “dark night of the soul.” It is a common theme among the classical devotional writers. God seems gone: He is Deus Absconditus, the Absent God.
At this point, it is important to understand that—at different junctures in our journey—the Lord removes the sense of his tangible presence because He wants to train us to love, obey and serve him even when we don’t “feel” His presence. His goal is not to make us comfortable in this life. His goal is to make us men and women of substance, holiness and spiritual authority so we can make an impact in this life and the next. So the question we confront at such times is: Will we continue to love, seek and obey Him? Or will we walk away?
The journey turns very inward during the Broken Phase. We may stop serving in ministry entirely for a period of time so we can deepen our walk with the Lord and work on our interior issues. We may even pull away from our normal friends and support group. One thing is for sure: we can’t get through this part of the journey working sixty hour weeks. We need time to reflect. This can be an intensely lonely. We think no one understands what we’re going through; we feel isolated and vulnerable.
A safe, non-judgmental spiritual friend or mentor is essential at this point, especially someone who has successfully gone through the Broken Phase. Also, a trained Christian therapist can help us deal with past emotional and relational issues that are exposed during this time. Old wounds from childhood and early adulthood come to the surface and demand attention. Only, this time, instead of ignoring, denying, minimizing or masking over these hurts—like we often get away with during the early parts of our journey—we must deal with them squarely, reliving the pain and going to the roots of the abandonment and rejection we have experienced in our lives. This is a difficult task, but it is necessary if we are to move on. If we don’t work through our “stuff” we will get stuck at this phase or revert to Busy Phase living. In so doing, we will miss out on the “life to the fullest” God wants us to experience.
Some common characteristics of the Broken Phase include:
Deep and Honest Reassessment. During this time, almost everything is up for grabs. We may even revert to agnosticism for a time. We ask ourselves faith-shaking questions, some of which we thought we settled long before: Do I still believe in God? Do I still like Him? Is He good? Do I trust Him after what He let happen to me? Why does He allow bad things to happen? Am I still willing to serve Him? In the process of asking and answering these questions, we move to a new level of authenticity. We become intolerant of pat answers and quick fixes. We demand ruthless honesty. As a result, we may stop reading certain books or listening to speakers we once enjoyed. We are drawn, instead, to deep seekers who are honest with their “stuff”.
Heightened Awareness of Sin. During this phase, we can experience a resurrection of “substrate sins:” behaviors and attitudes we once struggled with as non-believers or young Christians but thought we had victory over: envy, anger, selfishness, vengeful thoughts, foul language, sexual fantasies, pornography, masturbation, eating, chemical or shopping addictions. Because the underlying issues that fuel these behaviors/attitudes had not yet been successfully dealt with previously, they spring to life again, taking us by surprise. This is immensely unsettling, and it causes us to cry out to God for deliverance and holiness more desperately.
Revised Concept of God’s Character. During the Broken Phase, God invites us to know Him more deeply. We can gain a more accurate and mature understanding of what He is really like. Our illusions are stripped away. He is not so tame and predictable as we previously thought. He is far “wilder” and dangerous. This is our chance learn to love the God who is and not some romanticized version of Him. Experimenting with new spiritual disciplines—new forms of prayer, meditation and service—can be especially useful at this time to connect us more deeply with God.
Increasing Desperation. The shocking resurrection of old sin patterns, the on-going confusion, the disillusionment that life is not working—these lead to a heightened sense of desperation. We are beginning to realize that Jesus’ was not using hyperbole when He said “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b). Only by His “24/7” infusion of wisdom, strength and grace can we confront the unflinching demands of God and live the lives He calls us to live.
Deeper surrender. The Lord is inviting us to surrender ourselves completely to Him. We must give up our grasping to stuff we think gives us life. We must stop making demands that God come through for us in this or that area. We must accept where God has put us and gratefully acknowledge all that He has done for us rather than focus on what we wish He would do. In short, we must determine that we will trust and obey him in every area of life, even if it means our “undoing.” Like Job we must be able to say: “Though He slay me, yet I will trust in Him” (Job 13.15). This is scary and appears like death. In actuality, it lifts a huge burden from us and allows us to “cease striving” and simply trust Him (Psalm 46.10). We begin to learn to “abide” in Christ and be led by His Spirit (John 15:1-11; Galatians 5:16-25).
What God does in your life at this stage
Some of the predictable ways God ministers to Christians during the Deepening Stage of development include the following.
In the Busy Phase
Ministry assignments. God uses ministry assignments to grow us in faithfulness (our character) and effectiveness (our competence). These are like the “ministry tasks” of the Beginning Stage Link here? but are longer in duration and entail greater responsibility: teaching a Sunday school class for a year, leading a Bible study or administrating a ministry for a period of time. They require that we prioritize Him, His kingdom and His people. They give us opportunities to “do good works” and they determine, in part, the status we will enjoy in the life to come (see, for example, Luke 19:11-26).
Giftedness insights. It is at this stage that we begin to understand the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has given to us to serve the church and minister to the world (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). By discerning what our gifts are and intentionally cultivating them, we will become fruitful disciples who bring glory to the Father. It is also in this stage that we come to understand our temperaments, natural abilities and acquired skills, all of which equip us to serve others effectively in Christ’s name.
Warfare insights. The world is at war. Contrary to what consumer advertisers portray, life is not a playground: it is a battleground. It is during the Deepening Stage we get a good dose of the kind of spiritual warfare that is a part of life. We learn to operate in Christ’s authority to counter demonic activity, making use of prayer and fasting while invoking the all powerful name of Christ. In 1 John 2.14, the apostle John alluded to this aspect of the Christian life when he said: “I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.”
Authority Insights. Each of us is under authority and God works through authority structures to accomplish His purposes. The problem is, we want to be in charge! So God must teach us—often through humbling circumstances—to honor, respect and obey the authority structures He has established in families, society and the church. As we do so, we learn to submit more completely to Him in love and trust.
In the Broken Phase
Crises. God uses a variety of means in the Broken Phase to bring us to a place in which we are more humble, more tender, more willing to listen to Him and walk in His ways. Things like conflict, isolation and “leadership backlash” (where others undermine our leadership) are common methods the Lord employs to graciously but firmly get our attention. When they come, they are an invitation to submit more fully to Him.
Character tests. Just as in the Beginning Stage, the Lord uses Obedience, Faith and Integrity Checks to shape our character and prove our faithfulness. Link here.
What is important for you to do at this stage
There are three things, especially, that you must learn to do at this stage in order to progress to the Completing Stage.
Admit life isn’t working. This takes humility. Our pride gets in the way of our being entirely honest with our failures. Be we won’t experience “life to the fullest” until we quit our old way of living. This requires a renunciation of our past efforts to live the Christian life in our own strength.
Get help from others to learn new ways. A mature Christian mentor, professional counselor and good, solid friends are usually needed to help us move on to the next stage of spiritual growth, as are the right kinds classes, workshops, retreats and other spiritually formative events. Learning new ways of living and responding is difficult and requires lots of reinforcement. But it can be done. With the right people and sufficient motivation, we can all learn to reorient our lives in significant ways. The Lord Jesus died to set us free, and He will help us to make the necessary changes to live God-honoring lives through the power of His Spirit.
Seek the Lord more diligently! Henry Cloud notes that people will only change when they hurt so much that they cannot continue as they are. Many people choose not to change. Even some Christians decide to go to their graves frustrated rather than surrender entirely to God. They love God and they may have done some really good things in His name. But they are afraid to give up control. God’s desire is to move us deeper. To do so, He orchestrates events to get our attention, reorient our priorities, wean us from our addiction to success and externals and take us to a new place of surrender and intimacy. This is our invitation to cry out to Him, seek Him more earnestly than ever before and explore new ways to connect deeply with Him.
How the church helps you at this stage
In addition to our Sunday worship services and special events, the church offers two opportunities focused on Deepening Stage believers, as well as our online resource center filled with recommended books, videos, blogs, and other resources to help you advance to the next stage of the journey. Neighborhood Church strongly encourages every Deepening Stage Christian to participate in the following two events.
Deeper, broader. Offered three times each year, this class teaches Christ followers how to intentionally present each dimension of their personhood to God out of love and obedience, leading to a deeper relationship with Him (intimacy) and a broader influence on others (impact). For more information about the class and the next date it is being offered: Click Here
Apex Workshop. This workshop is designed to help you identify how God has shaped you into the person you are and how to find your major role in His kingdom, harnessing your gifts, abilities and skills in order to serve others in His name. For more information about the class and the next date it is being offered: Click Here
Finally, get the outside help you need. Chico is blessed with some excellent professional counselors and life coaches. If you make an appointment with one of our pastors, we will gladly meet with you and refer you to one that is the right fit for you.
Resources that will help you grow
If you are a Deepening Stage Christian, we highly recommend that you read, watch, and listen to the following core resources.
- Pleasures Evermore by Sam Storms
- A Center of Quiet by David Runcorn
- The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn
- Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
- The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen
- Resolving Everyday Conflict by Ken Sande
- Amish Grace DVD
UPCOMING EVENTS: HOW THE CHURCH CAN HELP
This six week Sunday morning class is for those believers in mid-season. It helps you embrace your spiritual journey as an opportunity to grow in authentic personhood in all its dimensions: physical, mental, relational, emotional and volitional. It presents strategies in all these areas to help keep you stay rooted in Christ and experience His grace, love, power and wisdom in all circumstances.
Apex is a Friday night/Saturday workshop designed to help Christians clarify our unique contribution to serving God and impacting the world. It is an engaging, enjoyable discovery process that helps us discern our spiritual gifts, natural abilities, acquired skills and core passions which, in turn, enable us to understand our “major role” and “effective methods” to make a difference in our families, jobs and ministries. Some pre-workshop work is required. The workshop builds on the lessons learned through the Focused Living workshop and is especially helpful for those in their mid to late 40s, 50s and early 60s.