I went through a season of spiritual drought where it felt as though my faith had left me. I did everything I could think of to hold on to it, but it gradually slipped away, bit by bit, until one day I woke up and it was gone.
Some time later, after I’d accepted that I no longer had belief in me and was beginning to put together a plan B for my life, faith returned to me unexpectedly and with a deeper resonance than ever before.
Death and resurrection. Order disorder reorder.
I’m still wondering about all of it, trying to make sense of my faith leaving me when I didn’t want it to and coming back when I wasn’t asking for it. If it sounds weird that I talk about my faith as a living thing with a mind of its own… well, it’s weird to me, too… and yet it’s the best way I know how to describe what I experienced. My understanding of this chapter in my life is a work in progress...
Whatever it all means, I came out of it with a deep sense that I can't control much of anything, and that God can be trusted with my soul.
Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck suggests there are 4 stages of spiritual growth, and thinking about them the way we think about the stages of emotional growth—from childhood to adulthood—can be helpful.
An abbreviated overview:
Stage 1 is unformed, disordered, and reckless, like a very young child—fundamentally egocentric and often unwilling to accept a will or point of view different from their own.
Stage 2 spirituality is very ordered and looks like the child who learns to obey their parents (often out of fear of punishment). It’s characterized by blind faith in authority and seeing the world as divided simply into either/or: good or evil, right or wrong, us or them. With blind faith comes humility and a willingness to obey and serve, but also self-righteousness and rigidity. Many religious people are Stage 2.
Stage 3 is characterized by skepticism and questioning. You might think of it like you would a rebellious teenager who’s working out how to think for themselves and no longer wants to accept things just because they're "supposed to." People in stage 3 often reject what they believed in stage 2, which may never have really been their own belief anyway.
And finally, Stage 4 has outgrown egocentrism, rigid either/or thinking, and knee-jerk rebellion against "the rules" to be reborn into both/and ways of thinking—able to enjoy both the order and mystery of life. It might look like the person who grew up in church, rebelled against all the stuff they were “supposed to” believe, but now returns as an adult with a newfound respect for the traditions they grew up with (maybe because their life has gone off the rails enough times so that the boundaries they once found limiting are now recognized as protective, or maybe because they’re raising children of their own, etc.). They now have their own belief system instead of one inherited from others. Ironically, they’ve traveled far and wide often to find themselves back where they began, but with new eyes and appreciation..
If Peck is right, it means that it can actually be growth for someone to lose their faith. You could argue that one of the best things that could happen to a stage 2 religious person would be for them to become disillusioned by the beliefs they inherited but never owned for themselves. Unbelief may be the next step forward on their path to a more authentic faith. Or as Joni Mitchell sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone…”
This thought is a comfort to me as someone not only concerned about my own spiritual journey but also for those around me. I’ve often been tempted, especially as a parent, to anxiously intervene in the spiritual journey of others. But at the end of the day I do more harm than good when I try to play holy spirit in people’s lives. My meddling also reveals that I don’t really trust God to be the author and finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2), able to finish the good work he begins in myself and others (Phil 1:6).
My experience has been that my spirituality has an engine all its own and in some ways I'm just along for the ride. I get to participate and collaborate, but I’ve been humbled to recognize that at the end of the day my faith is one more thing I can't control much. My part is to bring daily discipline, dedication, and attention to it, but it also requires me to walk with trust, humility, and gratitude..
These are mysterious things that are hard to put definite language to and every sentence I write feels inadequate… which I suppose is to say that these things are, “too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (Psalm 139:6)
My experience is subjective, of course, and I’m not always the most reliable interpreter, but I do my best to listen to my life—recognizing it as one of the ways God speaks to me—and testify in hopes that it will be helpful to others. Oh Lord, "may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight." (Psalm 19:14)
Poetry is often the best language for mystery, and I’ve been thinking about this one a lot:
“I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I falcon,
a storm, or a great song?”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
I find myself held in orbit, circling God, no matter where I go, as though I’m tethered to him.