• Jach Hughes Robinson, Ph.D.

The Four Stages of Spiritual Development

Text: Mark 1:14-20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.


When I was young, two things I enjoyed doing, and I still enjoy doing. One, of these was to study maps and geography. The second was to look through a telescope.

Studying maps fascinated me for I learned about where I lived. When I traveled, I learned about new places I saw and visited. In my travels, I learned to consult larger maps. By studying maps, I learned about our nation; and then when I consulted a globe, I learned about the world.

Looking through a telescope was my other hobby. When I peered through my telescope, I peered into a world beyond my imagination. I saw the moon, like never before; then I saw the planets like Saturn and its rings, then later distant galaxies.

Each time I traveled, or when I looked through a telescope, my questions moved me to consult larger maps. Each time, my mind expanded. I developed through different stages from seeing a city map, which just included my neighborhood, to see a world and universe diverse, wonderful, and greater than I could have imagined.

As I developed, I learned to consult large maps, or else I risked having a view that was narrow and centered on me.

This is similar to our spiritual development. The more we grow spiritually, the larger our view of God and all of life. How we view God and the world depends on our stage of spiritual development.

In this sermon, I will speak about four stages of spiritual development, which will help us understand why we change in faith, why people may have certain beliefs at certain times in their lives, and why our society goes through different episodes in its life. (See William James – Varieties of Religious Experience.) What are the 4 stages?


In the first stage of spiritual development is very basic. People in this stage are not concerned with “Me, mine, and ours,” but only with me. What happens to other people, or what they do to other people does not bother persons in this stage. Their conscience is a voice never heard. Certainly serial killers, rapist, child molesters have developed only this far. This stage also includes white-collar crimes, stealing large sums of money from people by scams. They think other people’s money is best in their own pockets. The characters, in the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street,” exemplify people with low spiritual development.

The people in this basic stage do not consider their acts as crimes or other people as victims because they never think of the other person. Other people exist to satisfy their own desires. In this stage, a circle is drawn, but it is a circle with room only for one. Here chaos reigns; for here people act impulsively to meet their desires.


Stage two. People in stage one, often move to stage two. However, the growth from one stage is a dramatic event. People in stage two say they got religion. People believe Jesus appeared to save them. This is not discipleship. They would have little understanding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. In this stage, Jesus is a personal savior who numbs the pain they feel about their past behavior.

In stage two, religion is strict. Here, people need discipline to offset their impulsive lives. Religion saves them by having a set of rules to follow, something they never had before. Thus, they call this a conversion or a “born again experience.” In this stage, religion and God exist, but they are authoritarian. People ask few questions of the church or the Bible. Ambiguity is non-existent. All is black and white. Fear is a major characteristic. People here questioning will lead to the downfall of their religious beliefs likea house of cards.

Their judgements are harsh against those who do not follow their rules. People in other religions or churches, or who have a different view of God, are threats.

Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel, “The Scarlet Letter,” tells of this stage of spiritual development where judgments were harsh against others without looking at themselves. McCarthyism of the 1950’s, as well as the antagonists against the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, were social manifestations of a society in this stage of spiritual development. (Salem Witch Trials)

While in early stages of spiritual development people are concerned with only themselves, in stage two people have grown to recognize God, a strict God, but a God who brings order, but not necessarily compassion, into their lives.


In stage three, people move beyond authoritarian religion, to think more for themselves. People in stage three are intellectual. They are concerned with our behavior, individually and socially, and how our acts affect others. People here value God the Bible, and the church. They also value science and other people’s opinions. Their spirituality is of the mind. They seek knowledge about all religions and cultures, and seek toleration for different views of God. Many academic people are in this stage of spiritual development. They emphasize spirituality connected with the intellect and knowledge, rather than one religion or one theology.


However, many people in stage three become restless. They have grown into stage four of their spiritual development. They want their whole lives to be ministered to, not just their minds. They are concerned not just with human life, but with all life. They consult larger maps. For them – Apollo 8’s picture of earthrise from the view of the moon in December 1968 – was a momentous event. For it showed us as a whole planet. Stage four people want to minister to the whole person.

For them, spirituality emphasizes a God who loves all, and that the Cross of Christ is for all not a few. The emphasis here is behavior committed to the world.

They see the Bible as important because its narratives move from a small clan with many gods, to a nation believing in one God, to Christ who shows us that God the Creator is the Redeemer of all. They see that in Christ on the Cross, the Judgement has already occurred, and that in the resurrection the Second Coming has already been revealed. This means that this life matters because it is part of God’s plan. God is not out to destroy the world, but to save it, and has done so already.

We follow Christ not to earn salvation, but to joyfully display that God has already redeemed us. Our future is safe with God. We live, not in fear, but in gratitude to God.

In this mature stage of spiritual development, I see the people in this church. You follow Christ because you know your salvation, your life with God now and forever, is secure. Therefore, you act in grateful response, loving God, loving yourselves, and loving all people because that is what God has done in Christ.

As we journey through life, we change and grow spiritually just as we do mentally, emotionally and physically. We learn to consult larger and larger maps till we see how great and marvelous is the universe. When such growth takes place, it is because the grace of God guides us. God leads with a light rein giving us our heads.

God who calls us forward. God has given us life as a gift, so daily we can be partners with God in creation.

I follow Christ, like the disciples did in our Scripture lesson. I follow because I trust God - that what God has done for me in the past, God is doing for me in the present, and therefore, God can be trusted to do for me in my future.

Whatever the future holds, this much I know because this much I have seen in Christ – That God loves me with a love that will neve let me go. So if I rise to heaven, God will be there; if my soul resides in Sheol, God will be there; and if I go through the valley of hell, God will be there as well. Amen!


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