Stages of Christian Growth
Like a newborn child grows day by day, a born again person is also like a child growing in the life of faith. Here are different stages of a Christian’s walk of faith. These stages may not happen exactly in the order described below. But it might help in understanding the changes that can happen to you.
The Happy Stage
This is the first stage of a believer’s life. Everybody is happy that he has come to know Jesus as Savior. He is also happy. His prayers get answered fast. He is thrilled with new discoveries from God’s Word. He rushes from one Meeting to another. He holds on to a few promises that others have shown him in the Bible. Generally joy is seen in him.
The Christian now gets involved in activities of the Church or the Fellowship that he attends. He starts using his talents. Others encourage him and praise him for his interest in God’s work. He gets to know more people. He feels enthusiastic about doing something for God. He has very idealistic expectations about great men of God, and leaders. He also tries to put God first in all his activities.
After some years pass by, the Christian begins to trust in his own goodness. He thinks much about his knowledge of the Bible, his prayer life, his good deeds, his concern for others and his missionary activities like tract distribution or visit to hospitals and prisons. He feels satisfied with his efforts. And he may also feel that God saved him because of his good character.
This is the time when a Christian tries to take the speck out of others’ eyes while he himself has a plank in his own eye. Jesus told that when one has a plank in his eye he won’t be able to see clearly to remove the speck from another’s eye. But the Christian at this stage tries to do precisely that. He starts finding fault with his teachers, with his friends, and with Christian leaders. He openly criticizes them. He may even find an evil pleasure in gossip thinking that it is a godly thing to discuss the faults of others. He may even spread slander by going around to his friends’ home and talk about other Christians in a bad light not at all aware that the Bible clearly teaches not go around spreading slander (See Leviticus 19:16 and Proverbs 10:18b).
This is a very dangerous stage. This is the stage in a Christian’s life when he gets filled with pride as the sail of a boat is filled with the wind. He becomes headstrong and thinks about himself as a great person. He starts looking down on Christians whom he knows are struggling in certain areas of their lives. He feels independent and thinks that he does not need the help of others. At this stage nobody can reason with him and he can easily fall into the trap of the devil because of his pride.
Since God cannot do anything through a Christian who is filled with pride, there comes stagnation in the life of a Christian at this stage. He stops growing in every sense in his life of faith. Joy departs. He tries to make-believe Christian experiences. He wears a mask while he goes to Meetings. He may not read the Bible much nor will he try to pray. He will not find any consolation in the company of believers too. Discerning Christian elders might note these things about him. Some might try to counsel him. Success cannot be assured to such a venture at this stage.
The Realization Stage
The younger son in Jesus’ parable “came to his senses” while he was feeding the pigs (Luke 15:17). Since God does not abandon His children while they err and stray from Him, but provides opportunities for them to come back to Him, a Christian at this stage is given a chance. He, because of the dead feeling that he experiences begins to think. And at some point he comes to his senses. He realizes: “I am nothing!” He realizes his utter unworthiness, he realizes his urgent need for God’s mercy and he also realizes his shameful conduct towards other Christians. This realization will really shake him up at this stage.
The Doubting Stage
As he realizes his own unworthiness, he also begins to doubt God’s love for him. He thinks that he is stinking so much that God cannot love him anymore. He feels unsure about his salvation. He wonders whether God has left him altogether. He feels depression. He tries to pray but it seems that his prayers are blocked by some kind of frozen ceiling in the skies. Or at times he feels that his prayers are pulled into some black hole and falls into empty space. This is a very difficult stage and ends only when he is reminded of God’s promises like: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” or “I am with you always” or “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”
The Barren (Dry) Stage
At the end of that doubting period he is assured of God’s love for him. And he rests in that assurance for some time. But then he starts experiencing another phase which is also difficult. He starts recollecting the joy he had felt in the beginning stages of his Christian life: “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgivingamong the festive throng (Psalm 42:4 NIV) [author’s emphasis] He longs to go back to his first love towards Christ. But he feels unable to do so. The Bible now feels dry. His time of prayer feels dry. His times of fellowship with others seem dry. The dryness will continue until the Christian comes to the time when God makes streams flow in the desert (Isaiah 35:6).
The Broken Vessel Stage
The season of dryness will make the Christian long for something more in His walk with God. He then understands that if the fragrance of his life should spread out, it should be broken like the alabaster jar of perfume that was broken (Ref. John 12:3 for spreading of fragrance and Mark 14:3 for breaking of the jar). So he pleads with God to break him and give fruitfulness in his life. God may not answer that prayer immediately. He will wait to see whether the prayer is sincere or not. And He will not answer in the way that the Christian expects. For example, the Christian might have had one area of his life in mind when he prayed for brokenness. But God always does a complete work.
He would start permitting troubles to reach the Christian. These troubles come like a train. They add up and the pressure felt by the Christian under its strain will be immense. He will not even realize that these are answers to his prayer. Each trouble would destroy one area of his pride or strength. And usually God might give a break in between so that the Christian would not feel overwhelmed and discouraged. After God’s work is done or sometime during the process the Christian realizes that it all happened as a result of his prayer for brokenness. He feels crushed but free. He feels free because, God, by allowing him to pass through the fire, would have taken away much of his impurities though some will remain to be treated later or gradually.
The Struggle Against Sin Stage
This is real. Many Christians especially youngsters struggle against habitual sins. These are sinful pleasures indulged in when alone. Most of these sins are rooted in sinful attitudes. A Christian feels guilty immediately after he enjoys sinful pleasure. The he confesses his sin to God, asks God for forgiveness and cleansing by the blood of Jesus. He also vows to himself that he will never again fall prey to such temptations. But soon it is broken again. Such a evil cycle repeats itself.
There are no easy solutions to this problem. The first thing to realize is that Christians do not become angels as soon as they are born again. They need to learn that they need to depend on God to gain victory over sin. For many it takes time. Paul wrote about this stage in Romans 7:14 to 25. He said that the evil he did not want to do, he kept on doing in a compulsive manner. But he did not give up the struggle in despair. He said that Jesus will rescue him from this evil. He also wrote: “So, I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of sinful nature” (Galatians 5:16 NIV). This is the secret of victory–Allowing the Spirit of God to fill you and control and lead you. It is not easy. But that is the Biblical secret of winning the struggle against sin.
The Discipline Stage
The struggling against sin stage is soon followed by a disciplining stage. The Christian realizes that if he continues in a happy-go-lucky fashion he cannot bear fruit for God. So he plans to make Bible reading a habit. Though he might struggle at first, he will soon read God’s Word in a regular manner. Instead of Christan Literature or Television or Music he enjoyed much in the beginning stages of his life, he now turns more and more to the Bible for strength and comfort. The Christian at this stage will also reduce the number of activities he is involved in. Instead he will use that time to get acquainted more with God through Bible reading and prayer. This is the maturing stage in his life. Now he sees God give him more and more victories over sinful habits in his life.
The Growth Stage
This stage will witness a tremendous growth in a Christian’s life of faith. He is able to expect God to do some great things in his life. He is able to have a vision about what he is supposed to do for God. He, at this stage, finds out his calling in life. And he focuses on doing that one thing in life that would impact eternity. He shuns away from worldly pleasures and silly activities of Christians. But he pursues God with single-minded devotion. He might be thought “nuts” by others, but he is sure about God’s hand on his life. Though criticism hurts, though he gets discouraged at times, though he feels like quitting and go along with the crowd; he holds on to God. And God rewards him with fruitfulness in his life and work.
The Backsliding Stage
With success can come complacency. At this stage the Christian feels satisfied. He tries to maintain status quo. Growth stops and comes to a standstill. The Christian at this stage is dominated by a sense of having arrived. But for a Christian if there is no progress it means slipping down. At this stage the Christian does not realize that he is straying away from God like lost sheep until he falls into some pit. And once he comes to understand that he has backslidden he can always get God’s help to get back to the track of progress once again. For God promises that He will cure His people of backsliding: “Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding” (Jeremiah 3:22a NIV).
The Reaching Out Stage
A Christian who has recovered from the backsliding stage cannot sit still for long. He sees the world’s needs and the suffering people and hears their cry. He knows that their needs must be met. But he also knows that without Jesus Christ, they will spend an eternity in hell. So he tries his best to tell them the good news. He also tries to give in terms of time, money and other resources to help others. But he also prays much. He realizes his need for God in a greater way as he feels overwhelmed by the needs that confront him. So He prays to God to strengthen him through the Holy Spirit. And thus strengthened he launches out into a life of service, reaching out and burning out for God.
The Autumn Stage
The Christian has now fought the good fight, finished his race and kept the faith (Ref. 2 Timothy 4:7). Now he looks ahead to see His Lord whom he served faithfully. He looks eagerly to receive a welcome into heaven and also looks forward to receiving crowns and rewards from His Savior.
Life has come full circle for him. He, now, though tired; maybe bedridden, frail and weak, has a joy that surpasses all his pains: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17 NIV). A visible peace settles on his face and his smile assures everyone else that all is well. It is going to be a glorious home-going!
The author does not claim that these stages describe every experience of a Christian. He also would like to point out that in real life compartmentalization of these stages are not possible in a strict sense. Many of these stages overlap. But these stages are presented in the hope that a few Christians will be encouraged to map their experiences of faith in the stages described here. The purpose of this writing is to encourage a Christian to have a desire to grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ and thus bear His glorious image: “And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49 NIV).
Note: (The Persecution Stage) What has been described in this article is what happens to a believer in normal circumstances. But there are Christians who face persecution from family members or people of other faiths or different ideologies as soon as they become Christians. The author of this article is not knowledgeable about how these Christians grow spiritually in adverse circumstances. From what the author has read and heard, such people are shown much grace by God in the midst of their persecution so that they are enabled to remain strong in their faith.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” –Jesus (Matthew 5:11,12 NIV).