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Spiritual Development: Definition and Purpose

Spiritual Development Core Definition

Many a theologian has offered a definition of spiritual development over the course of two millennia. Spiritual development can mean many things to many people in the secular and pluralistic environment we inhabit in our terrestrial world. Spiritual development, in essence, is to believe in something beyond the material universe and to develop an awareness of realities beyond the confines of time and space.

vrbzvyx2k4i-markus-spiskeWhat does spiritual development mean for the Christ follower? Acts 17:28 answers the question well: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Our essence, belonging, search for meaning, and purpose originate from the Lord as transformed through the person of Jesus Christ and God’s infallible and unchanging Word.

The purpose of spiritual development is summed up well in Romans 12:2 that exhorts us with these powerful words: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” God’s truth and purpose transform the soul, spirit, mind, and strength in all of our activities. Everything we have, including our knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities, are to be stewarded to God. Spiritual development is increasingly aligning God’s purposes for the world with our story.

Simply put, spiritual development is becoming more like Jesus everyday.

Spiritual Development Definition as Process

Spiritual development is certainly a process of growth in Christ. God will give you strength and grace to grow during the process of refinement. The Bible portrays spiritual refinement as a journey, as illustrated by the following verses in Scripture:

  • Jesus says to the children of God, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
  • “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
  • Growth in Christ is not just an individual task, but involves working out our sanctification within the body of Christ. “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Spiritual Development as Spiritual Guidance

Spiritual guidance from other Christians does not have to be authoritarian. In fact, the primary role of a spiritual guide is to help the one seeking guidance to attend and be in tune with the Spirit. The supportive role of spiritual guidance is very much in line with counseling and coaching. Spiritual guidance does involve, as well, correcting a skewed view of the character of God. Untruths and lies have to be identified, understood, and dismissed for soul care to occur. It is when we see His truth and perfection that restoration and healing occurs through spiritual direction and guidance. It is His love that heals us to live more fully for Him. Spiritual guidance does then also take the shape of not only reshaping our inward reality, but also mirroring truth onto the world we live in. Our God is as much a God of social justice and peace as He is our personal Lord and Savior.

rfid0_7kep4-natalie-foxGod’s immanence becomes more real each day as the Lord guides our lives. He is with you as you seek to carry out His will in practical terms. God’s manifest presence is something to cherish in the everyday daily routines. As Christians, it is vital that we embrace the paradox of God’s transcendent sovereignty over human issues and yet His immanence and caring for the affairs of individuals, families, societies, and nations. The Lord speaks to us through His Word, the Holy Spirit, life circumstances, fellow Christians, prayers from God’s people, and the church to guide us each and every step of the way in our faith journey.

Spiritual Development as Counseling/Coaching

Spiritual development can be understood as going through stages. Erik Erikson’s popular stages of lifespan development can be used as a map to understand stages of faith development. Christian psychologists Yvonne Bissonnette Tate and Stephen Parker align the born again phase with Erickson’s infancy stage, which is characterized by trust versus mistrust. This stage involves a strong belief in the integrity of God, or the reverse, which would be a sense of sadness and despair due to the lack of reliability on God’s part. Resolution of this first stage would involve feelings of hopefulness in Jesus and enhanced faith in God to follow through in one’s life.

The final stages of Erikson’s model correlated to spiritual growth would relate to spiritual adulthood. This stage would indicate a Christian who has become a spiritual person of wisdom through his or her own growth processes. This person would mentor and guide other Christians in these final stages of development.

The goal of Christian counseling/coaching would be to help clients reach spiritual adulthood. Spiritual counseling and coaching identifies barriers in working through the many challenges of faith development and overcoming obstacles such as mistrust, shame/doubt, self-condemnation, feelings of insecurity, and isolation.

A Christian counselor/coach can diagnose which stage of faith development a client is in and help the client achieve positive spiritual growth through trust, ability to exert Christ’s power to resist the evil one, defining Christian purpose, learning tools to pursue God, and accomplishing work for the Lord because of a compelling love for Christ. When Christian counseling/coaching and spiritual direction meet, God works spiritual growth in tangible ways. Empathetic understanding of issues and increased awareness of the work of the Lord are the primary benefits of Christian counseling/coaching.

Spiritual Development: Purpose

As Christians, our purpose is to strive for the prize of righteousness in Christ Jesus because God promises spiritual fulfillment through an eternal relationship with Him. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Satisfaction in God’s righteousness and His desires for creation is the ultimate purpose and mission of Christ followers.

o14nnebla-s-mike-kenneallySpiritual growth is a process. The Christian enjoys striving for the prize of righteousness in Jesus because God’s love compels every sphere of life. “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Satisfaction in God’s righteousness is the raison d’etre for our temporal and eternal destinies. Throughout the Bible, spiritual refinement is portrayed as a journey towards maturity. “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).

Christians value spiritual development of self because we want to give up the self (selfish desires) and put on the clothing of Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The first step in Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit that your life has become unmanageable and that you are powerless over alcohol or whatever your addiction may be. The beauty of this statement is that it teaches a theology of imperfection.

The fact is that the Christian is not perfect and perfection cannot be obtained by pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. The faithful admit only God can restore one to sanity from the second step of Alcoholics Anonymous. The next step is to turn over your will to the Lord, which is the third step of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Christian may not be an alcoholic, but these principles apply to life in that we are all addicts to some extent. The Christian may seek temporary fulfillment in their addictions. Christian spiritual development can be stunted because of addictions.

What is a Christian understanding of addictions, you may ask? Well, addictions are anything that takes away true glorification of the Almighty Lord. These addictions include work, TV, video games, Facebook, and sometimes even just doing ministry instead of being ministry. The purpose of spiritual development is the pursuit of true worship within imperfection and offering God all of ourselves through work, play, and by being imitators of Christ to others. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1).

Spiritual Development: Purpose from Calling

Christians often struggle with knowing the difference between God’s will and their own will in their lives. God’s will in one’s life could be described as a calling.

Calling is defined as follows:

4v1dc_eocwg-edwin-andrade“A calling is a transcendent summons, experienced as originating beyond the self, to approach a particular life role in a manner oriented toward demonstrating or deriving a sense of purpose or meaningfulness and that holds other-oriented values and goals as primary sources of motivation” (Dik & Duffy, 2009, p. 427).

Calling originally has been attributed to ministry, yet in recent times calling has moved to becoming applicable to all professions stemming from the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers created during the Protestant reformation in the Western church. One study found that integration of a priestly identity with a sense of self was important to those who decided to become Catholic priests. This research, applied to Protestants, suggests that the level of identification with the priesthood of all believers doctrine will give us a stronger identification with God’s calling into a specific vocation. In some sense, God’s will is transcendent but interacts with our sense of self and purpose. Another study on calling and purpose found that if people attribute cause to God, then people perceive God as having control over the situation. An eternal source identified helps differentiate between God’s will and man’s will.

Defining one’s work as calling has been shown to have positive outcomes in work, career, and life in general. More than the positive benefits of knowing God’s will, it is important to know God’s will to know our career path. The Christian is an instrument of God. “Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness” (Romans 6:13). The Christian uses his or her calling to discern God’s will in the workplace to be an instrument of righteousness in the world.

The church has an important role to play in helping the Christian discern God’s will. “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:4-5). A Christian counselor/coach can encourage deeper connection to the larger body of Christ. Christian counseling/coaching can facilitate change through servant leadership so that you find your true purpose in serving the world.

References
Benner, D. G. (2002). Nurturing spiritual growth. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 30, 355-361.DeHoff, S. L. (1998). In search of a paradigm for psychological and spiritual growth: Implications for psychotherapy and spiritual direction. Pastoral Psychology, 46, 333-346.Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2009). Calling and vocation at work: Definitions and prospects for research and practice. The Counseling Psychologist, 37, 424-450. doi:10.1177/0011000008316430Dobrow, S. R., & Tosti-Kharas, J. (2011). Calling: The development of a scale
measure. Personnel Psychology, 64, 1001-1049. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6570.2011.01234.x

Hankle, D. D. (2010). The psychological processes of discerning the vocation to the Catholic priesthood: A qualitative study. Pastoral Psychology, 59, 201-219. doi:10.1007/s11089- 008-0190-6

Kurtz, E., & Ketchem, K. (2002). The spirituality of imperfection: Storytelling and the search for meaning. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Mallery, P., Mallery, S., & Gorsuch, R. (2000). A preliminary taxonomy of attributions to God. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 10, 135-156.

McKenna R. B., Haney, D. M., Matson, J., Becker, O., & Boyd, T. N. (in preparation). Calling, the caller, and being called: A multidimensional holistic model of calling.

McKenna R. B., Haney, D. M., & Ecker D., Robie, & Austin, K. (2015). The Power of Perceived Experience: Events That Shape Work as Calling. Career Development Quarterly.

Tate, Y. B., & Parker, S. (2007). Understanding Erikson’s developmental theory to understand and nurture spiritual development in Christians. Journal of Psychology & Christianity, 26, 218-226.

 
Photos
“Life Emerges,” courtesy of Markus Spiske, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Finding the Way,” courtesy of Natalie Fox, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Daily Grind,” courtesy of Mike Kenneally, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Worship,” courtesy of Edwin Andrade, unsplash.com, Public Domain License



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