Have You Hit the Wall Yet?

For Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich each, the wall was a failed marriage that took them by surprise. Successful in everything else they had done, each had to process this new reality. Each came out of it a better believer, closer to God.

They describe that process in their book The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith. I have proposed working with four stages: 1) Merit-based Faith, 2) Confirmed Faith, 3) Convicted Faith, 4) Close-to-God Faith. Having a Wall experience can become a transition from Confirmed to Convicted Faith, or from Convicted to Close-to-God faith. Hagberg and Guelich note that many church professionals remain only at Confirmed Faith.

Luther’s Latin term for this critical experience is tentatio. He explained it in his prescription for learning to do ministry effectively: meditatio, tentatio et oratio—meditate, struggle and pray. His personal journey was full of struggle perceived as fighting off the devil.

Many believers get stuck at Stage 1 or Stage 2. Here is Hagberg and Guelich’s description of what can happen when we get on the other side of whatever Wall we personally have run into:

“A crisis can knock us off balance, making us afraid, vulnerable and ripe for change. This also happens in our spiritual journey. We have a crisis in our faith that causes us to reconsider. It might frighten us, or at least make us vulnerable. If we become bitter or too resistant, we can get stuck. But if we let the change or crisis touch us, if we live with it and embrace it, we are more likely to grow and to move eventually to another stage or spiral in our journey. When we are most vulnerable, we have the best chance to learn and move along the way. In the midst of pain there is promise.”

They observe, “It is easy to mislead people into thinking that they can move themselves to the next stage by just doing the things listed, talking to the right people, or setting their mind to it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The journey of faith is our personal journey, and movement on the journey is the place of mystery, holy ground.”

What they found is what I personally have also observed. Transitioning requires the help of others. We can glibly say to read the Word. But we need others beyond the preacher to interpret and reflect its practical meaning personally.

In Luther’s Large Catechism explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed (I believe in the Holy Spirit), he notes that the next phrase is “the communion of saints.” He writes, “Until the last day, the Holy Spirit remains with the holy community of Christian people. Through it [the community] he gathers us, using it to teach and preach the Word. By it he creates and increases sanctification, causing it daily to grow and become strong in the faith and in the fruits of the Spirit.”

In the Smalcald Articles, which he personally wrote, Luther describes how the Gospel is communicated through means of grace. He lists the fifth as “the mutual conversation and education of brethren.”

It is critical to avoid leaving the impression that believers at earlier stages are somehow inferior. They are simply not enjoying all the benefits available through the Spirit. Moving on happens at the initiative of the Spirit. What we all can do is pray “Come, Holy Spirit, Come!” We can all sing Luther’s hymn: “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord, Be all your graces now outpoured on each believer’s mind and heart; Your fervent love to them impart.”

I found it interesting to discover that my hero, Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, mused about the stages of life. He famously described “the leap of faith,” based on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command, as irrational as God’s action seemed. That was a Wall experience for him, and it set him on his path of leadership.

Have you encountered a significant “wall” in your life?

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