Just like a toddler wakes up each day thinking that he/she finally has the world figured out; so also, each and every time we as Christians master a new doctrine, ideal, or commandment, we get this light bulb in our minds and we enter a period of false security where we think we have “arrived.” That, suddenly, we’ve gotten where we need to be and we can relax. “Religion is conquered at last!” and we celebrate our arrival. “How could we have been so dim before? How could we have failed to grasp this level of truth? Alas, however, we are here!!!…..”
However, just as not more than a day may pass for a toddler to discover there’s quite a bit more he/she hasn’t mastered; so also, each of us, as Christians, usually soon discover that the call onward and upward is still there. We simply never “arrive” at a point where we can coast. And those who think they are coasting are inevitably stopped and actually sinking.
Despite this sort of daunting ideal that we can’t arrive (or ever glide or coast) as a Christian, I have found for myself, that there are broadly (and generally) about four stages of Christianity that I’ve had the opportunity to pass through, or visit, and observe in others. Obviously these stages aren’t documented or titled as I’ve titled them, in scripture, but the symptoms and qualities of them are in scripture. And, though we don’t ever “arrive,” I find there is value in understanding what stage we are in and what stage we should be reaching for.
The Four Stages of Christianity
If you Google the word Christianity, you will find it defined as “the religion based upon the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, or Jesus of Nazareth…” or something to that effect. And, while this is certainly true, most Christians realize that it is so much more. In fact, if you are a true Christian, then your goal is not only to follow—loosely—the Son of God; your goal is to emulate Him, to become perfect as He is perfect (3 Nephi 12:48; Matthew 5:48).
Herein lies a very real distinction. Some people claim to be Christians and yet only follow Christ’s person and teachings loosely (i.e. in a way that is not firm, tightly fixed, or held together). Thus, I might offer that as a stage. But, I won’t. Why? Because not until we have committed all that we are to becoming like Christ can we be considered true Christians. If we do not accept all that Christ is and all that He taught, then we are not Christians. We are only obsessive admirers, picking up a few recipes that we like from a vast buffet and lightly passing over the rest of the offerings. This cannot and will not ever be true Christianity.
We can’t commit 99% of our lives to following Christ but ignore 1% in favor of a fetish or weakness that we have. Christ has commanded and shown by example that we must “deny ourselves of all ungodliness,” (Moroni 10:32) not merely the majority of ungodliness, or almost all of ungodliness. I guess what I’m trying to communicate is that Christianity is not a nice ideal. It is a way of being. It simply cannot ever be a nice and comfortable side thought in our lives. It must be the center of our lives. If it is not, then we are not true Christians because the person and teachings of Christ demand that it be the center—that is Christianity.
Stage 1: The Excited Convert
The word converted is an adjective describing that a person, place, or thing has been changed from one type to something else. In the case of religion, being converted means being changed from one belief to another. A convert (noun) is someone who has been converted, past tense. And, conversion (noun) is the process one goes through to be changed from one belief to another.
Now, why the need for all that defining? Because The Excited Convert is not actually fully converted. The process of conversion is still taking place. We often define people who have newly been baptized as “converts,” as if the process is done now that they are “official,” when in reality they are still at the very beginning. Whether someone has been raised in the Gospel or not matters very little. Eight-year-olds are not fully converted. Neither, I might add, are most of us. We are still being processed.
However, I have named this stage The Excited Convert because this is exactly what early conversion looks like. Primary kids who have finally reached the big baptism-milestone have that same toddler euphoria, “At last I have arrived!” Teenagers who are finding their testimonies for the first time, or who are discovering the power of the testimony they didn’t realize they had also have this fiery passion for “the work.” “We know that God is there and we are going to be faithful forever!”
Newly baptized adult converts are usually so on fire that they want to run off and convert everyone they know, especially family members and close friends. Young adults and aging teens are looking forward to missions. They are all off to save the world from spiritual darkness.
Now, I’m not actually trying to make light of this stage. But, I do want to point out it’s frailty and why it’s not a time to coast. People in this stage do not have Christianity mastered. They are in the beginning of the conversion process. Nor will their spiritual highs last inevitably—as they usually believe they will.
We see this spiritual high in teenagers fresh home from girl’s camp, scout camp, high adventures, youth conferences, EFYs, and other spiritually saturated events. New converts who have been fed a steady stream of knowledge and enlightenment from missionaries are nearly bursting with light. It’s all so clear. And then, as Elder Holland intimated in one of his recent conference addresses, we all go home and the difficulties of daily life douse those spiritual flames and leave us panting as we continually try to stoke the coals back to life.
Just like being in love and infatuated is fabulous, but ultimately unsustainable, so also The Excited Convert Stage is also unsustainable. God will no more feed us a steady stream of spiritual heroin than He will force us to choose the right. At some point, that spiritual high has to return to earth and we have to continue forward in faith on our own. Truth has been burned into our soul by that Excited Convert Stage and now we must apply that truth without the heavy dose of spiritual euphoria dragging us forward. We cannot be puppets physically, mentally, or spiritually.
Faith is many things, but it is primarily doing what we know (and have once felt strongly) is right even when we don’t feel particularly inclined to do it in a current, or future, moment. We have to learn to apply truth and to do it even when we don’t feel spiritual! It is that willful, faithful action that changes our fundamental nature into something more like Christ—because we’ve acted without being coerced, induced, forced, or tugged.
We have to read and pray when every other part of life is trying to drag us from such small and simple commandments. We have to repent even when it’s humiliating, embarrassing, confusing, and heroically difficult. We have to make time to create our own spiritual euphoria, and invite the Holy Ghost to validate our efforts. We have to remember that these initial bursts of light are not candy that we keep getting without effort. They are evidence of what we can continue to feel if we now put forth our own effort and come closer to Christ.
Christ fed His followers spiritually and physically. Then, IF they continued to follow, His sermons increased in depth and reality. He asked more and more of His followers. He demanded more and more obedience and faith. Then, when His sermons no longer came with free food and were full of hard doctrine, most left Christ. Did He not say to His disciples after He preached “hard things” unto the multitude who left Him and walked no more with Him, “Will ye also go away?” (St. John 6:68-69)
And, why did they stay? Not because Christ was handing out free food and miracles and not because His commandments were easy. They stayed because, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou has the words of eternal life, and we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”
So, this Excited Convert stage is a great stage to be in! It’s awesome! However, watch out for the following FALSE doctrines that may scorch your testimony (Mark 4:16-17) while you’re seeking for a higher level:
- If I’m not on a spiritual high, God has abandoned me.
- I have to feel spiritual to do spiritual things. God doesn’t expect me to act unless I feel spiritual.
- If I don’t feel the spirit so powerfully that I’m going to burst into tears then the Holy Ghost is not with me.
- If my life has struggles and things don’t come easily, then I must have made God mad and so He isn’t going to bless me or help me.
- The church is only true if I experience spiritual euphoria all the time. If that euphoria goes away, then the church must suddenly not be true anymore.
- Because I’ve been saved I don’t have to work hard anymore to maintain my testimony. I’ve “got it” now so extra study and effort is merely redundant. I’ve got the basics.
- Other powerful feelings must be true also because they overwhelm me, even though they may go against things I’ve been taught, or have once felt, are not right.
Now, obviously there are a lot of things that can derail an Excited Convert but these should give you an idea of the fragility of this stage of Christianity. This stage does have a mature piece, but it usually graduates to another level, though often people can dip back down into this early stage for various reasons.
Stage 2: The Wannabe Pharisee
Before you immediately skip past this stage thinking “I’m not one of these,” please read a bit. Because, I fear that most of us (myself included) spend the majority of our Christian lives either in this stage, fighting our way out of it, or desperately trying not to fall back into it.
In Doctrine and Covenants 121:39 (parenthesis and brackets added) we read:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men (and women), as soon as they get a little [spiritual] authority [or knowledge], as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
If you want to know more about what unrighteous dominion actually is, please visit this link.
So, we make it past the Excited Convert Stage and we are in a more binding relationship with God. It’s at this time that we go through yet another aha moment. We see the slow steady nature of the Gospel. We see that it’s not all spiritual highs. That it’s deep and it’s full and it’s beautiful and all-encompassing. We start seeing that it’s hard—super hard, and yet also so very simple, and in some things very easy. So, we start keeping score. We start measuring where the “sin line” is and build several layers of fences in front of it to protect us from accidentally stepping over it because we don’t trust ourselves to not be tempted.
We recognize that God demands A LOT and yet we are starting to not only see the big picture, but grasp a bit of it. In our renewed excitement we begin to establish spiritual coping mechanisms. We have reminders on our phones to pray and read. We’ve got that whole visiting teaching and home teaching thing down. We show up every Sunday. We manage some form of FHE on a regular basis. We’ve set rigid rules for our kids (and ourselves) for eating, sleeping, etc. We’ve got on all the psychological gear we need to avoid falling away from Christ.
It’s like starting an exercise and diet plan and finally getting past that first horrific part of “getting in shape,” and denying ourselves of less healthy foods. We are finally in a rhythm! We’ve been doing the spiritual diet and exercise routine now for a bit and so it’s not so painful anymore. It’s not as difficult because we’ve established habits. We’re finally getting it!
And then, without even realizing it, we’ve entered the realm of Wannabe Pharisees. Because everything has suddenly become black and white. We become list checkers. Read, check, pray, check, visit, check, go, check, forgive, check, and so on and so on.
We begin to look around at others who aren’t quite at our level of spiritual coping or spiritual dieting (you know, forgoing the “greasy” stuff that takes us away from Christ). They don’t have quite our extensive list of check marks or electronic reminders. They only fast two meals instead of 24 hours. They still go to work after block meetings instead of refusing to work on Sunday. They watch Bible videos at lds.org instead of reading a solid chapter of hard core scripture every night. They haven’t lasered off their tattoos from their past life. They let their kids wear shorts above the knees…and on and on and on…
Tada! We’re now Pharisees! How? Why? Because we measure righteousness by comparison to ourselves. We judge by our spiritual coping fences, boundaries, rules, etc. We judge others by our own righteousness and “omit the weightier matters of the law, [righteous] judgment, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23).
We get fussed and annoyed by others lack of spiritual tact in sacrament meetings and testimony meetings. We get preoccupied by others weaknesses in fulfilling callings, personality burdens in their execution of those callings. We see ourselves in a grand light, that if only all was put in our laps we’d set those people right (or the Ward right…or Christ’s church right). We see in negative. All is black with only outlines of white. And if only people could listen to our comments in Gospel Doctrine and follow our example of how we keep our kids modest and out of trouble, then all the world would be better.
Does any of this sound familiar?
It does to me. I struggle to listen to others speak and teach at church because somehow, I’ve got this puffed up idea of myself that I’ve got the speaking and teaching pattern down. I’ve got Teaching No Greater Call, Gospel Teaching and Learning, Teaching in the Savior’s Way, and many other tricks and tools memorized. And, if people would only do what I do, then church and lessons every Sunday would be wonderful and fulfilling. I struggle each week to pull myself down off this horrible pedestal. Sometimes jumping off that pedestal is nigh upon Abrahamic.
Can you see the error in my thinking? I’ve made the Gospel all about me—and that’s exactly what the Pharisees did. So much did they wind the success of God’s church around their own pride and outward righteousness that when God came to earth they completely ignored Him! They hated Him! They were jealous of Him! They hunted Him down; and of course He allowed them to torture and crucify Him.
So, I have to ask myself, “If Christ came to church next week and gave His talk or taught His lesson different than I would expect of Him (because of course I expect Him to do it like me), would I lose faith in Him? Would I ridicule Him to my neighbor in the pew? Would I sigh and roll my eyes and stare at the clock?” Would you?
This stage of Wannabe Pharisee is where the majority of us stand. Now, I’m not here happily. Most of us aren’t. Some of us are here ignorantly and will remain here ignorantly until we figure it out. Most of us are trying, desperately to get out. And, I do occasionally find my way up to Stage 4: The Charitable Christian, though my stays are not as long as I’d like. That’s a slippery place for most of us because it requires a higher level of conversion—a more firm bond to Christ, and a much more eternal, consistent, and inherent Christlike perspective. The less spiritually firm we are, the less spiritually confident we are, the more self-absorbed we are, and the more pride we have, the more impossible it is for us to lodge in The Charitable Christian.
So, whether your shining example of righteousness is your food storage management, your word of wisdom interpretation, your hours of temple service (carefully recorded each week), your level of Greek or Hebrew knowledge, your travels of the Holy Land, your service at a church funded institution, your service in leadership positions in the church, your mission, etc. it doesn’t shine at all next to Christ’s life and perfect example. Thus, to use it as a comparison of your own righteousness next to others is rather ridiculous. What is a brown speck of sand next to a tan speck of sand when both are compared to a diamond? They are both just specks of sand.
When Christ said the weightier matters of the law were [righteous judgment], mercy, and faith, He meant they were weightier. He requires ALL of the law, but we are most certainly not to leave the weightier matters undone. So, maybe people at church do need to work harder at things. But that is not for us to worry about! Aslan said in The Horse and His Boy, “No one is told any story but their own.” Aslan made very clear that the only progress (or story) each of us should worry about is our own progress, our own story. We can sit and stew about everyone else’s unrighteousness in comparison to ours. We can get frustrated about all the things they omit and simply haven’t figured out yet. OR, we can take a trip up to The Charitable Christian and simply be grateful they are trying at all.
Christ said to the Pharisees of His time (Matthew 23:24-26):
Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel…ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within you are full of extortion and excess…cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter that the outside of them may be clean also.
The gnats we strain at, as Pharisees, are the outward shows of righteousness we use to check off our splendid list and judge others. The camels we swallow, the truly horrific sins, are our pride, unrighteous judgment, lack of mercy, lack of forgiveness, and primarily our lack of faith that God can, and will, work with and save any who come unto Him. Not just us with our pretty, modge podge photo frames (I have one, by the way) and books of remembrance.
Can you picture that in your head, you (and me) straining and swatting at other people’s gnats while we are trying to swallow a camel? It’s a ridiculous picture and that’s exactly how ridiculous we look to God as we judge others by our standards (and ideals) of what righteousness looks like.
Downfalls of this stage? False doctrines? Too many to list. Pray about it. Find out where you are a Pharisee. Try to get out. That’s what I’m doing. And, some days I do actually manage it, thanks to the mercy of God. But again, a slippery slope.
Stage 3: The Doubter in Despair
This is a stage I only mention because of its increasing stash of members AND because one must first have had a great deal of obedience and faith, usually, before this stage even becomes a possibility. You usually have been a true Christian before you can waver and doubt. Sounds odd, but I have found it to be true. The more we have committed and sacrificed often the greater the chance we will find ourselves a Doubter in Despair.
The Christians inside this stage come from every other stage. Many Excited Converts jump to this stage as soon as the euphoria wears off. Many Wannabe Pharisees find their way here as they struggle to breakdown their perfectly constructed framework of spiritual coping and check lists. Wannabe Pharisees also end up here because life has broken those frameworks and they are teetering on a major spiritual crisis; they’ve made the Gospel so black and white they can’t find anywhere to put all the grey that keeps popping into their lives, especially into the places they hurt the most. Fewer, but some, Charitable Christians dip into The Doubter in Despair when old weaknesses and fears raise up their ugly heads. However, the common theme among all who visit is the triggers: the struggles, trials, pains, issues, disappointments, and the unfairness of life.
If you’re in doubt, it has far less to do with your testimony than you may think. And, it has far more to do with your expectations (misguided, incorrect, or otherwise) based upon your testimony. Doubters only doubt because they’ve established firm ideals and have given their all to them—usually. Thus, it’s not unlikely that your testimony in God is just fine (in general), but that your expectations or ideals based on that testimony had issues from the outset and need to be corrected. I strongly suggest you read some of my past blogs: When Was Your Last Spiritual Temper Tantrum, or Between a Spiritual Rock and Hard Place, or The Very Elect Are Being Deceived…
Many Doubters in Despair leave the church. Some don’t. Some just go inactive or go through a series of spiritual temper tantrums. However, at some point, all Doubters in Despair will exit this stage. It is inevitable because one cannot remain in this stage. It’s a volatile and inhospitable place.
The Doubter in Despair stage of Christianity forces every person who enters to make a very real, very critical decision. Here it is:
Either God is there or He isn’t no matter what I don’t understand about life and religion. Christianity is either my life or it isn’t no matter what I don’t get about life and religion.
For those who exit out of The Doubter in Despair they usually go one of two places. First, they either exit out of Christianity altogether into a limbo of a place I call, “I believe in God and His Son, but this whole religion thing is stupid.” These are the loose followers of Christ, who aspire to pieces of His person and teachings, but refuse the whole smorgasbord (see introduction at the top).
Or, second, they head into Wannabe Pharisees or The Charitable Christian, sometimes tiptoeing on the edge of both. I’ve seen a few make other decisions, but they fall roughly into the same categories. Even if people leave “the church,” if they remain Christian, then I see them basically as Charitable Christians or Wannabe Pharisees based upon their actions (especially toward their previous religion).
What to watch out for if you’re in Doubter in Despair? Here are a few FALSE doctrines that often send people to loose followership which is technically outside of true Christianity.
- Because I can’t make sense of this issue/situation in my life, God doesn’t care and all He’s promised me isn’t real.
- Because life is unfair God doesn’t exist (or He certainly doesn’t care).
- God can’t be all-loving and all-powerful or life wouldn’t be like it is. He has to be one or the other.
- Because of this problem, trauma, or issue, God’s promises and covenants must be useless.
- Because God isn’t pulling me out of this struggle (that I can tell), then I’m going to show Him just how angry I am by ____________________ because that’ll make Him show Himself in my life. I can force His hand by acting out.
- If I act out in anger and God doesn’t show His hand, or fix things in my life, then He doesn’t love me or doesn’t exist at all.
- Because I can’t see how this issue fits in with my beliefs my beliefs must be faulty.
- Because God doesn’t run His church in a way I understand then this must not be His church.
I could offer all sorts of scripture references on these false doctrines. But, hopefully simply reading them (I suggest doing it out loud as that makes them seem even more ridiculous) you will see how limited and ridiculous such false truths are.
Stage 4: The Charitable Christian
Ah, my favorite stage. This is the stage we all want to get to. That’s because at this stage of Christianity we finally stop keeping score! We toss out our lists and we start taking a closer look at not only our own hearts, but the hearts of others. We start seeing our own actions and the actions of others as a peripheral thing that does not entirely define the individual. We start seeing others, and ourselves, not through rose colored glasses, not “through a glass darkly,” but through clean glasses (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Aha! Come to think of it, we start to see everyone as amazing and wonderful and worthwhile and good. If they have a few or several black blots, we see only that they are not yet aware of them or are already working feverishly (with God by their side) to remove those blotches. There is no competition. There is no score. We see everyone bathed miraculously in the light and mercy of Jesus Christ and any blemishes are merely a small thing for God to purify; and we know He will the very moment they turn to Him.
Thus, we seek not to judge but to persuade. We seek not to manipulate, but to serve. We seek not to fix but to empower. We seek not to push others forward at our pace but to wait with patience as they move forward at their own pace. We define others by their true identity—as children of God, demigods, if you will—instead of devils trying to earn their way to heaven. (Sad, this one, but often that’s how we treat people)
Most importantly, those who are in The Charitable Christian stage have no need for checklists. They have no need for competition or scores. They focus solely on Christ because He is all that matters. Their individual agendas, concerns, panics, loves, fetishes, jobs, careers, weaknesses, losses, worries, fears, prides, etc., don’t matter because as long as they focus on Christ all those things are fixed, saved, purified, destroyed, restored, or magnified.
Charitable Christians truly understand the phrase, “For whosever will save his life, shall lose it; or whosever will save his life, shall be willing to lay it down for my sake; and if he is not willing to lay it down for my sake, he shall lose it” (JST, Mark 8:37-39). They realize they haven’t “arrived,” and never will, but they still get it.
They worry less about gnats and they’ve learned to ride their camels (to rule them, own them, and not to swallow or hide them). They recognize how all of God’s commands help them become like Him. Thus they don’t fear the commandments, because they aren’t panicking about all the ways they may accidentally sin. They’ve lost the desire for sin and they trust themselves! Nor do they build fences around the commandments. This is because they are no longer commands, but tools to godhood. They ride those commandments along the path to actually becoming godly. They evaluate their progress of conversion, of becoming godly and move toward it. They don’t merely focus on staying on the right side of some imaginary line—like a Pharisee.
The Charitable Christian is a stage of Christianity that is hard to lodge in. We can do it. I’ve managed a few days at a time. But, the Wannabe Pharisee is powerful. The Doubter in Despair is so dark and has such drastic exits. The stage we are in usually offers many variations, but none has more exits than The Charitable Christian. This is not because it’s a stage we want to exit, but rather more because like the game Chutes and Ladders, it’s simply extremely difficult to roll perfectly all the time. We hit those chutes and cry “Noooooo!” all the way down…well, or at least I do.
And, it’s important to remember that Charitable Christians aren’t perfect. They aren’t. But, they are sanctified. (See this link for clarification on the difference between perfectionism and sanctification)
The Key to Being A Charitable Christian
However, I think the key to remaining in The Charitable Christian stage is to ponder and plan. Yes, that’s it, ponder and plan. Sounds awfully simple.
When I’m sitting at church and I get the urge to ridicule or roll eyes at someone’s talk or lesson delivery, I have pondered in advance my response. I have sat and pondered and thought, “How would I want God to respond to my issues? How would I like to see myself respond as a Charitable Christian?” That’s all it took. My plans? My answer? Here it is what I pondered and planned.
I want to look at them with love. I want to listen harder and feel the meaning behind their words and delivery and not focus on the delivery. I want to appreciate their willingness to try to serve God, and by default ME. I want to remember that they are doing what they are doing because of their love of God. I want to remember that God is working with them individually and with me individually. I want to remember that no matter how good I think I am, God could just as easily look at me and ridicule me (IF that were His nature) because of my poor delivery of His doctrines and words. I want to remember that if I ridicule them I am ridiculing God (Matthew 25:40). I want to remember that I have made covenants not to speak ill of God’s children, especially those anointed to do His work.
I am proud to report that I have been doing what I have pondered and planned for months now, and it has drastically improved my capability to be charitable and to be uplifted and inspired at church—go figure, right?. I’m not a permanent resident in The Charitable Christian. I wish I were. But, I’m visiting a whole lot more often. However, those chutes are multiplying and I find I’m awfully good at sliding down. Boy, I can’t wait to get out of Wannabe Pharisee for good someday.
So, it’s one thing to desire to be a Charitable Christian. It’s only a little extra effort to ponder and plan how to be one.
Well, hopefully you’ve noticed that different parts of your life and spiritual devotion are in many different stages. But, I hope that seeing that in some ways we can visualize those stages will help you on your journey to being like Christ…The Charitable Christian. Stage 5: Perfection, well, that one comes in the next life, I believe, so hopefully we’ll meet up there one day.