When we observe faith in different people's lives, we observe a fascinating phenomena. Two Christians who have placed faith in God go through near identical types of crisis. In both, the crises produce a period of questioning, confusion, and doubt.

From this common struggle with doubt, one Christian's spirituality enters serious decline, and his or her faith radically shrinks. He or she becomes a person who attends habitually. His or her Christianity is little more than a religious affiliation with the church. Private conversations confirm that he or she seldom studies the Bible and rarely prays. Unless you saw this person attending worship, you would think that he or she had no spiritual interest. You may wonder why a person who is so disinterested makes any effort to attend a worship assembly.

From a similar period of doubt, the other Christian's spirituality intensifies. He or she while in doubt begins intense Bible study. He or she develops a prayer life that grows in intensity. He or she is open and expressive about his or her struggles and about his or her growing dependence on God. As he or she seeks to build trust and dependence, an obvious surrender appears in daily life.

He or she begins to see the blessings in the problems, the struggle, and the pain of the situation. He or she talks openly about "what I am learning" as closeness to God is visibly increasing. In fact, the spiritual growth of these people is so obvious and their surrender so genuine that they frighten other Christians. These people share their studies, share their prayer life, and share their feelings for God. Again they are so open emotionally that their faith frightens many other Christians.

How do you explain how two Christians can go through very similar crises in nearly identical circumstances and have totally different faith reactions?

Dub Moore, a good friend and mentor, who lives in Abilene, Texas, shared some information on faith with me by phone and by mail. The information came from several different sources including Jack Reese who is chairman of the Bible Department at Abilene Christian University. The information served as a catalyst to my thinking and studying--it brought a lot of things together.

  1. First, let's look at the broad picture.
    1. In this broad picture we are not talking about "good faith" versus "bad faith" or "right faith" versus "wrong faith."
      1. To understand how faith typically grows and develops, it is essential that you begin by erasing good versus bad or right versus wrong as we consider faith.
      2. The model is a growth model, not a right versus wrong model.
      3. For example, in the physical and mental development of a human being, there are radical differences in the different stages of development.
        1. There are enormous differences between a newborn and a toddler.
        2. There are enormous differences between a toddler and a child in kindergarten.
        3. There are enormous differences between a child in kindergarten and an adolescent.
        4. There are enormous differences between an adolescent and a well adjusted twenty-five year old.
        5. There are enormous differences between a well adjusted twenty-five year old and a well adjusted fifty year old.
        6. None of those stages of development are bad or wrong; they are all a part of the growth pattern.
    2. Faith also has a growth pattern.
      1. While the pattern will vary for persons coming from differing circumstances (just as physical and mental development is affected by circumstances), there is an observable pattern of development that occurs in typical circumstances.
      2. If you will, view this growth pattern as you would view rings in a tree's growth.
      3. If you cut down a tree, when you look at the diameter of the stump you see the growth rings of the tree.
      4. Visualize the development of faith as those growth rings.
        1. In the center, the core is FAMILY FAITH, a faith that a person acquires because he absorbs that faith from his family.
        2. The first ring is GROUP FAITH, a faith that a persons acquires by being a part of a group, a congregation--his congregational environment provides him his faith.
        3. The second ring is CAUSE FAITH, a faith that exists because the person has identified or adopted a cause; this is a moralistic faith.
        4. The third ring is NEED FAITH, a faith that exists because the person has identified and is addressing needs within his life that are fundamental life issues, or survival issues.
        5. The fourth ring is GOD FAITH, a faith that exists because the person understands accepts, trusts, and depends on a personal relationship with God; this faith is "my" faith, I "own" it.

  2. Now let's examine each of these developmental stages of faith.
    1. Family faith or absorbed faith:
      1. This stage of faith accepts the faith of the parents.
        1. "I believe because Mom and Dad believe."
        2. And it is not just a matter of believing because they believe.
        3. The person also believes what they believe.
        4. The faith that the person has is absorbed from the faith of Mom and Dad.
      2. Mom and Dad are the greatest and most immediate example of faith that the person has.
        1. Because the person trusts and loves Mom and Dad, the persons trusts Mom and Dad's faith.
        2. Faith is expressed as Mom and Dad expresses it; it is evidenced as Mom and Dad evidence; it is focused on the same things Mom and Dad focus their faith on; it is defined by Mom and Dad's definitions.
      3. Typically, a person outgrows family or absorbed faith.
        1. Some outgrow it at some point in adolescence when as a person they begin to establish the independence of self-hood.
        2. Some outgrow it as a young adult when as a person they begin to acquire knowledge and understanding that surpasses Mom and Dad.
        3. Some never outgrow it.
          1. Basically, these persons spend their lives maintaining and defending the faith of their family of origin.
          2. When this happens, it is more about affirmation of one's family and family loyalty than it is about belonging to God.
          3. This person's religious life is based on "their faith," not on "my faith."
      4. The dangers of not growing beyond family faith:
        1. The person's faith stagnates into religious ritual--the issue is not trusting God, but "just doing what you are supposed to do."
        2. If a person remains indefinitely in this stage, there is an inherent weakness.
          1. This faith does not equip a person for "my" trials and "my" suffering when I leave my family to establish my own life.
          2. At some point in "my" trials and "my" suffering family faith becomes inadequate or useless, and I forsake faith.
      5. The foundation of family faith is parents.
        1. It grows.
        2. Or it stagnates.
        3. Or it dies.
    2. Group faith or environmental faith:
      1. This stage of faith accepts the faith of the congregation or religious group to which I belong.
      2. "Because my church family believes, I believe."
        1. Again, it is not a matter of just believing because my congregation believes.
        2. I believe what the congregation believes.
        3. The congregation defines my faith and tells me how to express faith.
          1. It provides me with "ready made answers" to complex questions.
          2. I do not have to understand complex issues--which my limited knowledge and understanding do not permit.
          3. I can accept what the congregation teaches and believes.
          4. "They believe, therefore I believe."
      3. For a time, group faith provides a person many blessings.
        1. The faith of the congregation is a powerful stabilizing force in my life.
        2. It helps me become a source for family faith for my children.
        3. It serves as a caring, ministering support group in my life.
        4. It provides me a fellowship that comforts, stimulates, and encourages me.
      4. But, as long as the congregation is the basis for my faith:
        1. It is also the source of my spiritual strength.
        2. It is my spiritual compass providing the spiritual direction for my life.
        3. It is the root system that supports and nourishes my faith.
        4. And as long as the congregation is doing well, I am okay.
      5. But there are also some built-in problems in group faith.
        1. A congregation's situation and circumstances change.
          1. Preachers move, serving members die, and leadership changes.
          2. No congregation remains the same through time.
          3. Transition is a constant reality--in today's society, just five years brings huge changes to the makeup of a congregation.
        2. What happens when:
          1. A preacher you love and trust moves?
          2. An elder who was a positive force dies?
          3. The people who provided ministry leadership and direction move?
          4. A group in the congregation bitterly disappoints you?
        3. It is easy to "lose faith" when the environment of the congregation experiences a significant change.
          1. Disappointment with the congregation quickly becomes a faith crisis.
          2. Your source of strength quickly evaporates leaving you not knowing what to believe.
      6. There is also an inherent weakness in group faith.
        1. Group faith is wonderful as long as the congregation knows how to minister to your needs.
        2. But group faith becomes disastrous when the congregation does not know how to minister to your needs.
        3. There are some needs that living, loving, Christ-centered congregations excel in meeting:
          1. Support response in death, tragedy, or illness.
          2. Response to a home burning or a natural catastrophe.
        4. But there are also some needs that many living, loving, Christ-centered congregations have not learned how to respond to.
          1. Divorce devastates you and your family, and you are suddenly in the greatest physical need and the most serious spiritual crisis you have experienced--and the congregation does not know what to do or how to do.
          2. You acquire AIDS from a blood transfusion or by infection from an unfaithful spouse that you trusted--and the congregation does not know what to do or how to do.
          3. Because the congregation does not know how to respond, in fear it does nothing.
          4. And what happens to your faith?
      7. The foundation for group faith is the congregation.
        1. It grows.
        2. Or it reacts in bitterness and disappointment to transition.
        3. Or it dies.
    3. The cause faith or moralistic faith:
      1. This stage of faith finds a cause--the person is terribly concerned about particular moral conditions or problems that are seen as a basic evil infecting our society.
      2. "Because this is the moral teaching and position of the Bible, I believe."
        1. Bible teachings address the distressing problem that concerns this person.
        2. He or she is absolutely convinced that the solution is to compel society to conform to the moral teachings.
        3. Since biblical morality clearly address the moral concern, since biblical morality will solve the moral crises, the person believes because God's teaching is the answer to the moral dilemma.
      3. The cause may be focused in any number of issues of valid concern.
        1. Sexual moral problems.
        2. Violence.
        3. The lack of integrity in the business world.
        4. Family issues.
        5. Drugs and pornography in the community.
        6. Inhumanity in society or the world.
      4. The person is distressed by "what is wrong."
        1. A solution, a "fix it," must be found for the unacceptable conditions.
        2. Cause faith usually adopts "a course of action" that must happen.
        3. In faith, the person champions the cause, commits to the cause, and sacrifices for the cause.
        4. Cause faith commonly functions in a crusade/campaign attitude and commitment.
        5. "This is right, and we believe" too easily becomes "We are the answer because we believe."
      5. Cause faith encounters an inevitable problem.
        1. Moral evil in a society that has a majority who do not place faith in God is not fixable.
        2. Any solution for moral evil that bypasses the hearts and wills of people who do not trust God can not be effective.
        3. Biblical morality, even when imposed on an unbelieving society, cannot resolve the moral problems of the society.
        4. Attempted control through forced compliance often makes the problem more complex.
        5. Biblical morality is effective when faith exists because faith exists.
        6. Moral conditions are changed (not merely controlled) when hearts and minds are changed.
        7. Consequently, cause faith achieves temporary victories.
        8. It is not uncommon to observe the problem increasing as we put forth our best efforts to reverse the problem.
      6. There are two serious dangers in this stage of faith.
        1. It creates enormous opportunities to become self-righteous.
        2. It creates the ideal circumstances for personal failure because the person cannot meet his or her own moral standards and expectations.
      7. The foundation of cause faith is a system of godly principles.
        1. It will grow.
        2. Or it will become cynical.
        3. Or it will die.
    4. The next stage is awakened faith or need faith.
      1. This stage of faith focuses on the person's awakening to his or her spiritual survival needs.
        1. He sees his spiritual poverty.
        2. She sees the reality of evil within her own mind and heart.
      2. No longer is the person primarily concerned about fixing the church, or fixing society, or fixing other people.
      3. He or she sees that rules and regulations based on Bible teaching are spiritual kindergarten--they are not wrong, but they are not the substance of spiritual maturity.
      4. Other Christians may view this person as a "very good person" or as someone who truly turned his or her life around.
      5. But the person is waking up to the real problem of evil in everyone, and he clearly sees that problem in himself.
      6. With this awakening to the evil within comes the awakening to a biblical understanding of forgiveness, grace, and atonement--these are no longer merely religious words, but powerful, eternal concepts.
      7. With the awakening comes a tidal wave of feelings.
        1. Those feelings produce some genuine mountain top experiences when one feels close to God.
        2. But those feelings easily become the measurement of one's faith.
        3. The person's feelings can become the index to the health of his faith.
        4. So if he cannot defeat a struggle through prayer, recommitment, and resolve, the person feels like he is failing and can become depressed ("what's wrong with me?").
        5. But when he experiences a triumph in a struggle, he climbs to the mountain top again.
      8. The dangers:
        1. It is easy to make emotions and feelings primary in all spiritual considerations.
        2. It is easy to feel spiritually superior because you experience these genuine feelings and emotions.
      9. An inherent problem: when I fail to experience or sustain "mountain top" feelings, I can easily interpret this as a faith crisis.
        1. Faith produces those experiences.
        2. The absence of the experience is evidence of a weak faith.
      10. The foundation of this faith is personal experience arising from spiritual needs.
        1. It grows.
        2. Or it becomes depressed.
        3. Or it is killed by feelings of unworthiness and weakness.
    5. The next stage of faith is GOD FAITH (I am speaking of confidence in God's full manifestation of His will and purposes through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.)
      1. This stage of faith focuses on the person's relationship with God--he comprehends, understands, and trust what God has done and is doing for him in Jesus Christ.
      2. "I believe because I trust my relationship with God that was established when I entered Jesus Christ."
        1. "I understand, I accept, and I trust reconciliation."
        2. "I understand, I accept, and I trust forgiveness.
        3. "I understand, I accept, and I trust God's promises."
        4. "Because I place my confidence in God, I am certain that everything that happens in my life, both good and evil, will be used by God to help me enter eternal salvation."
        5. "I place my full confidence in God's accomplishments at the cross and the resurrection."
        6. "Because I know God, I trust God in all circumstances."
        7. "Because I trust God in all circumstances, I serve God in all circumstances."
        8. "I trust because I understand, but my trust exceeds my understanding."
      3. This level of faith is not dependent on anyone else--it is my faith.
        1. If no one else believes, I believe.
        2. If my family rejects God, I continue with God.
        3. If the congregation falls, my faith stands in tact.
        4. I embrace biblical morality, but my faith exceeds moral expectations.
        5. I have powerful, deep feelings for God and Christ, but my feelings are neither the foundation or the measurement of my trust.
        6. I will trust my God and my Savior regardless.

In any living congregation, you will observe all these stages of faith simultaneous. In a living congregation, you will see Christians growing through these stages of faith, and you will see the more mature patiently encouraging the less mature.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 4 May 1997
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