(Nov 2020) Charles Bello

This workshop is based on the book, The Critical Journey, by Janet Hagberg & Robert Guelich. I have added insights from When the Heart Waits by Sue Kidd Monk, Invitation to a Journey by Dr. Mulholland Jr., and my own reflections.

My intention is to provide a framework or context for the process God takes many of us through as he moves us towards maturity. This is not to be seen as a detailed road map or “one size fits all” kind of spirituality. It is simply a way of describing the journey that we are all taking.

Romans 8:28, 29 states: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son…”

Dr. M. Robert Mulholland Jr. of Asbury Seminary defines Christian Spiritual Formation as: (1) a process (2) of being conformed (3) to the image of Christ (4) for the sake of others.

Scripture teaches us that Christian growth, “sanctification,” is a developmental process. We all move towards maturity over time. One helpful model of this process is from The Critical Journey by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich (1995).

It divides the process into six stages or seasons

  1. The Converted Life (Being)
  2. The Learning Life (Knowing & Belonging)
  3.  The Active Life (Doing)
  4. The Inward Life (Being)
  5. The Outward Life (Knowing & Doing)
  6. The Life of Love (Being, Knowing, Doing)
  1. Robert Mulholland in his book, Invitation to a Journey, uses classical Christian language to describe this journey as a three or four step process:
  1. Awakening: initial encounter with God and self, conversion experience
  2. Purgation: the bringing of the inner life into harmony with Christ
  3. Illumination: deepening relationship with God, a shift from seeing God out there experiencing God deep within our being
  4. Union: the experience of complete oneness with God one in purpose/moral character

Awakening ⇨ initial awakening (go back to sleep) / on going 

Purgation ⇨ obvious sins / motives & attitudes / inner life patterns

⇨ Illumination growing awareness of the nearness of God within

⇨ Union growing into image of Christ / union – will, character, purpose

There are a number of other models to describe this transformational process. But I have found these two the most helpful in understanding my own growth and development. In this paper I have integrated Mulholland’s approach into the 6 step model by Hagberg & Guelich.

  • The stages are progressive and all necessary (you can’t skip one completely).
  • This is simply a pattern many, but not all, people go through.
  • They are not linear or compartmentalized (you can’t finish one, check it off forever).
  • We move at different rates through the stages, and may even regress, cycle, or get stuck at a stage.
  • We may experience a number of stages at the same time, but people tend to have a “home stage” where they presently are living out of.
  • God is encouraging us and pushing us to grow, but we retain the ability to resist Him.
  • It takes work to grow spiritually towards holiness and maturity in a fallen world.
  • All these stages/seasons are important / can & do encounter God in very deep and profound ways


  • We move from darkness to light, we are born again. STARTING LINE
  • We often feel wrong, unworthy, or weak in this stage.
  • This is where we begin our journey as pilgrims.
  • God will bring us back to this stage many times to renew and refresh us.
  • Examples of this stage are: Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), Lydia (Acts 16:11-15), Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-11), and the return on the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:17-21).

Awakening – 2 encounters

  • Encounter with God & Encounter with self
    • Spiritual awakening is a two-sided experience. It is an encounter with the living God; it is also an encounter with our true self.
    • This experience can be a gradual or radical encounter.
    • Isaiah had an experience of who God is: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1). Then in the light of that experience, he awoke to who he was: “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).
    • We can be like Jacob. We may be very much aware of who we are as we seek to escape from the mess we have made of our lives (Gen. 27:41-44). Then we encounter God in the midst of our turmoil: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16).
    • Peter upon seeing the power of Christ exclaimed, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:1-11).

Ways to get stuck at this stage:



  • Sometimes called “The Discipled Life,” this is a time of learning and belonging.
  • It is important that we get “plugged into a local church.”
  • Knowledge about God, the Bible, how to live the Christian life, and what to believe becomes most important to us, and we are often attracted to strong leaders who will teach us.
  • This can be a very legalistic, black and white stage.
  • We can cultivate an “us against them” mentality. Those who believe like us are “good” while all others are “bad.” (conservatives vs. liberals, homeschool vs. public school, evangelical vs. progressive)
  • In this stage, the goal is to know it all and obey it all. This stage is run by should, must, and ought.
  • Our spirituality is expressed by learning, obeying, and belonging.
  • Some examples are Timothy under Paul (1 & 2 Timothy), Ruth as mentored by Naomi (Ruth), and some of the New Testament Pharisees.

Ways to get stuck at this stage:



  • This is the “roll up your sleeves and get busy” stage.
  • The focus of our spirituality and faith is working diligently for God. We are praised for “doing that,” “serving there,” or “accomplishing such-and-such task.”
  • The emphasis here can be on external things, i.e.: success through converts, programs, attendance, or buildings.
  • In this stage, spiritual maturity is defined as involvement and productivity. Unfortunately, we can do work for God without being close to Him. This can leave us empty, resentful, and exhausted. However, to move on we must face a time of crisis (see below) so we may get stuck here.
  • Some examples are Simon Peter’s bold, impulsive leadership (Matt. 26:31-35) and the Prodigal Son’s older brother (Luke 15).



Purgation is the classic term used to describe God’s inner activity in a Christian’s life. Purgation is the process of bringing our behavior, attitudes, and desires into harmony with our growing awareness of what the Christian life is all about. This is the place where spiritual disciplines can play an important part in our growth. Purgation within the first three stages of development usually deals with the following areas:

  1. Blatant sins (Gal. 5:19-21)
  2. Obedience
  3. Subconscious sins, omissions, and motivations
  4. At this stage God also begins the process of disclosing to us our deep wounds and brokenness in our being in order that we may offer them up to God for our healing.

Ways to get stuck at this stage:

  • During this part of our journey, we hit many “little walls.”
  • During our first decade or so of our Christian walk, we will tend to cycle through the first three stages.



  • Between Stage 3 and 4 lies a time of a major Crisis.
  • It is a time of searching, disappointment, confusion, vulnerability, pain, and uncertainty.
  • This crisis has been called “the wall” or the “dark night of the soul.” It may include mid-life
    issues, personal loss, or spiritual burn-out.
  • According to many authors, much of the American church is stuck at level 3.
  • Why are we stuck? Many of us do not know how to move forward. We must choose to go on.
    Activity and productivity are a part of our culture, and going inward seems to be counterintuitive.
  • Some refuse to enter the pain, and so remain at stage 3.
  • Some will decline to surrender control to God fully. Others will start, but feel too alone and too
    afraid and so return to what they are familiar with. Still others will simply return to stage 1 or 2, get refreshed, retooled, re-envisioned, and return back to stage 3.
  • But, by God’s grace and the movement of the Spirit, many go on to the Inward Life.
  • Not everyone’s experience with this time of crisis is the same. For some, they will simply
    experience a “midlife transition,” for others it will look more like a “midlife crisis.”
  • For those who have learned to process their lives, unpack their disappointments and adjust their expectations in a healthy way, this time will be less traumatic.
  • I believe that if we can teach people, especially leaders in the first three stages how to develop a contemplative lifestyle, they will go into this stage a lot healthier and better equipped.

Purgation and the next three stages

  • Purgation begins dealing with deep-seated structures of being and behavior. This is sometimes called “the Dark Night of the Soul” or Mid-Life Crisis.
  • God begins dealing “with the deep-seated attitudes and inner orientations of our being out of which our behavior patterns flow. Here purgation deals essentially with our ‘trust structures,’ especially those deep inner postures of our being that do not rely on God but on self for our well-being.” (Mulholland)
  • Many times this happens at mid-life (generally between 35 – 50 years old). God initiates a “mid-life crisis” and begins to dismantle our false identities and personas we have built for ourselves. God begins an intense internal restructuring.
  • “As we attempt to adapt to and protect ourselves from the wounds and realities of life, we each create a unique variety of defense structures – patterns of thinking, behaving, and relating designed to protect the ego. These egocentric patterns make up our false selves.” (When The Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd, p.52)
  • Those who can work through this phase are liberated from dependency on manipulative and harmful internal support systems. To walk through this fire is not to die but to be transformed and purged.

Dark Night of the Soul: “There comes a time when both body and soul enter into such a vast darkness that one loses light… There comes a time when the soul sinks down into the night… John of the Cross … explained that a person may suffer a feeling of abandonment by God, as well as dryness, emptiness, and a distressing encounter with one’s own hunger… The purpose of the dark night is to purge us…Previous ways of thinking and relating to God no longer suffice… Merton tells us that the darkness comes when we allow God to strip away the false selves and make us into the persons we’re meant to be.

Transformation depends on this stripping away, a process that involves undoing ego patterns, recasting the old story we created for ourselves to live in, and unraveling illusions not only about ourselves but about God… This stripping away both demands and creates a temporary darkness…” (When The Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd, p. 151)

“Teresa of Avila experienced the dark night in a period of intense opposition and suffering. She prayed to the Lord, ‘Why do your treat me so harshly?’ God responded, ‘This is how I treat my friends.’ Teresa replied, ‘I understand now why you have so few!’” (Satisfy Your Soul, Demarest, p.212) 16 CENTURY



  • The journey turns inward at this stage, almost always precipitated by and occurring during a time of crisis.
  • In stage 4, we search for inner meaning rather than “pat” theological answers.
  • We may pull away from Christian “activity” while seeking God in a more intimate and personal way. It takes a lot of emotional energy to do “inner work.”
  • The energy that went into keeping up your persona now can go into doing inner work.
  • To grow here, we must learn to surrender again to the Lord. We must learn to trust Him again, even if we don’t know where we are going.
  • Often, we need guidance from a mentor, life coach, counselor, or spiritual director to grow – someone who has walked this road ahead of us.
  • The goal in this stage is to surrender and just rest as “God’s Beloved Child.”
  • Sometimes we can become “vertical people” who crave solitude and only relate in faith upward to God.
  • Some examples are Elijah after Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18-19), Simon Peter’s confusion – denial – restoration process (Mark 14:66), and the disciples on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35).

Coming to trust & detachment

  • This phase is characterized as coming to a mature faith and entering the relationship of radical trust in God. There is a decline of anxiety and an increase of faith.
  • We begin to experience what classical Christian tradition calls detachment. This is a consistent posture of actively turning our whole being to God so that God’s presence, purpose and power can be released through our lives in all situations.
  • “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings.” Isaiah 40:31

Ways to get stuck at this stage:

(5) THE OUTWARD LIFE (Knowing and Doing) / CONVERGENCE

  • After the transforming inward journey is launched, Christ directs us outward again.
  • We reconnect with the active world with a new sense of purpose. This can look like stage 3, but the difference is not so much the outer activity, but rather the inner motivation.
  • We study, learn, attend, and serve again – but not to gain God’s favor or people’s approval.
  • We can seem careless about “important” things like creeds, rules, numbers or production.
  • We are hungry to fulfill God’s purposes for us, and to walk in the good works He has prepared beforehand for us to do.
  • We use our spiritual gifts and skills not out of a sense of duty, but with patience, freshness, and inner calm. We can rest even as we work on those things God has given us to do.
  • Often, a mentor, life coach, or spiritual director is very helpful in helping us find out where we are gifted and called to serve.
  • Some examples from Scripture are the Servant (Isaiah 42:1-4), Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6), a mature Paul (Acts 13, Epistles), a mature Peter (1,2 Peter).


(6) THE LIFE OF LOVE (Integrating Being, Knowing and Doing) / INTEGRATION

  • In this stage, we act in Christian maturity.
  • Living becomes selfless in love. We can sacrifice for others.
  • We can live like Jesus lived because we are dependent on Him. We can love the unlovely, be kind to the rude, pray for our enemies, and hold our tongue when we are wounded.
  • We worry little about reputation, personal success, things, or comfort, but instead desire to spend ourselves for others.
  • We have peace in the midst of struggle, and can do more than we ever thought possible because Christ is made perfect in our weakness.
  • Examples include Jesus (Phil. 2:6-11), the “blessed” person Jesus speaks of in the Beatitudes (Matt 5), and Paul in his love for the Jews (Rom. 9:2). Perhaps Mother Theresa, William Tyndale, Corrie Ten Boom, Henri Nouwen, Hudson Taylor, or Watchman Nee.

Illumination is the classical term used to describe the deepening relationship the Christian experiences with God. It is characterized by a radical shift of the deep dynamics of our being, a profound transformation of our relationship with God. Illumination is the experience of total consecration to God in love. Rather than me being in charge of my relationship with God, God is given absolute control of the relationship… The basic shift in illumination is from seeing God as ‘out there’ to an experience of God present deep within our being. This goes hand in hand with the deep level of absolute trust to which the purgative stage brings us. As long as God is perceived as ‘out there,’ separated from us, we understand ourselves as independent, autonomous beings. We labor under the anxiety that causes us to attempt to retain control of our relationship with God and to control our limited world.(Mulholland, p. 94, 95)

Union is the classical term used to describe an abiding experience of complete oneness with God. Our will, our character, our mission, our values are the same as Christ’s. This union can be both joyful and painful. The purpose and focus of this union is that we would experience the reality of Jesus’ prayer “that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe…so that the world may know that you have sent me.”

Your Own Journey

What did / does stage one (being / first love) look like for you?
What did /does stage two (learning and belonging) look like for you?
What did / does stage three (doing) look like for you?
Can you identify cycling through these first three stages a number of times?
Do you think you are hitting the wall? Why? What does hitting the wall look like for you? Do you think you might be at stages 4, 5, or 6? Why?