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Four Stages of Spiritual Development, Part II


The ultimate purpose of these essays is to explore rigidity, which happens when people get stuck in their psycho-spiritual development. But to understand rigidity, it’s helpful to understand some of the fundamental dynamics at play between the four stages. (Note: if you have not read the first essay, ‘Four Phases of Spiritual Development, Part I,’ you may want to stop and read that first.)

Relating to Other Stages

M. Scott Peck’s Four Stages of Spiritual Development looks like this:

1.  Anti-social/Chaotic (what I will simply call “Chaos”)

2.  Formal/Institutional (what I will call “Bounded” or “the Boundaries Stage”)

3.  Doubt/Skepticism (what I will call “Deconstruction”)

4.  Mystical/Communion (what I will call “Union”)

The goal of spiritual development is to mature into Stage 4, but entering Stage 4 is a dynamic process. The path is not a straight line, and to walk it, it helps to understand the dynamics at play between the stages. Indeed,Peck makes a number of observations about how people in each stage relate to the other stages. For example, people tend to look down on people who are in the stage they have just passed through.[1] The newly devoted believer in Stage 2 tends to judge a person in the chaos of Stage 1. (You can imagine someone shaking their head disapprovingly at “those sinners.”) By the same token, a person who has just deconstructed their faith and dwells in the doubt and skepticism of Stage 3 tends to view as naive the devoted believer of Stage 2. 

But even as we judge those in the stage behind us, we “retain vestiges of the previous stages through which we have just come.”[2] Under stress, we are all tempted to lie, coerce, or manipulate to get our way, thus returning to Stage 1. Someone in Stage 2 might have an old drinking buddy come in town who, after some cajoling, pulls his buddy into the chaos of Stage 1. Someone who lives in the logic and skepticism of Stage 3 may also be oddly and irrationally superstitious about certain matters. Even in Stage 3 or 4, under pressure you might—like all of us—wish for some oracle or authority to cut through life’s ambiguities with clear answers, such as you experienced in Stage 2. And even in Stage 4, you might succumb to the fear of “what people may think” and pretend to deny your faith in order to appear coolly logical and collected as you once were within the skepticism of Stage 3. 

Not only do we tend to look down on those just behind us, but we are mostly threatened by those in the stages above us. “If people are one step ahead of us, we usually admire them. If they are two steps ahead of us, we usually think they are evil.”[3] After all and for example, people in Stage 2 are told to “love sinners.” If they move past their initial judgmentalism, people in Stage 2 can become quite loving of those in Stage 1. Yet they will generally remain threatened by those in the stages above them. Consider Jesus: to some, he was a prophet who revealed the true heart of God; to others he was a lunatic, a rabble-rouser, a devil sent to tear down everything the nation held dear.[4] As Abraham Heschel writes, “The prophet…employs notes one octave too high for our ears.”[5] In a simplistic sense, Jesus was too far ahead, spiritually speaking, of those who crucified him. His notes were too high for their ears, and all they couldhear was how he challenged them (and to their minds, threatened them) with his radical way of relating to the Law and to God. As Jesus himself said, “To him who has ears to hear, let him hear” (e.g., Mark 4:9). All this despite Jesus saying that he came “not to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the prophets” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus knew he was the fulfillmentof the sacred, not its contradiction.[6] Nevertheless, what you see depends on your perspective, which depends on your own spiritual development. To the rigid mind stuck in Stage 2 (and remember, not all who are in Stage 2 are rigid or legalistic), Jesus was a threat. And because people tend to use the stability of Stage 2 to cover their own inner sense of chaos—of guilt and shame—they will protect their Stage 2 thinking without realizing they are actually protecting themselves. Jesus knew that teaching that God demands inner transformation and not external performance would get him in trouble. And he knew that teaching that God is a universal Love which embraces all people would fall upon deaf ears and, furthermore, would be a threat to respectable people trying to perform their way into standing with God. Jesus was no dummy; he knew he was going to be killed by people stuck in Stage 2.

The Difficulty of Moving Towards Stage 4

It is important to note that though these stages describe spiritual development, we are not strictly speaking about (nor should we limit the stages to) religiousdevelopment. In other words, while we can use the word “spiritual” in its most personal, intimate sense—of an individual’s belief in a higher power, we can also use the word “spiritual” in its broadest definition. “Spiritual” in this sense means the array of psychological and emotive processes which are not strictly religious and may not even involve a belief in God per se, but which involve humankind’s deepest and most sacred—and in this sense spiritual—aspirations. 

It also bears saying, again, that the progression from Stage 1 to 2 is not a progression from bad to good. There are wonderful, sincere, and authentic people in Stage 2, and there are jerks in Stage 3. There are wonderful people who would never hurt a fly who get stuck in the chaos and addiction of Stage 1, and so on. Nevertheless, there is a real danger of getting stuck in a stage and never becoming mature. A progression to internalized maturity—to internal goodness—means a movement through the stages. You cannot be truly good, for example, if your motivation for doing good is fear that God will punish you if you don’t (as it often the case in Stage 2). That may be your first catalyst, but it must not be your last. You must progress to doing good for its own sake and for the sake of others. 

Still, though human beings want to become mature and good, it’s very difficult to progress into Stage 4.[7] The great spiritual teachers, after all, have always taught that it takes loss to become fully human, which is to say fully spiritual. Suffering is the only thing that forces most of us into change. As David Brooks writes, “If you ask anybody, ‘What’s the activity that you had that made you who you are?’ no one says, ‘You know I had a really great vacation in Hawaii.’ …They say, ‘I had a period of struggle. I lost a loved one. I was in the Army. And that period of struggle…made me who I am.’”[8] Indeed, the very reason we don’t progress through the stages is that it involves struggle and suffering. It involves changing our understanding of the world, and we prefer instead “vacations in Hawaii” in the form of stability, certainty, and predictability. Furthermore, we live in a culture that encourages us to avoid discomfort and pain, often to the detriment of our souls (though of course, pain still finds us). So as humans, we tend to live in Stage 2 or 3. We want to avoid the chaos and shame of Stage 1, but we are also wary of the suffering and loss required to enter Stage 4. We all intuit what Jesus said: in becoming mature, we will “lose our life” (Matthew 10:39).That is, we will lose our ability to find ultimate meaning in our certainty, in our ability to hold things together, or in how fine and respectable we look (all of which may be of ultimate concern in Stage 2). Or we will lose our capacity to look calm, cool, collected, and detached in our skepticism (Stage 3). Stage 4, on the other hand, requires vulnerability, letting go of certainty, and giving your time, energy, care, and love away. This requires becoming humble and joyful even in the midst of not having all the answers. In Stage 4, you are more concerned with giving than receiving, though you understand that you only can give because you receive. Stage 4 also requires—according to Jesus, anyway—holding tension, turning the other cheek, and forgiving those who crucify you. No wonder Stage 2 and 3 remain, in some sense, more appealing than Stage 4.

Temptations and Dangers 

The general progression to Stage 4 is difficult because we only get there through engaging suffering and loss. In fact, any change in our psychology is a type of death, because you have to let go of what you knew (or thought you knew) to learn something new. In that sense, you lose who you were in order to become someone new. And “it hurts to become real.”[9] Becoming always involves loss. But in addition to this general difficulty, each stage has specific, unique temptations and dangers which can sidetrack the progression to Stage 4. We will look at each Stage in turn. 

Stage 1

An alcoholic stuck in Stage 1 does not drink without reason. There is a genealogy to any addiction. She drinks because life is painful, and she relates to alcohol as a reliable friend simply because it helps her deal with the pain of being. As obvious as it sounds: life is painful because human beings can feel pain. We feel physical and emotional pain, like dogs and dolphins, but unlike animals, we also feel psychological and existential pain. The unique aspect of our humanity is this self-awareness, the pain of existence and of being. It is the pain of human longing. Because of it, we feel psychological pain: worry, fear, and insecurity. Indeed, each stage is meant to help us deal with this felt anxiety of being. And in each stage, maturity is difficult because it would require letting go of something that has kept us safe. In the case of an alcoholic, a bottle represents power over pain, at least temporarily. Putting down the bottle would mean not only accounting for who they’ve hurt through their addiction but also confronting the pain and unmet longing that feeds the addiction in the first place. 

The temptation in Stage 1, then, is concluding that the only way you will be safe or feel relief is by clinging to what numbs you out. This keeps you stuck in a vicious cycle of guilt and shame.[10] Whereas guilt can motivate behavior change, shame is difficult to escape and can drive us back into the very anti-social and chaotic behavior that generated it. After all, if you have no hope for something better, at least you can have the comfort of a bottle or a sexual tryst. Relief for a moment seems better than despair, even if the despair comes due with compounded interest after the act. 

The film The Wrestler captures this dynamic poignantly, as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson returns to the wrestling ring—the only place where he has any sense of self or transcendence—even though it means his death because of a bad heart.[11] This is the power of shame: it keeps us returning to places of comfort that ultimately kill us. So the key temptation in Stage 1 is to let shame drive you into despair and hopelessness. 

Stage 2

The temptation in Stage 1 is straight-forward compared with the subtleties of temptation that occur in Stage 2, where the rocks and sandbars are often hidden beneath the waterline. In Stage 2, because life seems to work quite well compared to the chaos of Stage 1, it’s easy to deny that there is any danger to be aware of at all. Someone caught in chaos will have a hard time denying that their life is in shambles, whereas a respectable person in Stage 2 can plausibly deny that there is anything at all to deny. A good suit covers a multitude of sins. People in Stage 2 can take pride in being good, thoughtful, and respectable folks, which can masquerade as spiritual maturity even if there’s nothing mature in it and even if they simply substitute rigidity for maturity. 

In Stage 2, the chief temptations are an over-attachment to stability and security.[12] Stage 2 is about having answers and knowing how things should be or should be done. To be clear, we should not hold anything against security or stability; in and of themselves, they are good things, necessary for our development, and certainly better than chaos. But they can become ultimate things. That is, they can become idols we worship rather than gifts for which we give thanks.[13] Rather than being addicted to pleasure (Stage 1), someone in Stage 2 may be addicted to their sense of stability and control. This stability expresses itself as “having answers,” “knowing how things should be,” and fixating on “the right way to do things.” Remember, Peck called Stage 2 the formal stage because people get attached to the form of how things should be done.[14]

In Stage 2, we often see a fusing together of religious and political conservatism, because both provide a sense of safety and security. I recently saw a bumper sticker which read, “Heaven has closed borders; hell has open borders…think about that.” An inane sentiment and a lousy way to lobby for border control, yet a perfect example of how easily notions of religious and political security entwine. Each shares the goal of security, albeit in different forms. Another bumper sticker I’ve recently seen reads, “I stand for the flag, I kneel for the cross.” It is an amazing and impossible thought to imagine early Christians merging the imagery of the cross with any political symbol, and certainly not the emblems of Rome, but in our country Christianity has been greatly reduced to a Gospel Americana in which the chief goal is “going to heaven when you die” (that is, achieving “eternal security”) rather than actually making any progression to spiritual maturity. Once this bastardization of Christianity is in place and the ultimate goal of security has been enshrined as the ultimate good, it’s a short leap to justifying any political philosophy which seems to provide security. No wonder the cross is so often draped in a flag across the churches of America. And no wonder so many people are disenchanted with the Church and Christianity, since we were made for far more than security. Many Christians have been taught only to love their own salvation but develop no genuine love for the world around them. Yet the height of spiritual maturity in Stage 4 is caring for others, which often involves a loss of security.[15] You cannot love another and remain perfectly secure, stable, and in control. Love means loss.[16] We can be confident Jesus would not have gone to the cross if his chief goal was security and stability. 

When we look at this love of stability from a different point of view, we see that the rigid person in Stage 2 is often simply protecting themselves from their own insecurities or an inner sense of guilt and shame. (As with Stage 1, guilt and shame are underlying realities in Stage 2 and every other stage, for that matter). But the sophistication of rigidity in Stage 2 is its built-in blindness, which does not exist in any of the other stages. The certainty inherent in Stage 2 (“we have the answers”) blinds us to—that is, allows us not to see—what’s actually happening within us. What’s reallyhappening in Stage 2 rigidity is an emotional need is being met; the emotional desire for control and safety is being satisfied. But blindness allows us to believe we are simply defending “the Truth,” which is always, in our minds, God’s truth. Thus, the temptation in Stage 2 is the temptation towards certainty—of thinking you have the answers and have God and the universe basically figured out.If you can look good or knowledgeable or competent, and if you can be certain about your answers, you can have stability to stave off any inner sense of vulnerability, all while believing you are simply “defending the truth.” This also prepares you to interpret any resistance or pushback not as a potentially helpful challenge to you but as an attack on “the Truth,” which you must defeat.

This sort of blindness is the very thing Jesus warned his disciples about. He discerned that the zeal of the Pharisees—the leading religious leaders of his day—was not in actuality for the Law but for the control and power and prestige the Law gave them. Jesus makes this explicitly clear: “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces…Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public.”[17] In other words, how they look and how they appear to others is the driver, all masked in the veneer of devotion to God while remaining inwardly corrupt.

The respectability of the Pharisees is powerful. Seeming to have answers and holding your answers with certainty can simulate emotional maturity. But Jesus goes to great lengths to show that those with “the answers” may nevertheless remain spiritually immature. In Jesus’ “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” three men pass a man beaten and stricken on the side of the road, and only one stops to help him. Jesus then asks, “Which man was a good neighbor?”[18] That is, who was spiritually mature? It was not the respectable one dressed in religious finery. Of course, in the teaching of our churches and religious institutions, we easily dismiss these religious hypocrites as “anyone but us” when in fact they may be a stunningly accurate representation of us. Yet the blindness outlined above would prevent us seeing the correlation.

In fact, in Jesus’ teaching, though Jesus warns about chaos (Stage 1) the greatest danger is not chaos but of getting stuck in religious rigidity (Stage 2).[19] In fact, Jesus never gets his dander up against people who are sinners or stuck in chaos. The story of a woman caught in adultery is most famous for Jesus’ words to the religious accuser: “He is without sin among you, cast the first stone” (John 8:7). And to the “sinful” woman at the well, Jesus says he would give “living water” (John 4:10). Jesus focuses not on the dangers of chaos but on getting stuck in Stage 2, from which it is much more difficult to extract one’s self.[20] Stage 2 is where we are most likely to deceive ourselves into thinking we are good without any true goodness

The irony of Jesus’ teaching is that you only come to God not when you are secure, stable, and certain but when you are very aware you don’t have all the answer nor have it figured out. In some sense, you can’t really believe until you aren’tcertain. You come to God—and to spiritual maturity—when you confess you don’t have all the resources nor all the answers necessary to navigate life.[21]

In terms of the difficulty of progressing from Stage 2 to Stage 4, two other points must be made: Of course, some people stay in Stage 2 simply because they fear that they’ll “go to hell” if they don’t. That is, they think of faith as having the answers and never doubting what they’ve been taught, which will secure them eternal life.[22] Again, Jesus warns against this sort of merely intellectualized faith without corresponding emotional connection or tangible action in the world around us.[23] But to the rigid mind, anything short of ironclad certainty is seen as a loss of faith which can threaten hellfire, so they are very motivated to stay in Stage 2. There is a lesson for all of us in this, whether we are Christians or not: Jesus showed us, in stark terms, that it’s simply easier to be tribalistic and to cling to our own sense of certainty as one clings to an idol. It’s easiest of all to stay in Stage 2.

And finally, I have noticed a dynamic that can make it very difficult for people who have experienced high levels of chaos or trauma to move beyond Stage 2. For them, the ambiguity of Stage 3—the same ambiguity which can make faith sincere and authentic—seems to resemble the chaos of Stage 1. For this reason, people who have experienced high levels of trauma and chaos may be very committed to staying in the stability of Stage 2. Losing that would feellike a return to chaos, even if it’s actually a movement towards maturity. 

In this essay, I have spent most of my time on Stage 2 simply because this is where most people get stuck. Nevertheless, temptation abounds in Stage 3, as well. 

Stage 3

We come to Stage 3 because the answers in Stage 2 stop working. We hit a wall that forces us to transcend what we’ve known or believed up until now. Many of Jesus’ earliest followers were poor because suffering and poverty reveals the ambiguities of life and ushers us toward Stage 3. And in Stage 3, we come closer to an authentic experience of God.

At the same time, the temptation in Stage 3 is connected to the suffering of the world, which can make us believe there are no answers at all. Indeed, the temptation in Stage 3 is simply to not believe anything. The danger is cynicism, which—though it’s bad for your brain—carries a certain allure.[24] It allows us to tamp down the pain of hope and human longing. 

The cynicism of Stage 3 can manifest as arrogance. People in Stage 3 are less susceptible to rigidity by simple virtue of their skepticism, which admits no certainties about which to be rigid. But they can, nevertheless, become rigid in their arrogance. They may look down and despise “those idiots” in Stage 2. And indeed, they may revert to the anti-socialism—the “living for yourself” ethos–of Stage 1. That is, they may have the cool confidence that comes from skepticism and yet not be progressing towards loving or caring for others. Stage 2 pushes the impulse to love others (after all, it’s the right thing to do), but this can be lost in Stage 3, even under a banner of progressivism. The “have it all” ethos of greed rampant in American culture is alive and well even among those who think they’ve dismantled such constructs.

The Cost of Technology

There are many temptations that make it difficult for us to mature towards Stage 4, and the difficulty can be exacerbated at everystage by the explosion in technology. Technology, of course, can be a boon: it allows us to hear and consider new thoughts and considerations faster than ever before. And yet technology has become a means in its own end.[25] Now we simply consume because we consume, always wanting more—new gadgets and media and experiences. And all this consumption serves to shorten our attention span, such that we have little time to thoughtfully consider any new thought, even as we are bombarded by more and more of them. Indeed, technology, more than anything else, can lock us into unthinking rigidity. For example, the algorithms of Facebook ensure that we see stories we agree with and therefore will click on, so that its advertisers can make money and will keep feeding the machine. It is confirmation bias, par excellence: we see stories that appeal to our political sensibilities, so we get stories that re-enforce our worldview. This increases our siloes and makes thoughtful dialogue more difficult. Social media is already a terrible place to dialogue (for proof, go read the comments on any recent political debate), and angry, argumentative debate of this sort—which is part and parcel of the discourse promulgated by social media—doesn’t change minds. In fact, the defensiveness they engender only re-enforces our rigidity. Technology when used in this way simply numbs us out, diverting us from confronting reality—and our need to mature—as we endlessly entertain ourselves. Or as Neil Postman put it, as we amuse ourselves to death.[26]

Aspiring to Stage 4: Counting the Cost

So, movements between the stages are not uncommon, but there are forces working against maturing to Stage 4. Jesus’ words “take up your cross, and follow me” are significant.[27] Moving into Stage 4 will exact a cost. Maturity means leaving behind that which has kept you safe, up until now, so that you can become who you might be.

At the same time, our movement to maturity does not happen in a vacuum. Indeed, the culture around us is always in a state of flux and change. To mature, we have to be aware of that, as well. In the next essay, we will explore how movements between the stages occurs not just on an individual level but in society as a whole.


[1]Peck, M. Scott. A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. Touchstone PressNew York, NY.  Page 195.


[3]Peck, 195.

[4]See John 11:50. 

[5]Heschel, A.J. The Prophets.Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 2001. Page 12.

[6]Matthew 5:17, paraphrased.

[7]I am reminded of Jesus’ words: the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult” (Matthew 7:14).

[8]David Brooks, qtd. in “What’s The Key To A Meaningful Life? You Might Not Like The Answer.” [February 4, 2019].

[9]The honest admission of the Skin Horse in Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. (HarperPerennial Classics, New York, NY. 2013.)

[10]Brené Brown makes it clear that guilthas to do with remorse for what we’ve done, but shame is connected to our sense of identity. In other words, guilt says, “what I’ve done is bad” while shame says, “I am bad.” See “Shame v Guilt” at[August 5, 2019]

[11]The Wrestler. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Dir. by Darren Aronofsky. 2008.

[12]In future essays I will explore how the value of stability and security forms the basis of the conservative archetype.

[13]Tim Keller points out that idolatry is always taking a good thing—like money or sex—and making it into an “ultimate thing,” which it was never meant to be.  See Counterfeit Gods:The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Mattersby Timothy Keller. Viking Press, New York, NY. 2009.

[14]It should be noted, of course, that often beneath the mask of respectability found in Stage 2 is very often found a hidden chaos. The Southern States, which are also the most professedly Christian/religious states, also report the highest incidence of pornography access.See “America’s Bible Belt states indulge in more online porn than other less religious states” in Christianity Today.[8/1/19]

[15]After all, “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’[and] … ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

[16]“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” C.S. Lewis in The Four loves. HarperOne. 2017. Page 155.

[17]Mark 12:38, 40.

[18]Luke 10:25-37, paraphrased.

[19]For a warning against chaos, see John 8:11. 

[20]See Matthew 23.

[21]See, for example, Matthew 5:3-12, the Beatitudes. 

[22]Ironically, though Jesus held the Scripture up as an authority as much as other first century Jews, he related to it differently and rejected the oral Law which had been constructed around it.

[23]See Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 25:31-46.

[24]Studies have shown that prolonged cynicism affects brain function. See, for example, “Cynical? You may be hurting your brain health” in ScienceDaily.[August 1, 2019]

[25]As Luc Ferry writes, science has been overtaken by technology. Science was once held as hope for a new world whereas technology is simply about creation for consumption’s sake. See “From Science to Technology: The Disappearance of Ends and the Triumph of Means” in A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. Harper Perennial. 2011. Page 211.

[26]Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin Books. New York, NY. 2005.

[27]See Matthew 16:24. NIV.