The Path to Real Spiritual Growth

The undeniably positive value in many individual’s lives of spectacular personal testimonies such as Philip Yancy’s, below, and Bill Wilson’s in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous (Bill talks about his spiritual experience leading to permanent remission of his alcoholism in chapter 1; and the excerpt below was added to the second edition of the book to correct some apparent misunderstandings caused by his “testimony”) in encouraging others to believe in the availability of healing and even “saving” contact with a some sort of power greater than themselves is obvious to anyone seriously reviewing the ubiquitous evidence and accounts of such things. 

However, the downside of such testimonies being freely shared, in some circles, is to harden the skepticism of those who’re disinclined to believe such things are more than a merely inherent but idiosyncratic (which is to say: “inexplicably- or self-caused”) and irrational aspect of human consciousness. 

Ironically, this some-what harsh judgment on the widely experienced, widely sought, profoundly affecting, and sincerely believed but subjective psycho-spiritual experiences of others disregard the equally subjective nature of the rejection or the disbelief in the skeptic’s experience of hearing or reading the testimonies. If they maintain that the subjectivity of the other's perceptions invalidates the reality of claimed "spiritual experiences", why should they not doubt the reality or truth of their own subjective perceptions that led to that conclusion? But, I digress.

My actual point is this:  I have learned, thru some rather sudden and spectacular psycho-spiritual “events” and thru psycho-spiritual growth experiences of James’ “educational variety” (see “The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature”, by William James, “The Father Of American Psychology”, if you’re up for a VERY dense read) that “spiritual experiences” or “awakenings” are actually the result of psycho-spiritual growth beyond intellectual and spiritual immaturity.  I believe that it is an objectively observable fact that true “spiritual awakenings” and many spiritual experiences are the actual healthy (and intended) outcomes of proper and complete intellectual and spiritual (psycho-spiritual) development to be expected in people that aren’t suffering from the arrested development and intellectual arrogance of a self-serving lifestyle that makes their own wants, needs, opinions, and beliefs their ultimate goals, values, and standards. 

Children may believe that they can survive on candy and productively, happily, occupy their lives with their favorite toys and shows, and loving parents may provide those things, pleasing to their childish desires, even as they teach them to eat less palatable but more nutritious fare, to use work tools instead of toys, and to seek education instead of mere entertainment.  The best parents teach, thru example, “Agape” Love (Love for others that focuses on them, their happiness, and their psycho-spiritual well-being and growth), which is the key nutrient to empower spiritual growth and awakening, as a way of weaning their children from those things which are not nutritious or are actually toxic in over-indulgence.  Sadly, too many of us begin our parenting attempts as psycho-spiritually immature adults, not having learned to Love like that ourselves, and, if we remain stuck in that ignorance too long, only produce more psycho-spiritually immature children in “adult” bodies to follow in our sub-optimum ways. 

Consequently, many of us remain mired in childish mental mud-puddles and sand-boxes, making mud-pies instead of feasts and delicate dreamy sand-castles instead of safe and healthy homes for ourselves and others, while fruitlessly pursuing mere physical satisfaction and comfortable, self-serving activities and beliefs as our path to “happiness”.  Those of us that are most deeply stuck in these quagmires and pits of gritty ego are also those who are the source of the vast majority of the dysfunction, man-made disasters, and downright human meanness and suffering in our world and in our interpersonal relations.

The kind of Love (“Agape”) that is essential to any kind of “real” spiritual awaking is as far above that quagmire as “East” is from “West”.  

Moreover, it is only that kind of spiritual awaking that can show us and grow us towards the kind of real psycho-spiritual maturity that leads to something far greater than mere “happiness” -- It leads to ineffable Joy and Peace that passes understanding.

If my assertions, so far, seem to defy understanding to you, the even more unpalatable but nutritious truth that follows may also elude you, though I hope not.

The bottom line is this:  Acceptance precedes understanding. 

A sober (defined as: “as realistic, objective and unemotional as you can manage”) examination of the world around you quickly reveals that selfishness and self-centered thinking and actions are the roots of most of the bad events and outcomes people are producing and that all of the good in our world seems to come from people with an attitude of selfless service to others, even, sometimes, in such a small but such a difficult way as leaving them alone to find their way to responsible adulthood without your so-called “help”.

Accept that you’re a person, too, whose self-centeredness or altruistic impulses also affect the people around you. 

Accept that self-serving locks you into perpetual psycho-spiritual childishness, and that altruism unlocks your true adult self, and you may begin to also make your way to a profound spiritual awakening of one sort or another, or both, as has happened for me and so many millions of others.

The path to the ultimate spiritual awakening, whether thru an experience of the education variety or thru sudden great or small revelations, or any combinations of them all -- that path is a steep one.

It is a path of self-abnegation, service, and sacrifice. 

Some stumbles and “back-sliding” are inevitable for us all, but the path is climbable and the summit attainable, if we keep trying, and keep serving something outside ourselves, something bigger than us, as it appears and grows in our consciousness.

If we are simply unwilling or unable to abandon selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-service as our consistent MO and emotionalism and hedonism as our primary motivators, any such experience would, of necessity, require a miraculous intervention from a power greater than oneself, which would be the same source we're denying and ignoring, having made ourselves our god.  Since many people (idiodeities -- the truly "un-woke") have continued to reject or deny such interventions throughout the course of human history, we must assume that some will continue to do so in spite of both logic and testimonies and that such rejections and denials are and will continue to be the source of many of the worst of our woes.

However, the eminently practical but challenging path to psycho-spiritual awakening or awakenings, which may make our woes mere temporary inconveniences in an eternity of peace and joy, is also inevitably effective in doing that, if followed, and is as simple as this: 

Just do the next right thing. 

That’s defined, first, by being what’s truly good and Loving for those around us, and thus, secondarily, for us, ourselves, because it leads to our psycho-spiritual growth.

Just do the next right thing as it appears before you, and continue doing that one good and next right thing, one thing at a time, until your understanding of what is good and right grows to encompass the realization that the true source of such good things must be something greater than yourself.  

Walked well, and to the end, it is the path of the “next right thing” which will lead to the ultimate “spiritual experience” of encountering (the true and the one and only) God.

If we are as diligent as we may be at the beginning of this path towards psycho-spiritual growth and strength and power, we may find ourselves obtaining and building the intellectual and spiritual “nutrition” and “muscles” we need to keep climbing it. 

Once we pursue it to the top, we will recognize the source of those gifts of grace that enabled us to grow out of our old, selfish, self-centered selves on that climb to becoming the true children of God He always meant us to be is God Himself. 

There, we will also see that beginning that climb in the first place was a gift of grace leading to achieving the greatest of all spiritual awakenings and experiences – seeing God, unveiled and face to face.

May you begin, or if you’ve begun, continue the climb along with me and uncounted (except by God) others, now.

Here is a provocative testimony:

“Bible college was for me, initially, a breeding ground of doubt and skepticism. I survived by learning to mimic ‘spiritual’ behavior—a student had to, in fact, just to get good grades. There was the odious matter of ‘Christian service,’ for instance. The college required each student to participate in a regular service activity, such as street evangelism, prison ministry, or nursing home visitation. I signed up for ‘university work.’’

  “Every Saturday night I would visit a student center at the University of South Carolina and watch television. I was supposed to be ‘witnessing,’ of course, and the next week I would dutifully report on all the people I had approached about personal faith. My embellished stories must have sounded authentic because no one ever questioned them.”

  “I was also required to attend a weekly prayer meeting with four other students involved in university work. Those meetings followed a consistent pattern: Joe would pray, and then Craig, and Chris, and the other Joe, and then all four would pause politely for about ten seconds.”

  “I never prayed; and after the brief silence, we would open our eyes and return to our rooms. But one February night to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I did pray. I have no idea why. I had not planned to. But after Joe and Craig and Chris and Joe had finished, I found myself praying aloud.”

  “’God,’ I said, and I could sense the tension level in the room rise. As I recall it, I said something like this: ‘God, here we are, supposed to be concerned about those ten thousand students at the University of South Carolina who are going to hell. Well, you know that I don’t care if they all go to hell, if there is one. I don’t even care if I go to there.’”

  “You would have to attend a Bible college to appreciate how these words must have sounded to the others in the room. I may as well have been invoking witchcraft or offering child sacrifices. But no one stirred or tried to stop me, and I continued praying.”

  “For some reason, as I prayed, I started talking about the parable of the good Samaritan. We Bible college types were supposed to feel the same concern for university students as the Samaritan felt for the bloodied Jew lying in the ditch. But I felt no such concern, I said. I felt nothing for them.”

  “And then it happened. In the middle of my prayer, I saw that story in a new light. I had been visualizing the scene as I spoke: an old-fashioned-looking Samaritan, dressed in robes and a turban, bending over a dirty, blood-crusted form in a ditch.  But suddenly, in the internal screen of my brain, those two figures changed. The kindly Samaritan took on the face of Jesus. The Jew, pitiable victim of a highway robbery, took on another face too—a face I recognized with a start as my own.”

  “In a flash I saw Jesus reaching down with a moistened rag to clean my wounds and stanch the flow of blood. And as he bent over, I saw myself, the wounded robbery victim, open my eyes and purse my lips. Then, as if watching in slow motion, I saw myself spit at Jesus, full in the face.”

  “I saw all that—I, who did not believe in visions, or in biblical parables, or even in Jesus. It stunned me. Abruptly, I stopped praying, got up, and left the room.”

  “All that evening I thought about what had happened. It wasn’t exactly a vision—more like a daydreamed parable with a moral twist. Still, I couldn’t put it behind me. What did it mean? Was it genuine? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that my cockiness had been shattered. On that campus I had always found security in my agnosticism. No longer. I had caught a new glimpse of myself. Perhaps in all my self-assured and mocking skepticism I was the neediest one of all.”

“I wrote a brief note to my fiancée that night, saying guardedly, ‘I want to wait a few days before talking about it, but I may have just had the first authentic religious experience of my life.’”

  -- Philip Yancey, in “Disappointment with God” (249 – 51; all rights reserved to the Author’s estate)

Here is a bit of the “Bigs Book’s” remarks on spiritual experiences:

  “The terms “spiritual experience” and “spiritual awakening” are used many times in this book which, upon careful reading, shows that the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself among us in many different forms.”

  “Yet it is true that our first printing gave many readers the impression that these personality changes, or religious experiences, must be in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals. Happily for everyone, this conclusion is erroneous.” (…)

  “Among our rapidly growing membership of thousands of alcoholics such transformations, though frequent, are by no means the rule. Most of our experiences are what the psychologist William James calls the “educational variety” because they develop slowly over a period of time.”

  “Quite often friends of the newcomer are aware of the difference long before he is himself. He finally realizes that he has undergone a profound alteration in his reaction to life; that such a change could hardly have been brought about by himself alone.”

“What often takes place in a few months could seldom have been accomplished by years of self-discipline. With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.”

  “Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it ‘God-consciousness.’”

  -- Unattributed (But probably by Bill Wilson) in “Alcoholics Anonymous”

 (Picture credit: Sara Jane Burd [nee Holm - My niece] -- Looking south from Coronado Heights, Kansas)