The Stages of Faith of Jacob

From the story of Abel we’ve seen that faith is not simply something magical that can save our lives. Indeed, it could be argued that faith cost Abel his life. From the binding of Isaac we’ve seen that we need education about faith to see it grow and mature. We also saw that the laying of all we have on the altar of sacrifice is never enough—we must in faith come to see that God somehow will provide.

Might we say that faith is what hardwires us to God? It is our connection point with God. It is our God portal. And above all, we’ve been asking ourselves the question: What do these stories say about God? It’s fine to talk about weak faith and strong faith of Abraham, but what do these stories really say about God?

Today we’re talking about the faith of Jacob. What does the story of Jacob say about faith? Hebrews 11 says it was faith that made Isaac promise blessings for the future of Jacob and Esau. And in verse 21, it was faith that made Jacob bless those sons of Joseph just before he died. He leaned upon the top of his walking stick and worshiped God.

To focus only on verse 21—the culmination of his life—might shine a misleading light on the faith of Jacob. He was a complex and convoluted figure. His story is checkered and filled with cunning and deceit. From the day of his birth, where he was born holding the heel of his twin brother, till the time of his death, he was a supplanter, a wheeler-dealer, and a scam.

Again I ask: What does this story say about God and about faith in general? And in what way does the story have meaning to us? The theory of psychological development posits that children should develop skills and coping mechanisms for life, which are observable and measurable. This is the well-known work of Piaget and Erickson, and is part of classical study in basic psychology. The work of James Fowler, a theologian who in the 1970s and 80s studied and described faith development using similar matriculation points, is less well known. Just as our life skills mature, so too is there a maturation of our faith that is both measurable and predictable.

Foster initially proposed six stages of faith, from very primitive, self centered faith all the way to a mystical otherworldly kind of faith. Scott Peck, a popular writer and a psychiatrist, took Foster’s academic work and simplified it into four stages of faith development, which are well illustrated, I think, in the story of Jacob.

Just before I quickly reiterate and dovetail the stages of faith with the story of Jacob: The stages that that are referred to are descriptive stages, not stages to pass judgment on. Whether you’re in stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, or stage 4 is not a question of whether God loves you or whether you’re matriculating the way you should. God loves and saves people in all stages. And these stages change as one responds to various crises in one’s life.

Stage 1 is a childish kind of faith. It is rooted in the self, it is self-centered, it is antisocial. And while it is appropriate for immature children to be in stage 1, in adults, stage 1 faith is considered to be antisocial. These are people who can only focus on themselves. Their moral compass is weak. Everything they do is centered on the question: “What is in it for me?”

Stage 2 is entered when stage 1 individuals undergo some kind of transformation and have an epiphany that life is not meant to be chaotic, antisocial, and self-centered. We call it, in religion, “conversion.” They come to be driven by “cause and effect,” by consequences in their lives. In religious terms, they are people who play by the book, by values; indeed, they seek regulation and they value rules and spend their life learning the rules and living by them, practicing the rules religiously. They take great comfort in boundaries which are easily and often willingly set up by the church. This is transactional faith. This is contractual faith between God and man. “If God does this for me, I’ll do this for him. If I do this for him, he should do this for me.”

Churches are essentially full of stage 2 people. You tell them what to do and they will comply. They ask questions and they memorize key text responses. They are dutiful, predictable, and the pillars and backbone of every church. Many are so comfortable with this stage that they remain in it for life.

But somewhere along the way, for some in stage 2 the answers to their questions no longer make as much sense. What about this aspect? And what about that? They begin to have doubts concerning what they’ve been taught and have learned. Some things no longer make very much sense to them. When the cause and effect doesn’t seem to work out as they expected and relied upon, then they enter into stage 3.

Stage 3 is called the stage of skeptical faith. But—and it’s important to emphasize this—it is still a stage of faith. The fact that the answers don’t always resonate as they once did does not mean that they are faithless individuals. Indeed, their faith is vibrant and deeply rooted; it just doesn’t look like everyone else’s at church. This is a common stage for adolescents and is a stage when many of them leave the church. In my view, this is the greatest fault of the church. How do we deal with stage 3 faith? Where is the place for the stage 3 individual to rest? Where can they find a spot in church?

Their doubt and their skepticism threatens and undermines the certainty of the stage 2 person and creates behavioral and theological conflict. Finding no place to turn to and feeling as if they have lost the faith, stage 3 people often leave the church and feel isolated from religious company. But these people have not lost faith, they have not lost God. They’re in a struggle for faith, for what they are and who they are spiritually.

They are often excellent parents, honorable and honest citizens. They’re concerned about their neighbors. They volunteer in a lot of wonderful organizations, they respect and protect the environment and our Earth. Unlike stage 1 individuals they are not the slightest bit self centered. They are in fact seeking God; they just don’t know that that’s what they’re doing.

Not understanding that God is who they are seeking, the church labels them as apostate backsliders. The only ministry that we have for stage 3 individuals in church is to try to press them back into stage 2. But many stage 3 individuals never get out of stage 3 because they don’t know the way out. They don’t know that doubt and skepticism can be a path to enlightenment. They don’t even know all the good that they’re doing, or that everything they’re seeking after is really God. More importantly, they don’t know that God seeking them. The struggle that they’re in is a struggle with God himself, a struggle for their spiritual identity.

But if they keep seeking, and they keep walking in this earnest way, they will enter stage 4: A return to God but in a completely different way. They enter a faith that values questions more than it values answers, that values mystery more than it values certainty, that sees God as a journey to be explored rather than a destination to be reached. In stage 4 they often return to church but with freedom and without the constraint that makes those who are still in stage 2 there very uncomfortable. The order of service, the type of music, the liturgy, the new translations of the Bible, women in ministry,… all are open to debate and ideas that should be explored. They can be highly disruptive to the stage 2 way of thinking and way of life.

We see these stages easily in the life of Jacob. In his stage 1 we see Jacob trying to deceive his father for the birthright and the blessing. After he and his mother Rebekah have contrived to make this deceitful stealing of Esau’s blessing they enter into this dialogue:

 Now therefore, my son, listen to me as I command you. Go now to the flock and bring me two choice young goats from there, that I may prepare them as a savory dish for your father, such as he loves. Then you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.” Jacob answered his mother Rebekah, “Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man and I am a smooth man. Perhaps my father will feel me, then I will be as a deceiver in his sight, and I will bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing.” (Genesis 27:8-12)

Here we see that Jacob’s interest is entirely himself. He doesn’t want to be cursed, he wants only to be blessed. He wants what’s in it for him. It is the self-centered point of view of stage 1. In the story of the ladder to heaven, Jacob meets God in a new and different way, and has what you might consider to be a conversion. He sees the ladder between heaven and earth, and there’s angels ascending and descending on the ladder, all symbolic of the fact that not only is God interested in but also he reaches down to us in order to help us:

 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top. He called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. (Genesis 28:16-21)

This is the contract, this is stage 2 faith, this is the quid pro quo. “If you do this for me, I will do this for you. If you take care of me, God, I will be your follower.” This is contractual, transactional, cause-and-effect faith.

Stage 3 Jacob can be seen in the story of his wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32). In the darkness of his life he’s seeking reconciliation with his brother and with his spiritual roots. He encounters God in this darkness and is engaged in a struggle for his faith, for his spirituality, and for who he is. He seeks to know God and asks God the most intimate of questions: “What is your name?” God has has no answer for Jacob; just another question, which is: “What is your name?” You see, God is not the answer man, God is the questioner.

But God has good news. “You have striven,” he says, “with God and with man and prevailed.” He is describing the struggle of stage 3. To struggle to find God is the lot of the person in stage 3 faith. It allows them, if they struggle successfully, to enter stage 4, and at the sunset of Jacob’s life, we see recounted (Hebrews 11:21) the picture of a ripe old man in stage 4 faith. Leaning on his walking stick, as a position and as a symbol of authority, he brings a blessing to his family. No longer is it just about him: His faith is about them and about passing on the blessing to others. Faith which is centered in others is stage 4 faith.

So taking the stories of Jacob, and the idea of faith development and maturation, what are your thoughts about Jacob and his faith journey, your faith journey and my faith journey? What about faith augmented by our own work? What about faith that leaves everything up to “God will provide”? Above all, what does the story of Jacob and his faith and his journey of faith say to you and to me about God?

Donald: Are stages 1, 2, 3, and 4 linear or are they circular? In some ways, they’re linear. Most people go through these stages in their life. As a child, you don’t recognize a world beyond yourself, obviously, and you recognize consequences, then you question, and then you might come back around as you age, because you recognize life is finite. So these are natural, progressive stages, it seems to me. I know you’re talking about faith specifically but I would suggest that this might also speak to where we find ourselves in life. You find older people often saying: ”The more I know, the less I know.” I think that plays into it.

The other thing that I think is valid is that stage 2 is great. I mean, it’s just a matter of “I do this, you do that. Just tell me the rules.” And I don’t have to really have much faith, all I have to do is “I do, you do”—back and forth. Then you doubt, and then maybe you come back around. I think (I can only speak to the Adventist Church) there are many Adventists who would describe themselves as Adventists but a very conservative Adventist would say they’re not. So labels are an important thing too. You can say: “I’m comfortable with these pieces, but I question this, this, and this” while somebody in stage 2 is going to say” “Well, if you’re questioning then I’m not sure you’ve come the distance you think you have.”

David: Can we criticize the Catholic Church for being unable to deal with people beyond stage 2? The Jesuits (at least, some of my acquaintance) seem to be far from stage 2-type people. Do other denominations have higher institutions where people in stage 3, people on a journey to stage 4, people who want to be stage 4 people (which I think is what a Jesuit is) can go? Is that the answer to the problem?

It does seem to me (getting back to the question of faith) that stage 2 is a kind of “prosperity gospel” phase where you believe in a God of cause and effect, a God who brings answers in your life today, who can solve your problems today. You need a cure for your cancer? God can do it today, if you pray hard enough… and so on. I don’t think any stage 4 person would believe in that. They believe in a more transcendental God, the God of Job, the God who is beyond understanding and who cannot be expected to behave like us. The stages of faith model may help us to figure out a better way of doing religion than we’re doing today.

Donald: [First part garbled] I don’t think a church would ever want to have you not have a connection to God. But unfortunately, the church plays a role in all that. You can leave the church and not leave God. That takes a mature person. Otherwise, I think you’d feel a fair amount of guilt. I don’t know. Spectrum is a magazine that that encourages stage 3 and 4. But I think stage 2 people are pretty skeptical of Spectrum.

Robin: I’m not able to tell what stage I’m in. I just go to learn and to worship. Hopefully I am learning; I know I’m worshiping. But as for Jacob: I am totally encouraged by the stories within the story of the life of Jacob. Seeing all the different stages of things that he goes through means there’s hope for me, for anyone. The suffering, the learning, the striving and the forgiveness of Jacob is a lesson for everyone.

Jacob obviously wasn’t part of a religion or a church. He had a relationship with God. So, you know, I think that’s an important piece or element that we need to try to sort out. If you look at stages 1 through 4, and connect it to the idea of a connection to God, it’s a lot less complicated. When you bring religion or the church into it, it becomes much more complicated, I believe.

Reinhard: Jacob was not involved with the church in the beginning, of course, but faith applies to all people who have a relationship with God, which is the key here. To me, whatever stage they are at, they all of course are accepted by God as long as they try their best to know God and to fulfill God’s law.

The interesting thing about Jacob is that from the womb, God groomed him to be the leader of the Israelites. So his life unfolded in accordance with God’s plan for him and he was close to God through every stage of his faith. God’s hands are busy with men of God, turning them into our role models, There are times in Jacob’s life when God didn’t tell him exactly what was happening so even in the life of a man of God, a man of faith, things are not always smooth. There’s always ups and downs, although in the end, he is one of the troika of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Jacob became the cornerstone of his people. All his life he was close to God and his people. We can learn from him that even though in life we may walk with God there are many temptations and we can stray from the path. We might go through the same life journey as he did: Maybe we are close to God, who doesn’t have to talk to us directly but maybe through the Bible or our prayer, but in the end we need the salvation that God promised us.

Donald: Do people in stage 3 tend to feel guilty, or at peace, or don’t even think about it? I know people I feel were probably in stage 3 and they were great people, very good people. But they didn’t think about it. So they didn’t do guilt, or they didn’t do peace, they just did life.

Carolyn: Do you think part of this is we also want to be people pleasers, surrounded as we are by family, friends, and church dynamics? We have a desire to please God. And sometimes the only way you feel like you can please God and not have guilt is to go back to stage 2 and be included and persevere with rules. Then you feel like you’re not satisfied there yet. So you have this constant push and pull.

Donald: I couldn’t agree more. Personalities play a very significant role. When I was a late teen I remember a gathering with us sitting in a circle, close to sundown, so someone would say “Time to have worship.” One couple who had been staunch Adventists their whole lives but they were chipping a bit. And so obviously what’s the next conversation? “When is sunset? Are we going to have Vespers at the right moment?” And that person spoke up and the whole room went quiet, because that’s what he said to the whole group. I’ll never forget it. He said “for all you legalists” and it shut everybody down.

Then there are other people—very good people—whom I love dearly but to whom I would never express my thoughts in relationship to question–answer–question–answer–question answer because they’re very comfortable in stage 2. So it’s out of respect to their position not to dig and cause friction. Sometimes you’re silent and in your own silence maybe you feel a level of guilt. And that’s unfortunate. It seems to me.

Reinhard: I think a person can jump to stage 4 without going through stage 3 and without ever leaving the church. Maybe at the end of life they just succumb to God and maybe they become more broad minded in terms of faith in God.

Don: Are the stages of faith helpful in understanding the faith journey? How does the concept of stages of faith fit into the binary concept that either you have faith or you don’t have faith? What thoughts do you have about organized religion and (particularly) stage 3 faith, where people feel compelled or driven to questioning and doubts and skepticism? What responsibility do we have as an organized church or as church?

Carolyn: Do you think there is a difference between doubt and questioning? That doubt is a sin? That a question to settle things in your own mind is our right? Is questioning a sign of doubting and is doubting bad? I’ve always kind of felt like doubting is very “Doubting Thomas” but if doubting is bad, is questioning the same? And is it something that we have to be careful not to question, or do we have to go back to stage 2 to find the answers to that doubt?

David: One thing you can say for doubt is that it’s honest (although I suppose you can dishonestly say you doubt when you don’t really). But essentially a person in stage 3 by definition is someone who sincerely doubts. In contrast, is the faith of a person in stage 2 a false faith? Is a sincere doubt better than a false faith in a God who is a religious construct rather than that internalized God, the Holy Spirit within?

I’m being controversial as usual and I hope we’ll forgive me for it, but increasingly I’m sensing that in many ways religions want only stage 2 followers because they are controllable. So is what they are teaching a false God, not the real God? If so, then doubt is a good thing and stage 3 is a good stage to go through. It’s been argued that people in stage 2 can be comfortable there, can live all their lives there, and can be sincere believers in God. But is it a sincere faith in the wrong god?

Donald: Where does confidence fit in? In some ways, I envy the confidence of stage 2 people. They’re good, they’ve got it all together, they’ve had all their questions answered, end of story: They don’t have any doubt, or at least they never reveal it. Confidence and doubt and personality are all part of the mix. But I wonder: What would stage 2 parents make of a church that encouraged or facilitated their children to move to stage 3?

Kiran: I have mistaken my own confidence for faith, because every time I tested it, it would work, reinforcing my confidence. Confidence brooks no doubt, but faith involves some amount of doubt. I don’t know how it works, but I take that leap of faith and trust in God to act. Faith does not mean that we know everything. If it did, then we would not need faith at all.

Paul said he saw through a glass darkly, meaning that he didn’t understand completely, couldn’t see everything completely. That is being okay with uncertainty and trusting in the Lord. That is really hard and scary and it is why having a friendly and understanding place where you can come and express your doubts is amazing. I think every church should offer such a refuge.

Janelin: I’m confident in the fact that there are so many things I don’t know. We are always trying to keep learning, keep reading, keep searching. I’m pretty confident that there’s so much I don’t know.

Donald: I think that’s the issue. Is being confident in something you don’t know doubt? And is that wrong? There’s a lot of things I don’t know, I get in a car and all kinds of things happen that I don’t know. I go to the hospital—now there’s a place to really lose your confidence. I want to stay in stage 2 at the hospital. You tell me this, I will do that. I’m real good with it.

Jeff: You might not want to be in stage 2 at the hospital if you knew what the people on the other side didn’t know.

Janelin: Is it our right to question things? Doing so at school is all part of our development, we’re supposed to question things and not necessarily go with the flow. It’s all part of our human development. So if parents are worried they’re spending that much for their kids to go to school and they end up in different stages. I mean, it’s just part of it.

David: To me the definition of faith is believing in something you know you cannot know. That is much more of a stage 4 belief. A stage 2 belief is the opposite: An arrogant belief that you know what God wants and what God is like. “The preacher told me, the Bible tells me, so I know, and that makes me better than you. I’m holier than thou.” The humbler stance is the right one. It was Job’s stance: “I don’t know. I cannot possibly know. Yet still I believe.” It’s on or off. Stage 2 faith seems to me false faith.

Kiran: I agree that there is some arrogance in stage 2 faith, but to someone transitioning out of a chaotic lifestyle and into the church, it brings so much comfort, security, clarity, and direction and is therefore very essential. But I have had that arrogance, believing that I know God and how to control him so that he answers to me. It may not have been good but it gave me a structure.

Don: I wonder if part of our responsibility as institutions in general is to provide a place where those who seek questions, who have doubts, can do so in a fostering environment, in a place where they can be accepted for or with their doubt, as opposed to being rejected because of the doubt?

We have much more to say about faith. We’re going to continue to go through the various Hall of Faith stories to see what we see. But certainly, as Robin said, the story of Jacob is really the story of all of us whose faith has been challenged and has been assailed and has been allowed to grow as a result of the encounters of life.

Donald: One thing in regards to your comment right there that I think we need to hold on to and come back to: There was a Harvard case study in a church that was extremely successful in Chicago, whose pastor recognized the difference in his congregation between seekers and believers. They were different stages. His comment was that you can’t preach, you can’t speak, to different people the same way. Seekers need something different than believers, and believers need something different than seekers.

I don’t think the pastor thought that it was was good to remain as a seeker your whole life—he would want you to progress to being a believer. But I think that’s an important step. Is the role of a faith-based organization to keep people locked in? Or is it to move them forward? I certainly understand what Kiran is saying, that there’s great comfort in having the answers regarding faith.

David: There’s only one God. But between stage 2 and stage 4 there seem to be two different Gods. The pastor in Chicago has two congregations, basically. Is he teaching two Gods?

Donald: It’s a progression and people start as seekers. But lots of Churches presume that everybody sitting in the pews is a believer. Seekers are trying to sort it all out and they never get spoken to, because they’re being spoken to as believers. I think you’re talking not about Gods but about organizations.

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