Are you Ascending?

Introduction

Alister McGrath described Christians as “pilgrims and wayfarers across the face of this world, who try to make sense of it as we pass through.”[1] As Christians pilgrim through life, it can be described that their faith is one of an ascent. This essay aims to show the main features of the ascending Christian faith and in doing so, encourage believers to know that they are always progressing toward God.

An ascent explained

In considering the dictionary definition of ascent, we read, “movement upward from a lower to a higher state, degree, grade, or status; advancement.”[2] In applying this to the Christian faith, we can state that the Christian is moving upward in their knowledge, dedication and commitment to God. An ascent could also be described as a climb, or hike or even a ladder – the key element is to see the movement upward and step by step through the stages of that upward climb. The summit, or the focus of the ascent is to establish, develop and deepen your relationship with the creator God.

The challenge of describing the Christian faith as an ascent is that it creates a model that can be seen as prescriptive. Each stage must follow the previous and must be ordered in a particular way (like a ladder, step after step). However, faith is personal, affected by differing backgrounds and knowledge, therefore Christians will experience this ascent in different ways and at different speeds.

The advantage of the ascent in Christian faith is that every step is progression, even trial or apathy, as described in James 1:2-18, will lead to a deeper conviction of God and faith in him. The Christian progresses, sometimes by large steps, other times by small movement, but the life of faith is always pointed toward God and always progressing upward. It is this movement that is described in 2 Peter 1:3-11 as “keeping you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[3]

Example: John of the Cross

John of the Cross was a Priest who lived in the 1500’s with significant involvement in the counter-reformation, known commonly as the Catholic reformation. In describing the Christian faith as an ascent, John of the Cross established six key stages or steps. It is important to see these steps as transformation from one place of faith, to a higher, or more established, place of faith. This occurs through the ascent of prayer.[4] In this six-stage example, we see the Christian ascent in a step by step basis. The six stages are:

1. Pre-Conversion

The first step of ascent is to establish a basis of faith. In the Pre-conversion stage, the individual is described as indifferent. There is a real lack of focus, wherever and whatever the hearts desire is, that is where the individual goes. It is the narcissistic viewpoint of “I will do as I please.” The ability to care for others, or view others above/more important than yourself is near impossible in this pre-conversion stage. Even with this egocentric way of living, the individual may be deluded in thinking they are in fact a loving person.

2. Conversion – Falling in Love

The second step of John’s ascent is that of conversion. The egocentric narcissistic individual now falls in love with another, in this case, God. The initial love is one of great enthusiasm, even infatuation. This new love takes over the individuals life completely, they begin to sacrifice what they once held dear, replacing with a clear focus on God and the development of love for Him.

3. First Fervour – The Honeymoon

As the individual ascends into a greater love and focus for God, there comes an increased excitement and energy. The relationship is unique to the new believer, there is nothing that will tarnish it, the relationship can only grow stronger and more established. Just as the honeymoon of a newly married couple, or a new baby in a family, there is a desire to constantly talk about the relationship and the joy that comes from it. At this stage, it is interesting to note the difference from someone who focuses on themselves, to now focused on another. The lost individual now has a desire to see the new relationship grow.

4. Waning Fervour – Death of the Honeymoon

The next step in the ascent is unusual, on the surface, the death of the honeymoon seems like a backward step. The zeal and fervour of the individual wanes, they may even go back to their old ways, they might even become unfaithful and no longer live focused on what God desires. The believer becomes bored with conversion conversations and in the end sees a loss if interest in developing their faith. However, in digging deeper, we can see that this negative experience is in fact still an upward, deepening step in the Christians faith.

The Christian at this stage has loved the experience of knowing God, however, hasn’t yet come to the deep understanding of their identity with God and ultimately the authority of God. In the death of the honeymoon, there is the death of the experience.[5] The opportunity now arises to see if one has been caught up in the excitement, or if indeed, one loves God to the point of service and sacrifice. We are reminded of the parable of the sower and the increase of the thorns, choking out the joy of loving God.[6] Yet in this stage, there is opportunity to deal with the thorns and deepen your roots in God, in some sense, re-establishing a true love.

5. Proficiency – The growth of easefulness

A lengthy and somewhat high level of the Christians ascent is one of proficiency. Having come through the waning fervour stage, the believer has now decided to follow Christ for the sake of His glory rather than any form of experience that is felt. The focus is now established on God and his purposes rather than on any other thought. This however leads into a period of dryness, or in other words a period of lacklustre feeling. It is true that there is devotion, but at times it will feel like ‘going through the motions’. John argues that this can be a lengthy phase, but if patient and focused, the believer can move to a deep conviction of faith. The Christian can truly say “to live is Christ, but to die is gain”,[7] they can truly “pick up their cross”[8] and live for Christ.

For many believers, this stage can often be the final step. The individual has been transformed, no longer living the ego driven life, but now in complete surrender to God and his purposes. There is assurance of their eternal destination and a growing peace over the short time left on this earth.

6. The Final Stage – The Purification

It is rare to make this final ascent, the one that leads to radical discipleship and extreme self-sacrifice. It is this stage that sees radical decisions to follow Jesus, ones that will likely gain persecution as a reward. The believer may possibly suffer martyrdom for such loyalty to the Christian faith. Many Christians will not experience this stage, but for the ones that do, it brings both dryness (standing alone) and joy (the receiving of an eternal reward). It could be said that missionaries or saints are those that complete this stage.

In this example from John of the Cross, you see the Christian ascend from a place of no desire, to a place of full life discipleship with Christ. Not every step ascends with a big leap, some are small and still some steps are to face a trial. However, it is fair to state that at every stage, the Christian faith is developing upward – there is evidence of “He must become greater; I must become less.”[9] It is important to recognise that no stage has a time limit and there is no distinct reason for the shift from one step up to the next (although it may be the case that it can be pinpointed to a particular moment).

Example: Guigo II

Although the example of the Christian ascent given by John of the cross is extensive, it describes a whole life ascent. It could be said that the Christian faith can be made up of individual moments, shorter periods of time with significant impact on the large ascent. Consider the climbing of a ladder – each step is a small, significant movement which impacts the whole ascent.

We see this ‘smaller ascent’ in the four stage ‘ladder of the monks’ that Guigo expands from Augustine.[10]

1. Reading – As an individual reads the Bible, they experience and take in the words of God. They are drawn to communion with God, hearing his divine input.

2. Meditation – the individual then spends time considering at great length the truths found in God’s word. This takes time and dedication. The individual is searching for the hidden meaning to the mysteries that have been read.

3. Prayer – Upon understanding, the believer prays and seeks God’s guidance as to how to handle this new knowledge. There may be personal application needed, there may be strength required or there may be sin that needs to be repented from.

4. Contemplation – Takes the believer beyond what has been learned and applied to the ultimate purpose and plan of God. In other words, there is consideration to the bigger picture.

It is this ladder of ascent that can be placed at any stage in John of the Cross’s six-stage ascent. In fact, there can be several of these ladders of ascent in one particular moment in the Christian faith. If we take ‘ascent’ as the progression upward, Guigo describes the upward movement as being compelled and driven by the word of God. Proper use and time in God’s word sees the Christian deepening their understanding of how they fit in God’s big picture plan.

Take for example the reading of the book of Daniel (first step in Guigo) while in the stage waning fervour (fourth step of John of the cross). The reader will be led to see the progress of Daniel’s faith – from strong spokesman of God, to mourning in prayer near the end. Yet, God painted the big picture for Daniel, which led him to greater understanding. It was in the knowledge of God’s purposes that Daniel was able to continue to serve.[11] The individual losing fervour, in going through Guigo’s ladder, will have potential, in a moment, to see why suffering is part of a plan, yet not the end of the plan! The ‘smaller ascent’ therefore impacts the ‘whole life ascent’ of the Christian faith.

Conclusion

The Christian faith consistently seeks to ascend – to have a greater and more meaningful relationship with God. It is often in the trial or dryness of faith that the greatest leaps of ascent occur. The Christian should take great comfort in knowing that each step taken, is a step closer to God, to deepening faith and to an assurance of eternity with Christ. Key to this ascent is the reading and studying of God’s word which leads to prayer and application, advancing upward the faith of the believer.


[1] Alister McGrath, The Landscape of Faith (London: SPCK 2018) p.5

[2] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/ascent?s=t (Accessed 22nd July 2019) definition 2

[3] 2 Peter 1:8

[4] Ronald, Rolheiser, John and Human Development https://ronrolheiser.com/me/uploads/2014/02/joc_human_dev.pdf (accessed 17th June 2019) p.1

[5] Ronald, Rolheiser, John and Human Development, p.5

[6] Matthew 13:1-9

[7] Philippians 1:21

[8] Luke 9:23

[9] John 3:30

[10] Joseph Fessenden, Guigo the Carthusian: The ladder of the Monks and Implications for Modern Life (Nashville: Notre Dame University, 2013) https://www.academia.edu/13061790/Guigo_the_Carthusian_The_Ladder_of_Monks_and_Implications_for_Modern_Life (accessed 22nd July 2019)

[11] Dale Ralph Davis, The Message of Daniel (Nottingham: IVP 2013) pp. 139-160