Read John 17:6-19

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:17)

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. (John 17:21-22)

The Christian life is a process of sanctification. It is progress. It is drawing closer to God, becoming one with each other and one with him. Where there is no progress, there is stagnation and ossification. A valley of dry bones. There is death.

There are many schemes that divide progress in the Christian life into typical stages or steps on a stairway or rungs on a ladder. Jesus himself says to his disciples at one point that he no longer calls them servants, who obey for payment or to avoid punishment, but friends, who obey for love. In John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, there are 30 rungs, many of which are virtues that must be acquired or gifts that are given. Richard of St. Victor identifies twelve stages of prayer with the twelve patriarchs. Thomas Merton’s most famous work is The Seven Storey Mountain. To mix up a nice a metaphor. In Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, there are seven mansions, or apartments, corresponding largely to stages in the life of prayer.

Of course, no such scheme is complete or definitive or even necessarily followed in order. They serve to organize the general stages through which many pass, but every path is unique and circuitous. Moving back and forth and all around. Some paths are far apart from each other and hardly ever intersect until they get close to the end.

Teresa compares the life of prayer to a great and beautiful castle made of crystal. The castle is organized like a palmetto, or maybe like an onion—not that it stinks and makes people cry but that is has layers. Each layer is made up of many rooms or mansions. People move around from room to room in a layer, left and right, up and down, experiencing different types of prayer. God himself is in the innermost mansion, the seventh, making it light and glorious, but very little light from that innermost mansion reaches all the way to the outer layer—the light is blocked by all of the snakes and lizards and bugs that have found their way into the outer layers.

Then too, if there are layers, there must be transitions between layers. Occasionally people move inward from one layer to the next. Or they move back outward. Conversions or metamorphoses, perhaps, transitions from larva to caterpillar to butterfly. Seven mansions, seven conversions. Seven initiations into seven different soccer leagues.

We won’t talk much here about the kids who don’t play soccer at all. But once in a while such kids see the camaraderie of the teams, the cheering parents and grandparents, the fun they are having, the running around outdoors in the sun, and they decide they want to join a team. Maybe they join a team on which they have friends. But they publicly sign up and pay the fee and agree to come to games. Perhaps they are baptized or confirmed or publicly profess their faith. They are soccer players. They have joined the rec league.

Of course, in this league there isn’t actually that much, well, soccer. There is kicking the ball around and having a good time. Kids skip games to watch a favorite TV show or drop off teams entirely and stop being soccer players. Maybe they rejoin a different team later, or take up a different sport. Games are more about running around in the sun and enjoying fellowship than high-quality soccer. There are too many distractions to pay much attention to the soccer itself—there are the interesting bugs in the dirt and the gossip to share with a friend and the feeling of being on a team. But on the team there are good conversations and singing and social activities and hanging out with friends and treats and picnics and even some sermons. There is some small amount of prayer, in church services, perhaps, or while singing songs or before meals. Or when someone is sick. But there is little visible progress.

These players need knowledge of God and of self. They need to know what beautiful soccer looks like and how bad at it they actually are. They need to go to a few high-level games and watch. Hear some commentary. Honestly consider their own level of play. Those who are truly attracted to soccer, those who love the game, those who have hope of becoming a better player, practice and learn and grow. They transfer to a select team.

This second conversion occurs when players decide that they love the game and they want to improve. Their love for God leads them to want to learn more about him, to do what he would have them do, to try to please him. Instead of obeying for reward or to avoid punishment or to fit in with the crowd they start to obey for love. They go to church regularly, attend bible studies or prayer groups, read good books. They set aside time for prayer and stick to it. Occasionally they try to do good deeds, to serve others. These are good, faithful Christians who love God and are striving to grow.

They start to grow and develop, and this, of course, pleases God greatly. He encourages and supports them by giving them happy thoughts and sweet feelings. Milk. They enjoy getting up earlier than everyone else, getting a cup of coffee, and meditating on a devotional book. They don’t realize he is supporting them—God remains hidden to them. They just think they have found a really excellent book and they are enjoying it. They’d probably enjoy reading the dictionary just as much if God were encouraging them in this way. And yet they are practicing and building strength and actually learning to play the game.

Nevertheless they are still full of self. They may think of themselves as better than most other Christians. They are more inclined to see sin in others than in themselves. They thank God that they are not like that tax collector over there. They may judge certain sins found in others severely while giving themselves a pass on sins they consider less important. They are still attached to the world: any threat to their wealth or honor will make them angry or rash.

They may also feel that they have earned some kind of reward from God. If a loved one suffers, they get angry with God. If they pray and don’t get what they want, they get annoyed and may even turn away from God. They see injustice or suffering in the world, they can’t understand why God would allow it, and the seeds of doubt are sown.

What select-league players need most is courage and perseverance. Hope. As the sweet, fun times and treats of rec league soccer give way to hard drills and submitting to the coach and discipline, as milk gives way to solid food, some lose hope/motivation and just do the minimum necessary, or even go back to the rec league. Others accept the yoke and find it light and grow and thrive.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and