But What Is Spiritual Life?
Most people, even most people in the church, do not understand either what it is that Jesus offers or what is at stake as a result. Recently David Kinniman and Gabe Lyons, who authored the book UnChristian,David Kinniman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007). have done a lot of research about what people think of “the faith” in our day. He and his team found the lack of understanding about the spiritual life to be as common among church people as it was with folks outside the church. In fact, when it comes to spiritual growth, many people are not even able to say what spiritual maturity or spiritual growth is.
For example: in their findings, half the people who go to church are not able to say what their church thinks of spiritual maturity. The highest number of people defined spiritual maturity as “trying hard to follow rules in the Bible.” Not surprisingly, the two biggest personal barriers to growing spiritually people reported were (1) “I’m not motivated to grow spiritually” and (2) “there are too many distractions that get in the way.” Furthermore, a majority of people who responded in the survey said they were already satisfied with the level of spiritual maturity they were experiencing.
In other words, people don’t know what spiritual growth is and even if they knew, they are not motivated to pursue it and even if they were, they’ve already got enough.
When we moved out to California, Ned Coletti, who was with the San Francisco Giants at that time, asked if I would speak at a chapel. And then he said, “Would you like to take some batting practice?” He said there is a guy named John Yandle who threw batting practice for Barry Bonds who would throw me some pitches. John was a little younger than me and never actually pitched in the Major Leagues, so it wasn’t like facing a young major league player in his prime. But he does professional batting practice, and so I thought this would give me a good chance to benchmark my athletic skills.
Now, I never played organized baseball, but we played on a vacant lot as a kid and when I was growing up the best pitcher in our neighborhood was Steve Snail. When we were in the fifth grade, I could hit him better than anybody else in the neighborhood. There was only one other kid in the neighborhood, and she was in the first grade, but I was still the best. Since I thought I did pretty good with Steve, I said yes to Ned and decided I’d see how it went.
The first time, John wound up, and let go, and I heard the sound of a ball hitting the net behind me. I was shocked to realize he was not just “lobbing” these pitches to me; he wanted to make this a contest. He’s throwing as hard as he can!, I thought. He wants to show me up and see if I can hit his best stuff.
He wound up again. This time I swung but the ball had already been in the net several seconds by the time my bat got to the plate. I kept starting my swing earlier; eventually, I would begin my swing about the same time he started his wind up. I got several foul balls and I was feeling pretty good about myself, and then he said, “Do you want me to put a little zip on one?”
Those had been his lobs.
So, full of bravado, I said, “Sure, it’s been kind of hard to time these slow balls.”
He wound up and threw one more. I didn’t even see it.
I asked him if that was his best pitch. He said, “No, you wouldn’t even want to see my best pitch.” I asked him, “Where do I stand? What level of player would hit that really well?”
“A good high school player would crunch it ,” he answered.
So, a good college guy would be above that? Oh, yeah, John said. A good college guy would strike out a high school guy with his eyes closed and a minor league guy would throw shut outs to college guys and you put a major league arm against minor leaguers and it would be ugly.
Until that day, I had no realistic idea of where I stood in this athletic arena—and I got his assessment in writing! He actually sent a scouting report to Ned Coletti, who forwarded it on to me and he said, “John Ortberg bats right, throws right, took ten minutes of batting practice. As a hitter, John makes a good pastor.”
The Grace Gap
There are many areas in life where we are incompetent without any idea of our incompetence, but nowhere does our blindness to reality affect the human condition as much as it does when it comes to seeing our own lives compared to what they could be in the Holy Spirit. The distance between the “without-God life” and the life lived with a holy and righteous and perfect God. The first gap that we become aware of is when we look and see, here’s God . . . and here’s me. There is this gap between us, and it’s caused by sin, and it ’s a huge gap. That gap, we all know, cannot be bridged by human effort. It takes grace.
Yet even with God’s grace, I’m still left with a gap. Only now the gap is between me, as God made me to be, and me, as I exist right now. Many, many, many people still think that this gap is one I am supposed to bridge by direct effort. It’s about trying harder to follow the rules. A lot of people think they can close the gap if they will just be heroic in their spiritual efforts. I’ll read another book. I’ll listen to another talk. I’ll learn some new disciplines. I’ll serve more. I’ll work harder. I’ll try to be nicer to people.
You hear about somebody who gets up at 4:00 in the morning to pray and you feel guilty because you think you don’t pray enough and you resolve to do that, too, even though you are not a morning person. Even though, at 4:00 in the morning, you are dazed and confused and foggy and grumpy and no one wants to be around you at 4:00 am. Even Jesus doesn’t want to be around you at 4:00 in the morning. But, you think, well, this is hard and exhausting and miserable and I don’t like doing it, but it must be God’s Will for my life. It must be spiritual and you keep it up for several days or weeks or months but not forever, and eventually, you stop. And maybe the cycle begins again later with new resolve when you hear about some other discipline that someone is undertaking enough to make you feel horrible about yourself.
This is just what so many people in our churches experience when they think about what spiritual life is: they feel guilty, and so they try harder, but it’s not working, and then they get fatigued and then eventually, when the fatigue builds up enough, they quit. And then after quitting for a while, they start to feel guilty. Anybody here ever experience something like this? If we get honest about what people actually experience, they just get tired.
A New Way
What if Jesus really meant what He said? That the Spirit of God is like a river and flowing all the time? What if your job as a follower is not to try harder or run faster or get up earlier or rev up your emotions? What if God really is at work in every moment; in every place? What, if in a sense, my job is to learn simply not do those things that close me off from the Spirit? Instead of needing to do something else, what if it’s about how I keep myself aware and submitted so that rivers of living water are flowing through my being? Paul puts it like this and in some ways, the spiritual life is that simple. Just don’t quench the Spirit. The Spirit is already at work. He is bigger than you. He is stronger than you. He is more patient than your failures. He is committed to helping you 24/7, so just don’t get in His way. Don’t quench the Spirit. Don’t grieve the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).
We are always either opening ourselves up—walking in the Spirit—or quenching the Spirit. I’ll give you an example. Over the holidays, Nancy and I had dinner with two other couples . . . some of our best friends. At one point, I was talking about me and Nancy gave my hand a little squeeze. Nobody else could see it. I was the only one that knew. It was a little signal meaning, “You’re talking too much. Give someone else a turn.”
It was a “squeeze play.” We had not worked out that signal before. It was just spontaneous. And I immediately thought, “I don’t like the squeeze play.” I think that what I was saying about me was really interesting. I think Nancy is being overly directive.
Now, here’s the biggest problem. After dinner was over, I didn’t say anything to her; I just said to myself, “Well, you know, it’s not a big deal. We don’t need to talk about it.” And I decided, without quite putting it into these words, “I would rather avoid a potentially unpleasant conversation than honor my relationship with my wife, learn more about myself, and wrestle with being honest.” Just a little bit, I cut myself off from the flow of the Spirit. In just this one area, I quenched the Spirit’s leading in my life.
The next day, I spent time with a real good friend and we talked about our families and our marriages and the incident from the previous night came up and immediately I knew, I’m going to have to talk with my wife about the squeeze thing. Hopefully before 2010.
No, I did it! And she was very gracious. We actually both learned from the conversation—it made me grateful for the squeeze! By having that conversation, I returned to the flow of the Spirit. The Jesus Way has become the way of the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, Paul says, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17).