From the day I learned the name of Jesus as a toddler on my mother’s knee, I have always loved him. My earliest prayers featured a profound sense of a real and living connection. My introduction to the Scriptures filled me with wonder and holy hunger. And my sense of vocation to share the good news of God’s love was, I believe, authentic and enduring.
This is not to say that my faith journey has been straightforward. Like most others, I’ve enjoyed mountain peak vistas and found myself badly stuck in deep and dreary chasms. But I should also note that the spiritual highs did not always equate to a sense of divine nearness. Nor did bottoming out in spiritual despair necessarily feel like distance or abandonment.
For me, there is something paradoxical about spiritual formation. There are times that spiritual transformation is truly liberating—the joy of discovery and a beautiful sense that God is bigger and better than I ever dared hope or believe. But, at other times formation is traumatic and terrifying. I wondered if I’d live through it or even wanted to. Honestly, my most intimate encounters with Christ have often occurred in the shadows of desperation and defeat. I’d like to share candidly from two real-life examples that serve to illustrate the paradoxical nature of spiritual formation.
Sweet: the God of Liberation
Strange, perhaps, that I should begin on the positive side, but that is how my faith-shifts have been, overall. It began with an unfurling revelation of the Father’s love for me and for everyone else. In the 1980s and through the 90s, I witnessed a cascade of teachers, teachings, and movements across the globe, gushing with fresh enthusiasm and insight about the parable of the Prodigal Son (or Sons, or Father, depending who I asked). It wasn’t just new information, either. This “Father’s heart” download felt like a renewed experience of what we called the Father’s love, the Father’s blessing, or the Father’s house.
The implications of that teaching began a domino effect in my heart and mind that led me to a surprising discovery: that the early church mothers and fathers (especially from John’s writings until the end of the 4th century) taught that God is love—self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love—plus nothing. I came to believe that God’s love never fails, his mercy endures forever, or to paraphrase St. Anthony the Great, that God no more turns away from the sinner than the sun ceases to shine for the blind man.1
I made my exodus out of bondage to fear, freed by love from the god of retribution whose wrath demands appeasement through violence and death. I came to see the Cross of Christ, not as Jesus’ transaction with an angry Father who needs his pound of flesh, but as the clearest depiction of God’s own love for the world. I could let go of the crass atonement doctrine I had been taught (and yes, that I had taught), in exchange for a more beautiful gospel in which “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us” (2 Cor. 5:19), pardoning sin rather than punishing it, forgiving sin and healing sinners through his own wounds.
While sharing my discoveries publicly triggered some nasty backlash from zealous haters, I enjoyed tremendous support from my congregation, my network of peers and mentors, and the generous blessing of those whom I trusted most (e.g., Eugene Peterson, Brian Zahnd, Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, et al). Further, the good news was generally well-received by the people who needed it most—those who could sense the freedom in the message which took them to new depths in their life with God. I can say that my exodus from the ‘angry God’ backstory was, therefore, almost entirely sweet.
Bitter: the God of Affliction
As central and important as this theological shift was, I underwent a more critical season of transformation—the truly bitter part of my story. And while it was a hellish descent, I share it because at my bottom, I found that same cross-shaped Love waiting for me, seeking me, embracing me.
In 2008, after twenty years of ministry, I left the world of pastoring permanently. A series of tragedies occurred in our precious little fellowship that were so grievous to me—so traumatizing—that I found myself wondering for the first time in my life whether I could trust God. In the face of absurd affliction among the people I loved most, I began to wonder whether God is good. If he cares. And if he supposedly cares, how so? My inability to manage my church’s pain and my own dysfunction sent me into a dark spiral. I was unravelling. Ultimately, I told our leadership team that they needed someone to lead them through the crisis who could still trust God.
As damaged as my nervous system and my heart were, the spiral continued until I despaired of life. In that dark hole, on my face, I saw the Cross. I saw all the goodness of God and all the affliction of the world hanging there in that Man. I saw the whole timeline of human history held in the span of his outstretched arms. I saw all our suffering gathered up into his body and pass right through his heart. And I saw supernatural love—like liquid light—flowing from the wounds in his hands, feet, and side back into the world for our healing.
I met Christ in the bitterness. Seeing my wounds in his hands won my heart and my trust forever. With Thomas, I confessed, “My Lord and my God.”
“Just for today” (my recovery friends say), I stay on my perch at the foot of the Cross, without an urgent craving for resolution or closure. I’m held there in content and discontent, in my joy and my grief, my affliction and liberation. I don’t feel stuck—I feel held. This is my formation.
As I hold my gaze on the One who holds me, I know I’m okay.
- Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” Awaiting God.
- Brian Zahnd, When Everything’s On Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes.
- Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God.
- Ask yourself, “How does God Suffer?” I found it was not enough for me to imagine a God who sympathizes with my pain from afar, either because he knows everything or even because he remembers suffering similar pains during his earthly sojourn. What I needed to know was that in the Incarnation, God-in-Christ has been and is forever united directly to every and all human affliction—he bears MY wounds, YOUR wounds, OUR wounds. Our affliction binds us to his and it binds him to us, even while we long for relief and we pray for healing.
- Ask yourself, “How does God Care?” Similarly, a God who cares about me without caring for me is of little use to me. I need him to be my real-life caregiver. I began to experience this care both internally and externally. Through this practice I began to notice moments of clarity within—warning me or welcoming me, opening my eyes and my heart, showing me his Love where I might have overlooked it. I also began to experience God’s care embodied outwardly, through willing human partners who walked with me, who served as God’s attentive eyes and ears, welcoming arms, and serving hands. They are God’s care for me.
- Activate Gratitude and Trust. My experience of absurd affliction seemed to have shattered my trust in the God I had always loved. The path back began by reflecting with gratitude on the truth that God knows, and God cares . . . for real! I can now express my gratitude and trust that God’s mercy really does endure forever.