Let me lower the microscope a bit. If Jesus came to our planet so that all who would listen could enjoy the heavenly emotions of love, joy, and peace, why is it so common for Christians to be burdened by the earthbound feelings of anger, depression, and anxiety?
Do you ever feel that no matter how hard you try or how much you desire it, experiencing the bountiful life Jesus promised continues to elude you? If you do, the solution may not be as simple as ducking into the nearest church for assistance. In the words of Dallas Willard, the Christian church does not provide a coherent curriculum for finding and experiencing abundant life. If it did, church growth consultants and psychologists would have gone the way of telegraph operators. Yet both vocations are booming, as indispensable as e-mail.
But why? Why is it so rare to find a Christian who is actually enjoying and celebrating the good news—the abundant life promised by Jesus? Why is it only the saints who have taken Christianity 101? Or in the words of one of Walker Percy’s characters in The Second Coming, “if the good news is true, why is not one pleased to hear it?” Philip Yancey amplifies the question: “If the gospel comes as . . . a spectacularly good thing happening to spectacularly bad people, why do so few people perceive it as good news?”
I’ll cut to the chase. I believe that more than 99 out of 100 Christians rarely enjoy the abundant life that Christ promised—living, instead, lives of silent resignation. If you are with the one, skip to another article. You don’t need this one. But if you are like me, among the ninety-nine, then these reflections are for you. Together we’re going to explore briefly what is needed to enter into a process of forming the life and character of Christ within the heart. I’m looking to get back to the basics. And they are as simple as they are profound, as available as they are neglected
Along the way we’ll discover that only three things are essential:
- honesty about where you are right now, and
- the desire for intimacy with God.
Let’s briefly look at all three.
The Three Keys
From the study (really just a guest bedroom without the guest bed) in my house I can look out from a second-story window and see a teardrop-shaped pond. Between the water and me are a grassy area and the street that winds its way through our neighborhood. Right now as I look out, I see three things that would inspire Norman Rockwell.
In the middle of the grassy area a big white dog is teaching an eight-year-old boy how to play fetch the stick. The two have become very good friends. They know each other on a first-name basis and spend a lot of time together each day.
By the edge of the pond a teenager is fishing. Behind him is his prized possession, a bright red pick-up truck. The truck has enough wax on it to bead motor oil; to stare at it for more than a moment would require sunglasses. The boy’s two-ton toy has shiny wheel covers to match the paint, and from what I can hear, an expensive sound system.
Along the road a married couple walk past. You could set your clock by them. Yep, 4:10 p.m. Every monsoon-less day they walk together, facing each other instead of the future, lost in conversation. They pay no attention to either the game of fetch or pulsating Bose speakers.
The little boy with his dog, the older boy and his truck, the walking couple—each relationship contains an ingredient often missing from my relationship to God. Time. The first necessity for spiritual formation—and developing a passionate relationship with God—is taking the time just to be with him. At least as much as we spend petting our dogs and washing our cars. And if we really want to go for the godly gusto, perhaps as much as a couple invests in cultivating a healthy marriage. In the words of the great theologian Woody Allen, “Ninety percent of success is showing up.”
The second thing needed to become that 1 in 100 is simple honesty. I slip into it now, as I continue to gaze out the window. I allow myself to be aware of the mystery of God’s presence in the room and say to him as we sit together,
Father, I am not in this moment experiencing the ‘abundant life’ that you so graciously offer. I’m much too preoccupied with much-ness and hurry. Even in this moment I am more concerned with making pretty sentences than experiencing your love. Please help me. Please make me more aware of your presence within. Help me to learn how to love you more deeply, and trust you with the steering wheel of my life. Call me back, here and now, to enjoy the truth of how much you desire to have a relationship with me. I would like to go for a walk with you each day at 4:30. Amen.
P.S. I meant p.m.”
In examining the third thing necessary for experiencing the real change of Christian formation (desire for intimacy with God), let me tell you the following story. I warn you in advance, it may strike you as a strange illustration.
A Real Story
For a number of months while practicing as a psychologist, I met weekly with a young man in his early thirties. He was painfully shy and tormented by anxiety. More than anything in the world, Dave wanted to find a wife. He dreamed of being with a special person for conversation, communion, and union.
Dave’s relationship history was almost a blank page. Except for writing about the pain of rejection, it was. He had been turned down for dates so many times he eventually quit asking. It had been seventeen years since he got his driver’s license—an event he’d fantasized would signal more dating opportunities—but he’d only experienced a woman who wasn’t his mother sitting in the passenger seat two times. Neither had said yes to a second outing.
Not long before Dave began meeting with me, a “friend” of his had suggested that he satisfy his need for the company of the opposite sex by going to a bar where scantily clad women would bring him a drink, and for additional money, would become clad even more scantily before his eyes.
Dave was hooked after one visit and he became a regular. Money was not a problem for him. Intimacy was the problem. And it became easy for him to confuse the presence of a woman, meaningless banter, and semi-nudity with relationship.
Here’s the truly unsettling thing. I believe Dave’s experiences bear a remarkable similarity to the way I have related to God.
I’ve attended church at about the same frequency Dave was visiting bars. I’ve enjoyed brief encounters with God, and moments of spiritual excitement. But this had never led to a real relationship of meaningful conversation, intimate communion, or union. The parallel was striking. We both experienced flirtation but not fact, words but not dialogue, promises but not commitment, and ultimately, distance instead of communion. For either of us, union was less likely than getting a good snow cone in hell.
The image may be over the edge, but I think it’s important. I believe it captures how many of us do church—momentary encounters with God instead of the development of a deep and lasting relationship with someone we can take home to meet Mom.
I also tell you the story because of what it illustrates about desire. If the journey to Christ-formation is to be completed, we must allow our desire for intimacy to lead us past a world full of God-substitutes and into a lasting relationship of true closeness and familiarity with our real Father. No substitutes can be tolerated. Our deepest desire will lead us to the relationship we crave.
It’s almost too amazing to believe. The creator of the entire universe wants to enter into an eternity-long relationship of sacred romance with you. His desire is stronger than our own. The foreshadowing backdrop to Jesus’ first miracle is a weeklong wedding celebration in Cana (John 2). He calls the church his bride and himself the groom. A bride invited to be at the greatest wedding celebration in the history of the universe, the marriage supper of the lamb (Revelation 19:9)
The language the Bible uses to describe our ongoing relationship with God is embarrassingly romantic. And romantic relationships—the ones that lead to“marriage”—require two things and crescendo with the third:
Time for CONVERSATION
Honesty that leads to deep COMMUNION
Willingness to follow our deepest desires to the experience of UNION
I believe that the primary reason for not enjoying abundant living and intimacy with God is the failure to pursue Him with the same reckless abandon with which we chased (or will chase) our spouses, settling for brief encounters instead of intimate times of conversation, communion, and consummation.
I believe this is why the classical spiritual exercises—habits that transform—are so important. These practices are also a means for developing a relationship with God.
Spiritual disciplines—such as silence, solitude, prayer, and Scripture reading—are methodologies for spending time with God and entering into conversation with him. Spiritual disciplines—such as confession, simplicity, fasting, and service—can lead to deeper levels of honesty before God and communion with him. And Spiritual disciplines—such as submission, worship and celebration—may foster our embrace of willingness and the experience of union with God.
But we should all be very careful. Falling head-over-heels in love with God can make the world look upside down.