Thursday, May 21, 2009

The End of the Spiritual Life

No, not my spiritual life. Just the ten-week class I taught. Tuesday was the last day of the class.

Teaching this class has been one of the most valuable things that I have done in recent memory. I think the reason that I enjoyed it so much was because it forced me to get out of theoretical models of spiritual growth and into what has worked for me. I had to wrestle with questions like, "How does God really work in my life?" and "How do people really change?"

Sometimes I feel that churches are a lot like the Land of Oz and pastors are like the Wizard. All my life I had this notion that the spiritual life was about "victorious Christian living." I read in the Bible and I heard in church that Christianity was this dynamic relationship with God. Everyone in church talked about how wonderful Jesus was and great it was to have a personal relationship with him.

Now, I had a nagging sensation that God was out there, but I didn't experience anything close to what most of the people in my church were talking about. I assumed it was my fault. Maybe I wasn't praying enough. Maybe I wasn't reading my Bible enough. Maybe I needed to witness more and buy more Christian trinkets.

So I did all that stuff.

And it didn't work.

Then I went to college and seminary and studied Reformed theology. It was new and different and exciting and intellectual. It had Bible verses for everything. It was air-tight. What's that? You're an Arminian? You must not read your Bible! What's that? You had a spiritual experience? Everyone knows our experiences are subjective. You can't base your faith on that! Come, read this Bible verse and find out what your faith experience should look like.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Reformed theology and theologians. I give it a hard time, but I do it in the same way that Jeff Foxworthy makes fun of rednecks.

But my main beef with Reformed theology is that it doesn't work. Sure, they have a Bible verse for everything and a fantastic explanation of God's sweeping purpose for the universe and how that should play out in my personal life. But I find that their explanations of the way the spiritual life should work have no correspondence to the way life does work. Or at least the way my life works.

Going to seminary was like peeking behind the curtain at the Wizard of Oz. When I say that, I don't mean the part about going to class; I mean the part about living with other seminary students. These people were to be leaders of spiritual communities across the globe, and yet they acted like everyone else. I guess I had always thought that even if I wasn't experiencing spiritual bliss, even if I wasn't living victoriously, there was someone out there who was. Most of the time, I thought that person was my pastor. When I lived with 1000 other future pastors, I realized that a lot of the stories we told about normative Christian living were fantasies. The Wizard of Oz wasn't as great and powerful as everyone made him out to be.

I don't want to use smoke and mirrors to promote a fantasy. I don't want to preach a message that isn't true to my life. I don't want my sermons to be what Caedmon's Call refers to as "an expensive ad for something cheap." So, as I put together the curriculum for the Spiritual Life class, I was forced to wrestle with the question of what was normative for the Christian experience. I found my answers in N.T. Wright, James Dunn, Gordon Fee, Philip Yancey, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others.

Ultimately, I think the Christian life boils down to a couple of things--read your Bible, pray, hang out with other Christians, and take the kingdom of God to the world. I have found that people change when they do two things: (1) they decide they really want to change (i.e. repentance), and (2) they find accountability (i.e. confession).

Is God active in our world in our lives? Absolutely. Does e really change people? Without a doubt. Is the Christian life one of "victory" and "bliss"? Not in my experience. That's why I hope for something more (1 Corinthians 13:12).

1 comment:

Cheri said...

Thanks for posting this. It sounds like it was a great class. I love the simplicity of it. It's a bit cliche to say "read your Bible" and "pray" but these are what being a Christian is all about. God speaks through His word, and when we study and quiet ourselves to listen and commune with Him He speaks and we're blessed. I think you nailed it, too, when you say change happens with repentance and accountability.

I'm bummed, though. I thought all my Christian trinkets would bring me closer to God. :)