WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
III. ENCOURAGEMENTS FOR SPIRITUALITY
My operating definition of “spirituality” in this book is that which gives us strength to go on with life, and to go on creatively. Understanding and cultivating spirituality have to do with understanding and cultivating that in our lives which empowers us, that which is creative, hopeful, encouraging.
I have been considering some general orientation-type issues – how we view ourselves, how we view God, problems caused by distorted views. I want now to turn to more practical matters.
However, I am uncomfortable with talk about “spiritual disciplines.” I don’t want to deny the value of such disciplines (e.g., time set aside for devotions, journalling, working with a spiritual director). However, they are not particularly attractive to me, nor have I personally found them to be sources of much encouragement or creativity.
Part of my concern is that often such disciplines are extrinsic to actual life. We have to go out of our way, perhaps even institute drastic changes in order to practice these disciplines. As a result, we often drift back away from them over time, finding ourselves unable to permanently integrate them into our lives – at least, this is how it works for me.
Such a dynamic parallels the practice of exercise for city-type people. When we have to go significantly out of our way to find space in our lives for exercise, we find it pretty difficult to sustain exercising regularly. However, if we find types of exercise that are closer to being a part of our daily routine, we are more likely to continue with them. Perhaps this might mean, for example, walking or biking to work. In my life, I subscribe to numerous periodicals and try to spend time each day reading them. I have found a way to combine periodical reading with exercise on a cross-country ski machine. Since I would be reading anyway, the exercise does not require a drastic change in my routine but becomes simply a part of my daily routine.
Regarding spirituality, I am most attracted to an approach that looks within the lives we are already living. I find the idea of intrinsic spirituality more promising. This approach asks not so much to transform our lives. For most of us, our way of life has a general flow and direction. We might try some dramatic changes and successfully divert momentum for a time. Generally, over time, though, we revert back to the lifelong flow already established.
Now, certainly, that flow might be resulting in discouragement and alienation. However, chances are we will better overcome the difficulties by listening to our lives as they are and cultivating the encouraging dynamics already there – more than seeking transformation and dramatic change. The result from such listening might be that the flow of our lives is adjusted – maybe only a small amount – in a way which actually does provide more vitality and creativity. If such adjustments take place within the general flow of our lives, chances are much greater that they will be sustainable.
In this section, then, I want to offer some examples of elements of my life which already provide encouragement (i.e., enhance my spirituality). I offer these in order to stimulate your reflection regarding what are parallel elements in your life.
The reason for this is my thesis that identifying and cultivating present sources of encouragement is the best strategy for enhancing our spiritual vitality. This, more so than seeking transformation by struggling with spiritual disciplines which many of us are likely to abandon before long. Not only does this strategy protect us from the inevitable discouragement which follows failure at spiritual disciplines, it also promises to heighten our genuine self-awareness and our sense of how God is meeting each of us as we are.
I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. . . . I seek the Lord; . . . my soul refuses to be comforted. I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. . . . I am so troubled that I cannot speak. . . . I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever?”. . . I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples. With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. . . . Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. – Psalm 77
My focus now will be on encouragement for spirituality. I will elaborate on several themes, several encouraging elements of my experience of life. The theme I want to start with is the Bible as a source for spiritual encouragement.
My basic thesis about the Bible is that the Bible contains a message of life. It contains a message of vitality and creativity. It connects the “sacred,” the spiritual core of life, with human beings. Most important, the Bible presents a message of life to human beings in our experience right now, in history, amidst our ambiguities.
This message of life is certainly something we must wrestle for. We may use as an analogy the old story of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob wrestling with the angel for a blessing. Jacob finally gets his blessing, but he also gets a sprained hip for his trouble. The insights and encouragement we might receive from the Bible also require a struggle.
I will mention a few scripture texts that might offer encouragement. One refers to remembrance of past healing experiences of God. Psalm 77 tells of the writer finding himself in deep discouragement – “I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (v. 4). In his grief, he calls “to mind the deeds of the Lord” (v. 11), and muses on God’s mighty acts. In particular, the writer calls to mind the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. In so doing, the writer makes present a sense that God remains the same. God remains a God who cares for people in pain, a God who offers on-going healing. The memory of God’s past involvement reduces the despair of the perceived abandonment in the present.
The second element, along with remembrance of past healing experiences, is a bold hope for future healing. Micah prophesies the establishment of the Lord’s house at the highest of the mountains. People from many nations will flock to it to learn the ways of God. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more” (4: 1-4). Revelation 21–22 repeats a similar hope, the nations healed by the tree of life.
The point of both the remembering and the looking ahead is that such awareness tells us about God. God is a God allied with slaves. God is a God allied with the transformation of swords into plowshares. God is a God concerned with healing the nations.
However, if we take the entire Bible seriously we realize that these notions of God are only part of what goes on. Much of the Bible tells of various types of enslavement. We read about wars and rumors of wars. The nations often experience brokenness. Life is like that too. These biblical visions, I think, are not so much means of escape from the brokenness of life, but pointers toward a perspective toward life. Life, broken as it is, is still best understood in terms of God’s Yes, in terms of the experiences of love. The glimmers of joy and the hope for healing stand as determinative of the meaning of life.
These expressions of wholeness are not all there is, but as we affirm them as true, as genuine – then they will shape identity. This affirmation of life rather than having our identity shaped by fear, bitterness, and self-protectiveness. In so doing we will find ourselves more able to live in a Thou-world of relationships. We will be better able to be free from existence in an It-world of objects and isolation.
I haven’t always approached the Bible in this way. For me to reflect on the Bible and spirituality is, in many ways, to touch on much of my “spiritual autobiography.” Thinking back to my early years as a Christian, I would characterize my approach to the Bible as evolving. I started by viewing the Bible as a magic book, then as a source of absolutes, and then as a problem. I moved from naïve acceptance to a near crisis.
I had a conversion experience when I was 17. Influenced a lot by a fundamentalist friend who was “witnessing” to me, I had a particular moment when I prayed to accept Jesus as my personal savior. Not that much changed for me. I was already pretty straight-laced. I had even quit cussing a year or so earlier because I didn’t like how it sounded.
However, one aspect of my life did change. I had a small New Testament, received from the Gideons when I was in the fifth grade. For several months, after I began talking with my friend, I had tried to read it, starting with Matthew’s Gospel. I just couldn’t make heads or tails out of it (I think now largely because of the King James English). After my conversion, though, it did begin to make sense to me. I was told a little later that the difference was that something had happened inside of me then. Before I was saved, I just had a body and soul. After getting saved, I now had a spirit – that is, God’s Spirit was now in me. My old self was blind to God and my new self was now able to see. The scales had fallen off my eyes.
To be honest, I can not now fully explain now why I couldn’t understand the Bible before. I think probably I didn’t really have any motivation to until I actually saw myself as a Christian. The Gospel of Matthew is not really that difficult and even atheists understand and praise Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew five. For many years, though, I did believe that some kind of miracle had happened which had changed my perception. Now, I see that view as a kind of magical view.
I also had the “magical” belief that if I read the Bible prayerfully, God would speak directly to me through those words. It did not matter, really, what the content of the actual text was. The key element was expecting God to speak directly through each page of God’s word.
For example, in those years I struggled to give up my rock music. I sought freedom from the urge still to listen to Elton John and Creedence Clearwater Revival. In this situation, a text such as Isaiah 49:9 might speak to me. The Lord says “to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’” Maybe this meant, come out from darkness. Escape my bondage. Burn those records, and “show myself” to the church by standing up during testimony time and telling what I had done.
I saw the Bible as something separate from my existence here and now as a human being. The Bible contained the precise words of God, words that would speak to me if I was spiritual enough with special messages and deep truths. I knew, and cared, nothing of the historical setting of the Bible or of other ways other Christians approached the Bible. It was the Holy Book, meant to speak straight to my spirit.
I remember after I went away to college coming back after a few months with a new Bible, which looked just like any other book. Someone had recommended it to me, and I had just bought it. The print was normal size; there was only one column of print. The text was in paragraphs with few footnotes or cross-references. I showed it to a friend and he was kind of taken aback. “It looks just like any other book!” I kind of set it aside then for awhile. It seemed too mundane, not different enough.
For several years, I pretty much approached the Bible in this way. Then, I started getting more “intellectual.” I had switched churches and got involved in a study group that was reading some heavy theology. Our “guru” was an evangelical writer named Francis Schaeffer, who sold hundreds of thousands of books in the late sixties and early seventies. He had been called an “evangelist to intellectuals.” I look back now and see Schaeffer as pretty narrow and superficial. However, at the time he offered me a door out of the super-narrow confines of fundamentalism. He encouraged me to see thinking and exploring and questioning as valuable Christian activities.
One of the issues Schaeffer eventually became especially strident about was the inerrancy of the Bible. He became one of the central spokespersons in various controversies for a strict view that asserted that the Bible contained no errors. He founded his system on what he called “absolutes.” The Bible reveals absolute truth upon which we can absolutely depend against absolutely any challenges. This truth never changes.
A friend of mine, heavily influenced by Schaeffer, told me once during this time that his faith depended on the Bible being perfect. If he became convinced that the Bible contained errors, then he in the end had nothing he could depend on. He would give up his faith. Last I heard, many years later, he was a pastor. I assume he never found any errors. Other people have not been so lucky. I know several who held true to their commitment. When they became convinced of biblical errors, they quit being Christians. Some have called this pin-prick theology. If your balloon of an inerrant Bible gets one tiny pin hole in it, all the air rushes out and the whole edifice collapses.
A crucial moment came when I read a book called The Battle for the Bible which argued for inerrancy. More than that, it very harshly critiqued evangelical theologians whom the author asserted had watered down that doctrine. I began the book assuming that I would agree and that inerrancy was the key issue with regard to the Bible. I finished the book converted to a non-inerrantist view! As I read the book I found the name-calling and general harshness of the attacks on the writer’s opponents offensive. That opened my eyes then, to the silliness of much of the inerrantist argument. For example, according to this book, to harmonize the Gospel accounts, the rooster actually crowed six times just before Peter’s denial of Jesus. The different Gospels put the crowing at different places. However, none of them have more than three crows. So to make sure the inconsistencies of the accounts fit together, the rooster actually crows six times.
The meaning of the Bible changed for me. My focus moved more towards its stories and the various perspectives in the Bible. I was looking less for a unified notion of absolute truth and timeless principles. Nor was I any longer expecting to find the kind of personal, direct communication from God I earlier looked for.
During this time I began a study of the Old Testament, where I read several commentaries and studies which helped me to see the story element of the Bible much better. This is also when I began to study the book of Revelation. I found Revelation to be a more human resource than I had been taught to expect – in my former church with its futuristic prophecy. About a year later I began attending seminary in Indiana. Several of my teachers there helped me continue to take a positive view towards the Bible.
I went through the process of giving up my old views of the Bible without losing all my interest in it and respect for it. I found in the Bible resources for spirituality that did not require it to be the kind of wholly-other Book that I had at first been taught it was. A positive focus regarding the Bible took hold of me even as I was rejecting the earlier views I had. I liked this positive focus so well that the negative didn’t overwhelm me.
I believe that the power that the Bible has as a resource for our spirituality stems from its humanness. The Bible is a document written by human beings, written in specific times and places, written about human experiences and human perceptions of God. Only as a human document does the Bible mediate the divine.
The reality of what the Bible is, is part of the reality of what human life is. Human life is tentative, ambiguous, mixed, fragile. We find greatness, beauty, wisdom, joy in human experience. We also find violence, selfishness, ugliness, bitterness, anger. To see truth, to grow in wholeness, to experience love takes perspective, insight, faith, and trust. That is how we benefit from the Bible. The Bible is not something from the outside of human experience. Rather, it is a record of human experience. With insight, we find in this record stories, images, pictures that can engender our growth. These stories, images, pictures help us to understand truth here and now in our world of human ambiguity.
In many ways the trust we gain of the Bible is similar to trust we gain from a friend. It grows gradually as we experience the friend to be trustworthy. Sometimes the friend isn’t always trustworthy; then we have gradually to let the trust grow back. This is all part of human relationships. Ultimately, though, the growth of this trust is also a matter of a series to choices. We decide, yes we will trust at least a bit more, believing that this trust is worth some work. Our approach to the Bible is similar. So, too, is our approach to God and to Life itself. We trust a little, we find the trust rewarded – but we also must choose, to risk, to test. To fall back a little and then build back up.
Literature professor Gabriel Josipovici’s book, The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, has helped me a great deal. He writes, “We assent to [the Bible], as we do to people, to the degree that we grow to feel we can trust [it]. In [the Bible], it is moments of ordinariness, as when someone realizes he is hungry and takes sustenance from others, which establish the grounds of our trust. It is moments of vulnerability, the moments when the protagonist can no longer find words to make sense of [one’s] life, and is reduced to tears or cries of despair, which make us experience [that person’s] body as our own.” At these moments, we find that the Bible is authentic to life. We find we can trust that it offers insight and empathy – and spiritual nourishment and encouragement.
The Bible facilitates a “spirituality for who we are.” The Bible meets us in our ambiguity with its own ambiguities. We gain the most from the Bible not by positing its perfection. Doing that leads us either to bow down before it with a closed mind or to reject it when we realize that it doesn’t meet our ideal of perfection. Either case cuts off the conversation before it gets started. Rather, we gain the most by accepting the Bible as it comes to us.
The Bible reflects the nitty-gritty realism of everyday life. It contains contradictory voices. It blesses kingship and power politics and it condemns them. It pictures Jesus as a super-human, faultless stranger from heaven and as a flesh and blood Jewish carpenter sweating and crying and doubting God. It promises wealth and happiness to the faithful and it promises a cross to the faithful. We can’t read the Bible with an attitude that now we can turn off our critical faculties and simply be told what is true. We have to keep thinking. We have still have to make choices and interpret and weigh. Just like we do in life.
Most of all, though, the Bible gives us stories of human beings. Finite, at times broken, human beings, with very realistic strengths and weaknesses. These are human beings who fail, grow, make poor decisions, are weak and yet capable at times of great deeds.
We read of scoffing Sarah giving birth at an old age. We read of stuttering Moses resisting the great Pharaoh God-king. We read of arrogant David, given power and wealth due to his wisdom and courage and trust in God, and wasting it all by acting on his lust toward another man’s wife. We read of shattered Jeremiah, speaking profound words of grief, and insight and hope, during Israel’s darkest days. We read of trembling Mary, accepting her fate despite great cost, mothering the greatest prophet of all. We read of self-righteous Paul, brought to the end of his pious rope with his shattering encounter with God on the road to Damascus. He is then restored to proclaim the most radical kind of mercy.
These people meet God and gain a measure of healing. However, the healing is always partial. Moses doesn’t make it to the promised land. Jeremiah dies in exile. Paul never escapes the struggle with his thorn in the flesh. Nonetheless, this is exactly the measure of healing we are to hope for – partial at best, but still genuine.
To listen to the Bible is to be better able to listen to life. The Bible speaks out of the heartbeat of real life – everyday people wrestling with God, wrestling with disappointment, wrestling with brokenness. Out of this on-going process of wrestling, they know some healing, growth, and joy. They also give voice of hope for more.
To know there will be healing is part of what we have to gain from assenting to the world of the Bible. The Bible witnesses to healing power at work in creating of goodness out of chaos. This healing power is at work in the liberation of slaves from Egypt and in sustaining faith amidst the rubble of the shattered ancient Jerusalem temple. This healing power is at work keeping life and love going even after the crucifixion. This is the healing power to which the Bible witnesses. That witness seeks to find listeners, even today.
Gabriel Josipovici, The Book of God: A Response to the Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 234.