Christian spirituality involves just as much unlearning as it does learning. Perhaps even more. And the journey of unlearning never ends for the Christian who genuinely seeks to know God and resemble Christ. Certainly learning Christ’s teachings and ways are part of the journey too. As are learning Christ’s attitudes and character, and learning from Christian traditions and through the common life shared in church communities. But embracing the new requires releasing the old. Sometimes a Christian’s spiritual development can become stunted because of a refusal to release existing beliefs or habits or behaviours. And perhaps surprisingly, this can include idolatrous beliefs about God or Jesus or narrow theologies that restrict the flow of Life and Love. It would therefore be a mistake for any Christian to imagine that once they have learned “the basics” then they can just clutch tightly to whatever they’ve learned without changing anything whatsoever until kingdom come. The true Christian way involves a lifelong journey of change, graciously supported by the Spirit of Life, during which one will learn and unlearn and relearn many things—indeed all things—along the way.
Asceticism is a practice that has been frequently misunderstood and misapplied. It may conjure up images in the imagination of an emaciated holy person flogging themselves in some twisted act of penance. But this kind of extreme, self-hating masochism does not represent healthy Christian asceticism. It is truly unfortunate that these sorts of disturbing practices have often come to define what Christian asceticism involves. Despite these misconceptions, “asceticism” is worth recovering, not simply in our language, but even more importantly in the life and practice of Christian discipleship. Discipleship inevitably stagnates and stunts without it.
The truth is that healthy asceticism does involve practicing forms of self-discipline and abstinence. But this is only one side of the equation. There is another side to the practice as well, which is in fact the point of it all. Healthy Christian asceticism involves deliberately practicing forms of self-discipline and abstinence for the sake of knowing and pursuing God more wholeheartedly. This is the essential purpose of Christian asceticism. It would be a mistake to think that Christian asceticism is primarily concerned with disciplines and abstinence. As helpful as these practices may be, at best they are only means to an end—the end being a stronger, more life-giving relationship with God in Christ.
Christian asceticism, properly practiced, does not make the practitioner more irritable or arrogant or gloomy. These are not qualities of a mature ascetic. These are signs that the ascetic may in fact be harbouring secret jealousies or some unresolved sense of superiority that subtly leaks out through their behaviour and demeanour. These are signs that something is being done wrong. The process of becoming detached from one’s most cherished attachments can indeed be accompanied by experiences of struggle and even suffering. But such experiences are temporary if the ascetic is travelling towards the right destination. Indeed, in the Christian life, experiences of grief and loss are actually part of the journey towards personal liberation and greater intimacy with God. They are part of fully participating in Christ’s journey of death and resurrection.
Proper Christian asceticism then ultimately produces joy and gratitude and peace and life. It produces deep security and contentment. It produces inward and outward strength in the mature ascetic, because they know who they are and what they are living for at a profound level. In other words, by knowing and pursuing God wholeheartedly, the mature Christian ascetic comes to deeply know their own identity and vocation. To make practicing forms of self-discipline or abstinence the main end and focus is to miss the whole point of Christian ascetical living.
Asceticism is confusing to our present-day culture. It is a counter-cultural affair. Words like “discipline” and “abstinence” rarely have positive meanings in our contemporary vocabulary. Ascetical practice tends to go against the comsumer-capitalist orthodoxy that so often influences our attitudes and desires. It goes against our greed for every possible possession and indulgence and experience. Such unrestrained greediness is often responsible for creating that constant inner sense of restlessness and gnawing dissatisfaction, which has become so commonplace in our time. Today we have become so accustomed to this sense that we hardly even notice its presence. It is the air we breathe. Instead of satisfying our appetites, greed only enflames them. Left unchecked, our passions can become so unrelenting and disordered that they turn into a source of misery. Herein lies some of the wisdom of proper ascetical practice for today: part of its purpose is to reorder and refocus our often disordered and dysfunctional desires.
In reality, every choice has a negative side (what we are giving up) and a positive side (what we are gaining). Christian asceticism is a highly practical activity, an exercise where spirituality meets everyday decisions. In a sense, every choice is an ascetical act: we necessarily deny ourselves some things in order to gain something. Because, despite the promises of certain illusions, we cannot have everything. Whenever we say “yes” to one thing, we are simultaneously saying “no” to countless other things. And we are all limited individuals who are forced to make choices in life, whether we like it or not. Christian asceticism is about intentionally prioritizing and making space for God in one’s life. It is about choosing God. And it is much more about gaining God than it is about giving up whatever else. Indeed, for the mature ascetic, giving up lesser things becomes a joy for the sake of knowing God and the divine peace which surpasses understanding.
I often find it challenging to know how to describe myself as a christian. On many occasions I have struggled to simply know where to begin. Many of the common labels are so loaded with stereotypes and stigmas that I wonder sometimes if it would be best to just replace them with new ones. Words like “christian,” “evangelical,” “catholic,” “spiritual,” “religious,” “mystic,” and so on have been heavily weighed down with all kinds of religious and cultural and even pejorative meanings that I wonder if using them creates more confusion than clarity.
And yet, I find that the simple and often original meanings of many of these labels do describe my own spiritual views and life quite well. But in order not to be misunderstood and wrongly pigeonholed, I often need to define what these labels mean to me. That said, I would currently describe myself as an evangelical-catholic-contemplative-christian-humanist. And here is my attempt to briefly explain what this somewhat ridiculous jumble of words actually means to me.
As an evangelical, my faith and hope are centred on the simple yet radical gospel (meaning “evangel”) message that Jesus Christ is Lord. I have therefore devoted myself to practically working out the personal, social, and political implications of this good news.
As a catholic, I have great appreciation for the ecumenical diversity that exists within the universal christian church, and my theology and ethics have been influenced by multiple christian traditions. I find being a member of the universal church provides significant breadth to my spiritual life.
As a contemplative, I have a special appreciation for the historic theology, practices, and traditions of christian mystics. I find contemplative teachings and resources provide significant depth to my spiritual life.
As a christian, I have chosen to be a disciple (meaning “student”) of Jesus’ teachings and example. I view this commitment as a lifelong apprenticeship that involves learning to embody his attitudes, behaviours, and character.
As a humanist, I believe that every person, by virtue of being made in the likeness of God, has inherent dignity and worth, and accordingly deserves to live with liberty and mutual-respect alongside their fellow human beings. Furthermore, I believe that Divinity and humanity are meant to coexist in profound integration, as modelled by the God-man, Jesus Christ.
Even though these brief explanations describe some of who I am, my christian spirituality is certainly not limited to these distinctives. For me these are more like significant starting points than hard boundary lines. These distinctives also overlap and interdepend as an integrated whole. Moreover, in the words of Clark Pinnock, “I do not apologize for admitting to being on a pilgrimage in [life and] theology, as if it were in itself some kind of weakness of intelligence or character.” I am grateful that my views and life have changed over the years as I have gradually grown up. And I look forward to continued change as I move along in my pilgrimage.
Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen is a book on Christian faith and life that is brimming with wisdom. And that’s not an overstatement. Published posthumously, it is a collection of many of Nouwen’s writings on the spiritual life that have been brilliantly woven together by one of his former students in partnership with one of his former editors. The book maps out some of the most significant regions, terrains, and pathways of the Christian life, offering profound guidance that makes it an immensely valuable resource for the spiritual journey.
Hence its title, it is designed to address some of life’s biggest questions, and as such some of the questions that often arise in a formal relationship of spiritual direction. Yet in classic fashion, Nouwen avoids giving trite answers to deep spiritual questions. Indeed, this is not a manual of quick-and-easy techniques and solutions. Just the opposite, in fact. And herein lies much of Nouwen’s brilliance: in the opening chapter of the book, he asserts that “seeking spiritual direction … means to ask the big questions, the fundamental questions, the universal ones in the context of a supportive community.” Spiritual direction, then, is not a relationship where the director coercively imposes all of the “right answers” and the “right ways” upon the directee. Rather, it is a relationship that involves a great deal of common inquiry, searching, and questioning, a relationship in which it is safe to ask and really ponder some of life’s deepest questions. Accordingly, Nouwen claims that the Christian life is actually deepened by “asking the right questions and living the questions.” In other words, questions are not a Christian’s enemy but their friend.
This attitude may come as a surprise to some, believers and unbelievers included. Christianity is frequently caricatured as anti-reason, anti-science, and anti-inquiry—as a prepackaged set of dogma that the faithful must blindly accept which actually prohibits critical thinking and questioning. In refreshing contrast, however, Nouwen presents a stance that not only welcomes the big questions but views “living the questions” as an indispensable process in spiritual growth. So why then do at least some Christian leaders seem to discourage honest questioning? Because some church leaders apparently imagine that spiritual realities and living are things to be completely comprehended, controlled, and conquered, as Nouwen notes: “living the questions runs counter to the mainstream of Christian ministry that wants to impart knowledge to understand, skills to control, and power to conquer.” It is this sort of misguided approach to the Christian life that Nouwen’s encouragements counterbalance, precisely because “in spiritual listening we encounter a God who cannot be fully understood, we discover realities that cannot be controlled, and we realize that our hope is hidden not in the possession of power but in the confession of weakness.”
And so he invites his readers to ask the deep questions by forming his chapters around them. The first part of the book addresses questions that arise as we look within ourselves, such as, Where do I begin? Who am I? And where have I been and where am I going? The second part of the book address questions that arise as we look to encounter God through prayer and in Scripture. These include, What is prayer? Who is God for me? And how do I hear the Word? The last part of the book addresses questions that arise as we look to others in community, such as, Where do I belong? And how can I be of service? Along the way, Nouwen never gives glib answers but rather shares some truly helpful guidance and wisdom by addressing them for what they are: deeply profound questions that deserve to be asked and re-asked over a lifetime. One big reason this is the case, in his words, is that “our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken with Jesus as our friend and finest guide.” This is the sort of orientation that he encourages, the sort of orientation that is centred around Jesus while also allowing space for searching and asking and changing and growing.
My intention is to followup this post over time with a post on each of these questions. I want to do this to share some of Nouwen’s insights from the book. But I also want to write briefly on each question as a way to reflectively engage his ideas. I highly recommend reading his book, Spiritual Direction, if any of this has perked your interest, and I welcome your thoughts and comments as well.
One of the most challenging tasks of the Christian life, of any true spiritual life, is learning to channel one’s will. First, though, one needs to really know one’s will, because you can’t channel what you don’t even know or understand. Usually what’s discovered in the earliest expeditions into exploring one’s deepest desires and longings is a great deal of confusion. Left neglected, the will lives by instinct, often willing whatever might bring immediate gratification, moment to moment. So inward ambivalence, division, and uncertainty are common things to encounter when one first encounters a neglected will.
But with persistence, clarity comes, albeit gradually. Clarity comes through committed introspection and contemplation. Sometimes we can’t do this without first slowing down, stopping, and really taking stock of ourselves. But clarity also comes through developing and exercising the will, by striving to live with greater intentionality in day-to-day life. It’s incredibly important to face one’s will in the spiritual life. Because it’s possible to know the right things, to feel the right things, and still not do the right things. Claiming to know and feel the right things without caring much about doing the right things is the essence of hypocrisy. It’s not practicing what you preach. It’s not living out what you profess. It’s not really believing what you know. Because belief is an expression of the will, something that is supposed to supported with actions. If it’s not supported with actions, then it’s not really believed.
Jesus cared immensely about our wills. He taught and modelled his teachings intending to really impact people, to really change people. What we do, desire, want, and will is a huge theme that’s littered throughout his teachings and stories. He wasn’t simply communicating abstract head-knowledge. He encouraged people to embrace a new way of thinking and living. So in his Discourse on the Hill (as Dallas Willard refers to it), Jesus wraps up his extraordinary ethical teachings by saying things like, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’ And things like, ‘everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’
Just giving lip-service to God is apparently not enough according to Jesus. Because God’s ultimate desire is for us to want him, for us to want to follow him, for us to want to become better people—the kind of people who increasingly resemble Jesus in the things we say and the things we do. This doesn’t mean that God’s love for us hinges on us doing everything perfectly. The notion that we must earn God’s love before he will give it goes against much of what Jesus taught and how he lived. But it does mean that God cares about us trying to live as he does; about us being persistent, tenacious, committed. Because our minds, hearts, and wills are designed to cooperatively work together, undivided, by design.
But, before one can seriously follow through with any of this, one has to really want to discover their desires to begin with, in order to really know them and, hopefully, guide and follow them. Put another way, one has to willfully seek to understand their will. This takes time and effort. Discovering the will’s place and power and pursuits is really a lifelong journey. But it is a worthwhile journey that is at the heart of the Christian life.
If Jesus is truly God, then he can be trusted. This seems simple enough, but learning to trust Jesus with everything is a lifelong journey.
If you are a disciple of Jesus, this means you can really enter into life’s ultimate questions with him. You can really enter into life’s sorrows and struggles with him. You can really enter into all of the complexities that are a part of being human with him. And you can enter in weakness and vulnerability, trusting that life can emerge even beyond the deaths we may face.
One common tendency amongst Christians is to treat Jesus like a personal pet. Instead of trusting his guidance and journeying through all areas of life with him, we might keep him tightly tied on a short leash so we’re in control of the where he gets to go in our lives. The unfortunate consequence of domesticating Jesus so we’re in control, though, is it might not occur to us that he has valuable insights and guidance to offer when we face real struggles in life. We often don’t think he’ll be able to handle our actual questions or doubts or challenges. So our only options seem to be: cling to Jesus in the corner and just ignore what’s happening around me, or abandon him for good and find a better guide for my life. But if Jesus is true, then he can hold his own. Not only that, he can be relied on. We’ll never discover this, though, if we’re not first open to its possibility.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to really believe that he is the most trustworthy guide and leader in life. Personally speaking, the more I’ve trusted Jesus to guide me while facing challenges in life, the more my confidence in him has grown. Because part of the proof that any way of life is truly worthwhile is found in the living—Christianity being no exception. At this stage in my own spiritual journey, I have come to believe that Jesus will guide me through life better than anyone else.
Sometimes the Christian life is reduced to accepting a certain set of ideas. Even worse, sometimes the Christian life is reduced to a mere onetime decision. According to some, being a Christian means you simply believe that Jesus died for your sins and choose to receive his forgiveness. That’s it, that’s all.
Now don’t get me wrong: I think that Christian beliefs matter and one’s response to Jesus matters. But the Christian life is emaciated if it’s reduced to simply believing the right things and making the right, onetime decision. Dallas Willard calls this emaciated version of the faith, ‘Vampire Christianity.’ These are some of his thoughts on it:
Many think it is quite reasonable to be a vampire Christian. One, in effect, says to Jesus: ‘I’d like a little of your blood, please. But I don’t care to be your student or have your character. In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I’ll see you in heaven.
Vampire Christianity is a dangerously sad substitute for the life that Jesus encouraged people to embrace. There is far more to the Christian life than just believing the right things and making the right, onetime decision.
Christian beliefs are certainly important. They are an integral part of the Christian life. But what’s sometimes either ignored or under-appreciated is that these beliefs are not meant to be abstract sets of propositions off in the clouds that have no real implications for the way we see ourselves and the way we live our lives. Christian beliefs are meant to continually change us because—if they are really believed—they are thought to truly represent reality. I’m stating the obvious here, but we must remember that Jesus taught what he thought to be most real, and lived according to a reality that he referred to as the ‘Kingdom of God.’ And so, the Christian life involves continually learning to live according to this reality. It involves the ongoing commitment of re-forming our ideas and our attitudes, our behaviours and our character, our identities and our relations, our minds and our hearts, our wills and our works, our hopes and our longings, to accord with reality as it has been most powerfully presented by the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. That’s a lot, I know. But that’s my point.
Deciding to receive forgiveness from Jesus and depend on his intervening grace is also important. We cannot move forward without honestly understanding ourselves and God, without owning our failings and seeking his assistance. But that’s just it: we are supposed to move forward, still. Deciding to be a Christian is really to decide to become a disciple. And the word ‘disciple’ literally means ‘learner’ or ‘student.’ So being a disciple of Jesus involves willingly becoming his student and apprentice. It is a commitment to continually learn his ways from him, as one’s teacher and master. Discipleship, then, is a lifelong journey and process, not a mere onetime decision. The decision is really just the beginning of an entirely new way of life that has its own ongoing choices and challenges.
So our ideas definitely matter. And our decisions definitely matter. But they matter in the Christian life because they are supposed to be parts of a larger whole, a whole that involves our entire selves, along with our thinking, acting, being, and future. If you’re thinking that this is a huge task, you’re right: it is an all-encompassing, lifelong journey of becoming. But this is what the Christian life is supposed to be—a enormous endeavour that is only possible by the presence of God’s active and intervening grace. And personally, this is what I long for: something bigger than myself, larger than myself, truer than myself; something far more grand and extraordinary than I could accomplish on my own. That’s why only the fullness of the Christian life will do.