After many years of seeking to live a spiritual life, I still ask myself, “Where am I as a Christian?” — “How far have I advanced?” — “Do I love God more now than earlier in my life?” — “Have I matured in faith since I started on the spiritual path?” Honestly I don’t know the answers to these questions. There are just as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. Many of the real struggles of twenty or forty years ago are still very much with me. I am still searching for inner peace, for creative relationships with others, and for a deeper experience with God. And I have no way of knowing if the small psychological and spiritual changes during the past decades have made me more or less a spiritual person.
- Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit
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After many years, I still have questions about how much I’ve matured.
I honestly don’t know how to evaluate myself and what “progress” I’ve made.
I still struggle with many of the same issues I had long ago.
I am searching for peace.
I am still trying to figure out how to be more loving my relationships.
I still hunger to know God more deeply.
I really don’t know how to evaluate the state of my spiritual life.
Henri Nouwen’s utter honesty is refreshing, if disturbing to our notions of “progress” in our Christian faith. Contemporary notions of “growth” and “sanctification” are more like Weight Watchers programs than traditional views of spiritual formation. We like to chart our progress, to feel like we are gaining on our goals. We like check-off lists, measurable standards, records of progress that we can capture in statistical form. An entire industry of Christian publishing is devoted to this approach, and churches and ministries everywhere promote it in their preaching and programs.
But the bottom-line, at least for me, is — I really have no idea.
I can feel ecstatic about something I learn one minute, and then the next minute I’m short-tempered toward my wife.
I patiently endure something genuinely irritating, and then the next moment I’m so discouraged over a petty matter that I want to quit.
I write something satisfying, or preach a sermon people say they appreciate, and then I curse the stupid driver in front of me on my way home (with real curse words).
I inwardly judge someone and despise them as incompetent and foolish while smiling and carrying on a friendly conversation with them.
I write a post about self-righteousness and then get upset when someone criticizes it. Don’t they recognize the insight God gave me about this subject?
A post I read yesterday alluded to remarks by a well-known preacher: “…scientists who spend their lives trying to heal and prevent cancer invest most of their time studying cancer. He says that only when you truly understand the nature and extent of the disease is it possible to find and fully appreciate its cure.”
I think that’s dangerous advice and misses an important point. The scientists who are focusing so much attention on cancer don’t know the cure and are therefore working hard to understand the disease so that they can come up with one. Christians, on the other hand, are not in this position. We may not understand the extent of our disease, but we know the cure. And it is not of our own making or doing.
I will never be able to plot my “progress” against the dread disease of sin and toward spiritual health and wholeness. I can, however, by the Spirit, in Word and Sacrament, look constantly to the cure. Jesus alone sustains me when symptoms reappear and threaten my sense of well being.