Whenever I visit a second-hand book store, I always see a few familiar names on the spines of novels.
One day, many years ago, I grabbed one of Robert Ludlum’s pieces, paid $2 and started reading it by my bed.
I was hooked.
Sure, it was mindless, but the story was gripping – a tale of action, conspiracy, romance and disaster – coming to a satisfying conclusion. It was perfect before-sleep reading.
The next time I was at a book store, I grabbed another of his works. I enjoyed it just as much – the same formula – but it worked. I would find myself enthralled by the story, excited to see what happened next – and would have to reluctantly put the book down and turn off the light.
Before long, I had almost the entire collection of Ludlum novels. I would re-read them, take them away on holiday – they were a fantastic break from deeper non-fiction, from work, or from study.
One day, I came across a Ludlum piece I hadn’t seen before – The Road to Omaha. Excitedly, I handed over my coins, took the book home and lay on the bed – ready for another sure-fire dose of Ludlum-goodness.
But – this was somehow different. The characters seemed off. They were trying to constantly make jokes. The action was cheesy – almost slapstick. The villain was an over-the-top caricature.
I put the book down. My mind was confused – this wasn’t what I expected.
The next day, I tried again. Perhaps I had been in the wrong headspace.
More cheesy jokes. More satire. More bad writing.
I gave up. I went to sleep, disappointed.
I persevered with this novel, and eventually finished it. It didn’t deliver what I wanted. I was frustrated and felt like I’d wasted my time.
A few days later, I decided to Google this novel. It was then that I discovered Robert Ludlum had not just been an action writer – but had also tried to write comedy. This book was meant to make the reader laugh and feel light – not take them on an action packed journey.
Part of my frustration came from the book – I didn’t enjoy it, it wasn’t well written, and the comedy felt off.
But the majority of my frustration came from the misguided expectation I had placed on this book. I had the goal of being drawn into an electric narrative that would leave me hanging on each word. Robert Ludlum, however, had the goal of making me laugh and chuckle, rolling my eyes and treating the whole story like a big joke.
No matter how hard I tried to read this book with my goal in mind – I would be frustrated.
The Pain of Purpose
Things – books, processes, systems – have a purpose. When we try and use them for a purpose they were not intended for – we create annoying friction.
With tangible objects this is glaringly obvious. Try eating soup with a fork or using a car as football.
But with intangible things – friendships, philosophies, processes – this is less obvious. It is, however, just as frustrating. When one person thinks the purpose of the friendship is exclusivity, and the other thinks it is to include others – confusion and hurt appears.
Which leads to the question – what is the purpose of a spiritual formation? Why engage in the spiritual disciplines, or – in the vernacular – why have a quiet time?
This is an obvious yet important question. If most Christians are frustrated by their spiritual habits – or by the way they have been taught about spiritual habits – could it be because they have been taught an incorrect goal?
Perhaps the most common purpose I have heard – and have taught myself – is a quiet time connects you with God, and gives you the strength to overcome the temptations and challenges of the world. There’s truth in that statement – but we never really think about what connecting with God looks like.
Getting Quiet with Abraham
When I think about this phrase – ‘Connecting with God’ – my mind thinks back to Abraham. I think of his dramatic encounters with God – being called by God in Genesis 12, the amazing experience of God confirming His promise in Genesis 15, and the jaw-dropping promise of a son in Genesis 17, and being able to host God and His messengers for a meal in Genesis 18.
What do these have in common? They are a different, unique experience. Abraham hears the voice of God. He sees a manifestation of God. Crazy things happen. The course of history is changed through these moments.
My spiritual formation does not often look like this. I read the Scriptures. I write down my thoughts. I pray. I sit silently. Most of the time – I hear nothing. I do not see dramatic fiery visions.
And yet – how much time passed for Abraham between Genesis 12 and Genesis 18?
We read these chapters in a few minutes, so tend to think this was a normal, constant experience for Abraham.
The truth? 25 years.
In 25 years, Abraham had four dramatic encounters with God that are recorded in Genesis.
What happened in the other times?
We can assume that Abraham was a man who meditated and prayed, as his son Isaac did this (and there wasn’t too many people he could have learnt this from). There was no Scriptures at the time, but Abraham knew about sacrifice and obedience.
Also, Abraham lived in a world full of other beliefs. According to Jewish legend, Abraham’s father, Terah, was an idol maker. So what did it mean for Abraham to connect with God?
Simply put, it was a choice to put himself in a position where he would be aligned with what is true.
Last week, protests in Virginia turned ugly as a group of Alt-Right extremists met with a group of left-wing groups. In the midst of this, a car drove down a street and ploughed into a gathering of the left-wing, leaving one woman dead and several injured.
Vice News, an American media outlet – that is sympathetic to the left – was filming a documentary at the time. The reporter captured the collision, and the comments from those nearby, stating:
“He was some Nazi just wanting to kill us.”
“He was doing 80 miles per hour down the street.”
The reporter then met with one of the leaders of the Alt-Right. Reflecting on the same event, he said,
“Someone came and tried to attack the driver while he was in the car. He acted in a responsible and appropriate manner – he was trying to get away and preserve himself.”
One event. Two varying stories. Which is true?
Although there are many competing stories in the world – not all of them can be true.
The Western world says make your dreams come true by winning millions through Lotto. Jesus says it is better to give than receive. Which is true?
The Western world entices us with scandal, alluring images – saying it’s just looking. Jesus says if we look at a person with lust we have already committed adultery with them in our heart. Which is true?
The Western world tells us to build up fences between our property. Jesus tells us to love your neighbour. Which is true?
The Western world tells us that God is absent at best, but more likely non-existent. The Scriptures tell of a God who is intimately involved with the world. Which is true?
On and on it goes.
If I’m honest – I find myself often allured by the way of the world. It’s tempting to live as if God doesn’t exist. I find that this is my default pattern.
Spiritual formation is me choosing to position myself under that what I know is true – even when I don’t feel it – so I can be shaped by the truth.
And, as I do this, I discover what it means that Jesus is the truth. I learn that I am not putting myself under a pile of propositions, but am positioning myself under the authority of a person – even when every cell of my body doesn’t want to admit that I need it!
See, it’s not that we have bad habits that we just need to switch off. It’s not that we just need to learn one more truth – and then we’ll get it.
It’s that we need to be built up in the truth, through rhythm, habit and discipline – pursuing truth – even when we’d rather live out of a lie.
This morning, for example, I was reading over Jesus’ words of the greatest commandment – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.”
I’ve heard these words thousands of time. Yet I need to hear them again. And again. And again.
Because I am constantly tempted by a story that says – “Love God a bit, but don’t do anything weird about it.”
See, we’re all being spiritually formed – every day. We’re all having the very core of our being formed by the stories we surround ourselves with – whether they are a truth or a lie.
And in the pursuit of truth – we do connect with God. But this is not always a nice-feeling, or a warm-fuzzy. Sometimes it’s a recognition that there needs to be change. Sometimes it’s a word from Scripture that sticks. Sometimes it’s a feeling of boredom – and recognising that following God and connecting with God involves periods of monotony and silence. Sometimes it’s a realisation that the popular notion of connecting with God can have more in common with a rock concert than with obedience.
If we pursue spiritual formation to feel a happy connection with God that empowers us through the day and transforms us in a moment – we will be frustrated and likely give up.
But if we pursue spiritual formation as a pursuit of the one who is truth, and a commitment to follow that truth wherever it leads – to boredom, pain, obedience, joy, confusion, elation, grief – we will discover a deep-rooted attraction to this true way of being human.