There are sincere, upright, faithful, well-intentioned, seeking people sitting in the pews of American churches who are shriveling up as a result of spiritual hunger. Some do not know they are starving. Others bravely endure their lot in life. Many have left the church in searching for God knows what.1 These observations are neither new nor based solely on my private impressions. George Barna, in Revolution, estimates that 20 million Christians in America alone have left the church to preserve their faith, as Reggie McNeal put it. These Christians are ones who are honest enough to both recognize and admit to a immense deficit in their experience with Christianity: a failure to make meaningful contact with God. Some of these people report their angst in blogs and those reports are not difficult to find. Here is a sampling:
“I have believed in God since I was very young. I pray on a daily basis…multiple times. I also believe that God came down in the flesh to help us understand Him better (through Jesus). So why do I struggle so much when it comes to building a relationship with Jesus Christ?”
“I have never lost my first love for Jesus or for my brothers and sisters in the Lord. For most of my life, I have longed in vain to ever experience a first love. One cannot lose what one has never possessed.”
“I hated singing hymns like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” because I couldn’t relate to it at all.”
“I am distressed primarily because, having known the Lord for over 20 years now, I lack the spiritual insight required to understand the present condition of the church or to propose a strategy for the future. There is no one to blame for my sad spiritual state save myself. I am distressed also because there does not appear to be anyone who does have the spiritual stature to provide and pursue a vision for the church. And ‘where there is no vision, the people perish.'” (from my own letter of resignation from a church-associated school Board of Education)
These quotes, mostly from the blogosphere, are very likely the tip of the iceberg, since only a small proportion of Christians write blogs. To be honest, no one knows how many church attenders fit a similar profile. I suspect that these few brave ones represent many who never express their feelings and many more who can neither recognize nor articulate their angst. I, for one, completely identify with the sentiments described in these quotes.
It would not be surprising at all if we found spiritual hunger amongst the irreligious and unchurched. But, how can it be that spiritual hunger is so prevalent within the church? Whose fault is it that Christian people find themselves in what could be described as a lost state? Is it their fault because they didn’t pay attention in Sunday School or because they have such little faith? I would argue that, in my own case, the problem does not lie with lack of knowledge or faith. I am not a biblical scholar but my familiarity with the Scriptures and with theology is reasonably good. And Jesus tells us that even faith the size of a mustard seed is extraordinarily powerful.
Maybe people who struggle with their faith lack commitment. Based on some blogs I have read, this is exactly the charge leveled at some Christians. It is nothing short of cruel to use the “lack-of-commitment” whip on a person for whom the general direction of his or her life is toward God, not away from Him.
I have observed that Christians who bear their souls to the world through blogs have a few key characteristics in common. Most, but not all, have been Christians for a very long time and have attended church faithfully for decades. They are people of faith and love. They are serious about finding God and want to practice a genuine Christianity. But, they all lack an ability to translate what they know into something that relates to real life, deep down inside. More precisely, they have failed to nurture an inner life that is satisfying, meaningful, and real.
A great deal of sociological and psychological analysis could be applied to the reasons behind this failure, but for people who are genuinely seeking a deep, spiritual experience with God, I believe that the root problem can be stated succinctly. Modern Christianity has lost the tools necessary for nurturing the inner life of the soul. I will now unpack this statement.
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a John Piper sermon on DVD titled “Don’t waste you life.” Mr. Piper is a master at his craft. The sermon was very well organized and theologically sound. His charisma is attractive and he delivered the sermon with great passion. In the end, though, I was unmoved and, I suspect, so were the hundreds in the audience the day that the sermon was recorded. By “unmoved,” I do not mean that we were not moved with emotion; I mean we were unmoved in terms of action. Why? because the sermon contained no advice that could be construed to imply what I should do next. Mr. Piper’s directives, based on Scripture, contained many verbs, but surprisingly, at the end of the sermon, I did not know what my next step should be after hitting the Stop button on the remote.
Jerry Bridges’ book, Respectable Sins, contains a chapter that describes how we should deal with the sin in our lives, respectable or not. They are:
1. Apply the Gospel.
2. Depend on the Holy Spirit.
3. Recognize your responsibility.
4. Identify specific respectable sins.
5. Memorize and apply appropriate Scriptures.
6. Cultivate the practice of prayer.
7. Involve one or a few other believers with you.
In the chapter, Directions for Dealing with Sins, Mr. Bridges explains each of the 7 directives in turn. Note that every one begins with a verb. Regardless, and even after reading the chapter, I am at a loss as to what, specifically, to do next. None of his advice is new. I have been around the church and been reading good Christian literature for four decades. The list is more of a reminder than anything else and yet, despite an advanced level of familiarity, I do not know what to do next. I expect that Mr. Bridges does not have my problem, because over the course of many years he has cultivated specific practices in which he engages every day and, very likely, multiple times each day. These practices are so natural to him that he cannot articulate them as methods or techniques that are distinct from the seven principles. He understands the directives well enough to communicate the principles, but he has integrated the principles into his life to such an extent that he no longer understands exactly what it is that he does on a daily basis.
The failure to communicate practical life skills is common in modern sermons and Christian literature. Every contemporary author that I have read fails to elaborate a practical method of incorporating spiritual truth into the daily nurturing of the inner life. In all fairness, there are two exceptions of which I am aware. Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, describes 12 practices whose goal is to deepen the inner life. (Consistent with my thesis is Eugene Peterson’s comment about this book: “Richard Foster has ‘found’ the spiritual disciplines that the modern world stored away and forgot.”) Seth Jethani in With includes an appendix that describes several techniques for Communing with God. Mr. Jethani’s book is very good and his thesis is insightful. But, he reserves what to do next for the appendix. The appendix! …as if practical application, changing what really matters about my life, is an add-on, not the main point.
Imagine a beautiful, brand new Bentley. This is a gorgeous car and comes fully equipped and brimming with status.
The engines in these cars are superbly engineered and built. Now, imagine that you bought a Bentley and it had no transmission. You would have a vehicle that was wonderful to look at and exciting just to sit in, but could not serve its true purpose. As an old Vermont farmer once told me, referring to his new 1967 Cutlass, “Ehya! She’s got lottsa powa, but she don’t go no wheya.”
In Colossians, the apostle Paul speaks of “the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” and then, in Ephesians, he refers to “the power that works within us.” This power is not impersonal, but personal: Christ, Himself. However, far too many of us are disconnected from that power. We do not know how to connect to Christ in us, do not know how to live in “the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings,” and cannot relate our inner religious life to our outward terrestrial life. Heaven and earth are effectively separated and we live within each sphere at specific times and in specific ways.
Christ did not live this way and, as his follower, I have to assume that he does not want me to live a divided life, either. To be blunt, unless I find a way to connect heaven and earth, the supernal and the corporeal, the eternal and the temporal, in my everyday, mundane, routine life, I will throw my religion overboard as a useless drag on my life.
In my next post, I will describe how I am changing my life to address these issues.
1 “Searching for God knows what” is an explicit reference to Donald Miller’s book by the same title.