As suggested by recent posts, I have been reviewing my journal entries from last summer, when I began the Spiritual Exercises. I saw two transitions occur during the third week of doing the Exercises. The journal entry for day three of that week contains the first instance of a recorded request: “This is my prayer these days, that God would open my eyes and allow me to see Him all day, every day… not just to see His presence, but to also have a sense for what He is doing during my day, as much as I am able to understand.”
The first transition is associated with the wording “as much as I am able to understand.” This is an implicit acknowledgment that I have embarked on a journey and that I have a great deal to learn. Conversely, at the time, I began to realize that much of what I had learned over the previous 35 years, though interesting, was not very useful for my present purposes. I will unpack that statement.
My “present purpose” is, to use a phrase common amongst evangelicals, to learn how to walk with God. Ignatius framed this in more practical terms: to see God in all things and all things in God, and to make good choices in life, choices that are consistent with the values and mission of Christ in the world.
To the average evangelical, “walking with God” primarily revolves around doctrine. Getting to know God is equivalent to learning doctrine. This conclusion is based on the fact that church activities (church services, Sunday School, sermons) are aimed at informing people’s theology and what they believe, not their practice. The usually unstated presumption is that there is a direct connection between doctrine and practice since, as the Baptists put it, “right doctrine leads to right behavior.” Stated in stark and simple terms, this approach means that if I understand, say the Ten Commandments, correctly, I will behave well. This teaching contradicts clear statements in the New Testament (c.f., Matt 23, Gal 3). To pursue adherence to the Ten Commandments, or any other depiction of the Law or any other set of rules, is to agree with the apostle Paul, that “I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.” (Gal 2:18, The Message)
As if engaged in an exercise in insanity, I spent 35 years honing my understanding of doctrine and exerting significant effort toward bringing my life into conformity with that doctrine.1 I largely succeeded, but as Jesus warned, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” As a result of my focus on doctrine as the guiding light in my life, too much of the New Testament made no sense to me. Incorporating New Testament precepts into my life felt like trying to get a round peg into a square hole. For example, Jesus said, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” He implored, “Learn from Me,” but all I knew to learn was doctrine. And, so, my soul has never known rest. Never.
In all honesty, I have come to recognize that 35 years of focusing on doctrine has not been a complete waste. My familiarity with the Scriptures has some benefit. When I pray through a passage in the gospels, I already know what the words mean; I know where the events fit in the life of Christ; I can bring to mind related passages; I can connect the words of Christ to statements written later by Paul; my knowledge of the Old Testament informs my reading of the New. None of that is the point, however! “Learn from Me,” Jesus said. He did not say, learn from a sermon, or learn from a class, or learn from a book. He did not even instruct us (and some will take this as heresy) to learn from the Scriptures. He said, “Learn from Me.” And that is why I have so much to learn.
A second transition occurred in that, for the first time, I was understanding the Scriptures that I was praying over as being written to me. I was sitting in my office one day, praying through Isaiah 43:1-4 at noontime.
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
In this passage, Isaiah addresses Jacob and Israel by name. Nevertheless, all of a sudden, I was struck that Isaiah’s words were written to me. This was not just a theoretical understanding; I heard these words being spoken to me. I cannot explain what I mean. Not only that, but I became acutely aware, not that God spoke these words 2700 years ago, but that God was speaking these words to me right now. I was overcome. I wept… right there in my office. (And then I realized that my office door was open and it is not unusual for me to receive random visitors. I would have been quite pleased to explain the tears, but I’m guessing a visitor anticipating a quick conversation would eventually wish they had not opened that can of worms.)
Perusing my journal, I have concluded that my prayer, quoted at the top of this post, resulted from a similar phenomenon occurring repeatedly over several preceding days during the middle of August of 2011 as I sat down to do the Spiritual Exercises. The significance of this change in the way I understand the Scriptures cannot possibly be overestimated. It is a gift of God and He has continued to gift me in this way.
There is room in this wide world for analytical, word-study, inductive, and deductive Bible study. Bible Gateway offers a plethora of tools: “Search the Bible by verse or keyword, or simply navigate to a specific passage. Start (or continue) a reading plan, and get automatic reminders for each day’s reading. Deepen your Bible study with commentaries, dictionaries, and audio Bibles. Compose notes on a subject or sermon, or attach notes to specific verses.”
Over the course of my life, I have spent considerable time and effort engaged in such activities. A Christian may use such tools to “deepen your Bible study,” but it is a misguided notion to think that these are the means by which a person deepens their life with God. Jesus said, “Learn from Me.” That is what I am doing.
1 Sundar Singh understood the real impact of such an effort: “I studied theology in a theological seminary. I learned many useful and interesting things no doubt, but they were not of much spiritual profit. There were discussions about sects, about Yesu Christ and many other interesting things, but I found the reality, the spirit of all these things, only at the Master’s feet. When I spent hours at his feet in prayer, then I found enlightenment, and God taught me so many things that I cannot express them even in my own language.” (Sundar Singh, The Widsom of the Sadhu, Kim Comer, ed., Plough Publishing House, 2007.)