I Don’t Want to Repent

st-isaac-the-syrian-6I have no broken heart to start me on the quest for thee, no penitence, no tenderness . . . . I have no tears with which to pray to thee.? My spirit is in darkness . . . my heart is cold.

I know not how to make it warm again by tears of love for thee. But thou, Lord Jesus Christ, my God, do thou give me complete repentance, the breaking of my heart, that with my whole soul I may set out in quest of thee. Without thee I should be without all reality. May the Father who . . . begot thee in eternity renew in me thine image.

I have forsaken thee. Do not thou forsake me.

I have wandered far from thee. Do thou set out in quest of me. Lead me back to thy pastures with the sheep of thy flock.

Feed me together with them on the fresh grazing of thy mysteries where the pure heart dwells, the heart that bears in it the splendour of thy revelations . . . through thy grace and by thy love for humankind, O Jesus Christ our Saviour, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaac of Nineveh, Ascetic Treatises, 2


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Are You in a Spiritually Dry Time? – Part 1

“we should always start by attributing it [spiritual dryness] to our own lukewarmness, and leave it to our spiritual director to show us if it be God’s doing.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, 140

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We should definitely begin with the assumption that the “problem” is on our end. However, few Christians have access to good spiritual direction. Consequently, it seems to me that many who are experiencing this aridity and darkness in their prayers need to begin to trust that experience and follow some of the classic guidelines for prayer in the dark night [of the soul].

To begin, of course, we need to graciously accept this development and see it as a gift from God. We might wish that there was more emotional fire in our prayers, but God has chosen otherwise, and so the only response is one of acceptance. As Teresa of Avila attested, we experience the dryness of our prayers so that we will grow in humility. The devil aims that we be disquieted and disturbed, but the Lord calls us to a gentle quietness. “We are fonder of consolations than we are of the cross,” Teresa observed. This does not mean that we do not have peace in prayer. Indeed she called her readers to peace. But it is not the inner peace of being regularly consoled by God. Instead it is the peace we have that though God may . . . give “consolations” to beginners in prayer, God is testing us, and the best response to a test is quiet acceptance. This is not something over which we have control; it is God’s work.

We need to accept that our prayers have changed, but then we need to be intentional in our response to the aridity and darkness. First, it is vitally important that we continue our regular routine of prayer and meditation. But we do so without the same set of expectations or longing for emotional (or intellectual) gratification. We choose to be content with the simplicity of the act of prayer, whether in thanksgiving or confession or meditation on Scripture, aware that God is present and that this presence is all we really need.

Some who are more activistic respond to the dryness by neglecting their prayers, because they do not seem as useful or meaningful (or, actually, as gratifying) as they once were. Such people wonder what the value would be in sustaining these prayers. And so they fill up their time with activity that gratifies them in a different way but is a poor substitute for the transforming presence of Christ. Others may keep praying but then occupy their prayer with busy activities or exercises or extended intercession to fill up the time, and so in a sense they live distracted by their own busyness rather than choosing to be lovingly attentive to Christ. Instead of either reaction, the wise response is to accept the dryness and sustain the order of one’s life and prayers, though without the expectations one once had.

Second, the aridity in our prayers will likely mean that we are less and less inclined to nourish our hearts on special images, places or thoughts. John of the Cross put it this way: “The truly spiritual person never considers nor becomes attached to the particular comfort of a place of prayer, for this would result from attachment to the senses.” Holy spaces, such as a sanctuary or prayer place in our homes, and images that we use to foster our prayers are no longer as immediately meaningful to us. This may seem to be less an issue for Protestant or evangelical Christians, but John spoke not only of the external places and images but also of the use of our imagination and the thoughts or images in which we have found comfort in the past. God weans of the special places (our church or sanctuary or prayer room), our structures (which can so easily act as spiritual crutches) and even our special liturgies that we find so comforting.

But third and most importan, in our dryness we are best advised to learn to be more and more content to just “be.” This may sound empty and useless, or it may sound like idleness. But . . . when our minds are tranquil and our attention is lovingly focused on Christ, what is happening is that incrementally we are drawn up into the love of Christ and increasingly transformed into this image. It is not something over which we have control; it is, rather, something to which we graciously submit.

Gordon T. Smith, The Voice of Jesus, 179-181.

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The Arrogance of Overcommitting

Pride causes you to accept more responsibility than you can bear. Arrival [believing you have arrived at spiritual maturity] allows you to assign more ministry work to yourself than you can realistically accomplish. Self-glory causes you to think that you’re more essential than you actually are and more necessary than you will ever be. It’s pride, not humility, that makes it hard to say no. It’s pride that makes it hard to live within the limits of your true character and strength. I am persuaded that much of the tension between family and ministry is caused by arrival. We know that God won’t call us to keep one command in a way that would cause us to break another. So if, over the long haul, our family has suffered neglect because of our ministry, it is because we are doing things in ministry that we should not be doing because we have wrongly assessed that we can handle more than we are able to handle.

Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling, 162-63.

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Spiritual Direction: Some Clarifications

Spiritual direction is a ministry of codiscernment. Though in the actual experience we might be face to face in conversation, it is helpful to think of this as a ministry in which directors walk alongside others. The directors are not so much telling the others anything as seeking, with them, to listen to the voice of Jesus.

Good spiritual directors may have relatively little to say, but what the directors do say will be oriented toward enabling those they serve to listen to what the Spirit is saying. John English put it well when he wrote, “The guide . . . is not interested in a confession of what the person has done to incur guilt but, rather, in what is happening to the person.” In other words, spiritual directors seek to help others make sense of what is happening in their experience, and the primary focus of this is what the others are experiencing in prayer.

The directors may well have counsel to give–suggestions for spiritual exercises, good reading to consider, texts of Scripture for meditation. And directors may suggest the need for a day of prayer and may speak directly to an area of neglect or blindness, where this would be appropriate. However, the objective of spiritual direction remains the same: to enable others to grow in their capacity to hear the voice of Jesus. The goal of direction is a relationship, enabling others to mature in their ability to live in communion with Christ.

Therefore, while the ministry of spiritual direction may include a discussion about many aspects of people’s lives, notably work and key relationships, the conversation will regularly come back to prayer. Spiritual directors assume that those whom they serve wish to grow in faith, hope and love, and the primary catalyst for this will be their personal encounter with Christ in prayer. Naturally, then, what is happening in peoples’ prayers will be the main focus of conversation.

It also follows that spiritual direction includes conversation about what is being experienced emotionally. Those served through this ministry can acknowledge their feelings, move toward an understanding of their significance and, as appropriate, find some resolution to emotional turmoil or desolation . . . . Feelings have an inherent ambiguity; we need someone outside our immediate experience to help us monitor and understand them. This is a vital element in spiritual direction.

First, then, spiritual directors help us monitor our prayers. Second, directors help us come to terms with what is happening to us emotionally. But there is a third element to spiritual direction: this ministry means asking questions about our response to our world.

Here, too, an important distinction needs to be made. Directors are ill advised to use the word should about a decision others are making or to offer a judgment about whether a previous decision was wisely made. It is simply not the directors’  call to make. Rather, through well-conceived questions, directors can help develop in others a capacity to act well and choose well. Questions about the range of alternatives others might consider would be appropriate. Questions that highlight aspects of the others’ world, options or problems they might have overlooked and potential implications for family, friends and colleagues are reasonable as well.

Again, as noted above, spiritual directors are not counselors or therapists but are those who walk beside us as codiscerners, enabling us to monitor our prayers, the emotional terrain of our lives and our actions and reactions to our world. While we might appreciate keenly the value of spiritual directors when we are making a critical decision, the ministry of directors has relevance at all points in our spiritual pilgrimage.

Gordon T. Smith, The Voice of Jesus, 215-17.

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What Does it Mean to be “Poor in Spirit”?

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs  to them” (Matt. 5:3)

It means a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of self-assurance and of self-reliance. It means a consciousness that we are nothing in the presence of God. It is nothing, then, that we can produce; it is nothing that we can do in ourselves. It is just this tremendous awareness of our utter nothingness as we come face-to-face with God. That is to be “poor in spirit.” Let me put it as strongly as I can, and I will do so on the basis of the teaching of the Bible. It means this, that if we are truly Christian we shall not rely upon our natural birth. We shall not rely upon the fact that we belong to certain families; we shall not boast that we belong to certain nations or nationalities. We shall not build upon our natural temperament. We shall not believe in and rely upon our natural position in life, or any powers that may have been given to us. We shall not rely upon money or any wealth we may have. The thing about which we shall boast will not be the education we have received, or the particular school or college to which we may have been. No, all that is what Paul came to regard as “dung,” and a hindrance to this greater thing because it tended to master and control him. We shall not rely upon any gifts like that of natural “personality,” or intelligence or general or special ability. We shall not rely upon our own morality and conduct and good behaviour. We shall not bank to the slightest extent on the life we have lived or are trying to live. No; we shall regard all that as Paul regarded it. That is “poverty of spirit.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 50.

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Leaders Who Get Distracted — Part 2

Leadership is difficult. We’re tugged at from all sides by people who want their perspective affirmed, or their agenda adopted, or their beliefs validated. We’re tempted to please people rather than cast vision, tempted to become a yes-man rather than making the hard call. Most of all, we’re tempted to settle, time and again, for smaller visions rather than the big, transformative vision of God’s kingdom invading our lives.

As a leader, I’ve often made the mistake of thinking that my own success was predicated on meeting people’s needs. I’ve crafted sermons based on what I thought people would like. I’ve made decisions to appease. I’ve caved in to criticism. But too often, while attracting a crowd, I’ve created chaos.

I’ve recently discovered that the “crowd,” in the Gospels, was a negative thing, not a positive one. The crowd was generally whiny and disruptive to a prophetic Jesus. The way of succes for Jesus was telling the truth, even if it hurt. He put words to the inner division of the religious elite, calling them “hypocrites” and “white-washed tombs,” polished on the outside but rotting on the inside (Matt. 23:27). Seldom have I been so bold about confronting divisive people.

But I’m learning that people crave honesty from their leaders. They want us to tell the truth, even if it hurts a bit. Of course, that doesn’t include shaming and put-downs. We need to tell the truth from our own place of wholeness, honest about our own blindness and faults. But from a place of humility, we can speak to others with vision and with courage, calling them to live into their deepest identity as “new creations” in Christ.

I think of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and his namesake, Martin Luther. I’m inspired by St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Each proclaimed that the God who’d taken up residence in their hearts and cleaned house was also the God who reconciled polarized groups, challenged religious tribalism, and confronted inner divisions. I want to be this kind of leader.

I’m increasingly convinced that whether you lead a church or a car wash, whether you run an insurance company or animal shelter, real leadership requires wholeness, and real leadership invites wholeness in others. Anything less is a cheap imitation, a motivational game or a self-improvement project that does nothing more than decorate the outside without reordering the inside.

Christian psychologist David Benner describes the challenge of this more radical transformation:

Far too easily we settle for holiness rather than wholeness, conformity rather than authenticity, becoming spiritual rather than deeply human, fulfillment rather than transformation, and a journey toward perfection rather than union with God. Far too often we confuse our own spiritual self-improvement tinkerings with the much more radical agenda of the Spirit of God. The call of the Spirit–which is always gentle and therefore easily missed–is an invitation to abandon our self-improvement projects that are, in reality, little more than polishing our false self and become the unique hidden self in Christ that we have been from all eternity. The call of the Spirit is always a call to return home, to settle for no other habitation or identity than that of being in Christ and knowing the reality of Christ in us.

Chuck DeGroat, Toughest People to Love, 138-39.

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Bogus “Authenticity”

. . . the elevation of ‘authenticity’ as a virtue carries with it a promotion for self-deception among the vices. So, to the degree that we value authenticity, we will be averse to the suggestion that we are self-deceived. Believing myself to be authentic–to be true to myself and to others–will be a source of significant satisfaction and felt-well being for me. But, as it turns out, being genuinely honest with oneself is often hard work. And it is at this point that life cuts us a deal. If we can convince ourselves that we’re authentic people–that we are not self-deceived–we can have all the benefit of theft over honest toil. We can experience the satisfaction associated with saying ‘Whatever else is true of me, I am honest with myself and others. I know myself. I’m real’ . . . a major strategy for the self-deceiver is simple subject avoidance. We simply resist attentive focus on the painful topic and are thereby enabled to persist in our belief. So we [choose to] resist the topic of self-deception.

Gregg A. Ten Elshof, I Told Me So, 12-13.

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The Dark Side of Spiritual Direction

. . . there are two approaches that spiritual directors might take that would be injurious. The first is to presume to determine how others should live their lives. This usually means, of course, that the directors expect those they are directing to live according to the directors’ expectations. And second, spiritual direction is flawed when the directors assume that others will experience God in the same way that the directors have.

Often, of course, these two go together: the expectations the directors have for those they are directing correspond to the directors’ own experience. Yet sometimes they are not the same. Spiritual directors may try to call forth in others a pattern of life or behavior that they themselves had hoped to have, and now the directors seek to live vicariously through the others. On both accounts, the problem is that the directors assume they know best. They have an agenda largely because they overvalue their own experience of God and assume that it will be replicated in others.

Obviously, we need to be alert to controlling individuals. Not all of those with agendas for others are ill-intentioned: they may be generous individuals who truly believe they know what is best. But their generosity and their good intentions are nevertheless dangerous. They may not appreciate how much their good intentions are rooted in their own desire for control and personal fulfillment. They long to be needed and to have spiritual power in the lives of others.

Some will grant them this power. Many Christians are happy to relinquish their adult responsibility to hear and know the voice of God. They are content to remain in a posture of spiritual dependence on another rather than cultivating their own capacity for discernment. They probably know that the task of discernment is hard work that calls for baring the soul. So if someone else will tell them how they are loved, where they need to face up to sin and what they need to know, they are content to let the other play this role in their lives. And so the fault can easily go both ways.

Yet we cannot stress enough that there is extraordinary freedom, power and joy in knowing, to the depths of our soul, what God is saying to us. Even though this may come slowly and painfully, and even though we will be frustrated at times (with ourselves and perhaps even with God, especially when God seems to be silent), there is no substitute for learning to discern for ourselves. Yet in many respects, we cannot do this alone. We need others to enable us, to encourage us, to challenge the propensities and biases that undermine our capacity to listen to the voice of Jesus. While alert to the dangers, we need to enter eagerly and openly into conversation with friend, codiscerner, spiritual director or pastor. We need to be in conversation with others about the witness of the Spirit to our hearts.

Gordon T. Smith, The Voice of Jesus, 213.

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Leaders Who Get Distracted – Part 1

Wholeness can also be described as soulfulness, a life that’s centered, passionately engaged, open, creative, connected, and propelled by a sense of mission. It is this kind of wholeness that leaders need to cultivate in themselves and in those under their leadership.

The best leaders do not focus merely on getting the most out of their people, but emphasize having a vision for their whole-hearted flourishing. They encourage wholeness where fragmentation exists. They instill passion where ambivalence exists. Peering into the divided souls of their people, they are able to tap hidden resources of energy. David Whyte writes,

From the organizational side, if corporations ignore the darker underbelly of their employees’ lives for a well-meaning approach, emphasizing only the positive, they will be forced to rely on expensive management pyramids to manipulate their workers at the price of commitment. Adaptability and native creativity on the part of the workforce come through the door only with their passions. Their passions come only with their souls. Their souls love the hidden springs boiling and welling at the center of existence more than they love the company.

Motivational leadership is not enough, because too often it asks us to ignore darker parts of ourselves. On the other hand, leaders who have the courage to foster human flourishing invite into their organizations a wealth of passion and creativity–significant gifts that are often suppressed and ignored.

For me, greater wholeheartedness came through great pain and disappointment in my work, and a significant break-up in an important work relationship. Struggle and even failure drove me to look at my own heart more intentionally. I knew I needed to focus on my own brokenness and fragmentation rather than on the external factors that made me miserable. As Palmer Parker says, “Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness–mine, yours, ours–need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.”

Chuck DeGroat, Toughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life–Including Yourself, 132-33.

Artwork  by Lucian Freud


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Does God Really Love Me?

The spiritual tradition in which I was raised, the Christian & Missionary Alliance, is typical of many denominations that stress the work of the Spirit in our lives. As I look back, I appreciate the teaching I received, but what is noteworthy is that when it came to the ministry of the Spirit, two aspects of this ministry were emphasized: strength in the face of temptation and empowerment for ministry. While both of these are vital aspects of the Spirit’s ministry, what we so easily miss is the assurance of God’s love comes prior. The first references to the ministry of the Spirit in the book of Romans (in 5:5 and then in chapter 8) speak of the inner assurance–the witness of the Spirit confirming that we are children of God–and the love of God poured into our hearts.

This is the foundation from which we need to begin and from which the whole ministry of the Spirit proceeds. It is imperative, then, that we attend to this ministry and respond favorably to the prompting of the Spirit of God. We cannot walk in the Spirit unless we accept the love of God poured into our hearts by the Spirit. When we resist this, we resist the Spirit.

Why would anyone resist this? To begin with, we must never underestimate the power of self-pity–one of the first sign of self-centeredness. We may resist the Spirit because we know that he will always call us to peace and hope, to gracious acceptance of difficulty and disappointment, even to blessing those who curse us (Mt 5:44). This is not necessarily welcome news, and so some would rather remain in self-pity than accept the humbling reality that God loves them.

Others resist because accepting the ministry of the Spirit requires a radical vulnerability. Looking at the language of Romans 5:5, it is clear that to welcome the Spirit we must open our hearts. Surely this is the basis of the ancient liturgical call to worship, “Lift up your hearts to the Lord” and the response “We lift them up to the Lord.” To accept the ministry of the Spirit can be humbling, bringing us down from our false posture of self-sufficiency and self-dependency.

However, there are others who for very different reasons find it difficult to believe that God loves them. They long to believe, have sought to be vulnerable before the Spirit and have long since moved beyond self-pity, but they still struggle to accept and experience the love of God. I am thinking of those who have been hurt often. Perhaps as children they were abused by authority figures whom they should have been able to trust. Perhaps as adults they had a spouse who was repeatedly unfaithful. Or perhaps they have belonged to religious communities that have reinforced the picture of a God who is always unhappy with them for their failures. Their hearts are tender and receptive, but it is hard for them to accept the fact, proven in the death of Christ, that not only does God love others but also God loves them.

Henri Nouwen has suggested that we consistently experience the love of God against the backdrop of what he calls a “second love”–the love we experience through parents, teachers, spouses and friends. The problem is that while we have all experienced this second love, we have also had, to greater or lesser extents, the feeling of frustration with others. Along the way, someone who ought to have demonstrated the love of God to us instead let us down and betrayed that love. We have been hurt, and the consequence (entirely understandable) is that we are not inclined to “lift up our hearts.” Nouwen suggested that, actually, there is always an element of rejection, disappointment, ambiguity and ambivalence in this second love. Consequently, it is all the more crucial that we learn to open our hearts to the ministry of the Spirit, who would pour the love of God into our hearts–a love that is secure and strong and dependable.

Gordon T. Smith, The Voice of Jesus, 81-83.

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