I grew up in the church. But I really didn’t start walking with God until my freshman year of college. By then, I’d already accumulated a lengthy list of bad habits that needed to be shed. In those enthusiastic early days of my faith — days in which I devoured the Scripture and prayed with friends in my dorm every night and participated in just about every small group that would have me — those first steps of transformation came easily. I stopped swearing virtually overnight, for instance. Ditto going to the bars with my drinking buddies. You get the picture.
At that point, it seemed like spiritual growth was a pretty linear equation: Identify what needs to change, repent, pray and, voila, transformed behavior.
That was nearly 25 years ago. And in that time, I’ve had other moments in which clear spiritual growth has been equally obvious and amazing. That said, there have also been seasons in which discerning where and how I’m growing in my walk with God has been much more difficult. As hard and as frustrating as those seasons have been, I think they’ve served an important role in giving me perspective on what spiritual growth looks like over the longer haul of our lives. I’d like to share a few of those reflections.
First, God sometimes graciously infuses our lives with grace to make massive changes at moments we desperately need to do so. My freshman year, for instance, I’d been actively on the run from Him for several years. When I finally relinquished my stiff-necked determination to live life on my own rebellious terms, God met me in a miraculous way and supernaturally delivered me (I believe) from some self-destructive patterns that had taken root in my life.
On the other end of the experiential spectrum, we may also traverse sections of our spiritual journeys in which God’s clear, felt presence is difficult to discern. Shortly before my wife and I got engaged, I had a bout of debilitating anxiety about our relationship. The details are a story for another time, but suffice to say that I plunged into a deep depression (which required medication and which resulted in losing my job) and that my sense of God’s presence utterly evaporated. It was as if He had walked out of the room of my life and shut out the lights. That disorienting sense of God’s absence, which John of the Cross termed a “dark night of the soul” in the 16th century, lasted for years. In fact, nearly nine years later, I still feel distant from God much of the time — a feeling I’ve learned to actively relinquish because that subjective experience is not an accurate barometer of truth.
In contrast to the early days of my Christian pilgrimage, forward progress during this difficult season felt like anything but a linear equation. Instead, it felt like a baffling mystery. Why would God seemingly withdraw His presence from me? Worse was the nagging thought that I’d somehow wandered off the path and that my lack of intimacy with God was somehow my fault. Some days I still grapple with those questions.
Having said all that, however, the majority of my Christian journey has taken place between those two extremes. Those seasons have been neither miraculous nor vexing. Rather, they’ve mostly been mundane — which presents its own set of particular challenges to the spiritual life.
Along that winding path, a few constants stand out.
Increasingly, I’ve realized that my faith is bounded on every side by God’s grace. In my early, zealous and — I’ll say it, legalistic — days of the faith, I acted as if my faith was all up to me. Twenty-five years later, I’m much more aware of my failings and struggles and weaknesses — thus I’m more aware of how desperately in need of God’s ongoing saving grace I am.
I’ve come to believe that my primary responsibility in walking with God is simply this: to keep putting myself in a position to receive and appropriate the lavish grace He offers. For me, that looks like spending time with Him regularly in prayer and through meditating upon Scripture, as well as participating in worship with a community of other believers. The purpose of these spiritual disciplines isn’t to make me more holy or somehow more acceptable to God. Christianity isn’t a spiritual self-improvement project.
Rather, these activities create space for me to taste and see that He is good (Psalm 34:8), to remember what He’s done for me (Psalm 103:1-5), to refocus on His character (Psalm 27:4) and to humbly submit my still-stubborn heart and all its desires to Him (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Sometimes I’ll have an overwhelming sense of His peace and presence. Other times, my soul may seem dry and God may seem distant. Either way, however, my job as a follower of Jesus is to keep coming back to Him, to abide in Him in humble dependence, to acknowledge that apart from Him I can do nothing (John 15:4-5), and to ask Him to help me cooperate with His work in my life as He transforms my heart and character along the way.
What about you? What passages of Scripture do you find yourself taking encouragement from over and over again? What key lessons have you learned or experiences have you had that help you press on through the ups, downs and in-betweens in your spiritual journey? And if you’ve been on that path for some time, what message would you send back to your younger self if you could do so?