Growing up in a Christian family, it’s easy to fall into a hundred different traps. For those of us with childhood memories of burning knees on thin carpet, running and skidding through the bulletin-board-lined halls of churches, it’s easy to believe yourself somehow immune to the errors of the less churched. The errors of those people whose life experience doesn’t include so many long hours in rose- and gold-glassed sanctuaries, in coffee-fumigated basement classrooms, in the drafty cabins of youth camps. It’s all too easy to come by a false sense of accomplishment simply for the fact of having been there—to mistake a lifetime in the bosom of programmatic Christianity for a genuine experience of Christ.
Thinking back to when I was young, I can scarcely recall missing a Sunday or Wednesday night. I attended all the youth meetings and retreats and special events. My friends, outside of school hours, consisted almost entirely of church kids.
The pattern continued at university, where I spent more time thinking about our campus ministry, and the pretty Christian girls who attended, than academics. It was a God-saturated life from skin to bone—or was it? Was my life really as full of God as I thought it was?
Since then, I’ve been a worship leader, led small groups, done homeless outreach, evangelized, and counted pastoral staff as close personal friends. I’ve read the books I was meant to read, and spoken the language of Christianity with the fluency only a native inhabitant can ever fully possess. And yet, and yet.
It was a God-saturated life—or was it? Was my life really as full of God as I thought it was?
After many years of this, I began to sense God was leading my wife and me to a different church. We had been members of the same community for nearly a decade. It was the congregation in which we were married and had our first child. It was where we had served regularly in various capacities and had formed the most meaningful relationships of our adult lives. But the call was unmistakable, unavoidable. Try as I might, I was in the grips of something beyond preference, comfort, and personal history. The Holy Spirit had broken through the steady patterns of life as I knew it and was calling me into a strange land, where the people didn’t yet know me and the opportunities were not the same.
In the ensuing months, our transition to the new church had a peculiar effect on my spiritual growth: I seemed to be going backward. You could say that I was feeling less and less Christian, no longer in touch with the faithfulness I once thought myself to possess. I was surprised at how difficult my spiritual life became to sustain. What had happened?
Eventually it became clear that somewhere along the way, the busyness of church life had led to a false sense of spiritual maturity. I had occupied myself in myriad ways, and in the process missed God. In a play of my own devising, I was both actor and director, establishing the rules and expectations of a show I came to believe was real. Once the externalities were removed, the truth of my spiritual condition became apparent. I had knowledge but not love for God, information but not transformation.
We need often to ask ourselves hard questions, beginning with the obvious but overlooked “What do I really—and I mean really—know?” In other words, What do I know in my being, my soul, beyond the reach of intellect?
Knowledge puffs up, says Paul, and I’m inclined to agree (1 Cor. 8:1). Because after all the ostensibly saintly extracurricular activities are stripped away—when all the Christian books and magazines are burned in time’s fire—what are we left with? How much authentic spiritual formation, the making of ourselves into little Christs, has really taken place? How often have we been satisfied with mere information when God, who calls to us from the holy darkness beyond human understanding, stands by, waiting for our surrender?
Life never went back to “normal” after I discovered my impoverished spiritual state, and I suspect God isn’t through with revealing the true depth of that poverty. I’m still learning a new normal—leaning toward authentic, God-made faith. He’s using my life in this world to reshape me at His pace, which at times seems so slow as to be completely imperceptible. But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be—that we never arrive at the ability to accurately assess our own spiritual condition. That perhaps maybe we will one day arrive at a different place altogether—one where we’re no longer looking to ourselves for answers, but only to Him.