21 September 2018

Meditations for Winter

Lately I've been thinking a bit about how often I hear Christians say, "You can't live the Christian life in your own strength," and then they proceed to give you advice on how to do exactly that. Somehow -- don't ask me how -- this phenomenon has become immune to being questioned. We're supposed to accept statements like these uncritically; if we don't, it's just evidence of our hardness of heart:

"If you don't hear God speaking, it's because you're not listening."

"If God feels far away, it's because you moved away from Him."

"If you want God to use you in great ways, all you have to do is be willing/available."

"If God doesn't seem to be at work in your life, it's because you're sinning, so repent."

"If your prayer life feels frustrating, be more disciplined in the habit."

"If it's not working, you're just not trying hard enough."

Notice what all of the above have in common: they're attempts to "fix" parts of our spiritual lives on our own. If things are going wrong for us, it's either our fault or God's fault, we reason -- and we know it can't be God's fault, so that leaves only one other option. We need to try harder, do better, give more, pray more, serve more, have more faith, fill in the blank...

I tried for a long time to wrap my head around how this is not "living in your own strength" -- until I finally gave up. I didn't just give up because I was too tired to try anymore; I gave up because the evidence for trying was no longer compelling.

I found too many stories in the Bible of people to whom God spoke even when they weren't listening (Abram, Gideon, young Samuel, Elijah, Saul of Tarsus), as well as people who waited for God to speak or intervene in their situation, yet they heard nothing for a long time (Job, Sarah, Hannah). There were stories of people whom God used in a particular way at a particular time for His own reasons -- their willingness or lack thereof didn't have much to do with it (Jacob, Moses, Balaam, Jonah, Lazarus). And there were stories of people who felt forgotten by God even though they weren't living in sin (David, Mary and Martha, John the Baptist, virtually all of the Old Testament prophets).

It seems that some of us are in good company.

And some of us are still persuaded that we can hear God speak or know our life's purpose or have this or that spiritual experience if we just set our mind to it or believe hard enough. "According to your faith be it unto you," we echo the words of Jesus to the blind men in Matthew 9, forgetting that these men were actually standing in front of Jesus Himself at the time, and He had already made up His mind about what He was going to do for them. But it's all the same, we figure -- where there's a will, there's a way.

No matter what, we're in the driver's seat.

I'll venture a guess as to how this happens so easily, and bear in mind this isn't a comprehensive answer. I wonder if our Western -- in this case, American -- culture provides a conducive environment for fostering this way of thinking. The American ethos, after all, contains a healthy dose of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, every-man-for-himself philosophy. In many parts of the world, fate and karma are the values people live by, but not so much in ours. "Reach for the stars" is our rallying cry. If we want it, we'll do it, have it, take it, whatever. America loves underdogs and "rags to riches" stories and people who make great comebacks from terrible circumstances: Even when the deck is stacked against us, we will overcome. We will be victorious. We will find a way.

And I don't think that's a bad thing, per se. Proactivity and innovation and refusing to settle for the status quo are all great qualities. You could argue that that can-do spirit is the very reason for our country's existence. We have done some great things because we believed we could.

But I do wonder if some of it hasn't seeped in to our Christianity and colored the way we approach our spiritual journeys. I wonder if it encourages us to mistakenly identify delay as defeat. Accepting that a situation is outside of our immediate control isn't something we're proud to do.

We criticize the "Name it and claim it" philosophy when it comes to health, wealth, and prosperity, but we apply that same idea to matters of faith. We have quick, tidy answers that don't take into account all the other possible (highly varied and individual) reasons for our frustrations: Maybe prayer isn't working for us anymore, not because we just aren't disciplined enough, but because it's time for a different approach to praying. Maybe God has stopped speaking to us or working with us in the way that we're accustomed to because He's preparing us to experience a different way of relating. Maybe we're sad all the time and the answer isn't that we just need to meditate on Scripture more. Maybe, just maybe, we need a good antidepressant (speaking from experience there).

Sometimes the problem isn't that we need to stop doing "the wrong thing" or start doing "the right thing" in order to turn things around.

Sometimes, we're just waiting on the passage of time.

This is par for the course almost everywhere else in the visible world. Time passing is what happens while we wait for trees to grow new leaves in the spring, for flower petals to unfold, for fruit to ripen, for seeds to mature to the point of readiness. "To everything there is a season", and all that. The point is, we can't force any of these things to happen. Will we cause a tree to grow faster by scolding it or telling it what it should look like at this point in its life? No, there's really nothing we can do but wait. Meanwhile, the sun and the rain and the dividing cells and the microscopic organisms in the soil do their work.

All factors which are out of our sight and completely out of our control.

Note also that growth isn't a once-and-done deal. The tree expands and branches out and yields its fruit and multiplies while the warm season lasts. Winter always comes around again, and the active production of new growth pauses for awhile. It's a time for resting and recouping. This can be a disheartening time for someone who doesn't know or can't remember what spring looks like. Wintertime looks (and feels) a lot like death.

But there's always life underneath, and the tree enters each wintertime a little bigger, a little stronger than it was the last time.

I don't think it's totally unforeseen that "growth" is God's metaphor of choice for how we progress in the Christian life. (I hate to even say "Christian life" because all of life is life, and our relationship to God isn't somehow separate from everything else) We cycle. We have our springs, our summers, our autumns and winters and we take something from each one. "Wintertime" is usually the most feared time of all, because it's almost always the darkest, the coldest, and the least comfortable. It's a time where we aren't actively flourishing and "producing." Not surprisingly, it's a time that tends to invite criticism from ignorant onlookers, who don't see what's going on below the surface. Nevertheless, wintertime is necessary. The summertime wouldn't be what it is if there were no winter.

And God does not hold it against us, the time that we take to grow and process. He doesn't become alarmed during those periods when we don't have much to offer -- just as we don't become alarmed at the shedding of leaves from a tree in anticipation of winter. It's all part of the plan. It takes time.

The idea that we don't control our spiritual growth in the same manner and with the same methods that we use to control our diets or our budgets (hard work, discipline, the "right" mindset, etc.) isn't a popular one. It doesn't preach well. It doesn't sell well. And it doesn't do much to make us feel like we have everything under control.

But it's what we'll always find at the end of ourselves and all our trying -- however we get there, whenever that may be.

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