Here’s something that I think is true. We discover who we are on the edge of our limits, kind or cruel, just or unjust, strong or weak, the truth of our character resides on the boundaries of our supposed self-sufficiency. At least part of the answer to the question, “why does God allow adversity in our lives?”, and even worse, “why does he often wait until the last moment to deliver us from adversity?”, is that it is in those moments of darkness and despair, that our character, whatever it may be, comes to the fore. In my experience God actually often seems to wait until its past too late, deep into overtime, to resurrect the seeming corpses of our lives.
It is also in these moments that he does his finest work. The truth is, we need to be broken, to be saved. We often live in fear of such moments. The trouble is, it’s impossible to live in obedience to God’s call, and also avoid adversity. Even the best things in life are a battleground—Marriage for example. For those that are called to a married life, it’s a high point they look forward to, only to find that a lot of its beauty lies in the refining work that God does through it. I don’t say that God causes adversity, only that he has chosen to allow it, and to use it.
Even without adversity of the specific or extreme sort, the human life is a limited life. At the best of times, we are faced daily by the things we cannot do, imagined selves we cannot be and it’s… disappointing. You can add to that, health, finances, family issues, and work. Nobody wins in every area of life. Still, our response is almost always to push against our increasing limitations… from personal trainers, to therapists, to podcasts, to diets. Sometimes even the pursuit of deeper faith can seem like just another thing on the list of things we have to do, to keep the caboose of limitations that is our humanity, on the tracks. This is not a bad thing necessarily, but while I do all these things, I am acutely aware, that this cannot be the abundant life that Christ promised.
Shortly after I turned 30, I was lucky enough to complete a pilgrimage called El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It is what it sounds like, a long walk! The route I took lasted 15 days, with each day being on average a 25-kilometre hike through plains, mountains and forest, across northern Spain. I found the act of imposing a limitation on myself to be eye opening. I would wake up every day, and all I could do was walk. At first it was difficult, and then it was mundane, shortly thereafter annoying, but then finally I had to come to accept it. As I started to focus less on my discomfort, or boredom, my attention began to turn ever so subtly inward. What’s more, it wasn’t in some self-involved, self-directed search for self-Improvement. The best way to put it is that I just started to hear myself, in a way that I rarely do.
I could hear deep down, the things that I really wanted. Things like love, joy, peace, goodness, wonder, truth, freedom. I felt that each day has a measure of these things in it. Some days are full of it, like a cloudless blue sky, on other days they appear more as a glint of sunshine through heavy rain clouds. I felt also that in my frustration at the limitations in the different parts of my life, I was WALKING by these things every day. This is a thought that began on the pilgrimage, has stayed with me since, and every so often nudges at me, when I turn my nose up at some aspect or other of my life. The clearest version of this thought that I have had to date is this: Whatever our limits may be in this life, however the world, time, or even our own bodies may close inwards on us, our inner lives, the lives of our souls are limitless, infinite.
This isn’t a sermon, and I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of what this means. One thing it must mean, is that whatsoever adventures we may have physically, do not compare to the travels awaiting us when we indulge this journey of the soul. This isn’t about being overly spiritual, and detached from physical realities, it’s about seeking truths that finally start to make sense of reality, truths that allow us to tease out the intrinsic joy and wonder of life. You know that story of the sisters Martha and Mary? Most of us are Martha, and Christ is in our house, and we keep by-passing him, on the way to the kitchen, taking out the garbage, doing the laundry, GOING TO CHURCH, reading that book, reading ALL THE BOOKS. All good things, but if those things prevent us from hearing Him, from hearing our very souls, then the cost is too great. Christ is peace, Christ is truth, Christ is love, and he is all we have ever needed.
I have made attempts to live this journey of the spirit more deliberately over the last few years, to no longer wait on adversity to strip me of my “strength” and force me to hear my soul. It is a work in progress, but I have found a few things helpful.
Meditating even for a few minutes each day works well, along with a short passage of scripture. This involves a subtle change from “shaking God down” for direction to simply creating space into which he can speak, and maybe asking Him the question “what should I do THIS day?” Fasting is also a good practice. This is simply deliberately weakening the body, in the process, allowing the spirit to take up larger ground. Finally, reading the works of influential Christians that have come before us. I think we overemphasize contemporary Christian teaching, at the expense of the wisdom and knowledge gained over centuries of discipleship. We constantly seem to be reinventing the wheel, when we might be better served to stand on the shoulders of the Body of Christ that exists across the history of Christianity. We are but a fragment of something beautiful and frankly miraculous, and we should embrace that. We certainly should add to this story in our own way, while not ignoring the many chapters in between Christ’s resurrection, and our own chapter.
I used to think of spiritual disciplines like the ones I outlined above, as things I might do to preserve my faith, to keep me from crossing over to the side of doubt and disbelief. Now I believe if viewed correctly, they are a launch pad for an incredible journey, in which we meet Christ again, and again, and again. He intends to change water into wine. Abundant life IS A THING. I don’t want to sound too capital C Charismatic about it, but I think it really is. If we ask we WILL receive, and the door is very much waiting to be opened, and on the other side of it is a land that goes on and on and on. That’s the great adventure, the one which elevates life from simply an endless battle with myriad adversity and limitations, to a grand story, in which the destination, whatever may come, is always towards Truth, Love, and Beauty.