I’ve recently begun a book by the late Robert Mulholland, professor emeritus of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. Called Invitation to a Journey, it calls all Christians to deal seriously with their spiritual formation, and, though Mulholland is dedicated to a biblical approach, he doesn’t ignore the role the Holy Spirit plays in each and every person’s experience. Though that idea would, in itself, be a good topic to explore in a post, I will primarily be dealing with a quote from the third chapter:
God is present to us in the most destructive aspects of our cultural captivity. God is involved with us in the most imprisoning bondage of our brokenness. God meets us in those places of our lives that are most alienated from God. God is there, in grace, offering us the forgiveness, the cleansing, the liberation, the healing we need to begin the journey toward our wholeness and fulfillment in Christ.
But this can be uncomfortable. We would much rather have our spiritual formation focus on those places where we are pretty well along the way. How much of our devotional life and our worship are designed simply to affirm, for ourselves, others and perhaps even God, those areas of our lives that we think are already well along the way. In fact, may not such practices become a defense mechanism against the areas that are not yet conformed to the image of Christ? (37)
This is easily one of the most impactful passages of any book I’ve read in the last year. Even if we are not, strictly speaking, at the beginning of our journey toward wholeness in Christ, we will find that the temptation to hide or ignore our deepest wounds never leaves us. (I did, however, have a professor in college who was fond of saying, “In the spiritual life, we are all beginners,” and I think there’s something true there.) Of course, this would seem to be counterintuitive. The promise of healing and restoration is at the heart of the Christian message; it’s why many of us became, or chose to remain, Christians. And yet, until the final restoration of all things, we remain broken—and sometimes like it that way. We still struggle, even though we have laid hold of the promises of God in baptism and walk down the road of closer communion with him daily.
We hold on to these imperfections because, as Mulholland says, this “brokenness is who we are.” These mistakes, sins, and misunderstandings are part of us, inextricably tied to our innermost selves. So once we get past the initial shock of this statement, we will realize that this isn’t really a surprise at all. We can still choose to run from God, as the man and woman in the garden did, even though we have previously walked with him in the cool of the day.
But thank God that he pursues us, and meets us in those most desecrated places. Thank God that he chooses to travel through Samaria instead of going the long way round. God is never surprised by our disease; where shame abounds, his compassion abounds all the more. It is essential for our growth, however, to recognize those problem areas and open them up to God, so that the necessary confrontation that comes with growth can begin.
Let me be the first to admit that I harbor certain parts of my own brokenness. My most terrifying and secret shame is that at times I find it very, very difficult to believe at all. There are times when the idea of God being born as a Jewish carpenter sounds like the most ludicrous thing in the world, like a laughable fairytale fueling what Marx called “the opiate of the masses.” In fact, I don’t think it’s unfair to say this is my default mode. Every single day is a knock-out, drag-down fight to hold on to the promises I claimed in my baptism, to remember that I am a beloved son of God.
But there is good news. God meets me in my unbelief. This is a beautiful and difficult thing to experience. It is the painful kind of grace Flannery O’Connor wrote about. In all my skepticism and second-guessing he is there, holding out a white robe to replace the scratchy fig leaves I have clothed myself in. And from time to time he bursts in the door so that I’m able to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am not a fool for believing. That I’m not wasting my time in seminary. That this struggle will be a useful tool in my future ministry for helping others who, when the door is closed, can ask the honest (and worthwhile) question, “Is any of this even real?”
This is a scary thing for a seminarian to admit. But I do it in the hope that it gets the ball rolling for us all to be a bit more honest with each other. Hopefully, as Mulholland suggests, we can stop hiding behind the things we are good at and allow God the room to work in the most rundown rooms of the house. This week, I will be meditating on the following prayer of the psalmist. I invite you to do the same.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23-24)