It’s January 23. I feel like that’s enough space to be able to say with confidence that, like me, you’ve probably given up on some of your New Year’s Resolutions.
(What did I give up on? “Be organized.” Looking back, “Be more organized” might have been more attainable, since a generic resolve to be the complete opposite of my natural personality is a bit of a stretch.)
According to my extremely thorough and scientific analysis of the evidence—meaning that I’m going on my intuition while trying to look scholarly—one of the most common goals for spiritual improvement is, “I will read my Bible every single day.”
This is a great goal. But I think that many of us modify the goal a bit. “I will read my Bible every single day and will always come away with deep spiritual truths that I can share in small group.” “I will read my Bible every single day and each passage will apply directly to my current struggles.” “I will read my Bible every single day and consistently feel closer to God.”
Sometimes those things happen. But not always. And St. John of the Cross and I are here to say that it’s okay.
Who is St. John of the Cross? He’s one of the dead Christian thinkers who I’m going to feature on Theologian Thursdays. (I’m not calling it “Dead Theologian Thursdays” because A. that’s not alliteration, B. it’s morbid, and C. some of the theologians might occasionally still be alive.)
He lived in the late 1500s and wrote the following quote while under enforced confinement by people who didn’t want him to go around reforming the church.
“The problem is this: when they have received no pleasure for their devotions, they think they have not accomplished anything. This is a grave error.”
If the quote stopped here, everyone would probably agree with it. “Devotions” here refers to all aspects of spiritual discipline, including (but not limited to) Bible reading. “Sure,” you might say. “You’re not going to get something out of your Bible study every single time. Only makes sense. We’re human, after all. We get distracted or have wrong motives.”
But St. John of the Cross isn’t pointing to human nature here. He’s going a little deeper. The quote goes on to say, “This is a grave error, and it judges God unfairly.”
Why? “For the truth is that the feelings we receive from our devotional life are the least of its benefits. The invisible and unfelt grace of God is much greater, and it is beyond our comprehension.”
Here, and in the passages that follow in his work The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross is telling us something radically different from what our current Christian culture usually says. He’s saying, “There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re not constantly ‘on fire’ for Christ. In fact, becoming dependent on those emotions is a sign of spiritual immaturity.”
He’s saying, “Don’t compare your spiritual experience to the person next to you. God doesn’t work in the same way with everyone.”
He’s saying, “That pastor who prays for every doubting heart in the room to be strengthened and encouraged…that’s not always the right prayer. Sometimes what you really need is for God to be silent.”
St. John of the Cross goes on to talk about “the dark night of the soul”—that time when you feel spiritually empty and lonely and wonder if God sees you. And, to him, this isn’t a bad thing: “His love is not content to leave us in our weakness, and for this reason he takes us into a dark night. He weans us from all of the pleasures by giving us dry times and inward darkness.”
I don’t like this.
I want the felt grace of God, not this “invisible and unfelt grace” St. John of the Cross keeps trying to promote. Why should I have to believe that God loves me when it doesn’t feel like he does? Shouldn’t God be contractually obligated to give me a steady stream of signs that I’m on the right path? Is it so unreasonable to want to be deliriously happy instead of just content?
(You might think those thoughts are exaggerated for effect. Nope. Those are my actual thoughts on the subject. Don’t tell me you haven’t thought them every now and then yourself.)
At the same time, as much as I hate to admit it, there’s something liberating about what St. John of the Cross is saying.
Especially if you’re the one standing, eyes dried and unmoved, at the church camp gospel presentation (see #6 here). Or the one who feels less spiritual for having lots of questions for God but no eloquent words of praise. Or the one who dutifully reads the Bible passage for the day but doesn’t feel conviction or inspiration or…anything, really.
We don’t love and serve and obey God to get happy feelings. And sometimes we won’t get those feelings. Don’t judge God—and yourself—unfairly by saying we always should.