This article was published in the January to April 2016 issue of Rapport magazine.
Joe Davis looks at how we can redeem a ‘dark night’ of the soul by the practice of spiritual disciplines in following Jesus
A common experience for many of us, who have been following Jesus for more than a few years, is that we feel like we have reached a plateau in our Christian life. Our prayer life feels like hard work, the Bible seems dry and a little lifeless and church can sometimes seem – well, unsatisfying. For a while we may blame the church leader, or the worship leader or the small group, but sooner or later we start to realise the problem lies within us. It is, as St John of the Cross says, a ‘dark night’ of the soul and very often, even if we are in a crowd, we feel lonely. When you add to this a general sense of dissatisfaction with life, or perhaps some sort of midlife crisis, you have the recipe for quite a spiritual depression.
But what if this plateau, or crisis, or depression, was all a very necessary part of our growth? What if this was the Holy Spirit, inviting us into a far more satisfying and deeper intimacy with God? I believe with all my heart it is.
I think it was Theresa of Avila who first likened the spiritual journey to that of a caterpillar (she used the silk worm) which is an extraordinary creature that is really two insects during its lifetime.
When the caterpillar is born, as those of you who have ever tried to grow cabbages will know, it eats its environment. Chomp, chomp, chomp.
You can liken this to the early stages of our Christian lives. We love sermons, we love singing, we love teaching and learning in small groups, we simply can’t get enough. We are enthusiastic and eager and we are constantly learning new things, chomp, chomp, chomp. But there comes a moment in the caterpillar’s life when it can eat no more (as we know the hungry caterpillar will be very sick!), and at this point the caterpillar hangs by a thread to the thing that once brought it such life and goes into a chrysalis.
Emerging into something new
I am not a biologist, so I cannot explain what actually happens inside the chrysalis and the amazing metamorphosis that takes place, but eventually the new butterfly struggles out of the chrysalis to reveal its beautiful new wings and the ability to fly and flourish on earth in a new way, with a completely new perspective of the world.
The equivalent stage in our own spiritual journey may feel as though we are losing our faith. Often some people will walk away from church at this ‘chrysalis’ time, but if we can learn to see the signs, and push through the struggles, we may emerge into something new and very wonderful.
Many spiritual writers have developed this theme to talk about the two halves of life or stages of faith. The early (caterpillar) stages include coming to faith, learning the ‘rules’ of faith, how to behave, what’s good and what’s not, and then ultimately onto leadership within the faith community. These stages deal more with the externals of faith.
The latter stages deal far more with the inner journey, issues of the heart, our formation, even, very often, our addictions which may well have been untouched by our conversion experience. Sometimes the suffering that we encounter which may cause us to question our faith, may paradoxically be our friend in pushing us through to a different stage of faith. The philosopher and co-founder of Renovaré, Dallas Willard, rightly notes that when a person comes to faith their ‘deformed desire system’ does not automatically transition to the side of Christ. So how is Christ formed in us? How do we see the transformation in our lives that we long for? How do we actually grow in Christ-likeness and experience more love, joy and peace? And how do we grow in an intimacy with God that we hunger for but that so often eludes us?
Enjoying God’s kingdom
The apostle Paul, when writing to his protégé, wrote that he should ‘train to be godly.’ (1 Tim 4:7) One of the first sessions I normally teach at Lee Abbey is the gospel of Jesus and his insistence that the Kingdom of God is available here and now. In other words, the gospel of Christ is not just a promise of eternal life after death (like that isn’t wonderful enough.) but that you can enjoy the in-breaking life of the Kingdom of God here in this life.
A closer reading of the Sermon on the Mount reveals that the Rabbi Jesus really expected his followers to be able to live their lives without worry, lust or greed, indeed that they could learn not only to love their enemies but bless those who cursed them. Not just nice ideas that perhaps only the ‘super-spiritual’ might achieve, but something for all followers of Jesus.
Thankfully, the Bible is also honest about the disciples’ success (or rather lack of it) at achieving these aims. However, Jesus was patient and kind and inspired them to go on no matter how disgraceful their behaviour might have been (see Peter’s attempts at walking on water, or his reinstatement in John 21).
In recent times there has been a good and helpful emphasis on worshipping Jesus, but it should be remembered that Jesus never asked anyone to worship him, but rather to follow him. That means looking at the things that Jesus did and copying them. So, if Jesus took time for silence and solitude, then his followers will too. If Jesus fasted then his followers will fast, if Jesus had compassion … and so on.
Again Dallas Willard notes a common misunderstanding, namely that ‘grace is opposed to earning and not to effort’. There is nothing we could ever do to make God love us more than he does in this moment. Nothing! However, following Jesus will not ‘just happen’ and will, in fact, take well-informed, Spirit- led effort on our part.
Throughout church history the church has emphasised various spiritual disciplines. As we consider these we realise some aspects of our faith have either gone missing or got out of perspective. You can see this in the constant left to right swing of social action and the preaching of the gospel.
One of things that I love about Renovaré is its balanced approach to discipleship, drawing on all the great streams of church history seen reflected in the life of Jesus (Contemplative, Social Action, Charismatic, Holiness, Evangelical, Incarnational). Each of these traditions have various spiritual practices, designed to train the follower of Jesus so that, like all training, we end up naturally doing the things that Jesus did (or having the mind of Christ). This is what it means to have a ‘righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees’.
So why might we fast? It’s horrible, lowering your blood sugar and even getting a headache. We do it because Jesus knew that in going without food we learn to control our desires, rather than letting our desires control us. In our addictive and addicted world that’s a useful skill to have. Why will we practise Sabbath keeping? We do it because when we are rested, we have more joy and peace in our lives. Why might we practice secrecy? We do this to genuinely embrace that we serve an audience of one, and it’s great, we don’t need to do things to earn the praise of others. And so on …
Of course the inherent danger with spiritual disciplines is that they become the new legalism. Only God by his Spirit can transform us, but I Iike what Richard Foster, founder of Renovaré, says: ‘We undertake a discipline to put us in a place where God can do the transforming’.
So, inspired and fuelled by God’s grace, we can discover a richer and deeper life with God, better than we ever dared dream or imagine. I hope I may meet some of you in April at the Life in the Kingdom of God week. Caterpillars, chrysalises and butterflies welcome. Grace and peace to you.
Rev. Joe Davis is full-time speaker and advocate for Renovaré Britain and Ireland. He is a Baptist minister with over 25 years experience in pastoral ministry.
Joe is leading a week at Lee Abbey Devon called “Life in the Kingdom of God” from 4 to 8 April 2016.