When I first became a Quaker, I thought that the point of my faith was to experience God’s presence. If I wasn’t experiencing regular encounters with the Holy Spirit, something was wrong.
More recently, such experience – the sense of spiritual ecstasy and mystical states of consciousness – has become much less central to my faith. Instead, I’m increasingly convinced that my relationship with God is validated less by my spiritual experiences than by the extent to which my life reflects the character of Jesus.
In my experience, most religion is primarily about experiencing a sense of God’s presence and comfort. That’s something we all want. Even those of us who aren’t keen on the idea of a personal God would like to feel more present, more connected, more grounded in a sense of something beyond ourselves. Religion in this sense comes naturally to us.
Discipleship is something different. While discipleship is not opposed to the religion of comfort, devotion, and self-improvement, it goes far beyond it. I not sure I ever would have become a follower of Jesus without the religious experiences of my early twenties, yet I know that those experiences alone are not enough to make me a disciple.
Feeling spiritual warm fuzzies – a sense of religious connection with God – is desirable, but it falls far short of the gospel of Jesus. The life of ecstatic, “peak experiences” is one that satisfies the thirsty soul, but Jesus’ way of discipleship leads us through the waterless wilderness and to the cross. I can never truly know what it means to walk in the way of Christ’s living water until I am ready to endure the desert.
I recently read a book called When The Well Runs Dry, by Thomas Green, which discusses what it means to pray and live a Christ-centered life even when life is painful and God seems distant. Green encourages us to think about the spiritual life as a garden. He says that the “water” of the Spirit’s felt presence is intended for the “flowers” of virtue and righteous living. It’s so easy to get stuck pursuing the water of religious experience, but the goal is not water, but flowers!
Sometimes I feel like I’m going backwards in my spiritual journey. As time goes on, my religious experiences seem less frequent and less dazzling. At the same time, I am increasingly aware of how often my life fails to reflect Jesus’ character. I’m like Peter, who thought that he was a great disciple, ready to go to the death with Jesus – but who soon found out that he was a coward, fleeing the cross even as his master was facing torture and death.
I want to be more like Jesus, and I know that all of my religion, self-discipline, and spiritual experiences won’t get me there. There’s nothing I can do, nothing I can give to bridge the gap between the person I am and the person that God desires me to be. Yet I also know that Jesus would not have called me to this way if he were not prepared to provide the strength, courage, and resources I need to walk it.
Give me this day my daily bread, Lord Jesus. Pour your living water on the stunted flowers of my heart. Teach me to be your friend, to take up your call, your cause, your cross.