In my spiritual life, I’ve been wary of feelings.
I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy moments of exquisite feeling at the climax of a worship service or when I can genuinely sense the Spirit: those instances have indeed brought me to tears. Rather, I have always been wary of relying too much on feelings in regards to my faith – because feelings can be fickle, after all. Not feeling a spiritual high doesn’t mean God is absent; not feeling God doesn’t nullify God’s presence.
On top of that, I’m a thinker by nature. Ask me how I respond to something I like or am interested in, and the answer is this: I learn everything I can about it. Reading about God, thinking about God, analyzing and contemplating Scripture, interpreting the Word, writing, scholarship – these have, as much as prayer and worship, been the defining disciplines of my spiritual life to this point. And I feel particularly defensive of them particularly in an age where some parts of the church almost delight in being characterized as anti-reason and anti-intellectual.
I have often worried about what author Ruth Haley Barton has defined as “pointing at the moon”: the phenomenon of talking or thinking about something (the moon) so much that you neglect to actually experience it. I think about the Trappist monk in an interview I read who defined comfortable silence with God as a form of deepest intimacy. I grow weary sometimes of the need of Christian publications I really enjoy to write about everything, to fill the air with words (how does Christianity relate to Meghan and Harry resigning as working British royals?) that sometimes feel unnecessary. I think of my brothers and sisters in Christ who do not or cannot approach Christianity in the way that I do and consider what their experience of God is like.
As a result of this, I find that what I want most in my spiritual life right now is not a feeling, per se – because feelings are fickle – but rather presence, experience, and heart- and soul-knowledge rather than head-knowledge. I find myself thinking about how I can create days in which God accompanies me and I am simply present with God and aware of God and also not asking, initiating, demanding, questioning, worrying, wondering. To do that, I’ve been engaging in the following practices:
- Creating deliberate times to just purposelessly be with God. I come with a Scripture usually, but no particular agenda and no “ask.” I come with a particular prayer: I just want to spend time with You. I talk so much, but now I want to listen to You. Or just even be together for a while. It’s become a form of worship for me. And it has become a way of me being able to discern God’s presence in my life by remembering in these quiet moments exactly what God thinks of me, does for me, and wants from me. It is a learning of God that doesn’t require a text, but a settling-in to deep and profound truths from Scripture that I frankly have already long “known.”
- Making a point to “listen” for God throughout the day. What is God saying to me in the ordinary moment? is my touchstone of late. Mostly, this means noticing His presence in and through things. To my surprise, I’m sorrowing more deeply over sin than usual; experiencing joy more deeply than usual; feeling gratitude more deeply than usual.
- Centering my actions in my identity as God’s beloved child. As God’s beloved child, how shall I respond to…[this obnoxious person/this demand/this impossibility]? The results have been surprising.
It’s not that I’ve given up all my thinking and reading and writing and analyzing. As you can see, I’m still at it. But it’s been a wonderful balance to me to engage this particular spiritual muscle and to get in a practice of communion with God that isn’t necessarily based on my knowledge or depending on my mind. Perhaps it’s most accurate to say that after a long time I am finally trying to learn to center and prioritize the urgings of the Holy Spirit. Either way, if you’re in a space of feeling like you’re full of knowledge but slightly out of step, or if you grow weary of all the thinking and stances and topics and debates that exist in the Christian realm and you’d like a vacation from your brain for a while, maybe a similar approach will help you, too.
I’ll close with this. The Irish band Cuig has a song called Where To Walk that I very much cherish. The chorus is as follows:
Show me the road that I walk on
And when I’m done with all this talk
I will know just where to walk
There is a time for talking. But there’s a time for walking, too. And we know the steps not because we’ve studied the road, but because there is a Guide present to show us the way. Sometimes, settling into that walk and simply being present in it is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.