Wednesday with Michael Spencer “The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction.”

beauty of absence. Photo by Nikos Mouoras at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Wednesday with Michael Spencer
“The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction.” 

From a 2007 post: “Mother Teresa and the Mystery of God’s Absence”

Christianity’s promises of the present presence and apprehension of God are not simple. In many ways, it seems to me that neither scripture nor recorded experience gives a coherent, teachable view of the subject. (Anyone out there heard a sermon or teaching series lately on the Experience of God’s Presence? It takes some pretty confident Charismatics to go there.)

What we do know is that from Job to David to Jesus to Teresa to Jack Lewis to Michael Spencer, those who belong to God and have His Spirit go through times, even entire chapters of life, where God’s presence does not come in simple, “felt” ways. God seems to be hiding; to be purposely staying out of reach and out of touch. To what end? For what purpose?

Such questions do not have simple answers, and even if someone were to undertake a survey of the most eloquent writers on their own experience of God’s absence, I dare say that no two would be so alike and instructive that any of us would be able to avoid the experience. We would be affirmed that we are not unique, atheists would be encouraged to announce the death of God, and religious bigots and bullies would put their targets on our backs and fire away.

It is interesting to me that Mother Teresa’s experience, which she wrote about in Come Be My Light, seems to be, in some way, tied to the same personality that worked tirelessly and cared endlessly. We learn, according to the excerpts, that at the times she was the most devoted and sacrificial, God’s face was often hidden from her. Of course, those who point at Teresa’s experience of darkness might want to look at the testimony of joy and divine presence that is part of the story of many other Christians. We are not, in any way, cut from the same cookie-cutter spiritual material.

I remember the depths of my own dark night in September of 2001. I was at the point of breaking down and being unable to preach or teach, a condition I had never faced before. I was as far from God as it was possible to be, and I felt myself in the grip of despair. But I came to work every day. I taught. I preached -– with unparalleled fear and shame –- and I ministered to others. In my community of faith, these daily activities filled in the empty places, and in these moments I experienced the mixture of despair and faith that the Psalms report to us again and again. Where are you God? I cannot see you or sense you, but you are there. In the very absence, there is a different and sustaining kind of presence. This was not a certain absence -– which so many flippantly assume -– but a mysterious presence, entirely congruent with what I know of myself and of the God of the Bible.

The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction. I reject the kind of “victorious life” formulaic teaching I grew up hearing in fundamentalist circles, and I must also reject the kind of consumeristic emotional junk food that is found everywhere in evangelicalism as a substitute for the presence of God. As much as I count myself a Christian hedonist, I am suspicious that “Delight yourself in the Lord” is often deeply and significantly misunderstood.

The assurance of God’s presence and the certainties of answered questions are not the same thing. I find far more rational certainty in the resurrection than I do existential experience of the presence of Jesus. Spiritual experience takes the shape of the incarnation itself, with God inhabiting a fallen world where human beings have become insensitive, fearful and callous to the glory of God that pours forth from every crack of the universe. If the fall is true, then none of us are “in tune” with the presence of God, and particular theologies of God’s presence may let us down profoundly.

24 thoughts on “Wednesday with Michael Spencer “The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction.”

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  2. “About a billion light years out you rest your feet,
    on some outlying planet’s mountain rise,
    absent time and distance we meet,
    you play to the meek you hide from the wise…”
    A line from one of my upcoming songs.

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  3. The works of St. John of the Cross go over the process briefly outlined in this quote from Finley step by step and in great detail; and, sublimely, the works are all in the form of commentary on St. John of the Cross’ own sublime religious poetry!

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  4. I re-read it about a year ago and found it to be like returning to a good, refreshing oasis in the middle of a desert.

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  5. Thank you, Rick. I found it to be helpful, as well. Perhaps it’s time to read it again in this disorientating time.

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  6. Many of is have “been there, done that” regarding what you say, JoelG, and have probably found ourselves there more than once. As RobertF says, please don’t regret the post and the sharing of your experience.

    Ad I’ve said many a time here, even in a comment today, Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God” helped me through a particularly spiritually dry time.

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  7. I’ve found myself interacting with some younger Christians (millennial types) these days through food distribution our church is providing to the community, and I must say that I’m encouraged that this is NOT the case with the younger generation nor the international Christians I meet.

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  8. Ditto Robert F. You’ll never know how much your comments here over the years have helped me not feel alone. I don’t comment much, but I really appreciate you.

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  9. I feel much the same way as you do, JoelG. Please don’t regret sharing your thoughts. It helps those of us who feel similarly not to feel so alone when we share our similar experiences with each other; at least, that’s how it works for me.

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  10. I am regretting this post now. I don’t want to cause anyone to doubt the love of God in Christ. Anxiety (medication and therapy) overwhelms my thinking sometimes and clouds my ability to “feel” the presence of Jesus.

    “I find far more rational certainty in the resurrection than I do existential experience of the presence of Jesus.”

    Me too. I would love to be able to “feel” His Presence. All I usually feel is anxiety and insecurity when it comes to faith. My “love language” is “words of affirmation”. I need to hear that I’m forgiven and loved very often, otherwise I fall into despair easily.

    “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

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  11. when an American says that he/she is a ‘Christian’,
    the automatic assumption these days is that he/she follows the 600 lb. gorilla in the White House . . . . somehow the word ‘christian’ got co-opted for ‘Republican’ which got co-opted for ‘trumpism’.

    Nothing is what is seems to be these daze

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  12. “It is hard to argue with what Jesus taught and demonstrated by his life. I am confident that if I could understand and practice that simple theology, I would be at peace and my world would be much better. But in a world where the words and practices of Jesus are an afterthought to politics, nationalism and organizational religion, I find myself wincing when someone calls me a “Christian,” instead of embracing it with pride. Because of our history, I’m identified more with the baggage than the ideals and it makes me sad.”

    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/thedesertsanctuary/2020/07/dont-call-me-christian/

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  13. maybe it is the experience of a ‘dark night of the soul’ that opens us to be able to recognize and appreciate the profound peace we feel when God comes near

    the contrast . . . . there are no words

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  14. I was just reading this earlier today and feels quite appropriate:

    “Sometimes God moves in on us in a covert operation of love that we know nothing about. Then, at a certain point, God sets in motion in us a perplexing inability to pray and reflect on the things of God in the manner to which we are accustomed. We are not, in this scenario, awakened to some qualitatively richer way of realizing God’s presence. Instead, the divine mystery, secretly at work in our hearts, dismantles our ability to derive satisfaction from our customary ways of praying and reflecting on the things of God. The whole experience can be quite disheartening. But then, as we learn to rest in this powerlessness, a new, more subtle and interior way of realizing God’s presence slowly begins to emerge within us. … God weans us away from our tendency to base
    our security and identity on anything less than God.” James Finley

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  15. On the best of days I’m not sure about the presence of Jesus in my life. It is a hope most of the time. I guess the hope is as good as it gets. In the anxious and hopeless times we live in now the silence is deafening and i wonder what the point of life is. Does He enjoy watching us struggle?

    “How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it and why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager—I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?”

    -Kierkegaard

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  16. In some ways, I feel like the deep yearning and aching emptiness we experience in those times when we don’t “feel” God is, in itself, a form of intimacy with God. If nothing else it reminds us that there’s something deep inside us that desires God’s presence. When I look back on my life in retrospect I feel like the times when I was farthest from God were not those “desert” times of wondering why God was absent, but the times when busyness or cynicism or something else had gotten enough of a grip on me that I had stopped even desiring or hoping for God’s presence. Those were often even times when I felt quite content with my life without God.

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  17. I have a very good Christian friend who has raved for years about the book “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence. I’ve never bothered to check it out, but after reading this piece I think I should. My friend woulc be delighted if I did, too… LOL.

    The book that helped me most through some of what Michael Spencer described/struggle with here was Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God.” Helped me through my several-year-long spiritual desert experience, anyway! How to keep the faith when you just don’t feel the Presence? Well, just keep the faith.

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