Sunday with Michael Spencer: How J.I. Packer influenced Michael’s spiritual journey

Road to Fairy Land. Photo by David Cornwell

Note from CM: In tribute to J.I. Packer, who died last week, we present this post from Michael Spencer about his spiritual journey, and how Packer’s book Knowing God played a pivotal role.

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Sunday with Michael Spencer
From “Jesus, the Glory of the Christian Journey” (2009)

I can’t speak for anyone else, just for me.

When I became a Christian in 1974, I was immediately taught to define myself three ways.

First, did I believe that I was a sinner and that Jesus died for my sins so I could go to heaven?

Second, was I doing the the things my church taught me to do: attend worship, pray, read the Bible, tithe, “witness”, come to Sunday School, be a good Baptist?

Third, was I not doing the things my church taught me were sinful: drink, dance, use drugs, watch R-rated movies, listen to rock music, have sex outside of marriage, use profanity, work on Sundays, marry a Catholic?

That was the menu. Simple. Comprehensive. Understandable.

Jesus wasn’t absent. He was the door in. But then he seemed to vanish into the background.

God had other plans for me, however. One of my school friends introduced me to books. Christian books. He was reading C.S. Lewis. I didn’t get what that was all about.

Then he gave me a copy of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. It’s a weighty book now, and it certainly was then. I read what I could, and that wasn’t much, but it was enough to reorient my understanding of the Christian life if two ways.

First, Packer impressed upon me that the Christian life was a relationship with God- “Knowing God.” I’d never heard this before. There was some “knowing” in my faith, but it was primarily about doing. Coming to me at a time when I was starting to awaken intellectually and grow personally, I was drawn to this new way of thinking about the Christian life.

Secondly, Packer’s book demonstrated that being a Christian was a much bigger project than I ever suspected. God touched on everything, not just in the sense of “being a witness,” but in the sense that everything was a way to worship God, serve God or experience God. Suddenly, all of life, not just witnessing or listening to sermons, became part of the experience of knowing God.

I took the book to my youth director and asked him if he’d ever heard of it. He looked at it, and read the title. He told me that being a Christian was about how many people you could get to go to heaven, not about knowing God. The book, he said, sounded off track and I should avoid it.

For the first time in my life, I realized I was being led in the wrong direction by one of my spiritual leaders. It was an uncomfortable place, and I was, for a moment, torn about what to do.

I’d gone a long way down the road of identifying with my church’s way of being a Christian. I won’t recite some of what I did to try and be a good witness, but it was between comedy and the sort of travesty that is exceedingly painful to watch.

My church specialized in certainty. They were certain that the Bible absolutely would lead anyone reading it to become exactly what we were, and anyone paying attention to the Bible would do exactly what we did exactly the way we did it.

Now here I was, a teenager, still in high school, a relatively new Christian, holding a book by some Anglican guy I’d never heard of, feeling drawn by the Holy Spirit toward a new direction in understanding God. Somehow being drawn, in a way I could never explain, toward Jesus; a Jesus to whom I felt like a stranger.

Here I was feeling that maybe it wasn’t about door-knocking confrontations, dress codes, sin lists and repeated trips down the aisle to finally surrender “all.” God was reaching out to me, and showing me more of himself. To know him, I would come to know Jesus.

It was the beginning of a journey. It would take me to the Catholic charismatic movement where I learned that Jesus was much more generous and amazing than I ever had been told in my church. It was a journey that took me on to a Methodist revival team called the “New Disciples for Christ,” where I learned about calling people to follow Jesus.

It took me to college where I gave up on the rapture, and into the first suspicions that I may not have ever truly known the Father heart of God. A longing for Jesus began in me; a longing amplified when my fiancee dumped me and I began to see myself as a man.

There have been times in my life that I did not move forward with God, but camped where I was, convinced I was finally surrounded by the “real” Christians with the “final” answers. Always, God moved me on, toward a deeper fellowship with Him. Always, moving me toward Jesus.

That journey wasn’t constant. In my years on church staff, I forgot about Jesus and focused on the church. I wanted to be successful. Jesus would always be there, creating his special kind of tension with the normal expectations of ministry in a large church. Under the influence of Tony Campolo, I began taking students to eastern Kentucky and into the inner cities of Chicago and Boston. In those experiences, I began to see and sense Jesus again. I began to grow past the approved, safe Jesus of the suburban church, and to understand that Jesus was a trouble-maker; a revolutionary turning the world upside down.

In 2006, God told me to leave a church situation I’d been part of for 12 years. The result, 3 years later, was my wife going to the Roman Catholic Church and my journey with God going into the evangelical wilderness, where the same God is beckoning me on. This wasn’t where I expected to find Jesus, but I should know better. It’s always him, making me his disciple, surprising me, taking me out of the safe places and putting me where he emerges more wonderful than ever.

It is, always, the same God I heard calling me in the pages of Knowing God. I haven’t chased every wind of doctrine. With the exception of a foray into Calvinism for too long, I’ve always been much the same Baptist believer I was when I started this journey. Jesus has shown me that he isn’t a franchised product of some denomination or the spokesman for some program or cause. Jesus is the source, the head, of his body. He’s present in all the places Christians seek him, but he’s present in some many more places and in so many more ways that we ever suspect.

The constant is that God isn’t through with me, and the older I get, the more excited I am about Jesus. The more I come to see glimmers of what it really means to know him and be known by him. I now have few doubts that God is at work in my life for his glory and my benefit, but the journey won’t be a standstill. It will be new discoveries and new adventures.

In the midst of knowing God through his Son, I’m discovering that I am a member of the human race, deeply connected to all other persons in my humanity and my sinfulness. I’m discovering I don’t need to make a demonstration of what I know about anyone else’s life or how God works. I simply need to learn humility and understand that God is surprising us constantly in Jesus. I need to be open to Jesus and not turn him into the sum total of my idea of what it means to be a Christian.

28 thoughts on “Sunday with Michael Spencer: How J.I. Packer influenced Michael’s spiritual journey

  1. Yes, and I hope and pray that God would heal the eyes of my spirit that I would see him as He really is. For I am not under the illusion that I am without illusions, in fact I most likely have many of them.

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  2. If it is an illusion, it’s still a far better way than the alternatives on offer. If there is no God, or if God looks like what the fundamentalists say He looks like (and I can’t decide which is worse), then the world is screwed.

    The only hope worth having is the hope that God looks like Jesus.

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  3. I usually don’t look at each day’s internetmonk until several hours after all the comments have been posted, so it seems pointless to add mine. At least that’s one of my excuses for being such a lurker.

    But if you see this Robert, I want you to know that more than the honesty and heart-felt rawness of your comment inspired me.

    “…the suspicion and fear that Jesus was and is only a chimera created by human beings long ago, and sustained by human beings now, not corresponding to whomever it was that existed in those ancient times and is the historical figure…”

    I read this as having an aspect of genuine theological insight that can grow into more solid faith and hope, not as something that threatens dissolution of faith and hope.

    Many years ago (I was 32) a decisive moment came when I had to let go of the sense of God’s presence and of personal relationship with Jesus that I had experienced until then. I can only state it as a paradox: I was required to give up faith in order to be faithful. Required by? I can’t say other than by God, but I can’t rightly say “God” because I came to discover that theistic belief was part of what I had to let go of.

    Not as a feeling or an intuition of the absence of God but as a rational realization that I’d become like the people I’d previously felt so different from, to whom God just doesn’t seem real. Not absent but unreal, like characters in a novel. The characters can “come alive” while you’re reading, but you’re not going to actually think they’re real. In the same way, I could still appreciate belief in God, but came to feel I was an outsider to actual belief.

    Over the years since then I’ve grown in many ways, and I no longer feel an outsider to Christian faith. I’m still a kind of agnostic, but not in the sense of, “there might be, there might not be” a God.

    If I try to explain further it will get even more complicated, and this comment is getting too long already. Which demonstrates another reason that I’m a lurker. I have trouble saying anything much without trying to say too much.

    So I won’t try to explain how I now believe that seeing Christian theology’s traditional understanding of Jesus as a chimera while regarding Jesus as “whomever it was that existed in those ancient times and is the historical figure,” can be theologically constructive rather than something that threatens dissolution of faith and hope. Not that everyone has to see it the way I do, but that it’s a way of faith, not a way of despair.

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  4. Even the great king David recognized his limitations:
    “ Lord, my heart is not hearty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me. Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Psalm 131. Knowledge puffs, love builds.

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  5. Yes, especially THESE DAYS, in the end, it IS the Cross that ‘informs’ in our time of trouble in this divided country when good people are not certain what is ‘the better Way’:

    some thoughts about commutative justice:

    ” The eternal law establishes the order of God’s divine providence. And, since all temporal or human law must be consistent with God’s eternal law, Augustine can draw the striking conclusion that, strictly speaking,

    “AN UNJUST LAW IS NO LAW AT ALL,”
    an oxymoron (Choice, pp. 20, 11, 8; cf. Religion, p. 89, for an analysis of justice that relates it to love).
    Thus a civil law of the state that violates God’s eternal law is not morally binding and can be legitimately disobeyed in good conscience. This was to have a profound and ongoing influence on Christian ethics.

    In his masterpiece, The City of God, Augustine draws the dramatic conclusion from this position that the Roman Empire was never a truly just political society. He expresses his disgust over its long history of “revolting injustice.” Rome was always a pagan, earthly city, and “true justice” can allegedly only be found in a Christian “city of God.” The just, rather than the powerful, should rule for the common good, rather than serving their own self-interest. . . . .

    . . . . A genuinely just society must be based on Christian love, its peaceful order established by the following of two basic rules—
    THAT PEOPLE HARM NOBODY
    AND
    THAT THEY SHOULD TRY TO HELP EVERYONE TO THE EXTENT THAT THEY CAN DO SO (City, pp. 75, 67, 75, 138-139, 873).”

    https://www.iep.utm.edu/justwest/#SH2a

    my own thought is that we must ask OURSELVES what is the moral imperative to help bear the burden of my neighbor in respect for how it is that we are both alive in the universe of our Creator;
    sometimes this is called ‘commutative justice’ and publicly sometimes ‘the civil contract’ but in the end
    what is the BASIS of all we do and refrain from doing,
    but ‘love’ consistent with the kind of love shown to us by Our Lord, The Lamb Who Was Slain, Who freely gave of Himself in order that we should live

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  6. Robert, you speak for ALL of us who have prayed BOTH:

    Lord, I believe,

    and

    Help Thou my unbelief

    Yes, I also find Robert’s words honest and ‘strangely encouraging’

    and this is in keeping with the honesty of Michael Spencer, who touched our lives with his gift of words and his insight into the Paschal Mysteries

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  7. What a wonderful post. Many things in it remind me of my own journey through faith. For so long I felt like I was the only person who was wandering around in a wilderness of uncertainty, and it was here that I found like minds and solace. Your words give me great hope that I too may be working towards theosis.

    God be merciful to me, a sinner. That is my constant refrain.

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  8. –> “Or maybe at peace with my uncertainties.”

    Yes, a better way to say it.

    And let’s look at the alternatives:

    1) Total certainty. I guess I know people who say they are totally certain, but I’ll never be there, so that doesn’t work for me. I mean, I can mouth the words as well as anyone, but God knows my heart isn’t in it…LOL. “I want to believe, help me with my unbelief” is much more in line with where I’ll probably always be at.

    2) Not at peace with uncertainty. Given I’ll never be at #1 — Total certainty — I better figure out how to be at peace with my uncertainty. The alternative — not being at peace — is just plain unhealthy. I guess the alternative is to just give into the uncertainty and become an atheist, but then I’ll be uncertain about there NOT being a God, which would make me drift toward agnosticism, but I don’t think “there might be, there might not be” would be healthy for me, either. Best to just say, “I’ll always have uncertainties, and I’m okay with that.”

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  9. –> “For instance, one thing I am personally certain of is that the Cross informs every query and speculation.”

    Yes! And as unfathomable as it is to imagine, it’s the God would enter into our world draped in our crappy flesh and willingly subject himself to the horrific death of being hung on a cross who is: 1) the kind of God that, oddly, makes sense and 2) the kind of God I can believe in.

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  10. “Do I cling to an illusion?”

    I think we all cling to illusions to some extent. Maybe your post is indicative that you are actually breaking through some illusions maybe. Anyway, I appreciate your boldness in sharing the struggles on your journey. I’m not sure I could be so boldly honest about mine. But reading about yours helps somehow.

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  11. Or maybe at peace with my uncertainties. I’m not totally sure if that is a good thing or not though, maybe I should be uncomfortable with them. All I know is that for me certainty walked out the door a long time ago.

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  12. For instance, one thing I am personally certain of is that the Cross informs every query and speculation. If an avenue promises me the saving of my egoic bent and discounts any sacrifice on my part I discount its validity as soon as that makes itself plain. The cross is “daily”. The beatitudes for me are a permanent underpinning to all inquiry.

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  13. “ Oh, I have no doubt Jesus is indeed the Way, I just figure he’s pretty active in figuring out how to get most people through his door.”
    Yes! It’s not a competition to see who can appear the most forlorn, uncertain and free thinking. We are certain about any number of things within the parameters of possible human certainty. It’s genuine, hard scrabble, insecurity about various propositions and some fellowship in searching out and making sense of them without being slammed as a doubter, a heretic or a blasphemer.

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  14. –> “Oddly, I feel more certain, in a paradoxical way, with my uncertainties forty years later than I did in my fundamentalist fervor.”

    Yes, ChrisS. Or maybe for me “certain” isn’t the right word, but maybe “comfortable” or “okay with” or “that’s how I’ know I’m not stagnating in my religiosity.” Something like that.

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  15. –> “My theology is speculative– always fermenting and brewing, never absolute. I am where Robert is — thank you for sharing, Robert — and where Spencer is. And I am also somewhere else. That excites me. It makes me know I am spiritually growing. Perhaps theosis is taking place. In the midst of the daily, I am not sure.”

    This is me as well. Thanks for articulating it. I’ve also found myself drifting toward Universalism — which I would’ve found heretical five, ten, fifteen years ago — as it’s the only thing that seems to make sense regarding a loving — a truly loving and merciful — God. Oh, I have no doubt Jesus is indeed the Way, I just figure he’s pretty active in figuring out how to get most people through his door.

    Also, I checked out your blog. Nice. I’ll peruse it more in the coming week.

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  16. I feel very similar. It used to be about making pronouncements. Now that seems brash and absurd. I still have friends who pronounce regularly but I don’t engage in prolonged or in depth conversation with them. I even give monthly support to my old pastor who after 45 years in the faith has essentially no doubts about anything. Everything is avered and forthright. He’d probably be annoyed by my uncertainties if we engaged so I don’t. Oddly, I feel more certain, in a paradoxical way, with my uncertainties forty years later than I did in my fundamentalist fervor.

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  17. My journey, although not much different than Spencer’s had led me to seek after a God that is both knowable and unknowable. My personal spiritual journey — my God experience has led me to both early Celtic Christianity and Christian Universalism. It has also led me into the idea of “theosis,” as expressed by the Eastern Church. My theology is speculative– always fermenting and brewing, never absolute. I am where Robert is — thank you for sharing, Robert — and where Spencer is. And I am also somewhere else. That excites me. It makes me know I am spiritually growing. Perhaps theosis is taking place. In the midst of the daily, I am not sure. When I sit back and look, perhaps so. One thing I do know is that I am no longer a Calvinist, which is a bit hard for a former Presbyterian minister. This what I write about in my Theology Brewing Company blog.

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  18. “At the back of my mind is the suspicion and fear that Jesus was and is only a chimera created by human beings long ago”

    This is one of the reasons I read about the ancient Church as often as I can. The quality of their faith and how they lived their lives reflect something that is real — as real as anything I can touch or see. They are among that cloud of witnesses who testify to the truth of the Real Jesus.

    And Robert you are a consistent voice here. Your words and faith have often encouraged me, and I’m sure others. I’ve always appreciated your honesty and knowledge.

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  19. If molecular biology had been a thing back in Jesus’ day, he probably would’ve used that analogy, yes.

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  20. I’m glad that these words expressed honestly from my heart were not depressing, but encouraging to you. That it was so strengthens my fragile sense of hope, and I thank you for your words.

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  21. My confidence is smaller than a mustard seed, more like a quantum particle that fluctuates in and out of existence. I hope that suffices as faith.

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  22. No, you don’t. “Faith in things unseen,” and all that. (More specifically, Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”)

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  23. I think the same way, Robert. Though, not in such eloquent words as you’ve written. Your post is oddly encouraging. Thanks.

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  24. Jesus led Spencer on a long, strange trip. I appreciate Spencer’s openness of spirit, the way he kept learning new things about himself as his sense of relationship to God in Jesus grew. I can appreciate it, but not relate to it. My own relationship to Jesus — and I’m not sure the use of those words to typify it are accurate or true to my experience — has been and continues to be one in which the sense of his absence, or the presence only of his shadow, prevails; and continues to be one of stagnation. Almost every day I find that I need the support and direction of God more and more, far past the crisis point of need, and every day I fail to sense that support or direction. What seems like the shadow of Jesus flits around me again and again, but each time I turn to focus on it, or look for it in what is right in front of me, it fades even as my mind steps forward to touch it. At the back of my mind is the suspicion and fear that Jesus was and is only a chimera created by human beings long ago, and sustained by human beings now, not corresponding to whomever it was that existed in those ancient times and is the historical figure behind the illusion; but my mind recoils at the thought, because my need for the power and miracle of that being is so great, so deep, so visceral, that I fear giving up the illusion would lead to the dissolution of all my tenuous hope, and I would fall apart, my life would fall apart.

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