I have a book somewhere in my library that I bought and read several years ago–I think it’s called “Messy Spirituality.” One thing in the book really stuck with me. The author said that most people think of progress/growth as a straight line on a graph that goes constantly upward. He said he thought that really growth wasn’t like a constant upward growth, but was more like a squiggly line that went up and down, sometimes forward and sometimes back, but overall went up more than down and forward more than backward. I searched the Internet for a graph that sort of illustrated this so you could understand and found the following graph:
See? Most people think of growth as the straight red line–every day we constantly get better and better and better and/or more and more spiritual. The author of Messy Spirituality believed our growth is more like the squiggly blue line: Overall growth but with lots of ups and downs.
I believe the author was correct in this. No matter what we deal with–whether grieving a loss; overcoming a habit, addiction, or dysfunction; struggling to forgive, love, or be patient; or walking with God–there will be times of struggle, failure, and setbacks.
I have taped near my computer a favorite quote by St. John of the Cross, a monk who lived in the Middle Ages. He said, “In general, the soul makes greater progress when it least thinks so…most frequently when it imagines that it is losing.”
More times than I can remember, I have struggled with something in my life, have felt that I was failing in some area, only to suddenly discover that God was teaching me something valuable through it. One incident comes to mind of a period in which I tried and tried and tried to be godly–you know, full of faith, loving, patient, and so on–only to fail and fail and fail. I would worry when I wanted to have faith, do selfish things when I wanted to be loving, be grumpy when I wanted to be patient…Finally, in frustration, I said to God. “I give up! The Christian life is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to live.” I felt God say, well, loosely translated something like “BINGO! You GOT IT!” Then I realized that OF COURSE the Christian life is impossible to live. If I could live it out, I could do it without God. The Christian life is about trusting Christ to do in and through me what I cannot do by my own effort. It was through FAILURE that I learned that important lesson. It is often through need that I learned dependence on God. It is through struggling with forgiveness and love that I learn what forgiveness and love really is. It is when I am weak that I am strong.
The times when I thought I was totally messing up are usually the times when God teaches me the most valuable things. So while I don’t enjoy going through failure, weakness, struggle, or loss, I don’t exactly fear or resist them as much as I used to.
Another way of looking at this is to consider weight-lifting. A few years ago my husband EJ tried to help me with weight-lifting. I didn’t get very far with it at the time, but it got me thinking. EJ started me out with 10 pounds, and I struggled to lift them. He told me that when I could do 10 pounds easily, he would give me another 10 pounds to lift for a total of 20 pounds. The added weight would cause me to strain and struggle as I had with 10 pounds. When I was strong enough to lift 20 pounds, EJ would add another 10 pounds for a total of 30 pounds. Again, I would struggle to lift the weights–as much as I originally struggled to lift 10 pounds. If I didn’t know what EJ was doing, I would think that I was failing. But in reality, I would be growing stronger. I was only “failing” because more weight was being added. I think this is true spirituality as well. Sometimes we think we are failing when God is actually putting us in difficult situations to train us to accomplish greater things, leading us to greater faith, love, forgiveness, patience. We aren’t really failing, we are growing.
Thinking of making greatest progress when I think I am losing reminds me of a poem I love in a book by Ken Gire called Windows of the Soul. It goes like this:Help me, God To realize it is in being crippled that I learn to cling, and in limping that I learn to lean, that victory comes not in how courageously I struggle, but in how completely I surrender, and that this is how I am to grow, by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater things. Help me to understand that Your power is perfected in weakness, so that when I am rendered weak, You are given the opportunity to be shown strong. Help me to understand, too, that “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of, for so the whole round earth is every way bound in gold chains about the feet of God…”
I’ve also learned that people who appear “messy” aren’t always the ungodly ones. Sometimes they are the ones who are most engaged with God, most real and vulnerable with Him. For example, during one Sunday school class, the pastor of our last church taught about taking the Lord’s Name in vain. EJ honestly stated that he sometimes struggles with his language. Others were silent. Now, people might think EJ was the more ungodly one because he said he struggled with this problem. Was he? Or was he more spiritual because he honestly and vulnerably admitted to it? The others might appear more spiritual, but EJ knew that some of them were extremely profane away from church. Sometimes appearances can be deceiving. Sometimes the ones who appear most spiritual are the ones who are just better at hiding it.