Spirituality and Causality
As I was driving a few mornings back, I ended up listening to Christian talk radio, something I rarely do, though occasionally the mood strikes. After listening to the last little bit of a decent sermon by a fairly well known figure, an announcer came on and informed the listening world that if we donated X number of dollars, we would be sent this book on prayer, and if we (I’m trying to quote this as best I remember, though I’m certain it’s still but a paraphrase) applied the strategies in this book, we would grow closer to God and experience more of Him.
I wish that were the case (well, actually I sort of don’t at a different level), but it’s just not true. There is nothing we can do that will cause us to grow closer to God or experience more of Him. Now as soon as you all stop shouting blasphemy, we can move beyond that statement, and I’ll explain why. Perhaps adding this emphasis will clarify: there is nothing we can do that is guaranteed to cause us to grow closer to God or experience more of Him. If there were, then who really has the power in the relationship? And what kind of God would that make him?
It is according to our nature to be close to God, but this is a relationship, and what God does is up to God. One of my stock phrases these days is “He knows what He’s doing”, and sometimes what He decides is best for us is to not directly grow closer to Him or experience more of Him in a particular expanse of time. To say that applying particular principles or doing particular things will make us grow or make us feel God more (or at all) is to turn God into a great, cosmic vending machine. It’s not a matter of putting in the right prayer-coin and pulling the right level of spiritual discipline so that the wires turn and drop the prize down the chute. This vending machine has a mind of its own, and His mind is far higher than ours (Isa. 55:8) and He does what He pleases (Ps. 115:3).
Now, the good news is that what pleases God is that we are in relationship with Him. That being the case, in the long haul, as we try to engage with Him, He’ll generally be pleased to relate with us. But relationships are weird, and sin has made our hearts weird, too. Sometimes, the best way to get a relationship to work is to not be engaged and focused on it all the time. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that, right? It’s a cheap old phrase, but maybe it has some merit sometimes. In Song of Songs, there are two places were the Lover is missing, but the relationship isn’t broken. Mother Theresa, according to her diaries, spent her entire time in Calcutta not feeling the presence of God, but she still clung to Him. Maybe we won’t always know why God isn’t there, but even when we do everything “right”, that’s no guarantee that He’s going to give us what we want because He might just be trying to give us something better.
Not to say that we should stop doing things because we have no control. If we don’t move towards God, what kind of relationship is that? It becomes one sided, perhaps even petty. God wants to relate with us, and so we need to engage with Him. We just can’t demand a particular outcome. To go through our spiritual lives as if doing something in particular will definitely lead to something else is bound to lead to disappointment. Spirituality is not causal. It’s relational. And it’s a darn good relationship. Just not always an expected or predictable one.