This second post in a three-part series is my attempt to briefly address three of the most common concerns and objections I’ve come across in response to contemplative Christian spirituality and spiritual formation. What I most often hear is:
- Centering Prayer is Eastern mysticism wrapped in a Christian package. (Read part one here.)
- Contemplative Christian spirituality and spiritual formation are focused more on self than on God. (Current post.)
- Spiritual formation is a form of works righteousness.
In my last post I highlighted some of the differences between a contemplative form of Christian meditation called Centering Prayer—and Eastern meditation.
In this post, I want to reflect on how knowledge of one’s self is intimately connected to knowledge of God; and how one cannot know God without also knowing oneself.
There are a lot of tools used in the world of spiritual formation that can help us know more about ourselves in order to learn how to make adjustments, recognize negative patterns, and identify strengths and weaknesses. To some this seems to fall in the realm of mere self-improvement and pop psychology—after all, shouldn’t Christians just study scripture and pray? What is all of this business about examining oneself, knowing your Enneagram type, and inner healing?
I sometimes think that the value of individual identity and uniqueness is undermined in certain places in the Christian world—as if being Christ-like means that we all look and act exactly the same, agree on all the same issues, and adhere to all of the same tribes. I don’t believe God created us in his image expecting us to merely be walking and talking concordances citing scripture to refute arguments and defend positions. I believe we were created to reflect the very uniqueness and creativity of the one who created us by demonstrating the Kingdom of God and sharing of its goodness. In his book, 1The Gift of Being Yourself David Benner writes, “Paradoxically, as we become more and more like Christ we become more uniquely our own true self.” (16) He continues on with a beautiful summary of what uniqueness in Christ looks like:
…there are many false ways of achieving uniqueness. These all result from attempts to create a self rather than receive the gift of my self-in-Christ. But the uniqueness that comes from being our true self is not a uniqueness of our own making. Identity is never simply a creation. It is always a discovery. True identity is always a gift of God.
The desire for uniqueness is a spiritual desire. So too is the longing to be authentic. These are not simply psychological longs, irrelevant to the spiritual journey. Both are the response of spirit to Spirit—the Holy Spirit calling us home to our place and identity in God. (16)
For me personally, I have felt that longing to be authentic and unique but for years I struggled with how to pursue and manifest that longing. Only in the past few years have I discovered that the answer to that longing is to grow in relationship with God and cultivate a greater awareness of God’s work in me. Rather than trying to create a certain identity or seek a certain set of external circumstances, I’ve spent a lot more time thing about whether or not I am modeling the fruit of the Holy Spirit in my life. Am I a good listener? Am I encouraging to others? Am I gracious? What makes me angry? Am I patient? Am I anxious? Why or why not? These are important and pertinent questions worth spending time on. Defending one’s political tribe or voicing one’s position in the cultural war is not likely to sustain anything other than one’s own ego.
By cultivating our uniqueness in Christ and recognizing that God has created us in his own image, we can discover beautiful, revitalizing, and creative means of demonstrating the Kingdom of God here on earth. Benner writes, “Leaving the self out of Christian spirituality results in a spirituality that is not well grounded in experience. It is, therefore, not well grounded in reality. Focusing on God while failing to know ourselves deeply may produce an external form of piety, but it will always leave a gap between appearance and reality.” (21) We’ve all experienced that type of external piety (both in ourselves and in others) and we know how ugly it can be.
Like many things within Christian spirituality, truth is found in the tension. So while knowledge of self is an intrinsic aspect of Christian spirituality, it must be balanced. Brenner writes, “Unless we spend as much time looking at God as we spend looking at our self, our knowing of our self will simply draw us further and further into an abyss of self-fixation.” (23) We’re not talking about knowledge of self at the expense of God, or knowledge of God at the expense of knowledge of oneself. Emphasis on both aspects is what creates those beautifully unique and Christ-like identities that have been demonstrated by people like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, the saints of the church, and the individuals we know personally who have impacted us in meaningful ways.
The most important aspect of allowing our knowledge of God to unveil our true self and unique identity is the way that it cultivates our sense of calling and vocation in life. Brenner writes, “Our calling is the way of being that is both best for us and best for the world.” (97) He continues:
“To live apart from a sense of calling by God is to live a life oriented simply to our own choices about who we want to be and what we want to do. Calling brings freedom and fulfillment because it oriented us toward something bigger than self.” (97)
I think one of the biggest struggles is to avoid going through life reactively rather than attentively. I believe that only when we are deeply in-tune with ourselves and with God can we live out our calling and allow our uniqueness in Christ to bear fruit in the world.
One final quote from David Benner sums this topic up quite well:
There can be no genuine spiritual transformation if we seek some external meeting place. God’s intended home is our heart, and it is meeting God in our depths that transforms us from the inside out. (109)
I hope it is clear that contemplative Christian spirituality and spiritual formation are not merely forms of self-improvement, pop psychology, or personal development; but rather helpful systems that provide tools and opportunities for personal transformation by inviting the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and among us.
Part 3 – “Spiritual Formation: Works Righteousness?” will be posted next week.
1Benner, David G. The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. Print.