My bookshelves contain numerous volumes about contemplative life and spirituality—books on the desert fathers, on famous or obscure Christian mystics, on all kinds of prayer from listening prayer to centering prayer to The Prayer of Jabez.
Most represent efforts to become a “deeper” Christian—to change my understanding of God or to sharpen my ability to hear from him. And many of these books (or their marketers) promised to reveal some key to a different level of spirituality, a life-changing secret or set of principles.
Of those books I’ve actually read, it seems to me their promises went unfulfilled. As for the rest—their dust jackets continue to collect just that—I’ve lost much of my confidence in their contents.
At times I think the problem is some defect in me, that I just don’t have other people’s capacity for spiritual depth. Perhaps God is naturally more accessible to some people than to others. Of course, that sounds more like excuses. And the minute I catch myself making excuses, I know there’s some truth I’m avoiding. That’s where contemplation truly begins for me: at the place where I’m not sure I want to know more or to dig any deeper.
While the best of my bookshelf
gurus describe exercises that allow me to appreciate certain aspects of God, few draw me into conversation with God as
effectively as simply spending time with God’s Word.
You’d think simply meditating on Scripture would be the easy choice; yet I often find myself seeking the more dramatic and difficult recipes for contemplation.
I think this avoidance comes from knowing God just well enough to realize that significant meditation on Scripture always leads to a long, hard look in the mirror that God inevitably holds up for me. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12-13, TNIV). Yikes! When Psalm 19 asks, “Who can discern their own errors?” I ask, “Who wants to?!”
But the psalmist goes on to ask God’s forgiveness for hidden faults. The faults we hide from ourselves and others are often connected to tender wounds and weak places that we want to protect and conceal rather than uncover and submit to God’s probing.
That’s why the Word of God must be penetrating, and why it doesn’t always sink in at first read. Sometimes we have to dwell with it awhile and let it work on and in us.
And sometimes we fight it.
I identify strongly with the kind of people described in James 1:22-24, who “listen to the word but do not do what it says,” “who look at their faces in a mirror and, after looking at themselves, go away and immediately forget what they look like.” I am hard-headed, wary, ashamed of my faults, and protective of the chinks in my armor. And while I crave a closer walk with God, I tremble and frequently balk at God’s process for bringing that about.
Still, the Lord holds the mirror steady and invites us all to look as often as we dare. And God’s Word comforts us with the knowledge that our distorted vision will one day be clarified, even as what is reflected back to us will one day be fully transformed (2 Cor. 3:18).