The Rush to Witness to the Mystery Leads to Spiritual Pride

  

Think about the last time you ate at a restaurant and were overcome with how tasty the food was.  All you wanted to do was savor that experience, again and again, telling everyone you know how delightful it was.  The flavor of the food, how it smelled, and the lovely setting in which you dined makes you want to gather your friends together for what you tell them is the most wonderful dining experience they could ever have.  You’ve become an evangelist for this particular restaurant! You’ve embarked on a personal crusade to let everyone know this is the place to eat. 

Sometimes people experiencing God in a mystical and charismatic way do the same thing.  They have a profound experience of God and the first thing they do is tell everyone how God touched them in a special way.  While there is a place for sharing our experiences of God with others, the beginning mystic needs to be cautious of this desire to share.  It’s an understandable impulse, you just experienced God in the most profound way, but it’s often better to step back and explore the experience with more mature Christians before sharing it more broadly.  In fact, Rossetti states: 

“Launching out on a personal spiritual crusade at the beginning of one’s mystical journey is almost always a sign of spiritual pride.” 

The new mystic and the new Charismatic Christian often believes what they’ve experienced and the knowledge that comes from that experience is some new revelation God has tasked them to share with the “less spiritual” members of the church.  This is a dangerous idea because what God shares in these mystical and charismatic experiences is nothing new. There is no new revelation one is compelled to share with other people. All we need to know about God is already revealed in Christ.  The mystical experience is not a new revelation God has never shared before, rather it’s a new experience of the person of Christ who has been revealing himself to the world since time eternal. Again, we read this in Rossetti’s book: 

“What the beginner embarks on is not so much learning new ideas about God…the mystical journey imparts a different kind of knowing.” 

The mystic is not experiencing a new knowledge about God rather he or she is experiencing the same revealed truths about God in a new way; a mystical way.  What the mystic experiences is Christ, the complete revelation of God, in a profoundly different way. The mystical experience, as well as the charismatic experience of Christ, is not a way to acquire hidden knowledge about God, but rather it is a grace-filled experience of Christ that changes how we know him, not what we know about him. 

 It’s good we remain humble in our walk with Christ, even in that mystical and charismatic walk.  We must not be so quick as to try and convince others of the “rightness” of our experience or that they need to drink from the same stream of his grace as we do in order to know more about divine things.  All of us already drink from the same stream of God’s word. Some of us experience that water differently because God intends us to have unique experiences, but the water we all drink is the same water from the same stream.  It’s best for the new mystic to dwell in that experience and discuss it with those more mature in their faith walk. By doing this, God will distill the fruits of the Spirit in us so that when he is ready for us to share our experiences we do so as a conduit of his grace and not as a means to feed our own spiritual egos. 

 

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The Lost Mystical and Charismatic Experience and Spiritual Growth

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What does one do after having a profound experience of God?  The Christian mystic values this experience, and it can be important for spiritual growth.  However, what does the mystic or charismatic Christian do when the experience disappears? The beginning mystic often mistakes the profound experience of God as if it were God himself.  The truth is of course that the experience of God emerges from our awareness of his constant perpetual presence in our lives. The experience of his presence occurs when we overcome our indifference to God’s ever-present place among his creation and allow ourselves to dwell with him. This realization is, however, dangerous to the new mystic because the experience of God is not God himself, it is simply an awareness of God.  One might say it is a gift from God but one that can dissipate and disappear. We cannot chase the experience of God as if it is God. Instead, we must use it to know God in a more profound and mystical way. One cannot make the experience of God an idol replacing God himself.

In traditional Christian writings, these powerfully overwhelming experiences of God are called consolations and they’re the result of the Christian’s new awareness of God in his or her life.  When we acknowledge that a powerful God is right here among us, we are exuberant and joyful. This new awareness can cause us to be filled with the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues, weep with joy, or be carried away in worship of this powerful God.  For many people, this experience is a type of second conversion in which what they know in their minds becomes powerfully real in their lives. We know about God, but with this new experience, we know we dwell with God and are surrounded by him. We experience the fact we live, move, breathe, and exist in his powerful presence and are moved by that experience.  With the recognition of this powerful presence, we see all the things we once thought were important, valuable, and special as nothing more than straw.

There is a dark side to this experience of God that must be acknowledged.   Often, the one who has a profound experience of God experiences spiritual pride.  Spiritual pride puffs us up and makes us believe somehow we have earned this experience of God by what we have done.  We must have performed the right rituals, been in the right place, or said the right prayers to be able to have this profound experience of God.  We believe we have achieved a high spiritual status and we begin to judge those who have not had that experience as spiritually inferior.

Along with this judgemental attitude comes the belief that we must continue to exercise spiritual disciplines in an unbalanced way.  They become overt badges of pride that mark us as true Christians. We make sure people know we are fasting, pray very publically, and make very public professions of our faith.  We attempt grand miracles of healing and speak loudly in tongues for everyone to see. The purpose of this unbalanced practice of spiritual things is to maintain the experience. We are addicted to the mystical experience and believe we can continue to make it manifest by what we do… except we can’t.  At some point, the profound experience disappears. That doesn’t mean it won’t come back but at some point, it’s gone. This is when we no longer merely partake of the milk and soft food of the spiritual life but rather feed on the solid food required for continued growth. This is when our experience of God matures and our mystical walk with God moves forward.  How does it move forward? By learning trust. For the new Christian to dive more deeply into the experience of God they must let go of control and embrace a true trust in God.

When you no longer experience the profound experience of God you must trust he is ever present as he is when you experienced him in your mystical prayer.  You must trust God is there in the emptiness, in the suffering, in the hopelessness. The mystic learns to feed on the solid food of the spiritual life which is the mystery that God is present even when it seems like he is not.  God is mystically present in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine. God is mystically present in the anointing of our sick brother or sister with the sacred oil. God is present when we pray over someone needing encouragement and God is present when we gather and listen to his holy word.  God is present even when we don’t feel like it is so. This is when our life becomes both a prayer of trust and a prayer of gratitude. This is when the charismatic and mystical Christian’s life begins to take root in the individual.

Stephen Rosetti describes it like this:

“In the midst of consolations, we feel very holy and very special.  But when the milk of God disappears and we return to earth, we feel a bit humbled and very ordinary.  Thank God that we are brought back to earth, lest we be swallowed up in our spiritual pride! A drop of humility and a sense of our frail humanity are more salvific than any sweet consolation.”

Perhaps the mystical life is not merely one of seeking the experience of God but always being mindful of the presence of God in the charismatic gifts and in the hidden sacramental mystery of Christian practice.  Perhaps we can truly begin to know the mystery of God when we accept what we know and experience is not God himself but a simple gift to be treasured when it is had, mourned when it is lost, but always treasured as a step closer to knowing the unknowable mystery of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

The Mystic, Surrender, and the Life of Grace

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I love the summer because it gives me more time to do two of my favorite things.  The first is to read abundantly and the second is to write without interruption.  In my world, a significant part of my time in the fall, winter, and spring is spent teaching, engaging students in discussions, presenting at conferences, and scheduling individual meetings to walk with people in their psychological and spiritual journeys.  The summer is my reprieve and time to reconnect with the things that recharge my batteries, so I can pour myself out for others the rest of the year.

This summer I picked up a book I read a long time ago by Stephen Rossetti called When the Lion Roars: A Primer for the Unsuspecting Mystic.  The book breaks down some wonderful spiritual truths about the mystical life and over the next few BLOG entries I want to elaborate on some of these ideas.  Today I want to briefly explore what it means to see the spiritual life as a pure gift.  This is such an important part of deepening our walk with the divine because we often think the mystical life is something we earn through various practices, readings, meditations, and exercises.  If you look at any book store, regardless of religion or culture, many of the books about deepening your spiritual life present exercises for you to follow, meditations to ponder, and places for you to make retreats to deepen your spiritual life.  The truth is none of this is necessary.  Some of it can be helpful, but in the end, none of it is necessary.  We like to think these are requirements for the spiritual life because we can puff up our spiritual pride and say, “I have achieved enlightenment and communion with God.”  However, that perspective reflects our desire to control the mystery rather than letting it unfold as God intends.  We need to feel in control and that’s one of the first issues to overcome when seeking a deeper spiritual life.  The spiritual life of the mystic is one in which the control is given back to God, not kept in the clutch of one’s hand.  The mystical life is a pure grace given to us by God without any effort of our own.  The mystical life is a life of receptivity, not intense activity.

This is a difficult concept for so many of us.  We believe the spiritual life is like the physical life where we perform exercises to gain strength, flexibility, and agility.  There are some parallels spiritual writers make comparing athletic exercises to spiritual exercises but overall, the spiritual life is a life of “active receptivity.”  Active receptivity is letting go of our preconceived ideas so that God can fill us with himself.  It is a life of letting go of the illusion of control and embracing the truth of God’s providence.  When we believe we can “do” certain things like spiritual exercises and meditations to make God more profoundly present in our lives we view ourselves as magicians and not seekers of the divine.  Yet, when we realize the mystical life is about actively releasing our lives, futures, possessions, and goals to press more closely into the God who is already present with us, we take the first step toward the mystical life.  Rosetti says it like this:

“God is boundless generosity.  Tasting God is purely a gift.  We only need to open our hearts and hands to receive the gift.  This is the first lesson and it’s the last lesson.”

For those of you reading this seeking a more mystical, evangelical, and profoundly transformative experience of God, give up.  When you try and grasp something you are doing so through your own selfish motivation.  Rather than seek God with a goal in mind, just surrender.  Actively surrender to the experience of God and let him be the pure essence of grace; a profoundly priceless gift for you to receive.  It is only when we recognize the pure grace of God’s life and its overabundant blessings being poured into us that we can receive it.  Lesson one, see God and everything he gives you as a gift of himself and be emptied of your small ways to be filled with his greatness.  You don’t have to be a monk or great spiritual master to be a mystic, just a willing receiver of a profound gift.

Forgiven as we Forgive

41P-DsLse+LThe spiritual life is one of paradox. We see the use of paradox in the Bible in verses like Matthew 10:39: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The bible is full of these expressions. By using paradox what’s said
in the bible transcends our intellect and sinks into our souls. We understand the deeper truths they convey because paradox disarms our critical thinking processes forcing us to think in a fresh new way. Phrases like the one above in Matthew force us to ask questions like, “In what way do I need to lose my life for the sake of Jesus?” Spiritual paradoxes are powerful ways to get people to think more richly about God’s truth.

Studying forgiveness leads us into a world of spiritual paradoxes. The scriptures are full of references to the reciprocal nature inherent in the forgiving life. Let me provide you with examples so we can look more closely at this interesting spiritual revelation:

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14–15)

Another passage says:

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

These passages imply God will forgive us only to the degree we forgive others. If you’re like me, the idea God only forgives me as I forgive others is un-
comfortable and makes me think a great deal about the nature of God.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” causing us to wonder, “Is that all God will do; forgive me as I forgive others?” Because forgiveness is not something that comes easily to me I begin to wonder about the forgiveness I have from God! Is God only as forgiving as I am? I’m a broken struggling human being and God only forgives me in the manner this broken soul can forgive others? On the surface that sounds very troubling. To wrap our minds around this we need to think about the nature of God. Most theologians argue God is all knowing, all loving, and all-powerful. We saw that when we described why only God could be perfectly just and merciful at the same time. If we’re saying this all loving God only forgives us in the same way limited forgiving people can then there’s an inconsistency in our understanding of the nature of God. Yet scripture is teaching us something about the reciprocal nature of forgiveness we can’t ignore. Mother Teresa of Calcutta addressed the 1982 graduates at Thomas Aquinas University with the following words:

“And this, the joy of the presence of Jesus, you must be able to give wherever you go. But you cannot give what you don’t have. That’s why you need a pure heart, a pure heart that you will receive as a fruit of your prayer, as a fruit of your oneness with Christ. And a pure heart can see God. And if you see God immediately, immediately you begin to love one another. That’s all Jesus came on this earth to give us, that good news: “Love as I have loved you; love one another as I have loved you.”

In this spiritually packed address, Mother Teresa unfolds a beautiful mystery about the spiritual life we need to ponder given our present topic. Just as an all-loving God extends an overabundance of love for us to experience he also extends an overabundance of forgiveness. However, just as being loved means accepting that love from God so does being forgiven require us to accept that forgiveness from God. How do we accept the forgiveness and love of God? We accept Jesus the incarnational expression of God’s love
and forgiveness. By accepting Jesus as the incarnational expression of God we accept love and forgiveness from the Father. Then, as we receive this love and forgiveness we extend it to others. Mother Teresa states it very plainly, “You cannot give what you don’t have.”

When God says he only forgives us as much as we forgive others he’s reminding us any limitations we experience in forgiving exists because we haven’t accepted the abundance of forgiveness he offers. To be a forgiving soul I need to understand how completely God has forgiven me. This is why it’s important to reflect on our failures. We don’t reflect on failures to become spiritual masochists, rather we do so to understand the great love and mercy God extends to us by meeting us in our broken fallen state. When we see how far we are from God we appreciate how far he stretches himself to be with us. We are deeply loved and deeply forgiven. Receiving that gift allows us to forgive ourselves. We must forgive ourselves as a result of the great love and forgiveness God pours into us so we can love and forgive others. God is not limiting his forgiveness because we limit ours.
God is teaching us the manner in which we forgive others is a direct reflection of the manner in which we receive his forgiveness. When we ask God to “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others” we’re not asking for our reward. We’re asking God to help us understand the more forgiving we are toward others is a direct reflection of our acceptance of his forgiveness. You cannot give what you do not have; these are powerful words in relation to love and forgiveness. When we have Jesus Christ in our lives and really understand the depth and breadth of that relationship, we can forgive and love abundantly. Reflecting on our struggle with forgiveness and love helps us recognize the difficulty we have in receiving love and forgiveness from God. For now, my intention is to have you at least recognize how this paradox is part of the characteristics of forgiveness.

If you liked this post, you can purchase Dr. Hankle’s book “The Christian Vocation of Forgiveness” at Amazon by clicking here.

Intimacy, Vulnerability, and Human Love

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Human beings were created to give and receive love, and it drives everything we do.  Let me share with you how love and vulnerability create a beautiful unique human experience.  Let me reflect with you on why true human love is transcendent in nature.

Because we’re innately created to give ourselves to others we must accept the fact to do so means making ourselves vulnerable.  Love requires us to give ourselves to another human being with some level of abandonment. When we’re in love we communicate to the ones we love that we’re theirs, they have access to our whole being and that we’re in some way united to them.  Loving someone is giving them access to the most profound parts of who we are. It’s intimacy in the most profoundly experienced way. Research on love shows there are 12 core characteristics constituting love. All these characteristics are factors leading to the experience of intimacy.  These core attributes are trust, caring, honesty, friendship, respect, concern for the well-being of others, loyalty, commitment, acceptance of the other person, supportiveness, a desire to be with the person, and a real interest in one another’s lives. When we love someone we’re saying to them I trust you; I allow you to care for me and I believe you to be honest with me.  We’re saying I know you’re a friend who cares and respects me and someone who is interested in my well being. We’re sharing with them that they’re someone we long to be with and we’re inviting them into a deeper level of intimacy with us.

The key to this vulnerable love is intimacy, a unique human experience that involves the sharing of ourselves with another human being. There are four key features that make intimacy a profound human experience.  These key features are affection for the other, personal validation, trust, and self-disclosure. Intimacy is the way we go deeper and deeper into one another’s souls. This level of depth and this level of openness is summed up in one word. That one word is “Vulnerability.” To love another person is to make ourselves vulnerable and give them access to the very core of who we are. Being vulnerable means being open to the potential that this relationship can cause us pain.

When we talk about this kind of love, we aren’t just talking about romantic love. Sure, that seems to have most of the features we have discussed, but we also share elements like these in our deep friendships and in a healthy parent-child relationship. Intimacy is not sex, it’s sharing and giving another person access to parts of you that aren’t shared with just anyone. Sex can be an incarnational expression of intimacy in some relationships but all relationships express intimacy in one way or another.

When you love with this intensity you truly experience life.  I challenge you to seek intimacy with those people in your life.  There is no greater human experience than the deep intimate connections we make with one another.  This world has confused love and sex, intimacy and sex, and I would argue marriage and sex.  More than any of these things love is an intimate sharing of a whole person in whatever way is most appropriate.  After all, this is what matters more than anything else, that we love and are loved in the most profound way.  When we die we will not ask how much money we have, what we have accomplished, or even if we will be remembered.  We will ask two simple questions.  First, was I loved by those I spent time with?  Secondly, did I love those in my life enough?  These two questions can be answered by you right now.

You Are an Encounter With Heaven

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The life of a Christian is a life of presence. We take this presence into the places we go, the relationships we establish, and the public life we live. We take our presence into the places where strangers and neighbors are encountered, our children play, and our families dwell. Our presence is our greatest gift and therefore it must be cared for, intentionally shaped, and nurtured. This presence is shaped by our relationship to Christ and an openness to the Holy Spirit. If the Christian is not in a proper relationship with Christ, his or her presence becomes more about selfish concerns and not about sharing with others. Those who struggle with a relationship to Christ are anxious, discontent, or self-consumed. One cannot enter into the Christ relationship without first losing his or her life so that Christ may live through them. When Christ lives in us we become hosts to a God wanting to reach out to others through us. Likewise, an openness to the Holy Spirit allows the Spirit’s fruits of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness to flow through us. Through a healthy relationship with Christ and an openness to the Holy Spirit people encounter the presence of heavenly things.

Too often we let the world and its many concerns steal the peace of God from our hearts. We seek justice in a world that cannot give it, comfort from a world permeated with pain, love in a world that only knows indifference and hate. We allow the world to shape our response to the needs of others instead of the heavenly guest dwelling in us. In the end, instead of our presence being an encounter with heaven reminding others there is something greater than what the world has to offer, they meet a bitter, scorned, and angry human being. Care for your presence, let the peace of God dwell within you, and always remember laughter, joy, the embrace of one human being toward another, and the simple belief that you were created for more than what the world tells you is transformative. You are created a little less than the angels, empowered to move mountains through faith. You were created to be agents of love, forgiveness, and sacred hospitality in a place that only sees doubt, indifference, revenge, and ignorance. This is why your presence matters; this is why you must intentionally be an encounter with heaven for those living in a world shaped by the forces of hell.

Care for your presence. Spend time with Christ and pray the Holy Spirit fills you with his love. You may just be that encounter with God so many people long for yet try and satisfy with so many other, temporal things.