There’s a delicious irony in the fact that one of evangelical Christianity’s favorite phrases—“a long obedience in the same direction”—comes from the pen of “God-is-dead-and-we-have-killed-him” Nietzsche. It was appropriated by one of our most venerable writers, Eugene Peterson, for his classic book, and thus baptized for our purposes. I can’t say how Peterson chose that phrase, but he chose well, demonstrating a masterful handling of the meaning and practice of Christian spirituality.
So far the neo-Christian myths I’ve been exploring—connection with God as feelings, preaching as lectures, music as entertainment, and worship as pleasure—are things I picked up from Donald Miller’s posts. He freely confesses he doesn’t go to church very often because it doesn’t make him feel close to God, he doesn’t benefit from the preaching, the music doesn’t move him, and it just plain isn’t enjoyable. I don’t think he’s a heretic or whatever; he’s just expressing attitudes and expectations that have wandered far from the path of ancient Christian tradition. And the question in my mind is always, can Christian faith, both personally and generationally, be sustained with those attitudes and expectations?
But in this post, I want to step back and get a bigger look at something unsaid (and maybe not even implied) in Miller’s post, but something I felt when I tried to listen to him. This neo-Christian myth is uniquely our age’s problem, and is so deeply resonant with our lifestyles and our worldviews that unless I make it sound really weird, you won’t even recognize it as anything unusual.
I hear it in Miller’s restlessness when he describes his occasions of going to church; I hear it in my students’ comments when they talk about their spiritual habits, or lack thereof; I hear it in myself when I get to seasons like Lent that actually demand something onerous of me. It is indeed that “long obedience in the same direction” that makes us fussy. Because it’s long. Because it involves obedience. And because it’s in the same direction.
Myth #5: If a Christian practice doesn’t “work for us” spiritually right now or in the near future, it probably isn’t worth our time and effort; we should move on to something else that might.
This isn’t exactly a comment about distractions, which are as pervasive and as ancient as any spiritual reality. (“Hmm, yes, Eden is so lovely, and God is so good to us, and ooh, look at that piece of fruit…”) We’re all obsessed with shiny objects, though there are more of them perhaps than there used to be.
It’s more a problem of a time-collapse. Our lives are getting longer, but they have also gotten faster and therefore oddly shorter, and spiritual formation has just not kept up the pace. We don’t need rhythms practiced over years, we need apps… oh wait, there are apps for your spiritual life. Google “speed spirituality.” You’ll find a book and program by that name. You’ll find a website called Spiritual Speed, whose subtitle is “Transform Thyself,” and which promises us that transformation should be “fast, fun, and fabulous.” I am not making this up.
What chance does the voice of St. Anthony, who spent twenty years of solitude in the desert before “ministry,” have in today’s world? Where does a Thérèse of Lisieux fit—she who craved the tedium of cell and obscurity as the means of finding God? And Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s “sacrament of the present moment”? How will that make any sense when we don’t know how to yield? Or the Puritans’ idea of this life as a gymnasium, in training for the life to come? We understand reps in the gym, but it makes no sense in the spiritual life.
How will Donald Miller, or you, or I tell the next generation that “going to church” doesn’t give you what you’re looking for until it has become a long, deep habit; that praying and reading scripture doesn’t become “meaningful” without surrendering to it acutely; that song and word, bread and wine, cold church classrooms and hard pews and lukewarm church coffee are good, even very good, after years of “giving them a try”? How do we explain the great, great joy of rhythms developed in darkness? of the eventual pleasures of Sunday morning self-forgetfulness? of long satisfaction and multifaceted peace harvested from furrows plowed in sometimes deathly dry seasons?
How do we teach the ability to wait without wandering away, holding still for the times when we hear a snatch of a heavenly tune, the nearly audible mirth of God, a sound flickering and then gone, caught between days of slogging on in persistent trust and days of easy gladness?
Such things require a long obedience in the same direction. Meaning: we engage in these practices, such as “going to church,” out of obedience, not out of a quest for fulfillment or personal satisfaction, but, as Kingdom economics usually work out, fulfillment—far more intense and gratifying than you might imagine—follows.