One of the prevailing problems for all of us spiritually is that our experiences define and delimit our understanding of the spiritual life.  We close ourselves off to the language and experiences of the journey based on a single experience — be it positive or negative — and that becomes the once-now-and-forever way in which we see some dimension of the journey.

  • A supportive church defines the place of Christian community
  • An experience of the church as harsh and judging yields a very different impression
  • Sermons that open up the Bible in a lively and life-giving fashion make reading the Bible an attractive prospect
  • Sermons that use Scripture in an abusive or wooden fashion can close us off to the possibilities that lie in reading the Bible
  • The examples are endless: experiences of prayer, confession, silence, retreats — the list is endless

Ironically, positive experiences can be just as limiting as negative ones.  Negative experiences of a given chapter in the spiritual life can close us off completely.  Positive experiences can give us a single point of contact beyond which we never grow.

What is a bit alarming is to realize how early in life we embrace those once-now-and-forever ways of looking at things.  As I have worked through my own impressions and as I have talked with others about theirs, I’ve been surprised to learn how early those impressions can take shape — many of them before we exit our adolescence.

That’s understandable.  Those are volatile, impressionable years during which we embrace strong opinions about the world around us.  Those opinions help us to test our impressions and differentiate ourselves from the world around us.  As important as that process is, however, it is not clear that every opinion we embrace by age 18 is necessarily worth taking with us the rest of the way through life.

Spiritual maturity is about forming impressions, making commitments, and holding on to both with gentle humility and a willingness to admit that there might be more.  Any journey into God is, by definition, provisional and growing.

Take time to do an inventory of your deepest convictions about and impressions of the spiritual life.  Which ones (positive and negative) are defining?  Which ones have narrowed your journey and hardened into once-now-and-forever thinking?

Then ask yourself — do you trust God enough to move beyond those moments?

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.