I was reading recently from How People Change by Timothy Lane and David Tripp. In it they describe some of the manifestations of “Christian externalism”, their description of the things people do to try to fill the “gospel gap” that subverts their identity as Christians and keeps them from understanding the present work of God in their lives. They describe formalism, legalism, mysticism, activism, Biblicism, psychology-ism, and social-ism as attractive pretensions, plausible lies that look real enough to be the real thing but are not.
They go on to state that each of these -isms is appealing because each, in its own way, does emphasize some important aspect of the gospel. But when we reduce the gospel to any single one of these elements, it becomes an end in itself instead of one of several means to the real end, a relationship with Christ.
In describing mysticism, the text speaks of an individual who careens from emotional experience to emotional experience, constantly hunting for a spiritual “high”. The individual has become, they say, more a consumer of experience than a committed member of the body of Christ. In spite of the excitement of powerful moments, this individual isn’t growing in faith and character. “The danger of mysticism is that it can become more a pursuit of experience than a pursuit of Christ. It reduces the gospel to dynamic emotional and spiritual experiences.”
Today I had a conversation with a friend who is, like myself, inclined toward the mystical. And, in the course of our conversation, he said that even just discussions about deeper spiritual things quickened his sense of the Holy Spirit in his spirit and become a source of satisfying that yearning. He, too, acknowledges having struggled with depression, seemingly to a more severe and recurring degree than I have. We speculated on what relationship the two might have to one another.
We talked about the fact that no one can live continuously, or even significantly, in a state of transcendence. We’re not intended to. It’s not healthy. We are to live in the day to day little moments and grow into the capacity to experience the glory of God in those daily moments. I told him that my experience has been that I don’t achieve a feeling of transcendance through any particular pursuit of it on my part, it’s not something that I bring about. Rather, it is by God’s grace and most often in moments when I am not consciously seeking it, although I am generally in a state of availability, with the time and non-specific attentiveness necessary to hear from God.
There have been times when, in prayer, I have suddenly become aware of a sensation of myself shrinking in the presence of something vast and engulfing. It is a very physical sensation of diminishing of myself, of being in very close proximity to something much larger and more powerful, though there is not a feeling of threat or of being overwhelmed, just of being in the presence of Something So Much More, which I believe and feel to be God. It’s been rare and unexpected in its occurrence.
It’s happened occasionally when I’m in prayer alone and even more rarely, when I am in prayer with others. I can’t make it happen. I can’t orchestrate circumstances to cause it. I am not even conscious of wanting it to happen. It just happens. The first time it happened, in 1995, I was somewhat taken aback and frightened by the sensation, thinking I might be about to faint, although it was very different from the feeling of blood rushing in the ears and the dizzying, sinking feeling I’ve known in fainting. I am also aware that, when this sensation comes on me, it’s easy to slip into focusing on the feeling and out of focus on the prayer. When I do, the sensation quickly fades. When I can maintain focus on the prayer and ignore the sensation, it settles in and feels comfortable and gradually diminishes as the prayer itself ends.
Last week in a fictional television drama, a mathematician had been part of a space lab team and had returned from his time in space transformed and dreaming of experiencing again the transcendance he’d known while in space. He said, with aching yearning, “I want to be small again.”
I don’t yearn to “be small”, although I know what he meant. I have the confidence that God is there, very close to me, even when I don’t feel His presence. I don’t need to feel it to know that He’s there. While I value the experiences that I have had, that is not what defines my relationship with Christ. It is my belief in the constancy of His promise to be with me- “Lo, I am with you always…” -that defines my relationship with Christ. I want to be equally constant in my faithfulness to Him…..not up and down based on a feeling that comes and goes like a summer breeze.