I can see the rows of faces staring back at me as if it were yesterday. Standing on the stage of my Pentecostal church, 15 years old with a toothy grin on my face as one of the “grown-ups” bragged on my brother and me to the entire congregation that Sunday morning. We put the finishing touches on the set for our upcoming “Heaven’s Gate’s, Hell’s Flames” type production the night before (I know…don’t judge me,) and were ready to begin performing that night. We worked on the construction for a few weeks- my brother Matthew and I, and were right there in the trenches the whole time. We pounded nails, carried lumber, painted, sweated, all of that. It wasn’t a bad looking set (considering who put it together,) and I was proud…so was our church-friend Mike (the grown-up.) He even teared-up a bit as he told the church how we toughed it out with the adults, developed some new calluses, and how impressed he was by these 15 and 13 year-olds and their commitment to the Lord’s work. The church applauded, and I beamed. It’s a good feeling to work and do something good. It’s also a good feeling to receive a glowing review, especially as it came with a stage that had me standing on it (a recurring theme I would eventually notice.)
My life is filled with stories like these; growing in the community of God, filling my life with Godly activity, and gaining the reputation as one of the “good” ones- one that God “had His hands on.” I lived in the confidence that God had called me to be a leader and gifted me to work for His Kingdom. I was going to be a game-changer that He would be able to call “a man after His own heart.” This was what it meant to be a Christian, what it meant to be faithful to God and to my local church. So, whether it was building sets, helping in the nursery, playing drums, or teaching a class, I began seeking out ways that I could punch my “heavenly timecard.” In doing this, I could reassure God that I was serious about my faith and in turn, I would receive God’s ‘OK’ stamp on my life.
This remained my M.O. from the time I was 13 until I entered my late twenties, and it was good. People who loved and respected me surrounded my life, and I belonged. As I grew older, I also grew in faith. I ran after Him in the best ways that I knew how. Sure, there were missteps and mistakes along the way, but my heart bubbled over with certainty of this God that I served. This was my life, and I lived it with abandon. That is, until the “shadow” crept in.
• The Shadow
At the start, I couldn’t define or even identify it necessarily, but a shift had begun taking place in the deeper places of my spirit. At first, it started in small ways. For instance- I had been the number one guy to play drums at my church for years, and I reveled in it! We were a top-notch team, and there I was playing with some of the most gifted musicians that I had ever been around and I loved worshipping and leading others into God’s presence. I also welcomed the pats on the back, the ‘thumbs up’ from my pastors, and the well-meaning “great job today” compliments. They let me know I was on track with my relationship with God and fueled me to keep serving (looking back, I now know, however, that they were also fueling deep wells of insecurity and a desperate need for other’s approval.) Now, as this shadow continued to grow, my drive to be on the music team waned. It wasn’t a dislike for being there, for playing drums, or even for the worship experience, but simply a shift in my excitement level around it. It wasn’t only the music team either. Thoughts of serving in any capacity, or simply going to be with everyone on a Sunday, drained me. However, as all of my years of discipleship had taught me to do, I buckled down and told myself I needed to “get my act together.” I increased my times of prayer and devotions and dug my heels in. I did everything I knew to do to force myself back into my once joyous expression of faith. I prayed and fasted, spent hours reading and worshipping, tried to find new and meaningful ways to serve, but with each step, the shadow grew. The more I worked to discipline myself, the more I buried my feelings. That’s when the frustrations, bitterness, and even anger started to show up. I had ‘faithed’ it for over 2 years at this point, continuing to believe that God would see my efforts, come to my rescue and vanquish this shadow with one wave of His hand, topped with a rousing “Well done!” as a bonus gift…but, it didn’t come. So, after years invested in learning the right words and actions, I did the only thing left that I knew to do: I faked it.
Three years into this shift, the energy to continue, “beating my body into submission,” had all but run dry. My once vibrant prayers first turned to words rebounding off the ceilings and now dissipated into near nonexistence. Pastors and friends would hug me in the halls of the church and ask how I was. My answers were everything I had learned to say, “I’m great! I’m blessed and highly favored of God! I’m living the dream!” Seeing their acceptance proved a momentary pleasure- at least I had fooled them again, but turning to walk away, I sunk even deeper into the truth that I was a liar. After all, what could be more rewarding than being a faithful worker for God and serving my church family? Moreover, no one should know this better than I did. No matter what I tried, the darkness was unshakable. Haunting questions and fears began rolling in faster than I knew what to do with them: What if I didn’t really love Jesus as I claimed I did? What if my faith wasn’t as strong as I thought it was? What if I never actually had faith? What if I wasn’t temporarily faking it…but instead, it was me that was the fake?
The shadow invaded every area of my life, bringing with it grief, doubt, judgment, and a deep shame. I’ve experienced that one of the worst things about shame is isolation. It tears us from community, points its ugly finger in our face, accusing us and confirming that our worst fears have become reality- “Something is wrong with you.” “You’re not like everyone else.” “If anyone finds out who you really are, they’ll reject you.” “You’re worthless.” It was truly one of the darkest and loneliest seasons of my life, and in my shame, I sunk even deeper into this pit of quicksand. Still, while too exhausted to keep fighting, I refused to walk away from God or even the church, so instead I became angry. I walked around with a chip on my shoulder criticizing everything and everyone. I lashed out at those that loved me, causing me to dive still deeper into this cavern of isolation. I knew something was wrong. I knew that I was broken.
I’d been around long enough to see people burn out, leave their church, or turn away from faith more times than I could count, judging them for their decisions every step of the way…but now, would I be next?! This Jesus stuff was in my DNA. I was the one with answers, the one who grew up serving God. I learned the judges, prophets, and kings when I was 9 years old for goodness’ sake! I was one of the faithful few! But as the “truths” from my past slipped further from my present reality, I knew that I couldn’t remain in this place. I knew that if I could not get myself “fixed, and back on track,” the danger of staying here would be (and for some relationships, had already been) catastrophic.
• The Question
I consider myself a (fairly) self-aware individual, and while I had no seminary training, I grew up with parents that raised me to be a student of the bible, faith, and the spiritual-life. I’m naturally wired to question, wrestle with, challenge, and “figure out” issues of life and faith. So, knowing I had to change, I went into serious study-mode. I read, wrote, and researched for months, continuing to suppress my ever-growing anxiety, determined to get back on track. I was steam rolling right along, working frantically to find the “fix” when a conversation with a then stranger, now dear friend, stopped me so abruptly in my tracks that it made my head-spin…for months.
Tony is a writer and speaker and happened to be in Nashville meeting with his publishers when we serendipitously met for the first time. We sat over a couple of pints of the Flying Saucer’s finest brews and he graciously listened as I spewed all of my thoughts, fears, frustrations, and anger. I told him how I longed to live for God, how I felt His call on me as a teenager to be an influential player in this whole thing, and how I lived my life devoted to serve God and His Church. I then told him of the shadow, the burnout, my desire for significance, the frustrations with my church, and anger at The Church. Looking back now, I know it was a verbal assault. As though I had just shattered one of my pints, every buried emotion gushed out of me and splattered around us in the booth. He sat there silently as my words landed, dripping down the walls, over the edges of the table, and pooling on the floor in an angry, frustrated mess. After minutes of very uncomfortable silence, he leaned in, and lovingly said, “Phil, what if God doesn’t need you? What if He is simply, head-over-heels-crazy about being with you?”
• The Inward Journey
I can’t recall much from the rest of that conversation, but I know something changed in me at that moment. I was still me…I left that meeting and continued my study, research and questioning…but I felt as though I was seeing through a different set of eyes from that point on. Feeling God’s draw on my spirit through Tony’s words, I delved into his question. Prayerful soul-searching led me through a labyrinth of new questions, questions I had never considered previously. I tried to imagine what this life with God would look like as resting in Him took the place of working for Him. I began to see that much of my life lived ‘doing for God’ came more from my need-to-be-needed than what God actually desired from me at a heart level. Maybe what He wanted most wasn’t something from me, but instead something with me. As I spent the next year or more processing through these thoughts and questions, I discovered a treasure chest of books and resources; Christian classics that began paving the way for this new way of living life with Christ. Richard Foster’s ‘Celebration of Discipline’ led me into the spiritual wellsprings of solitude and silence, which became pools of rest and healing for my parched soul. James Wakefield’s ‘Sacred Listening’ introduced me to St. Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises, which ushered in a life-changing approach to prayer, meditation, and stillness through reading the scriptures. These and so many more became lifelines that I fastened myself to as I emerged from the pit, and I began moving into this new experience with Christ that I would now call my ‘inward journey.’
• Stages of Faith
From classic (St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton) to contemporary (Thomas Ashbrook, Janet Hagberg, Henri Nouwen) many have written and continue to write on these stages of faith historically known as, Spiritual Formation. Spiritual Formation provides us with over-arching themes to the maturing Christian’s process of growing in faith, through prayer; a field guide of sorts. Each stage is incredibly life giving, but also holds the potential for us to become stuck, or caged. ‘The Critical Journey’ by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich provides incredible insights to formation and lays them out in the following stages:
• Stage 1- Recognition of God (sense of awe/need for God and His salvation)
• Stage 2- Life of Discipleship (learning about God and the Christian life; sense of security in our faith through believing the “right” things)
• Stage 3- The Productive Life (doing for God; strong sense of belonging in the local church; sense of responsibility to work for God’s sake)
• Stage 4- The Inward Journey (life/faith crisis followed by a loss of certainty; self-awareness; God-awareness; moving towards ‘being’, not ‘doing’; pursuit of intimacy/union with God)
• Stage 5- The Journey Outward (a healthy life of service to others, living in our calling/vocation out of our love for others and love for God)
• Stage 6- The Life of Love (unity with God, detachment from things and self)
I won’t go into more detail about each stage in this particular post, but I feel it of vast importance to offer a few clarifying thoughts about this piece of my story. As I’ve come into a greater awareness of the processes of Spiritual Formation, I can look back now and see that the ‘shadow’ I became so entrapped under, was due to me (unknowingly) fighting against the Holy Spirit’s leading. I counteracted these unfamiliar leadings by digging in my heels and working harder, when the Holy Spirit was leading me into a time of rest and solitude. It was my fighting against that leading that ‘caged’ or made me feel ‘stuck’ in this particular stage, not the stage itself. As we learn to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and have a better understanding of how and when the enemy might come against us at different places in our journey, we open ourselves up to experiencing the joys and fullness of greater intimacy with God at each stage in our faith.
Secondly, as counter to our culture as it is, the goal of living our life with Christ is not personal growth, climbing a ladder of spiritual maturity, or even transformation. The truth revealed to me, through the words of Tony and so many others along this journey, is that God does not have an ulterior motive in wanting to be with us. He just wants to be with us. The growth and maturity come, but as bi-products of the goal, which is being fully present with Jesus, living in His love and grace. Also important to note- God is not standing in stage 7, calling out to someone in stage 1 to come and meet Him there. He is wholly present, active, and speaking in every stage of our life and faith. No single stage is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another, anymore then an old man is ‘better’ or ’worse’ than a 7-year-old. Each has their own unique perspectives, gifts, graces, and challenges to face. God’s desire for us is to be aware of His presence, obedient to His Spirit and living in the abundance of His love throughout each stage of our life with Him; only He can orchestrate the times and transitions from one stage to another. We simply do not have the ability or the wisdom to make these shifts by our own desire or strength. I spent the majority of my time thinking of my spiritual life as a giant bulls-eye with me on the outer-rings, working to do more and more, in hopes of achieving maturity and growth, each victory landing me closer to the bulls-eye where Jesus lived. I could not have been more wrong. In the words of my dear friend, Jeremy Sims, “God isn’t longing for more, He’s longing for now.”
Perhaps you are in a stage of faith right now where the feelings I’ve written about here seem far-fetched and hard to imagine. Maybe you can’t wait for the email from your pastors, Fellowship One, or Planning Center to come through, requesting you to serve. If so, be thankful because God is with you in this place! Perhaps you have found yourself in the words of my story. Maybe you too, are feeling out of touch with what once was your norm for following Christ. Maybe you connect with the feelings of frustration, anger, or you’re simply wondering why things don’t seem to be working anymore. If so, be thankful because God is with you in this place! Know that you are not broken, malfunctioning, that you aren’t necessarily in the wrong church, and most certainly that God has not turned His back on you. Maybe it is worth consideration however, that you are simply stuck, that God is inviting you into a new stage of faith, and calling you into a season of stillness and reflection into your own journey inward with Him. As isolating as it may feel, allow me to encourage you- don’t walk it alone. More people walk away from their churches, The Church and even from God, at this critical point in their journey than at any other stage. Find a good friend, pastor, or spiritual director (look for someone who is more interested in listening than giving answers) that will walk alongside you as you process into this new place with God. This process for me, as dark and lonely as it was at times, remains one of the greatest gifts, and most transformative/formative times of my life. May you too discover more of yourself, and more of God on your journey.
What if God doesn’t “need” you? What if He is simply, head-over-heels-crazy about being with you?
You are not alone.