It’s been a while since I last posted, I think sometime around Easter. Much of the content below indirectly explains where I’ve been and what I’ve been processing. I’ll eventually get around to some heavier theological and/or church related posts, but for now, I’m sticking with my normal themes of prayer, contemplation, and living in awareness of the presence of God.
The following is an adapted and expanded excerpt from a conversation topic I planned for a hiking retreat as part of my final project for a spiritual formation class I took this summer.
What does God want me to do? Where does God want me to go? Does God want me to take this job or ask this person on a date? What if I make the wrong choice? Am I doing enough for God? What big thing does God want me to do for Him next? What if I missed my big opportunity to do something for God? Will I disappoint God?
If you have ever asked yourselves these questions, then I hope this post helps you.
Our sense of identity and purpose can easily be distorted by voices, fears, external and internal demands, our perceptions of ourselves and how we think others perceive us, and even our image of God and how we think God perceives us. These distortions easily become lies we believe about our identity, our purpose, and our relationships with each other and God. According to Henri Nouwen’s Being the Beloved sermon these lies are “I am what I do, I am what I have, and I am what others think about me.”1
These lies not only lead to dysfunction in our relationships with ourselves and other people, they distort our perception of our relationship with God. For me, this manifested from an early age as a state of anxious discernment over what I should be doing for God or if what I am doing for God is enough to satisfy His demands. I used to follow this line of thinking, holding an image of God in my mind that resembled a very demanding, yet enigmatic, employer. I would spend hours, days, weeks, even months trying to discern the “Will of God” for the smallest of decisions and life events. Over the years, many leaders with good intentions instilled in me this mindset of always trying to do great things for God in discerning the “Will of God for my life,” but as I get older (and hopefully wiser), I am learning to see things another way.
I’m learning that our relationship to God is less about doing things for God and much more about being with God. God is not our taskmaster or our demanding boss in the sky. Instead, God is the loving Father depicted in the parable of the prodigal son. He is the incarnate Word, our Lord and Savior. God is the comforter, the helper who guides us in the truth and groans for us when we do not know what to say. Not to go on too far of a trinitarian aside here, but I have found that remembering that God is Trinity has helped keep the Zeus-like “boss in the sky” image at bay for the most part.
You may not have this same dysfunction that I continuously battle, but I’d argue that many American Christians have felt the same way at some point in their lives, considering that I’ve heard the same “what are you out there doing for God?” kinds of lines in many churches. You may now say, “but Adam, we need to be doing good things for God. God calls us to be active many times in the Bible. Jesus had an active ministry, and Paul traveled across large parts of the known world to spread the Gospel.” You are correct. We certainly need to remain active and doing the things we feel called to do. I’m not calling for an end to good works. I am talking about a reorientation in how we frame our actions and the motivations behind our actions. So, how do we change our orientation from doing for to being with? I recommend an aqueous transition from swimming to floating.
The way of the world is either fighting the current or fighting to move faster than the current. Just as Jesus and his disciples experienced during their ministries, the demands we experience are non-stop. We are often tempted to white-knuckle our lives, trying to know and control every variable, but our lives are full of variables that we cannot control, no matter how much we try. Instead of anxiously striving against or with the current, or even stressing out trying to figure out what great things to do for God, I suggest we learn how to float and just keep floating, just keep floating, just keep floating.
Float? Yes, float. You may be thinking I’ve gone off in the deep end now (pun completely intended) but stick with me and my aquatic analogy.
When floating, we move at the speed of the current, no faster or slower. Floating requires awareness of where we are, how the water is moving in that moment, and some effort to keep our bodies in right position. Floating also requires trust in the forces that keep us buoyant and trust that the current is taking us in the right direction, no matter how rough the waters feel. When we float in God’s presence and will, instead of swimming with all our might, gasping for breath and trying to figure out where we are supposed to go, we become more aware of ourselves, our surroundings, and the water moving us onward. By floating, we maintain proper balance and avoid burnout. In a nutshell, floating requires awareness of ourselves, our surroundings, the movement of the current, and simultaneously making adjustments to stay in the flow and avoid the avoidable obstacles.
So ends my little word-picture on floating. But we can’t stop with a simple analogy. We need to apply this concept to our daily lives. To do so, I believe we need a practice of daily rest and solitude with God, an awareness of our surroundings (which includes the people, places, culture, and needs around us), a deeper than surface level understanding of the Christian tradition (through the Scriptures and other writings) to learn from those who went before us, and a community to strengthen us in times when we cannot do our part to stay afloat.
My floating looks a little like this:
I try to practice Centering Prayer at least once daily2, follow a prayer app that includes short Scripture readings3, have a nightly Examen that I follow4, and join in community with a local organic apartment church. This is only one person’s example, but stillness, awareness, Scripture, and community can be found through endless means. This little bit of doing helps me become more self-aware and God-aware, reminds me of my purpose and identity as an image-bearer, and gives me significantly less anxiety than all the “what big things are you out there doing for God?” talk. Anything I do for God is a natural outflow of my identity in Christ instead of my identity being found in what I do for God.5
These quiet times of prayer and being aware of God’s presence not only help us feel an intimacy with the living God we follow but also peels back the layers of distortions and lies we believed about ourselves, others, and God. If you are unfamiliar or skeptical of these kinds of contemplative practices, I recommend you give them a chance. If you have been hurt by an institutional church and are reluctant to return to Christian community, then I recommend finding a small community of Jesus-followers with whom you are comfortable. If you think reading or listening to Scripture is a daunting task, just start small.
God carries us in His grace and mercy, so most of all, never think that you are not doing enough for God, just take some time to be with Him. By doing so, we build trust that God is with us, even when life is confusing, the water is rough, and we don’t know where we are heading. By floating in God’s loving presence, we become very aware that we are not immune to suffering, stress, and confusion, but that God is both in us and around us during those times, inviting us to open ourselves to the presence and direction of the Spirit in each moment of the day.