Getting from Sunday to Monday

Installment 4: Am I on the Right Path?

Written by Linda Douty

During this series, we have been confronting the gap that exists between belief and experience, between our Sunday pronouncements and our Monday experience, between what we say and what we actually do, what we think in our heads and what we feel in our hearts. It's impossible to live with this split if we want to be whole persons—authentic men and women.

It is frequently painful and disturbing to address this split, so all too often we just don't do it. We keep busy, buy more stuff, take fancier trips, have one more drink, or fill our spiritual lives with projects instead of prayer. This type of behavior reminds us that the good is often the enemy of the best.

Jesus modeled for us a rhythm of wholeness—a life balanced with inner nurture and outer actions, solitude and service. We've discussed the barriers to taking this inner journey toward wholeness—the fears, presuppositions and distorted theology that keep us from real growth. We addressed a sampling of spiritual disciplines (i.e. "windows" to let Divine light into our spiritual "house"). Today it seems a good idea to look at the question that accompanies us on the inner journey, and that is, "How do I know if I'm on the right track?"

I can't present a bonafide check list or a spiritual litmus test designed to assure certainty. However, the following attributes seem to me to be reliable indicators that one is moving in a direction of growth rather than stagnation or regression. (You'll probably be able to think of others yourself.)

1. FRUITS OF THE SPIRIT—Jesus said: "By their fruits you shall know them." Spiritual growth moves us toward those fruits of the Spirit, listed in Galatians 5:22, 23 as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." Many of us can talk a good game, can recite the creeds, can state unequivocally what we believe (and unfortunately, by extension, what any "good Christian" ought to believe), but the practice of the actual behaviors is a tall order indeed! Another Biblical indicator of fruits of the Spirit can be found in the Beatitudes. This is not to ask, "Do I have these qualities perfected?" but rather am I moving, however slowly, in that direction?

2. MOVEMENT TOWARD SIMPLICITY —In the spiritual life, less is more. Not only do we have cluttered closets, but we have cluttered schedules and cluttered thoughts, resulting in cluttered spirits. Experts tell us that there is often a correlation between outer clutter and inner confusion. Our recurrent refrain, "I am SOOOO busy," sometimes indicates that the events of our lives pile endlessly upon themselves until the whole wonderful experience of being alive melts into one enormous obligation. To be honest, we proclaim our "busyness" to one another with some hidden degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy and our ability to withstand stress a mark of real character. To whiz through our obligations without time for a single moment of mindfulness has become the model of a successful life in our culture. At some unspoken level, we think it makes us seem more important to others and, subsequently, to ourselves.

There's a slippery slope that trips us up, and it's called Produce and Possess. This leads us ever so surely to a place where what we do and how that looks to people seems more important than who we ARE. So we begin to focus on exterior behavior instead of inner integrity. Nothing given from the outside can bring joy; it may bring pleasure, but not joy. Joy is inner-directed.

As we ascend the ladder of success, the pursuit of a more luxurious lifestyle starts to drive all our decisions. This starts eating up our time and money -- until what we're going to buy and where we're going to go becomes our primary focus. Before we know it, our lives are dedicated to the maintenance of all our STUFF.

3. ATTITUDE OF FORGIVENESS —Spiritual growth is punctuated by an ever-increasing willingness to engage in the forgiveness process. It's important to remember that we forgive persons—not actions. Forgiveness is not condoning! The failure to forgive imprisons and poisons us. As the old adage goes, "Resentment hurts the vessel in which it is stored more than the object on which it is poured!"

For an excellent treatment of this complicated process, please read Flora Wuellner's Forgiveness, the Passionate Journey.

4. "NATURAL" GRATITUDE— As one grows closer to God, gratitude spreads from a category of "blessings" into every part of one's life. Seeing through the lens of gratitude affects the way we see each moment. As Meister Eckhert counseled, "If the only prayer you ever say is 'thank you,' it will be enough!"

5. MAKE FRIENDS WITH UNCERTAINTY —It has been said that the hallmark of spiritual maturity is an increasing capacity to tolerate ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty. Certainty is an illusion anyway. The ability to tolerate both/and rather than either/or is a sign of growth and deep trust. Sometimes as human beings, we want sure and certain answers to questions of meaning. The yearning for that certainty drives people toward fundamental theologies that have tight, authoritative systems with airtight formulas for salvation. Making friends with uncertainty helps us affirm with Julian of Norwich that "all shall be well; all manner of thing shall be well." Or in the words of Romans 8:28 "all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose." Not all IS good, but all things work together.

4. EXPANSION RATHER THAN CONSTRICTION— Spiritual growth is characterized by feelings of expansion and inclusion rather than constriction and exclusion. One gives others a wider berth—more slack. The heart expands. There is less judgmentalism,
more understanding.

5. CLARITY OF SELF—With spiritual growth we become clear about our wants and needs and release those motivations that are rooted in guilt. This does not mean we become selfish—rather, it means that we move from ought/must/should/supposed to to a posture of "I choose." Choices to sacrifice for the sake of another are made out of love. One knows when the price of sacrifice is too high and the result would be betrayal of self. Spiritual clarity allows you to discern if the sacrifice requires that you give up too big a piece of who you are as a person.

Clarity also includes the ability to recognize self-deception. Much has been said about our lack of self-esteem, our tendency to be too hard on ourselves. However, the underside or shadow of self-esteem is self-inflation. We would do well to heed Paul's warning not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. When we recognize our self-deceptions, we become more honest and aware of our own hidden motives.

7. LIVE MORE MINDFULLY — Another marker that you're on the right track is that you are present in the moment—not immersed in the past and not invested in the future. Many of us are always thinking ahead to the next event. The spiritually mature person savors the PRESENT.

8.LESSENING OF ANXIETY —Our degree of anxiety is directly disproportionate to our degree of faith. Scriptures remind us constantly that worry and faith are incompatible. We are told to "consider the lilies" and "be not anxious, o ye of little faith. …" Worry and faith are incompatible.

9. EXHIBITS AUTHENTICITY—We become more REAL, less manipulative, more transparent with our spiritual development. What you see is what you get!

10. MOVES FROM ACTIVE TO PASSIVE — In relation to God, one begins to participate in rather than direct the spiritual process. One allows God's guidance rather than attempting to control it.

11. SPONTANEOUS COMPASSION— Spiritual growth means that one lives a life with "margins" of time, allowing enough leeway for us to respond to the needs of others. The story of the Good Samaritan frowns on the priest and the Levite who "passed by on the other side." Chances are, they were on their way to do something they thought was more important. Like them, we suffer from "agenda anxiety"!

12. CARES LESS AND LESS WHAT PEOPLE THINK — As we mature spiritually, we are increasingly less dependent on others to define us or affirm our worth. We are beloved children of God! People can still disappoint and hurt us, but they can't tell us who we are. Phrases like "They don't like me. What's wrong with me. I wonder what she meant by that?" disappear from our daily discourse.

A stream of freedom flows beneath each of the preceding attributes -- a freedom that keeps us centered and reminds us who we are and whose we are. With that sense of floating in the wondrous security of a loving God, we are free to take risks for our faith, confident that God forgives our imperfections and accompanies us in failure and success.

What I'm describing is REAL, gut-level TRUST. And that profound sense of trust in God's benevolent mercy somehow heals the split between our Sunday pronouncements and our Monday experience. We come to understand at a very deep level that God is in all of it -- the light and the dark, the joy and the despair, the beliefs and the experience. As we become grounded in who we are as beloved children of God, a harmony slowly occurs between what we say and what we do. A growing authenticity results. Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? (Maybe that's why they call it "the good news!") God bless you on your unique journey as you grow toward the person God created you to be.

Copyright 2002 Linda R. Douty.