Dodge: How the Spiritual Life Works
One of the more interesting areas of study today is behavioral finance, which tries to figure out why people systematically make bad decisions which are contrary to their interests. The classic example of this occurs when investors sell stocks toward the bottom of a market cycle. Can you think of any other time in your life when a desirable item goes on sale, and you want less of it? A key finding of behavioral finance researchers is that the pain of loss is far more pronounced than the pleasure of gain.
This is also true in the spiritual life. Like everything, the spiritual life has its ups and downs. But, the pain of growth is sometimes so jarring that we will do almost anything to avoid it. This causes many to avoid the risks which the spiritual life requires for real growth to occur.
Consider the Apostle Paul, for example. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes a mystical experience he had. As Paul puts it, “I know that this man was caught up into Paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor 12.3-4). This experience was likely where Paul learns the Gospel of grace, where he gets the unflappable belief that he’s called to be an apostle and where he clarifies his mission that he’s to preach this Gospel to the Gentiles. This was a seminal spiritual experience in his life.
But just a few verses later, Paul describes the reality he’s living in now. He writes, “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated” (2 Cor 12.7). Unlike many modern interpreters that want to see Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as something physical, the church fathers thought it was relational. Paul’s thorn was all the people who had ministered beside him who had gone on to abandon and reject him. God’s answer to Paul was that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12.9). In other words, to be strong in the spiritual life, God first has to make us weak so we can learn to trust him.
You’re going to have many valleys, times when God doesn’t seem near in the spiritual life. These are essential experiences because they’re molding you into the disciple God wants you to be. You simply cannot grow without some pain. Thus, illness and disease, loss and bereavement, pain and suffering need not be wasted. God sometimes brings growth out of terrible things we rather avoid.
So don’t make the mistake of the typical investor. Don’t sell at the bottom! The spiritual life is about putting one foot in front of the other, even when it doesn’t all make sense. If you feel weak today, perhaps this is exactly what you need to become strong.