“I don’t have to feel guilty in my relationship with the Lord, because it’s my relationship with God.”
An older, wiser pastor spoke those words to me while we ate lunch together a few months ago. He told me that in his church circles, other pastors constantly exhort one another to follow certain kinds of devotional practices. For example, some said that pastors should be up before dawn and praying, even before any caffeine touched their lips! He explained that earlier in his life he allowed other pastors to influence his relationship with God too much. He tried to fit himself into their molds of what a faithful pastor should look like. But it wasn’t a good fit. It left him feeling guilty all the time because he didn’t measure up or couldn’t sustain the prescribed life.
So he decided that he wouldn’t allow others to define his relationship with God. Rather, he would seek to cultivate a genuine relationship with God for himself. Cultivating a deeper, personal relationship with God turned his pastoring around. No longer did he operate out of a sense of guilt. Rather, he pastored from a place of being full of God.
His words have been extremely influential upon me during the last few months. Like him, I have allowed myself to be influenced by what other Christians say should be done on our faith journey. Such guidance has left me feeling me empty and guilty and often far from God. For example, so many pastors elevate morning devotions as the sign of spirituality. But are they? We don’t need to look very far to see what the sign of spirituality really is: the book of Isaiah.
Isaiah chapter one shows us that the sign of following God is acting on the knowledge of God we have! Multiplying our devotional times does not mean the multiplication of closeness with God. God wants his people to be motivated toward a just life. Knowing Scripture is not a sign of maturity. Knowing Scripture and acting on it is a sign of maturity.
Not only is making your spirituality fit into someone else’s expectations a problem, but another guilt-inducing phenomenon is as “the problem of terminal vagueness” (Mark DeVries originally coined this term in relation to volunteer job descriptions, but it fits well with spirituality as well!). What I mean by this can be illustrated in this exchange about prayer. When discussions of prayer often occur, they go down like this:
Christian A: “How’s your prayer life?”
Christian B: “It’s pretty lousy. I definitely need to pray more.”
What does that even mean? Specifically, what does praying more mean? Does it mean praying five minutes more a day? Or an hour? Or two hour? How do we know when we’ve prayed “more”?
That’s the problem. There’s “terminal vagueness” in our discussions of prayer and other spiritual practices. There’s ongoing lack of specificity about how long we should be devoting to spiritual disciplines. Such vagueness leaves us feeling guilty and empty because it seems as if we’re always failing. You cannot meet the standard of “more” because there will always to “more” to do!
To combat the problem of terminal vagueness in my prayer life, I did two things. First, I listed out all the times I typically pray during the day and during the week. It was actually quite a lot! I then when back over the list and looked to see if I need to add any specific times of prayer. At this point, I said no, I don’t need to add more time for prayer. Getting down all the times I pray on paper and out of what my head helped me combat terminal vagueness and the ensuing guilt that can come. Maybe it will work for you too!