Many who sit in Christian churches Sunday after Sunday have little inclination as to why. For some it simply feels right, raised by parents who instilled a sense of duty or obligation that this is a responsible course for one’s life. Some are present because of a gnawing sense that something is missing in their lives – they are genuinely looking for that something whatever that something may be. Others may have come with someone else, present in worship because it is important to the person they came with. Though it is fair to say that some have come for excellent music or an inspiring sermon, the question remains, what is it that the music and sermon bring to the table of the individual life? To offer the answer that music and sermons advance the spiritual progress of the person fails to answer, of what use is spiritual progress?
It is a common question in this practical age. Whether the question has been clearly fashioned in the mind or remains a rather nebulous vapor seeking shape doesn’t really matter. It does not matter if the question hides in the shadows of the mind or stands unashamed upon center stage stripped of all pretenses. The question betrays a particular point of view: God is a utility that is available to serve needs. This is a deeply flawed point of view and may answer why there is such complacency among many church members. God sits on the spice rack of life. We reach for God when life needs a little seasoning or flavor. God’s purpose is to advance our life in whatever direction we chose.
Friendship will not open its door to the one who keeps asking of others, “Of what value can you add to my life?” Attempts to use people for personal advancement betray sincerity and ruins friendships. Marriage will not afford access to its rich blessings to the one who asks, “Of what advantage will this spouse provide my life?” The use of a spouse for personal gain or advancement degrades marriage. To approach the holiest relation of them all – fellowship with God – with the expectation of personal enrichment or value bars the communion of God and personal spirit.
Naturally, friends often prove of greatest service, and a spouse can often be of incalculable enrichment but these are gifts of a companionship that is sought for its own sake and not as an opportunity. The pursuit of a relationship with God also presents various gifts. But, as with friendships, to pursue a relationship with God solely or primarily for the benefit it may provide ruins the relationship. As Barbara Brown Taylor has wisely observed, the most important thing we get in prayer is God. Properly understood, prayer is less about obtainment of wishes and personal advancement. Prayer is about taking the journey of life with another – sharing life’s journey with God. This practice of prayer rejects God as utility, a force like electricity or microwaves to be harnessed for our ends. As someone once observed, that is magic, not religion. God desires a personal relationship with us and that relationship seeks trust and love, not the tapping into a source of power for personal desires.
Let us return to our original question: of what value is spiritual progress? I propose that the value of spiritual progress is the deepening of a personal relationship with God – for relationship sake only. From what we have explored above, we must dismiss the pursuit of a relationship with God as an aid in achieving personal or social goals. That places the goal first and God second, even in a subordinate and auxiliary place to the goal.
As friendships develop and marriages mature, there is present a healthy and natural dynamic; a growing shared interest and concern for one another. Shared interests develop and common pursuits are sought. They are not the objects for which a relationship is forged but, rather, the fruit of relationships that grow and mature. This dynamic is true for a relationship with God. As that most holy of relationships deepens and matures, so emerges the realization of God’s international intention – to bind all people of every nation into one holy communion under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Further, the heart and mind becomes conscious that God pursues that international intention through the gifts, talents and energy of those who accept God’s invitation to a life-long relationship.
Of what use is spiritual progress? Simply, it is to enjoy that most holy of all relationships with another, to know God and enjoy God’s companionship in the journey of life. Yet, as in any relationship, we are changed as a result of paying attention to God, as a result of our life rubbing-up against the life and activity of God. Awareness of what God values – the upmost well-being for all – becomes important to us. We discover that our own little life projects become increasingly insignificant as we participate more and more in God’s project in the world. Then, one night we close our eyes and prepare to take our rest from our labors and we realize that we have discovered – and lived – our divine destiny.