Here’s a recent email from a 20-something:
I wonder whether you can help me think through something regarding my relationship with God, to put it briefly.
I feel like a lot of times I play mind games with myself and where I am at spiritually. And I sort of wonder whether at the core it’s a theological existential crisis of sorts, but I’ll explain first.
So, on the one hand, I know people can convince themselves they have a fine relationship with God, of course always areas to improve but basically okay, when they actually don’t (or might be diving into other religions, universalism, etc.). On the other hand, I know people who constantly feel guilty about their relationship with God and the fact that they are fallen and broken, when anyone would look at them and know that they spend time in the word, in prayer, etc. and are in a “good place” by any normal person’s standards. So, I sort of end up not knowing where I am and going with the flow of what feels right to my hopefully spirit-led conscience, letting it be sharpened, and feeling connected with Christ in a joy/peace/rest (things I don’t find elsewhere) way, but knowing that I could still be that first person who feels like they’re doing find but really isn’t.
I mentioned a theological crisis earlier and I think maybe it comes down to whether I should A) recognize my fallen nature and feel guilty about it, making me constantly aware of God’s goodness or B) recognize it but also feel God’s mercy and operate based on that.
Ideally, I would be able to just feel things first and figure out where my relationship with God is based off of that, but I think a lot of times it is hard for me to understand my emotions before knowing how to deal with them, if that makes sense. I think part of it might be due to being the “good child” and a sort of mixing Christian duty to parents with my relationship with God, and now I’m not sure which part of me is really the honest part.
Any advice is appreciated!
Honestly, this is a great question, and you’re hardly alone in asking it.
I tend to think the two options that you mention–namely, feeling either too self-assured or “too” guilty–are a result of a common but inadequate way of thinking about God’s law.
This inadequate way of thinking goes like this: God’s law is meant to convict me of sin; if I don’t feel guilty, it’s because I must be proud, and pride is dangerous, and that means I’m in a bad place spiritually; therefore, I need to feel guilty and I need to confess my sin and to talk about the greatness of my sin, so that I can then know/feel God’s forgiveness, which (in turn) means that I know I’m in a good place spiritually. I’m sure that’s a bit over-simplistic, but that’s fairly accurate.
What’s important to see is that, in this way of thinking, in order to be in a good place spiritually, one must have first sinned (the more recent, the better): sin is a main path, if not the path, to having a fresh experience of God.
There is (really important) truth to all of this. Jesus says, “Whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Conversely, to be forgiven much is to love much.
However, what makes this problematic is that it is (very) incomplete. Sort of like a salad that has only lettuce: in a sense it passes as a salad, but not really. Consider: Why do little children love their parents? Is it only because of the forgiveness and grace their parents grant to them? They love them for all kinds of reasons–e.g., their parents’ impressive wisdom, silly humor, impressive strength, generous provision, watchful protection, ordering of the home, etc. Obviously, Adam and Eve, before the Fall, felt a depth of intimacy with God apart from knowing his forgiveness, and in the new earth we will no longer have fresh experiences of God’s forgiveness, and yet our love for God will grow ever more intense (though we will surely understand more and more how much we had been forgiven and saved from…).
So, this way of thinking about God’s law is true, but incomplete. So what’s missing?
God gives us his law to do far more than only to convict us (as incredibly important as that is). For example, He gives his law to show us how to bear his resemblance. For example, Jesus says:
“Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Lk. 6.35)
Just as any son or daughter may admire their father or mother and, therefore, want to be imitate them, God’s law provides us with his law to let us know how to imitate him: “Be holy, as I am holy.”
Second, God gives us his law to enable us to flourish. The logic is simple: God made everything, and so He knows how everything works. His law is the instruction manual for human flourishing. Jesus says, “whoever hears my words and obeys them is like a wise man who built his house on the rock…” (Mt. 7). Jesus is saying: if you embrace me as the authority on all things, you will navigate life well – i.e., you will flourish and have no regrets…
Third, and related to this idea of flourishing, God gives us his law to be a light for those in darkness: when God’s people obey, whether individually or collectively, we become a city on a hill, a person/community of peace and flourishing that the world will see…
There are more uses to the law than this, but my point is this: if we look to the law only to convict us, that can become a dominant way for us to think about our spiritual condition: either I am not feeling convicted, which is probably an indication of spiritual blindness, or I convicted and, therefore, close to God.
But these additional uses of the law are important for determining my spiritual condition: (i) do I desire to bear my Father’s resemblance? (ii) can I “connect the dots” between God’s law and my flourishing? (e.g., do I really think that God knows what is best for my body? my money? my time? my relationships? my vocation? Can I trust him with those things?) (iii) do I see his law as light for those walking in darkness?
In short, can we celebrate God’s law with the psalmist? (Psalms 19, 119)
But underlying (though in harmony with) everything that I’ve said thus far is this: God’s law reflects God’s own ways–i.e., his engagement with humanity throughout history. This, then, is an even more fundamental means of analyzing my spiritual condition: do I rejoice in God’s mighty deeds, both in creation and throughout history, climaxing (thus far) in Jesus Christ? Can I say with the psalmist–e.g.:
“Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds!…
Come and see what God has done, his awesome deeds for mankind!” (Ps. 66.3, 5)
“You make me glad by your deeds, LORD; I sing for joy at what your hands have done.
How great are your works, LORD, how profound your thoughts!” (Ps. 92:4-5)
“Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways, King of the nations” (Rev. 15.3)
Asked simply: Do I want God to get His way in the world and every aspect of my life? Am I on board with his agenda? Where am I still calling his goodness into question? Where do I think that, honestly, He really doesn’t know what he’s doing? Where is “the cost of discipleship” seem not worth it–even ridiculous? Where am I demanding an explanation from him before I’m willing to obey him?
When I meet with believers interviewing for membership at my church, they are usually expecting that I will ask doctrinal questions. But the question I usually lead with is this: what do you love about Christianity? The answers that I usually receive (and don’t receive) reveal far more about the person and their spiritual condition.
Recently I asked a fellow minister that question. Without any reflection at all he shot back: ‘I love how Jesus was willing to lose everything–to become the least, the servant of all, and how the Father in response exalts him to the place of supreme cosmic authority. Philippians 2.5-11 says it all!” I could tell that that simple but beautiful reality galvanized his soul; he had gotten and would continue to get a lot of mileage out of that–and very understandably!
Everything I’ve said so far about how to think about your own spiritual condition has been personal and individual. I’ve given you the criteria, so to speak, for thinking about your spiritual condition.
But I haven’t yet talked about the community that you need–let me say that as firmly as possible: that you absolutely, totally need–to help you think about your spiritual condition. That is, you cannot adequately self-diagnose by yourself.
It is absolutely essential that you are part of local community of believers where you are fully known both to at least some ONE person in leadership (e.g., a small group leader, lay leader or pastor) AND to a small community of believers (a small group or discipleship group). They are absolutely crucial for helping you to see yourself accurately: they can help you apply these criteria faithfully and accurately. But you must let them into your life. Refusal to be fully known is itself not only a massive red flag for a person’s spiritual condition; it is also a sign that you are missing out on some of the most wonderful aspects of the Christian life. Why? Because God incarnates his love, wisdom, and grace to us through his family.
In short, if you are fully known by and accountable to a local church whose leadership will love you enough to humbly confront you when wandering, that should be a great external “reality check” on how you’re doing spiritually.
Personally, I long for all the 20-somethings at my church to be so fully known that, when they come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper and I say to them, “John/Jane, the body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you,” s/he can truly believe these words.