Journey through the crisis of spirituality

Journey through the crisis of spirituality

What is at the core of a personal pastoral spirituality?

Gordon Bietz, Ph.D., is president of Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

In one of my favorite cartoon strips the first panel shows Garfield the cat standing in the shadows on one side of bright sunlight that is beaming through the window. He contemplates the warmth of the sunlight. The balloon above his head contains the words "I wonder if I can get across this time."

The second panel of the cartoon shows him making a tremendous leap, seeking to get through the warmth of the light to the other side. The final panel shows him collapsed in a heap in the midst of the warm sunbeam. He had fallen asleep in the warmth and comfort of the sun.

That cartoon is a picture of my journey into my office each morning. On the far side of my office is a chair in which I am committed to having my personal devotions. My Bible, devotional book, and reading material are there. But on the way to that chair I must pass the nearly irresistible draw of my desk and computer. The desk is piled high with work, and the computer beckons for sermons, E-mail, Internet, and maybe a game or two. It is as if there is a black hole of busyness that irresistibly draws me into it.

From pastor to conference president to university president, the ongoing nemesis of my life is to resist my activist personality the desire to do things and please people instead of taking time to be with God in personal spiritual development. I have stood when calls were made to spend one hour a day in prayer. I have stood when appeals were made to spend 15 minutes a day in Bible study and prayer. I have made appeals to others at the close of impassioned sermons and then had to live with the guilt of personal lack of performance. With Paul I say, "I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out." 1

I have rationalized my weakness, but I find that my human nature goads me to please people, not God. When I answer mail, write letters, organize events, write bulletins, send thank-you notes, call people up, and visit in the hospital, I receive many rewards. The rewards of spending quiet time with God are not as immediate. God doesn't send me thank you notes for sermons or give me accolades for visitation.

My ministerial career started out right. My first job was as a ministerial intern in northern California at the East Oakland church. I didn't really know much of what to do except visit some interests and plan some youth programs, and so I spent a lot of time studying. When I went as chaplain to Rio Lindo Academy, in northern California, I spent an hour or so every morning reading through the Conflict of the Ages Series and the scriptural passages that went along with it. I even started reading all of the Review and Herald articles that Ellen White wrote in those large green bound volumes and began my own index of those articles.2 But that kind of reflective spiritual growth and study tended to wane with the increase of responsibilities and the pressure of sermon preparation.3

When I would read books by Henri Nouwen,4 who gave up a tenured Harvard professorship and successful career for a simpler life of spiritual pursuits, I would think that maybe I should leave the hectic life of ministerial administrative activism. Maybe I should sign up for an overseas mission experience where I could work in a leper colony. As I compared my spiritual depth to his, I would feel as though I was playing spiritual Trivial Pursuit and would resonate with Gordon MacDonald's phrase "running on empty."5

In 1994, after 13 years of pastoring the Collegedale SDA Church, I was called to be president of the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. I felt that it was time for a change in my church and accepted the opportunity to minister at the conference office. I had heard the stories of conference presidents who used yellowed notes as they gave the same sermon over and over throughout the conference. 6 I didn't want that to happen to me and went to the conference office with the best of intentions.

I soon found that the administrative pressures had increased to where a people pleaser like me would have no time at all; I also chose to make the 45-minute com mute from my home in Collegedale, Tennessee, to the office in Calhoun, Georgia. The combination of administrative pressure and the 400 sermons that I had accumulated on a computer in 13 years of preaching at Collegedale made the temptation to use old sermons too great. I would not be using any yellowed notes, however; I would just print out a new copy.

In the midst of my busyness at the Georgia-Cumberland Conference I was asked to do this article for Ministry on "pastors journeying through the crisis of spirituality." Why did they ask me? I thought. Was someone watching my life? I accepted the assignment as a challenge to help me get my study life in order. I figured if I was going to write about the answers, I should have some. Well, before the due date on the article, I had another change in my life. The board of trustees of Southern Adventist University asked me to serve as the president. One thing that was in the back of my mind when I accepted this new responsibility was that maybe with no more commuting and less general travel I might get a handle on my study life.

In my new job I have established a place to study and pray every morning. I have begun a journey through the Bible, and the responsibility of this new job has brought me to my knees on more than one occasion, but the struggle is far from over. The daily battle to get past my desk and computer to my personal devotional location is very real.

As I reflect on this issue, I wonder if part of my problem is compartmentalizing my life, legalistically measuring the spiritual and nonspiritual by community expectations. Each personality responds to God in a different way. To be on the right track spiritually doesn't mean we should all wear sackcloth and ashes and move overseas to work for lepers, or that each of us should feel elevated to some mystical plane of existence. To be honest, I have never identified with the person who simply has an ever-present "spiritual glow." They talk to Jesus all the time, say "Praise the Lord" at every opportunity, and will spontaneously drop to their knees at almost any occasion. In fact, to be perfectly honest, some of those people make me nervous. Am I not spiritual? Do I have to manifest my spirituality in the same way as they do to be considered spiritual?

There is a dangerous tendency to look around and measure our spirituality by the externals that Jesus condemned, be it fasting twice a day or praying out loud on the street corner, or even spending one hour a day in Bible study and prayer.

I want spiritual power in my life like Paul had. He said to the Corinthians, "My message and my preaching were ... with a demonstration of the Spirit's power."7 What is it to preach with "a demonstration of the Spirit's power"? If you were told by someone who was visiting your church, "I am here to listen to you preach and I want to have 'a demonstration of the Spirit's power,' " what would you do? Eliot Wigginton reports on a power-filled religious service: "Each of us [who participated in the worship] found this a church of incredible strengths, tremendous energy and honesty, and of total commitment to God and to the congregation. It is not a church of talk, but of action so dynamic that beside it, more conventional forms of worship seem stale and lifeless."8 Is that a description of your worship service? A service with action, not talk? A dynamic service with tremendous energy? I hope those adjectives truly do describe your worship service, but I also hope that you don't do what this church did to get that dynamic energy. This was a report given about a snake-handling service. All energy is not the Spirit's, and all power isn't from God.

It is possible to create an artificial crisis of spirituality in our own lives by using standards of comparison grown in hotbeds of Pentecostal emotionalism. There is a false spirituality in the world today that reflects more New Age mysticism than biblical spirituality. We need to go to the Scriptures and find what is at the core of the spiritual life.

Paul in Galatians describes spirituality when he exposes the fruit of the Spirit: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."9 Developing a Spirit-filled life is growing the fruit of the Spirit in the life. My approach to spiritual crises is not to add another legalistic load of guilt on my shoulders that I am not able to bear. It is not to measure my experience by another's. I find the answer in growing the fruit of the Spirit in my life. 10

Growing love

There is a way of living that seeks to influence others through manipulation. Seeking to mold people's opinions without melting them with love first. Rather than loving people for Jesus, such living pummels people in areas of our personal insecurity.

There are those whose religion is "let the chips fall where they may," "separate the sheep from the goats," "cry aloud and spare not," and "point out the sins of the people." It is true that the Spirit-filled life needs "men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole." 11 But such communication doesn't use the needle on the people. The Spirit-filled life portrays the unconditional love of the Father.

Growing joy

When the gospel has been experienced, there is joy in the life. We share "good news"! Do the children enjoy church? They may not be able to understand all that you say, but they know if there is joy there. "When the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw... the children shouting in the temple area, 'Hosanna to the Son of David,' they were indignant." 12

The preachers were indignant. "What's going on here?" "Let's have a little reverence!" "Quiet down!" "Get these kids out of here!" They couldn't tolerate a little joy. We can have church services with detailed exegesis about the text and fill the air and mind with the complexities of Middle Eastern life, and explain why in this circumstance this doctrine is true but no one is made happy. The gospel is joyful news.

Growing peace

A major ministry of the Christian is the "nonanxious presence." In the middle of the catatonic turmoil of society and the emotional roller coaster of people's personal lives the pastor is the Rock of Gibraltar. He or she is a nonanxious presence that gives everyone a sense that God is trustworthy, so relax and be at peace.

Growing patience

Do people change as quickly as you'd like? Do you change as quickly as you would like? Most spiritual crises could use a large dose of patience. Many theological crises have crossed my path in my ministry. I could have jumped quickly on a passing bandwagon that purported to have all the answers, but I have a growing patience. When inexplicable problems confront me that I don't have an answer for, I place the question on a shelf in the library of my mind. After a time I will review that issue again, and answers will come over time. True spirituality is patient.

Growing goodness

There is a false goodness that Christians fall for. Goodness developed in the lab of people's expectations. Doing things to keep up appearances. True goodness is a natural kind that grows from the genuine heart and is not worn like a Halloween costume. The goodness of the Spirit is not a goodness of avoidance, or artificial separation from the world. When our children were young we didn't own a television. People would say to me, "Did you see such and such a TV program last night?" I would respond to them, dripping with righteousness, "No; we don't own a television." Broadcasting such external goodness is like the hypocrites standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by passersby. 13

As we grow in goodness may it not be just in avoiding evil. "The easiest sermon to preach is on why the world is going to hell." 14 It doesn't take creativity to point to the sins of the world. It doesn't take sacrifice to lift our skirts out of our morally toxic world. When avoidance is the focus of our goodness, when escape is the point of our purity, and when shunning the world is the manifestation of our piety, then it will appear pale and stifling. It will not inspire people, and it will do no more than bore the next generation.

The testimony of one converted to the goodness of avoidance lists all the things they don't do anymore. They don't dance. They don't drink. They don't swear. They don't, they don't, and they don't... That is hardly a testimony that appeals. This artificial goodness is useful for stained glass people people who are full of lead. Spirit-filled people go beyond the piety of avoidance. Piety of avoidance is monkish separation from that which is not holy rather than Christlike involvement with that which is unholy. It is piety of exclusion rather than piety of inclusion. We avoid the evil, thinking mistakenly that therefore we are good. Growing goodness is more than avoiding evil.

Growing faithfulness

Oftentimes a spiritual crisis confronts us because we are being faithful to the wrong things. God asks me to be faithful to my gifts, not to yours. He asks me to follow the vision He gives me, not the one He gives you. How often is a crisis precipitated in our lives when I compare myself with your life, with your vision, with your ministry, and with your success. In the parable of the servants who used their talents, Jesus commended or condemned them for their use of the talents He gave them, not the talents He gave others.

Let us not be like Peter, who was so focused on others that Jesus said to him as he questioned what would happen to John, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." 15 We are to follow Jesus, not worry about how others follow.

Growing gentleness

There is a religious imperialism that presents truth in ways that coerce people. We create crises of spirituality in ourselves and in others when we are not gentle with the truth and with people. There is witnessing that is the verbal equivalent of rape. An attempt to plant seeds in the mind without caring for the soil. "Christ's method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, 'Follow Me.' " 16

Growing self-control

Many of life's crises could be resolved with self-control: thinking before we speak, listening before we judge, reflecting before we leap into action. The spiritual life is a controlled life.

The person who has never experienced a crisis of spirituality has never thought deeply about life. The most practical way through the crises, I have found, is to focus on the clear manifestations of the Spirit's leading as outlined by Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

1 Rom. 7:18. Texts in this article are from
the New International Version.

2 Such indexing was useful before the
advent of the CD-ROM.

3 I am not one who believes that sermon
preparation and reflective spiritual growth are
mutually exclusive. My salvation through the
years has been the demands of a regular
preaching schedule. In a desire to please the
people I serve, I spent many hours in study as I
prepared sermons. I believe a good sermon is
one that grows from the heart of a person's
personal spiritual pilgrimage, and so I
wouldn't downplay the personal spiritual
significance of sermon study.

4 I would recommend most any of Henri
Nouwen's books. Though a bit mystical, they
do cause one to think about one's spiritual
commitment. Another author that is inspiring
is Eugene Peterson, particularly Under the
Unpredictable Plant
and Working the Angles.

5 "Running on Empty" is the title of
chapter 4 of his book Renewing Your Spiritual
. Other books by Gordon MacDonald:
Ordering Your Private World, The Life God
, and Weathering the Storms of Life That
Threaten the Soul
are recommended.

6 When my father went as president to the
Southern California Conference, he said the
best advice ever given him was by M. L.
Andreasen, who told him to continue to
prepare new sermon material. Of course, he
discovered there in the geographically small
conference that people who heard him one
week would come and listen the next week at
another church, and so he was forced to
prepare new material regularly.

7 1 Cor. 2:1-5.

8 Foxfire 7, p. 371.

9 Gal. 5:22.

10 Notice I said "growing the fruit," not
"attaching the fruit."

11 Ellen White, Education (Boise: Pacific
Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 57.

12 Matt. 21:15.

13 Matt. 6:5

14 Steven Mosely, Christianity Today, Nov.
19,1990, p. 29.

15 John 21:19, 22.

16 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing
(Boise: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.), p. 143.

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Gordon Bietz, Ph.D., is president of Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

December 1997

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