Spiritual Complacency and Quiet Desperation (Part One)

Francois de Salignac de la Mothe-Fenelon
Image via Wikipedia

Mick Turner

Even a cursory exploration of Scripture reveals that God wants us to be successful. It is to no one’s benefit if we allow ourselves to wallow through life in the muck and mire of mediocrity. No, experience reveals that the Creator wants us to succeed in achieving our dreams, provided those dreams and desires are in accordance with positive universal principles and spiritual laws. In addition, we live in a universe that is limitless and fill with everything we need in order to lead rewarding, fulfilling, and successful lives.

Yes, scriptures from the whole range of faith traditions point to the reality that we are called to lives of success. Here I am not speaking necessarily of financial abundance, the prosperity gospel, or teachings related to money, although success can be manifested in that way. What I am talking about is being a success in the spiritual sense and the best way to do that is to become the absolute best that you can be. God did not create us and give us a mandate to slog our way through a life of mediocrity.

The problem arises, however, when one takes an honest look at what seems to be going on in the daily lives of most people. The vast majority of sincere, earnest, and spiritual people are not particularly happy. Even those that do profess a degree of happiness, when pressed, admit to a vague sense of dissatisfaction with life. Many exist rather than live. Thoreau had it right many years ago when he mused that most people “lead lives of quiet desperation.

What causes such a tragedy?

Obviously, the issues that contribute to such a widespread, complex phenomenon are many. To make our task in this particular writing a bit more manageable, I want to emphasize two problems areas that seem to beset many folks, especially those who consider themselves spiritual individuals. This pair of problematic obstacles to our God-given drive for success consists of: lack of focus and complacency.

I have a confession to make. In my life I have wasted a significant amount of time and energy, running here and speeding there, chasing what I thought was brooks living water but turned out to be a series of dust-filled wells. Putting it in honest terms, I was busy but not effective.

As I look around me now, I can see that I am not the only person who is engaged in these fruitless races. On a near daily basis I encounter sincere people who have convinced themselves they are diligently racing toward a meaningful goal, only to find that like Solomon, they are chasing after the wind. These individuals, like myself, expend time, energy, and other resources in pursuit of self-defined visions that, in the end, are empty and unsatisfying. Others never quite reach the intended goal, but instead, waste valuable efforts chasing their own, self-designed greased pigs.

I vividly recall when this issue came to a head for me. One Sunday morning, as is my habit, I arose early. I spent time seeking guidance regarding an issue I had been struggling with for some time. As is often the case, my tampering with this problem eventually led me to a state of perplexed paralysis.  It was an issue related to how I was to proceed with one aspect of my professional life.

After praying, I sat quietly and gradually began to feel the peace of Sacred Light fall over me. It was nothing earth shattering and no burning bushes spoke to me, nor did any donkeys give utterance, but I had a palatable sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence. This is significant in that it had been months since I had felt any sense of light in my life. It seemed that in my busyness, God had somehow gone on sabbatical. I longed for Light’s touch, even if only brief and subtle. I was, in essence, in a stark period of spiritual dryness.

I had several books at my side that I had been reading prior to my prayer time. I opened one of the books and soon came across these words by the French mystic Francois Fenelon:

Be silent and listen to God. Let your heart be in such a state of preparation that His Spirit may impress upon you such virtues that will please Him. Let all within you listen to Him….

Now comes the good part!

Don’t spend your time making plans that are just cobwebs – a breath of wind will come and blow them away. You have withdrawn from God and now you find that God has withdrawn the sense of His presence from you. Return to Him and give Him everything without reservation. There will be no peace otherwise. Let go of all you plans – God will do what He sees best for you.

Fenelon’s words hit me between the eyes like a Louisville Slugger. I knew immediately what I needed to do, even if it was going to be difficult. Like the Old Testament story about Abraham and Sarah, I had grown impatient waiting on God’s timing and gave birth to an Ishmael. I needed to return to God, wait in silence, and trust his promise of an Isaac. Basically, in my own anxiety and uncertainty of potential outcomes, I took charge of the situation and ended up at what seemed a dead end.

Trusting God to guide us and lead us to the place we need to go is not an easy proposition. This is especially true for those of us who are used to “making things happen.” I made the decision that Sunday morning to let the entire project go. I put it in God’s hands and, in his time, not mine, the situation worked out better than I could have ever manipulated on my own.

In practical terms, I discovered how important it was to be patient and wait on God’s benediction before I moved too far down a particular path of endeavor, be it spiritual or otherwise. In short, I learned the value of focus.

Recall for moment the adventure Peter had when he saw Jesus walking toward the disciples’ boat during a raging storm. Noted for his impulsive, impetuous nature, Peter jumped in and, with his attention riveted on Jesus, he, just as his Master, walked on water. Things were going swimmingly (I couldn’t resist that pun) until, for whatever reason, Peter took his focus off Jesus. Perhaps the howling of the wind or the high waves crashing over him distracted the lead disciple for a moment. For reasons really known only to Peter and Jesus, this loss of focus was an unmitigated disaster. Peter began to sink fast.

One of my favorite Christian authors, Erwin Raphael McManus, discusses this very scene from the gospel narrative and relates it to the issue of having a personal focus. McManus goes on to make the following insightful comments:

Part of what costs us the life we were created to live is that we don’t lock in. We lose focus because we become distracted by our circumstances. We get pulled out of the direction we’re supposed to be walking because we start looking in the wrong direction…..It’s so easy to get distracted by all the things going on around you. If you resolve to live the life of your dreams, if you refuse to settle for a life other than the one God created you to live, you’re going to see the waves and the wind. And it’s going to terrify you and you’re going to begin to sink. You have to decide to focus and lock in on the direction God has called you to live your life.

I wish I had been able to read these words from McManus’ excellent book Wide Awake years ago when I was struggling with the issue of focus. Chances are I might well have saved valuable time. Still, by God’s grace, I was able to become more zeroed in on the mission God had for me. It took a major health issue to accomplish this lesson in priorities and being sensitive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit. Yet once I followed the directions of the Spirit, I was better able to create an environment where the spiritual gifts and talents that lay within me could be manifested, honed, and utilized. McManus speaks to this aspect of focus as well:

Your potential becomes talent only when it is harnessed and developed. Your talents become strengths when they are focused and directed. It is here where you begin to discover who you are and the potential God has placed within you. A destiny is not something waiting for you but something waiting within you.

As we have seen, lack of proper focus can be a major stumbling block when it comes to realizing our potential and making our personal vision a reality. It is, however, not the only obstacle we face.

From consistent observation, I have found that one of the most fundamental problems confronting genuine spiritual seekers in these admittedly challenging times has little to do with external forces and factors. It is easy enough for us to sit back a distance from the “heathen culture” that surrounds us and wag our fingers at a society that by just about all indicators, appears to be heading toward moral and ethical bankruptcy at breakneck speed.

Indeed, it is not a difficult task to define and identify those aspects of the world around us that we find falling far short of the standards set forth by the Bible in general and Jesus in particular. Easy as these options may be, my observations have led me to the inescapable conclusion that our most significant problems as the church universal do not exist “out there.” Our weightiest issues rest within the parameters of our own walls.

We have met the enemy, and it is us.

I don’t mean to be trite or sarcastic here. Instead, with a heart of sincerity and sadness I want to confront at least one of these problems that seem to be draining the Body of Christ of its vitality and its power. I am not speaking of some sinister or deep rooted problem that will take great energy and countless committees to “study and investigate” the issue at hand. I am not talking about some vague, wispy metaphysical or doctrinal dilemma that, like a parasite, is eating away at the very fabric of our faith. I am talking about something far more simple in concept and personal in terms of solution.

I am talking about Christian complacency.

Far too many of our churches are experiencing a decline in vitality due to a creeping, insidious blight that normally goes unnoticed until the congregation is on the cusp of a suffocating death, vainly gasping for even a drop of breath, a touch of the Spirit to restore a chance at life and a rebirth of hope. This metaphor of life and death and breath and spirit may seem a bit dramatic and perhaps it is. It is highly appropriate, however. Many churches are dealing with issues of life and death as a result of decades of settling for maintaining the status quo. Further, the absence of breath and the absence of Spirit are synonymous. Man did not become a living being until God breathed life into him. Even more relevant is the fact that in many languages, the words for breath and spirit are the same.

The implications of this are readily apparent. Where there is no Spirit, there is no life. And where there is no life, there is death and disintegration. What is more tragic is the fact that much of this could have been avoided had it not been for that demon we are speaking of: complacency.

to be continued…..

(C) L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved

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