The Spiritual Life and Bearing What We are Able

Someone forwarded me a quote from the novelist Elizabeth Goudge, where she said “All we are asked to bear we can bear. That is a law of the spiritual life. The only hindrance to the working of this law, as of all benign laws, is fear.”

While the quote sounds profound, it really conveys a faulty view of what the spiritual life is, and could actually produce within us a great deal of negative things such as pride on the one hand, and guilt and anxiety on the other.

To unpack all of that, I want to look at three questions: First, is there a law of spiritual life, and what is it? Second, is it true that we can bear all we are asked to? Third, is fear the only hindrance to bearing what we’re asked to?

This post will deal with the first question: Is there a law of spiritual life? (The next post will deal with the second and third questions listed above, which can be found here).

From a Christian perspective, we believe that God is the objective source that moves us beyond mere opinion and tells us what the spiritual life is and what governs it. There are three ways that God has revealed Himself that have a bearing on discovering and knowing what the spiritual life is:

1. God has revealed Himself in creation. Romans 1:20 says that God’s eternal power and nature are clearly seen by what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Whether we look at the stars, planets, sun and moon; or the oceans, rivers, mountains, and fertile fields; or the rich diversity of life forms on earth, from microscopic organisms, to birds, lions, and gazelles, to whales, fish and tadpoles, and to human beings; and then consider the fine tuning of the universe that ensures that life on this little blue speck of dust called earth could thrive, it all with one resounding symphonic voice declares that God is. No one will be able to say, “I didn’t have enough evidence.” It is literally all around us, and even within us since we are created in His image.

2. God has revealed Himself within our conscience because we are created in God’s image (Rom 2:14-15). This means, among other things, that we have an innate sense of God, we know right from wrong, and we have a longing to discover ultimate reality, and meaning and purpose in our lives. The image of God sets human beings apart as unique among all the creatures on earth.

These two things alone show that it is impossible for God not to exist. Because God exists, everything exists. If God didn’t exist, nothing would exist. This applies to the physical realities that we see, and things such as love, reason, thought, wisdom, laws of logic and nature, etc. The absolute proof that God exists is that anything at all exists—we can’t account for one thing apart from the existence of the Triune God.

God’s existence is self-evident, and every person knows it. The problem, according to Romans 1:18, is that we suppress—we willfully hold down and ignore—the self-evident truth that is revealed in creation and our own conscience about who God is because we want to think and live the way we want to. We want to be in control; to be our own god.

We do this in many ways, from making up false gods and religions, to rejecting all forms of religion and just living a secular life. The reality, though, is that we are all worshiping something. We are all committed to something that is the supreme affection of our hearts and that we are building our lives around. Whatever occupies the most cherished place in my heart is the object(s) of my worship—it is my functional god(s).

How does this relate to the spiritual life? Because we are created in God’s image, we are created body and soul (spirit) to glorify and enjoy Him forever. Thus, the essence of the spiritual life is to be united to the Triune God in a relationship of love. It isn’t a question of if we will worship, rather, it’s a question of what we will worship: what will we glorify and enjoy and delight in more than anything else and order our lives around? Worship is such of the essence of who we are as human beings that we might revise Descartes “I think, therefore I am” to say, “I am, therefore I worship.”

For those who claim to not believe in God, the truth is that they know that God exists, and they too worship something: the functional god(s) could be one’s intellect, material possessions, power, family, etc.

Many others affirm that there is a spiritual component to man that we must tap into. But, they stop there and create their own ideas and rules about the spiritual life. This takes many forms, from false religions where we make a god(s) that makes sense to us, to new age spiritualism where man is in some sense divine and all paths lead to God (or some impersonal spirit), to people just saying they are spiritual but not religious, i.e., they do their own thing.

Though they are all very different, the common theme for all of them is human pride: “I’ll think and live the way I want to, and make up my own rules, my own religion, and my own definition of the spiritual life.”

3. This takes us to the third way that God has revealed Himself, namely, His Word. To discover the truth about spiritual life, we must discover and submit our thinking to God’s Word, which Christians believe is found only in the collection of 66 books known as the bible, which is the very word of God that He breathed out through human authors (2 Tim 3:16).

While the revelation of God that we find in nature and our conscience enables us to form general observations about Him, Scripture is God’s special and unique revelation that gives the essential details about who God is, who we are, and what He requires of us to be in a relationship with Him. At the heart of that revelation is Jesus, who is the fullest manifestation of who God is. So, to understand what spiritual life is, we must accept and submit to God’s Word, for it alone is the ultimate authority in our lives.

With regard to the spiritual life, God’s Word tells us that because of sin, we are spiritually dead. This means that we are cut off from relationship with Him with no way in and of ourselves to restore that relationship. Jesus, who is God in the flesh, came to live the perfect life we never could, and then died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and rose bodily from the dead. The true spiritual life begins the moment that we, by God’s grace alone, trust in Jesus alone for our right standing before God.

When that happens, we are adopted as His sons and daughters and we receive the gift of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who works within us to make us lifelong disciples (learners and followers) of Jesus. The true spiritual life, then, is centered on discovering more of who Jesus is, falling more in love with Him, and living our lives for Him and through Him by His Spirit, who works in us to will and to do God’s good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)

In sum, the spiritual life is about being conformed to the image of Jesus by doing what pleases God in our thoughts, words, and actions. It is endeavoring by God’s Spirit and grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to love God with our whole being, and to love others as we love ourselves.

The primary tool that the Holy Spirit uses to enable us to live the spiritual life is what is referred to as the means of grace (spiritual empowerment): God’s Word, prayer, and the church:

* God’s Word: God uses His Word to renew our minds so that our way of thinking (and living) becomes conformed to what pleases God.

* Prayer:  In prayer we enter into a personal communion with God where we praise Him for who He is and what He has done for us, confess our sins, give thanks, and ask Him for things on behalf of others and ourselves.

* Church: Here we are connected in intimate community with other believers, where together we pray, sing praises to God, hear God’s Word preached and taught, partake in the sacraments, engage in fellowship as we encourage and edify each other in the faith, and serve one another in love.

All of this prepares and propels us outward to sacrificially love other people in our words and deeds. At the heart of this love is a desire to see others be reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Hence, Christians are called ambassadors of Christ, and ministers of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:18-21)

So, the essence of the spiritual life is being united to the Triune God in an intimate relationship of love. This union, and thus spiritual life, is brought about, sustained, and will brought to completion in our lives by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in and by Christ alone, all to God’s glory alone.

The law that governs the spiritual life is found in Scripture alone, which is the sole infallible rule and guide for all of life. Any view of the spiritual life that is not centered upon and contradicts this final form of God’s revelation to us is false.

Our task, then, is to submit our thinking and live in conformity to Scripture, resting and relying upon Christ for the ability to do so. This has direct bearing to the next questions we will answer in our next post: is it true that all that we are asked to bear we can bear? And, is fear the only hindrance to bearing what we are asked to be?