Perhaps it will be strange to hear that someone responsible for an organization’s communications might choose to give up words for Lent, but here we are. And while I cannot claim to have walled off every stream of words in my life, I have made a concerted effort to be more thoughtful about the words which make it into my days. This decision came after recognizing that much of my spiritual life up to this point has been clogged with words.
In the circles in which I grew up, words served as both the content of spiritual activity and the currency of spiritual maturity. Put a different way– “doing” the Christian life largely consisted of receiving, discussing, and sharing words; and the way you could show that you were “doing well” in your Christian life was by being able to demonstrate fluency with the right sorts of words. For the most part, I feel very comfortable in this world. I enjoy the plenitude of content (books, articles, sermons, podcasts, prayers) that can so easily fill my spiritual walk. I was (and remain) pretty good at word-based Christianity. In the last few years, however, I’ve started to assess the assumptions embedded in my wordy comfort-zone– what is this vision of the Christian life omitting or devaluing? What kind of “more” might God be inviting me into?
One of the realizations I have come to over this past season is that I have a particular fondness for spiritual “tactics” or “techniques” in Bible study and prayer. The more these tactics could be delivered in acronym form, the better. Here are a few to give you an idea of what I mean:
- The FIT Ethic: First-is-Third, as in, “if you put God first, others second, and yourself third, you will come out first in the race of life.” In other camps, this is known as the JOY Ethic— Jesus-Others-Yourself
- The OIA Inductive Bible Study Method: Observe-Interpret-Apply, with all applications fulfilling the MAC standard— Measurable, Attainable, Clear
- The ACTS Prayer Formula: Adoration-Confession-Thanksgiving-Supplication, or even more memorably, the PRAY Formula— Praise-Repent-Ask-Yield
This is only a small sliver of the many acronyms and tactics that filled my spiritual upbringing, and on the whole I think I got off easy compared with some of my more Reformed friends who were weaned on texts like the Westminster Catechism. These tips and tricks have done me much good, and I have no wish to discard them (even if they weren’t embedded in my bones). And yet, in my life at least, the over-emphasis on formulas and tactics has undoubtedly contributed to a general sense that salvation is primarily about reciting the correct words. In this land of spiritual techniques, Christian maturity could be measured by having the best scriptural/theological vocabulary at a Bible study, prayer gathering, or evangelistic endeavor. My colleague Danny Nasry’s Simple Soundings devotional helped me see more clearly the potential pitfalls of clinging to these metrics at the exclusion of others.
Thankfully, this emphasis on the formulaic was balanced in my upbringing by a deep commitment to a relational faith. Jesus was someone I felt comfortable talking with, confessing to, even challenging. But even still, words were the substance of the relationship. I knew he was present in me at all times once I invited him into my heart, but that presence functioned more like a walkie-talkie than a comforting blanket or gentle shoulder. Practicing God’s presence without words and in the absence of an acronym would have been a strange concept indeed. It still is, to be honest, which is why I’ve been so grateful for our weekly “Space for God” times, each week offering a unique invitation to meet with and be met by God at a deeper-than-words level.
In the handful of moments during the day when silence is an option— the morning quiet, a short lunch-break, an evening walk— I find that I long to fill the time with words. Books, podcasts, videos, articles beckon to me– their appeals aided by the fact that many are filled with tactics and acronyms intended to make me more “useful” as a professional Christian by broadening my spiritual vocabulary or my understanding of the world. Podcasts are my particular weakness. What would you say is yours?
Throughout this Lent, I have continued to feel this seemingly instinctual pull towards opening the word-gates. However, I think the Lord has also begun to show me that this gluttony for words has dulled my connection to Him and even left me with a weakened ability to summon forth my own words with ease. I fill myself with so many other voices, I sometimes lose my own, and undoubtedly lose the still-small-voice of the Lord in the clamor. Amidst the wash of words, I lose touch with the Word.
If you were to take a quick inventory of the streams of words (written, watched, listened to) flowing into your life, what might you discover? Where are the voices coming from? What are they telling you about God, yourself, the world? When and how are they allowed to inhabit your attention?
If ever you’d like to share your inventory with someone else, I’d be more than happy to receive it– not as an expert (see above), but as a fellow pilgrim on the way.