Holy Discontent

In a recent conversation with a Baptist pastor, I recall him sharing one striking comment from one of his church members: “The longer I go to church, the more distant I find myself in my relationship with God.” The words swirled around in my head and heart. Two years ago, I had heard a deacon lament to overhear a member describing her church community as a group of “familiar strangers for 20 years.”

These comments seem to be the cry of discontented souls.

I was similarly taken aback a year ago when I read that Hank Hanegraaff, the “Bible Answer Man,” joined the Greek Orthodox Church on Palm Sunday. Hanegraaff was an evangelical leader who was well-known for his apologetic teaching on the radio. In the featured article in Christianity Today (April 12, 2017), he said that his journey to Orthodoxy began with a trip to China: “I saw Chinese Christians who were deeply in love with the Lord, and I learned that while they may not have had as much intellectual acumen or knowledge as I did, they had life.” Hanegraaff was flummoxed: on the flight back, he “wondered if he was even a Christian. . . . I was comparing my ability to communicate truth with their deep and abiding love for the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Over-Promised, Under-delivered
There is a common theme in these events: a deep discontent with one’s spiritual connection with God – and with the community of God’s people.

Writer Ruth Haley Barton, in her book Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community, cites a friend’s observation: “Community is the most ‘overpromised and under-delivered’ aspect of the church today.’ She continues, “There is another overpromised, under-delivered aspect of the church today that is equally disillusioning, and that is the promise of spiritual transformation.”

As a pastor for almost 20 years, I believe churches provide us with sound spiritual knowledge and teaching, but we are weak in practicing spiritual exercises that nurture the heart and draw us into a sustainable, abiding and soulful relationship with God. There are many spiritual practices that lead us to deepening our relationship with God: spiritual direction, gospel contemplation and the Daily Examen; in addition, contemplative practices such as silence, solitude and contemplative/formational retreats. Many of these spiritual exercises address our discontent and help us to see God in daily life.

I researched these matters in my Doctor of Ministry program at Tyndale University College & Seminary.

Spiritual Boot Camp
After I finished my DMin degree last April, on the one hand, I felt a great relief from years of reading, writing and researching. On the other hand, there was a deep sense of emptiness and loss as my “perfect” thesis was finally printed. Although we had been warned about this journey during our last DMin course, actually experiencing it felt unanticipated and foreign.

My feisty spirit prompted me to join a TRX boot camp (Total Body Resistance Exercise). I know boot camp is definitely not a cruise ship where you are pampered, but I did not anticipate that every muscle would suffer intense pain for days to follow.  

Although my muscles were aching, I found that my body had become different. I was able to lift up some heavier household items without asking my husband for help; I was not tired when I walked my dog for longer distances; most significantly, my severe back pain (which I believe was caused by long hours of sitting stiffly in front of my computer doing thesis revisions) was suddenly relieved. The TRX coach told me that one of the reasons was that my core was strengthened.

In the same way, we seldom have spiritual “boot camp” or intentional spiritual exercises that target our weaknesses. However, when these intentional exercises are practiced, whether it is solitude, fasting, prayer or retreats, each aspect of our life, including our connection to our spiritual community and our intimacy with God, is deepened and strengthened. It is like my boot camp experience: intentional discipline brings “pain” to certain muscles, but it simultaneously strengthens many other parts of the whole.

We need to be aware of our holy discontent and allow it to motivate us to take disciplined action in our spiritual formation. This summer is the perfect opportunity to make some changes in our routine to prepare us for the challenges that the fall will certainly bring. Churches need not be a place of spiritual stagnation. Together, we can encourage each other and transform our routine church experiences into practices of spiritual renewal.  

  • Paddy is the founder and executive director of Holistic Sanctuary where she provides retreats, teach spiritual formation curriculums and give spiritual direction.

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