In the midst of this drift toward action, another movement arose, a new spiritual romanticism that tried to check our fascination with the horizontal and re-engage us with the vertical. The Pentecostal movement exploded on the scene at the turn of the 20th century and made its way into mainstream churches as charismatic Christianity beginning in the 1960s. It began well enough—more than well enough—as men and women enjoyed the immediate presence of God as he came to them in the Holy Spirit. People came to these meetings in droves because they wanted God; they yearned for God.
But once again, it didn’t take long for the yearning for God to turn into a longing for an experience for many. Instead of God, people began wanting, and leaders began demanding, that people experience the gifts of God. Tongues became not so much a means of conversing with the living God as a sign of one’s spiritual condition.
This is not throwing stones, believe me. As a person who has been blessed with experiencing some extraordinary spiritual gifts, I have longed for a spiritual experience for its own sake, for a certain type of exquisite feeling and emotion—and truth be told, I wanted this more than I wanted God. Most people who have experienced such extraordinary gifts know of this temptation.
Today we also see a contemporary expression of the holiness movement and its concern for the moral life. A fair number of evangelicals have become fascinated with virtue ethics or character formation. They are less interested in creating or adhering to a list of dos and don’ts than how habits and disciplines can shape a person’s character so that we are exemplified by love, joy, peace, patience and so forth.
This is to me a salutary development, but again as Christian virtue ethicists themselves acknowledge, such an emphasis can get stalled since there is a constant temptation to look at one’s self and one’s progress as one pursues the virtues. The emphasis is on my transformation. God too easily becomes a means to my end.
It’s not too much of a stretch to see that the newly rediscovered passion for social justice in many ways parallels virtue ethics but with the emphasis on the community rather than the individual. In its more extreme forms, we hear evangelicals adopting critical theory, in which power dynamics are front and center, especially in race and gender relations. Anyone with even a brief familiarity with history already is aware of these dynamics, as well as the role that class and economics can play in all this.
One problem with critical theory is that everything is about power, just as class was everything with Marxism. Another is that it is impervious to criticism—those that disagree are considered trapped in power dynamics.
But as with virtue ethics, passion for social justice is tempted to forget God, in particular in three ways, which many social justice advocates are the first to acknowledge: First, there is increasing passion, and often anger, regarding justice between people, eclipsing the passion for justice, or justification with God. Second, there is an increasing assumption that it is our job to bring in the kingdom of God. Third, when there is an acknowledgment that God is critical to the work of social justice, God can become a means to an end. For example, prayer helps sustain my social justice efforts, the thing I’m really passionate about.
One cannot but be thankful for our newfound passion for social justice. Christians whose hearts don’t sink at the injustices that infect every society—well, it’s hard to believe they can truly love the God of the Bible. But the Enemy has a way of twisting our passions so that God slowly gets put in his place.
One more feature of our common evangelical life needs to be noted: the spirituality movement, which seems to undermine the thesis of this essay! Again there is much to be lauded here, and one can only be grateful that, even if it engages only a small percentage of evangelicals, that is not nothing. But the fact that the interest is small and sporadic suggests that evangelicals are not much interested in practicing the spiritual disciplines in an effort to know and love God more deeply.
The same temptations apply here as to every one of our efforts—and again, it’s the very leaders of the movement who worry about “spirituality” becoming popular: All of us who have tried to practice the spiritual disciplines know these hazards. One temptation is to want to become spiritual, whatever we conceive that to be; we want to become a certain type of religious person more than we want to meet God. And, second, we start counting the number of disciplines we’re practicing and the amount of time we give to them as markers of our spiritual condition. This is all so silly, but as I said, anyone who has attempted to practice the disciplines knows whereof I speak.
He explained to me that, indeed, he has been striving to make God his be all and end all, one for whom he pants after as a deer after water. So he’d given himself to punctuating his day with prayer, especially morning and at bedtime, and if possible once or twice during the middle of his busy days. The prayer time includes reading the Psalms and other Scripture, as well as quiet meditation and brief prayer. All of this lasts no more than 10 to 15 minutes, but he says he finds it is a practice he enjoys, not in the sense of checking off a box but in the sense that he is slowly but surely finding that his love for God is growing.
But he also told me how confused his heart remains. One day recently he left work early to take care of some personal business. On the way home, he determined to have a prayer time at home as he picked up a few papers. Yet he found himself in the car 30 minutes later, having completely forgotten about his intent to pray for a mere 10 minutes before he left home.
And why is it, he also wondered, that many mornings he notes a reluctance in his heart to sit down to pray, especially when there are so many things to get done? Why doesn’t he consider prayer one of these absolutely necessary things to do, or why doesn’t he look forward to it if, in fact, God is the source of all life and joy and the deepest satisfaction of our deepest desires? If he loves and desires God, as he says he wants to, why do the loves and desires of so much else actually shape his day and his heart?
He concluded, “When it comes down to it, I’m a practical atheist. I’ve learned to live most of my life as if God is a nice add-on—when I have time and when I really want him—but otherwise I’m content with living as if he is not a living presence.”
As I noted in the introduction, I deeply identify with my friend’s dilemma. (That phrase “practical atheist” is from Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray). In talking with many friends, I’d say we’re not alone. So it’s not quite true that we’ve completely forgotten God. But our spiritual Alzheimer’s has progressed to dangerous levels.
To let grace have a word: This is a common human condition and certainly no surprise to God, who is still willing to work with us despite our attempts to use him for our ends. It is not remarkably evil that we are so distracted by life and responsibilities and earthly desires that God takes a decided back seat. We needn’t whip ourselves with guilt and shame over this. This essay in particular and this series is intended not as wholesale condemnation but as a wake-up call, or at least the start of a larger conversation.
I think it is incumbent on evangelical Christians to take this with special seriousness. We have rightly prided ourselves in practicing a form of faith that emphasizes the personal relationship with Jesus one can enjoy. And among us are many who can be characterized in just this way. But overall I believe our movement has degenerated in ways I have described above, with the vast majority of us falling into patterns that emphasize the horizontal at the expense of the vertical.
We were once people whose lives were characterized by the presence of God, as if we “walk with him and talk with along life’s narrow way” as the old hymn puts it. Today, we are known for our politics (left and right), our voting patterns, our ethical hypocrisy, our compromise with materialism, church-planting techniques, growing churches, entrepreneurial skill, and a relentless activism to improve ourselves and our society. A living, vital, and personal relationship with God, a relationship that floods the heart and mind as it did the psalmists and so many others in the Bible and in our history—well it’s hard to find that among us today.