How to be Spiritual… and why it’s hard on this Journey

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Moving from where you are right now to where you might dream of being – a person with a fairly satisfying, if challenging spirituality – will be the hardest thing you’ve done, and the best thing. Why didn’t God just make it easy?

God makes the spiritual life hard because – well, it’s about God, who is vaster and more tender and complex than the best human brain could begin to comprehend. But more importantly, God knows that everything worthwhile in life is hard, and requires dedication, energy, sweat, failure, stick-to-it-iveness. If a robust spirituality could be picked up at the Quick shop around the corner, you’d toss it in the backseat pretty quickly and forget about it. But if you’ve labored long and hard, you’ll treasure what was hard-won.

The spiritual life is hard because we have to wrestle with that nagging hollowness, being restless and confused; we have to embrace that we’re a mess inside, instead of self-medicating or staying busy or finding distractions. The spiritual life is besieged by sweet, seductive voices whispering messages in your ear. Praying is a waste of time, or Don’t you have things to do? or What’s on TV? or Check your smartphone, or No one’s listening, or What’s for dinner? or My friends would laugh if they knew, or Why aren’t I beaming and feeling spiritual? or Can we have some fun now? or Church is full of hypocrites, or I’m already a great guy without this!

Then there’s the control thing. We love being in control. Prayer, or meditation, or Bible reflection isn’t getting a better grip on your life. It’s ceding control, trusting God to be God. It’s acknowledging you can’t be Atlas, carrying the world on your shoulders; it’s heavy, it’s exhausting. You’re no good at being God. God is downright… godly at being God. Let God be God.

I’m regularly haunted by Thomas Merton’s wisdom: “Coldness and dryness in prayer may be an unconscious defense against the grace of God.” Could it be? You get bored, or distracted while trying to meditate or pray. Maybe your old, unspiritual self is fighting back against the grace that is making inroads. Maybe your busy, addicted, consuming, superficial self suspects healing and freedom are beginning for you, and so they collude to keep you in their shackles. Maybe you still think you can be master of your own life – so it’s easier to yawn and say This is boring, or I’ll skip today, and keep being your old you.

The spiritual life is hard, I’m so happy to say. It requires discipline as regular and non-negotiable as brushing your teeth or going to work or eating dinner. It requires you to expend energy, like working out or weeding and mowing the yard. It requires patience, and bearing frustration, like learning Spanish or playing the piano (or golf). Hard – and rewarding, breathing new life into you and your world.

TRY THIS: Make a list of why the spiritual life is hard for you – and then asks if any of it is a sneaky defense against the grace of God.