Thursday, February 26, 2015

further up and further in: novels and our spiritual journey

This week I started Middlemarch by George Eliot for the third time.  This time I'm determined to finish it.  I tried reading it in high school, and never got into it either from it not being more like Jane Austen or it being a little too advanced.  In college it was assigned for my British Novel class my junior year, but I had a stack of 11 novels to read that spring semester along with the rest of my homework and too many extra curricular activities, so a poor skimming of the first 100 pages or so was as far as I got.

It's funny to find myself enjoying a book that I had not enjoyed two times before, but this is certainly not the first time this has happened to me.

I always tried reading books that were a little too advanced for me when I was younger, for two reasons: I loved reading and was always looking for something new to read, and because I would certainly take pride in reading a book that was considered too difficult for someone my age.

Against my mother's advice I tried reading A Tale of Two Cities in 5th grade.  I had seen the Wishbone episode with the terrier starring as Charles Darnay and didn't think it could be too hard.  That book was soon set aside after reading a confusing chapter about a knitting woman and references to a revolution I hadn't studied yet.

In junior high I slaved over the pages of Emma after loving the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow.  I finished it, but the story was much richer and easier to understand when I read it over again in high school.

In high school I spent over a year reading War and Peace off and on.  As an adult I read Anna Karenina with much less effort and better comprehension.

As I considered these misadventures and failures in reading, I thought about my spiritual life.  In high school I got emotional in an apologetics class when the teacher suggested that children didn't really understand the gospel when they accepted Christ at a young age.  I spoke up and shared that my conversion experience as a four year old was very real, and I knew that I had accepted the gospel to the level I was capable of at that age.  At that time in my life, I was seriously doubting areas of my faith, but deep down I knew that the day I accepted Jesus as my Savior in our apartment in South Carolina, something had changed and altered the course of my life.

I think saying someone could not have a genuine spiritual experience when they are a small child would be like saying I could not read when I failed to finish A Tale of Two Cities in 5th grade.  I was certainly capable of reading at that time, and had been reading for a number of years already, but conceptually there were ideas I could not yet grasp fully.  As I advanced in my understanding and experience of the world, more and more books have opened up to me, but I was not less of a reader as a 6-year-old than I am now.  The day words began to have meaning instead of being mysterious symbols I could not comprehend, I became a reader and have been one ever since.

Similarly, I think our spiritual journeys often parallel the experience I had with reading.  When I accepted Jesus at four, there were many concepts and truths I didn't understand fully or even knew existed.  Grace and sanctification, joy and trust, propitiation and redemption.  Words that I could never have defined for you on that couch in South Carolina, but Jesus was starting a work in my heart even then.

As we grow in our faith there are often watershed moments.  When I first began to really understand grace, I had already been a Christian for a very long time.  It was a face-palming moment.  How could I have been so blind to a grace that has been here all along?  This concept is so integral to my faith. Why had I fought against it for so many years?

The longer we are Christians, the more time we have to understand a God so big and so great that even after we have spent thousands of years with Him in heaven we will only have dipped our toes into the unfathomable depths of His being.

There is no shame in recognizing how much you didn't understand about your faith when you first started, whether as a child or much later.  There is no shame in realizing how wrong you may have been about God even as you grew to love Him.

Sometimes I think in church we recommit ourselves to God over and over again, not just as an adjustment in the trajectory towards Him, but in face-reddening shame, feeling like we were never Christians in the first place.  Sometimes this may be true, but I think we are missing the fact that we are works in a process of sanctification.  No acceptance of the gospel equals spiritual perfection.  If that were true, we'd all need a do-over because none of us are perfect.  That's why we need Jesus.

If I had been told I didn't understand reading as a child because I couldn't yet read Tolstoy or Dickens, I probably would have quit right then.  If teachers thought they had to have their students reading Paradise Lost in kindergarten, they wouldn't try teaching children to read at all.

I think we do this with children or the childlike when teaching spiritual truths and concepts.  Children's ministries suffer when people think that children can't fully understand the gospel.  People with disabilities can be neglected altogether because they do not have the attention span to sit through a normal Sunday school presentation and tend to be disruptive.  Jesus was willing to share the good news to people of all levels.  He asked for the little children to be brought to him.  He stuck with the disciples even though they repeatedly misunderstood His teachings and calling.  In fact Jesus even said we have something to learn from the way children accept the gospel, "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."  Luke 18:17

God doesn't expect us to get everything right at the moment of salvation, so we can rest knowing that our spiritual experiences are genuine even if we don't have all the pieces yet.  We can go forth and share the gospel with confidence knowing that we are all works in progress, and newer, deeper spiritual experience doesn't negate the effect the gospel has already had on our lives.

It's not failure when we admit we don't understand everything.  Knowing that we don't know everything is the posture of a learner.  The only failure is in refusing to learn and grow beyond where you are currently.

If I never moved on from Dr. Seuss and Curious George to read deeper and more complicated works of literature, my life would be less rich and my understanding of the world far narrower.  I would not have ceased to be a reader, but I would have missed out on so much.

So let's run further up and further in, chasing God through our lives, seeking to understand Him better and better each day.  Some days we may feel like giving up, as I did reading novels that were out of my depth, but I promise, those moments where God reveals to you something you never understood before but struggled with your whole life, those moments are worth the journey and the struggle to get there.

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