Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Starting with Noah's flood, forty-day time periods seem to have special significance in the Bible. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all are recorded in Scripture as having spent "forty days" in fasting and solitude; and their examples have inspired thousands of Christians since to choose the same time frame for periods of growing closer to God.

Beginning last month and ending this morning, I recently tried a self-designed "40 days" program of my own. It was nothing particularly intense, certainly not comparable to spending the whole time in the wilderness without food or water or human contact; it simply involved taking an hour a day for meditating to worship music. Nonetheless, I couldn't even exercise that degree of self-discipline with much consistency; as far as I could tell, my mind was wandering as far at the end of the period as the beginning, and I was making as little effort (and feeling as little desire) to fight it as ever. Rather than feeling significantly closer to God for the experience, I feel a heavy sense of "you'll never change" discouragement.

I suppose I was hoping for a "quantum leap" (the literal meaning of which, ironically enough, is a large movement only on the atomic scale) that would change me from a compulsive fretter into the epitome of constant serenity and joy. Looking at myself honestly, I have to admit that my desire to develop these Christlike qualities is highly tainted, motivated at least as much by just hating to feel miserable as by genuine love for God. I suffer (in more ways than one) from what the Bible calls double-mindedness or trying to serve two masters: I want to be close to God, but at the same time am constantly worrying that He'll make me revise my plans or abandon my favorite pastimes. James 1:5-8 describes the "double-minded" as constantly swayed by circumstances, unstable in everything they do, and hardly able to receive what God wants to give them: that's me all right.

Part of the problem is that city life in the Internet age carries more mental distractions than any other setting the human race has ever lived in. Everywhere we turn, something or someone reminds us of books not yet read, projects not yet started, possessions not yet acquired, honors not yet achieved, things we never knew before. The typical high school sophomore's brain today is probably crammed with a hundred times as much information as the typical fifteenth-century person came into contact with in sixty years. It's hard to be single-minded when a world of input is constantly tugging at your mind from all sides.

Would I have done better on the "40-day program" had I spent it in a country cottage without phone or Internet access? I don't know--and on my current budget and schedule, it would hardly have been feasible to try. In any case, it takes more than just physical withdrawal from worldly concerns to ensure spiritual growth. Some people have tried to "get away from the whole world" physically and have failed because they carried too much of the world inside themselves, or kept counting the days to their return. Others have managed to achieve a surprising level of inner peace even as they physically remained in the same hectic world as the rest of us, or even in prisons or refugee camps with little chance of escape.

If nothing else, I have come to a somewhat better understanding of my human limitations and of God's patience with them. Most of us think of ourselves as not exactly perfect, but as pretty good nonetheless--until we start trying to really change. Ironically, it's the best among us--the most spiritually mature--who most willingly admit that "nothing good lives in me" (Rom. 7:18, NIV, emphasis added). The closer we get to God, the more we appreciate how utterly worthless we are in ourselves and how gracious He is even to put up with us. The more we realize this, the more humble and worshipful--the more joyful and peaceful--we become.

And the more we come to understand that forty days of prayer and fasting, while wonderful in its place, is not a prescription to "solve all our emotional problems for good." Truly learning to "be still and know... God" (Ps. 46:10) takes a lifetime.

We spend all our lives chasing shadows
With names like Success and Complete,
Tormented by windstorms of fretting
And fleeing from fear of defeat.
Our schedules are flurries of "must-dos"
All jostling for head of the line;
We scramble to pick up the pieces
And weep for the ones we can't find.
Our goals are the breaths that we gasp for;
Our tasks nag like dust in the eye;
And still the whole world spins around us
Till it just seems hopeless to try.

But we are our own worst tormentors:
We, who are unwilling to rest
Until we have "finished" our "duties,"
Until we achieve all the "best."
God whispers, "Stop striving, and know Me;
Come, sit by My side for a while;
Let Me give a weight you can carry;
Please, open your eyes to My smile.
Stop fretting for life's worldly treasures;
Your greatest reward is in Me."
My friend, He has peace and rest for us,
If we are just willing to see!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your poetry continues to inspire me with thought provoking subjects. You are a talented writer. Thanks for sharing.