What is Missional Spirituality?

Copy of WHAT IS MISSIONAL THEOLOGY?

As the missional church movement matures and develops, we may well ask not only “What is Missional Theology?”, but what is the form of life taken up by disciples looking for a missional way of following Jesus? In short, “What is missional spirituality?” This article to sketch a thick description of that kind of spirituality to answer that question.

Missional spirituality begins with the commitment of Jesus’s disciples to participate in God’s ongoing work in the world. Flowing theologically from an understanding of God’s intent for the world and the nature of God’s own mission, the church owns a way of life of living into that story, and we call the particularities of this way of life our spirituality—that sometimes fluffy word simply refers to the way we nurture and live out our faith. A range of practices and postures flesh out this spirituality, and these fall loosely into a handful of categories.

1. Practices that form the individual and community of disciples in the image of Jesus.

Jesus models the kingdom, as one whose life represents full participation in God’s mission. He is the new human par excellence, who has restored the possibility of the image of God in humanity.

Practices representing this formative element of missional spirituality:

  • The celebration of Communion, which continually draws the church into the selfless way of Jesus, by reenacting his story. It reinforces the church’s anticipation of his coming, and teaches the community of disciples to recognize the image of Jesus in each other.
  • Practices of Hearing the Word form disciples through the testimony of God’s people in the scriptures. The scriptures nourish our capacity to think theologically, and invite us to live in a larger narrative context by seeing ourselves as living within the story of God. The scriptures provide ways for Christians to understand God’s intentions in creation, the consequences of human evil, and the nature of God’s intervention in the world to save us.
  • Baptism inducts the individual into the community of people who proclaim the Lordship and commit to live by his story and way. It provides a defining memory of the new identity we are given as the people of Jesus.
  • Friendship between disciples shapes them as they extend each other grace and practice companionship.
  • Prayer connects disciples (individually and communally) with God. In prayer, disciples reach out to God, and also listen to God’s leading by the holy spirit. By connecting in prayer to God, disciples both express their own hearts, and expose them to God’s heart. In the process, we allow their wills to be conformed to God’s own will.
  • The discipline of fasting helps disciples separate from the tyranny of their own desires or assumptions about needs.
  • Common Worship gatherings, in which disciples pray, sing, and listen to the word together, allow the church to solidify its fellowship as being based in a common identity before God. The habit of Common worship gatherings, provides a consistent reinforcement of the church’s attention to the substance of its faith.
  • The Giving and Receiving of Teaching is a way of thinking about all of the different ways Christians provide instruction to each other, both informally and formally. Within the community of disciples there are many kinds of teaching exchanges ranging from moral and scriptural teaching, theological and historical instruction, to practical guidance for living wisely. We might even consider the production and consumption of various media as falling into this category, allowing for the spread and reception of more specialized, developed ideas. Technologically, we may supplement (but not replace!) more intimate, face-to-face forms of teaching through these time and space shifted forms of media (like books, online courses, podcasts, or this blog!). It’s important, over time, that the church takes care to nourish communities that provide the more localized forms of teaching.
  • The cultivation of virtue through mutual encouragement and guidance. Several of the things listed above fit into this, but it’s worth saying clearly that much of the best formation simply happens as people in some sort of mutual relationship encourage each other and have the opportunity to provide and receive guidance.

2. Practices that help the individual and community and bear the fruit of the Kingdom of God.

All of the formative practices of missional spirituality prepare us for practices which produce the fruits of the kingdom of God—the results of God’s reign in our lives. In other words, the practices described above develop within us the capacity to act in certain ways, but it remains for us to give an account of the kinds of actions that characterize missional spirituality.

It must also be said that the line between these two categories of practices is a thin one, and we can certainly expect some practices to fulfill both the formative and fruit-bearing functions. For example, prayer both prepares a person by shaping their being, but may also exemplify an obedient responsiveness to God, which is also a fruit of the kingdom. On the other hand, Service, which I’m listing below as a fruit-bearing practice, also reinforces the inclination to serve and helps disciples move into solidarity with the people they serve, and thus contributes to their spiritual formation as well.

  • Hospitality means making space for other people, whether that be physical space where they can come and feel comfortable, or social space where they can come and enter into nurturing relationships. Hospitality in missional spirituality stretches beyond the boundaries of having people in our own homes (though this remains a powerful tool of hospitality!), as we take a mentality of hospitality into the community. We become people who create space for others, everywhere we go. As we practice hospitality, the relational nature of humanity is redeemed, and we become less defensive, fearful of each other, and adversarial —this is all fruit of the kingdom of God.
  • Generosity. Opportunities to share what we’ve received with our neighbors allows us to push back the threat of scarcity that plagues our world. It also loosens our own grip on our possessions, and helps us live out of a perspective of abundance and plenty. This contentment, and the generous sharing that fosters it, are both fruits of the kingdom of God.
  • In Service, we offer ourselves to another person, or to a community. It also demonstrates humility, the willingness to defer our own desires to another person. As we serve, we also make fruitful use of the skills and talents we’ve been given. God’s kingdom is made real and concrete as people offer themselves to each other, and in this way imitate Christ.
  • Reconciliation is the practice of repairing fractured relationships, whether between individuals or groups within a community. This is one of the most difficult missional practices, as people are often deeply committed to their factions and the grievances that they have against others. Furthermore, most disciples (and people!) are woefully inexperienced in the art of reconciliation. Nevertheless, reconciliation is a prime fruit of the kingdom, and bears incredible witness to the power of God’s reign in the world.
  • Simplicity and Restraint demonstrate and cultivate a spirit within disciples that is not compelled strictly by pleasure and possession. Disciples hold these things lightly, and are free to live unattached to the things God entrusts to them, while also giving thanks for the experiences of this life. These practices witness against our cultural obsessions over materialism and the escapist pursuit of pleasure. They are a sign that has gracefully delivered Jesus’s disciples from slavery to these things.
  • Confession and Repentance, in a similar way, demonstrate that we are not defined by or bound to our mistakes. Christians need not maintain a pretense of perfection, rather they freely admit their failures, and try to do their best to correct them. We admit when we have taken the wrong road, and depend on God’s help to return to the way of Jesus.
  • Forgiveness is the community’s complement to confession and repentance. We extend grace to each other, knowing that our relationship with God is built on the Lord’s grace to us.
  • The Giving and Hearing of Testimony allows disciples to speak of the Lord’s grace and action through and around them. It also allows the community to be encouraged, and to give God glory for these things!
  • Honoring the Least Disciples bear the fruit of the kingdom whenever we make sure that we honor those among us who are not honored or treated poorly in the rest of society.

3. Attentiveness to the world through theological lenses such as justice and righteousness, peace, or sacred dignity.

Disciples practice something like a holy watchfulness in the world. They take in what’s happening around them and carefully weigh the times by what they have learned of God. They explore the meaning of the cultures in which they live and carry with them the theological values of justice and righteousness, peace (in the sense of wholeness, or shalom), or the sacred dignity of all people. They look for ways to fruitfully engage with their culture and bring about these things in the communities where they live. They seek out what it means to respond to community problems in a way that can point towards the way of Jesus.

Different missional communities and individuals will understand these theological values in different ways, and emphasize some over others. Our attention to scripture and our engagement with the community will lead us into new understandings—I think it might be a mistake to prematurely cement our current understandings and priorities as the complete missional identity of the community. After all, continual growth and movement towards maturity is part of the missional way. However, what is unavoidably missional is that we take those theological values back into the community around us. They deeply affect the way we perceive what is happening in the world, and lead us to act and engage in particular ways that resonate with those values.

4. Responsible Stewardship of Vocations, understood as a broad range of callings given to individuals and communities.

Missional theologies lean towards the exploration of spirituality within a brand range of vocations for at least a couple of reasons.

First, the commitment to a holistic vision of God’s plan for humanity, in which God is concerned with the entirety of human life, (social, economic, political, familial, etc) certainly involves a person’s work. God’s creational intent is for humans to be in the development, ordering, and cultivation of creation—we are more than widgets, but we were created to be productive and to participate in God’s creation work of filling the world with life and goodness. Furthermore, as God works to recreate the world, our life of work is redeemed as well—not made irrelevant.

Second, Missional churches are already focused on being as intentional about what happens outside the walls as inside the sanctuary. Concerns about the work lives of Christians employed in secular environments follow naturally, as faith moves back into the public sphere—although it is expressed in a different way than in the public environments of the Christian majority assumed in Christendom.

This move towards exploring the spirituality of work finds multiple expressions beyond the simple ideas of being a witness to the faith by conversation and being a good example. This begins with the church’s public conversation about work, but distinct spiritual practices follow.

  • Missional communities are learning to practice vocational Discernment, in which the individual shares vocational leanings and receives encouragement or guidance from others. They may receive confirmation from those who have seen gifts and skills that support their vocation, or who perceive spiritual guidance in that direction.
  • As an extension of discernment, missional communities may practice vocational Celebration, in which the community recognizes and commissions people into their callings. Few places do this formally, although it’s easy to imagine a church that celebrates the sorts of work transitions people make and from time to time highlights and celebrates how people are finding their vocation (including, but exclusive to work!) and how that contributes to (or flows from) the wholeness they have in Christ.
  • Disciples pursue excellence and diligence in the workplace, understanding that how they do their work matters. Most work worth doing is worth doing well and excellently, and fulfilling our work roles as well as we can reflects on our own higher master. However, Christians pursue excellence in their work not only because of the testimony of good workmanship (though that deserves a thought as well), but because work itself matters, and diligence is a matter of character.
  • Missional spirituality also points towards the intentional use of skills and resources to contribute to the community. Good work is not only a way of providing income for a family unit, but also provides ways for the individual to contribute to the good of the community. Sometimes the ways this take place may seem obscure and ambiguous—at times disciples may need to look deeper for ways of understanding their work and its role for the community, or may need to investigate other ways of contributing. What am I contributing? Is an unavoidably important question, even if troubling. Missional spirituality takes on this challenge.
  • Missional disciples also pursue their callings with Vigilant Ethics, knowing both that righteousness is a fruit of the kingdom and also a witness for the Lord’s reign.
  • Occasionally, work environments create the occasion for Spiritual Conversation, which is a way for the followers of Jesus to engage their coworkers who may have insight from other ways of life, and also open to hear a perspective informed by the way of Jesus.

Where do I start?

It might be helpful to provide, after such a set of lists, a couple of helpful pointers for where people interested in this sort of life might get started.

  • Engage a community of mission…and if you’re not already part of one, it only takes one or two friends to begin one. So start having the conversations about what this kind of life might loo like. You can’t do it alone, and the community begins with conversation.
  • Try experimenting with different elements described above, and journal your experiences. So take a few weeks and really try to attend to the way you practice hospitality, or your sense of vocation, and write a little bit every day about how the experiment is going.
  • My podcast Spiritual Steps offers bite-sized steps towards developing your spiritual life. I generally work out of a missional perspective, so those >15 min episodes might prove useful to you, and provide concrete next steps.
  • You might want to begin by taking something of a spiritual inventory of your life. Instead of adding a bunch of new practices out of nowhere, begin by reflecting one where you are, then just focus on the next step in front of you. Steady and intentional growth is the way, and being honest about where we currently are is the edge on that.
  • You can always do a lot worse than by simply starting with prayer!

Worship in the Dark: John of the Cross, Emotional Worship, and Me

Worship in the Dark

In my own devotional time right now, I’m reading a few pages of the works of John of the Cross.

I’d read a little bit in John’s works before, but I recently heard Randy Harris make a comment about how going back to it can feel like it’s a totally different book, and so I’ve gone back in, and I’m finding that to be largely true. I’m reading a few pages most days, maybe a chapter or two, and slowly digesting it, turning it over. I started with The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

As John speaks in the early part of Ascent, it’s repeatedly felt like what he has to say about discursive meditation resonates with some feelings I have about worship, particularly that structured in so-called contemporary forms. Namely, these heavily sensory forms of corporate praise, designed to evoke emotion, simply don’t for me often. For a while, this was pretty frustrating, as I felt like I was losing a sort of capacity that the modern church equates heavily with spirituality—indeed, this often made me wonder if I was being hollowed out, and whether my heart was becoming disconnected from the Lord in a way that was leading me to become something like the trope of the hypocritical spiritual leader that doesn’t really believe what they’re selling that is often highlighted/parodied in our culture. Pretty scary stuff, particularly as I treasure and try to cultivate a sense of authenticity!

However, I don’t think that’s actually the case, because I did feel connected to the Lord in other ways—in the communal silences of the eucharist, or in times of shared prayer with our shepherds (or others, but particularly with our shepherds) or in certain friendship spaces, or in just times by myself. Over time, I just came to moments of worship, particularly singing times, as something that didn’t really do it for me (whatever that means), but that I generally saw as helpful for others. (Some forms of singing, I still really enjoy—particularly songs that proclaim God’s lordship. I feel like now, what I really like are songs that make proclamations. I think they feel like protest songs, and I do find that fruitful.)

Anyway, as I’ve read John, it’s often occurred to me that some of what he says about meditation feels similar to that. Like the sorts of worship that attempt to evoke a certain emotional intensity are sort of like the form of meditation that relies on the imagination, and I feel like it’s giving me further permission to let go of the desire to force that sort of emotion on myself, or work myself into that particular emotional place, and to allow myself some peace in that. I’m not quite sure how to describe the alternative path, but I do think that I’m coming to a place where I approach worship (aside from preaching!) as something that I passively receive or recognize God’s presence in, rather than working myself towards an emotional experience of that. Here’s a passage that seems to resonate with what I think the path forward may look like:

“When spiritual persons cannot meditate, they should learn to remain in God’s presence with a loving attention and a tranquil intellect, even though they seem to themselves to be idle. For little by little and very soon the divine calm and peace with a wondrous, sublime knowledge of God, enveloped in divine love, will be infused into their souls. They should not interfere with forms or discursive meditations and imaginations. Otherwise the soul will be disquieted and drawn out of its peaceful contentment to distaste and repugnance. And if, as we said, scruples about their inactivity arise, they should remember that pacification of the soul (making it calm and peaceful, native and desireless) is no small accomplishment. This, indeed, is what our Lord asks of us through David: Vacate and videte quondam ego sum Deus [Ps 46:10]. This would be like saying: Learn to be empty of all things—interiorly and exteriorly—and you will behold that I am God.” (Ascent 2.15.5)

That last line is pretty great. I’ll probably have more to post about this on another time, but if nothing else, I wanted to post it for those who may be feeling something similar, as though they’re not really sure how to make themselves feel the things in worship that it seems like they are supposed to. John writes about how sometimes seeking the Lord in faith feels like following in the dark—and sometimes everything around us that seems like light is really trying to lead us away from the dim light of faith. As I’ve reflected on that idea, I’ve come to believe that it’s important that we learn to worship in the dark—to give worship to God even when the faith that we are acting on doesn’t reward us emotionally like we expect. We give worship even when faith refuses to behave in such a way as to resolve all the ambiguities around us, or when it doesn’t trip the particular emotional triggers or imaginative experiences that we might expect. The road of faith does not always track with what we think or feel…sometimes it is just a matter of one step in front of another, seeking the Lord and being willing to keep seeking, following the sound of God’s call, even though we’re walking in the dark.

I think that it is okay if all of the emotions don’t sweep you away in passion-ate worship, and if you’re in a place where you feel distant from all of that, don’t allow it to discourage you too thoroughly. In some situations, that might even be good, a sign that some things that were helpful for you before are now giving way to another stage of your faith’s development and maturity, although I would resist elevating that in relation to somebody else’s more emotive experience—that may be just what they need, and their different experience may be different than yours in ways that you cannot perceive. Comparison in this sort of thing just isn’t our friend.

The Fruit of Hope: Mission

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The first post in this series looked at nurturing hope. Here, I want to think about its fruit.

It’s not an accident that people into the missional church movement are also often rooted in the sort of eschatology emphasized by theologians such as N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Jurgen Moltmann. These theologians focus on God’s intent to bring about the redemption of creation—the reconciliation of all things to God. The sort of hope that this kind of theology cultivates points towards mission as its natural fruit. Here are four ways that a robust sense of hope moves us towards mission.

1. Hope helps us deal with the brokenness that we experience in ourselves. Hope allows us to see our own conversion as something that has begun but which is not yet completed. Our own discipleship has a trajectory, even if the specific turns and twists along the way remain mysterious to us. In hope, we see ourselves as in the process of being formed, and that takes place for and by God’s missionary work in the world. Thus, mission is no longer something that we only see as being given to the elite super-spiritual, but is something for all of us. It is not for those who have already arrived, but is a part of the journey towards God’s future, the source of our hope.

2. It allows us to engage in broken systems. As hope grows within us, we we have new energy to struggle against the dark powers of the world, knowing that God will indeed defeat them in the end…their ability to crush and grind people is destined to fall, and when they are defeated, the systems they use to break people will crumble to. That knowledge allows us to actively subvert those systems through story and action, even while facing the frustration that comes from facing their current powers. I know this particular point sounds super nerdy and theoretical, but there’s one last one that we meet every day:

3. Hope sustains our ability to love people. People are tough to love sometimes, and there are moments when our frustrations with their behavior can overwhelm our loving desires for their well-being. That’s just speaking about the people we already have affection for—we still have to deal with the surely strangers who rub us wrong from the beginning! Hope can help us deal with those frustrations. It provides us the resources to be able to see people for what they can be, rather than only as they already are. Realizing that everyone we meet is on a journey frees us to think about how our relationship with them, even the smallest interactions, might move them along the way towards wholeness. I think this is part of Jesus’s own way of dealing with people, an imitating it is a step on the path of discipleship.

4. Hope broadens our vision. It’s perhaps most obvious how this happens temporally, as we expand our view from the present moment towards a long view. However, hope properly conceived also contains within it a vision of how God reconciles all of creation, and so we find it broadening our field of vision spatially and relationally as well. We begin to see how God’s mission, and perhaps to some extent our place in it, relates to all humanity and the wholeness of God’s world. Hopeful people see beyond themselves.

Cultivating a Bias towards Hope

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No reason to be coy here, to keep up any pretense of objectivity. Let’s just put this on the table from the very beginning: I have a bias towards hope.

Generally and theologically speaking, I trace that seed to the work of God in the world especially the movement of God in Jesus. I haven’t scientifically studied the origin of this bias in me particularly, though I suspect my family and the church collaborated in planting it within me, and it probably also began to take root because of my sunny genetic disposition. The origins are tough to nail down. Easier to see are the fruit of that hope, and I’ll write a bit more on that tomorrow. Today I’m thinking about the middle part of hope’s lifespan…the growing of hope.

Hope doesn’t skip from seed to fruit, and the movement doesn’t happen automatically. Hope must be cultivated. Hope must be nurtured. The seed requires care and attention, or it will shrivel up and die, and there’s hardly anything more tragic than dead hope.

Hope must be cultivated. Hope must be nurtured. Click To Tweet

The importance of nurturing hope becomes even clearer when you think about the opposition it faces. The relentless chatter of cynics stunts its growth, our abundant experiences of scarcity and loss chips at its branches, and our perpetual busyness poisons its roots. The news cycle provokes a climate of stifling fear, and the more sentimental corners of facebook and youTube try to replace real hope with something immediate and shallow.

In the face of all this and more, the seeds of hope wither and die without protection, and cultivation. Hope must be nurtured—and it can be! Here are six ways to actively cultivate hope.

1. Connect with a foundation of hope. For me, this is the resurrection of Jesus, which I take to be a signal to the world of God’s intent to defeat the enemies of hope. This isn’t the only possible foundation for hope, but it’s been a reliable spring of hope for me. So I try and connect with it consistently enough that I can view other stories and events through that master story of hope.

2. Embed yourself in a community of hope. Hope struggles in isolation. It seems to me like there is a tipping point, a place when a community struggles to muster up the courage to believe in the future anymore. On the other hand, a community that holds and practices a sacred hope can sustain your hope and develop its character.

3. Remember you’re playing a long game. Hope requires patience. What you’re cultivating is not going to pay off immediately, maybe even within your lifetime. You can’t allow yourself to be dominated by the demands of the present, even though you seek to be fully alive in each moment you are given.

4. Expect trouble. Don’t shelter your hope by refusing to acknowledge the possibility of dark days. Hope doesn’t benefit from naïveté.  In fact, that causes hope to suffer, as unexpected trouble inevitably come to challenge hope’s promise. But you’re not cultivating a naïve hope, but a resilient one. And that means that your understanding of hope has to be big enough to hold trouble. This isn’t anything new, by the way. Isaiah and Revelation, which are arguably the great books of biblical hope, both arrive at their visions of hope by routes that promise times of suffering. This doesn’t nullify the hope they contain. It fortifies it.

5. See both the forest and the trees of hope. Practice perceiving both the world and individuals through the lenses of hope. Let your sense of God’s future be grand enough for the whole world and gritty enough to hold the complications of flesh and blood people.  Let both of these senses inform each other, and your hope will become more and more robust over time.

6. Pray for God’s future. Hope is formed more deeply within us as we prayerfully look forward to the redemption and reconciliation of creation. The New Testament ends with Jesus’s promise to come and bring about the reconciliation of heaven and earth. “Surely I am coming soon,” he says. And revelation closes with John’s reply: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” We do well to join this prayer, even as we join in his mission of reconciliation in the present.

You might also want to read the next post in this series, The Fruit of Hope: Mission.

Honoring the Gift of Creation

SCULPTURE & ART

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit set their minds on the things of the spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.

In our religious world, it’s difficult for us to grasp what it means to set our minds on things of the spirit. Paul speaks against living according to “flesh”; it’s all too easy to imagine that Paul might have meant for us to become detached from our material, bodily existence. It’s a short leap for us to assume he meant a sort of ethereal disregard for the physical, that he intends us to live with contempt for the created order and our place in it. And yet, when Paul turns to describing what life in the spirit actually looks like, it includes things like showing hospitality to strangers, befriending the lowly, feeding your enemies, celebrating with those who have cause to be happy, shedding tears with the sad, and paying your taxes (Romans 12-13). These are physical matters, matters of skin and bone that take place in the created world. For Paul, living by the spirit is not a denial of life, but a certain way of living it. It wasn’t a pining for the afterlife, but a claiming of the present one for the God who created it.

The flesh for Paul is a way living that is enslaved by appetites beyond our control. It is a distortion of physical life that craves and is never satisfies, that seeks after strength only to be confronted by death and decay. It is a force that hollows physicality, leading to a way of being in the world separated from the creator’s will. It is existence totally turned in on itself, in which relationships to the creator and other creatures are sacrificed to the appetite and fear of the individual.

For Paul, life by the spirit of God represents a different way of living in the world, a way filled by God’s own life. “Spirit” is one way of talking about God’s own person, but it can also be alternative orienting force. By attending to the spirit, we allow God to turn back our lives to a trajectory that includes attending to God’s will and presence. God’s own being defends against the pullings and pushings of our own appetites and other fallen powers which, left to themselves, corrupt life and dislodge it from its divine direction. “Setting our minds on the spirit” means orienting ourselves to that way of life which was the creator’s gift to us in the beginning, a way of living that allows us to experience communion with God and each other, and to live in peace with the rest of creation. It is a way of living not in spite of creation, but fully honoring the gift or creation and our place in it.

God desperately wants to give us this life.

The creation itself longs to share it with us.

The question that remains is: do we desire this sort of life? Is it the sort of life that we are ready to accept, or have we become so accustomed to the way of the flesh that we are unwilling to be pried from it? Can we be persuaded that the way of the flesh is a sham, a poisoned apple drugging us and dragging us to the grave?

Can we be persuaded that there is a life that is truly life, and a peace that is truly peace?

May God’s own spirit make it so!

Remembering Restraint

BEWARE It’s not the prettiest of the spiritual disciplines, and at this point in history, it’s not the most fashionable. Of course, restraint has had its heyday—there was once a time when becoming a saint meant taking on all kinds of ascetic practices, moving out into the desert, living as a hermit on a few crumbs a day.

But those days are gone. Now the pendulum has swung in another direction, and that’s brought important facets of faith back into play—we’re more inclined to think about the world as full of God’s presence, and to perceive the created world as important to God—as we should. We tend to think of the things we receive as blessings from God, and if we think about our appetites at all, we generally just try to regard the things we use to satisfy them with gratitude. Only in their most extreme distortions do we regard the appetites as dangerous.

John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, has been relentlessly reminding me off the cost of allowing our appetites to run free. At Randy Harris’s suggestion, I’ve been digesting John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel a few pages at time, and I didn’t have to wade very far into it before it got challenging. John considers one of the first steps in the spiritual journey to be the mortification of the sensual appetites (think broadly about what these are, by the way). He allows no quarter for prisoners on this matter:

“As the tilling of soil is necessary for its fruitfulness—untilled soil produces only weeds—mortification of the appetites is necessary for one’s spiritual fruitfulness. I venture to say that without this mortification all that is done for the sake of advancement in perfection and in knowledge of God and of oneself no more profitable than seed sown on uncultivated ground. Accordingly , darkness and coarseness will always be with a soul until its appetites are extinguished. The appetites are like a cataract on the eye or specks of dust in it; until removed they obstruct vision.” (1.8.4)

and later on he pushes even further:

“Manifestly, then, the appetites do not bring any good to person, Rather they rob one of what one already has. And if one does not mortify them, they will not cease until they accomplish what the offspring of vipers are said to do within the mother: While growing within her that eat away at her entrails and finally kill her, remaining alive at her expense. So the unmortified appetites result in killing the soul in its relationship with God, and thus, because it did not put them to death first, they alone live in it.” (1.10.3)

John doesn’t mince words here: in his view the appetites serve no good in person’s spiritual journey, and to progress we simply have to be done with them. That may sound harsh, and it probably serves a good bit of nuancing, but I’m not so sure that it isn’t closer to the truth than our naive way of approaching our appetites. Don’t you share the same suspicion that I do; that our progress in the spiritual life stalls out at precisely that point where drive for satisfaction overtakes our desire to pursue the Lord?

I’m not sure that John’s way should be taken as absolute…but I am absolutely convinced that he points us in the right direction, because it’s a way that resonates with the story of Jesus. Jesus didn’t abandon the world or scorn creation, and neither was he a man without appetites…but in the end, he mastered them. Jesus enjoyed creation and community, but never worshipped any object of his appetites. In the end, Jesus was a man of full self-control, a man full of the dignity of restraint, even in the shame of the cross.

Perhaps it’s time that we follow him by remembering restraint, and learning again the discipline of dissatisfaction.