“It’s a complete paradigm shift. Instead of practicing the spiritual disciplines as an attempt to ‘draw close’ to God or earn his affection, we are free to rest in and savor the perfect union we already have with God. In this way, the Christian life is the ongoing deepening of our awareness, appreciation, and enjoyment of the perfect union we already have with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This deepening is on God’s time and is solely God’s work.” -Dave Hickman, author of Closer than Close The second thing to do if you want to kill the butterfly that you have caught in your net is to elevate closeness over union. If there is one thing that Americans are good at, it is working...striving...performing. This has made us great entrepreneurs and creators but sometimes bad theologians and pastors. When it comes to our careers or perhaps our families or our houses, there is much work to be done. This is what makes us great. We Americans never give up; we just work harder. We never believe that all is hopeless; we work tirelessly to find a solution. We never fold to believing that something is entirely lost or broken; we know that if we keep brainstorming and learning and putting our heads together, anything can be fixed. This relentlessness and determination has moved us forward into worlds unknown; moon landings and cable television and an unparalleled interconnectedness that no other generation has experienced. It’s made us the best -- not the best country in the world, but perhaps the most technologically advanced and innovative in the world. But when it comes to spirituality, we have often failed to acknowledge that we are dealing with a different kind of economy. There is no work to be done. We’re already there. We were already there the very moment we developed a soul, in the intimacy of the womb. Yes, we were born into the brokenness of the world, but our intimacy with the divine was never lost. We were not born into sin; we were born into blessing. What kind of mother or father looks down at their newborn son and daughter and says to them, “One of these days, when you prove to me that you’re good enough, I’ll accept you”? If our belovedness was lost, if original sin is the starting point, if hell is as real as preachers say it is, then the most loving thing a mother and father should do is to terminate each pregnancy so their child never has the opportunity to reject God and go to hell. But this is not God’s posture toward us. God sees us as always being in the intimacy of the womb, connected to the lifeforce even when we do not realize it, “closer than close” to the Source of Love, even if we have yet to awaken to this closeness. The brokenness we are born into is an invitation to awaken more to what is already true. Even when we are not living how we ought to live, drowning our souls with our egos or the pleasures of the world like the prodigal, or through self-righteousness and judgment like the eldest, God is still there, at the end of road, ready to scandalously pursue both and say, “Listen, son, beloved, all I have is already yours.” But this kind of unconditional, loving posture is too radical for the performance-focused, works-based western mind. It does not fit into our cultural paradigm. No, we must find some kind of performance formula for love to feel real. So we commit ourselves to our morning devotionals and to our night-time prayers and to church attendance, and on the week that we miraculously complete each one, we exclaim, “I feel so close to God!” but really all we’re saying is, “I feel so productive!” In being so committed to developing a “growing, personal relationship with Jesus” we have forgotten Jesus’s very words: that we are one, in union, with God already (John 17). How can we remember what is true when we are too exhausted from running tirelessly on that performance treadmill, giving our all but going nowhere at all? At the same time, often it takes spiritual disciplines to rid ourselves of our apathy. These disciplines can be useful if they help us to slowly awaken to the deeper level of reality. Growing up in a church and tradition where faith felt impersonal, I was unaware of the intimate nature of God. I did not know that I could sing and raise my hands…or talk to God through a conversational, non-recited prayer…or open up a Bible and learn. Protestantism invited me into intimacy. But then this intimacy became binding when my “closeness” with God began to hinge upon my performance in these disciplines, a performance that was only fueled by Sunday-morning sermons that left me walking out of the sanctuary thinking to myself, “I’m a failure...I’m a sinner...I’m not enough.” Back to the treadmill. Back to focusing on all that I lacked. When everything became transactional, God became emotionally and mentally abusive. It was like a father demanding perfection from his son and always judging him through the lens of his lacking performance. This was when God seemed to mysteriously hide from me, where everything I did was never enough, where there was always something that I could be doing more of or less of—where I was shackled with shame. The root of all advertising is to create awareness for a type of lack so that people will purchase the product or service that promises to solve that lack. There is no need for purchasing a new car if you already feel your car is good as it is, meeting all of your needs, even with all of its flaws. And so, what the church has sometimes unknowingly—and, at its worst, intentionally—done is created a lack within the psyches of those who attend—a mighty chasm between them and God—so that each member becomes codependent on the church to narrow that chasm. Though not always intentional, it is brilliant marketing, for there is nothing more personal and deep to one’s very being than a person’s perception of his or her standing with God. It is the easiest arena to take advantage of people, for who wants to be on the wrong side of the Maker of the Universe? In our own insecurities and vulnerabilities is where we become most dependent on products. Pull someone further and further into their lack, and you’ll have a steady customer for years, maybe even a lifetime. That’s a lot of tithing. Honest and courageous and truthful is the church that says, “You do not need to be here to connect with God, but if you want to connect with others about God, you are more than welcome to enter into this space, as much or as little as you please.” So, is there any work to do at all when it comes to our standing with God? I suppose if it takes work to wake up from a night’s sleep and step into the mystery and beauty of the day, then yes, there is work to do.
By Stephen Copeland
This essay was first published on www.copelandwrites.com.