• hand holding a compass

    Letter to a Young Man

by Arthur Paul Patterson

THIS LETTER ADDRESSES a young man's anxiety about life. A recent Christian, he is wondering about the difference between the promise of new life in the Spirit and the apparent mundanity of the everyday.

The questions you are asking are very timely. I thought it would be helpful for us to take a look at some of the things that you are going through; your experience teaches us what sorts of normative patterns can be expected in the Spiritual Life.

Sense of Boredom

First, the primary symptom of the spiritual flu involves a sense of boredom. You will recall that the Ephesians in our Revelation studies had a bad bout with this. So much so that they had lost their first love, just as you have lately been lacking your regular enthusiasm. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early church, those who roamed around deserts and did spiritual battle with their inner demons, called this condition acedia or "Devil of the noonday sun". Boredom like this is more than falling into a rut; it is actually falling into a form of apathy and despair. As we dig deeper into this experience, we usually come to recognize that it is not just the regular repetitive patterns that we go through that are the problem but rather our sense of hopelessness and impatience with the spiritual journey. Further reflection shows us how much we have come not to rely anymore on God but rather on our spiritual technologies, that is, our own disciplines that we have made into habits through practice. What God is trying to teach us here, I think, is that any growth that we do have is an act of grace on God's part, coupled by a special empowerment by the Holy Spirit. No matter what we do we cannot ensure growth. What we can do though is to place ourselves in the path of grace, that is, in a place where Grace will come up and smack us in the head. These places are prayer, scripture reading, community fellowship, service, spiritual reading, and many others.

Time of Testing

Second, this is a time of testing for you. Often we are tested immediately after a spiritual breakthrough; in your case it was baptism last fall. Some have called this post-conversion re-evaluation. What this time of testing is focused on is our will, whether or not we stay true to our convictions and ideas, when plagued by our misguided emotions and regular life. In times like these, we need that part of the Lord's Prayer that pleads "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Someone mentioned this to me the other day when he was speaking of how he felt after having a particularly enlightening session with me in mentoring only to go back to mundane life and the regular onslaughts of negativity. The same can happen after a particularly illuminating experience of worship or group study.

It is not just the regular repetitive patterns that we go through that are the problem but rather our sense of hopelessness and impatience with the spiritual journey

Fear of the Future

Third, fear of the future is something that has plagued Christians ever since Jesus said that he was leaving this world but would accompany us in our lives and eventually restore this sad, old world. Theologians call this anxiety the eschatological tension between the already and the not yet. Already you have been assured that Christ will accompany you in your new life. You became a new creature in Christ--including next year as you enter university--but you have as yet not experienced this and can only believe this on the basis of trust. If faith in Christ's promise is maintained, it is likely that we will face the future without fear. This goes from everything like university to greater things like sickness, death, as well as the assurance that God will re-create the ecologically-scarred world. Eschatological hope is one of the main themes for the theologian Jurgen Moltmann.

Temptation to Avoidance

Fourth, the revelation of the light of God shines most brightly in those who are trusting him, thus being with those who are called to have trust in him is a particularly clarifying experience. When we are afraid of being disappointed by God sometimes we avoid being with his people because we are afraid that their lack of progress will not give us the hope we need to keep going. That is why it is so important for us to encourage one another and to attend to our own spiritual lives, building each other up in the body of Christ. But when we are in despair or in faithless cynicism, we are like those who preferred the darkness to the light, because we are more comfortable there.

To summarize, the factors that are confronting you can be described as:

  • Boredom at the routine of life "under the sun".
  • The purifying testing through trial of our faith.
  • The tension between what Christ has promised and our current life-an eschatological tension.
  • Settling for darkness rather than the light of God's revelation in Christ through our fellow friends and community.

Well, that's my theological spin on this. I hope that it helps not only you but all of us to move beyond our spiritual flu into a more healthy place by the grace of God.

hand holding a compass

Image by Ethan Sykes