“Physicians are in constant danger of becoming calloused to suffering, lawyers in danger of cynicism about justice, and those of us who think and talk and read and write God are in danger of having the very words we use about God separate us from God.”Eugene Peterson
Peterson was talking about the danger of seminary education in this quote. I’m sure you’ve heard of seminary being referred to as a spiritual “cemetery.” There is some truth to this. Constantly engaging the things of God and handling the Word of God and entertaining ideas of God can cause those things to become familiar or common to us. We lose the majesty and the grandeur—the transcendence—of the Subject we are giving ourselves to.
But this threat doesn’t only pertain to those engaged in academia or those who are more involved in the intellectual aspects of the faith. We all live in constant danger of minimizing the holiness and wonder of God and the Gospel, wether we ever get around to trying to memorize Greek paradigms or not. If you study Peterson’s point carefully, you’ll see it’s not lofty ideas that are a threat to Christian spirituality, but constant exposure.
That may seem counter-intuitive. Aren’t we supposed to immerse ourselves in the things of God? Well, yes and no. Without a consistent diet of spiritual food, we’ll find ourselves hungering for the divine and, if left starving long enough, we’ll satisfy that hunger with anything we feel will curb our appetites, whether religious or not. The one who throws themselves into whatever is pure, lovely, honorable, and commendable is acting just as spiritual as the one who throws themselves into what is unclean, ugly, dishonorable, and shameful; they are just satisfying their spiritual hunger in different ways. So yes, we must be intentional about our intake, ensuring that we are ingesting the true, the beautiful, and the good.
But also, and probably more importantly, we must be intentional about integration. Intake is all good and well, but if what we learn and expose ourselves to about God is never integrated into the rhythms of our lives then all we’ve done is become more knowledgeable about Christianity, we’ve not become better disciples of Christ. “Congruence” is the term that Peterson liked to use:
”The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence— congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written, congruence between a ship and its prow, congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Word made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh.”Eugene Peterson
John Frame defines theology, the study of God, as “the application of the Word of God to all of life.” If God is our sovereign Creator, we are His created subjects, Christ is the image of God and the example of holiness that we must live by, and the Scriptures are the primary record we have of all these aforementioned truths, then by definition we are obligated to conform our lives to what we learn of God. Successfully learning about God without applying that knowledge to our lives is only going halfway in the work of theology. How well we integrate our lives with our knowledge of God is the true measure of a theologian. Some of the worst Christians have been intently studying the Bible for 40+ years. Some of the best Christians can’t find the book of Judges without consulting the table of contents.
The constant danger we are all in is that we give ourselves to exposure without putting effort into integration. We read the Bible every day, we pray before every meal, we attend church each Sunday, but we don’t do the hard work of actually integrating what we learn from these disciplines into our worldview. And then, like the physician and the lawyer, we grow unaware of our insensitivity. We become cold and callous to the actual presence of God, confusing our engagement with godly things as interaction with God Himself. And when those wires get crossed, we sacrifice our souls to a myriad of spiritual diversions and live in constant danger of death by a thousand distractions. We exchange the Creator for the creation…and, well…we know how that goes.
My guess is that the biggest change we can make to help us with this problem is to just simply slow down a bit and contemplate. That’s all. Just sit and think. After hearing a sermon or reading a book or having a spiritual conversation, taking the time to stop and process what influence those activities should have on your life. “How should I think differently in light of this?” “How should I feel differently because of what I’ve just learned?” “What does obedience to the truth about God look like in my thoughts, feelings, and actions?” “How can this truth be integrated into my regular rhythms of life?”
Asking ourselves these kinds of questions will help us apply what we learn about God to our lives, helping us to live as if He were actually real. Then slowly over time we find that the rhythms of our lives are brought into sync with the flow of reality as He has designed it, not against it. And when we do that, the strangest thing happens: our spiritual imaginations are retuned and we begin to see that this world is imbued with the glory of our Creator. We find joy, peace, and rest. And we are protected from the constant danger of ever thinking that the divine is a common thing.