Monday, 13 December 2010

self awareness and slot-machine spirituality

I've been thinking a bit recently about the way self-insight illuminates our relationship with God, so I was heartened to see David Runcorn develop this theme in his book Choice, Desire and The Will of God.

In what sense might it be true that our understanding of God is deepened by an understanding of ourselves? I think this works on several levels. Even a basic faith needs some insight about our own shortcomings, and enough humility to confess these in repentance. It is easy to get stuck at this level, creating a sort of coin-operated relationship with God - I say sorry and in return he forgives me, allowing me to start anew. This is a somewhat transactional view of God (you give-you get) not to say superstitious. I'm not sure how well that can support a deep and lasting relationship with God.

We first need to recognise something of both the nature and desire of God.

If we understand that we are loved, and that nothing we can do can make us any less (or more) loved than we already are, then our superstitious slot-machine spirituality is already put under pressure. God does not forgive us because of something we have done. That would diminish God to something that we can control ('Look! If I do this I can make God do that.'). This fails to grasp an essential point at the heart of our faith: God forgives us because he is forgiving. Nothing else. His essence is love, his nature mercy.

God's desire, then, is for his love and mercy to work on us. Those moments we take to open ourselves up to him in penitence are like targeting a heat lamp on a pulled muscle. We seek God's mercy to work on those aspects of our lives that are disordered, so that we may be renewed and allow his grace to work on those parts of our desires and conduct that are ungodly.

We can begin to see that an understanding of God in tandem with self-insight leads to a much deeper spirituality. The more we can acknowledge the ways in which we are not like God - those desires that lead us to be self-seeking, vengeful, grasping, fearful, insecure - the more we appreciate how astounding the character of God is.

This is a sort of cyclical process: the more we reflect on God the more we learn about ourselves in relationship with him. This then deepens our relationship with him, which in turn yields yet more insight about ourselves. Critically, it is a process that does not begin with reflecting on myself but contemplating God. This sets it apart from much of today's approach to personal development and self-help which starts with me. Only when we start with God do we understand the self in a way that continues to push us to look outwards rather than ever inwards.