From the beginning, Christ captivated me. The first few years of my walk involved a lot of clean up: breaking of bad habits and getting rid of obvious sins. Drinking, smoking (neither of which I consider to be sinful necessarily), swearing, stealing, gluttony. These were my battles. My life became clean enough to comfortably go to church without standing out. This wasn’t my goal but it happened none-the-less. Once these were dealt with I found myself longing for something deeper. I wanted to experience Christ more fully because I longed for Him.
Some twenty-five years ago, about two or three years after I became a Christian, I started reading books that promised to show me the “keys to going deeper”. Among these, common themes were explored: prayer, dying to self, living in position, acute focus etc. Each had a unique way of explaining it, or an emphasis particular to an author, but ultimately all said about the same thing.
I sought to apply what I read and although I gleaned much, none of them took me entirely where I wanted to go. As I look back upon this, I think that this is good. Why did I think a human author could lead me somewhere my spiritual author would not? Christ is forming in me by His own wish and command though I never had a very clear road map. Instead of following a perfect formula, I function spiritually on a sort-of mosaic. From one author I gain much on thought life, from another discipline, from another patterns of devotion….and Christ uses each to form what He will in me. I found that I never changed anything major to progress, but was rather encouraged to continue doing what I was already trying to do: desiring Christ and striving to be obedient to what I already understood. Slowly, almost unperceived, habits were formed, mindsets changed and gained.
Today, my experience of oneness with Christ ebbs and flows depending on the day or battle, but I know of it. Most often it is a quiet confidence and peace and at other times it is overwhelming presence. If I should have neither it is because I am full of self on that particular day. All of this is Christ’s unique work in me, not a set of steps, that has led me to where I am today.
Though I don’t believe one can follow a formula, there does seem to be a natural progression. The steps often overlap. In my experience, one never totally exits a level but rather finds themselves dwelling more on one level than another.
After my initial clean-up as a new Christian, my next stage was yet more clean-up, but it involved inner sins more than outer acts. Hatred, envy, jealousy, greed, lust and some aspects of pride were things I dealt with. These took years for God to slowly expose and convict me of. It was here that my mind began to change and my perspectives slowly altered into something new. Little by little God enabled me to throw off the hindrances that held me back.
From there self was assaulted. My rights, my hopes, my dreams, my pride, my desires, my happiness…these had to be vanquished one by one. The nails of the daily cross began to feel exceedingly sharp. In position I was already dead to these things but I needed to translate that into what was present…it was as if I had to consent to die in each of these areas. My identity and purpose were torn down piece by piece and rebuilt. The despair that can occur in giving up these things led me naturally to cling more to Christ in prayer, worship and thought. This is a stage that I think is impossible to completely leave behind while in the body, but we do become better and quicker at it. One begins to despise the counterfeit and relinquishes it easier, though it is never entirely pain-free.
Then I was moved to the heart of the matter….love. Every man thinks they love but this is impossible until self has been sufficiently dealt with. It goes well beyond what the sinner already does, what we can do naturally without thinking, praying and repenting. Here I am learning death to self on an inconceivable level. I am seeing that dying to self is more than resisting pleasures or myself. It still is about doing what I don’t want, but it is not the sinful self that doesn’t want to do it. It is sacrificing the new self, the part that does not need to be changed. In my experience, when one realizes that they have never truly loved another person and become consumed with learning to love, they have entered this stage. As one learns to love sacrificially, not as an event but as a lifestyle, Christ is experienced most fully, and self becomes lost in Him and His purpose. I will need a few more years to articulate this better I think. I trust God to move me into a better understanding and practice of it.
As I said earlier, I have read many books on the deeper life. I have read dozens of contemporary writings, the classics and some antiquity. As I was thinking tonight about what I should read next, the thought occurred to me that there is nothing more to be gained in this area by reading. There is nothing deeper. All that is left to do, is to live out what I know. There is no deeper life of Christ to be found.
This might sound heretical. I am not saying that I have attained everything (heavens no!) or have understood every mystery to know (impossible!) What I am saying is that the way of Christ has been revealed to us and there are no secrets, keys or mysteries left to be found that will take us deeper into the experience of God. There is nothing 21st century saints are going to discover that the 1st century saints did not. Every book I have read thus far sort of ends here…in complete abandonment, of old and new self to the will of God, which is love. Some stress prayer to get there, some stress mindset, some stress experiences…but the goal they are all trying to reach is abandonment of self and a resulting sense of oneness with Christ. To achieve this, an ever-deepening communion with and reliance on God is needed. Prayer, worship and experience flow from preoccupation with Christ and obedience to Him, and in a circular manner, the acts of devotion lead to preoccupation and obedience. But obedience comes first, and love is always the ultimate height.
The deeper life is really about maturity.
There is no such thing as a mature Christian that does not experience the deeper Christian life. There are no secrets that some mature Christians have understood that other mature Christians will not know. There is one body, one Spirit, one Christian life to be lived. God has not hidden the way but revealed it and there are no guru’s who can add to it. Yet it is wise to learn from those more mature than ourselves. I do it a lot. Of course, the number of years a person has been a Christian does not dictate how mature they are either. What dictates maturity is the level of preoccupation with Christ, the level of obedience to Him and the movement of God to bless a soul with these deeper experiences. All of these things are necessary. One can be quite obedient in what they understand and be somewhat disengaged with Christ. As a result, their knowledge will not increase and thus their obedience remains elementary. One can also be preoccupied with Christ but obey Him only when it suits self and thus become dangerously self-deceived. One without the other does not produce maturity. And above all, it is God who bids the heart and interacts with it according to His good pleasure. It is God who gives these comforts.
This journey has taken me many years to understand better what I thought I understood from the beginning. I did know these things in part, but I did not understand their depth and even now, I confess, I see them dimly. Perhaps there are more depths I do not yet know. I could never say that I have come to the end of infinite Christ and His ways. Yet the key to progressing in a deeper life with Christ appears to me to be simple. It requires 1) abandonment of self and 2) obedience to all that is understood. This requires continual communion with Him and preoccupation with Him. I do not think it can be achieved any other way.
What does this deeper life look like?
If I answered this twenty years ago my answer would be different from what I will share with you today. Years ago my answer would have been something akin to ‘living zealously (radically would be today’s term) in abandonment for Christ’ and then associate that ideal with extreme actions depicting devotion–but there was much I didn’t understand yet. Perhaps if someone asks me twenty years from now my answer will again be different.
Today my understanding of how the deeper life is exhibited is this: to live a quiet life, consumed with God and doing His bidding, not through fervor and passion (which is often zeal corrupted with pride) but through the prompting and patience of the Spirit. The deeper life is a quiet life. There is no self-driven self in the deeper life. I believe it is not until one lives a quiet life that they can live a life of holy zeal. The deeper life is always right at hand but impossible to perfectly secure because we are unable to rid ourselves completely from self in this life. In position it is gone thus granting us power over it, but it remains a distracting force to be reckoned with until we are with the Lord. I suspect we will never be able to live the deeper life perfectly, but we certainly can live it more consistently.