Loneliness, Spiritual Formation, and Jesus

All of us have places we instinctively turn in times of loneliness, discomfort, unrest, directionlessness. I find myself in that place every so often when I consider aspects of my life that are uncertain - where I will go once I finish this degree; how I will pay off loans when I get wherever that will be; what my romantic future holds, and when that will (or won't) find me; even my moment-to-moment tendencies to put off the work I know I need to be doing in favor of some diversion or another. Tonight, for instance, I tried to distract myself by playing Super Mario Bros. and Megaman X3 on a Super Nintendo emulator I downloaded. I didn't have the patience to get past the first level of Megaman (which is unfortunate, because I love that game).

"Some diversion or another"; what I noticed tonight is that those 'diversions' are actually coping mechanisms of mine for those times when I feel uncertain or lonely. They're a good way to shut off my mind for a while. Most of those places involve websites - facebook, twitter, steepandcheap, tumblr, facebook, cnn, xkcd, facebook, youtube, youtube, facebook - you get the idea. Some of those places involve playing my guitar aimlessly instead of focusing my creativity on songwriting or greater technical proficiency. Sometimes I pick up a familiar book; sometimes I call someone; sometimes - today it felt like I only did this very rarely - I manage to focus on something I actually need to get done, something I can wrap my twenty or thirty minutes around before I get distracted again and play SNES.

I think that a good way to conceive of the process of spiritual formation could be this: gradually learning to make Jesus that "place," over and above anything else. Spiritual disciplines are the processes and mechanisms, so to speak, that help us become the kinds of people who instinctively turn to Jesus in those doldrum times, when seeming aimlessness or uncertainty threatens to derail our concentration and productivity and peace of mind and focus. Those times are not only dangerous for those reasons; I've found myself much more susceptible to temptations of all forms when I feel that way.

When Jesus told his listeners, "I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery in his heart," (Matt 5:28), he wasn't expecting anyone - and he doesn't expect you and I, today, to whom these words are still, through the witness of the Spirit, directed - to be able to simply drop his or her patterns of sight and thought to conform with this standard. Humanly speaking this is impossible; and what I've found is that nowhere does the Bible teach that we ought to expect such radical, instantaneous deliverance from sinful patterns of life. (God certainly can work like that, but I've come to believe that is the exception.)

That's why his next words specify that one must alter one's patterns - radically if need be - to get to the place of being able to conform one's thoughts and habits to such a standard: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell" (5:29). He is using hyperbole to make the very basic point that it is better to subject your life to radical and possibly uncomfortable - but, in the long-term, beneficial - changes than to stroll comfortably into God's final judgment. These changes are what many have come to call the spiritual disciplines, various practices that make 'space' for the transforming work of the Spirit in our lives.

My feelings of aimlessness or loneliness are not something that I can simply switch off by force of mental effort. But Jesus knows this; he is a master of the human personality (he did create it, after all). Thankfully there are resources available to me that I can begin putting into practice now - small, measurable steps, over a significant period of time - that will produce in me, in the power of the Spirit, the kind of heart and action that will help me simply be a different kind of person. Then, I will have the ability to concretely demonstrate my trust in Jesus as a teacher of the everyday and the normal by turning to him in those times rather than the numerous distractions I tend to turn towards presently. That is the very real hope of change made available in the ever-present kingdom of God. That is the eternal kind of life, as Dallas Willard usually puts it. Though I will probably never be able to say, "I have arrived," I will be able - and already am able, in many ways - to say, "See, in these things I have been changed. I am no longer as I was, I no longer have this impulse, and in its place is this better, more constructive one. Thanks be to God."