When Relational Spirituality Breaks Down

We were strolling through the National Gallery in London, overdosing on great art, when there it was. Sharing space with some of the finest visual wonders ever created, it still stuck out in its deep yellow boldness: “Sunflowers,” by Vincent Van Gogh, the great Dutch painter. I’d seen anemic reproductions of it before, but this was different—a head-on blast to the senses.

Later I recalled Van Gogh’s self-confessed mission in life: “I want to grasp life at its depth,” he once said. Many of us can resonate with that passion. I worry that I lack Van Gogh’s intensity, but I too want to grasp life at its depth. More specifically, I want to grasp and experience Christian spirituality at its depth. Trendy new ideas, or some partisan viewpoints, are not satisfactory. We want to tap into the strong subterranean currents that have sustained Christians across the full spectrum of churches and through the centuries.

My quest has involved years of reading, and observing, and has taken me to places like Iona Abbey in Scotland, spiritually significant sites in Italy and Turkey, and renewal centers in North America. One result is my Little Guide to Christian Spirituality. For all of this I’m still very much a novice.

I realized early on that Christian spirituality has always been about living all of life before God. It is not some narrow niche in our larger, complicated lives where we do our “God thing.” Genuine spirituality encompasses all of life.

As I surveyed the contours of such an encompassing spirituality, I gradually discerned that “the real thing” has always involved three basic dynamics. The three are interconnected, and each is essential to life as God meant it to be. The first of these is a relational dynamic. In other words, the Christian life is fundamentally about connecting.

The Bible indicates that as humans we were originally designed, and are still wired, for community. The problem is that our sin and selfishness have produced relational alienation in all directions. And yet the good news is that by his Spirit, Christ is restoring our intimacy with God, with others, and with the created order. Christian spirituality is certainly about our “vertical” relationship with God. But it is also about our “horizontal” relationships with others, and with God’s good but fragile creation. It is unsettling how many Christian discussions and books about spirituality ignore this relational dimension, or treat it as optional or relatively unimportant.

Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. For years I saw these as two distinct commands randomly lumped together. But in fact these are two vectors from a single matrix—a restored capacity to look beyond oneself and embrace “the other.” Love for God and love for others amount, really, to one thing. What unites them is the virtue of openness to the “not merely me.”

For years I have appreciated James Houston’s insightful suggestion that “if we find it hard to form lasting relationships with those we see around us, then we will find it very hard to relate in any depth to the God we cannot see.” This has always made a great deal of sense to me.

Then I ran into the life story of A. W. Tozer, and it rattled me. Tozer was one of the most influential people in twentieth-century evangelical spirituality—widely regarded as a prophet and great man of God. He was a simple, self-educated Midwesterner who began his working life in an Akron, Ohio rubber factory. Remarkably, he came in contact with the literature of Christian mysticism, absorbed it deeply, and then, with a uniquely engaging style (half Jeremiah, half Mark Twain), passed along his discovered insights to countless soul-hungry Americans. Two of his many works, The Pursuit of God and The Knowledge of the Holy, remain classics still in print.

Yet for all his profound love for God, Tozer didn’t do human relationships that well. Evidently his intimacy with God did not translate well into relational closeness to others, and his family still struggled with this for years afterward. He appears to have been the victim of a kind of spiritual autism. He had a couple of close friends, but not a lot of them. “I’ve had a lonely life,” he said as he looked back. When his wife eventually remarried, she announced with a tinge of bitterness that now she finally had a husband who loved her and not just God.

Tozer’s biography triggers difficult questions for me. Does his relational awkwardness undermine the credibility of his alleged intimacy with God? Or should we instead regard this mystic as one of those “wounded healers”—a sincere but imperfect lover of God whose passion for the divine was nonetheless as valid as it was intense? I vote for the latter, because I suppose it is possible for socially-awkward and reclusive people to experience a close walk with God.

But can anyone really love God without genuinely loving others? I doubt it. The Bible would agree, and so would all the spiritual giants ever since. So we need to rediscover and stress the relational dynamic in our pursuit of Christian spirituality. It’s key to grasping life at its depth.

2 Responses to When Relational Spirituality Breaks Down

  1. Dave Harvey September 17, 2008 at 7:28 am #

    Tozer’s struggle may be indicative of a spiritual “blind spot” – an area of weakness or oversight that the individual is simply not aware of. I Kings 15:14 tells us about King Asa, that “Although the pagan shrines were not removed, Asa’s heart remained completely faithful to the Lord throughout his life.”

    In considering Tozer’s specific example, it makes me wonder what his relational life would’ve looked like without God – how much worse would his relationships have been?

    If one is knowingly and willfully unloving, then I would question the depth to which they truly know and love God. But in many cases, there may be persons with a real love for God who still struggle with expressing that love to others. Not all of us are gregarious extroverts – there are plenty of shy, withdrawn, introverted Christians who find it hard to reach out to others. Does that mean they have nothing to offer the Kingdom?

    It’s a good question, though. I would like to think that as I grow in my knowledge of and relationship with God, He will continue to “refine” me and reveal my weaknesses. We all love “incompletely” this side of heaven, though certainly the Spirit that is imparted to us can and will help us to reach levels that we would be incapable of reaching on our own.

  2. R Short September 17, 2008 at 2:23 am #

    In my days as a Pentecostal, men that gave up time with their families to “pray” or “fast” were put forward as more “spiritual” than others. One man would sit in his car for hours, praying, rather than spend time with his kids. Another man would stay out all evening looking for people on the streets to “minister” to. Is there something inherent in Pentecostalism that encourages this behavior? In the Pentecostalism I experienced, spiritual growth was all about the individual. And it was measured in charismatic gifts like speaking in tongues, prophesying, etc. The way to get these gifts, and therefore show others that you were a mature believer worthy of respect, was by spending time in private prayer, Bible reading, and fasting. The focus was on acquiring charismatic gifts; the focus was on self. Spirituality was not measured by wholeness, but by personal power. Maybe Tozer fell into this trap.