September 19, 2020

I Honestly Don’t Know

After many years of seeking to live a spiritual life, I still ask myself, “Where am I as a Christian?” — “How far have I advanced?” — “Do I love God more now than earlier in my life?” — “Have I matured in faith since I started on the spiritual path?” Honestly I don’t know the answers to these questions. There are just as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. Many of the real struggles of twenty or forty years ago are still very much with me. I am still searching for inner peace, for creative relationships with others, and for a deeper experience with God. And I have no way of knowing if the small psychological and spiritual changes during the past decades have made me more or less a spiritual person.

– Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit

* * *

The Road Menders, Van Gogh

After many years, I still have questions about how much I’ve matured.

I honestly don’t know how to evaluate myself and what “progress” I’ve made.

I still struggle with many of the same issues I had long ago.

I am searching for peace.

I am still trying to figure out how to be more loving my relationships.

I still hunger to know God more deeply.

I really don’t know how to evaluate the state of my spiritual life.

Henri Nouwen’s utter honesty is refreshing, if disturbing to our notions of “progress” in our Christian faith. Contemporary notions of “growth” and “sanctification” are more like Weight Watchers programs than traditional views of spiritual formation. We like to chart our progress, to feel like we are gaining on our goals. We like check-off lists, measurable standards, records of progress that we can capture in statistical form. An entire industry of Christian publishing is devoted to this approach, and churches and ministries everywhere promote it in their preaching and programs.

But the bottom-line, at least for me, is — I really have no idea.

I can feel ecstatic about something I learn one minute, and then the next minute I’m short-tempered toward my wife.

I patiently endure something genuinely irritating, and then the next moment I’m so discouraged over a petty matter that I want to quit.

I write something satisfying, or preach a sermon people say they appreciate, and then I curse the stupid driver in front of me on my way home (with real curse words).

I inwardly judge someone and despise them as incompetent and foolish while smiling and carrying on a friendly conversation with them.

I write a post about self-righteousness and then get upset when someone criticizes it. Don’t they recognize the insight God gave me about this subject?

A post I read yesterday alluded to remarks by a well-known preacher: “…scientists who spend their lives trying to heal and prevent cancer invest most of their time studying cancer. He says that only when you truly understand the nature and extent of the disease is it possible to find and fully appreciate its cure.”

I think that’s dangerous advice and misses an important point. The scientists who are focusing so much attention on cancer don’t know the cure and are therefore working hard to understand the disease so that they can come up with one. Christians, on the other hand, are not in this position. We may not understand the extent of our disease, but we know the cure. And it is not of our own making or doing.

I will never be able to plot my “progress” against the dread disease of sin and toward spiritual health and wholeness. I can, however, by the Spirit, in Word and Sacrament, look constantly to the cure. Jesus alone sustains me when symptoms reappear and threaten my sense of well being.


  1. Wow. So encouraging. I sometimes thought I was the only one who felt this way.

    What an honest post. Thank you!

  2. +1. Thank you, CM.

  3. David Cornwell says

    Chaplain Mike, I think the same thoughts so very often. Marge and I celebrated our 50th Wedding Anniversary a few days ago. It’s a time of natural soul searching. The spiritual issues I face are in many ways the same ones I went head to head with when I was 24 years old. I think of the “old nature” that lives in us, and in me it is really old– as old as me!

    Will Willimon says in one of his books says “The very traits which are so natural in a toddler are the human characteristics we call evil– self-centeredness, fear of the world and other people, lust to be Number One.” Well, it never really leaves us, regardless of our state of sanctification.

    Then Willimon says, reflecting Augustine: …”one could look over my crib and say, ‘He will die, he will not get over this’.”

  4. There is no “progress” in the Christian life.

    The word progress isn’t even in the New Testament.

    The paradigm is ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’.

    That is the entire life of the Christian.

    I think the very 1st of the 95 Theses states that “the entire life of the Christian is one of repentance.”


    W e are DECLARED holy and righteous for Jesus’ sake. We will never be better Christians that at the moment we were baptized. (that ought blow the minds and raise the hackles of many Christians)

    “What is it to do the works of the Father?” (they asked Jesus)

    “Believe in the one whom the Father has sent.”

    There’s your progress.

    • Steve, I really liked your post. Good thoughts.

      I always get a bit concerned though that the idea that we aren’t going to progess can lead to anti-nomianism, which I believe to be a huge problem in the American church today. The attitude I see is this: “well, since I’m not going to progress, then it stands to reason that I don’t even need to try, thank God for grace, now I can go out and live like the devil, because I believe (mental ascent ??) in God.”

      I absolutely LOVE Nouwen and as I said, I really like your post. Paul wrote an awful lot about the struggle and the fight against our own flesh. I know this is going to sound odd, but I believe we’re to be constantly engaged in the struggle (and that will involve continual repentance, as you said), but in a really odd way, OK with the fact that we’re not making any progress.

      • Good thoughts, Alan.

        That some will take it upon themselves to throw the law overboard is a problem. The law is needed so that we will repent (constantly). So it does have it’s use, theologically, and of course in civil life.

        I too, think it’s alright to realize that in the Christian life, it’s OK to not make any progress. More than that, I think it is beneficial to think like that.

      • Please note — I did not say we don’t progress. I said I really have no way of reading the evidence accurately one way or another (except in obvious cases of apostasy).

        • Exactly, Chaplain Mike.

          Progress (I believe) ought never be our goal or focus since no one can really identify it, or measure it.

          And when ‘progress’ is on the brain, then the whole thing goes South and the self-sanctification project kicks in…and faith often goes by the wayside.

    • So why does Paul say in 1 Cor. 1:2

      “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy”

  5. Honesty is always refreshing or disturbing. It’s either feeding someones own realizations or their own denials, but either way it’s affecting someone. An interesting post today after my flesh is still reeling from Ozzie’s reading from My Utmost for His Highest for August 21st: (partial)

    “The true character of the loveliness that speaks for God is always unnoticed by the one possessing that quality. Conscious influence is prideful and unchristian. If I wonder if I am being of any use to God, I instantly lose the beauty and the freshness of the touch of the Lord. “He who believes in Me . . . out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). And if I examine the outflow, I lose the touch of the Lord.”

    Always unnoticed? But I want to notice it and be acknowledged for it. Ugh. See I told you my flesh is still reeling.

    The two most beautiful words in that paragraph are: “beauty and freshness” and I don’t want to lose either.

  6. amen

  7. Margaret Catherine says

    Nouwen is a deeply insightful writer whom I suspect I could not stand for a moment in person. 🙂 He is very honest, indeed!

  8. I remember Michael Spenser saying something about not progressing much from the start of his quest. We will never be good enough to get to Heaven, Yet Jesus said if you love Me keep my commandments. My prayer is, Lord be merciful to me a sinner.” Most of the time I try not to sin, but there are times when I say to hell with it, I’m going to do such and such. I believe that Jesus still stands between me and judgement. He knows we will fail again and again, that is human nature, but we are forgiven.

  9. “The scientists who are focusing so much attention on cancer don’t know the … Christians, on the other hand, are not in this position.”

    Maybe this metaphor is simply an incorrect understanding. Is Christ really a “cure”, or is he an “answer” (or perhaps more of a “rebuttal”).

    I’m uncomfortable with Christ as “cure”. How does that just not end up being prosperity-theology?

    And I’m also not so sure there isn’t progress. I look back at my understanding of many issues in my twenties and I think I was a brash idiot. Now my thoughts may be more confused, but that confusion is also a form of clarity [I see clearly how sin (including my own) is much more deeply rooted and fundamental to my nature I understood it to be before]. In a way this does represent a rising standard and at least understanding of morality. And I’m much slower to throw down the hammer on someone or something. This is learning the true nature of mercy. I understand that much better than I did before.

    In many of the essays and posts here I see the same cautious and patient attempt to grasp the meaning of mercy. So don’t be so disheartened.

  10. Clay Knick says

    The last thing we need to be doing is grading ourselves on our spiritual growth! This was quite good, Mike. I love that last line, “Jesus alone sustains me…”

  11. I found some good Bible verses here

    on sanctification.

  12. As always, i love the honesty of this posts- on one hand, thoughts such as these have helped me to much, to realize I’m not crazy and that maybe my inability to be a really “good Christian” isn’t special to just me. One of Michael Spencer’s old essays helped me tremendously with this- “When I am Weak.” On the other hand- as someone who is prone to doubt and has struggled a lot with assurance of salvation, and just plain old sin, it actually makes me want to cry. I don’t really want to imagine that it will never get better. Maybe better is not the goal- perhaps we just learn to keep going in the midst of whatever it is we are struggling with.

  13. Thank-You CM for this.
    Really made my day.
    And Julie, I too was tremendously helped by “When I am weak”.
    ( I can’t find the box to check if I am human)

    • We changed spam filters and the “human box” is no longer required.

      • I kinda liked the “check if you’re human” box. Especially at a Christian blog site. It was a good reminder as to our condition. Human. Weak. Maybe you could add the box back, labeling it “check if you’re a sinner.” Every time a person would add a post they would be reminded of their need for Jesus and His work on the cross. His work, so we don’t have to. Praise our Lord and Savior!

      • Checking that box was something I loved doing! Brought a smile to my face and always reminded me of the blessing of being human

  14. I think as we mature in the faith that could be considered progress. As we grow in showing the fruit of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians that would be progress. I think that progress gets measured in the wrong terms, as in how much of the Bible you study, what doctrines you know, what wisdom you hand down etc. Progress to me means daily being conformed to the image of Christ, but it is hard to measure. You can’t point to a chart and map progression which is what so many of us want to do. In our Christian walk, intangibles sometimes show more progress that our seeking of them. Yet at the same time, the admonitions in Hebrews and Corithians about growing in the faith might also be seen as progress or maturity. I believe that those two words can have the same meaning in many contexts. There is so much you can say on this subject, it can overwhelm you. But walking the Gospel daily in what you know, will lead to the progress, and we won’t even notice it.

  15. I can’t say that I am any more holy or less of a sinner than I ever was. The only thing I know is that I am no long terrified like I used to be of what is coming along next. I get scared, but then remember that He is in charge and has never failed me, despite pain and loss and trials. That is all I know for sure,,,,,He has taught me to trust Him.

  16. Chaplain Mike ~ one of the many IM posts that I saved is one titled, “It’s Not About Getting Better”. It is an overview of Steve Brown’s book, “Three Free SIns”. It was very encouraging to me. Please re-read it and I hope it encourages you too. It reminded me that I can be free of the constant Evangelical emphasis on “me and my progress.” I was reminded to look unto Jesus the Author and Perfecter of my faith. I too have a tendency to look into myself, at myself and get almost in a morbid “funk” about what I see – or worse – an ego trip about how well I’m doing compared to so and so. Either way the emphasis is on me – not on Him. I have learned to have mercy on myself, that mercy triumphs over judgement – and that includes my judgement of myself. We are saved to be free – how hard it is to live in that freedom. Including the freedom from judging ourselves.

  17. Every Christian should read a little Nouwen. He teaches us some great lessons about humility, transparency, and God’s grace. Wonderful man. I’m glad he left behind such a legacy of writing, so this world wouldn’t miss him quite so much…

  18. Not to add to the discussion, but a bit of feedback. CM, you have really captured the spirit of IM and carried on Michael’s work in good faith. This and so many of your previous posts hit the nail on the head. Thank you for fighting the good fight.