“Cowardice keeps us ‘double minded’—hesitating between the world and God. In this hesitation, there is no true faith—faith remains an opinion. We are never certain, because we never quite give in to the authority of an invisible God. This hesitation is the death of hope. We never let go of those visible supports which, we well know, must one day surely fail us. And this hesitation makes true prayer impossible—it never quite dares to ask for anything, or if it asks, it is so uncertain of being heard that in the very act of asking, it surreptitiously seeks by human prudence to construct a make-shift answer (cf James 1:5-8)
And what is the use of praying if at the very moment of prayer, we have so little confidence in God that we are busy planning our own kind of answer to our prayer?”

-Thomas Merton

According to Merton, many of us are not really praying because we are praying with a back-up plan—some humanly-constructed idea of what we will do if God doesn’t come through.  We have no intention of letting go of our visible supports because, truth be told, it is those visible supports that we really trust—this job, this salary and benefit package, this church or denominational system, this relationship, this set of accomplishments.

Many of us want a “spiritual” journey because that sounds pretty cool but we don’t want a faith journey—a journey that requires us to risk anything or to move beyond the (mostly) comfortable existence we have carved out for ourselves.  Even when we have a sense that something is not quite right—that there is something we are holding back or holding on to that is not God—and we sense God calling us to some new level of faith, we are not willing to let go of those visible supports that have become our life. We have not yet given in to the authority of an invisible God in the places that matter most.

Bungee-Jumping for the Soul

The truth is there is no real spiritual journey that does not at some point require some sort of bungee-jumping of the soul, some sort of radical letting go of what we are holding onto.  This might be letting go of something very visible and tangible like a job, a house or geographical location, a title that we identify with strongly, some bit of prestige or notoriety we have achieved, a relationship we have come to rely on for our sense of purpose and well-being.

But is might also be the letting go of a deeply-held emotional or psychological pattern that we rely on to keep us feeling secure, or at least somewhat in control of our world. Such patterns might include denial, avoidance, leaving when the going gets tough, a need to be in control, hiding or withholding ourselves from others, using anger to intimidate or “power up” on people, perfectionism, cynicism, or performance-oriented driven-ness.  If the journey requires us to let go of such deeply entrenched patterns and to change in some fundamental way well, then…thanks, but no thanks.

Feel-Good Journey or Faith Journey?

It is possible to embrace the “feel-good” aspects of the spiritual journey but subtly resist the aspects of the journey that require real faith.  Sometimes we even surround ourselves with people who help us feel good about staying where we are rather than challenging us to take the risky step of “letting go of visible supports” in order to take that next step of faith. Then we all collude together in keeping ourselves convinced that it is the better part of wisdom to hang on to what we know and make sure we always have a back up plan.  We might even call this kind of collusion community.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke1 all recount a story in which Jesus held out an invitation to a very religious young man to move beyond a feel-good journey to a true faith journey and this young man—serious as he was about his spiritual journey—just could not go there. Many Bible translations identify this account as the story of a rich young ruler; this is unfortunate because it makes it easy for us to dismiss the story, thinking it has nothing to do with us.  Most of us do not think of ourselves as rich or young or a ruler. Plus we would never think to claim that we had kept all the commandments that this young man claimed to have kept.

Gary Haugen in his insightful treatment of this story rightly suggests that a more apt subhead might be “The Earnest Young Man.” This title recasts the story as the very personal struggle of an earnest, extraordinarily devout believer who really loves Jesus and wants to follow him more completely; however he struggles to say yes at that most critical moment when Jesus clarifies what it will take for him to go further in the life of faith. Now the story becomes a whole lot more relevant and this young man sounds a whole lot like someone we know!  But it also becomes a whole lot more painful because now the real point of the story becomes clear—“it’s possible to be very earnest and yet afraid.  It’s possible to be very devout, adoring, and respectful and yet unwilling to trust Jesus with your life.”2

When Being Earnest Isn’t Enough

Even more sobering is the young man’s delusion about his own spirituality. He was convinced—as many of us are—that he was ready for the next step on his spiritual journey.  He actually chased Jesus down to ask what that next step might be.   After all, he had completed all the preliminary requirements! But when Jesus described in greater detail what this next step would require, he wasn’t ready to say yes to what he thought he was ready to say yes to. He was not ready let go of his visible supports and trust himself completely to God.  “Jesus takes the young man up to his particular boundary of fear and invites him to cross it…but this earnest young man, presented with the chance to truly follow the Maker and Redeemer of the world, finds he has too much to lose.  He walks away grieving.  Why? Because he wants to follow Jesus.  But he can’t, because he is afraid of what it will cost him…It is Jesus’ call to action—to actually sell all he has that reveals his deepest fear about following Jesus, and it’s just too scary.”3

I used to think this story was aimed primarily at people who were rich in the things of this world. Not anymore. The meaning of this story includes but goes far beyond the spiritual challenges that accompany material wealth.  It addresses the vast array of attachments, both external and internal, that keep us from saying our own deep yes to God at crucial moments in the spiritual life. It challenges our attachment to anything that keeps us dinking around with what we might call a spiritual journey while refusing to take any steps that require real faith. It is about thinking we are on a deeply spiritual journey when we’re not.

This story has a lot to say to those of us who take ourselves so seriously. It tells us that being earnest doesn’t mean we’re ready to let go of anything—really—in order to take the steps that a true faith journey requires.  It tells us that being earnest does not necessarily mean we are ready to pray without a back-up plan or a safety net. It tells us that being earnest is great but it’s not enough.

For Reflection

Where in my life am I “praying with a back-up plan?” What are the “visible supports” I rely on that keep me from giving in to the authority of an invisible God? What might it look like from me to let go of these visible supports in order to say a deeper yes to the life of faith?

1 Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30

2 Gary Haugen, Just Courage (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2008), p. 130.

3 Ibid., pp.127-128.

Ruth Haley Barton is founding president of the Transforming Center (www.thetransformingcenter.org). A teacher, trained spiritual director and retreat leader, she is the author of spiritual formation books and resources including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Invitation to Solitude and Silence and Longing For More.  ©Ruth Haley Barton, 2010. This article is not to be reproduced without permission from the author or the Transforming Center.

Share this article: