Do you like some parts of your faith more than others?
Iâ€™m betting most people would say yes. Some beliefs and practices just sit well with us, and some, well, donâ€™t. Christians may cherish Jesusâ€™ call to â€œlove one anotherâ€ but cringe at the genocide stories in the Book of Joshua. If youâ€™re a Buddhist, maybe meditation has made you more compassionate and awake, but reading sutras doesnâ€™t do it for you.
This is normal, of course. Who on earth likes everything about anything? The bigger challenge, however, is not identifying what we like. Itâ€™s figuring out whatâ€™s true, and whatâ€™s good for usâ€”and for the world.
Earlier this year, at the annual conference of Spiritual Directors International, I heard author and pastor John Mabry speak on providing spiritual direction across faith traditions. When asked about helping clients address the â€œdistortionsâ€ in their own belief systems, John made a useful distinction. He talked about life-giving beliefs and soul-crushing beliefs. Practices too can be life-giving or soul-crushing.
How do we figure out which is which?
It may seem easy at first glance. Thereâ€™s a reason, for instance, why Christians like to quote 1 John 4:8, which tells us that â€œGod is love,â€ and shy away from Psalm 58:10, â€œThey will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.â€
Whatâ€™s more, our sages and sacred texts point toward the life-giving. St. Paul lists the â€œfruit of the Spiritâ€ (Galatians 5:22-23): love, joy, peace, etc. The God of the Hebrew scriptures gives us the Ten Commandments and the shema: â€œHear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord aloneâ€¦. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mightâ€ (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).The Buddha pointed the way with the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
Thatâ€™s a great start, eh? Hew to these elements of faith and youâ€™ll find life. Except thereâ€™s another thing. You could possibly read those elementsâ€”joy! oneness! right meditation!â€”and conclude that life-giving = what feels good.
Not so fast.
Take this saying attributed to Jesus: â€œIf any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow meâ€ (Mark 8:34). Self-denial is hardly a feel-good practice, yet many believers have found it life-giving: it makes more room in their deepest selves for intimacy with God. The Jesus of the gospels also admonished his followers to â€œenter through the narrow gateâ€¦. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads toâ€â€”wait for itâ€”â€œlifeâ€ (Matthew 7:13-14).
Clearly, following this logic, not everything that gives life feels good, and vice versa. Moreover, whatâ€™s life-giving for one person may be soul-crushing for another. Have you ever tried praying in a certain way, or volunteering for a certain cause, or holding to a certain childhood belief, and the more you explored it the more grueling it became? Sure, maybe you just hit a rough patch, and a bit of pushing through it yielded great things. Or maybe that part of your faithâ€”so life-giving to othersâ€”was soul-crushing to you, and you had to go in another direction.
How on earth do you make the distinction and find the life-giving? A deep connection with the Larger, however you define that Largerâ€”God, One, Buddha-nature, etc.â€”can yield priceless wisdom and guidance. In this context, prayer and meditation, in whatever form gives life to you, are indispensable. Working with a clergyperson or spiritual director can help you sort out your experience in a safe place.
Ultimately, however you go, the journey is worth the effort. It draws us ever closer and closer to the Source of all life. Nothing is more life-giving, and more joyful, than that.