Do you like some parts of your faith more than others?
I’m betting most people would say yes. Some beliefs and practices just sit well with us, and some, well, don’t. Christians may cherish Jesus’ call to “love one another” but cringe at the genocide stories in the Book of Joshua. If you’re a Buddhist, maybe meditation has made you more compassionate and awake, but reading sutras doesn’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. It’s figuring out what’s true, and what’s good for us—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 “distortions” 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. There’s a reason, for instance, why Christians like to quote 1 John 4:8, which tells us that “God is love,” and shy away from Psalm 58:10, “They will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.”
What’s more, our sages and sacred texts point toward the life-giving. St. Paul lists the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23): love, joy, peace, etc. The God of the Hebrew scriptures gives us the Ten Commandments and the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone…. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).The Buddha pointed the way with the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
That’s a great start, eh? Hew to these elements of faith and you’ll find life. Except there’s another thing. You could possibly read those elements—joy! oneness! right meditation!—and conclude that life-giving = what feels good.
Not so fast.
Take this saying attributed to Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (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 “enter through the narrow gate…. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to”—wait for it—“life” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Clearly, following this logic, not everything that gives life feels good, and vice versa. Moreover, what’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 faith—so life-giving to others—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 Larger—God, One, Buddha-nature, etc.—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.