02 | Pathways to God

What Works for You Might Work for Me

Every person is different, though all people have commonalities. While the practices that best shape your personal path toward God are unique to you, it is likely that some of the practices which have helped other people draw closer to God will work for you, too.

Scripture and Prayer: Our Bread and Butter

There is nothing more foundational to spiritual growth than our direct times of connection with God. In prayer, it is mostly we who are speaking to God, in Scripture it is mostly God who is speaking to us. In prayer, it is mostly God who is listening. With Scripture, it is mostly we who are listening. Real relationships involve reciprocity, with open and honest exchanges back and forth among people who care for each other. Whatever your plan or strategy for growth, you won’t formulate a winning strategy that does not somehow incorporate healthy doses of Scripture and prayer. If you’re trying to grow spiritually, it’s a matter of investing in your connection to God in ways that would be helpful in any relationship. Speaking and Listening, Prayer and Scripture.

Two Perspectives on God

If we are to speak of growing Spiritually, or growing closer to God in order to become more like God, it is important for us to consider who God is and what God is like. This is, of course, a mystery, though Scripture and our own experiences in life can give us beautiful glimpses of the light of God’s love that breaks through into our circumstances.

There are two theological approaches which are foundational to a majority of Christianity. One emphasizes God’s nearness and the other emphasizes God’s holiness and otherness.

Cataphatic Theology: The Immanence of God

This is a pathway of affirmation. Not meaning that we say, “Hooray! God job, God!” Affirmation here is more in the sense of us trying to state openly what bits of truth about God we are capable of speaking. When we speak of God being close like a friend or Father or say what it’s like when “The Lord is my Shepherd…,” then we are following this way of thinking. God is like a shepherd, he’s like a loving husband, he’s a revered grandfather, he’s a warrior, etc.

This type of theology attempts to speak all the truths it is able regarding the nature and person of God. This approach has been especially dominant in Western thought among both Catholics and Protestants which value certainty. Even if you’re not Catholic, those of us who’ve grown up in a Western faith tradition are generally most highly influenced by this line of thought.

When you speak to God as if God is your closest friend, you are leaning into Cataphatic Theology.

Apophatic Theology: The Transcendence of God

This is a pathway of negation, the via negativa. It orients around what cannot be said of God. Paired with Cataphatic thinking, it reminds us that God and his ways are infinitely higher than our own, and to a large degree incomprehensible by people. No one can see God (John 1:18) for God lives in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16) and his ways are unfathomable (Romans 11:33-36). God is our Father, but in many ways, the concept of a Father is insufficient to capture the full essence of who God is or what God is like.

Foundational to this line of thinking is a document called “The Mystical Theology” by Dionysius the Areopagite, a.k.a. Pseudo-Dionysius, since he wasn’t likely the author. It is a brief document that looks at Moses’ ascent to the mountain and moves the reader to a place of letting go. Whatever it is we would say about God is inadequate, and this leads us to a place of reverence. It is my opinion that this document makes God a bit too abstract, but it is an interesting stretch in a very non-Western direction.

The value of the apophatic pathway is that it helps move us to a place of silent reverence, in awe of the Almighty God. It is much more prevalent in the Eastern Orthodox faith traditions which value divine mystery

Which is your inclination?

Each of these lines of thought can be helpful in their own ways. Sometimes it’s comforting to remember the closeness of God. Other times it’s inspiring to remember the transcendence of God. 

In fact, it’s likely that you have one of these two angles toward which you typically lean. A quick way to reveal a person’s bias is to ask a simple question:

How should you dress when you go to church?

A person inclined toward Apophatic theology will say that church is a place of special reverence. Because we are approaching the Creator of the universe who has given so much that we could be welcomed into the Divine life and family, we should show up with an attitude of respect and awe.

A person inclined toward Cataphatic theology will say that church is primarily a family. Come in your pajamas if you want. God is our parent, our closest friend, and anyone is welcome exactly as they are. You don’t need to put on any sort of exterior show for God because God already knows your heart. A person inclined this way might call God “Daddy” a lot while they pray.

I can appreciate the points that each of these lines of thought would make, and I believe these two angles are best kept in a healthy sense of tension in our thinking. God is my parent and my closest friend, but God is also holy, and entirely other than me. He is incomparable in every way.

Moves of Faith

Here are a few different pairs of movement through which you can engage with God, building on prayer, Scripture, and the nature of God. In the spirit of Ecclesiastes 3, it is good to remember there is a time and a season for everything, and each thing can be beautiful in the season during which it is most needed.

Speaking to GodPrayerScriptureListening to God
Remembering God’s closenessImmanenceTranscendenceRemembering God’s holiness
Engaging with God along with othersCommunitySolitudeEngaging with God by yourself
Active participationEngagingRefrainingActive self-restraint
Doing, speaking, and emoting openlyExpressingReflectingDoing, speaking, and emoting inwardly
Remember, the bread and butter of spiritual growth are prayer and scripture. Each of these other items in some way interacts with one or both of these. You might find new creative ways of engaging with God by blending various items from this chart.

Some examples:

  • In Bible class, we typically engage Scripture in community in expressive ways. But it’s also possible for a group setting to involve deeper reflection and silence!
  • Relative to food, you could go together and serve in a soup kitchen (cataphatic), or you could fast from eating and designate time instead for reflective prayer (apophatic).
  • You could go on a group retreat that involves a major service project component (community, engaging), or on a group silent retreat where you spend much time individually working on your relationships with God (community, solitude, prayer, scripture, refraining).

If you are looking for creative ways to try new spiritual practices, it is especially worth giving a look to Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. It contains dozens of spiritual practices, giving a brief description of each along with a guide for how to try it.

Challenge: A Spiritual Disciplines Preferences Test

I put together a self-assessment for Spiritual Disciplines. This is a simple 30-question quiz. As you read each statement, you are to rate it on a scale of 1 to 5.

1 = “This doesn’t sound like me at all.”

5 = “This sounds exactly like me.”

The highest score you’ll get for any one item is a 15, and the lowest possible score is a 3. Neither of these is a good or bad thing. It’s ok for you to be you.

The goal of this assessment is to help you identify some practices which you find especially life-giving and others that would feel more like a stretch.

People are a lot like plants. We flourish best in the presence of what nourishes us. On the other hand, much like plants, we occasionally need pruning.

In future posts we will talk about developing a Rule of Life, which is an intentional strategy for how you order and prioritize your life. Use this assessment to take a look at yourself and ask, “What, for me, is especially life-giving?” Whatever those things are–likely items you’ve ranked highest–be sure to make plenty of room for those in your life.

But also, don’t neglect the things that are less comfortable for you. If all you do to a plant is prune it, you’ll chop it down. But at the same time, there may be something you’ve been avoiding. There may be something you aren’t inclined toward which could actually bless you richly, were you to engage in it a bit more. Consider your lowly-ranked items and how you might incorporate some of them as well.

But the first step is gaining a better awareness of what works for you. This assessment might help you in that pursuit.

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