The heart of the New Way, according to Larry Crabb (whose website is even called NewWay Ministries), is “to value intimacy with God more than blessings from God.” The Old Way looks for satisfaction in success and pleasure, and deals with problems by trying to cope with them or make them go away. The New Way finds pleasure above all in simply being with God, and knows that problems cannot stand in the way of a relationship with God, and that sometimes problems help us to value that relationship more.
In contrast to the Adjustment Cycle and the Therapeutic Cycle (see my previous post on Crabb’s book), the Spiritual Cycle starts with brokenness.
You realize how arrogant you are. You don’t welcome trials. You’ve lived for no greater purpose than to avoid them or reverse them if they come. Your ambition has risen no higher than a life that works pretty well. Perhaps you’ve disguised your narcissism by dressing it up in Christian clothing. Find fulfillment in ministry. Clean up your life.
Next is repentance. Then you abandon yourself to God, resisting the urge to “drown your sorrows in any way you can” or to “nobly persevere and present yourself to others as a courageous martyr. Instead, you listen to the Spirit speak through the Bible.” Things that happen still may not make any sense, but you choose to trust that God is in control and that He is accomplishing His purposes in you. This leads to confidence that God is present, no matter how bad things seem. And that in turn leads to the freedom to be the person you’ve longed to be, bearing the fruit of the Spirit.
Some of my reactions to reading about all this:
- I feel a sense of the brokenness Crabb talks about. I can’t claim to be truly motivated by a desire for God’s glory. I don’t desire God more than experiencing God’s blessings. I suppose in large part that’s because I have experienced God’s blessings, a great many of them, throughout my life. But I have had very few experiences of God Himself, and even those I’m not sure afterwards whether it was more than a combination of emotions and imagination.
- I feel a bit of despair, doubting that I can ever progress beyond where I am. The ideas Crabb presents are not completely new to me. In college I first read J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, and realized that I knew a good deal about God but wasn’t sure I knew God much at all. Five years ago I read Cat and Dog Theology, and realized how much more like a cat than a dog I often am. (For a dog, his master is the center of his life. A cat does not think he has a master, and wants to be the center of everyone’s life.) Other books over the years have led me to what I thought was brokenness and repentance. But why do I seem to be still in much the same place?
- At the same time, I find myself wondering if Crabb is putting too much emphasis on motivation. He writes about how both followers of the Old Way and New Way do many of the same activities. The difference is whether their highest motivation is to enjoy God’s blessings, or to know God and enjoy a relationship with Him. Certainly motivations do matter. The Bible consistently condemns pride, which has more to do with attitude than actions. But the Bible also many times contrasts good people and evil people based on their actions. Obedience to God and enjoying God are often linked, but I can’t think of a Scripture offhand that specifies enjoying God as the motive rather than the reward of right action.
- If Crabb can tell how to make a relationship with God a matter of actual experience rather than abstract doctrine, so that I can say (as I have heard others say) that I know God is present, I want to do it. I don’t know if my motivation for that is right, though – is it because I want God to be glorified or because I want to enjoy the experience of knowing God? Since God means us to enjoy Him, I don’t think it can be wrong to want that. And anyway, whose motives are ever completely pure?
So what is it that Crabb says to do? He does finally give some steps to follow.
- Reflect on where you are.
- Recognize the fork in the road that is always before you.
- Refocus your goals.
- Realize what God provides as the means of grace.
- Reorient your prayer life to match New Way living.
I’ve always been good at reflecting on where I am. I’ve lost track of how many times a pastor or other counselor has said how good it is that I recognize where I am, what sinful attitudes and habits I have that I need to replace with godly ones. This step is important, but by itself it doesn’t do much.
The fork in the road Crabb speaks of is the Old Way versus the New Way. The Old Way identifies my deepest personal longings – and sets me on a path to try to acheive them. The New Way identifies my deepest hunger, for God and His glory – as well as my deepest flaw, which is that I’ve been working so hard to achieve my personal longings instead.
New Way goals are
- an encounter with God
- a spiritual community where people are known, explored, discovered, and touched
- transformation that makes us more like Christ
I think those goals sound appealing, but Crabb warns that unless we consciously focus on those goals, we’ll pursue those that come more naturally – “material affluence, personal and physical comfort, and socially acceptable effectiveness in arranging for the life we desire.”
Until I went on the Walk to Emmaus eleven years ago, I had never heard of the “means of grace.” The very idea sounded contradictory. Grace was something freely given, that one could not earn or bring about on one’s own. How could there be a “means” to get grace? But the explanation given there made sense. Through prayer, worship, the sacraments, and other means of grace, God gets our attention so that we respond to Him. (The Walk to Emmaus is a Methodist ministry; I think other traditions such as Lutheranism have a different understand of the means of grace.)
Crabb’s discussion of reorienting our prayer life was what I found the most helpful. It is the one place that he gives specific instructions (remember, I started out looking for a method to follow). There are four parts:
- Present yourself to God as you are.
- Attend to where you notice God’s presence or absence.
- Purge yourself of whatever, in that moment, might be keeping you from noticing more of God.
- Approach God with abandonment and confidence, dedicating yourself anew to coming to Him to know and enjoy and reveal Him, not to using Him to make your life better.
(He calls it the Papa prayer, and I have to admit that I did not notice until just now, setting italics on the words Present, Attend, Purge, and Approach, that Papa is an acronym of those four words. I had assumed it referred simply to the fact that God is our loving Father.)
The language of these instructions is familiar to me from meeting with a spiritual director regularly for a few years, a number of years ago. Crabb also talks in terms of spiritual direction, a practice most evanglicals are unfamiliar with but that is beginning to become known in evangelical churches. It is a special kind of Christian friendship, where one person helps the other listen to what God is saying – not just in the words of Scripture but through circumstances, emotions, the words of other people, etc.
During those few years my prayer life did seem to be deeper and richer and far more satisfying – not that finding it satisfying is a particularly good measure, but it did keep me showing up each morning, coffee cup in hand, to pray. Sadly, once I moved away and could no longer meet with her, it seemed that I couldn’t figure out very well how to listen to what God was saying without her. I started to wonder whether I had really been listening to God at all, or only to her.
Crabb specifically recommends spending five minutes at each part of the prayer. That’s long enough that I can’t just say well-practiced words and move on – I have to really think about it, examine myself, and tell God honestly what is on my heart and mind. But the five minute limit also keeps me from spending all my time on only one aspect of the prayer – and the “agenda” it sets helps at least a little in keeping my mind from wandering.
Presenting myself to God means telling Him “where I am” at that moment. I admit whatever is bothering me, whether it’s a fault in myself or someone else, my circumstances, even how I feel about Him. Of course it can be full of joy and praise – I just haven’t been there much in quite a while.
Attending to where I notice God present or absent is more difficult. For me, at least, this is partly because the intellectual side of my mind immediately says, “That’s silly! God is always present.” I think this is supposed to be more where I particularly felt God’s presence or absence, though I find that also hard to say. Examples of noticing God’s presence could be being struck by a particular passage of Scripture, hearing someone’s testimony of how God worked, or feeling great joy in worship. Sometimes it is simply feeling grateful for what God has given me. Laughter is one of those gifts I tend to notice – perhaps because for me it is not all that regular an occurence.
The “purging” part doesn’t seem to different from the confession of sin that I have been taught is always to be a part of prayer, except that it perhaps deals more with attitudes and motivations, while many Christians may think of confession as dealing more with actions. I’ve always been taught that confession has to go hand in hand with repentance, and repentance requires forsaking sin. But if my sin is not loving or trusting God as I should, how do I go about forsaking that, until I learn how to love and trust Him more?
Approaching God because I want Him – well, to me that’s the goal of all this, not something I know how to do yet. At this point my prayer (as it has been for years, it seems) is more along the lines of “I want to want God more.” How do I manage to pray that for five minutes?
So far I haven’t managed to finish the twenty minutes without my mind completely wandering. But I am reassured by one thing – the focus of this isn’t on “getting it right.” The whole idea of the book is that “the pressure’s off” because God loves us and doesn’t wait for us to get it right before He shows up in our lives.