In my experience, many folks often mistake "feeling close" to God as being spiritually mature.
In "The Four Loves," C.S. Lewis uses an "allegory of nearness" to clarify. He says, let's suppose we are taking a mountain walk to a village that is our home. At some point in our journey we come upon the top of a cliff where we are, in space, very near to our home because it is just below us. We can see it but, as we are no cragsmen, we can't get down. We must go a long way round, five miles maybe, in order to reach our destination. In so doing, we may be detoured many times and statistically be farther from our home than we were when we stood upon the cliff. But only statistically. In terms of progress, we will be much nearer to our home than before.
Many times, we see Lewis' example made manifest in our own lives. It is easy for us to perceive our observation of God as being a sort of spiritual maturity. Often we may go to a conference, or hear a sermon, or even catch a glimpse of sunlight through the trees in just the right way that we see God's glory. This feeling might inspire us, rejuvenates us, or even give us a feeling of peace. But we are mistaken if we look upon this glory and assume that, like the house below the cliff, we are actually anything more than statistically close to it. As prideful people we must be careful not to fool ourselves into believing we have already faithfully made the journey home when we have simply been watchful observers.
Part of growing in spiritual maturity is having the humility to actually recognize where we are in relational proximity to God and to then seek to advance our progress as appropriate.
In her book, "The Joy of Loving," Mother Teresa shares how she and the Missionaries of Charity once picked up a man from the drain who was half eaten by worms. They then brought him to the Home for the Dying in Kalighat where the man thankfully said, "I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die as an angel, loved and cared for."
After the missionaries and Mother Teresa had removed the worms from the man's body, all he said with a big smile was: "Sister, I'm going home to God," and then he died. The Blessed Teresa of Calcutta reflected later how wonderful it was to see the greatness of a man who could speak like that without blaming anybody, without comparing anything. He had completed his journey. And while he appeared weak to many, he actually had -- through God's grace -- an internal satisfaction, known by few.
Certainly, most of us would not even begin to compare ourselves with the level of holiness exuded by the man in the story. For that matter, most of us wouldn't venture to compare ourselves with Mother Teresa or even the Missionaries who served so faithfully with her. But, when one reads stories like this it is hard not to reflect and wonder: "How far down the allegorical mountain have I actually journeyed?"
For while most of us will surely never have to face such destitute circumstances as described by Mother Teresa, we are often faced with the reality of the question; "How is it that one can actually begin to draw nearer to God?"
I think the answer may be: by daring to take the next step in the journey.
The Rev. Christopher Benek is the associate pastor of family ministries at Providence Presbyterian Church. Read his blog at www.christopherbenek.com.