Extract | Seeking God
Becoming a Seeker
I encourage you to seek the Lord constantly, and
the experiences will come along.
This book is about seeking and finding another kind of life.
As a pastor, I often sense this quest hidden in my conversations with others. People will seldom explicitly say, “I am looking for another kind of life.” I do, however, hear phrases like these:
• “There’s something missing in my life.”
• “My life is such a mess.”
• “Is this really what it’s all about?”
• “Surely, there must be more to my faith than what I am experiencing.”
• “I’m not getting much out of going to church right now.”
• “I’ve given up on organised religion.”
Each time sentiments like these are expressed, I hear echoes of the longing to find another kind of life. And it’s a longing I well understand. Some time ago, Debbie, my dear marriage partner of over forty years, said to me, “Ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been a spiritual seeker.” She was right. For over forty years, my life has been shaped around my search for the life that I have glimpsed in the stories of those early followers of Jesus on the pages of the New Testament.
Since you have picked up this book, I assume you are willing to join me in seeking another kind of life. Each of us must make our own way through the maze of questions, the mystery, and the paradoxes that life brings us, but the gospel promises us that those who seek will find (Matthew 7:7). Only those open to becoming intentional seekers discover the radiant life that God wants to give us.
My prayer is that as you read this book, God will surprise you in your seeking and draw you more deeply into the fullness of life that is the promise of the gospel.
Encouragement for the Seeking Journey
As we begin this seeking journey together, we receive much encouragement from the Scriptures. Here are three verses to get us started:
When you search for me, you will find me; if you
seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me,
says the Lord.
Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and
all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:33, NIV
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone
who asks receives; the one who seeks finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Matthew 7:7-8, NIV
The promise is clear. Those who seek God consistently, faithfully, and passionately will not be disappointed. They will find God and all those good things that accompany God’s Kingdom.
We really need to grasp this because we have a tragic tendency to regard only those who are outside the Christian faith as seekers. We then assume that once someone gives their life to Christ, their seeking comes to an end. It is exactly the opposite. That is when the quest really begins. Christianity is essentially a seeking faith.
So, an important question at the outset of our journey is this: Are you willing to take these biblical invitations to seek God seriously? I hope you will.
When it comes to spiritual seeking, we can learn a lot from dedicated scientists. They often spend a lifetime searching to unlock the mysterious secrets of the physical world around us. Most of the greatest discoveries have been made by scientists who refused to give up seeking. Often these breakthroughs of scientific knowledge are made by those who do not lose a childlike sense of wonder and exploration. For example, even though Einstein struggled with dyslexia, he nurtured a delightfully childlike quality of seeking throughout his life.
Surely, given the even greater mystery of God, and the unseen realities of God’s Kingdom, we need to follow their example. When we cease seeking, we find ourselves in danger of dying spiritually. Our faith gets bogged down in dull familiarity, empty routines, and tired clichés. In stark contrast, becoming a seeker brings us alive spiritually. We come alive to the mystery of ourselves, of those around us, of the world in which we live, and above all, of the active presence of God permeating all things. Few invitations are more important than the biblical one to seek God and the life that God wants to give us. This is the essence of the spiritual quest that we will explore in this book.
Even more than scientists, the great Christ followers throughout history encourage us to keep on seeking. From Paul in the New Testament onward, we meet wonderful people of faith who gave themselves to a lifetime of searching. When we study their lives, no matter whether they were Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, the one thing that becomes clear is that they continually sought God. These men and women remind us that when we seek God resolutely, we will find God to be real and active in our lives. Indeed, God will come to us and communicate the divine Trinitarian reality in all its glory, beauty, and power. We will discover another kind of life.
Keeping Jesus at the Centre
My own seeking journey with God has continued now for just over fifty years. As with all intimate and growing friendships, there have been many highs and lows. Almost daily I am confronted with the inadequacies of my own life with God. I still find myself struggling with discouraging symptoms of self-centeredness, self-interest, and egocentricity. There has, however, been one unrelenting constant that has both encouraged and guided my own seeking: the shining figure of Jesus of Nazareth.
My spiritual seeking began in my teenage years. As a sixteen-year-old, I was very aware of the preciousness of this one life. I wanted it to count for something. Thankfully, I met Phillip, a young Christ follower who sat next to me at school. There was something different about his life—not weirdly different but rather attractively different.
When I asked him about this difference, he introduced me to his friendship with Jesus Christ. He shared with me how Jesus gave his life on the cross for us, told me about how he lives now beyond crucifixion, and explained how the Spirit can give us new life today. Phillip went on to say that if I wanted to experience this new life, I needed to turn toward Christ and give my life to him.
This basic, street-level gospel shone a bright light into my heart. Late one night, as I was walking down Havelock Street in my hometown of Port Elizabeth (renamed in 2021 to Gqeberha), Eastern Cape, South Africa, I made my decision. I recall looking up at the sky and saying something like “Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for everything you have done for me because of your love. Please come into my life and make me the person you want me to be.” That teenage moment of inner surrender to the crucified love of God shaped the rest of my life.
My journey with Jesus, and into the fullness of life God gives, had begun. For the past fifty years, that Christ light has continued to be my encouraging and guiding presence as I have sought to follow Jesus into the life of the Kingdom of God, here and now.
Now you can see why, as we reach out for the life that God gives us, I want us to stay close to Jesus. On any seeking journey it is easy to lose our way. Thankfully, Jesus lights the path for our steps along the way. Through his words and deeds, his death and resurrection, he offers himself as the one who uniquely leads us into the life of his Father’s Kingdom.
This is the astonishing mystery of our life with God: The way into it is simply through coming to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ. As we learn to keep company with him daily, he steps out from the pages of the Gospels and becomes for us a living and empowering presence. Step by step, he leads us into the fullness of life that is the astounding promise of the gospel.
Learning from Two God Seekers
On our seeking journey together, we will explore the wisdom of two God seekers who powerfully influenced their respective generations, many centuries apart.
Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556)
In 1990 I experienced a major vocational disappointment. As a result, I needed to make critical decisions about my future. Not wanting to rush into premature decisions, I was encouraged by an Anglican sister to do the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Let me be honest and say I had no idea what they involved! Sister Maureen suggested that I ask Father Andrew Norton, an Anglican monk from the Community of the Resurrection, to explain them to me. I will never forget his surprise when I knocked on his door and asked him to take me through the Exercises.
At the end of my first visit, he said to me, “I don’t know what a high-church Anglican like me is doing with a low-church Methodist like you. God must have a sense of humour.”
So began my adventure with Ignatius. It has been almost thirty years since that pilgrimage through the Spiritual Exercises. Since then, I have learned a great deal more about them and about Ignatius, who first put them together. Not only have I had the privilege of giving the Exercises to many others, but it has also been a special joy, in recent years with the local Jesuit family here in Johannesburg, to train others to give them.
What has struck me is how, when they are suitably adapted, they connect with Christ followers from across denominational tribes. Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, mainline or independent, charismatic or Reformed, or have no formal church background at all, they seem to strike a responsive chord in the hearts of anyone eager to seek God more radically and wholeheartedly.
I hope that you will enjoy getting to know Ignatius. Although he did a few things that look a bit crazy from our twenty-first-century perspective, he also had a huge heart for God that captures our seeking imagination. He longed for those around him to give themselves freely and generously to following Jesus. The Spiritual Exercises that he put together reveal a profound spiritual and psychological wisdom that is remarkably adaptable. It comes as little surprise that so many contemporary seekers find him to be a reliable and helpful guide for the journey into the life God graciously offers.
Dallas Willard (1935–2013)
My first introduction to Dallas was in 1985. I was in bed, sick with mumps, when I listened to an audio cassette of his teaching on the Kingdom of God. Something in his teaching struck a deep, responsive chord in me. As I listened to him explore the themes of the availability of the Kingdom of God, the realness of the spiritual dimension, and the connections between discipleship, daily life, and mission, the flame of my longing to know, love, and follow Jesus burned brighter. I knew that I had so much more to learn from Dallas. So, I wrote a letter, inviting him to come to South Africa and spend some time teaching in the congregation where I pastored. I said I could raise his airfare but could not offer hotel accommodation or promise an honorarium. It certainly was not an attractive offer.
To my surprise and delight, Dallas responded positively to this request from a stranger. Nor, he said, did we have to worry about payment.
What struck me most, during his three weeks with us, was not so much his words. It was his life. He lived in the house of his own teaching. Like many others, I was struck by his unhurried, attentive, and compassionate presence. One reason I took his insightful ideas about God and God’s Kingdom with absolute seriousness was that he obviously lived in these invisible realities himself. He was a credible witness.
Over the next twenty-five years, it was my privilege to learn from Dallas in many ways. He ministered in South Africa three more times, wrote helpful books on the life of faith, and continued lecturing in his home country. I read whatever I could get my hands on, listened to his recorded talks, and went over and over my notes from his time with us. It was, however, through personal conversation and correspondence that I learned the most from him.
In one letter, dated May 2, 1995, he responded to my longing for a deeper experience of a living, present, and personal God with this counsel:
I encourage you to seek the face of the Lord constantly,
with the knowledge that experiences will
come along. You should experience God. I would
be nothing and have no faith apart from various
experiences of God that have come to me. You
should expect experiences and make yourself
available to them. To seek them is just misguided,
not wrong. We have no idea of what ours will be
like, and they certainly will be unlike anyone else’s.
Throughout this book, I will share some of the faith lessons I learned from both Ignatius and Dallas. It will become clear that, although they speak to us from different centuries, Ignatius and Dallas had much in common. Both were convinced that invisible things like the Trinity, the Kingdom of God, and the soul are as real as the coffee and toast that we have for breakfast.
Both stressed that, through direct interaction, God can be experienced as a knowable, personal, and loving reality. Both believed that we can be transformed into the compassionate character of Jesus. Above all, both were adamant that the greatest opportunity in life is to come to know Jesus intimately, love him more deeply, and follow him more closely. For these reasons, and several more, both Ignatius and Dallas make ideal companions for our seeking journey.
The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius
The structure of this book has been significantly shaped by the major themes of the Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises follow a careful plan that is based on Ignatius’s own experience of spiritual seeking. These central themes revolve around the relationship between God’s good news and our own deepest desires, the astounding reality of God’s personal love reaching out to each one of us in our sinfulness, the life and ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the active presence of God permeating and filling all things.
These themes offer themselves as signposts that can guide us in our spiritual search. Seekers always need some practical guidance, and I hope that you will find the insights from the Exercises as helpful in your spiritual seeking as I have in mine.
The Spiritual Exercises also connect with seekers outside the institutional church.
Recently I came across the moving testimony of the gifted actor Andrew Garfield. As he prepared for his role as a Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese’s haunting film Silence, he asked popular Catholic author Father James Martin to take him through the Spiritual Exercises. Although Father Martin was initially reluctant, he sensed that Garfield was really seeking for something more in his life. His intuition was spot-on. For almost a year, Father Martin took the actor through this journey of gospel-based, Christ-centred meditations that millions of other seekers have done.
In an interview with America Magazine, Garfield shared the life-changing effects of this prayer journey: “There were so many things in the Exercises that changed me and transformed me, that showed me who I was ... and where I believe God wants me to be. What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.”
The interviewer described how, as he said these words, Garfield became quiet, obviously deeply moved. Then, pressing his hand on his chest between his stomach and his heart, he joyfully exclaimed: “That was the most remarkable thing—falling in love, and how easy it was to fall in love with Jesus. I felt so bad for [Jesus] and angry on his behalf when I finally did meet him, because everyone has given him such a bad name. And he has been used for so many dark things.”
Like all seekers, like you and me, Garfield was seeking to discover his own unique place and purpose in this world. He went on in the interview to share himself vulnerably: “The main thing that I wanted to heal, that I brought to Jesus, that I brought to the Exercises, was this feeling of not-enough-ness. This feeling of that forever longing for the perfect expression of this thing that is inside each of us. That wound of feeling like what I have to offer is never enough.”
I find Garfield’s testimony profoundly moving. It is a poignant testimony to how God, through the Spiritual Exercises, can lead a seeker in their unique faith journey from shallowness to depth.
This could also be why Dallas Willard once suggested that they make an excellent template for a school of discipleship. He wrote, “If you ... make necessary adjustments to the content you will see that [the Spiritual Exercises] offer in substance a curriculum, a course in training, for life on the rock. And that is why, century after century, they have exercised incredible power over all who open themselves to them as disciples of Jesus.”
Two Important Disclaimers
In using the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius as an outline for our seeking journey, I must make two important disclaimers:
First, in this book I will not be taking you through the Spiritual Exercises. Your appetite, though, may be whetted to explore the possibilities of doing them. They are best given in a one-on-one relationship by someone trained to give them, either in a thirty-day, enclosed retreat setting or in daily life (as I did them) over a period of about nine months. What I do here is only weaving a few of their dominant themes, together with my own reflections, into the shape of this book. Hopefully, they will guide our steps along the way into a more interactive life in God’s Kingdom.
Second, I am not encouraging you to read the Spiritual Exercises. Some of the classic works on Christian spirituality from the past, books like Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, or Mother Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, or John Wesley’s Forty-Four Sermons, are meant to be slowly read, digested, and meditated on. The book on the Spiritual Exercises, however, is different. Like any book of exercises, it is not meant to be read but rather to be done. In fact, if you do decide to read them, you will most probably find that it is like reading a boring instruction manual. Remember always that the Spiritual Exercises are meant to be done, not read.
Finally, if you have read any of my previous books, you will know how I constantly emphasise the importance of action. Throughout this book you will find some suggested “Seeking Exercises.” These are designed to facilitate your own personal interaction with God around some of the themes in the Spiritual Exercises. They are simple and will not take much time, but they will require intention, desire, and effort. Engage them with whatever trust and faith in God you have, and the God who seeks you, far more than you seek him, will surely meet you and lead you along the way into another kind of life.
As we begin our seeking journey together, here is a prayer for you. It was the first prayer that Dallas prayed when he met with a small group of seekers in South Africa. Later I learned that he would often pray these words with those he taught:
I pray that you would have a rich life of joy
and power, abundant in supernatural
results, with a constant, clear vision of
never-ending life in God’s world before you,
and of the everlasting significance of your
work, day by day. A radiant life and death.