When you look at a Sunset or the stars in the sky, do they bring you close to God or do they leave you cold?
Do you prefer beautiful old churches with glorious architecture and stained glass windows, or are you happier in the Big Top at Spring Harvest?
Do you find it easiest to be close to God when you are with lots of other Christians, or are other people a distraction and you actually prefer to be by yourself one-to-one with God?
Does studying the Bible help you get close to God, or do you feel closer to God when you are serving Him by helping other people?
We are all different! Different Christians draw close to God in different ways. Some activities which help some people to know God do nothing to help other people. Practices which really bless you may not bless the person next to you in the least.
Through the centuries groups of believers have found many different ways to approach God – what we could call “Spiritual Pathways.” Over the next few weeks we are going to look at nine of these – nine Sacred Pathways, which I have taken from the book of that name by Gary Thomas. He writes about nine kinds of Christian, who find blessings by approaching God in different ways. Let me begin by just giving you the names of these different spiritual pathways.
Naturalists – loving God out of doors
Enthusiasts – loving God in mystery and spiritual experiences
Contemplatives – loving God in adoration and intimacy
Activists – loving God through confrontation
Traditionalists – loving God through ritual and symbol
Caregivers – loving God by loving others
Intellectuals – loving God with the mind
Sensates – loving God with all the senses
Ascetics – loving God in solitude and simplicity
Sacred Pathways – Gary Thomas (Zondervan 2000)
These nine spiritual pathways are not the only ways people draw close to God but they are the major ways. The likelihood is that each of us may find real blessing in three or four of these spiritual pathways. On the other hand two or three of these pathways may leave us cold or even make it harder for us to meet with God! But which pathways help us and which pathways do nothing for us will be different for each of us!
Because we are all different. We have different personalities. We have different KINDS of personalities. And which spiritual pathways will bring us blessing depends on the kind of personality we have. Psychologists describe personality in a variety of ways. One popular way psychology understands personality comes from observations that most people appear somewhere between two extremes of a number of characteristics.
Most people are between the extremes of being completely extrovert – outward looking, and completely introvert – inward looking.
Most people are between the extremes of being ruled by their thinking and those who are ruled by their feelings.
Most people are between the extremes of relying on their intuition and imagination or on the other hand relying on their senses.
And another vaguer scale, some people’s lives are run by their judgment – they like order and control, but others are led more by their perception and they are comfortable to go with the flow and take life as it comes.
So when it comes to our spiritual lives, different people will benefit from different kinds of spiritual activities.
Extroverts enjoy public worship, fellowship, and prayer groups. Extroverts thrive on social spirituality but they can miss out on reflection.
The opposite, introverts value meditation, contemplation and solitude. Introverts enjoy individual reflection but they can miss out on participation with others.
Thinking people are theoretical and analytical. They love Bible study but it is possible for thinking people to miss out on devotion
On the other hand Feeling people are led by their emotions in their relationships with God and others. Feeling people can miss out on knowledge
Intuitive people use their imagination and love contemplation but intuitive people can miss out on serving others
Their psychological opposites, Sensing people use their senses and meet God in sights, and sounds. They value music, incense and chanting, clay and paint. But sensing people can miss out on understanding.
People whose lives are shaped by Judgment require order and control, structures and patterns. Judgment people can miss out on spontaneity.
On the other hand people whose lives are governed by perception tend to be laid back and unplanned. Perception people can miss out on discipline.
Extrovert or introvert? Thinking or feeling? Intuition or senses? Judgment or perception? Each of us is somewhere on the scales between each of these pairs of extremes. Where your personality falls on these scales may help you to understand yourself and your own attitudes to spirituality – if they don’t, don’t worry about it. The point is, all people are different, and the ways we find helpful in approaching God are different as well. I will explore just one of these spiritual pathways this week. Then next week and the week after we will look in detail at four other Sacred Pathways each week.
There are two good reasons for wanting to understand these different spiritual pathways. The first is to do with how we treat other people. I really don’t understand how some people find God in good architecture. Or what part incense and ringing bells play in worship today. And you all know that when it comes to worshipping God through dance, it is safer for everybody if I just sit to one side or preferably outside the building altogether. But the lesson for me from these spiritual pathways is that the things I appreciate are to do with the personality I have. And other people appreciate very different pathways because of the personalities they have. And all these pathways are equally valid! Each can bring us to God, according to our personalities.
On my last Sabbatical I spent a week in silent retreat at Lee Abbey in Devon. Some people have said to me, “That must have been wonderful!” Rather more people since have asked me, “How could you possibly do that? I couldn’t cope with silence for 10 minutes, never mind a week!” The answer is, my spiritual pathways are the ascetic and the contemplative. I like the silence and solitude of retreats. But these other people like people and loud music. They are Enthusiasts and Activists and Sensates. They meet with God in ways which are unnatural for me. But their ways are just as spiritual for them and just as helpful to them. So there is no place for pride just because I enjoy silence and other people don’t. My spiritual pathways are no more spiritual than theirs – just different.
So if the idea of searching for God in silence has no appeal for you – don’t worry about it! If the idea of lively worship and dancing before the Lord turns you off, don’t worry about that. Some ways of approaching God may not be suited to your personality and temperament. But that’s fine – because there will be other Spiritual Pathways which are just perfect for you! Just don’t look down on other pathways which are not suited to you.
The second benefit of recognising which Spiritual Pathways are suited to your personality is that should encourage you to follow those Pathways more vigorously. If you have recognised a contemplative side to your nature, nourish that by seeking space for silence and making time for meditation. On the other hand, if you realise that you are by nature an Enthusiast, then make space for lively worship and developing your spiritual gifts. If God has made you an Activist, look for ways to live out that activism in social action and prophetic proclamation. In the weeks ahead we will look at nine spiritual pathways, and I am sure you will recognise in them the Pathways which best suit you. Whichever suits you best, use it to pursue God as much as you can!
We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our feelings and emotions, with all our soul and our will, with all our strength, with our bodies, and with all our mind, with our belief and understanding. To love God with the whole of our being each one of us needs to find the Pathways which suit us best.
To show you what I am talking about this week I want to introduce you to just one of the Sacred pathways – the pathway of NATURALISTS, people who find it easy to encounter God in Creation. Most of you will have realised by now that I enjoy the outdoors. I love the beauty of sunsets and the sound of waterfalls. I love walking in the mountains and in the woods and on the beach. I love camping. I love the night sky and the majesty of the stars. I recorded one experience of meeting God in Creation in one of the articles in our little book of testimonies, “The Difference Jesus Makes.” Let me retell that experience to you now. If you can relate to it, the spiritual pathway of Naturalist is for you as well.
It was just before four in the morning when the talking outside the tent became too much and I just had to crawl out to discover what was going on. The eastern sky was pale blue but the valley below was still in darkness.
Then it happened! The next peak seemed to catch fire as the first rays of dawn struck the glacier and the snow and ice glowed deep red, then pink and orange. Of all the spectacles in the world, few can be as beautiful or as breath-taking as a sunrise over the Alps. That memory from almost 40 years ago always comes back when I am under canvas once again, or spend any time in the mountains as we did in Switzerland this summer. With it come these words from the Bible:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19 verse 1)
One evening years later on a different camping holiday we all went up on a hilltop in pitch darkness, so far from towns that there was no glow of streetlights reflected in the sky. It took some minutes for our eyes to adjust to night vision. Only then did we discover that the ground was not completely dark. The chalk stones were luminous white, and for the first time I saw a field alive with the cold green fires of glow-worms.
The clouds cleared and looking up I saw the panorama of the night sky. The stars appeared the brighter because there was no moon. The sense of the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of man was overwhelming. And I recalled that the Bible describes God as ”the Father of the heavenly lights.” (James chapter 1 verse 17).
There, away from people and traffic, there were only the sounds of the insects and the night animals and the distant sea and the wind. And in the silence God could begin to speak. Such experiences of the beauties of nature may be common to country folk. But to town and city-dwellers they are rare and very precious. We are so used to surrounding ourselves with people and noise and the things man has made. We feel so much more secure when we are shielded from the elements in our safe warm dry homes in the middle of lots of other people and houses.
The science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov has painted a chilling picture of where this may end. He describes a future of vast underground cities, where the inhabitants of these ‘Caves of Steel’ are too terrified to go up to the surface. They simply cannot cope with the sight of the open air and the sky and the sun. Those who live in large cities and especially in high-rise blocks can already understand such a sense of insulation from the natural world.
But separated from nature, we may also be distanced from its Creator, Who is our Maker too. We can hide away from God in our man-made buildings and the bright lights of a busy town. It is much harder to ignore God when his glory shines through a spectacular sunset or the majestic star-filled sky or a glow-worm’s beauty. Sometimes God seems hard to find. If so, we can try looking for Him in the world He has made. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8 verses 1-4) Peter
The spiritual pathway of Naturalists – meeting God in the beauty of His Creation.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard
Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psa19:1-4)
The naturalist meets God in His Creation. More than that, we can feel cut off from God indoors. Remember that Jesus told his stories outdoors. Think of the parables of nature: the sower, the wheat and the weeds, the seed growing secretly, the vine.
So for the Naturalist, the beauty and abundance and variety of creation point us to God the Master-Artist. The Natural World gives us peace and rest.
But of course this spiritual pathway, like all the others, has its weaknesses. Naturalists can end up idolising nature. We can be trapped in individualism.
But to discover if Naturalism is a spiritual pathway which is helpful to you, try one of these things some time this week.
Take a few minutes to look at the sunrise or the sunset or too look up at the moon and the night sky. Take a few minutes to do exactly what Jesus said and consider the lilies of the field, or the first flowers just peeping up above the ground. Consider the birds of the air, just watch some birds in your garden or a squirrel, or if you can’t stand the thought of getting cold or wet, just watch one of the excellent documentaries about the natural world on the television.
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you!
“When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart”
(Jeremiah 29:13 New Revised Standard version)