True spiritual growth always retains a sense of grief.

When I was a young seminarian, I realized that I really didn’t know much about how to work with people.  I knew that if I were to pursue a career of pastoral ministry, I would need a better understanding of how people get broken and how to help them find wholeness.  I voiced this realization to my mentor, Wayne Oates, who I had met while I worked as a nurse’s aid on the adolescent psychiatric ward where Oates served as their pastoral theological consultant.  “So,” he said to me, “You want to get serious about how to work in this tidal wave of human suffering?”

With the uninformed confidence of a novice I said, “Yes!  I want to know how to work with this kind of thing.”

Oates took me seriously.  He made me one of his chaplain assistants and placed me in both the out and in-patient contexts of the psychiatric clinic of the University Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.  Soon, I was face to face with all kinds of heartbreak, addiction, family dysfunction, mental delusion, paranoia, criminal intent, and outright futility.  After a few months, I realized how incompetent I really was, how little I understood, and how silly my theological pretenses had been.  I began a period of intense study with a new humility.  That’s when my pastoral education really began – and I have to confess that I felt some sadness for the simpler and more happy perspective I had before I encountered reality.  I had to let go of some things.

It’s much like that when you get serious about knowing God.

When you get serious about knowing God, God gets serious with you.  When you open yourself to God’s working in the depths of your soul, the process uncovers stuff that you spent quite a bit of energy, time, and resources hiding.  In fact, you’ll discover that much of your life has been invested in maintaining an elaborate pretense designed to hide the stuff of which you’re ashamed from yourself and from others. You’ll discover that quite a bit of your reputation, image, and list of accomplishments don’t really amount to much.  As the process of opening to God’s cleansing presence in your depths continues, you’ll sense the need to let go of much of that.

This letting go is what happens when your old, false self dies.  Any death entails grief, so, true spiritual growth, involving the death of the old, false and illusory self, will bring on periods of mourning.  True spiritual growth always retains a sense of grief.

I think this is why we tend to resist deeper, more mature processes of spiritual growth. We don’t like to feel sad, and we know in our deeper selves that if we DO engage in earnest self-disclosure in the presence of our Creator, we’ll experience some profound discomfort.

So, if in your spiritual journey, you’re not feeling all that giddy, or you’re not experiencing a whole lot of positive vibes; or if you feel draggy, and even that God is distant and remote, it’s quite likely that you’re living in a period of spiritual mourning which is part and parcel of becoming a deeper, wiser, and – indeed – more joyful soul.

“Joy in grief,” you may ask.  Yes.  Dwell with this process faithfully, and you’ll discover that in your deepest self, despite all the stuff you find shameful about yourself, God still loves you.  In fact, the more profound your shame, the more profoundly you’ll know God’s grace.  In this time of mourning, you’ll understand, perhaps for the first time, the import of what Jesus meant when he said that in order for us to live, we first have to die.

Dying – the necessary prelude to resurrection.


For the next post:  Our surrounding culture values the projections of power and prestige we use to bolster our egos.  We don’t get much encouragement to get past these charades.

About Drexel Rayford

Drexel has been senior pastor of four churches in Kentucky and Virginia, a psychiatric ward chaplain, denominational bureaucrat, and an erstwhile indie singer/songwriter/story-teller and seeker of authentic human vocation. Currently, Drexel is working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center in the capacity of The Support Team Network manager, a hospital-based community partnership aimed at nurturing healing communities for discharged patients. He loves kayaking, road cycling, hiking, and all kinds of photography, but he loves his wife Vicki and blended family of three adult children more. He holds a Ph.D. in the Psychology of Religion and a pastoral counseling certificate from the University of Louisville, Department of Psychiatry.
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