Posted by: Philip Rushton | October 26, 2015

“Pulled Through The Frame:” Moving from observation to participation in the spiritual life.

109d20fff1In C.S. Lewis’ novel, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, his characters Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace are drawn into the world of Narnia through a painting of a ship at sea. As the children observe the painting on their uncle’s wall they find themselves suddenly pulled through the frame and into the scene.  As they are jostled about on the deck of the ship and feel water splashing against their faces they discover that they are no longer observers but participants.

In his talk, “The Church and The Spirit,” Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh draws on this scene as a metaphor for the spiritual life. He reminds us that the purpose of the Christian life is not simply to have a well-framed theology; we must be pulled through the frame. The Christian life is meant to move us from observation to actual participation with God.

This fall I’ve been leading a study group through Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. The book begins by naming some of the barriers that get in the way of us entering into the eternal life with God now. During the first session our group spent time talking about the resistance we face in being pulled through the frame and into the living story of God.

The barriers are different for different people. Sometimes there are numerous barriers at work at the same time. Many in our group named the problem of pain. Unanswered prayer and the experience of suffering often cause us to wonder whether God is even there. Others of us named the problem of distraction. We live in a busy world where it is hard for us to focus or carve out time for prayer.   Another barrier that came up is our confusion in discerning spiritual experience. Are the things we attribute to God really from God or are we just making things up? Some of us have encountered inauthentic spiritual experiences that have been manipulative in nature. This can cause us to be suspicious of experiential spirituality.   Still others of us wonder whether there is really a spiritual realm at all. Dallas Willard believes that we are deeply influenced by our secular culture. “Our souls,” he says, in reference to contemporary Christians, “are soaked in secularity.”

One of the barriers I have discovered in my own life lately is my tendency to hide behind theological conversations.  In a recent session with my spiritual director we discussed the pros and cons of my intellectual disposition. While thinking about God and formulating a well thought out theology is important, it can also become a barrier to engagement with God. It is safer to be an observer than a participant. It allows me to sit on the fence, consider my options, and remain in control.   Truth be told, it is easier to talk about prayer than to actually pray, or it is easier to talk about the importance of service than to actually engage in service to others.

Yet, in the midst of all of this resistance is a God who is eagerly and actively seeking to draw us through the frame. Jesus does not want us to simply understand the concept of grace, he wants us to experience grace for ourselves. Jesus does not want us to give intellectual assent to a particular theory of atonement; he wants us to experience the power of God’s reconciling love. As Karl Rahner articulates, “knowing God is more important than knowing about God.”

During the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards sought to make sense of the spiritual experiences people were having. Many of his colleagues wrote these experiences off as emotional fanaticism, but Edwards took a more discerning approach. He reminded his colleagues that, “the Holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affections; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion and zeal.”  In other words, the scriptures testify to the fact that God is not just an idea to figure out but a living being that we experience and relate to.

At the same time, Edwards recognizes that our experience of God must be discerned and tested.  He encourages folks to consider the fruit of their spiritual experience. If these encounters with God lead to the formation of a deeper love for God and neighbor they should be considered authentic. Furthermore, Edwards invites us to test our experiences and encounters with God against the scriptures.

In recent weeks I have experienced this invitation to once again be pulled through the frame and into the story of God. It is a scary invitation in many ways.  During my first residency for my program at Fuller I was invited to not only study Christian spirituality but engage in numerous spiritual practices.  Half way through the course we were invited to participate in a 48 hour silent retreat. One of our professors named things well when he said that the prospect of spending that much time in prayer, “scares the hell out of us!”   Experiential spirituality requires us to step out in faith and let go of our vain attempts to control God.

Faith, I believe, is the remedy to our resistance. For it is only as we step through the frame and into the story that we begin to discover answers to the perplexing problems that have created barriers between us and God.   As we seek first the kingdom we begin to discover a God that is at work in our midst. Anselm reminds us that theology is, “faith seeking understanding.” Too often I have have it the other way around.


  1. Faith seeking understanding is an excellent summation of the dance between the two worlds.For some it may be easy yet for me there is always Tension.

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