Born by Bits
I had written the following quote down some time ago and have just recently rediscovered it. It describes the counterintuitive way in which the spiritual life develops in people.
"We are not born all at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later; and the birth and growth of the spirit, in those who are attentive to their own inner life, are slow and exceedingly painful. Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth." -Mary Antin
What an important reminder about the nature of the spiritual life - or better, of life itself. I appreciate Antin's declaration that the "slow and exceedingly painful" growth of the spirit mirrors the pain of biological birth. I am also grateful that she states that this kind of painful growth process is so precisely for "those who are attentive to their own inner life." This seems to be wrong somehow, doesn't it? Shouldn't those who desire to grow spiritually find favor, or at least comfort, in their journey towards life? After all, how many times have we heard Jesus' words, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10) quoted as an invitation to experience the best possible version of life through God? Usually this passage is referred to in such a way that causes us to think that Jesus exists to enhance what is already a pretty good way of living. The spiritual life as a value-added commodity...
Such an orientation takes one quote from the lips of Jesus and ignores others. And not just quotes, but the entire trajectory of the life of the one Christians call Lord - that is, Master. Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24), and then demonstrates precisely what those words mean: that life is found not by clinging to it but by abandoning it in love and the hope of resurrection. The irony is that life births death, which makes a way for the possibility of a new and different kind of life altogether. This is the story of Jesus. This is our story, too.
So, back to the original question: shouldn't those who desire to grow spiritually find favor, or at least comfort, in their journey towards life? I guess that depends. If favor and comfort from God mean exemption from pain and suffering, then the answer is a resounding no. This is not because God is cruel, but because the nature of life itself is one of birth and growth through struggle and pain. Within that framework, however, there is enormous favor and comfort to be found. Why? Two reasons. First, because our pain and suffering have the capacity to birth something creative and redemptive in and through us. Second, because we follow in the steps of the One who has gone before us on this very journey, who is the "...firstborn among many brothers and sisters" (Romans 8:29).