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Religious Virtuosity: The Spiritual Life on Automatic Pilot

Growing up is, among other possibilities, a process of learning how to do things. We learn to walk and talk, to tie our shoes, and to tell the difference between the men’s room and the ladies’ room. Much of what happens later in life builds on such foundational skills. For example, we learn to drive and fly airplanes because we first learned to walk and tie our shoelaces. Learning to ask questions is rooted in learning to talk, and so on.

Among the things we learn to do is religion, which is arguably something innate in human beings, although in a rather confused and vague form. Like learning to talk or write, we learn to “do” religion by learning to do religious things, such as pray, sing, and think (and talk) about what we believe. These religious activities all become learned behaviors which become part of our life and which most of us don’t think much about. These behaviors are important, but they can have a dark side.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how easy it is for Christian people to mistake such learned behaviors for communion with God. I’ve been struck by how easy it is for us to practice these behaviors in such a way that we end up as performers, playing a religious role for God’s benefit. And it doesn’t end there, either. We can easily slip over into playing a role for the respect and admiration of others. Worse, we end up so impressed with how skilled we are in these learned behaviors that we confuse our behavior with knowing God. Instead of talking with God, we end up talking at God. Our praying becomes a recitation, rather like a grade school student reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to her teacher to fulfill a class assignment. We start out trying to do good for God’s sake and end up doing good in order to look good or feel good. Usually without knowing it, we find ourselves using our learned behaviors to play a role, where we end up performing for a human audience and even for ourselves, thereby maintaining a public persona for the admiration of others and a self-image that we can live with, and even admire.

Unfortunately, in doing so, we can lose sight of God’s love for us and we lose our capacity to receive that love. God, along with his creatures, becomes an audience for which we perform. When we think we hear the audience applauding us, we’re happy. When we don’t, we feel worthless and inadequate. In worst case scenarios, our identity, who we really are, decays into the learned behaviors which earn us the applause we seek.

Jesus speaks to this state of affairs when he talks about the “hypocrites” who put on a good show when they pray, “standing in the synagogue or on a street corners” to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5, NIV). These are folks who learned how to do something religious but forgot who they’re talking to, and settled for an audience.

Learned behaviors can look very impressive, at least at a glance, but the more you look at the persona these behaviors create, the more you sense that there’s something missing, and what’s missing is the person playing the role. When the person is missing, so is the capacity for authentic relationships, particularly with God. One ends up performing a role in a play of one’s own devising, sometimes with a hope that someday the role will give birth to a real person, like the wooden puppet Pinocchio becoming a real boy. Unfortunately, this fairy tale typically does not happen in real life. As much as we would like to become the person we pretend to be, we remain a wooden puppet pretending to be a real boy.

Recently, all this was brought home to me in a prayer group. This group is a genuine and supportive one, a place where it is safe to share life’s difficulties and anxieties. Occasionally, we have visitors who can’t participate regularly due to their work schedules. A few months ago, one of these visitors joined us one morning for prayer, and when he prayed, something struck me as odd. I’ve learned, over the years, to pay attention to things that strike me as odd, so I did here.

When this fellow started to pray, it was as though he turned on some sort of mental switch and became a different person. A normal guy in conversation, he became much less normal while talking to God, or I should say, talking at God. While praying, he spoke in an energetic singsong, staccato voice, with words flying out of his mouth as though it was a machinegun aimed at the heavens. He seemed to disappear as a person and become something else, as though God would not listen to him unless he could muster up a suitable amount of psychic energy to get His attention. As a performance piece, it was Pentecostal virtuosity. But, it felt to me like it was a learned behavior rather than a heart-to-heart conversation between persons.

I must quickly acknowledge that I do not know this gentleman’s heart, nor am I making judgments about it or his relationship with God. Heaven knows, most anyone could find any number of oddities and hypocrisies in me. I know full well that God listens to all of us way more attentively than we deserve. It is a mark of God’s grace that He can put up with a lot of craziness in His children. Indeed, it is a mark of God’s grace that we can converse with Him at all. At the least, prayer is where God listens to us when we don’t know what we’re talking about, with the aim of helping us make sense. (I, for one, am a work in progress in this regard.)

That said, I think it is important to know the difference between talking with God in a meeting of persons and talking at God in a learned behavior. In other words, it is important to know the difference between being in a love relationship with God and playing a role in some sort of performance for God’s benefit and that of others. Since we are who we are in God’s sight, and not what we pretend to be, the mumbled, inarticulate prayer of confession or intercession is more authentic than a display of religious virtuosity.

This propensity to flip a mental switch and become someone else is not just something you find in prayer meetings, though. It is a malady very commonly found among clergy. Many years ago, we had a friend who was a Baptist minister. He was a perfectly normal person and someone we enjoyed spending time with. However, the first time we attended his church we were in for quite a surprise, for our friend the normal person didn’t show up at the service. Instead of our friend, his persona, Rev. Clergy Pastor, showed up. The change was jarring. The friendly, normal guy we knew became a religious professional, speaking in a pious, feel-good, sing-song with all the right inflections, suggesting empathy without actually offering it. (Think of Rev. Clergy Pastor as being a less depressed version of Homer Simpson’s pastor, Rev. Lovejoy.)

Of course, Baptists and Pentecostals don’t have a monopoly on religious virtuosity. I’ve bumped into mainline clergy who have learned to play an ecclesiastical role that is both unctuous and clammy, channeling “Mother Church” with a glazed-eyed compassionate smile and a whiff of other-worldliness.

It is relatively easy to see the spiritual or ecclesiastical roles others’ play and fail to notice that we too can slip into similar roles, going for long stretches in our relationship with God where we dutifully do what we think will make God happy and keep Him off our backs at the same time. We can pray, worship, preach sermons, chair committees and read our Bibles (including the study notes) while on spiritual automatic pilot. The religious activities go on with the self not showing up to participate.

We have every reason to believe that God is present always, but we also should humbly acknowledge that we ourselves often are not. And when we are not present to God as persons, we aren’t present to God at all. We’re merely doing religious things that look good. We all have spiritual seasons like this, of course. The danger is getting used to such seasons so that we become numbly self-satisfied with our performance, especially when others compliment us or encourage us in such behavior

Mistaking learned behaviors for knowing God can become a sort of soul suicide, where we become a series of behaviors without anything linking them all together . Recently we met someone and shared several meals with him. He was a pastor. Speaking with him, or should I say listening to him, was exhausting. After several meals together, we were left with no sense at all of who he was. His conversation was a monologue, consisting entirely of ministry anecdotes rattled off in an almost stream of consciousness style. He had his ministry role and he played it. He knew what to do, and did it. And yet, there was no sense at all of the actor playing the role, and no sense of the one doing all the doing.

An extreme case, perhaps. But how many believers have you met who seem to be little more than a recorded message of what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished? How many folks have you met who’ve mastered a vocabulary and say all the right things, but seem not to be in touch with what they’re saying?

And finally, dear reader, what about you and me? We all at times recognize the spiritual truth about ourselves of which the King in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” describes:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

I for one certainly know what it is like to be a collection of learned behaviors and to acquire a vocabulary of words without thoughts.

Many years ago, having just completed an elaborate negotiation to bring a prominent scholar to speak for the organization of which I was the head, I sat back in my chair, pleased with myself at having pulled off this negotiation. But then, unbidden, came an insight I wasn’t prepared for, and which I was too naive and dumb to understand. I suddenly realized that I was a series of activities and there was nothing holding any of them together. An odd insight, I thought at the time, and then I went off to do something else. A year later, I started to fall apart. My life had become the sad and even grim cliché about the lights being on and there being no one at home. All my successful behaviors turned into uncontrolled stress and raging anxiety.

By God’s grace, friends provided a week at a retreat center out in the country. For a week, I did nothing but sleep, walk, read the Bible, and pray. Slowly, I started becoming a person again. ly, God cultivated in my wreckage a person with whom He could carry on a relationship, someone who could recognize His love and respond to it. There would be other lessons later, some of them painful, and I would have still more to learn about how deep-seated the urge to perform is, but this one was the prerequisite for the many lessons that were to follow.

Jesus warned us not to stand on street corners and pray loudly for the applause of passers-by, and he warned us not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do” (Matthew 6:5-8, ESV). Yet, we have tended to apply his words to folks we don’t approve of. It rarely occurs to us that these words are intended for us–me!–and that we ourselves are always in danger of becoming Jesus’ hypocrites and Gentiles. Are my prayers intended to be overheard by those around me? Is my brain engaged when I’m talking with God, or am I heaping up pious phrases that are the spiritual equivalents of helium balloons?

If we’re a performer, “the show must go on!” But, if we’re human beings and disciples of Christ, then the “show” must stop. No amount of performing or acting gains us the applause of heaven. “Well done, good and faithful servant” is reserved for persons, not performers.

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