Eastertide: The Nature of the Spiritual Journey

You can also read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3 of this Beyond Words series.

Then he said to them, “How foolish you are, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)

If you ask people to name a time in their spiritual life when they grew the most or felt closest to God, many people will refer to a time when they had to endure pain, loss or suffering. Even though whatever they endured was real and they probably would not choose to go back, looking at it through the lens of what God was doing through it offers a whole different perspective. In fact, sometimes what they feel they gained was so valuable that they might even say, “Even though that was hard, I wouldn’t trade it for anything!”

This is exactly what Jesus gave the two disciples on the Emmaus Road—the gift of being able see what they had been through from a whole different perspective. Having listened to them so well, he had now earned the right to speak. And when he did speak, he offered them so much more than platitudes or mere comfort regarding the troubles they had seen. He offered them a completely different lens through which to view their recent traumatic experiences.

The Nature of the Spiritual Journey

The lens Jesus offered the disciples was to draw their attention to the nature of the spiritual journey—the paschal rhythm of death, burial and resurrection, and of suffering as a necessary part of it. With so few words Jesus captured the essence of the spiritual journey: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

He had, of course, tried to describe this aspect of the spiritual life earlier on while he was still with his disciples, but it was impossible for them to grasp it until they were experiencing it for themselves. Matthew 16 records the fact that Jesus told his disciples in great detail that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering” and eventually be killed, but Peter in particular just would not have it. He actually rebuked Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:21-23)

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Peter’s (and presumably the other disciples’) difficulty accepting the fact that Jesus would have to suffer raises a sobering possibility for spiritual companions to consider, and it is this: in our attempts to be loyal and faithful and helpful (as Peter was surely trying to be), we too could be a distraction and even a stumbling block to one another if we fail to understand the nature of the spiritual journey and God’s divine purposes in all aspects of the journey, including suffering. How confusing it can be if members of a spiritual community have fundamentally different ideas about what the spiritual journey is all about.

For instance, if one’s vision of the journey is shaped by a “success gospel” in which the sign of God’s blessing is that everything is always “up and to the right” while others understand it to be a series of “necessary deaths” in which we let go of that which is false so what is truest within us can fully emerge, we could actually do more harm than good in our attempts to companion one another!

If some in the group believe that growth in the spiritual life is marked by increasing certitude, while others are being drawn into the kinds of questions that defy easy answers and trite sayings, we could actually thwart what God is trying to do in their lives.

One of the most valuable offerings we can make to one another in transforming community is the perspective that enables us to “see through” to what is really going on spiritually speaking, no matter how painful the events and experiences might be. To affirm that God is at work even in our suffering can be redemptive if we allow it to be. As Richard Rohr puts it, “Resurrection is when one moment reveals the meaning of all moments.”

The Heart of the Matter

What Jesus did here in so few words was to draw attention to the heart of the Christian story. Those who had experienced the weekend’s traumatizing events were not merely witnesses to a terrible injustice; they were actually witnessing the great saving act of God accomplished in and through Jesus’ suffering and the sacrifice of his life.

This necessary rhythm of suffering and death, burial and resurrection was the spiritual reality Jesus’ disciples were living through in a condensed fashion as they experienced the events of that first “Good” Friday, waited numbly through that first Holy Saturday and tried to find their way back home on that first Resurrection Sunday. Even though they hadn’t been able to make sense of it yet, Jesus’ journey from death to life was revealing the true nature of the spiritual life. He was signaling to them that we, too, must “die” if we desire to be raised to new life in Christ. We, too, must lay down anything that is a hindrance to us spiritually, so we can walk in newness of life.

Jesus was perfect, so there was no sin in him that needed to die; but he did need to “let go” of the physical body that limited him to being in one place at a time, here and not there, earthbound rather than seated on the right hand of God in the heavenly places. The difference between Jesus’ journey and our own is that most often what needs to die in us are the sins, negative patterns and false-self attachments that limit the freedom of our true-self-in-God. This letting go feels like suffering and death because on some level it is; but what we need to know is that it is death unto life.

Out with the Old and In with the New

All this talk of death and suffering might seem like a rather dour—if not harsh!—view of the spiritual life, but I assure you it is not. The only thing we stand to lose in this process of death and dying is that which is not needed anyway. In fact, what needs to die is not really even real; it is the set of illusions that is the false self. The true self—our very essence—is hidden with Christ in God and is waiting to be revealed (Colossians 3:1-3). There is a kind of freedom on the other side of this “death” that we can only imagine.

Through his life and his death, Jesus taught us that we must lose our life (small l) in order to gain that which is Life indeed (capital L). Father Thomas Keating writes, “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of small humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated [as] we keep getting closer and closer to our Center”—the place where God dwells within us as redeemed people.

Oftentimes it is suffering that initiates the necessary “evacuations”; even Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8).

Sweet Surrender

The goal of the Christian journey is surrender—the ability to trust God with our whole selves and our very lives—rather than relying on attempts to achieve safety and security, affection and approval, power and control, satisfaction and fulfillment on our own terms. It is an increasing capacity to be given over to the love and the will of God in radical trust, just as Jesus was, regardless of outer circumstances.

This necessary suffering leads to new life as the authentic self that God created, that God knows so intimately and that God invites to live free and unencumbered in his presence. We emerge from this experience able to walk in newness of life and union with God in the places where we had been resisting surrender.  Finally, we are free.

This is the married couple who has been through an infidelity and–having stayed with one another and allowed their illusion of the perfect marriage to fall away–discover more honest selves and truer intimacy on the other side. There is something about them now that is so much more real as the light of God shines through them as earthen and earthy vessels.

This is the man whose wife has left him, and he must accept an unwanted divorce. As he struggles to accept the death of his dream of what his life would be, he quietly speaks of a newfound intimacy with God that never would have been possible while he was clinging to an ideal that didn’t exist.

This is the woman who loses a job she had allowed to define her; in the aftermath she realizes that she never could have discovered her over-identification with her work until it was gone. Now she moves with freedom and ease because what she suffered created space for her to find her truest identity in God. Now she knows that nothing she does externally will affect her basic identity.

This is the parents who oriented their whole lives around their hope that their children would turn out a certain way, and when a child makes heartbreaking mistakes and squanders opportunity, they are able to let go and trust God—finally—with what is most precious to them. Even though they care deeply for their child, they also know that whatever happens, they will be OK in God.

This is the person who discovers he has cancer, and after denying and being angry and arguing with God, he is finally able to let go of willfulness and allow God to be in control of his destiny.

Resurrection People

Was it not necessary for the Messiah and for us to “suffer all these things” in order to enter into the “glory” of being with God in some new and more complete way? Yes. Would we wish suffering on ourselves or anyone else? No. Do we grieve whatever losses there might have been? Yes, of course we do. But are we walking around now as resurrected people because we have lost our life in order to find it?

You’d better believe it!

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2021. This article is adapted from Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community (InterVarsity Press, 2014.)

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Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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I have always had great affection for Cleopas and his companion – their journey to Emmaus was filled with deep feeling, heartbreak, and finally joy and fulfillment. Expectations can have a controlling influence on reality, and they were finally able to release that. I find such encouragement in their willingness to ‘see’ Jesus as he is, finally, in spite of their expectations. Two of the people I want to meet early on when I get there!

Brad and Kit, It is so meaningful to hear from our alums and how these posts keep us connected on the journey. Both comments are such lovely articulations of how these truths are being experienced by real people who are on their own road between the now and the not-yet. Thank you!

As I near the end of experiencing Transforming Community #16 I find that your constant invitation to be with Christ to know him and become like Him is shaping my soul, not just my thoughts.The experience of cancer, followed by TC16 has brought me from sailing along, skimming the surface, to a deep dive into Living Water. Thank you for offering your voice to “the other” walking the road. I so appreciate how your writing puts words to my inner experience with God.

Ruth, what you’ve said here is literally the heart of the gospel. Thank you for sharing it so clearly and beautifully. I pray that we as the Church and we as Christ followers can more fully embrace the depth and beauty of this truth for our own lives and for the lives of others. We need this! I need this! When I am able to trust God in those places of loss and suffering, when I’m able to die to the securities of my false self that I’ve hung onto for so long, only then can I truly experience the depth of the love and freedom God has for me. This has become even more apparent to me during a recent tumultuous season of my life. After many experiences of disillusionment, I hope I am becoming more able to understand that when these times come, they are not punishment from God but rather opportunities for more of what he has for me in my life. How grateful I am for you and your wise voice Ruth.

Thank you! Your posts are always an encouragment and filled with real life application.
Living and resting in newly found freedom. As you say in your post, was not easy but wouldn’t be who I am today without letting go of the not even real but false illusion of self that had to go. He showed me apart of myself that had to have His healing touch. Thank you to our Almighty Physician!
The joy of living a surrendered life and letting God love, mold and shape me for His glory is worth every bit pain that had to come.

I am going through the death of my ministry, but through it, though hard, am seeing false-realties of God and self that I had and that are being resurrected to be true-me and true God realities. Its a journey that is as they say here in Spain “Vale la Pena!” (Worth the pain)

Thank you for giving us this phrase–“worth the pain.” Yes it is!

The quote from Thomas Keating resonates with my experience in the last three years. I have been dismayed by the revelations of the self-life that have been occurring. So I find it encouraging that Keating says it is “a series of small humiliations that become more and more profound.”
Since the government contract through which I had my job ended, I have been appalled to see so many actions and reactions of mine that do not show the Christ-life. Illness came within months of the loss and has culminated in major surgery in April with the resulting required recovery time. I have had to ask for help. I have needed to receive. I have had to withdraw from volunteer work I love.
As a parent, I watch in sorrow the ongoing addiction of an adult child.
I attempt to let go of expectations that have never been fulfilled. I attempt to accept the things I cannot change and to bask in the presence of Christ. To release myself in the present to do what I can, not what I can’t.
Thank you for this article and for making this available to lay people who have benefited from your work & your books.

Beautiful description of exactly what this article is talking about. Bless you.

thank you for this article. As I age, I notice how this happens in very small ways,
like surrendering in an argument, or overlooking when
someone may “slight” me. It’s still a struggle at times, but
it does bring me closer to joy when I “get it”.

Yes, “closer to joy.” I like that.

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