URC :: Spirituality

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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

The freedom of being wrong

Mark Argent
9 August 2018

There’s a profound freedom in claiming the space to be wrong. That might be a problem for a surgeon or an accountant, but in prayer it offers real gifts.

Very often it’s in seeking out the places of deepest freedom that the space to encounter God is opened up. Paradoxically, the freedom to get things wrong, by liberating people from the pressure not to make mistakes, creates the freedom to encounter God, even if the actual prayer doesn’t follow any accepted guidelines.

Talking with the participants on a recent weekend of cooking and spirituality I found myself saying that one of the consequences of being a member of a small denomination is that I can’t suggest that my church is right, or the only church. This is a real blessing, because it’s a constant reminder that God as approached through my URC heritage — for all its riches — can’t possibly be the whole story. It’s a gentle nudge that God is always more than we think.

My sense is that a similar sentiment lies beneath the commitment of all the mainstream churches to ecumenism. From time to time — usually when things are particularly pressured — we lapse into denominational bunkers, but for the most part we all recognise that no one church in isolation has a monopoly on God. It’s as though the good spirit gently nudges us to be aware that there are insights outside as well as inside our own churches, and the bad spirit uses moments of crisis to try to cut us off from that.

In the one-to-one context of spiritual direction, there is a convention that the director shouldn’t seek to impose their own doctrinal or spiritual perspectives on the directee. The most basic wisdom is that this stops a needy director from foisting their own stuff on the directee. More importantly, it gives both people the scope to discover new things by making mistakes. That’s not cavalier: if the desire is to enter deeply into the experience of God, then that desire alone is enough to make it likely to happen, provided there is the willingness to realise that the experience of God a person receives might not look like what they are expecting.

Interesting, if unhealthy, things happen when a director does start to impose their own position. The first casualty is an openness to change, as the director is seduced into holding their own position more tightly as they try to persuade. However the directee reacts, the director has lost some of their capacity to enter more deeply into an experience of God. It’s as though the pressure to be right quietly sidelines God.

If instead the director allows themself the freedom to be wrong, and puts in the extra effort of opening up new space and inviting the directee to explore rather than trying to give answers, then the dynamic is very different. Both people have the freedom to change and be changed. From the directee’s perspective, the greatest gift is often not what is explicitly learned from the director, but what is picked up from the director modelling the willingness to go deeper and an openness to change.

That has interesting implications for how we teach methods of prayer. If its done by implying that there is a “right” way to use a particular method, then the implication is that there is also a “wrong” way. In the fear of getting things “wrong” people risk losing the very freedom in which they are most likely to find God. This needn’t stop people talking about ways of praying, but is an encouragement for that to be an invitation to explore and discover.

There’s another layer beneath all of this. Genuine religious experience usually engages the unconscious at least as much as the conscious mind. It’s usually the conscious mind that gets hung up on the need to be right and the fear of being wrong. Allowing the space to be wrong is a very effective way of engaging what is beyond a person’s conscious control. It’s to give space to the deeper unconscious space where the richest experiences of God are rooted.

I look as an outsider at the three vows made by people in religious life — poverty, chastity and obedience. My sense is that they are not automatically positive, but can be lived in a way which becomes life-giving. The vow of obedience, at its best, is about contradicting the ego’s desire to be in control, so that these deeper places of religious experience may have precedence. It’s interesting to see a deeply-rooted tradition at the heart of Christianity where people put themselves into the position of non-dominance, of not being able to be “right”, in order to enter more deeply into God.

There might be a parallel with what happens when people pray through painting. It’s one thing for a person to paint what they set out to paint, but rather more interesting things happen when the painting goes wrong or takes off in an unexpected direction. If someone has the freedom to go where the painting is taking them, the results can be really fascinating. It’s surprising how often the painting that “accidentally” goes “wrong”, is in touch with the space a person will be in a few days later. It’s as though allowing things to go “wrong” allows the conscious thinking process to be sidelined so that deeper things can emerge. The freedom to go “wrong” becomes the freedom to explore new and life-giving territory.

Whatever else happens, there is a delicious excitement in discovering that the freedom to be “wrong” can open up whole new experiences of God.