One of the things I have learned on my journey is that there are no formulas for life. There may be formulas in mathematics and in other disciplines – but in life there are no formulas. Yet we yearn for formulas. “Just tell me what to do,” we say. We want the three step plan to success or the ten sure ways to create wealth, or the five steps to being content. The people that come up with formulas for life are usually looking at what worked for them and then trying to get others to replicate what they have done. The theory is that if you do what I did – your results will be the same as mine. But… you are not me and I am not you. If God is creative enough (which He is) to create each of us as a unique human being – then he is certainly creative enough to give each of us a unique path to walk on. I can learn from you and you can learn from me – but you can’t live my life and I can’t live your life.
If there were formulas for life – we would figure out the formulas and then we wouldn’t need God – we would think that we have this thing called life figured out. But that is not to be. My experiences may help you and your experiences may help me (and maybe they won’t) but I cannot tell you step by step what to do – because your situation is different from mine and your life is different than mine. There may be enough similarities that we might be able to help each other in certain situations – but you cannot live my life (nor do you want to) and I cannot live your life (nor do I want to).
The concept that there are no formulas points to another concept that is related – it is very dangerous to think that you know – especially as it applies to life. I am not saying that there are no facts that we can know – that would be foolishness. What I am saying is that when we take our life experiences and all that we have learned about life and then make absolutes out of those experiences and learnings we are dangerous. We are dangerous because we think we know – we stop being open to new things that are in front of us to learn – we stop seeing things and situations from different perspectives (we think that our perspective is the only correct one). Taken out to its logical end – we close our ears and our eyes and our minds and start to judge people that have had different experiences than us. We think that we have a lock on some aspect of the truth – when we don’t.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in chapter 13 verse 8 says “for now we know in part”. Even the things that I KNOW in my heart (see know versus KNOW) I only KNOW in part. I have only touched the TRUTH – I do not KNOW the depths of anything. So even though there are things that I KNOW in my heart – if I think that I have a corner on KNOWING – I must go back to verse 8 – for now we know in part. It would be an act of arrogance on my part to think that I can tell others what to do in a specific situation or what to believe, or how to interpret a book like the Bible that is full of living words. If my journey through life has been one that I can share with another person and that person can be helped because they can learn something from my experience and learning – then we both grow. We want everything in nice neat boxes (formulas) – if I do this in my life I will get this result. But life is not in formulas – life is in being, life is in living, life is in the present.
The people that share things in formulas (steps – things to do) are sincere in what they are doing. They have experienced something and come to some kind of desirable outcome. They have put what they have learned into “step” form and that is a sincere effort to share what they experienced and where the experience brought them. But they are created differently than you. You do not have the same background, you do not have the same experiences – if you follow their steps exactly – you will not have the same outcome – it might be similar and it might even, at times, seem to be the same – but it won’t be the same – because you are a unique individual.
The Divine Conspiracy
Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God
By Dallas Willard ©1997
Not only is the outcome of our progression in the kingdom not under our control, but we are not told in any systematic way how to do our part in the process. Well, at least we are not told in precise terms – certainly not in formulas. This is because the process is to be a walk with a person. But it is also because what is needed is very much an individual matter, a response to the particular needs of individual disciples. Perfectly general instructions simply cannot be given. That is why we do not find them in the Bible. Its “wisdom” books, especially Psalms and Proverbs, come as close as possible.
In addition to implementing whatever is necessary to achieve the two primary objectives of the curriculum – enthralling the mind with God and breaking the power of evil in our bodies – individual disciples will, at least in some cases, require individualized direction and help to deal with particular teachings of Jesus. For example, suppose you are someone who is struggling with the command to lay aside anger or to stop being contemptuous of others.
The key in such cases is to aim at the heart and its transformation. We want to “make the tree good.” We do not aim just to control behavior, but to change the inner castle of the soul, that God may be worshipped “in spirit and truth” and right behavior cease to be a performance.
We want to become the kind of person who is not dominated by anger and who truly loves and respects others. And we want to assist others in that transition. This means, of course, that the teaching cannot be captured by rules: for example, “Never say someone is a fool,” “Always give in.” “Never go to court,” and so forth. You could follow such rules and still be filled with anger, or not follow them on appropriate occasions and be completely filled with love.
It is about being and not about doing that come for the sake of doing. When we “do” things because we are following the rules that we have formulated – we are following the letter of the law. When our doing flows from our being – being in love – being in the love of God – then we are led of the spirit and our doing is appropriate for the present circumstance.
It is crucial to understand that this point applies to all of Jesus’ teachings.
If we miss this point we cannot help but fall into the worst kind of dead legalism. We can be sure that trying to follow Jesus’ teachings will then ruin our lives. We have all experienced so much well intentioned meanness in our lives, by those who felt “responsible” and wanted us to be responsible, that Jesus, as the best-intended, will be experienced as the meanest in his “laws.” The root of true Christlikeness will then be destroyed.
Selections from His Essential Writings
Harper Collins Spiritual Classics
Foreword by John O’Donohue
So let every man keep to his own pious practices; let him mix in it any other practice, accepting into what he does everything that is good. To change from one to another makes for instability in one’s piety and in one’s intention. What one such practice could give you, you could also obtain from another, if they are both good and praiseworthy and have only God as their intention; everyone cannot follow one single way.
The Way to Love
The last meditations of Anthony De Mello
© 1992 by J. Francis Stroud
Page 93 – In the things that really matter, life, love, reality, God, no one can teach you a thing. All they can do is give you formulas. And as soon as you have a formula, you have reality filtered through the mind of someone else. If you take those formulas you will be imprisoned. You will wither and when you come to die you will not have known what it means to see for yourself, to learn.
If we “figure life out” and have an answer for everything – an answer for what to do in every situation – real life will cease and we will begin sleeping through life – “knowing” answers to all situations – giving advice – counseling ourselves and others and bringing death – because we will think we know – when in fact all we have are a set of rules and we don’t really KNOW.
Is there any way you can know that what you are in touch with is Reality? Here is one sign: What you perceive does not fit into any formula whether given by another or created by yourself. It simply cannot be put into words. So what can teachers do? They can bring to your notice what is unreal, they cannot show you Reality; they can destroy your formulas, they cannot make you see what the formula is pointing to; they can indicate your error, they cannot put you in possession of the TRUTH. They can, at the most, point in the direction of Reality, they cannot tell you what to see. You will have to walk out there all alone and discover for yourself.
To walk alone – that means to walk away from every formula – the ones given to you by others, the ones you learned from books, the one that you yourself invented in the light of your own past experience. That is possibly the most terrifying thing a human being can do: move into the unknown, unprotected by any formula. To walk away from the world of human beings as the prophets and mystics did is not to walk away from their company but from their formulas. Then, even though you are surrounded by people, you are truly and utterly alone. What an awesome solitude! That solitude, that aloneness is Silence. It is only this Silence that you will see. And the moment you see you will abandon every book and guide and guru.
After you have seen [something], someone may attempt to help you put your vision into words but you will shake your head – No, not that – that’s just another formula. Someone else will attempt to explain the meaning of what you saw and you will shake your head again because meaning is a formula, something that can be put into concepts and makes sense to the thinking mind, and what you saw is beyond all formulas, all meaning. And a strange change will come about in you, barely perceptible at first but radically transforming. Because having seen you will never be the same again. You will feel the exhilarating freedom, the extraordinary confidence that comes from knowing that every formula, no matter how sacred, is worthless; and you will never again call anyone your teacher.
The sharing of formulas does not enrich the sharers, for formulas like the walls of wells divide; only the unrestricted ocean unites. But to arrive at this ocean of truth that is unbounded by formulas, it is essential to have the gift of clear thinking.
Blue Like Jazz
Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality
By Don Miller © 2003
I love how the Gospels start, with John the Baptist eating bugs and baptizing people. The religious people started getting baptized because it had become popular, and John yells at them and calls them snakes. He says the water won’t do anything for them, it will only get their snakeskins wet. But if they meant it, if they had faith that Jesus was coming and was real, then Jesus would ignite the kingdom of life within them. I love that because for so long religion was my false gospel. But there no magic in it, no wonder, no awe, no kingdom life burning in my chest. And when I get tempted by that same stupid Christian religion, I go back to the beginning of the Gospels and am comforted that there is something more than the emptiness of ritual. God will ignite the kingdom life within me, the Bible says. That’s mysticism. It isn’t a formula that I am figuring out. It is something God does.
God is so creative beyond what we can imagine that he has made each human being unique – there is not a duplicate of any of us walking on the earth. If he is creative beyond our comprehension and he has created each of us uniquely, it makes sense (if it is possible to use logic to deal with the unknowable) that we each have a unique path to walk. The general direction we walk is towards him – but the path is unique. We want formulas – God wants our hearts. Formulas are a mind thing – having a heart that yearns to be with God and where that heart takes you can never be reduced to a formula. We can share our experiences with God and what happened to us in certain situations – that might be helpful for others – but we cannot write rules and formulas based on what happened to us – but we write them anyway.
I think we have two choices in the face of such big beauty: terror or awe. And this is precisely why we attempt to chart God, because we want to be able to predict Him, to dissect Him, to carry Him around in our dog and pony show. We are too proud to feel awe and too fearful to feel terror. We reduce Him to math so we don’t have to fear Him, and yet the Bible tells us fear is the appropriate response, that it is the beginning of wisdom.
We want God in a box. It is so dangerous to think that we know. We want formulas – we want to know God in our minds and God wants us to KNOW Him in our hearts. We want to be able to predict God – to calculate the variables in an equation and know the outcome – but God cannot be reduced to equations that we can solve – how arrogant we are to think that we can comprehend God and put Him in a box. You cannot know the unknowable. There are no formulas – there is only God and your being with God. You don’t know where being with God will take you. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom – when you understand that you cannot put God in a box – that you cannot have him “your way” and that you don’t know where your journey will take you and you start to learn about holding results lightly – then you will be transformed by the living God.
Too much of our time is spent trying to chart God on a grid, and too little is spent allowing our hearts to feel awe. By reducing Christian spirituality to formula, we deprive our hearts of wonder.
By reducing Christian spirituality to formula – we think we can control our lives and we think we can control God. We are so arrogantly foolish. One of the keys to life is found in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Paul says “I have learned to be content in all circumstances…” Do we KNOW in our hearts that God is good? Do we KNOW that if we follow after Him that he will work all things together for good? Do we KNOW that if the results are not what we wanted or desired – that God is still on the throne and that he is working all things together for good? Do we KNOW that if we are never healed – God is still working all things together for good and that we can trust in him?
At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.
Life is not about doing. Life is about being – being with God. There are no formulas. There are no equations to solve. There is my life and there is God. No matter what the outcome – I am compelled to follow after God.
New Seeds of Contemplation
By Thomas Merton © 1961
The contemplation of which I speak here is not philosophical. It is not the static awareness of metaphysical essences apprehended as spiritual objects, unchanging and eternal. It is not the contemplation of abstract ideas. It is the religious apprehension of God, through my life in God, or through “sonship” as the New Testament says, “For whoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God… The Spirit Himself gives testimony to our own spirit that we are the sons of God.” “To as many as received Him He gave the power to become the sons of God…” And so the contemplation of which I speak is a religious and transcendent gift. It is not something we can attain alone, by intellectual effort, by perfecting our natural powers. It is not a kind of self-hypnosis, resulting from concentration on our own inner spiritual being. It is not the fruit of our own efforts. It is the gift of God Who, is in His mercy, completes the hidden and mysterious work of creation in us by enlightening our minds and hearts, by awakening in us the awareness that we words spoken in His One Word, and that Creating Spirit (Creator Spiritus) dwells in us, and we in Him. That we are “in Christ” and that Christ lives in us. That the natural life in us has been completed, elevated, transformed and fulfilled in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Contemplation is the awareness and realization, even in some sense experience, of what each Christian obscurely believes: “It is now no longer I that live but Christ lives in me.”
We cannot move to a higher level in Christ, in God, by our own efforts. There is no formula – there is only being. Who we are in the very fiber of our being – is the question. Who am I Lord? You are the “I AM” but I don’t understand that. If Christ lives in me and I no longer live, then “I AM” and the question becomes the answer. I don’t need to understand – I just need to be. Being in love – is a different concept with you God. I think of other people when I think of “being in love” – but it is different with You Lord. Being is being. Because you are Love – being in love is being in your presence. Living my life in your presence is the true act of being in love. I am not there. I want to be with You Lord.
The Perils and Opportunities of Reality
By Anthony De Mello © 1990
Page 56 – How Happiness Happens
Come home to yourself. Observe yourself. That’s why I said earlier that self-observation is such a delightful and extraordinary thing. After a while you don’t have to make any effort, because, as illusions begin to crumble, you begin to know things that cannot be described. It’s called happiness. Everything changes and you become addicted to awareness.
That’s what it is to watch yourself. No one can show you how to do it, because he would be giving you a technique, he would be programming you.
There are no formulas. There is God. There is reality. There is only a journey.
Truth cannot be put into words, into a formula. That isn’t truth. That isn’t reality. Reality cannot be put into a formula.
There are no formulas. God is creative enough to create each of us uniquely. If he is that creative, He is also creative enough to give each of us a unique path to walk on. If we each have a unique path to walk on, then, by definition, there cannot be formulas. We can be there for each other to give encouragement along the way, but we cannot live the life of someone else and they cannot live our life. There are markers along our journey, but my markers are not necessarily your markers.
As soon as you look at the world through an ideology you are finished. No reality fits an ideology. Life is beyond that. That is why people are always searching for a meaning to life. But life has no meaning; it cannot have meaning because meaning is a formula; meaning is something that makes sense to the mind.
Meaning is only found when you go beyond meaning. Life only makes sense when you perceive it as mystery and it makes no sense to the conceptualizing mind.