Finding “THE ONE”!

A “special friend” wasn’t on my agenda. I’d worked hard to earn my school fees to become a teacher. My dorm mate had a boyfriend of long standing, and said I needed one too. I was scared of boys. I was the youngest of four girls – with no brothers. Watching others with special friends, I sensed I was missing out on something. When they spoke about their boyfriends, I described my imaginary boyfriend. But a make-believe relationship is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Then it happened. I “fell in love” with a very impressive student. He looked good, spoke well in public, had a great smile, and was an active Christian, which was important to me. But how do you start a friendship with someone whom you don’t know and who doesn’t know you? My helpful dorm mate said I needed to be around when he was, maybe talk casually to him, and just be friendly, but that was almost impossible for me. I was scared that if I talked to him, he would find out what I was really like – just a shy, plain girl, and that would be the end of it. So for the next few months, I lived in a make-believe world, imagining Josh as my boyfriend, but I never spoke to him, and he never became my special friend. I was so scared of him getting to know me, that when I saw him walking to the cafeteria, I would go in the other direction to avoid him!

A year later, I started to enjoy the company of David, who later became my husband. Unlike the previous pretend relationship, this one was real and based on open communication. The process of getting to know each other without shame or pretence seemed to be the most natural and enjoyable thing in the world.

Getting to know God was also meant to be the most natural and comfortable thing to do. But where to start? A few years ago, a group of 120 university students from 40 countries started out on an adventure. During the 10-week course, and for the next two years, the participants were researched, and 2,100 pages of data collected.1

It was found that students grew personally and spiritually in many different ways. They were grateful for life-changing attitudes, perceptions, and habits. This class gave them the chance to get to know God personally, to see how He acts, and in the process they learned a lot about themselves and others. Many regarded this class as the highlight of their university experience. A combination of four factors contributed to this outcome.

Factor 1: The day retreat

The class began with a day retreat, with three specially-chosen Bible passages for personal reflection and journaling. Students saw God’s involvement in their past, present, and future. For 45 minutes, they individually read the first passage, asked God for His guidance, then reflected and wrote down their thoughts. This was followed for the next 45 minutes by sharing in groups of four same-gender students. This format was repeated for the other two passages. (See sidebar for retreat passages and questions.)

A new picture of God

The role of the Holy Spirit as teacher and guide cannot be underestimated. By the end of the day, a new picture of God was emerging. Many felt that for the first time in their lives, God had spoken to them personally. Some were impressed with aspects of God’s character that describe His dealings with humankind – His graciousness, goodness, generosity, patience, sharing, and love, while others were grateful for His saving acts of redemption, mercy, restoration, and forgiveness. Some focused on present relational aspects of His character – “He knows me, accepts me, thinks about me, understands me, is interested in me, and is my friend.” Others traced the long-term, personal interest that God has had in their lives. Still others gained a new appreciation for the greatness of God as they contemplated the attributes of immensity. In almost all cases, these attributes were described in the context of His personal interest and involvement with humankind.

In response to their new view of God, students spoke of a longing to celebrate life with Him, wanting to draw closer to God, and frequently mentioned their sense of need to spend more time with God, to reflect on His goodness, to accomplish His purpose, to cultivate His friendship, to abide in His presence, and to trust Him more. Thus the students were ready to learn more about developing authentic two-way communication with God.

Factor 2: Learning about “relationship enhancers”

The class lectures that followed the retreat gave practical examples of how to incorporate a variety of devotional practices into a daily relationship with God. These practices are often called “spiritual disciplines,” but the term can be misleading. Since special friends never refer to time set aside for each other as a “discipline” and since the purpose of engaging in these practices is to build the relationship, I prefer to use the term “relationship enhancers.” (See sidebar for a description of these). Jon Dybdahl’s Hunger: Satisfying the Longing of Your Soul2 describes these devotional habits in more detail, giving many practical ways of incorporating them into your daily devotional time.

As a result of learning new ways to spend time with God, boring worship turned into times of anticipation and joy. New concepts of God invigorated and refreshed corporate worship so that instead of being a ritual to endure, worship became a Person to adore. Instead of passive attendance at a church service, worship was seen as an active gift of gratitude brought by those who know Him.

Factor 3: Practicing the “relationship enhancers”

Students were asked to set aside a minimum of three hours per week for developing their relationship with God. They were to choose a Bible book and meditate on one or two verses each day. As they wrote their new perceptions of God, students also began to see themselves in new and different ways. With honesty and authenticity, they saw their superficial, defective lives. Yet, at the same time, they spoke of renewed confidence from God’s presence and promises that “despite defects and folly, if I keep my eyes on Him, He will show me the way and change my heart.”

Despite some initial resistance to the recording of their devotional time each week, many testified to its value in terms of uncovering self-deception and encouraging habits of consistency. At the end of the class, many participants acknowledged that this daily practice had now become a permanent habit, and that the motive had changed from getting a grade to spending time with their best friend. Even having a weekly devotional plan was seen to be beneficial, as a previously “sporadic, hurried, unplanned activity became a joyful time which is planned and time-tabled.”

Factor 4: Sharing in small groups

The small groups helped to keep students on track with prayerful support, encouragement, and accountability. The weekly group meeting became a welcome respite from the frantic pace of university life, as the larger picture of life with God was reflected upon, and personal goals and dreams were shared. Since spiritual journaling is not easy in the beginning, some persistence may be necessary, and dialoguing with others regarding the process often helps.

Conclusion

Students respond to different spiritual formation experiences in different ways, which may be related to personal spiritual temperament,3 yet there is no substitute for setting aside planned time for communicating with God. Among many other findings, it was found that previous struggles with witnessing disappeared once people knew how to spend time with God, because they now had a firsthand experience to share with others.

A relationship with God or finding that “special friend” does not come automatically.

Those who enjoy swimming will tell you that their love of the water did not come by listening to others talk about their experience; it resulted from jumping into water and getting wet! Similarly, talking about a relationship with God is not the same as getting to know Him. Why not start today?

Carol M. Tasker (Ph.D., Andrews University) teaches in the Department of Educational Studies, Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Philippines. E-mail: ctasker@aiias.edu.

Notes

  1. C. M. Tasker, The Impact of Intentional Learning Experiences for Spiritual Formation on Seminary Students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, 2001, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
  2. Jon Dybdahl, Hunger: Satisfying the Longing of Your Soul (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2008).
  3. G. Thomas, Sacred Pathways (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000). Thomas describes nine different sacred pathways, which seem to influence the types of activities people enjoy in relating to God.