Spiritual Colonoscopy

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, March 1, 2012

Spiritual Colonoscopy

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death.  The risk of dying with it is cut dramatically by a simple colonoscopy that explores the large intestine, from the lowest part (the rectum) all the way through colon to the lower end of the small intestine.  During the process the physician may biopsy tissue and/or remove polyps. 

So why do millions who should have one (and it is recommended for anyone age fifty and older, and then every few years thereafter) avoid it?

It’s not the procedure itself.  It only takes 10-45 minutes, 2-3 hours from start to finish.  You are sedated so there is no pain or discomfort – in fact, no real memory of the event at all.

So why the avoidance?  Who wouldn’t want precancerous polyps removed, or a life-threatening disease caught early enough for treatment?

Because the preparation is unpleasant.

Five days before you have to eliminate various medications, such as Tylenol, as well as vitamin supplements.

Three days before you have to stop eating such things as corn, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, raw fruits, seeds and nuts.

The day before your procedure you are not allowed solid foods, but only clear liquids.  You also have to drink four liters of a powerful laxative that clears out your colon so that you can be properly examined.

The day of the procedure you are not allowed to eat or drink anything.

That is why people don’t get a colonoscopy.  We will face the risk of fatal cancer rather than go to the bathroom.

Which brings to mind the importance, and frequent avoidance, of a spiritual colonoscopy.  I know.  It’s probably the first time those words have ever been joined together. 

But hang with me.

Throughout Christian history, there has been an abiding awareness that we need times of radical spiritual purging, deep personal exploration, followed by radical cleansing and even surgery.  The process goes by such names as fasting, silence, solitude, spiritual direction and repentance.

Through these practices we sensitize ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit, empty ourselves of the dulling effect of food and drink, open ourselves to the voice of God and purify ourselves of deeply rooted sin.

Consider something as pivotal as solitude. 

Though often marked by physical isolation, the goal is not so much a place as it is a state of mind, one where there is – in the ancient Celtic sense – an “inner attentiveness to God” alone.  Solitude provides the necessary separation from our environments that affords objectivity and fresh awareness of the deepest realities and priorities of life.  For good reason, Henri Nouwen called it “the furnace of transformation,” and Thomas Kelly the “recreating silences.”  Drawing again from the Celtic tradition, these become our “thin places,” with the accompanying “thin times.” The Celts believed that the other world was always close to us, but that it was during these times and places that we were alone with God that it became apparent and the veil was lifted. 

So why don’t we do this?

Because it, too, can be unpleasant.

As I once wrote in Serious Times, in truth, I do not always want to go deep.  It is easier – far easier - to live my life on the surface waters of communion with God.  Going deep with God, as with anyone, is demanding, difficult, time consuming; calling for intentionality and discipline, purpose and drive.  Like most, I know there is more, but I have often found myself to be inconsistent – or unwilling – with the effort. 

Yet this is the problem. 

“Superficiality is the curse of our age,” writes Richard J. Foster.  “The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem.  The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” 

This is what Thomas Kelly wrote so profoundly of in A Testament of Devotion, noting that we are to live life on two levels – the level of hurried activity, and then the life of the interior world.  The dilemma is that many of us only choose to inhabit the first level.  The frantic race through life becomes the only plane of existence in which we operate, or from which we draw. 

And it is a very shallow well.

As my doctor told me, while preparing for a colonoscopy is unpleasant, consider the unpleasant alternatives. 

Or at least, the superficial ones.

James Emery White



James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).

Esther de Waal, Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition.

Henri J. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart.

Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion.

Timothy Joyce, Celtic Christianity: A Sacred Tradition, A Vision of Hope.

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline.


Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president.  His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Spiritual Colonoscopy