Are there implications for Christian spiritual formation here?
I think yes.
The Christian tradition contains spiritual disciplines, or soul-training exercises that foster growth in Christ-like character and ongoing maturity in faith. These disciplines are wise practices that, if acted upon, open the possibility for change and transformation. They do not save. They do not put God in our debt. They do not elevate our standing with God. Dallas Willard said, helpfully, that God’s grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Earning is an attitude; effort is an action. I like to say that the spiritual disciplines are a response. God lovingly moved toward us in acts of creation, covenant and redemption. Once graciously perceived, we are drawn toward God. Prayer, study, worship, service, and the other disciplines are invitations to the act of abiding, or dwelling, with God and paying attention to God’s presence and activity in our lives.
I’m a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and not only because my middle name is Arnold. I like action movies. I’ve also read Arnold’s autobiography and have sought to learn more about his life and career. He has been a surprising source of wisdom and insight, particularly in respect to the principles he has identified as underpinning his success. Body building is a physical activity that has clear, identifiable connections between actions and results. The sport became a school for Arnold, teaching him about reality.
One of those lessons: the importance of reps. A vision or goal, informed by an understanding of causal dynamics, followed by a plan, accompanied by actions and the right means, leads to results. You can have a dream. You can have a sober assessment of where you stand in the present. To realize a dream, you need steps, or means. You have to perform actions, or take the steps. And if the vision is clear and the means are properly aligned, you’ll progress toward the vision.
Arnold’s body was not built in a day. It took time. Years. It took commitment. There were setbacks. Most great journeys have them. Our path is not always clear, straight, or easy. But it is possible to move from point A to point B.
In the Christian spiritual journey toward maturity the first step is developing a vision, a clear picture of God and of life with God. I have found it helpful to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, and develop a clear picture of Jesus. Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” A study of the Trinity, which would broaden contemplation and include the Father and the Holy Spirit, would expand and sharpen our vision of God. But the Son is a wonderful place to begin.
As I’ve grasped the attributes of Jesus, including what he was like and the kinds of things he would do and say, I’ve looked more closely at how he lived, who he was around, and what his words and the things he did reveal to us about his thinking, attitude, and disposition of heart. After making discoveries, I’ve prayed, “God, I’d like that to be true of me.” I have asked God to teach me patterns of thought, feeling, and embodied action displayed in Jesus. In the same way a body builder learns about physical reality through training, so too does a Christian pilgrim learn about spiritual reality through the journey of spiritual formation and discipleship.
This has led me into practice of prayer, study, fellowship, worship, service, simplicity, and more. Christians believe we are not alone in this venture. The indwelling Spirit leads us into all truth. Our bodies are incorporated into Christ’s body; Christ lives in us (Galatians 2:20). We have received God’s rich blessing and have been given access to the Father in the heavenly places through Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-10). If you desire maturity in faith, ask God. Growth may not unfold as you envision or anticipate. But you will have entered the school of the kingdom, placing yourself in the hands of the Great Teacher. The work God begins in you will be brought to completion (Philippians 1:6). Give it time. Take it step by step.
Every rep taken is an act of faith. It is an offering. Enlivened and infused by God’s grace, our actions draw us nearer to God and the prospect of a more godly life.
Last month I did one hundred push ups a day. Thirty-one days in May. Three thousand, one hundred push ups total.
I made the commitment on a whim. It had been a while since I’d been in the habit of doing push ups. So I started with sets of ten or twenty, kept tallies in my daily journal. Keeping tallies is a technique I borrowed from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said “There are no shortcuts. Everything is reps, reps, reps.” Not only did he keep count of reps when he was a bodybuilder. He would put tallies at the top of his speeches when he was Governor of California to keep track of how many times he had practiced his delivery.
And I’ve kept it up. I even increased my daily count to 150. It’s a daily habit that helps me build muscle and maintain a basic level of fitness.
Push ups are just one part of my overall program.
In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers writes, “No one is born either naturally or supernaturally with character; it must be developed. Nor are we born with habits— we have to form godly habits on the basis of the new life God has placed within us.”
Habits must also be cultivated which develop character, bringing forth the fruit of salvation God has granted through the completed work of Jesus Christ and the present power of the Holy Spirit.
To have faith is to believe, to trust, to declare allegiance to God. To then exercise that faith is to act in accordance with what one professes to believe. One way to exercise faith is to develop daily habits of holiness, ways of engaging with God and relating to others that develop the character of Christ in us.
Back in 2009, I found myself in a seminar with Smith during a Renovare’ conference in San Antonio. Jim told us, “Tonight, when you go to your hotel, I want you to pray the 23rd psalm as you fall asleep. Don’t set an alarm. Sleep until you wake up, even if that results in your being late to our morning session.”
Sleep is a Need, Not a Luxury
When we’re sleep deprived, our lives don’t work right. Sleep deprivation has physical effects. And those physical effects have emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual consequences. The various dimensions of the human person are connected.
At one time or another, you’ve probably thought that if only you could sleep less, you’d get so much more done. Or that you could just borrow time by sleeping one hour less tonight and one more hour tomorrow night. As enticing as these may seem, they’re not borne out by research. Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild sleep reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine (for example going to be late one night, sleeping in the next morning) can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward. When professional basketball players got ten hours of sleep a night, their performance improved dramatically: Free-throw and three-point shooting each improved by 9%.
p. 189, emphasis mine
Levitin’s book is focused on brain science and how we deal with information overload. A big way we can help our brains keep things straight is by organizing our time, activity, and environment in ways that support cognitive well-being. This includes how we schedule sleep.
Regular Sleep is Good Stewardship
The implications for the spiritual life are plain. Jim Smith is right: sleep is cornerstone exercise for the training of the soul. As human beings we are finite and limited. But God is not. Each time we lay down to rest, we trust God to care for us and watch over us during the night. We also trust, and welcome, that moment when God raises us up for another day to serve, to grow, and to walk in relationship with God and others.
Over the summer months our office revisits our past year of experiences in Truett’s Spiritual Formation courses. We review student feedback and think about our core objectives and overall approach. The courses have different components, and different points of focus within each component. Keeping everything clear is a challenge.
For the coming year, we’ve designated three primary spaces in each course: Teaching, Covenant Group, and Canvas.
The teaching space is led by an instructor, either Professor Angela Reed or myself, and is focused on the application and practice of spiritual formation concepts and ideas in the life of the leader and the life of the community. Not only are we teaching key spiritual disciples and a theology of spiritual formation, we are helping students make connections to their lived experiences as disciples of Jesus as leaders and as part of the body of Christ. The key questions here are: “How does my understanding of spiritual formation and commitment to spiritual practices shape me as a leader?” and “How do these concepts and practices shape the life of the Christian community?”
The covenant group space is led by mentors. Covenant groups are subgroups within each spiritual formation course and consist of five to eight students. These groups focus on the spiritual disciples (or practices) and their experiences with those practices, building relationships in Christian fellowship, and providing accountability for one another.
Canvas is our designated space for written assignments and online community. In the online tool, Canvas, associated with our course, we use discussion prompts and discussion boards to invite student to reflect on their experiences and their reading, and to interact with one another after submitting an initial response. Our mentors and instructors also interact with students in this space.
In an effort to better explain the spiritual formation process, we’ve also created two more visual diagrams that represent differences in approaching the spiritual life from grace-based and guilt-motivated frameworks. First I’ll explain the guilt-motivated framework, and then I’ll say a few words about our grace-based perspective.
In our conversations with students and in our experiences in ministry, we’ve found that many have adopted a guilt-motivated approach to the spiritual life, one that is rooted in misunderstandings of the Christian gospel and subtle (and sometimes overt) shifts toward a works-righteousness way of sanctification. Students are often clear that they are justified by grace, but struggle to see how grace continues to be the dynamism at play in spiritual growth.
Years ago I heard John Ortberg give a talk wherein he talked about a guilt spiral, an approach to the spiritual life where people hear about various ways of connecting with God and, after being compelled, they give it a try. After trying a while, they get tired and fail, and as a result they quit. But then as time passes and they hear more sermons and exhortations to be “doing” certain things, the guilt accrues and becomes too much to bear, and as a result trying begins again, only to repeat the whole cycle over again, spiraling down and down in defeat.
A guilt-motivation approach to spirituality, given enough time, deadens the soul. We need an alternative, a way of approaching the spiritual life that is undergirded, informed, and animated by grace. It is God working in and through us, even as we commit and decide to follow after Jesus Christ.
Professor Reed speaks about this process as a spiral, and our key words recast our understanding of growth.
First, we commit to act. We do the things that Jesus has called us to do. This draws together many streams within the Christian tradition, including the contemplative and activist streams. Our actions are done in response to the calling of Jesus and in line with our tradition.
After taking action, we reflect on what took place. What did we think? How did we feel? What happened? What went right? What went terribly wrong? What was helpful? What was unhelpful? Where was God? Where were the points of resistance? What adjustments are possible? What did I discover about myself?
Then, we learn. We pay attention to our answers and make note of our new knowledge, which includes knowledge of God, self, and our world.
Finally, we refine. We look ahead to our next action–whether it be prayer, fasting, service, sabbath, or some other action taken with God–and prepare to engage from our new point of growth.
This process also spirals, but in a virtuous way. Experience deepens and knowledge deepens.
Our models are in process. We’re constantly listening and discerning and seeking new and better ways to connect truths about the spiritual life to our students as they find themselves today. But these models are a good start, a good foundation, and reflect concepts that we will explore in the year to come.
Shinrin-yoku literally translates to “forest bathing” or taking in the atmosphere of the forest, and refers to soaking up the sights, smells, and sounds of a natural setting to promote physiological and psychological health. The term was first coined in 1982 but, today, millions of Japanese walk along forty-eight “forest therapy” trails, to get their dose of what I guess could be labeled “outdoorphins.”
Fans of shinrin-yoku explain that it differs from hiking because it is about taking everything in and stimulating all our senses, and because it focuses on the therapeutic senses.
Professor Qing Li at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo has studied the effect of shinrin-yoku and found that this practice reduces the levels of cortisol in the blood and boosts the immune system. But forest bathing may not be good only for our physical health. Researchers from the University of Essex have explored how being active in a natural setting affects our mood. Looking at ten different UK studies involving more than 1,200 people, the researchers found that taking part in activities like country walks, sailing, and gardening all had a positive effect on the mood and self-esteem of the participants. Overall, evidence is building that time spent in the natural world benefits human health.
I grew up with a forest right on the other side of my back fence, and spent my early adolescence walking the trails. Today I encourage my students to practice creation awareness as a spiritual discipline, to go outside and to look, listen, smell, touch, and taste, to experience that “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, based in Denmark. When we spend time outdoors, “nature has a positive effect on our health and happiness.” To try this out, Wiking suggests:
Find and explore a forest. Take it slowly and forget about what would make a nice Instagram picture. Instead, listen to the wind in the leaves, watch the sun bounce off the branches, take a deep breath, and see what smells you can detect. Try to visit the same spot several times a year, so you can appreciate how it changes over the seasons. Say hi to the first day of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Go alone or invite people to join you.
Leave your earbuds in the car. Put your phone away. Don’t worry about taking pictures. Open your eyes. Glean from Wiking’s wisdom. Then go one step further. I look at the natural world, and then look beyond it. I see the forest as creation, and then reflect on the Creator.
Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”
Paul was writing about food and drink. But the same can apply to the forest. Take a walk. Soak it in.
Being grateful to a Supreme Being and to other people is an acknowledgement that there are good and enjoyable things in the world to be enjoyed in accordance with the giver’s intent. Good things happen by design. If a person believes in the spiritual concept of grace, they believe that there is a pattern of beneficence in the world that exists quite independently of their own striving and even their own existence. Gratitude thus depends upon receiving what we do not expect to receive or have not earned or receiving more than we believe we deserve. This awareness is simultaneously humbling and elevating.
Emmons writes that gratitude increases spiritual awareness, promotes physical health, maximizes the good, protects against the negative, and strengthens relationships. It “frees us from ourselves,” though gratitude can be “hard and painful work.”
According to Emmons, to remain in the discipline of gratitude we must pay attention and actively remember what we have received that we are grateful for, which can be reinforced by practices like letter writing or keeping a journal, and through worship, particularly when our liturgies help us notice God’s activity and recall God’s faithfulness both past and present. God may have been active in our lives directly or through a neighbor. And signs of God’s faithfulness may be found in our lives today or through hearing the story of Scripture. Gratitude requires an “external focus.” A self-focused way of being inhibits gratitude.
Comedian George Carlin joked, “I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a whole lot more as they get older. Then it dawned on me – they’re cramming for their final exam.”
That may be true. It’s definitely funny. But it is misguided, at least insofar as it suggests there may be an entrance exam for eternity, or a minimum Bible reading requirement. God measures us not by what we know but who we know, by how we know the Father, and Jesus, the Son who was sent. We’re justified, or declared righteous, by faith in Jesus. But if we know him, God should see evidence of that relationship reflected in the content of our lives. The Bible is one resource that helps us know God better, so that we might walk with God more faithfully.
Many friends that I’ve made through the years have expressed interest in the Bible. They’ve been encouraged to read it. They’ve wanted to learn what is there, to understand the text, and to allow it to enrich their lives. But they’ve struggled to begin, or, once begun, they found it difficult to continue, or confusing in content. They understood that the Bible can help them grow in their spiritual life, but they struggled to understand how. And because they were unable to read the Bible profitably, they failed to make Bible reading a habit.
But that doesn’t have to be the case.
So how do we make it a habit? How can we read the Bible routinely and profitably, not only for knowledge of what it contains, but for knowledge of God?
I’m going to share ten pointers that have helped me. Throughout my years of study and in my practice of ministry, I’ve read the Bible from beginning to end a handful of times, and I’ve read select books more times than I could count, either for personal study or in preparation to teach. I’ve become more and more familiar with the story of Scripture by listening to sermons, reading books, and attending classes by learned instructors who helped me understand what I found in Scripture. I’ve also been to church as a matter of habit and through sermons, the public reading of the Bible, and in small group settings (like a Sunday school), I’ve been equipped to read the Bible with a measure of understanding.
I’m not done learning. But here is what I’ve learned, so far.
1. Acknowledge the Bible is not an Easy Book, but it is Understandable
The Bible is a collection containing sixty-six individual books–thirty-nine books in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, or First Testament) and twenty seven books in the New Testament. There are a number of genres among those books, including narrative, history, genealogy, poetry, allegory, apocalyptic, epistolary, prophetic literature, and wisdom writings. There are various authors, some known, and others unknown to us. These books span centuries. The Old Testament was written hundreds of years (or more) before the birth of Jesus, while the books of the New Testament were written between the 40s or 50s (at earliest) to the 90s (arguably) of the Common Era.
When you read the Bible you are reaching back across history, trying to understand language, culture, idiom, geography, and context that is different from our own. The Bible is not an easy book.
But it is understandable. Through reading the Bible we can access the thoughts and stories of those who recorded their experiences with God, and we can learn from those experiences. We can learn what God is like, how God relates to humankind, and how we are called to live in light of the reality of God and what has been done in and through Jesus. We can also learn a great deal about what we are like, how God has made us to reflect God’s image, how we have been broken by sin, and how God has worked to redeem us through God’s action in history.
The Bible may not be an easy book, but it is an understandable book.
2. Join a Community of Interpretation
In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in his treatise Against Heresies I:10:2-3:
As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it.
Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master; nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.
It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and less degrees of intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith] itself.
Irenaeus believed that the Christian faith was a received tradition, one that was passed down carefully from one generation to the next, without change or adaptation, tracing itself back to the teachings of the Apostles. This idea traces back to the Bible. In Titus 2:1, Paul exhorts Titus, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” Paul wants Titus to pass on what he has been taught.
In 2 Peter 1:12-15, we find another example that shows early church leaders passing down a received set of teachings. Peter writes, “So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body,because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.”
In early Christianity, we find evidence that the earliest ideas and teachings were contested. But there also appears to be a solid core that emerged as normative for Christian faith and practice. A canon of texts and a tradition of interpretation became established, and while the canon has remained, the interpretative tradition is more like an ongoing conversation. Some aspects of the tradition are firmly established. Others continue to be debated.
Today, there are a number of established traditions, the oldest of which is found in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The Protestant traditions are more nascent, but nonetheless they are well developed, and in their beginnings sought to return to apostolic or primitive Christianity, returning the church to the Bible and the teachings of the Apostles themselves.
Whether you are a Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, or non-denominational Christian (or some combination thereof), solidify your ties to a community of interpretation. Learn from others of like conviction who have read the Bible and offered an interpretation of its meaning. Discover where you agree and where you disagree, as well as where the tensions rest. Uncover what unites the Christian tradition, and where traditions differ. Learn your own tradition’s weaknesses, and come to respect other traditions’ strengths. Stand firm on your convictions. But also have humility concerning the claims you make. You may be wrong, even if you doubt it.
3. Clarify Your Reason for Reading
Why do you want to read the Bible?
In John 5:39-40, Jesus said this to the religious leaders of his day, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Jesus points to motive. He observes that while his opponents read the Scriptures, they did so in a way that led them to miss the coming of Israel’s Messiah. Jesus suggests that if they read the Scriptures to encounter God, and not as an end in itself, then perhaps they would have recognized him for who he was and they would have found eternal life in him.
If you want to read the Bible to win arguments, to appear knowledgeable, to impress God, or because you think reading the Bible may result in God granting you blessing or favor, perhaps you should revisit your motives. Do you want to read the Scripture in order to know God, to meet Jesus, to become better acquainted with the provocations of the Spirit? Do you want to grow in holiness, flee from sin, increase in love of neighbor, learn compassion for enemies, and more? Do you simply want to be the person God created you to be? What’s your reason for reading?
N. T. Wright said, “The Bible is the book of my life. It’s the book I live with, the book I live by, the book I want to die by.” Wright regards the Bible as a companion resource for life, a guide, and as instruction to prepare for death. He trusts that in and through it, God has spoken and that God speaks.
Why will you read it?
4. Acquire a Good Bible and a Few Study Tools
If you’re going to read the Bible it is a good idea to have one that is readable and accessible. All you may have is an old King James family Bible, its pages worn and hard to read. That’d be a start. But if you’re not familiar with ye Olde English, it might prove challenging.
A Bible commentary, like The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary. Commentaries come in multi-volume sets, and there are several good, reliable series. But having a one-volume commentary can come in handy, especially if you’re just beginning your study of the Bible and are building your theological library.
A Bible handbook, like Stephen Miller’s Complete Guide to the Bible. Zondervan also produces a Bible handbook; there are others. But Stephen has always been kind to me, and I count him as a friend.
5. Ask God for Help and Honor God’s Leadership
A. W. Tozer wrote, “The Bible is a supernatural book and can be understood only by supernatural aid.” That is true, to a point. All people can profit at some level from the reading of Scripture. But those who profit most will do so by seeking first to know God through the Bible. Any knowledge of God that we obtain is always a work of God’s supernatural grace.
That’s why you should ask for help. Pray while you read, and earnestly and simply ask God to enlighten your mind and enable you to understand. Apply what you learn. And if you ever feel challenged, that’s good. Maybe God is unearthing something that needs to change. Honor God’s leadership.
To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri (” a man of one book”).
Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: – “Lord, is it not thy word, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou ‘givest liberally, and upbraidest not.’ Thou hast said; ‘If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know, thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”
Wesley had a method. He entered solitude, welcomed God’s presence, opened the Scriptures, asked good questions of the text and of himself, lifted his heart to God and asked for help, read comparatively, meditated on what he had read, sought counsel from others, studied other books, and taught others what he had learned.
I read devotionally and acquisitively, and most often I employ the inductive Bible study method, which you can read about here.
7. Formulate a Plan for Study
Looking for a Bible study plan? Here are several. Here are others. If you have a study Bible, open it up and browse the introductory material. There is likely a plan there.
You could study one book of the Bible per month. If you did that for every book of the Bible, you could read the entire Bible in five and a half years. I read four chapters each day, plus a Psalm. I underline as I go and make notes. When I finish, I’ll choose another copy of the Bible and begin again. That’s my plan.
What’s your plan?
8. Set a Rhythm
I begin each day with Bible reading and prayer. That’s my rhythm. I have a daily reminder in my tasks, which helps me to stay on track.
Set an appointment on your calendar. Make it a daily task. Recruit a trustworthy friend to ask you if you have been routine in reading.
9. Let the Bible Read You
In Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue, C. Stephen Evans helpfully applies the wisdom of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to our reading of the Bible. Kierkegaard’s reading of James 1:22-27 led him to conclude that Scripture is like a mirror, reflecting God, reflecting itself, but also reflecting us. Evans observes, “One way we can go wrong is by making God’s Word simply an object of scholarship to be studied rather than reading it to hear God speak to us.”
In Self-Examination, Kierkegaard offered this advice in reading the Scriptures, “Remember to say yourself incessantly: It is I to whom it is speaking; it is I about whom it is speaking.” Through the Bible, God addresses us. When you understand the Bible, apply it. Put it into practice.
10. Stick With It
C H. Spurgeon said, ““Bible study is the metal that makes a Christian,” and A. W. Tozer remarked, “Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian.” Once you begin, stick with it. Don’t quit. And if you do stop for a while, don’t be overwhelmed by guilt. Begin again.
If it helps, bring to mind the words of Psalm 19:7-13, which says:
The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.
I’ve given up more than once. I’ve bogged down in the commandments. I’ve gotten lost in a genealogy. But I’ve come back. I’ve made a new beginning. I’ve kept reading.
Anglican priest and poet George Herbert said, “Prayer should be the key of the day and the lock of the night.” Martin Luther once remarked, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
But I’ve concluded that though people try to pray, want to pray, and desire to pray, they still wonder if they are doing it right, enough, or correctly. Countless times I have heard people say that they want something more. Friends have also shared they wish to be more disciplined. The longing, the hope itself, is a gift from God, a sign of God’s work, and a wonderful beginning.
If you want to develop a prayer habit, firstly take heart. The evidence of God’s activity and grace is found in the desire itself. God is drawing nigh to you. Draw near, then, to God.
Where Do I Begin?
In Luke 11:1-13, we are told Jesus was praying, and when he finished his disciples made a request, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus then offered his friend a set of words. In Luke’s account, it is a version of the Lord’s Prayer, the more familiar form of which is given in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus tells his disciples to address God, to ask that God’s kingdom come, to provide for us, forgive us, to help us forgive, to free us from temptation, and deliver us from evil. If this was all we had to go on when it comes to prayer, this alone would be a mighty foundation.
But again in Luke, Jesus follows the words of a prayer with instruction on the character of God. Jesus tells stories to illustrate. Read the passage. Jesus says that when we pray, we should be persistent and audacious, and that God will honor the bonds of friendship. He is even more faithful than the neighbor we might disturb in the middle of the night. Jesus encourages us to ask, seek, and knock.
Finally, he illustrates God’s way of relating to us like a parent by making a comparison to earthly parents. People give good gifts to their children, even though they are inclined toward evil. God, being good, certainly exceeds us in the capacity to provide good things, in a good manner. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask, not only for things, but for the Holy Spirit, who indwells those who trust in Christ. God not only provides what we need when we ask, but gives us God’s very self, which is, in fact, our greatest need.
If you wish to begin a prayer habit, be like the disciples. First, ask Jesus to teach you to pray. Then, pay attention to his teachings. Memorize his words. They can help you tremendously. Truly think and meditate on the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray. And as you do so, consider the character of God. Is God someone that you really want to know?
Generally speaking, we enjoy being with those we long to know better. We soak up the moments. We cherish common experiences. We tell stories. We share. It can be likewise with God, if only you give thought to who God is, and how among all beings who have ever existed or ever will exist, God is unsurpassed. God is the fullness of beauty and truth, the wellspring of grace, the font of wisdom and the source of all knowledge. God is always out for our good, and is the source of all love. We do not have to spend time with God, but God extends us the privilege. And God, being all-good, all-powerful, all-wise, and all patient, joins us in our concerns, whether large or small.
When, Where, and What Do I Pray, and How Do I Grow?
Prayer is presence and conversation, being with and talking with. It is a posture, an inclination, a disposition. Prayer is a way of speaking and listening. It is also a habit of heart and mind.
When, where, and what do you pray?
The answer: you are invited to pray always, in all places, and concerning all things.
God is concerned with your life. Not only your manner of religious devotion or even simply in your wants. But with you. God wants you to know him, and God desires to become an intimate friend to you. This means you are invited to pray throughout your day, wherever you are, and in whatever you are doing.
It is as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray continually.” In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul adds, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That’s the challenge, isn’t it? We’re invited to pray always, in all places, and concerning all things. But we find that we pray seldom, perhaps (hopefully!) in church, and concerning what we may consider small, self-focused matters–things we worry God might not care much about.
But God does care about those small things, and the things we ask in boldness–the “impossible” things. God cares, and is concerned, because we care and are concerned. God’s all surpassing goodness, power, mercy, and grace mean that it is well within God’s means to meet us exactly where we are and to provide for us in the exact manner that we most need.
In reading this you might feel guilty or overwhelmed. I understand. So let’s back up. The invitation to pray moves us toward an ongoing presence and conversation with God that concerns the totality of our lives. But in order to arrive there, we must start smaller, think incrementally, and, finally, act with consistency over time.
First, start small. If you want to develop a prayer habit, set aside one to five minutes a day to pray. Designate a place. I often pray at my desk with my morning cup of coffee. I keep a list of concerns, written in a notebook, that I have tabbed so that I can easily turn to the names and circumstances I want to remember before God. For many years, my prayer dwindled to, “Lord, teach me to pray.” Or, “Help.” Or, “I’m hurt.” Or, “Remember your promises!” Or, “Thanks.” God honored each prayer, I think, and my short prayers were a small enough act to keep me going, to keep me on the path.
Second, think incrementally. You may begin with a short prayer. You may begin with a short list of concerns. But that time you spend in prayer, and those concerns, may grow. You may want to begin memorizing Scripture, praying God’s words. You may want to routinely read one of these great prayers from the Bible:
Remember, you can make the words of Scripture your own. You do not have to pray “original” prayers. You can borrow words. There are other prayers in the Bible, and other passages. You may want to chose a verse that is meaningful to you and bring it to memory, like John 3:16 or Romans 8:37-39.
You may also want to buy a book of written prayers, those that either point you to daily Scripture readings or offer you other devotional material that can structure your time with God. I’ve used the following:
There are other helpful guides out there. Keep your eyes sharp, and your ears open. Another possibility is to download the Bible app from YouVersion and sign up for a reading plan.
Third and most critically, act with consistency over time. It has helped me to set daily reminders to review my prayer list, memorize Scripture, and to set a top priority. This is a list I consult at the beginning of each day. Doing each of these has become part of my morning routine, as has reading four chapters from Scripture and praying a selection from Psalms with my spouse.
Have I missed my appointment? Yes. Have I fallen behind? Yes. But then I start each day new. Don’t let guilt weigh you down. Remember God’s grace.
How Do I Remain Disciplined?
One of the greatest aids in remaining disciplined is to be extremely clear on the reason you began in the first place. One of the Desert Fathers, Abba Anthony said, “Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an ax. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain.”
In Luke 14:28-33, Jesus put it this way:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
In Luke 14:27, Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” To follow Jesus, you give up everything. But consider what you gain! You gain him, and the life that he has promised. Therefore, whatever it is you give, what you will receive from God will be immeasurably greater, and definitely worthwhile.
Why do you want to pray? To impress God? No. Hopefully not. But if you to become more like Jesus, grow in holiness, and walk the path of discipleship, if you want to open the possibility that you will transform and change and become more like the person God designed you to be, then you’re more likely to remain disciplined, to stick with it.
Moreover, if you want to know God, prayer will lead you into a space where this is possible. That relationship, above all, is a treasure beyond compare.
How Does Prayer Shape My Life?
Mother Teresa said, “For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” She also said, “God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer,” and observed, “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.”
Psalm 145:18 says, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” Call on the Lord. Live as God’s friend. Serve others in the name of Jesus.
Prayer will shape you, will conform you to the image of Christ, Christ in you.
There is no such thing as a “magic pill” that can make you a great athlete or an accomplished musician, a master carpenter or a wise parent. We all know people who have an amazing talent or aptitude but have not realized their potential. The path to greatness, whether pursued consciously or unconsciously, is one that requires a rhythm of disciplined practice.
In the same way that no one becomes a great athlete or musician on the basis of a special talent alone, no one becomes like Jesus on the basis of a special gift from God alone. People grow–they become who they are–not because God zapped them while they walked across a field but because they make a conscious effort to respond to the grace of God and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, cultivate the gift they have received. Those who flourish in their lives with God have a Spirit-initiated rule of life, a rhythm ofpractices that enables them to welcome and respond to Jesus.
We grow via a Spirit-empowered and initiated response to the availability of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. For any positive change we experience, for any sign that we have become more like Jesus, praise be to God, for God is the initiator, the author, and the guide on the path of holiness. But to the degree that we are conscious of God’s work, we should also become consciously willing to take another step, to continue along the path, to grow in trust, to be sanctified in truth, and to answer the calling of Jesus, “Follow me.”
As Shigematsu says, flourishing in our life with God is fostered and supported by “a rhythm of practices,” or a way of life, a way that is flexible, life-giving, and grounded in God.
Does your spiritual life supported by a rhythm of practices? What are those practices?
If you know me, you know I love books. Last week, I finished Jeff Pearlman’s Football for a Buck, which tells the story of the United States Football League. Pearlman is a great writer, I’m a sports nut, Donald Trump is part of the USFL’s story, and that made this interesting book more timely that it otherwise would’ve been. I also finished Michael Connelly’s latest Bosch and Ballard novel, Dark Sacred Night. I read everything Connelly writes. He’s a master of crime fiction, and Harry Bosch is one of my favorite characters in literature.
Amazon’s released their February Kindle deals. Here are a few notable books:
These are all either two or three bucks. The Name of the Rose is a detective novel, set in a monastery. I read it about ten years ago and enjoyed it. We’re using the Shigematsu book in my covenant group at Truett Seminary, and I think it is excellent. If you’ve struggled to formulate an approach to the spiritual life that works (meaning, in the past you’ve tried, got frustrated, and felt like you failed), you might want to check it out. I’ve enjoyed reading Henry Cloud, and thought those topics might be relevant to a few of my friends. Sider, McKnight, and Merton are authors I appreciate.