If getting in shape was easy, then everyone would do it. That’s the thing about health. No matter what type you’re talking about—mental, emotional, physical or, yes, spiritual — it takes effort.
For the most part, we know this. Nobody expects to be in six-pack summer shape without a healthy diet and rigorous workout routine. And more and more people are waking up to the fact that getting into a mentally and emotionally healthy place means finding a counselor who has the resources to help you sort through your personal issues. Even solid financial health takes some real work: getting a budget, sorting through your expenses and making some changes.
But for some reason, people forget the importance of work when it comes to spiritual health. There is a popular idea in the American mindset that being spiritually healthy just means doing whatever comes naturally, along with some vaguely good intentions sprinkled on top, as if the key to lowering your cholesterol was just eating whatever you want.
Now, just like with mental or physical health, it’s important not to shame anyone here. But if you’re finding your spiritual life is in a rut and can’t quite figure out why your connection with God isn’t where you want it to be, it’s worth asking: What are you doing to improve it?
The Bible and several millennia of church history have plenty of suggestions for how to get into spiritual shape. Unfortunately, a lot of these practices have fallen out of fashion. Sometimes because they’re weird. Sometimes because they’re hard. Often because they’re both.
“I do feel like a lot of this is telling people stuff they already know,” says Tish Harrison Warren, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary. “If you want to know Jesus, then you have to read the Bible, go to church and pray. You knew that as a 3-year-old.”
Warren thinks it’s time for a return to older “unsexy” spiritual practices precisely because they’ve been around for so long. They’re tested.
“The Christian life is thousands of years old,” she says. “We’re not going to discover a new product that’s going to take it to a new level.”
Let’s start with an easier one: daily prayer. Based on research, it’s fairly likely you’re already praying with some regularity. According to Pew Research, about 39% of millennials say they pray daily, and that number jumps up to about 61% if you’re talking about black millennials. So if you’re among them, congratulations, you’re already taking good care of your spiritual health. And if you’re not, don’t worry: It’s not too hard to implement it into your daily routine.
Praying daily looks different for different people, but one thing it probably doesn’t look like if you want to be serious is “praying on the go.” Yes, God is always there and ready to listen, and you should pray anytime you’ve got the inclination, but that’s not really the kind of prayer we’re talking about building into your daily routine here.
This prayer will take a chunk of time out of your day. It’ll involve intentionally setting aside at least a few minutes to really meditate on what’s on your heart, and listen to what God is speaking to you. It’s more than just a laundry list of today’s worries and wants. It’s a conversation in which you’re opening yourself up to God speaking to you.
Set a timer. Start with something manageable, like 10 minutes. If you find yourself getting easily distracted, get a notebook and write your prayers down. After a while, try upping the time in small increments. Like any good discipline, it’ll be difficult at first, but as you keep doing it, you’ll find it coming easier.
Chances are, you’ve done this before—or at least tried to. Maybe you committed yourself to reading the entire Bible all the way through. You got through Genesis and Exodus, which are pretty good. Leviticus gets a little dry, but at least it’s interesting. And then Numbers and Deuteronomy just seem to slam the brakes on the entire plot, so you give up and turn on Stranger Things.
That’s understandable. People dedicate their entire lives and academic careers to making sense of the Bible. It’s an old collection of books written in a variety of genres and languages over the course of thousands of years. Nobody should be surprised if it’s not exactly easy reading. People have to take classes to learn to read Shakespeare and Sun Tzu. You can be gentle with yourself when it comes to reading the Bible, too.
Fortunately, there are thousands of easily accessible resources to help you navigate the Bible. Concordances, commentaries, studies and guidebooks abound, and you’ll be amazed at how many of them illuminate the Bible in ways you never thought possible. Even those dusty old passages in Leviticus and Numbers can come to life if you’re willing to put in a little extra work to understand some of the cultural context around them.
The value this will bring to your spiritual life is immense. The Bible spells out the character of God and the divine arc of the Gospel. And it’s a big and dense enough book that even if you feel like you’ve spent your whole life reading it, any reread can still offer new insights.
Find a good book about the Bible and spend about 20 minutes each day with it as supplemental reading to your actual Bible study. You’ll be shocked at how much you learn.
Here we go. Fasting is an incredibly common teaching in the Bible. Everyone from David to Esther to Paul to Jesus Himself spent extended periods of time without food. But in today’s culture, fasting is very rarely taught as a spiritual discipline.
Somewhat ironically, fasting has become somewhat in vogue among holistic health nuts. “People are spiritually hungry,” says Warren. “People are questioning some old orthodoxies about the best way to live and what does it mean to be holistic. “
“The problem with a lot of this is that spirituality is so vague that it can’t ask anything of us. It can become another consumer project of something we use to make our life the way we want it.”
So, first, a few details about biblical fasting. It’s never just fasting. It’s a supplemental spiritual practice. The idea is that you abstain from food as a way of clearing space in your life to invest in other spiritual practices, like some of the other ones described in this article.
Second, fasting is often associated with specifically seeking God’s guidance. In Acts, the early Church fasts as a way of seeking God’s will for electing their very first leaders. In the book of Jonah, the entire city of Nineveh fasts while seeking forgiveness from God. In other words, fasting often has a specific goal in mind.
If you decide to fast, make sure to set some reasonable goals. Consider a simple 24-hour fast, to start. Try not to make a big deal about it. Drink plenty of water. And most importantly, spend whatever time you would have spent eating praying, reading the Bible and seeking God’s face.
This one sounds a little “no duh,” but it’s worth bringing up here for a few reasons. The first one being that going to church looks very different for us in pandemic season, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t do it safely online. And we should. There are few spiritual practices more critically taught in the Bible than being an active part of the Church. The second one being, it’s not a particularly popular practice, even among American Christians. About 58% of white evangelical millennials say they attend church once a week, according to Pew. That number drops to about half among Black Protestants and 32% among mainline Protestants.
You might be a little over church. You might feel like it’s all a little “been there, done that.” After all, can’t just hanging out with friends be church?
Maybe so, but a solid church can provide all kinds of opportunities for spiritual growth you can’t get on your own: resources to serve others in the community. People who are different from you who can mentor or even be mentored by you. Connections to communities in other parts of the city that need your money, time and prayer. The Church is a lot more than just a Sunday morning service. At its best, it’s a transformational community.
Now, many people have valid reasons for being skeptical of going to church. You may have been hurt by a church or church leader in the past. You may have very real stories of wounds you’ve received from the Church, and hesitation about going back is completely understandable.
Just know that there are churches out there who will welcome you, take care of you and champion you. When you’re ready to give it another shot, they’ll be waiting for you.
Joseph is a writer and editor living in Cincinnati, Ohio.