On those rare evenings where you find yourself at home, you want nothing more than to just relax.
On those rare evenings where you find yourself at home, you want nothing more than to just relax. By the time you’ve eaten dinner, checked your voicemail, responded to emails, watched the new episode of Lost and read a few pages of your current novel, you’re tired. The next day, a friend calls you wanting Bible-based advice for a family problem he’s having. But you’ve been so busy at work and with technology-filled evenings that the Scripture verses that were once on automatic recall are lost somewhere between prime-time. After you mutter a generic example about perseverance without really even engaging brain or soul—something about Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness—you move on to the classic Christian white lie: “I’ll be praying for you.” You’re sincere enough at the time; you maybe even write down a reminder.
But hey, you get so many prayer requests, nobody could blame you for not having time to fulfill them all. Could they?
If this sounds familiar, you are probably struggling to find time for spiritual disciplines. The Bible clearly outlines the value of a personal audience with God, through practices such as prayer, meditation and studying Scripture, and the importance of corporate spiritual activities such as worship, confession and sharing the Eucharist. It’s easy enough to go through the motions and check off the required activities of a “good” Christian. But as far as meaningfully engaging with God on a regular basis, it’s hard to make time, and once we’ve made time, to know where to start.
We live in a culture that encourages cramming as much into each day as possible, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “the cult of busyness.” Idleness is not a good thing, but going to the other extreme to the point that even dedicating a couple of hours a week solely to God seems impossible is not conducive to spiritual formation, either.
The Inward Disciplines
Many of us suffer from the misconception that carving out time for solitary, God-focused practices such as prayer, reading the Bible, fasting and meditation is in some way selfish. But we cannot fully impact the lives of others if we don’t first reach the potential of personal spiritual formation. In fact, devoting time to be alone with the Word of God and to communicate with Him shows we recognize our need for someone bigger than ourselves to succeed.
We live in the culture of now. Everything from fast-food restaurants to diet pills to instant messaging is designed to achieve a desired result with no delay. To satisfy this impatience, we try to multitask to the point that we’re rarely just working, just listening to music or, more importantly, just focusing on God. “There’s a misconception among young people that multitasking is a virtue, but I don’t see that in Scripture,” Scott Bessenecker, author of The New Friars, says. “Diverting our attention in several directions at once robs us of the focus necessary to grow our relationship with God.”
Another factor that prevents spiritual meditation is our need to be connected to technology 24 hours a day. Email, Blackberrys, DVD players in cars, iPods, home theater systems that cost more than the GDP of most third-world countries—the list goes on. We seem to be incapable of being in silence.
To escape such distractions, Bessenecker goes to a Benedictine monastery to meditate, pray, read the Bible and write about faith for one day each month. “Book time for meditation on your calendar as you would a business meeting, so you can’t skip it,” he advises. You don’t have to go to a monastery to mediate. Just setting aside time to concentrate on God while in your bedroom, a park or another quiet place once a week can be beneficial.
We often act like discerning God’s will is the most difficult thing in the world, and yet in John 10:27, Jesus says “My sheep listen to my voice” (TNIV). We can only hear that voice if we separate ourselves from the noise and clamor of our daily lives. Praying in the car or first thing in the morning as we get ready for work is good, showing we’re following the apostle Paul’s advice to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). But to cultivate a healthy prayer life we should also take the advice given in Matthew 6:6: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Group prayer can be extraordinarily effective, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of a personal one-on-one audience with God. Getting into a daily routine of praying for the needs of others, and asking for guidance and forgiveness for ourselves, builds a strong connection with God, and makes it easier for us to interpret what He wants us to do with our lives. We’re all too quick to go to God in petition when things are going wrong, but regular prayer in all circumstances is important.
Our expectations of prayer are also significant. In the Book of James, we’re told that prayer without the expectation that God hears and will answer is foolish. James tells us, “He who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:5). When we pray, we should do so with a positive attitude that God can and will act for our good. While we often want God to act in the way we’d like, acknowledging He knows what we need is key to avoiding disillusionment with prayer. As the Lord’s Prayer proclaims, “Thy will be done.”
If you’ve ever wondered how highly we esteem large quantities of food, turn on network TV for half an hour and count the number of commercials dedicated to it. Dates, birthday and anniversary celebrations and many other events in our culture revolve around the practice of eating. Contrast that with Saint Francis and other leaders of monastic movements, who fasted frequently as a way of focusing less on their bodily needs and more on spiritual matters. “Fasting awakens recognition of our frailty, and that’s important in truly getting in touch with God,” Bessenecker says. “Depriving ourselves of food is a great way of embracing our humanity more fully. About 10 days into a fast I reach a stage of deep repentance that I can’t achieve when I’m well fed.”
Needing to shed a couple of pounds or to look holy in the eyes of your friends is no reason to fast. The motivation for fasting should be simple and true—to acknowledge that our spiritual appetite is more significant than our physical one, and that we trust God to nourish our bodies and our souls.
Reading the Bible is crucial if we’re to understand more about the nature of God, what He expects of us and how we fit into the larger story of His people. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul explains the value of regular biblical study: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
The biblical phrase “milk of the word” (1 Peter 2:2, KJV) illustrates the Bible offering us unique nourishment, and also implies our dependence on it. Bessenecker explains what this concept means in his spiritual life. “A mother’s milk gives a baby protective antibodies that no scientist has been able to re-create,” he says. “It’s the same with the Bible—there’s no substitute for it, not even the best spiritual-growth literature.”
That’s not to say that reading devotional books has no value. Studying everything from ancient works like St. Augustine’s Confessions to writing by 20th-century thinkers such as C.S. Lewis to more recent books by Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne and others can be valuable to the development of discipline.
The Outward Disciplines
It is important to focus inwardly on Christ and to develop a unique, individual relationship with God through solitary disciplines, but to actively follow the example of Jesus we must put our beliefs into action. While we are saved by belief in God, James writes that “faith without deeds is useless” (James 2:20), indicating that practicing holiness is not optional.
Society teaches us we improve by adding things to our lives—whether it’s making more money, buying more stuff or adding more activities. The problem is, 90 percent of what we add is superficial, self-focused or unnecessary—and maybe a combination of all three. Many churches have in some ways contributed to this condition, by encouraging participation in an ever-growing number of programs and ministries. We feel bad if we don’t get involved, and while the motivation is noble and the cause good, overstretching ourselves can be harmful to our physical and mental health, damage our relationships and stunt or even halt our spiritual growth.
To make more room for spiritual disciplines, we have to let go of other, less meaningful things. That could mean canceling your Netflix subscription, resolving to not answer emails after 6 p.m. or before 8 a.m. or giving up on the idea of buying a PlayStation 3. “Living simply involves creating spiritual space that isn’t filled by material things or scheduled activities not focused on God,” Bessenecker says. “Like St. Francis, we can forsake a material quest for simplicity, growing our faith by running after the inner life instead of the outer life.”
Learning to tell people “no” is another key to simplifying your life. Our fear of letting people down cannot prevent us from engaging in spiritual disciplines. “It’s all too easy to allow the things that are present to take precedence over spiritual things that are unseen,” Bessenecker says.
Solitude and loneliness are two different things. As Bessenecker observes, “Solitary confinement is man’s most terrible device.” Loneliness is unhealthy, prolonged isolation from others, whereas seeking temporary solitude to focus on God’s will is an essential spiritual discipline. For most of us, though, solitude can seem just as undesirable as loneliness. “Silence and solitude frighten us because we’re afraid of what we’ll discover about ourselves when we’re alone and quiet,” Bessenecker says. Recognizing that spending time alone with God is about focusing outwardly on Him, rather than on our own insecurities, is an important step in discovering the value of solitude.
If you don’t think our society emphasizes self-reliance, go to your local bookstore sometime and check out the expansive shelf space dedicated to improving our bodies, minds, careers and every other facet of our being. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be as good as we can be. But self-reliance can easily go too far, to the point we exclude others and even God from our daily lives. Obsession with building our own strengths and hiding weakness leaves no room for transformational grace.
Proverbs advises, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (3:5). The disciplines show reverence to God and signal that we accept the limitations of our humanity. The word submission often has negative connotations, such as weakness, but submission to God’s will is actually a choice made from a position of strength. It’s only when we let go of control that God can truly begin His redemptive work.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples are arguing about which of them will be the greatest. Jesus tells them, “The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (22:26–27). The example of Christ—healing the sick, preaching to the poor, loving those His society despised—is the perfect example of service. But we’re taught to serve ourselves first, a selfishness that can be hard to overcome.
Many churches place an emphasis on professional ministry and the foreign mission field, excluding many able and willing Christians. Both have their place, but anywhere people are in need is a mission field, and anyone can meet those needs, regardless of whether or not they’ve been to seminary.
The Corporate Disciplines
It is important for each of us to cultivate a personal relationship with God, but Christ instituted the Church as a group who can enrich and strengthen each other’s faith. By bringing together 12 disciples, Jesus in some ways formed the first church of the New Covenant, and in the Gospel of John He outlines His mission to grow this body of believers: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Jesus showed us that His Kingdom is not isolationist, but relational, so to be a Christian is to be in community.
We often think of confession in a purely Catholic sense, but the discipline of confession is valuable to all Christians, whether or not it takes place in a church booth. We can and should confess our sins to God in quiet prayer, but admitting weakness to a fellow Christian can allow someone to come alongside us and share our burdens.
Exposing sin to each other in a spirit of trust can help us break the chains of sin that hold us back from relationship with God. “Secrecy is very dangerous—in the darkness of secrecy, sin is able to grow a very poisonous mold,” Bessenecker says. “The air and light of confession can be deadly to secret sin, especially if our confessor is ruthless in asking questions and rooting out the fullness of our sin. Repentance and confession are the radioactive core of the Gospel message.”
It’s clear we have nothing to fear but much to gain in confession: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
Worshipping God shows a gratitude to God for the blessings He has given us, and a hopefulness for what He is yet to give. Doing this in a corporate setting allows us to share this joy with others. In studying the New Friars and ancient monastic orders, Bessenecker found a common trait—worshipping through music. “There’s something special about lifting our voices collectively that’s universal,” he says. “Christ joins with His unified body when we worship through song.”
But worship is more than just singing. It’s any practice that exalts God, such as communion, reciting the Apostle’s Creed or a group reading of the Bible. In participating in these activities in a group setting we follow the instruction of Jesus to “worship the Father in the spirit and in truth” (John 4:23).
Seeking wise Christian counsel is a useful complement to asking for God’s direction in prayer. Proverbs describes the significance of guidance: “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers” (11:14). Being involved in a small group of believers who openly share challenges or asking a friend for advice can be beneficial. “We would do well to cultivate the kind of discipleship relationship where we give another human being, or a small group of people, the trump card in decision making,” Bessenecker says. “Guidance is ultimately a dance between our sometimes imperfect understanding of God’s will, and the instruction of those under whom we have placed ourselves.”
There was a pastor who recently challenged his congregation to go a whole month without complaining. What’s the bet that neither he nor they could do it? We’re conditioned to be dissatisfied and often focus so much on trivial troubles that we ignore the huge blessings God continually bestows upon us.
Ancient Jewish culture included healthy spiritual rhythms that gave shape to the calendar. This not only meant Sabbath observance, but also participation in celebrating the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the harvest and multiple other events. Doing so cultivated a daily posture of thanksgiving for God’s provision that is sadly overlooked today. “I just returned from hanging out with people who are leading fellowships of laborers among the urban poor,” Bessenecker says. “Most of them choose a life of simplicity, but they know how to party extravagantly. They choose not to spend a lot on the extras of life, but when it comes to hospitality and celebration, they spare no expense. I think if Christians in the West lived more simply, we’d have a lot more time and money to celebrate.”
The disciples of Jesus are called so because they literally followed in His footsteps, learning to live as He did by imitation. If we’re willing to make room for inward, outward and corporate spiritual disciplines we can tread the same path.
Spiritual disciplines are called such because they require discipline. And discipline only reveals itself when you don’t want to do something. It is easy to pray, worship or read the Bible when you feel like it, but it is when you don’t feel like it that really counts. For a long time I had made myself a rule to help me get these disciplines into my regular routine. When I get home from work, I do not turn on the TV or the computer, and I shut down the cell phone so that I can get into God’s Word. Even if it is only for 10 or 15 minutes, that time has become a very important part of my day and my connection with God. I am still working on creating more opportunities in my day to connect with God, but the key for me is to make it such a priority that other things don’t matter until it gets done. You just have to remember it is not all about you, and putting God first in your life means you put your selfish desires somewhere behind your spiritual needs.