You have most likely come across more than one term that describes Spiritual Practices. Here are a few of them: Holy Habits, Sacred Rhythms, Spiritual Disciplines, Divine Invitations and Pathways to God. Each of them reveals some unique characteristics of the nature of Spiritual Practices. Which one do you feel most drawn to? Why? Which one is new to you? Does any of them provoke a negative reaction in you? Spiritual Practices are invitations to discovery of self and of God.
Spiritual Practices Are Like Serving Utensils
Sometimes the Good News that we hear, read or sing about feel abstract and beyond reach. We hear a sermon, or read a book and are excited about the new insights, but struggle to see them change our lives or finding ways to integrate and translate them into our spirituality. God feels so utterly other and beyond us that we cannot even imagine how to interact with Him and His reality which feels like the opposites of our daily realities.
Our lives with God can feel a bit like being at a dinner party. The table is full of delicious food, the aroma calls our name. We are not only hungry but are graving to have a taste of the deliciousness in front of us. But as we line up and get ready to load our plates, we notice that there are no serving utensils for us to help ourselves. We are so close to having our hunger satisfied and yet leave hungry and disappointed. Spiritual Practices are like the serving utensils that help us to dig in, eat the feast, and be satisfied. They give us ways to bring the God’s transcendent reality to our lived present experience, and help us to access the "meal" that God has prepared for us to enjoy: an abundant life in Him.
Spiritual Practices Are Means of Communion with God
When we start engaging with God and His world through Spiritual Practices, we notice that He has made a way for us to relate to Him. He uses the very human things, and the way how He created us, as means of connection and communion with Himself. God has made a way for us to know, hear, experience and feel Him. He has "put on flesh" and come near.
God uses our senses, our thinking faculties, imagination, reason, memories, desires, emotions, physical bodies, relationships, and everything under the sky to speak to us and form us. In fact, God has not created a thing that He would not intend to use to tell something of His love for us. God created us as relational beings who are hard-wired for connection and intimacy for that very reason that He wanted us to be in union with Himself.
Think of ways how you relate to people and the world around you: language, physical touch, service, shared activities, music, art, food... Those are all ways how God makes His presence known to us too. Our transcendent God chooses to limit Himself to ways of communication that He knows we as physical, limited human beings can receive and understand.
Practically speaking Spiritual Practices can be nearly anything that helps us to come closer to God and become more like Him. There are many Spiritual Practices that have long traditions and roots in the church, e.g. fasting, celebration, Bible study, the prayer of Examen etc. And yet, anything that serves our lives with God can be a form of Spiritual Practice, such as a habit of kindness, a form of self care, intentionality in the way we eat, etc. It’s more about the intention than the actual activity. It’s about the why rather than what.
Why Do We Engage in Spiritual Practices?
"Any authentic spiritual journey must grow from direct, personal experience of God. There is no substitute for a genuine encounter with Perfect Love."
― David Benner, Surrender to Love
The goal of Spiritual Practices is to help us come close to God, know Him personally, and be transformed by His love. We make space in our lives for Spiritual Practices for the sake of God, ourselves and the world.
1. For the Glory and Delight of God
"The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing."
God made us out of His love and for His love. He didn’t make us to only worship and serve Him, but because He desires companionship & friendship with us. He longs to be with us and share His heart with us. Our engagement in any Spiritual Practice is our response to God’s Love. Our life in God is not initiated by us but by God. God calls, we respond. God leads, we follow. God is singing His love song over us, and as we hear that we respond. By responding to God's invitation, the Spiritual Practice becomes a means of grace in our lives that helps us to personally, directly encounter the God of Love.
2. For Our Healing, Wholeness and Joy
Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." John 10:10
God loves us too much to leave us the way we are. He longs for a fuller life for us. He wants us to grow in love, grace, and freedom. He wants us to become more of our true-selves as His image bearers. Spiritual Practices help us to experience God’s love for us, and through that bring healing, transformation and deep joy to us, as we learn to rest in God’s love. If we don’t find our deepest longing of being fully known and unconditionally loved fulfilled by God we will seek them to be met in any other place/person which keeps us restless and longing.
3. For the Sake of Others
Christian, holistic Spiritual Practices always move us toward the image of the God who gave Himself completely and unconditionally for others. If the forms of spirituality we practice are not healing and life-giving for others we are not engaging in true Christian spirituality.
We cannot leave God’s presence unchanged. Love changes us. Every time we spend time with God we are changed more into His likeness and mature in love for the sake of others. This is also a good test if the Spiritual Practice we engage in is initiated and sustained by God's grace.
What Spiritual Practices Are Not?
They don't earn our salvation.
They are not to be legalistic disciplines or duties to "check off" on our to-do-lists.
They should not feel burdensome and make us weary.
They are not self-improvement projects.
They don't make us "good Christians".
They don't make God love us any more or less. His love for us now is complete.
We shouldn’t push ourselves and grit our teeth but rather allow God to lead us by desire. This does not mean that there isn't an element of discipline and perseverance in our Spiritual Practices, however often spiritual practices are ruined by us making them the end in themselves rather than seeking God. The evidence of God's grace at work within us is not awareness of duty but awareness of desire.
"The journey of faith is our personal journey, and movement on the journey is the place of mystery, holy ground. ... It involves bringing our response in sync with God's grace in our lives. God does not make us move. God's grace allows us to move.”
― Janet O. Hagberg, The Critical Journey
When we engage in Spiritual Practices there is a lovely, mysterious dance that takes place between God’s grace working in us, and our response to His work. Our life with God is a journey, and as we grow, change and mature, our relationship with God changes. Very view Spiritual Practices serve us throughout our entire lifetime. Most Spiritual Practices, or the way we engage them, are there for a season, having said that there are definitely also practices that nurture our faith for the long haul.
When you consider your personal journey of faith, notice how these various variables have influenced your Spiritual Practices.
1. The Recognition of God – Powerlessness
2. The Life of a Disciple – Power by Association
3. The Productive Life – Power by Achievement
4. The Journey Inward & The Wall – Power by Reflection
5. The Journey Outward – Power by Purpose
6. The Life of Love – Power by Wisdom
Understanding the stages of faith can help us from getting stuck at a certain stage. They are not always linear and we can move back and forth from stage to another. At each stage we need different nourishment and support to develop and grow.
B. Personality Styles
The Enneagram is a great spiritual tool for growth in self-awareness and recognizing ways how we can respond to God’s grace at work in our lives.
1 The Reformer
2 The Helper
3 The Achiever
4 The Individualist
5 The Investigator
6 The Loyalist
7 The Enthusiast
8 The Challenger
9 The Peacemaker
Sacred Pathways show our natural ways of connecting with God based on our personality and experiences.
Traditionalist (Loving God Through Ritual and Symbol)
Naturalist (Loving God Out Of Doors)
Sensates (Loving God With the Senses)
Ascetics (Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity)
Activists (Loving God Through Confrontation and Loving God by Loving Others)
Enthusiasts (Loving God with Mystery and Celebration)
Contemplatives (Loving God Through Adoration)
Intellectuals (Loving God with the Mind)
C. Season of Life
How fruitful certain Spiritual Practices are in our lives depend largely on the season of life and external circumstances we find ourselves in. Here are a few examples of the different factors that lead us into different seasons:
Family & other relationships
Productivity / rest
Ministry & calling
Season of the year (the weather)
D. Past Experiences
We can only do things that we are aware of. Our faith formation background determines the kinds of expressions of faith and Spiritual practices that we have been exposed to. As we consider our current life with God, it is helpful to take some time to reflect on our history with Him.
What kinds of spiritual practices have we been exposed to?
What were our experiences of them like?
What spiritual practices have been nurtured and strengthened? What have been overlooked?
Has there been hurt of past trauma associated to certain practices?
What has "worked" before?
Have certain practices been valued more than other in our family of origin or faith community?
God has made our whole bodies, minds and souls to know and worship Him.
How are you allowing all your senses to be at the service of your relationship with God?
Depending on our past experiences and our tendency to either introversion or extraversion we might gravitate more towards either private or communal Spiritual Practices. Jesus often withdrew to be alone with the Father, and expressed His faith in community by serving, worshiping, teaching others. We need both action and contemplation in order to be formed into the life of Love.
Jesus invites us to come to Him. "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink."
Why would we sit on a side of the hiking trail and wait for someone else to pass by and bring us a cup of water when we are thirsty, if we know the path to the waterfall of clean fresh spring water and can walk up to it ourselves? Let’s do the work of finding the way to the waterfall and allow Jesus Himself to satisfy our thirst for Love.
Questions for Reflection and Journaling (Pick only one or two that you feel drawn to):
When do you know that a Spiritual Practice has become a duty rather than a desire to you, and is no longer serving your relationship with God? Do you have an example of this from your own life?
Are your current Spiritual Practices driven by a sense of guilt, fear, pressure or duty?
Or are you drawn to them as life-giving, energizing practices that nurture intimacy, growth and joy in your life with God? Are they leading you to greater freedom, love and grace?
What are some of the "fruits" of your Spiritual Practices (either current or past)? Is all the fruit good and healthy, and do you notice some rotten fruit as well?
What Spiritual Practices have been particularly significant to you so far?
Are there certain "spiritual muscles" in your life that are overly exercised and others that have been neglected?
What questions or observations do you have about your own engagement in Spiritual Practices?
In the last day or two, when or where were you most aware of the presence of God in your life?
What activities in your life seem to draw you to God? What activities seem to pull you away from God?
Imagine Jesus walking into the room and coming to sit next to you. What would you like Him to say, or do for you? What do you wish to say to Him?
What desires do you have for your relationship with God?
This prayer practice has been designed to help us discern some of our current spiritual needs and desires. Tree Meditation: Spiritual Awareness Practice. Explore other Prayer Practices or meet with a Spiritual Director who can help you to identify how God is nudging you to respond to the work of grace in your life.
The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith by Janet Hageberg & Robert Goelich
The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery by David Benner
Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality by David Benner
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller
Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer by David Benner
Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by Robert Mulholland
The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth by Christopher L. Heuertz
Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun & Doug Calhoun
Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith by Richard Foster
Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster
Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul's Path to God by Gary Thomas
Sacred Rhythms : Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
Spiritual Practices in Community: Drawing Groups Into the Heart of God by Diana Shiflett
Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home by Traci Smith
The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction by Justin Whitmel Earley