How would you describe your spiritual life today? Is it more like a consuming fire or a smoldering ash heap? I want you to know that you do not have to accept spiritual dryness and defeat as final.If you have watched your once vibrant devotional life fade over time and grow cold, take heart in the promise that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6). Don’t despair, it is never too late to “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6).
Your Story is an Epic
Part of my job as a Christian counselor is to listen to people’s stories. Stories are powerful. We interpret ourselves and the world around us through them. Some people I meet tell heartbreaking stories about themselves, and how their lives are full of adversity, discouragement, and shame. I grieve along with them as I listen.
In addition to addressing any physical and psychological issues, I will often talk with people about the immense spiritual resources at their disposal through the Christian faith. Even the secular counseling world has begun to acknowledge the incredible source of resilience that faith and spirituality can be for those facing mental disorders and distress. The Apostle Paul captures the idea of Christian resilience when he writes:
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed.” – 2 Corinthians 4:8a
Virtually every great story portrays conflict before reaching a resolution. You were not meant to enjoy a comfortable, trouble-free life as a Christian. What kind of story would that be? Certainly not a story that anyone would want to read, and certainly not the story that the author of all creation would write for you.
If you are reading this in the midst of a difficult time, know that your trials are only building tension toward the climax of the dramatic victory God will achieve in your life. Your role is to believe that he can and will do so and then to live in light of that belief. Your story may have taken a dark turn, but it is not over yet. Don’t wait until the circumstances in your life improve to awaken your spiritual life.
Light Overwhelms Darkness
How do you awaken spiritual life within yourself? The same way you wake up every morning and start your day, by turning on the lights and taking action.
Rather than brooding over the hard things in your life, which only tends to give them more power, you must invite the illuminating presence of the light of the world. As the Renaissance scholar, Erasmus writes, “Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.”
It is easy to get caught up in analyzing the problems you are facing, but as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urges, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” In other words, find a way to turn on the lights.
What You Can DoAt this point it would be fair of you to ask, “Okay, but how do I do that?” First, recognize that even though the light doesn’t come from you, you have a role to play to prepare your heart. Just as a farmer cultivates the ground to prepare for an abundant harvest, so you must cultivate your heart. The sunlight and rain unlock the power of the seed to produce grain only after the soil has been tilled.
Too often I hear people claim to be “waiting on the Lord” to act and produce a harvest of peace, joy, or self-control in their lives without cultivating their hearts.
As philosopher and professor Dallas Willard describes in his recent book, Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23, “You may very well say, ‘Can’t God just move in on us and touch us or do something to us?’ Yes, he can do that, and he does that on many occasions. But when it comes to experiencing the sufficiency of God, we are not talking about what God can do; we are talking about what we need to do.”
One of the most effective things we can do to invite the healing light of God into our lives is to practice what are known as the spiritual disciplines. These are active habits that prepare our hearts and minds to receive the gifts that God desires to freely bestow on us.
I will be leaning heavily upon the great devotional classic Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster. For a fuller treatment of what I introduce here, I encourage you to study Foster’s writings on the topic.
In the introduction to his book, Foster describes our role in the process this way:
“God has given us the disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.” – Richard Foster
10 Classic Disciplines to Spark Spiritual Awakening
The following are 10 of the classic spiritual disciplines that can spark a great awakening in your heart and mind. These will be divided into a series of 3 articles. Disciplines 1 to 3 are contained in this article, the remaining disciplines will be spread over the next 2 articles in the series.
Meditation is an especially important Discipline in today’s chaotic, noisy world. The world saps us of energy, leaving us physically, mentally, and emotionally depleted. Like David, we long to drink of the divine tranquility, crying out “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:2). Through meditation, we can prepare an inner sanctuary for the Lord to come and dwell. He will meet us there and have fellowship with us. The great theologian Walter Rauschenbusch poetically captures this notion.
You probably hear a great deal about meditation in popular culture today, but the emphasis is usually on the Eastern concepts of detachment (or non-attachment) and renunciation. However, as Foster points out, “Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind. The two ideas are quite different…detachment is not enough; we must go on to attachment. The detachment from the confusion all around us in order to have a richer attachment to God.”
“The world of men is made of jangling noises.
With God it is a great silence.
But that silence is a melody
Sweet as the contentment of love,
Thrilling as a touch of flame”
– Walter Rauschenbusch
To the more pragmatic man or woman, mediation appears too mystical to be of any practical good in life. Perhaps it will help to explain more clearly what is meant by meditation.
Professionals in the mental health field often employ meditation techniques to help patients focus their minds on either a benign subject (breathing in and out) or a positive idea (a happy memory, for example) in order to shift the mind’s attention away from anxiety and to empower the patient to do so regularly. Eventually, this can actually create more positive patterns of thought.
In a similar way, Christian mediation simply invites us to fix our minds on Christ. When Jesus is in our minds, we can be sure that his presence there will have a powerful and lasting effect. One of my favorite promises from scripture is based on this concept:
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you because he trusts in you.” – Isaiah 26:3
As Willard explains, “We bring the reality of God into our lives by making contact with him through our minds, and our actions are based on the understanding that results from the fullness of that contact. There is nothing mysterious here. This is why the mind, and what we turn our minds to, is the key to our lives.”
Prayer is the most central of all the disciplines because it is our lifeline to God. If it is neglected, then everything else we manage to do will be done on our own, in our own strength, driven by our own ideas and motivations, hindered by our own limitations, and we will certainly notice the effect of that isolation.
Many people today avoid prayer. They fear they will not do it “correctly,” or perhaps that they won’t have God’s listening ear because of their failures. I’ve noticed that a lack of prayer quite often haunts people and makes them feel guilty, but that guilt rarely produces the needed effect of causing them to pray.
If there is one thing the enemies of God would go to any length to keep us from, it is prayer. If we can be forced to rely merely on our conception of God and kept from communion with him, wherein we are showered with grace and bathed in perfect love, we will exist in a constant state of insecurity and brokenness that effectively neutralizes us. But when we pray, we climb into the arms of an eternally loving Father and are healed and made whole. As Foster writes,
“To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives. The closer we come to the heartbeat of God the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ.”
3. FastingOne of the least understood and least practiced disciplines today is fasting. People today tend to think of fasting as an outdated and unnecessarily harsh denial of the human body’s basic needs. “Certainly, God wants us to be healthy and well fed”, we reason to ourselves. All the while, we are unwilling to even attempt a Discipline practiced regularly by everyone from Moses to Christ himself.
In addition, we are heavily influenced by the culture we live in. As Foster writes, “The constant propaganda fed us today convinces us that if we do not have three large meals each day, with several snacks in between, we are on the verge of starvation. This, coupled with the popular belief that it is a positive virtue to satisfy every human appetite, has made fasting seem obsolete.”
The extraordinary thing about Christian fasting is that it is not ultimately meant as a form of self-denial. Sure, when you fast you abstain from eating food, but in the place of food, you are filling yourself with “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). In other words, the secret of Christian fasting is that through it we can experience a more real and lasting nourishment than food can ever provide. Dallas Willard expounds this idea better than anyone I’ve read:
“When we make contact with God a flow of energy comes to us. That energy is directly the source from which Jesus worked, and we can know it by experience. Jesus taught us that when we fast we are not to look miserable (Matt. 6:16-18). Do you suppose he was asking us to fake it? Was he saying, ‘Now, you’re going to be miserable, but don’t let it show’? No, Jesus understood that when we fast before God we are nourished directly by the word of God, whether spoken or written. Fasting is feasting upon God.”
As you open yourself up to the discipline of fasting, be patient and compassionate with yourself and go slowly. The Lord will lovingly come alongside you and guide you on your way. Remember, the value of the disciplines in not so much in the external action, but in the internal transformation that occurs. Or, as Foster puts it, “What goes on spiritually is much more important than what is happening bodily.”
If you feel led to embark on the exciting journey of practicing these and other spiritual disciplines, consider contacting a Christian counselor to walk with you along these well-worn paths of righteousness and abundance.
(This series will be continued in two additional articles to come.)
Foster, R. J. (1988). Celebration of discipline: The path to spiritual growth. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Willard, D. (2018). Life without lack: Living in the fullness of psalm 23. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
“Faith”, Courtesy of Marc-Olivier Jodoin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Prayer”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “The Woods”, Courtesy of John Westrock, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Old Harry Rocks”, Courtesy of Will van Wingerden, Unsplash.com, CC0 License