(This is the final article in a 4-part series on the classical Spiritual Disciplines. The first three articles can be found at the following links: Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3).
Did you make any resolutions for the New Year? I like asking about resolutions. They reveal what matters to you, what you crave in your heart. For example, if you resolved to eat healthier, then you crave physical nutrition and wellness. How’s that going, by the way?Whatever resolutions you made, I’m sure they were all very positive and beneficial pursuits. But do they have eternal value? In the grand scheme, will they matter even a hundred years from now? If not, don’t despair. They still may be worth your while.
However, let me recommend that you add some resolutions that will produce eternal and infinitely valuable results. I’m referring to the timeless practices of spiritual growth: The classical Spiritual Disciplines.
So far in this series, I have briefly introduced the disciplines of Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, Study, Simplicity, Solitude, Service, and Confession. In this final article, I want to touch on Worship and Celebration, which to me are the most exhilarating of the disciplines.
As you read, consider which of these practices your life could benefit from. I am indebted to the work of writers like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, A.W. Tozer, and James K.A. Smith for the ideas introduced here. For a fuller treatment of the topic, please see the references at the end of the page.
No Shortcuts to Growth
Have you ever noticed that we like to sort problems into neat little categories? We want to know whether an issue is either physical or psychological or relational or spiritual so that we can know which specialist to go to in order to find the cure.
We compartmentalize problems in order to make them feel manageable. We want to hear a professional say the words, “I know what’s wrong here, and I have the remedy.” We want a quick fix.
However, this reductionist view is too simple to accurately capture the complex nature of human suffering. The real answer to the question “Why am I facing this?” is usually much more nuanced, mysterious, and multi-faceted.
This truth can be hard to swallow, but as Christians, we have the hope that we are not left to our own devices to navigate pain and suffering. God has given us methods to proactively address hardships and ultimately to grow in wisdom through them.
From Tragedy to Triumph
It might seem strange to find a series of articles about the Spiritual Disciplines on a counseling website. “After all,” you might ask, “what does my spiritual life have to do with my mental health?”
I’ve been pondering that question lately, and the more time I spend working in the mental health field, the more I see a strong correlation between the level of active spiritual development in a person’s life and her ability to navigate whatever life throws at her.
This does not mean that an active, robust spiritual life will eliminate or prevent mental and emotional struggles (as some have suggested), but rather that a vibrant Christian faith will enable you to endure them. Spiritual development can produce a resilience that burns brighter than your suffering and remind you of the truth in the midst of the storm.What’s more, the spiritually alive Christian has the opportunity to accomplish great and glorious things through suffering. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
The idea that we are perfected through suffering, that we grow in wisdom and maturity through difficulty, is a theme repeated throughout the Bible. Your suffering can produce a “weight of glory” (to borrow C.S. Lewis’ phrase) that outweighs your troubles if it glorifies an infinite God.
In David Lean’s Academy Award winning film Bridge on the River Kwai, Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) commends his men for managing to turn their cruel captivity in a Japanese prison camp into a productive and admirable endeavor, declaring: “You have survived with honor, that and more: Here in the wilderness, you have turned defeat into victory. I congratulate you. Well done.”
Disciplines for Spiritual Awakening
Worship is the heart’s joyful cry of gratitude and reverence to a holy and perfect God. Where there is worship, there is trust. Where there is worship, there is wholeness. Worship is the only appropriate response to the love, power, justice, immensity, wisdom, mercy, and grace of God. Worship is also the place where your heart is most dramatically transformed and made new. Consider what James K.A. Smith shares in his enlightening book, You are What you Love:
“The church’s worship is a uniquely intense site of the Spirit’s transformative presence…In worship we don’t just come to show God our devotion and give him our praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and habituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us.”
Worship as Adoration
As I talk with people in counseling, I’ve noticed a disturbing theme. People often tell me that whatever problem they are facing (anxiety, depression, relationship distress, etc.) feels much more real, more prominent, and more powerful than God.
While problems like these can certainly feel like being caught in a storm, a diminished concept of God can render your faith powerless as a source of hope and perseverance in the midst of such a storm. You might believe that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, but does the impression of God deep within your heart match your beliefs? Have you imagined God as He truly is?In his devotional classic, The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer traces this problem to the fact that “the Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God”, explaining that “With our loss of the sense of majesty has come the further loss of religious awe and consciousness of the divine Presence. We have lost our spirit of worship and our ability to withdraw inwardly to meet with God in adoring silence.”
It might be useful here to touch on what a “lofty concept of God” looks like. What comes into your mind when you think about God? In the opening to his book, Tozer declares that our answer to that question is “the most important thing about us.” What “attributes” of God would you list? How much thought have you given the topic? Your experience of worship will be directly affected by your answers to these questions. Dallas Willard quotes theologian Adam Clarke on what God is like:
“The eternal, independent, and self-existent Being: The Being whose purpose and actions spring from himself, without foreign motive or influence: He who is absolute in dominion; the most pure, the most simple, the most spiritual of all essences; infinitely benevolent, beneficent, true and holy: The cause of all being, the upholder of all things; infinitely happy, because infinitely perfect; and eternally self-sufficient, needing nothing that he has made; illimitable in his immensity, inconceivable in his mode of existence, and indescribable in his essence; known fully only by himself, because an infinite mind can only be comprehended by itself. In a word, a Being who, from his infinite wisdom, cannot err or be deceived; and, from his infinite goodness, can do nothing but what is eternally just, right, and kind.” – Adam Clarke
When we imagine God “high and lifted up” (as in Isaiah 57:15), we come to Him with appropriate reverence and awe. We are transported beyond our fears and troubles by something “weightier” than all of them combined. Tozer quotes the English writer Joseph Addison, who wrote the following:
“When all Thy mercies, O my God,
My rising soul surveys,
Transported with the view, I’m lost
In wonder, love, and praise.”
Worship as Love
Richard Foster writes in Celebration of Discipline that “It is God who seeks, draws, persuades. Worship is the human response to the divine initiative…Worship is our response to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father.”
Without God first loving and pursuing us, we would have no basis for true worship, only for submission to His power and authority. Worship certainly includes submission, as in the line “All to Jesus I surrender”, but something beyond surrender occurs in worship. Enemies can surrender. God wants us to unite with Him as lovers.
Foster uses the word “touch” to describe the interaction (“we have not worshiped the Lord until Spirit touches spirit…Until God touches and frees our spirit we cannot enter this realm.”) But here I want to push the envelope.
The way we use language is important. When I think of being “touched” in worship, I usually picture being emotionally moved in a tender, soothing way (“I was moved to tears” or “that was a moving testimony”). However, this image doesn’t fit with the scriptures in which God likens Israel’s worship of idols and foreign gods to “adultery”. One example is when God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, saying:
Think about it. If idol-worship is adultery, then worship of the LORD must be something more than just a moving sentiment or a touching experience. Worship must be something more akin to sexual love.
“Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood…like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,” declares the LORD. –Jeremiah 3:9,20
When we realize that sex symbolizes and points to our union with Christ, it will elevate our vision of worship to the naked vulnerability and rapturous passion of sex, which is only a dim reflection of the ideal. True worship is an act of consummation with the lover of our souls.
“Celebration is the heart of the way of Christ”, writes Richard Foster, “Celebration brings joy into life, and joy makes us strong…Celebration is central to all the Spiritual Disciplines. Without a joyful spirit of festivity, the Disciplines become dull, death-breathing tools in the hands of modern Pharisees. Every disciple should be characterized be carefree gaiety and a sense of thanksgiving…Without joyous celebration to infuse the other Disciplines, we will sooner or later abandon them. Joy produces energy. Joy makes us strong.”
We all know this intuitively. We all seek celebration in various forms. In holidays. In parties. We know that life cannot be faced without it. And yet sometimes we foolishly place the cart before the horse. As Foster counsels, “Joy is found in obedience. When the power that is in Jesus reaches into our work and play and redeems them, there will be joy where once there was mourning.”
What this means is that true celebration is not an escape, it is an enjoyment of God’s truth and of ultimate reality. If anything, the hard work that is involved in obedience is the “real life” that precedes the “real life” of celebration. In this way, celebration can finally be real, instead of being mere escapism.
The joviality enjoyed during celebration (which is best enjoyed in community) will refresh and empower us to practice the other disciplines. Whenever I meet with someone in counseling who has not experienced this discipline in a corporate context, I encourage her or him to pursue a means of doing so.
As Foster urges, “Celebration gives the strength to live in all the other Disciplines. When faithfully pursed, the other Disciplines bring us deliverance from those things that have made our lives miserable for years which, in turn, evokes increased celebration. Thus, an unbroken circle of life and power is formed.”
If you are inspired or awakened by any of the Disciplines introduced in this series and you feel led to pursue them, please reach out to me or another counselor on this website, and we can help you along your journey toward a life of wholeness and fulfillment in the God of the universe.
Foster, R. J. (1988). Celebration of discipline: The path to spiritual growth. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Tozer, A.W. (1961). The knowledge of the holy. New York, NW: HarperCollins Publishers.
Smith, J. K. (2016). You are what you love: The spiritual power of habit. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
Willard, D. (2018). Life without lack: Living in the fullness of psalm 23. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
“Patagonia”, Courtesy of Christopher Burns, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “La Sagrada Familia”, Courtesy of Eleonora Albasi, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Are We Alone?”, Courtesy of David Huang, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Laughing with Friends”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License