Five core spiritual practices that will change your life
As followers of Jesus Christ, we seek to experience the “life to the full” that Jesus promises (John 10:10). To do this, we engage in a set of practices that help us experience the reality and power of God in our lives, and infuse our lives with purpose and meaning.
These practices are not a simple “checklist” or things we do to earn some kind of spiritual status. They are deep habits that form our lives and make the “faith” we profess real and experiential. Listen to this extended quote from Mark Buchanan, where he points out how engaging in spiritual practices is how we bring about change (ie “repentance”) in our lives:
Repentance is a ruthless dismantling of old ways of seeing and thinking, and then a diligent and vigilant building of new ones. …We need to change our minds, yes, but we also need to change our ways. And for this we require practices to embody and rehearse our change of mind. The physical is a handmaiden to the spiritual, but a necessary one, without practices — without gestures with which to honor fresh ways of perceiving — any change of mind will be superficial, artificial, short-lived.
We might attain a genuinely new thought, but without some way of putting it into practice, the thought gets suck in abstractions, lost in forgetting. Good practices are both catalysts and incubators for new thoughts, they initiate them, and they nurture them. But they do even more: they make real our change of mind. …
When salvation comes to your house [cf. Zacchaeus’ story in Luke 19], first you think differently, then you act differently. First you shift the imagination with which you perceive this world, and then you enact gestures with which you honor it.” — Mark Buchanan
Of course there is nothing new about the spiritual practices I suggest here, and we may have already been engaging regularly in all of them. But our calling is to engage more deliberately in them, believing that doing so will stimulate our spiritual lives, and bless others.
The five practices are:
(a) Daily Retreat Time — to set aside some time each day to quiet ourselves and connect with God
(b) Weekly Sabbath — to set aside a day each week for rest and worship, gathering with other believers
(c) Regular Service — to engage in meaningful service, investing our time, talent, and treasure in building the Kingdom of God
(d) Missional Living — to live missionally, finding ways to bless and include several people in our lives each week
(e) Living with Love — to grow in our capacity to demonstrate love in our relationships with others, especially those in the church, through listening, honesty, directness, and compassion
Let’s talk about them in more detail. I describe them below, and offer some additional reflections from a variety of authors.
1. The practice of a daily retreat time
This practice is essential, especially given the busyness of our lives today. It is a time we set aside to quiet ourselves and connect to God through reading scripture or other spiritual teaching, meditating, and praying.
This is the time we intentionally quiet the voice of our “inner chatterbox” … the old self (sometimes called “the ego”). Instead of tuning into all the “to do’s,” frustrations, and “things to worry about”, we let them go … giving them over to God. We don’t feel guilt for having all these thoughts come up during our quiet time, we simply turn them over to God.
This is the time when we seek to learn, to hear from God, to be reminded of the truths about who we are, who God is, and what really matters in life. It is a time that our perspective changes, as we get the chance to recalibrate ourselves by looking at our lives from the Spirit’s perspectives.
There is no set length of time mandated for this. We just do it every day, and do it for as long as we can, or least as long as we need to. Listen to these words about prayer from Allen Verhey and Joan Chittister:
“In learning to pray, Christians learn a practice — and the good intrinsic to that practice. They learn, that is, to attend to God, to look to God. And they learn that not just intellectually, not just as an idea. In learning to pray, they learn a human activity that engages their bodies as well as their minds, their affections and passions and loyalties as well as their rationality, and that focuses their lives and their common life upon God.
“To attend to God is not easy to learn — or painless. And given our inveterate attention to ourselves and to our own needs and wants, we frequently corrupt it. …In learning to pray, Christians learn to look to God and, after the blinding vision, to begin to look at all else in a new light. In prayer they do not attend to something beyond God that God — or prayer — might be used in order to reach; they attend to God. That is the good intrinsic to prayer, the good ‘internal to that form of activity,’ simple attention to God.” — Allen Verhey
“Spiritual reading is food for our souls. As we slowly let the words of the Bible or any spiritual book enter into our minds and descend into our hearts, we become different people. The Word gradually becomes flesh in us and thus transforms our whole beings. Thus spiritual reading is a continuing incarnation of the divine Word within us. In and through Jesus, the Christ, God became flesh long ago. In and through our reading of God’s Word and our reflection on it, God becomes flesh in us now and thus makes us into living Christs for today.” — Henri Nouwen
“The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer. But when that attitude takes over, we have begun the last trip down a very short road because, without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down. The fuel runs out. We become our own worst enemies: we call ourselves too tired and too busy to pray when, in reality, we are too tired and too busy not to pray.
Eventually, the burdens of the day wear us down and we no longer remember why we decided to do what we’re doing: work for this project, marry this woman, have these children, minister in this place. And if I cannot remember why I decided to do this, I cannot figure out how I can go on with it. I am tired and the vision just gets dimmer and dimmer.
To pray when we cannot, on the other hand, is to let God be our prayer. The spirituality of regularity requires that we turn over our bruised and bleeding and fragmented and distracted selves to the possibility of conversion, in memory and in hope, in good times and in bad, day after day after day, morning and night, this year and next.” — Joan Chittister
2. The practice of weekly sabbath … time for rest, renewal, and gathering with our spiritual community
Like the daily retreat time, this is a simple commitment that seems to have a magic to it — when we do it, it provides blessing and support to us on many different levels:
- It brings rest and renewal to us, because we are living in the natural rhythm that God has built into creation, rather than running and pushing with activity seven days a week like a machine.
- It forces us to grow in our trust in God, and it undermines the old self / ego, because if we stop to rest we will always be bombarded with a mental list of dozens of things we “should be doing” and “need to take care of.” The weekly time of renewal reminds us that God is in control, and our lives will continue to be good and blessed even if we don’t push and stress and fret to make things happen.
- This habit puts us into a place of worship with other believers in our community. We get the blessing and encouragement of being around like-minded friends. It prevents us from being isolated and lonely, because it is a time to gather with others in community.
- During our gathering time we are nurtured spiritually in our church service. We’re reminded about the truth about God, ourselves, the world, and our place in it. We are encouraged to worship … to lift our eyes beyond ourselves.
As with all the spiritual practices, this is not something to be legalistic about. Our schedules are fluid, and sometimes things come up on Sunday that we need to do. And sometimes things that might be considered “work” to some might be renewing for us. The point is simply to make room in our lives for rest and renewal on that day, to the best of our ability. We try to take care of the “work” and responsibilities on Saturdays, so we can rest and be restored on Sundays. And of course, we gather in church whenever we are able. Sometimes we’re gone, or not feeling well.
Listen to these words about Sabbath-keeping, by Lynne Baab and Mark Buchanan:
“The Sabbath teaches us grace because it connects us experientially to the basic truth that nothing we do will earn God’s love. As long as we are working hard, using our gifts to serve others, experiencing joy in our work along with the toil, we are always in danger of believing that our actions trigger God’s love for us. Only in stopping, really stopping, do we teach our hearts and souls that we are loved apart from what we do. During a day of rest, we have the chance to take a deep breath and look at our lives. God is at work every minute of our days, yet we seldom notice. Noticing requires intentional stopping, and the Sabbath provides that opportunity. On the Sabbath we can take a moment to see the beauty of a maple leaf, created with great care by our loving Creator….
“Without time to stop, we cannot notice God’s hand in our lives, practice thankfulness, step outside our culture’s values or explore our deepest longings. Without time to rest, we will seriously undermine our ability to experience God’s unconditional love and acceptance. The Sabbath is a gift whose blessings cannot be found anywhere else.” — Lynne Baab
“[As a result of sabbath-keeping] You will know this finding of soul and God is happening by an increased sense of who you are and a lessening of the feeling that you have to do this, that, and the other thing…. That harassing, hovering feeling of ‘have to’ largely comes from the vacuum in your soul, where you ought to be at home with your Father in his kingdom. As the vacuum is rightly filled, you will increasingly know that you do not have to do many of those things — not even those you want to do. Liberation from your own desires is one of the greatest gifts of solitude and silence. When this all begins to happen, you will know you are arriving where you ought to be. Old bondages to wrongdoing will begin to drop off as you see them for what they are. And the possibility of really loving people will dawn upon you. Soon you will enter into the experience of what it is to live by grace, rather than just talk about it.” — Dallas Willard
“And now we’re all tired. We dream of that day when our work will be done, when we can finally wash the dust of it from our skin, but that day never comes. We look in vain for the day of our work’s completion. But it is mythical, like unicorns and dragons. So we dream…. [But] God, out of the bounty of his own nature, held this day apart and stepped fully into it, then turned and said, ‘Come, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, Come, and I will give you rest. Come, join me here.’” — Mark Buchanan
3. The Practice of Service
This practice is probably the most easy to understand, and its place in the spiritual life most obvious. God created us to be containers and channels of his blessings. God blesses us and those blessings overflow into the lives of others. This habit is what keeps us from withholding.
The practice of service means that we intentionally seek to invest our lives … giving of our time, our talents, and our treasure.
In some senses, this practice is natural and instinctual. We WANT to invest ourselves in things we find meaningful. We want our lives to count. So we look for ways to use our time and talents to help other people. Some of us do this in careers that help others. Some of us do this by getting involved in programs and activities outside of the church that help and bless other people. But we also use our gifts and our time to serve God through the ministries of the church. It’s a balance, and there may likely be seasons where we invest more heavily in one area than another.
This practice is also a discipline and can sometimes be a challenge for us. We give of ourselves because it’s right to do so, even though sometimes it might not feel fun or rewarding. We learn lessons and grow in faith in ways that can only happen if we are involved in service. As has often been said, “Christianity is not a spectator sport.” We have been trained by our 21st century world to be spectators and consumers … but the abundant life can only be experienced when we are players in the game, and we’re getting our hands dirty in service.
Service also relates to financial giving. We give God a portion of our income … always being reminded that our blessings come from God, and that giving them to others blesses others, but it also blesses us. It helps break the power of materialism and lack of faith that often characterizes our lives.
Listen to these words about service, and its place in the spiritual life, from Pope Francis, Thomas Merton, and Evelyn Underhill:
“The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” — Pope Francis
“Do you think the way to sanctity is to lock yourself up with prayers and your books and the meditations that please and interest your mind, to protect yourself with many walls, against people you consider stupid? …in the refusal of activities and works which are necessary for the good of others but which happen to bore and distract you? …by winding yourself up in a cocoon of spiritual and aesthetic pleasures, instead of renouncing all your tastes and desires and ambitions and satisfactions for the love of Christ, Who will not even live within you if you cannot find Him in other people? Far from being essentially opposed to each other, interior contemplation and external activity are two aspects of the same love of God.” — Thomas Merton
“For [mystics,] contemplation and action are not opposites, but two interdependent forms of a life that is one — a life that rushes out to a passionate communion with the true and beautiful, only that it may draw from this direct experience of Reality a new intensity wherewith to handle the world of things; and remake it, or at least some little bit of it, ‘nearer to the heart’s desire.’” — Evelyn Underhill
4. The Practice of Living Missionally
God intends for His blessings in our lives to spill over and positively influence the people around us. We are to be salt and light in our world. He has placed us in work environments, neighborhoods, schools, and social groups so that we can be a blessing to the people in those groups. “Living missionally” is the practice of reminding ourselves of this, and seeking to reach out and bring blessings whenever and wherever we can.
On the one hand it would seem that this should simply happen automatically. Light just shines, and gives light to everyone around it. Just by being itself, salt affects the objects it comes into contact with.
The problem is that our modern world is so busy, and our relationships are often so scattered and short-lived, that “living missionally” usually doesn’t happen unless we are intentional about it. So we make it a goal to do two things:
- To find ways to bless several people each week, at least one of whom is not from our church. We “bless others” by sharing an especially kind or encouraging word, or doing something helpful or beneficial to them.
- To find ways of including several people in our lives each week, at least one of whom is not from our church. The way we include other people in our lives is often centered around food, either having people over for a meal, meeting in a restaurant, or having coffee together and visiting.
It might be tempting to dismiss this practice as “too extroverted” for people who are introverts, or “too hard” for those who’ve grown up in church contexts and only seem to have “church friends.” Once again, we’re not approaching this from the standpoint of legalism … this is a practice we are seeking to grow in.
If we feel discouraged about this habit, we will very likely be surprised at the change that will take place in our lives once we start making this a matter of prayer, and start intentionally seeking out opportunities to bless and include people.
Listen to these words about sharing the love of God with others by Madeleine L’Engle, Henry Nouwen, Heidi Baker, and Teresa of Avila:
“We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” — Madeleine L’Engle
“If we want to be witnesses like Jesus, our only concern should be to be as alive with the love of God as Jesus was.” — Henri Nouwen
“Ministry is simply about loving the person in front of you. It’s about stopping for the one and being the very fragrance of Jesus to a lost and dying world.” — Heidi Baker
“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.”
- Teresa of Avila
5. The practice of Living with Love
Writers in the New Testament talk at length about the importance of the quality of loving relationships we have with one another in the church. Jesus goes so far as to say that this is the very thing that will demonstrate to people that we are truly his disciples. It is the second part of the Great Commandment … to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
This habit does not come easily or naturally for many of us. In modern Western society, we’ve seen the breakdown of community and family bonds, and many people struggle to develop and maintain healthy, close relationships. Many people haven’t learned the skills, or developed the character qualities required to bear with others who are different and difficult, and/or to work through the conflict that inevitably arises when relationships move beyond superficiality.
In many ways, a healthy church is both a training ground and proving ground for these skills of relationships. Being a follower of Jesus causes us to be especially aware of how we relate to others. As Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 13, we can be super-dedicated, and appear super-spiritual, but if we don’t have love … it’s pointless.
So how do we focus on living with love? We pay special attention, giving ourselves reminders about, and frequently reflecting on how we’re doing in:
- listening — learning to really hear the other person’s perspective and feelings
- honesty — having the courage to let someone know what we are feeling and thinking, even when it’s hard to say (of course doing so with compassion … see below)
- directness — making a commitment to working through conflict with someone, rather than triangling with others, and talking about that person behind their back
- compassion — learning how, and disciplining ourselves, to speak in ways that are honest but don’t inflict harm (some people refer to this as “non-violent communication”)
Listen to these words about about the centrality of loving others in the Christian life, from Pete Scazzero, Hannah Hurnard, Gustavo Gutierrez, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Charles deFoucauld:
“Learning to love well is among our most important tasks as Christ-followers. Learning to listen, ‘fight’ cleanly, and speak clearly and honestly (to name a few) are foundational for being a healthy community.” — Pete Scazzero
“Holiness is a most lovely word in the Bible sense. It means to be separated and set apart; separated, in fact, from all that is not love and set apart for one purpose only, that the Spirit of Holy Love may dwell in us and think in us and express himself through us. Holy people are people in whom holy love is incarnate. …There is no evil except in the negation of love, which is the law on which God has founded his whole universe. Sin is love turned inward to the self, instead of outward to our Creator and to all mankind whom he has created.” — Hannah Hurnard
“Liberation from sin is liberation from the refusal to love.” — Gustavo Gutierrez
“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
“One learns to love God by loving men and women.” — Charles deFoucauld
So those are the five core spiritual practices I believe we should highlight and build our ministry around. If people were to devote themselves to these things — more so than they are right now — what could happen in their lives? What could happen in our churches? I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to think of the possibilities.