Given all the complexities of Christian living, we’re all looking for ways we can build the kind of faith that will survive the crises of life.
Someone once said that spiritual transformation is not a matter of trying harder, but of training smarter (more wisely). In other words, we become more compassionate and centered, not by putting in more and more blood, sweat, and tears, but by becoming more intentional and strategic in the activities we engage in. These activities that build the spiritual life, that facilitate life transformation in regard to the divine life, have traditionally been called “spiritual disciplines” and have been practiced for centuries by people who take godliness seriously.
This is why the most prolific writer in the New Testament, Paul, encouraged one of his young protégés (Timothy) to “train yourself in godliness” (1 Tim. 4:8, Weymouth New Testament). He said, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Cor. 9:25, NIV). Paul is using an athletic metaphor to talk about the spiritual life. He knows that athletes, to compete well, don’t simply try harder at their sport. They train—they undergo strategic, thoughtful, coached-based training that lasts months and years before the competitive event.
So what are some of those strategic disciplines that empower our spiritual lives and shape our hearts to be more like the divine heart?
Prayer and Meditation. Setting aside intentional time to stop the hustle and bustle of daily activity and move into a quiet, reflective space is crucial to spiritual depth. Prayer is several things: quietness; meditation in which our thoughts and minds are centered on God; reflection on God; listening to the divine spirit that speaks to our hearts and souls; and speaking to God, sharing the depth of our feelings, thoughts, and experiences with God, expressing ourselves to God.
This kind of deliberate, intentional prayer is a significant experience. Prayer helps to block out the loud voices and noises that surround us all day long. It facilitates our silence before God so we can hear God’s voice speak to us, prompting us, tugging at our hearts. It centers us in the very love and compassion of God’s heart. It helps to remind us of who we are and to whom we belong.
For prayer to be a meaningful and effective discipline, it needs to be scheduled—a specific time and place should be set aside with as few distractions as possible. And it should be regular. In addition, sometimes spontaneous moments of silence and focused prayer can be engaged in during any point of the day. This practice can also help to concentrate your heart and mind and soul on God. And there are also extended times of focused prayer that can be helpful to your spiritual depth and transformation: Retreat settings lasting a day or more, during which you focus your heart, mind, and spirit on God.
Scripture Reading and Meditation. Paul, one of the writers of the New Testament, stated this profound spiritual reality: “And we all, . . . beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image” (1 Cor. 3:18, ESV). This is, in fact, rooted in a significant psychological truth: we become what we think. And in his context, he was talking about beholding the glory of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. His point was that as a person spends time looking at the stories of God as revealed by Jesus’ life—the word “beholding” literally means “contemplating upon, reflecting on, thinking about”—that person is changed more and more into the likeness of God. “From one degree of glory to another,” he wrote (v. 18, ESV). Scripture reading and meditation have always been one of the central spiritual disciplines for transformation. This involves setting aside specific time to open Sacred Scripture and read it, allowing it to sink into the heart and soul, to affect the mind with its words, thoughts, concepts, stories, lessons.
Here are some helpful questions to ask when reading: What does this story/text/thought say to me right now? What is God trying to communicate to me? In what way(s) am I like the person being described in this story or section? What would it feel like to be this person in that place, at that time, and how would I respond in that person’s situation? Where am I hearing God’s voice speaking to me in this passage/section/story? What am I learning right now?
Jesus once made the following spiritual observation: “ ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” ’ ” (Matt. 4:4, NKJV). In other words, as much as we need physical food to stay physically alive, so much more do we need spiritual food for our spiritual dimension to have life. Sacred Scripture reading and meditation (listening to the voice of God) help provide that necessary “food.”
Fasting. In a culture that specializes in over-consumption of every kind, the idea of fasting from anything may sound unappealing. Our senses are bombarded every day with messages that tell us we don’t have enough, that we need more (especially the “more” that the advertisers are trying to sell us). Our culture is caught up in consumerism, materialism, hedonism, and narcissism—and all the other kinds of “isms” that carry with them having and needing more.
But it’s exactly because of this kind of incessant exposure that fasting takes on spiritual significance. Fasting is the practice of intentionally abstaining from something for a specific period of time and for a specific purpose. There are many different kinds of fasts that people have found helpful: food fasts, entertainment fasts (such as fasts from TV, movies, the Internet, or even reading certain materials), sugar fasts, sexual activity fasts, and the list is endless. The purpose is to give your mind and body a break from something that you typically feel a need for to engage in a more intense opportunity for spiritual activities, for spiritual focus.*