NOTE: This is Part 2 in a series of posts about some of the discoveries I am making about spiritual practices as I journey along with God. To read post 1, click here.
Misconception #2: Spiritual Practices Are UNIFORM
I used to believe that spiritual practices were UNIFORM. I thought there was this set way everyone, everywhere was supposed to engage in these practices all the time. You should read the Bible like this and pray like that; you should be in solitude like this and fast like that; and if you didn’t…well…then they didn’t really count. They weren’t effective. They were just a waste of time. Truthfully, this really stressed me out! I certainly wanted to get these practices “right”, so I was constantly looking around at others to compare myself to them, to see if I was measuring, and to make sure I wasn’t messing up.
As a result when I was introduced to the idea of a “quiet time”, I clung to it like my life depended on it! It gave me a clear, clean process that I could follow. Step by step, I knew what to do. I knew I MUST… (funny that that same word from Part 1 comes up again here. I am a recovering “must-er”, okay!):
- get up in the wee hours of the morning (because that’s what Jesus did and clearly I will be holier if I do it just like him).
- go into a silent room by myself.
- sit in a chair (because honestly I might fall back to sleep if I sit on the couch).
- pray using A-C-T-S as my guide (A-doration, C-onfession, T-hanksgiving, S-upplication).
- read at least one chapter in my Bible a day and underline any significant words, phrases, or verses that stand out to me (which is a lot of underlining for me you guys).
- spend time in silence listening for what God might want to say to me,
- and journal about what God has taught me during this time.
If I completed all of this routine, then I could put a big checkmark out beside my checklist of these practices, because not only was I doing them like I MUST to be a “good” Christian, but I was also doing them the “right” way.
Now–before I go any further, if this or something similar to it is your routine of engaging in these practices and this brings you life, great! You keep right on at it! There is nothing wrong with engaging in these practices in this way, but here’s where the problem comes in: when we start to believe this is the only or ultimate way for us and everyone around us to encounter God.
You see, here’s the thing: God made each of us different, didn’t he? He gave us different personalities and preferences. He knows that we have different strengths and struggles. He understands we learn and grow in different ways—He designed us that way! God Himself did not make us UNIFORM, and so I don’t think God expects us to relate to Him through these practices in a UNIFORM way. Rather, the way each of us will engage in these practices will be as UNIQUE as God made us to be.
Practices that Help Us THRIVE
In his book Invitation to a Journey, Dr. Robert Mulholland tells the story of one of his students coming to him and admitting he was struggling spiritually. He said, “My devotional time is the pits. I’m just getting nothing out of it.” Maybe you’ve felt that way before. Maybe you feel like that way right now. In response, Dr. Mullholland asked this student to describe what he was doing, and he said, “Well, I have a quiet place in my apartment where I go and I sit. I try to get silent, I read the Scripture, I pray, and I try to meditate. It’s horrible.”
Dr. Mulholland knew this person’s personality. He knew that he was kind of a sensing, feeling kind of person, a person who liked to be active and hands on, and so he asked him, “How did you come to practice your devotional life in this way?” To which the student replied, “I was taught that if you want to have a good devotional life you go aside by yourself and sit quietly, read your Bible , pray and try to be silent and meditate and listen to God.”
That’s when Dr. Mulholland asked a question I think is so important for us to ask ourselves: “What are some of the times God has truly been alive for you, when God’s presence was real?” Rather than telling this student he needed to adhere to a UNIFORM rigid regimen, Dr. Mulholland prompted him to reflect on his UNIQUE relationship with God. The student thought about it and said, “When I am out walking in the woods and hearing the sounds of nature.” In light of this, Dr. Mulholland suggested he develop a devotional life that would incorporate these kinds of activities—to go for a walk in nature while he prayed, pondered Scripture, and fellowshipped with God.
It is important for us to pay attention to what helps us THRIVE in our relationship with God. What helps us feel connected to him? What are the practices through which God comes alive for us? When does his presence seems real? For some of us it might be sitting quietly in a room reading scripture, but for others of us it might be when we are creating art in response to what we’ve read. For some of us it might be as you journal your prayers in solitude, but for others when you are singing your prayers to God. Maybe you are not even sure yet when God is most alive for you, but don’t be afraid to try different practices out. Don’t feel like your spiritual life has to look exactly like anyone else’s. There is not set pattern you must follow, so get curious about what helps you connect to God.
PAUSE: Take a moment to reflect and perhaps jot down somewhere your response to this question: What practices help you THRIVE in your relationship with God? I’d love to hear your refections in the comments below!
Practices that Help Us BE REFINED
In the same way it is important to pay attention to the way we are uniquely made in order to discern the practices that will help us THRIVE in our relationship with God, it is just as important that we pay attention to the way we are uniquely made in order to discern the places in our lives where we need to BE REFINED. It is critical that we are aware of the points of greatest struggle in our lives—those places we most need to receive God’s loving grace.
The truth is all of our personalities have a shadow side. All of us have the potential for our greatest strengths to very easily become our greatest weaknesses at the same time. I am becoming more and more aware of this in my own life. Give me any kind of personality quiz—from Meyers Briggs to which Star War character are you, from Strengths Finders to what color describes your personality—and this one word is going to show up in the description of me: achiever. I’m not going to lie–being an achiever has its perks. I can get a whole lot stuff done—good stuff for God and others, for the kingdom of God. However as an achiever, there are a couple of things that are really, really a struggle for me.
- First of all, I am terrible at celebration. It is hard for me to stop to thank and praise God for what has been done, because as an achiever, there is always the next thing to be checked off the list.
- Secondly, I am really terrible at confession. As an achiever, I don’t like to fail. I don’t like to mess-up or be wrong. I really don’t want to acknowledge when I miss the mark, so I am not prone to naturally confess these things to God.
Taken together, my tendency as an achiever to forgo celebration and confession makes it very easy for me to fall victim to the sin of pride. It becomes very easy for me to believe my achievements are my own and that I’ve gotten everything right all the time.
That’s the bad news for me. That’s my shadow side. But’s here’s the good news: knowing and being aware of this creates this amazing opportunity for me to BE REFINED. There are spiritual practices I can intentionally choose to engage in that can help me receive God’s loving grace where I need it most. There are practices that can help dilute my pride and protect me from puffing up. For me, I have found the prayer of the examen to be a powerful practice in this way, as it guides me to engage in these two practices I wouldn’t normally choose to engage in on my own: celebration and confession.
EXPERIENCING THE PRACTICES: Prayer of Examen
In case you’ve never experienced the prayer of examen, I thought I might invite you to engage in this practice with me today. Perhaps it will be a practice you find helps you THRIVE or maybe it is a practice that you, like me, could engage in in order to BE REFINED. I like to use my body when I pray as a way of staying focused. Again, as an achiever, my mind is always racing on to the next thing. However, I have found that using my body helps me to be more involved and present than when I am just sitting still.
Get into a comfortable position, and begin by placing your palms upward toward the ceiling or sky. Let’s pray together.
Lord God, we are so grateful for your presence that is always with us every moment of every day, but God, in this moment, we pause to become more aware of how you have been working and moving in our lives.
Take a moment to think back over the events of this past week. Where has God been at work in your life? When did you sense his presence? When can you see, as you look back, that he was encouraging you…caring for you…providing for you what you need? How has he been shaping and forming you? As those things come to mind, imagine those moments sitting there in your hands, and allow yourself to feel the weight of God’s goodness and grace in your life
Now–let me invite you to turn your hands downward, and as you do, begin to pour out your praise to God for all those things you just named. Celebrate God for who He is and what He has done and is doing in your life.
Turn your hands upward once more. Lord God, our desire is to honor you with our lives—to love you with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love others as ourselves—but God, as we look back over this past week, we ask now that you would search our hearts and show us those places where our attitudes or actions fell short of that. Show us those places where we were out of step with you and your Spirit, who guides us to exhibit the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, or self-control…
Take a moment to allow God to bring those places to mind, and again picture them sitting in your hands. Reflect on what contributed to those situations and what might enable you to respond differently in the future.
Now–turn your hands downward once more, releasing those places in your life where you have not loved God and others as you confess them to God.
Finally, turn your hands upward once more to receive God’s grace and forgiveness in your life. Be assured that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. Feel God washing you clean, and take a moment to receive from God any guidance He might have for you. Ask him if there is anything you need to do to make things right in the situations you have confessed.
Thank you God for your goodness and grace that you pour into our lives. AMEN.
Continuing the Journey
Interested in learning more about what practices might help you thrive or be refined in light of your unique make up? The before mentioned Invitation to a Journey by Mulholland explores this, as does the Enneagram and the Way of Jesus by AJ Sherill and The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr.