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Ways to Improve our Spiritual Life
The passages below are taken from Bill Hybels’ book “Honest to God?” published in 1990 by Strand Publishing.
I backed the car out of the driveway as I do every morning at 5:45. I switched the radio from a program on ethics to the Tokyo stock closing. While I drove through the neighboring subdivision, I mentally critiqued architectural designs. I bought coffee at the twenty-four-hour coffee shop and successfully avoided the talkative cashier. As I turned onto the church campus, I formulated a convincing defense for a ministry plan I hoped the staff would adopt. I climbed to my third-floor office, wondering about the productivity of the night-time maintenance crew. I shuffled through the mountain of mail on my desk and wished someone else could answer it.
I spun my chair around and looked out the window at the church lake, steaming in the crispness of the morning. In that quiet moment I saw the previous quarter hour for what it had been---an hour tainted by purely human perspective. Not once during that hour had I seen the world through godly eyes. I had been more interested in international finances than in the moral demise of our nation. I had thought more about houses than the people inside them. I had considered the tasks awaiting me more important than the woman who served my coffee. I had been more intent on logically supporting my plans than sincerely seeking God’s. I’d thought more about staff members’ productivity than their walk with the Lord or their family life. I’d viewed correspondence as a drudgery rather than a way to offer encouragement, counsel, or help.
It was 6:00 A.M. and I needed a renewed heart and mind. Like a compass out of adjustment, my thoughts and feelings were pointing in the wrong direction. They needed to be recalibrated---to be realigned with God’s accurate, perfect perspective.
You see, in the space of a day my relationship with Jesus Christ can fall from the heights to the depths, from vitality to superficiality, from life-changing interaction to meaningless ritual. That’s a humbling admission, but it’s true. In a mere twenty-four hours, I can slide from spiritual authenticity into spiritual inauthenticity.
Some years ago I got tired of this daily descent. I decided then either to do something to stop it, or to get out of the ministry. Christendom didn’t need another inauthentic leader.
I began to pray for guidance and to experiment with various disciplines that would help me be more consistent. Eventually I developed a three-phased discipline that I employ every day to keep me truly “connected” to God. It’s not the only path to spiritual authenticity, but for me and many of my friends, coworkers, and church members, it’s proven to be a genuinely life-changing discipline.
YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?
Over the years, as I traveled and spoke at churches and conferences, I occasionally met leaders who somehow seemed to avoid the daily slide into artificial Christianity. Whenever I could, I asked what their secret was. In almost every case, they said “journaling”---the daily process of examining and evaluating their lives in written form.
Now if you think I heard that and ran right out to buy a journal, you’re dead wrong. I thought the idea was ridiculous. I envisioned the saints of antiquity, with fragile parchments and ink-dipped quills, waxing eloquent in the flickering light of a candle. People who had time for that were not like me. They didn’t have my schedule or live with my kind of pressure. Besides, blank sheets of paper scared me. I’m not the “deep” type; I haven’t had an original thought in my life. What would I write?
Still I had to admit that too often I repeated the same mistakes again and again. Too often I went to bed with regrets about my actions. Too often I made decisions inconsistent with my professed values. In a rare moment of honesty, I face the fact that I was living under the tyranny of an unexamined life.
At that time I was chaplain for the Chicago Bears. Occasionally before the Monday morning Bible study, I’d join them at Halas Hall while they watched films and did post-game analysis. They would go over every play of the previous day’s game so they could learn from their mistakes and not repeat them in the next game.
Finally I understood. The journalers were simply telling me to do a post-game analysis! How could I expect to be conformed to the image of Christ without evaluating my mistakes and progress? How could I grow without examining my character, decision-making, ministry, marriage, and child-rearing?
Maybe journaling was for me.
I was still worried about facing a blank sheet of paper, but a well-known author offered a simple suggestion: Buy a spiral notebook and restrict yourself to one page a day. Every day start with the word “Yesterday.” Write a brief description of people you met with, decisions you made, thoughts or feelings you had, high points, low points, frustrations, Bible-reading---anything about the previous day. Then analyze it. Did you make good decisions, or bad? Did you use your time wisely or waste it? Should you have done anything differently?
Evaluating my day would help me avoid repeating mistakes. But writing for five or ten minutes would also slow down my pace. I knew I needed that. I’m a morning person, and when I get to the office at 6:00 A.M., I’m ready to roll. The phone starts ringing, the adrenaline starts pumping, and there’s no stopping me. If journaling could slow me down, I would be ready to really connect with God.
I decided to try it. My first journal entry says this: “Yesterday I said I hated the concept of journals, and I still do. But if this is what it takes to rid myself of inauthentic spirituality, I’ll do it. If this is what it takes to reduce my RPMs enough to talk and walk with Christ, I’ll do it. I’ll journal.”
And I have---nearly every day. I’ve never written anything profound, but in simple terms I’ve chronicled the activity of God in my life, relationships, marriage, children, and ministry. I’ve also worked through feelings, confronted fears, and weighed decisions. And I’ve slowed down enough to meet with God.
The only problem with slowing down and meeting with God was that I realized I didn’t have much to say. The second part of my path to spiritual authenticity, my prayer life, was amazingly weak, and had been for years.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted to pray. I always had good intentions. I tried to pray. But I would get down on my knees and say, “Dear God and in five seconds my mind would be in outer space. I would start thinking of people I hadn’t seen in years, making up solutions for problems that didn’t exist, strategizing for new ministries, or planning family vacations.
It was so frustrating. I normally have tremendous ability to concentrate. I pride myself on being able to stick with a project till it’s done. But prayer did me in every time. I would hear people speak of praying for four hours, and I would feel terrible knowing I couldn’t pray for four minutes.
I would probably still be a prayerless man if a friend hadn’t suggested his habit of writing out his prayers. He said God created him with a very active mind, and the only way he had been able to “capture” it and focus on God was to write out his prayers. I thought, “That’s me! That’s what I need to do.”
Another concern I had about my prayer life was imbalance. I knew how easy it was to fall into the “Please God” syndrome. “Please God, give me ... help me ... comfort me... strengthen me I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to pray with balance. So I adopted a simple pattern of talking to God that’s not original with me. But it includes the four sturdy legs of balanced prayer.
Each morning after filling my “yesterday page,” I write a big A on the next page, then spend a few minutes writing a paragraph of praise to the Lord. Sometimes I paraphrase a psalm, or attempt to write a poem. Sometimes I write the words to a praise song, then sing it quietly in the privacy of my office. Often I focus on the attributes of God, sometimes listing them all, sometimes meditating on just one.
Though I’ve been a Christian for years, I never privately worshiped God on a consistent basis---until I started writing out my prayers. Worship is foreign to us. We were made for it. Yet because of sin, worship doesn’t come naturally. We have to work at it; we have to be disciplined about it. And like any other learned activity, the first few times we try it, we feel awkward. But our sincerity, not our eloquence, is what matters to God.
There are several reasons for beginning prayer with worship. First, worship reminds us that we’re addressing the Holy Majestic God and prevents us from reducing prayer to a wish list---the “Please God . . .syndrome again.
Second, worship reestablishes the identity of God. It reminds us that God has power to intervene in any situation, that He cares about us, and that whether we’re in a car, an office, or on an airplane, He is always available to us.
Adoration also purges. After five or ten minutes in adoration, I find my spirit has been softened. My heart has been purified. My agenda changes. That burning issue I just had to bring to God’s attention suddenly seems less crucial. My sense of desperation subsides. I begin to say, and mean, “It is well with my soul. I am enjoying You, God. I am at peace.”
Finally, adoration is the appropriate introduction to prayer simply because God deserves it.
Begin to worship God when you pray. Be creative. Experiment. Use choruses and psalms to get you started. Don’t worry if you feel clumsy at first. God’s heart is thrilled by even our most feeble attempts.
I used to be an “oops” confessor. I would say an unkind word to someone, then say, “Oops, Lord, I’ll have to confess that to You later.” Then I would exaggerate a story, and say, “Oops, Lord, I’ll catch that one later too.” All day I would add to the tally, fully intending to clear the bill later.
But later seldom came. When it did, I would make a blanket confession of “my many sins.” I thought I was wonderfully honest and humble, claiming my sins like that. In reality, it was a colossal cop-out.
You see, blanket confessions are nice, virtually painless. But they do nothing to transform our hearts. It seems confession has to hurt a bit, even embarrass us, before we’ll take it seriously.
One way to make confession hurt is to write out specific sins. Do you know what it’s like to see your sins in print? Try writing something like this: “Yesterday I chose to wound Lynne with my words. I was cruel, insensitive and sinful.” Or, “Last night I told Todd I would play ball with him, but I didn’t keep my word. I lied to my son.”
It’s so easy to justify our behavior: “I had a rough day. I was busy. Lynne shouldn’t have expected so much from me.” Or, “I intended to play ball. It just didn’t work out.” But we need to see our sins for what they are. Writing them out helps.
In one particular Sunday message, I emphasized, the fact that we’re all sinners who need a Savior. After the service, a salesman informed me that he didn’t consider himself a sinner. I asked if he’d been absolutely faithful to his wife. “Well, I travel a lot, you know. . .” Then I asked about his expense account. “Oh, everybody stretches the truth a bit. . .” Finally, I questioned his sales techniques. Did he ever exaggerate or overstate a claim? “That’s standard in the industry. . .”
“Well,” I said, “you’ve just told me you’re an adulterer, a cheater, and a liar.”
“How dare you call me those awful things?!” He was appalled by my “brash insensitivity.”
As hard as it was for him to hear those words, I believe I did him a favor. I also believe I do myself a favor when I write in my journal, “I am a liar. I am greedy. I have a problem with lust. I am envious.” Two things happen when we confess our sins honestly.
First, we experience the freedom of forgiveness. For years I tried to run the race of faith with chains of unconfessed sin tangled around my legs. I didn’t know how much they were hindering me until I quit playing games and got honest with God.
Second, gratitude for God’s forgiveness motivates us to forsake our sin. Why hurt Someone who loves us that much? Why disobey Someone who extends grace to us?
There doesn’t appear to be much true confession in Christian circles. That’s a shame, because exciting things happen when God’s children get honest about their sin. Five days of having to call oneself a liar, a greedy person, a cheat, or whatever, is enough to drive any spiritually sensitive person to forsake that sin.
A man in my church recently began “confessing” in his journal. He said, “My sins didn’t bother me much before. Now I realize I have to take them seriously, and do my best to forsake them. When it comes to this sin business, I have to fish or cut bait.”
We all have to realize that sin is serious business and enlist the Holy Spirit’s help in forsaking it. Then we can make progress in rooting specific sins out of our lives, and we’ll know what Scripture means when it says, “the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV).
1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” For years I misunderstood this. I thought having feelings of gratitude toward God was the same as expressing thanksgiving. It isn’t.
Do you remember the ten lepers described in Luke 17? They begged Jesus to heal them, but when He did, only one of them bothered to thank Him. Jesus asked, “Where are the other nine?”
I am confident that the other nine were thankful. They had to be. If you had a debilitating, terminal illness that rotted your limbs and made you a social outcast, and suddenly you were cleansed and healed, wouldn’t you have tremendous feelings of gratitude toward your Healer? Of course you would. But nine lepers didn’t take the time to say it. And that mattered to Jesus.
One summer I took my son Todd for a helicopter ride at a county fair. He was so excited he could hardly stand it. Later, I thought he was asleep in the car until he slid his arm around my shoulder and said, “Dad, I just want to thank you for taking me to that fair.” That expression of gratitude tempted me to turn the car around and go back for round two.
When I understood the distinction between feeling gratitude and expressing thanksgiving, I decided to become a more “thanks-giving” man. I want to be like the one leper who ran back and showered Jesus with thanks. I want to be like Todd, who warmed my heart with his gratitude.
We’re God’s children. We have the power to offer Him joy through our thanksgiving. In my journal, I thank God for answered prayers, and for specific spiritual, relational, and material blessings. Almost everything in my life fits under one of those categories. By the time I finish my list, I’m ready to go back to adoration.
An added benefit of giving thanks is a transformed attitude. I used to be a very covetous man. I struggled hard with wanting more than I had. But a daily look at my blessings has led me from covetousness to contentment to awe at the abundance in my life.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6 NIV). After adoring God, confessing our sins, and thanking Him for His goodness, we’re in the right frame of mind to ask God for what we need.
Nothing is too big for God to handle or too small for Him to be interested in. But’ sometimes I still wonder if my requests are legitimate. So I’m honest with God. I say, “God, I’ve told You how I feel about this situation. You’ve asked me to make my requests known, so I have. I would love to see You do this. But if You have other plans, I don’t want to get in the way. If these requests are wrong, or the timing isn’t right, that’s fine. We’ll go Your way.”
Sometimes I don’t even know how to begin to pray about a certain situation. Then I say, “I don’t know what to say, Lord. If You’ll tell me how to pray, I’ll pray that way.”
God honors that kind of prayer. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”
I break my prayers into four categories: ministry, people, family, and personal.
Under ministry I pray for my church.
Under people I pray for my staff and elders, and I pray for my friends, both Christian and non-Christian.
Under family I pray for Lynne, Todd, and Shauna. I pray that I would be a godly husband and father. I pray about finances, education, vacations, and other areas of family life.
Under personal I pray about my character. I pray that God will help me be a more righteous man.
Make up your own categories of prayer. Then keep a list of what you’ve prayed about. After a few weeks, look back over it. You’ll be amazed at what God has done.
Journaling and writing out my prayers slow me down enough to hear God’s still, small voice. The third step in my daily discipline is to listen and ask God to speak to me.
Scripture says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10 NIV). It’s these quiet moments after prayer that really matter. They nourish authentic Christianity. Power flows out of stillness, strength out of solitude. Decisions that change the course of lives come out of these quiet times.
I begin with these words: “Lord, You talked to Your children all through history, and You said You’re an unchangeable God. Talk to me now. I’m listening. I’m open.”
Then I ask four questions. I never hear an audible voice, but often I get impressions that are so strong and real I write them down.
First I ask, “What is the next step in my relationship with You?” Sometimes I sense nothing, and interpret that to mean, “We’re all right. Don’t worry. If I wanted to say something I would. Just relax in My presence.”
At other times He seems to say, “Just trust me. I’ll help you.” Often God leads me to do things I’m uncertain of, and it’s easy to start operating out of fear. That’s when He reminds me that He’s trustworthy. He’ll be strong in my weakness; He’ll be adequate in my inadequacy.
Other times He tells me I need to learn more about His character. One time I sensed God telling me to loosen up. I was too concerned about trying to please Him, and had to learn to enjoy Him more.
Second, I ask, “What’s the next step in the development of my character?” I always get a response from this one. There seem to be plenty of rough edges for God to chip away at! “Honesty,” He’ll say, or “humility,” or “purity.”
God has taught me that, in regard to character, little things matter. At the office, I usually do only ministry-related correspondence; the church pays the postage. Occasionally, however, the distinction between ministry and personal correspondence blurs. Once during my listening time, I sensed God telling me to be more scrupulous in distinguishing between ministry and personal mail.
That afternoon I taped quarters to two of my outgoing letters. My secretary said, “What’s this?” I said, “Just pay the meter. It’s important.” It’s such a little thing. But not to God.
Third, I ask, “What’s the next step in my family life?” Again, God gets specific. “Be more encouraging to Lynne. Take time to serve her.” Or, “You’ve been out of town a lot. Plan a special getaway with the kids.” Being a godly husband and father is a tremendous challenge for me. I need God’s suggestions.
Finally, I ask, “What’s the next step in my ministry?” I don’t know how anyone survives ministry without listening to God. Most of my ideas for illustrations, messages, and new ministry directions come out of this time of listening. I would have little creativity and insight without it.
You might ask other questions: What’s the next step in my vocation? In my dating relationship? In my education?
Over time, you’ll become more adept at sensing God’s answers to these questions. You’ll receive Scripture verses, ideas, or insights that are just what you need. Those moments of inspiration will become precious memories you carry with you all day.
The great adventure of listening to God can be scary sometimes. Often God tells me to call or write to someone, or apologize for something I’ve done, or give away a possession, or start a new ministry, and I think, “Why? I don’t understand.”
But I’ve learned to walk by faith, not by sight. God’s leadings don’t have to make sense. Some of the wisest direction I’ve received has been ridiculous from a human viewpoint.
So if God tells you to write someone, write. If He tells you to serve somewhere, serve. Trust Him, and take the risk.
PURSUE THE DISCIPLINES
Several years ago, I played on a park district football team. During the warm-up before our first game, I learned that I would play middle linebacker on the defensive unit. That was fine with me; my favorite professional athlete is Mike Singletary, All-Pm middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears.
The game started. When it was time for the defense to take the field, I stood in my middle-linebacker position, determined to play with the same intensity and effectiveness I’d so often seen in Mike. Scenes of nationally televised Sunday afternoon football games flashed through my mind and psyched me for a major hit.
The opposing offensive unit approached the line to run their first play. Mimicking Mike, I crouched low and stared intently at the quarterback, readying myself to explode into the middle of the action in typical Singletary style. The battle raged. . . and reality struck with a vengeance. Using a simple head fake, the quarterback sent me in the opposite direction of the play, and the offense gained fifteen yards.
So went the rest of the game. By the fourth quarter I came to a brilliant conclusion. If I wanted to play football like Mike Singletary, I would have to do more than try to mimic his on-the-field actions. I would have to get behind the scenes, and practice like he practiced. I would have to lift weights and run laps like he did. I would have to memorize plays and study films as he did. If I wanted his success on the field, I would have to pursue his disciplines off the field. Discipline is no less important on the field of Christian living.
One of the most positive trends in the contemporary church is the recent interest in the spiritual disciplines. Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, has been called “the book of the decade,” and I believe it is. After five years of journaling, writing out my prayers, and listening to God, I am delighted to discover additional disciplines to further enhance my pursuit of a consistent spiritual life.
Willard asserts that the key to being conformed to the image of Christ is to follow Him in the overall style of life He chose for Himself.
If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father.1
If we want to be like Christ, we have to live as He lived. That doesn’t mean we focus on the special moments when His character and compassion shone in the public spotlight or try to mimic Him the way I tried to mimic Mike Singletary on the football field. It means we imitate His entire life, including the behind-the-scenes disciplines that prepared Him to shine when the pressure was on. It means we “practice the activities he practiced.”
What are these activities? The disciplines include “solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, intense study and meditation upon God’s Word and God’s way, and service to others.”2
Every true Christian wants to live like Jesus lived---to love the unlovely, to serve with grace, to resist temptation, to uphold conviction, to exhibit power. But we can only live that way if we devote ourselves to the same disciplines He practiced. If Jesus pursued these disciplines to maintain spiritual authenticity, how much more must we.
In his book, Willard suggests disciplines of abstinence and engagement. The former include solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice. The latter include study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission.
We have looked at the discipline of prayer. I conclude with discussions of the disciplines of solitude and fasting.
The discipline of solitude isn’t entirely new to me. For years I’ve spent my first hour at the office alone, journaling, praying, and listening. After that, I spend time in quiet message preparation before meeting with other staff members. I’ve also made periodic use of brief getaways for solitary retreats.
Recently, however, I have incorporated even more solitude into my schedule. As I get in better touch with the natural ebb and flow of my life, I see a direct correlation between ministry effectiveness and the amount of time I spend alone. Solitude builds my emotional and spiritual reserves and increases my ability to help others.
I am a relational person. I thrive on the stimulation of being with people. I’m learning, however, that there is a danger in being with people too much. It can drain my spiritual vitality and dilute my effectiveness. I may still enjoy being with people, but I have nothing worthwhile to offer them. Lately, when I’ve noticed my life getting too crowded with people and activity, I’ve scheduled lunchtimes alone. I go to a local restaurant, eat by myself, and let God refresh me.
Because of the demands in my work, I was often tempted to schedule ministry appointments one after the other. If I had an evening meeting at church, I would return to my office immediately after dinner so I could “get some work done” before the meeting. I’ve learned, however, that an hour of “disengaging” may be a better use of time. If I sit for an hour in my backyard, and enjoy the evening sun, I can attend the meeting refreshed and offer something worthwhile.
What do I do in these occasional hours of quietness? I step out of the day’s frantic pace, and focus my attention on God. I remind myself that He’s in control. I ask for the infilling power of His Spirit. I dwell on His love. Sometimes I sit and watch my kids play, or just sit quietly with my wife. Sometimes I walk in the country. There are no set rules for making solitude count. Just be quiet. Let God do His work.
I hesitate to write about fasting, because I’m such a novice at it. But if this book is to honestly chronicle the work of God in my life right now, I have to mention the tremendous impact that fasting has had on me.
There are numerous benefits to fasting. One is the purely physical benefit of cleansing our bodies; another is the psychological benefit of learning self-control and denial. But what has most benefited me is the increased alertness to spiritual perspectives. Prayer, Bible study, meditation on Scripture, worship---all are enhanced when I’m fasting. I think more clearly and become more sensitive to God’s leadings. I feel an inner abandonment that makes me a more usable vessel.
Once Jesus’ disciples complained because they were unable to cast out a certain demon. Jesus said, “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21 NIV). I’m beginning to understand why Jesus said that. Spiritually motivated fasting seems to unlock a deeper dimension of spiritual power. Recently I’ve sensed God working in and through me in ways I hadn’t previously experienced. I attribute the excitement and productivity in my ministry to this simple discipline of fasting.
Are you ready for a spiritual challenge that holds a storehouse of rewards? Try fasting. If you don’t know how to begin, read the fifth chapter of Stormie Omartian’s book, Greater Health God’s Way.4 She gives careful guidelines and thoroughly explains the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits.
To people who have grown up in food-obsessed America, fasting sounds like a fate worse than death. In reality, it opens the door to freedom and strength.
A WHOLE NEW DIMENSION
I took a giant step on the path to spiritual authenticity when I started journaling, writing out my prayers, and listening to God. The disciplines of solitude and fasting have opened up new dimensions of that journey.
I can’t say what it will take for you to become spiritually authentic. But I can say this: There are no shortcuts. Wishing for spirituality isn’t enough. Growth that produces power and consistency requires strategy and discipline. (17-29)
1. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988); ix.
2. Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, ix.
3. Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 158.
4. Stormie Omartian, Greater Health God’s Way (Canoga Park: Sparrow Press, 1984), 125—159.
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