Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
This was recently added as the first chapter of a book I wrote on the Spiritual Disciplines.
We need no great reason to write a book, but perhaps we need a good reason to publish what we have written! In an age in which there is no end of books on the spiritual life, why publish this handbook?
Books Great and Small
I have been encouraged by books of perennial greatness, but also by those of modest but substantial goodness. I have aspired to the latter. An example of the later is Jacques Phillippe’s Searching for and Maintaining Peace.[i] Such books do not attempt to cover all the bases but to provide a few practical insights in order to help readers on their way.
Too often, a writer attempts to say the final word on a subject. By the time we finish, our reader wishes we had indeed! That is one reason C.S. Lewis is so worthy of our esteem. When one realizes his depth of learning, it becomes apparent that he exercised self-control. How much must have fallen to the cutting room floor! He picks an image and runs with it. He is content to depict something well, without needing to exhaust the subject. When words are too many, we weary our readers and turn our work into performance (Proverbs 10:19).
Words require the contrast of space and silence. It is my hope that this book will help readers make space in their hearts for the Word of God to dwell richly.
For my Family.
My children do not usually see what I do when I rise or when go to bed, nor can I always be there for them. This book is a small way of filling out their religious education. It may perhaps be helpful to other Christians, young or old. I have imagined my reader as an intelligent first year college student.
As a college professor, I see how hungry students are for practical direction regarding their spiritual life. They are eager to learn disciplines that are rooted in Scripture and anthropology (the realities of human nature), disciplines which unite their day-to-day experience with the truths they believe. But they also need guidance in understanding precisely what it is they are doing when they practice the spiritual life. Finally, they need more than just books or sermons; they need Christians to stand with them and show them how they might live out their calling.
This book is not a systematic treatise on spirituality. Instead, it is an attempt to set the stage for further enrichment. It tills the soil by encouraging readers to form habits that will help them prepare for a lifetime of learning and walking with God.
We receive doctrine more deeply when our lives are already being formed by that doctrine. That is one reason why one does not explain a whole bunch of theology to children before bringing them to church for the first time! Our practices need to respect the realities of how we learn and grow. This is, in fact, what Scripture teaches (Matt. 19:14; Heb. 5:11-14).
Therefore, alongside learning doctrine, it is necessary to begin to form habits which flow from doctrine and the genuine framework of the Christian life. The habits of the spiritual life should come from (and return to strengthen) our faith, hope, and love, our prayer, and our communion. They should be shaped by the traditions of the Church and her corporate, historical character. This is, in fact, how we grow in Christ, respond to his calling, and learn to delight in the grace of God.
True religion belongs to the whole of life, to the whole person.
Knowledge Wed to Praxis
There are two polar errors which we tend to oscillate between:
• Substituting faith for practice
• Substituting practice for faith
We might loosely refer to these as legalism and Gnosticism. We need both (that is, faith and practice, not legalism or Gnosticism!). Faith and practice must continually be coordinated so that they can mutually inform, correct, and vivify one another. Without such a conjunction, alienation results (or is exacerbated) between the heart and mind, between experience and profession, between our desires and actions.
An illustration: It is typical to hear that if we love Jesus, we will obey him and that we will love him if we really know him. This is true. But when we continue to sin, we often conclude that we must not have really know him (and probably never will). We become passive and wait vaguely for a miracle (we despair). We conclude that we must not really have faith or that our faith is of some gravely defective sort.
This is not necessarily the case.
Growing in the knowledge of God often happens only when we learn and apply godly habits. This does not happen just by study or by will power!
Truly, without the Holy Spirit and a scripturally informed faith, we can never obey God as we ought. But when we fail to connect our faith with wise and fruitful practices, we effectively approach our sanctification as Gnostics. We imagine that faith is a matter of the mind alone, rather than something which concerns the whole person.
Even those who are trying their best often need good advice to help them on their way. For instance, one can try to fix a car with all the goodwill in the world. But a car manual and an experienced mechanic (someone who knows how to diagnose and repair cars) are both invaluable. My point is that a failure to grow is not always the fault of belief. It can also be because we need to be deeply shaped by true wisdom (Heb. 5:14).
We all need a good teacher. My hope is to remind readers that we have One. This book gives directions on how we might attend to some of the ways that God instructs us and communicates his grace to us. Without that kind of openness and obedience, we can hardly learn to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Psychological Identity Submitted to Spiritual Identity
Christianity is not a feeling.
There is no other doctor of the soul than Jesus Christ. And no other faith offers the soul what Christianity offers: true unity, healing, and fulfillment. Yet, it is important to know that our faith offers us much more. The chief effect and goal of faith is not emotional well-being, it is spiritual life. The one includes the other, but they are not identical.
Psychological well-being is deeply related to our spiritual life.[ii] Like Jesus Christ, who is both God and man, we must neither confuse nor utterly divide psychology and spirituality. I want to be very clear: they are not utterly distinct in any human being; nevertheless, a depressed Christian is still a Christian! One’s adoption and rebirth are spiritual realities which transcend thoughts and feelings. One is not a Christian because one feels reborn. Faith impels us to address every aspect of our life; however, we are being restored according to God’s wisdom. The foundation has been laid, but the work will not be completed in this life.
Again, I want to be careful. In the Christian tradition, our spirit (that is, the human spirit) is not something distinct from our soul. Our souls are spiritual. They are capable of love and intelligence, and, therefore, of worship. All that we do then, for good or for ill, is in some sense spiritual. In the Bible, ‘spirit’ (when not referring to the Holy Spirit) often means the core power and disposition of our souls. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we are renewed in our own spirit or inner man.
This new life reorients our soul to God at its most fundamental level. It is a share in the divine life itself. Ultimately, our rebirth is a deposit which promises eternal life: that we will one day see God as he is and be made like him (1 John 3:2). Included in that promise is a rectification of everything that is disordered or broken in us. This is why psychological well-being, in varying degrees, follows upon faith, as a kind of first fruits of that life. Yet the complete realization is not something we ought to expect right now. It is something we should seek and seek help in realizing. Nevertheless, in our psychological age we are prone to several serious errors:
• Equating spiritual well-being with emotional health (this can make our emotional and spiritual life much worse!)
• Treating emotions as indicative of absolute truths about us
• Treating emotions as alien to or unrelated to our well-being and spiritual life
• Attempting to manage our emotions and spiritual life on our own
• Treating our emotions as the goal or chief purpose of salvation
There are so many ways this needs to be addressed, but perhaps we begin with stating that our core identity is neither emotional nor cognitional. God cares about our feelings and thoughts, but we should not psychologize salvation or even its proximate end: happiness![iii] Who I am is not merely a feeling or an idea. Who I am in Christ is not just wishful thinking. Again, it is a spiritual reality, a grace laid hold of by faith (Eph. 2:8).
That life which we can begin to enjoy now (and which we will enjoy fully one day) promises much more than emotional fulfilment. We will meet the One who made us, who gave himself for us, who loves us and whom we love. When we do, we shall attain the ‘object’ of all desire and live in immediate communion and friendship with God. God will receive all blessing, honor, and glory (Rev. 5:13) and our nature will have been brought to its eschatological purpose and perfection.
Our end is fully personal and objective.
This has far-reaching consequences which include not only how we think of ourselves but how we experience church, the people we meet there, prayer, the liturgy, sacraments, and the ups and downs of life. When we begin to grasp the objective nature of salvation and our life in Christ, we begin to embrace a faith that can truly strengthen us for all of life (Heb. 11).
Along these lines, Dietrich Bonhoeffer urges readers in Life Together not to treat the church as a psychic reality.[iv] He does not mean that the church excludes the soul (the psyche), far from it! But we cannot receive the church’s most precious benefits or serve her faithfully until we embrace her spiritual existence and purpose. She does not exist merely to meet emotional and social needs. The church is not a club in which like-minded people get together to appreciate what a jolly lot thy are. This is part of why we do not (or should not) have a church just for those who like bowling or J.R.R. Tolkien. We might occasionally group off, but we must learn to live and worship together as one body.
The sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit works in the church by calling us to seek unity in Christ, a unity which transcends our feelings, pet ideas, and proclivities.[v] Where this is not the case, we do not learn how to love, but continue (secretly or not so secretly) to make everything and everyone subservient to our ego and its demands. When we seek unity in Christ, however, we grow in love and in psychological maturity. Our emotional life evens out because we begin to become capable of seeking something more than emotional well-being (Matt. 16:25). In doing so, our relationships and lives become richer, less self-serving, and less self-obsessed. Our tendency to psychologize and focus on ourselves is partly why I have attempted to avoid anecdotes in this book.
Again, this is not to deny the need for psychological well-being, connection, or the need for serious help sometimes. But we must continually test whether we ultimately prioritize our emotions over the spiritual life.
The spiritual life is akin to the mystery of a marriage, to a friendship which goes deeper and is more personal than any we can imagine. When God seems impersonal, it may be that we are not relating to him as a whole person. It is easy to confuse emotional connection with spiritual communion. It is easy to confuse personal connection with getting what we want. If a parent does not buy a child ice-cream, he or she is not necessarily being impersonal.
Every emotion, every judgment and practice should ultimately find its measure in Christ. Therefore, we ought to attempt to bring our passions into harmony with and into subordination to God, insofar as possible. This results in an experience of communion and quietness before him. In that quiet, we may discover a hope which does not disappoint. We may find a peace which is truly personal.
Habits, Virtue, and Sonship
I have mentioned the need for habits, the need to cease living the Christian life as a form of gnostic, self-hypnosis. This means a recovery of faith, hope, and love as virtues. They are not just slogans, nor are they just things God does to us or for us. They are modes of receiving and applying the grace of God. This little book is not a treatise on virtue, but it is perhaps a preamble to one. My hope is that when those who read this book come across more robust texts, such as Josef Pieper’s Four Cardinal Virtues, what they have found here will have been as milk to the meat before them.[vi]
The central framework of the Christians life is adoption and sonship. Every truly Christian virtue takes its meaning and unique stamp from the person of Christ. To grow in virtue is to grow up into his likeness. Through the Holy Spirit, we are made alive in and called to conformity to him. We await with hope and longing the total realization of who we are in Jesus. This aim should be clear in any approach to the spiritual life. This is what Paul means when he describes us as eagerly awaiting adoption (Romans 8:23).
Interiority, Mysticism, Presence
This book encourages readers to become attentive to God’s presence in their daily life. Part of authentic Christian mysticism is faith that God is in fact present in all we do. Our faith should lead us to attend to the personal power and presence of God in all our experiences. In this, we can discover the ballast and strength of a Godward interiority of soul.
There are a thousand ways we can err. Perhaps the greatest is in not making a beginning. This book is intended to help the beginner. In some sense, that is what we all are.
[i] Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart (New York: Alba House, 2002).
[ii] The root of psychology (‘psyche’) is the Greek for soul or life. Psychology therefore can refer to the whole person (in a rhetorical devise called synecdoche). Psychology can also be used in a more limited sense, referring only to the cogitative, emotive, and biological powers of the soul. Psychology in this narrow sense is only a part of our sanctification. 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Hebrews 4:12, and Matthew 22:37 use soul in this narrower sense. Matthew 10:39 uses soul in the broad sense, inclusive of whole person. Psychology is generally used in the narrow sense today. When it is, it should not be treated as the whole of or equivalent to the effects of regeneration.
[iii] The purpose of salvation can be considered from a number of aspects. The objective, ultimate end of salvation is God’s glory. The subjective, proximate end is our happiness or beatitude. Beatitude is our joy in beholding God’s face. Our happiness is the glory of God! It is not merely an emotional state, but our perfection and delight in knowing him. It brings our conformity to Christ to its most radical fulfilment. Christ exemplifies and accomplishes the unity of these ends. In him, we praise and glorify God. See Chapter 2 of Spiritual Theology by Jordan Aumann (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1980).
[iv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), Chapter I.
[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Chapter I.
[vi] Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011).