life together

The day I married my husband was such a special event. Of course, we had researched and planned and made bookings for months in advance. We wanted the day to be perfect, so we could always look back and remember this magical moment in time. The flowers, the cake, the vows, the dress, the speeches; it was all planned out so that we would remember our day forever.

But what if we had stopped there? It sounds silly to say that, of course. A wedding day is the beginning, not the end of the story. Following on from that day are many many more days, months and years together, building a life around the love that you share and learning how to become one, from two. It is a life made up of daily choices, rhythms and patterns that we weave together as we learn how to forge this romance into a partnership that will change and grow us both into fuller expressions of who we were made to be. 

We learn to listen, to say thank you, to apologise and to forgive. We learn to allow space for the other to be who they are, to have difficult conversations, to laugh and to celebrate. We do all this by practising, by being intentional, and ultimately by creating habits of life as a couple, and as part of our community, that reflect who we are and the people we are becoming.

This analogy helps me as I think about our life as disciples of Jesus. I grew up in a Christian home in a context that made much of that moment a person declares faith in Jesus. And rightly so. Like a wedding day, that decision or ‘conversion’ as we have come to call it, is worth celebrating! The one who was spiritually dead has come to life again! The one who was lost has been found! It is right to mark this point in time as the significant, pivotal juncture that it is.

So, what comes next?

a decision to a lifestyle

This is where we as believers might be a little more hazy. How do we translate that experience of salvation into a lifestyle? When I made my decision to say ‘yes’ to Jesus, I had some idea that baptism would follow, although I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. I thought that from that moment on, I would learn how to be a better person, but I wasn’t sure how that would happen. Apart from trying harder. Somehow I had the idea that everything important had happened in giving my assent to the lordship of Jesus. From then on everything would be different, but I wasn’t sure how.

This ‘how’ of living as a follower of Jesus is what Christian formation is all about. It is the process of learning to live like Jesus - and with Jesus - that follows the wedding day of our conversion experience. Richard Foster describes this as the ‘daring goal of the Christian life,’ which is ‘an ever-deepening reformation of our inner personality so that it reflects more and more the glory and goodness of God.’

As we come to understand that salvation is more than the forgiveness of sins, we sense an invitation to embark on a lifelong journey of reformation. This is what the Church calls the process of sanctification. That is, we are invited by God to recover our lives, the life of the Spirit that He intended to be our Source and our way of being. This is a journey of small incremental steps; we rise and we fall, and we rise again. And along the way, we are shaped into the kind of image-bearers God intended us to be, with a capacity to live as Jesus did on earth. We come to experience a wholeness and an integration that transforms our relationships, frees our personality, straightens our crooked ways of thinking and opens us up to the ‘fullness of life’ that Jesus said He came to earth to give us.

In order for that to happen, for us to experience this life of wholeness and abundance, we have to learn to put off our old ways of being and doing, and put on new habits and practices that make room for this slow, incremental transformation. This is precisely what the apostle Paul is teaching the Christians in Ephesus; that the gospel story reshapes every part of our life stories as, energised by the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, we become new human beings in whom the image of God is being restored.

habits for living well

Spiritual formation is not some added extra, then. Just as the experience of being married is not optional after the wedding day! Life itself is a process of spiritual development. Everyone is in a process of spiritual shaping, it is the primal reality of our human existence. “The only choice,” says Robert Mulholland Jr., “is whether that growth moves us toward wholeness in Christ” or not.

Spiritual practices - what some people know as spiritual disciplines, or holy habits - are those ways in which we proactively turn towards the purposes of God in our lives. C.S. Lewis, in his classic book ‘Mere Christianity,’ says it’s all about choices. “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.” This choosing places us before God, creating space for Him to do His work of grace within us.

I don’t remember hearing people talk about spiritual disciplines after I decided to follow Jesus. In any case, the word ‘discipline’ sounded like something uncomfortable and ill-fitting, like a self-imposed punishment. But I did learn about something my congregation called a ‘Quiet Time,’ a daily time of private scripture reading and prayer. As I sought to make this a habit, I thought maybe I was earning ‘spiritual brownie points’ or working the system somehow to earn a better grade from God. Only much later did I realise what a grace this habit became to me, as I misguidedly but mostly consistently placed myself before God for His word to get to work in my life.

Any habit engaged in for the purpose of being enlarged in our experience of God, begins its work by bringing about an awareness within us. I remember being struck in my bible reading by the emphasis on doing everything possible to keep relationships right. I was convicted to make it a practice to apologise to my brother, to regularly seek his forgiveness without needing to justify my actions or blame him for his. As I began practising this discipline, I became aware of how hard it was! Slowly it dawned on me that I was full of pride and self-righteous judgement that were getting in the way of our relationship. David Benner tells us that “we need to awaken and learn to see.” Intentional habits create space for this awakening process so that we see ourselves, and thus our need for God, more clearly.

Over time, these repeated choices of ours make room for the liberating work of God to free us from, what Richard Foster calls, ‘The stifling slavery to self-interest and fear.” The practice of regularly placing ourselves before God, of arranging our lives, as John Ortberg says, so that sin “no longer looks good to us,” has the effect of immersing us in the life of God while we are living our everyday lives. And it is in this everyday life, punctuated with intentional practices, that we learn what Plato called ‘the art of living well’ and what Jesus described as living life abundantly.

growing in love

While this may be new to you, as it was to me, in fact the transforming effect of intentional practices has been known to the Church since its earliest days. In response to a desire for more of God, the early Church added various practices to the basics of fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. The book of Acts describes habits of compassion, witness, intercession, service, fasting, discernment and fixed-hour prayer as believers sought to become the people of God in their communities.

The Didache is an early Christian text that gave instruction to believers on how to grow in love for God and others. Disciplines such as stewardship, chastity and the Lord’s Supper are mentioned. When persecution of the Church receded and Christianity became politicised and more nominal, the desert fathers moved into the desert in a desire to recover a more passionate love for God. Their desire to more intentionally partner with Jesus for transformation led them to practice disciplines of silence, solitude, contemplation, spiritual direction and detachment.

As the Church grew, monastic communities embraced what had been learned by the desert fathers and forged a way of life around similar disciplines. Scripture reading and memorisation, along with the practices of fixed-hour prayer, simplicity, meditation, service and hospitality came to mark these communities as they sought to deepen their life with God.

In our day and age, many of us lead scattered, busy and sometimes hurting lives. Our desire for more of God may lead us to practice disciplines like centring prayer, silence, solitude, retreat and unplugging. In his 1978 book ‘Celebration of Disciplines,’ Richard Foster describes practices that are inward, outward and corporate, as well as disciplines of engagement (exercising what Dallas Willard calls our ‘doing muscles’ in practices such as generosity) and abstinence (exercising our ‘not doing muscles’ in practices such as fasting). We may find that God leads us to engage in certain disciplines that are uniquely suited to our spiritual season, our age and stage of development, and our life circumstances. But whatever the focus of a spiritual practice, none is an end in itself, rather each is designed to help us partner with God as He does His work in us by the Spirit.

In all of this, I trust we hear an invitation from God. To partner with Him as He moves us from our separation and alienation from Him, from our un-likeness to the image of Christ, and towards wholeness in Christ in the context of a transforming relationship with God Himself. This movement characterises our lives as we allow the gospel story to effect every part of how we live our story, personally and in our neighbourhoods and families. 

channels of grace

In Jesus, then, we have found grace. This grace has opened up a whole new way for us to understand every part of our lives. As we walk this way, the disciplines facilitate a spiritual journey that is intended to help us become all that we, as humans, can be. May this grace be ours as we arrange our lives to experience the transforming work of Jesus.