There is only one way to grow a loving relationship with someone and that is to spend time with that person. We can think about our relationship with someone all day long, we can ask others what they think we should do in the relationship, and we can imagine what we will say and do when we get together with that person. All of this mental work will help. But, at the end of the day, if we don’t actually spend meaningful time with the person, the relationship won’t grow. Spending intentional time together is the soil, water, and sunlight of human relationality.
This is especially the case when we have things to work through with the person we are building a relationship with. When there are ways we have wronged the person, longstanding patterns of unfaithfulness, and deeply entrenched self-centeredness, we are going to need quite a bit of time with them. Lots of confessing, apologizing, receiving forgiveness, and rebuilding trust. Perhaps, too, we have our own doubts and fears about their commitment to us, confusion and pain about times they appeared to let us down, and difficulty hearing what they are truly trying to communicate. If we heard about a married couple in this predicament, we might say, “You guys need to get away together on a marriage retreat.” And, of course, one marriage retreat wouldn’t do the trick. We might say, “You two need to build regular time into your schedules to keep communication going and learn to trust each other.” Two people trying to build a loving relationship together—whether a friendship or a marriage—takes a lot of work. They need to practice relating in love to one another day after day after day over the course of a lifetime.
Spiritual Disciplines as Means of Relating to God
Of course, the same holds true with our interactive relationship with God. Christian practices or spiritual disciplines are simply means of spending time with God, learning to receive his love and come to love him in return. To borrow a line from Brother Lawrence, we practice the presence of God.1 Or, as Jesus put the point, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (Jn 15:4). To abide is to remain or dwell with Jesus as he remains and dwells with us by his Holy Spirit. It is, as Paul puts it, to “walk by the Spirit” now that we have new life by the Spirit (Gal 5:25). The only way to abide or walk with someone is to engage practices of being with them. Through Christian practices, we place our bodies in times and spaces where we can be present and receptive to the transformational love of God.
In her commentary on John chapter 15, Marianne Meye Thompson explains that the Greek word for “abide” (menein) has two dimensions. First, she says, “It implies receptivity; it is neither passive nor static, but entails an openness and responsiveness to Jesus’ life-giving presence.” And second, “‘abiding’ implies perseverance, steadfastness, or faithfulness.” Thompson concludes, “the life of discipleship does not merely begin with receptivity to Jesus; such receptivity characterizes the entire life of the disciple from beginning to end.”2
Thompson’s insight into Jesus’s words is so very helpful. The life of the Christian disciple involves learning how to have a steadfast, enduring receptivity to the life-giving presence of Jesus and his Father by the indwelling Spirit. We need to repeatedly return to an embodied posture of openness and responsiveness to God’s loving presence until such dependence on him becomes an enduring habit. Just like I am habituated to prepare coffee every morning without even thinking about it, I need to become habituated to turn to the loving presence of God every morning without even thinking about it and then remain in that love throughout my day. The primary aim of Christian spiritual practices or disciplines is to remain in the love of God through a habituated posture of openness to God’s loving, transformational presence. As Jude 21 has it, “keep yourselves in the love of God.” Christian practices such as prayer, meditation on Scripture, solitude, fellowship with other Christians, confession of sin, fasting, service, worship, communion, and so on are ways to keep ourselves in and receive the love of God that has been made available to us through Christ by his Spirit.
Disciplines Do Not Transform Us
It is important to understand that our efforts to draw near to God are necessary but they are not what transform us. Just as it is necessary for me to spend time with my wife if she is going to deeply influence me, it is necessary for me to spend time with God if he is going to deeply influence me. But the activities we engage in order to be with God (for example, prayer) are not what transform us. Rather, it is the interactive relationship with the other person that is transformational. The activities are the occasions during which the transformational interaction occurs. The date night with my wife doesn’t change me, but being with my wife while we are on a date changes me. In the same way, the activity of prayer itself doesn’t transform us, but prayer creates an opportunity to be with God and it is God who changes us through our prayerful receptivity. As another example, Bible study itself doesn’t transform us, but Bible study can be a channel of God’s life-changing presence and truth. Adele Calhoun writes, “Spiritual disciplines are intentional practices, relationships and experiences that give people space in their lives to ‘keep company’ with Jesus.”3 The disciplines don’t change us; they provide space to keep company with Jesus who changes us.
Frank C. Laubach was an American missionary to the Philippines in the early part of the twentieth century. At a time in his life when he was wearying of his ministry and feeling discouraged about his own spiritual growth, Laubach began systematically setting his conscious attention on the person of Christ throughout his day.4 Over time, he found he could maintain a conscious awareness of Christ’s presence as he went about his daily tasks and interactions with people. He experienced great effects in his own maturity and ministry from this spiritual discipline. And yet, Laubach writes, “I have done nothing but open windows — God has done the rest.”5 Opening a window is essential if the fresh breeze has any chance of getting in. But, of course, opening the window does not create or control the wind. We would never be tempted to open a window on a hot day and take credit for the cooling effect of the wind. If the fresh breeze isn’t blowing, opening the window does no good. And, in the same way, we open windows to God’s presence and love as we pray, meditate on Scripture, journal, spend time in solitude and silence, go away for a day just to be with God. But all of these practices are simply opening windows. We do not control nor create nor earn God’s transformational love. We open to him and he does all the rest.
The apostle Paul put it this way, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:6–7). This is such a profound truth even in the world of agriculture from which Paul’s analogy is drawn. If you plant a small carrot seed in soil and a child waters it, some months later you will pull a large, orange, edible object out of the ground. And it should always surprise us and bring us joy that without any help from us a tiny seed can draw in nutrients from its environment and develop a substance that we could never develop without that seed. That seed has a power within it that gathers reality together into a harmonious whole. We might say, “I planted, my daughter watered, but the seed caused the carrot.” Paul is quite aware that while the planting and watering of God’s people is necessary, God’s loving presence is the growth principle. God’s love by its very nature nourishes and builds up the human heart into a harmonious whole. So, as we abide in Christ’s love through spiritual practices, we bear much fruit. The ways we remain in the vine of Jesus are not anything, but only the Vine who causes the growth.
Resistance and Rebellion Linger
The good news is that God’s love is available in Christ to transform us as it is received experientially in our lives through spiritual practices. We can practice coming to Jesus and learning from him how to live like he did in his Father’s kingdom in order to find rest for our souls (Matt 11:28–30). The problem is that even after we know this to be true, our “old self” and its “former manner of life” continue to stubbornly resist to some degree and at some level. We know we can only serve one master (Matt 6:24), but we try to serve two (or maybe four or five). We know the best place is at the feet of Jesus with Mary, but we are deeply habituated to worry with Martha about so many things (Lk 10:41–42). We are addicted to finding our life apart from God. As Paul says, we “put confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3–4), which is to put our trust in our own autonomous resources to find life apart from God. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” So, what do we do?
The answer is the same: we practice relating to God even as we recognize and confess our resistance to God. As we abide in Christ through Christian practices, we recognize that we bring our resistance—our old self and its former manners—with us. When we pray, worship, read Scripture, submit to biblical teaching, and so on, we are simultaneously practicing honest reflection and confession of the ways we are prone to wander. We regularly say to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24 NKJV). As we walk by the Spirit we discover that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal 5:17). The chasm between what I still want for me and what the Spirit wants for me is not insurmountable as long as we treat it realistically, forthrightly, and with brutal, compassionate honesty. C. S. Lewis models awareness of his own resistance well:
I say my prayers, I read a book of devotion, I prepare for, or receive, the Sacrament. But while I do these things, there is, so to speak, a voice inside me that urges caution. It tells me to be careful, to keep my head, not to go too far, not to burn my boats. I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me within that presence which will prove too intolerably inconvenient when I have come out again into my ‘ordinary’ life. I don’t want to be carried away into any resolution which I shall afterwards regret. For I know I shall be feeling quite different after breakfast; I don’t want anything to happen to me at the altar which will run up too big a bill to pay then.6
Lewis’s honest self-assessment of his own push and pull with God is exactly what is needed in the Christian life. We don’t try to be good in prayer. Rather, we try to be honest in prayer.7 In love and grace, the Spirit of God already sees the truth of our divided, restless hearts. We are the ones who are needing to come to awareness and honesty before him.
Practicing Relationship with Others in the Body of Christ
Because of the relational nature of Christian spiritual transformation and our need to be honest before God, relationships with others in the body of Christ become a primary means of practicing dependence on God. Brothers and sisters in Christ can provide experiences of grace, acceptance, forgiveness, faithfulness, encouragement, comfort, wise counsel, challenge, insight, and so on that can help us come to experience God more fully in those very same ways. God works through others in our lives and in working through them he prepares us to experience him more fully as he is. Our human relational history—especially in childhood—is always imperfect in some way and those broken relational experiences can distort our view of ourselves and what it is to be known and loved by others. Spiritual practices that involve opening our lives to trustworthy brothers and sisters in Christ can be used by God to bring tremendous healing from those past experiences. Practices of spiritual friendship, mentoring, and community are essential to healing our internalized sense of who God is and how he views us. Great care, of course, must be taken to find the sorts of persons that can offer an accurate and humble reflection of the truth and goodness of God’s grace and love.
God’s loving presence is inherently transformational (see The Transformational Love of God). But God’s loving presence must be experienced as God actually is in order for deep transformation to take place (see Experiencing the Transformational Love of God). This means that we need to learn to receive the love of God more fully in our experience and in the truth of ourselves. As we do so, we come to realize that we are stubbornly resistant to the love of God and in that resistance we have turned to idols as substitutes for God’s love (see Receiving and Resisting the Transformational Love of God). And yet, thanks be to God, the way of growth in Christ remains available because of his steadfast love and forgiveness. As we practice abiding/remaining in him as he abides/remains in us, we will bear much fruit in our own lives and through our lives in the lives of others. One essential set of practices involve spiritual friendship and community within the body of Christ. We need one another to model God’s loving presence to us, even if imperfectly, in order to come to entrust ourselves fully to the perfect love of God.