4 Essential Practices for Spiritual Formation

Christianity is not primarily a set of beliefs, even though the work of theology is massively important for the church. Christianity is not primarily a personal relationship with God, even if personal faith and responsibility are required. Christianity is not primarily a religion, even though the liturgies that shape the worship and work of the church are indispensable.

Christianity is primarily a way, that is, a way of living shaped around the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Didache opens with these words:

There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself. Christianity is primarily a way of living shaped around Jesus. Click To Tweet

The Christian faith is the way of Jesus, the way of life and love, lived out by those who faithfully follow him. We do not just believe certain things about Jesus, but we practice certain things in the way of Jesus, which is why the apostle Paul instructs the church in Philippi to do more than learn, receive, and listen. Paul writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9 ESV).

As years have become decades in my journey of following Jesus, I have identified four practices, four essential practices, that have guided me in the way of life, this life following Jesus. These four practices open up the door to all the other practices of the faith. Practice these things and watch the way of life open to you.

I. Awareness

We are following Jesus into a God-saturated world. God is not distant or far away. God is intimately connected to the world. We often think of God breaking into our lives and doing what God alone can do, but have you stopped and considered that God doesn’t just enter our world momentarily and vanishes, but that our entire world participates in the life of God? God is not distant or far away. God is intimately connected to the world. Click To Tweet

As I look at the trees when I am running through the a wooded area either on a trail or through an old neighborhood, I think to myself, “These trees are stretching out into the presence of God.” The clouds above are moving along through the presence of God. Every blade of grass and every grain of sand in God’s good world is alive to the presence of God.

For us, awareness is to be awake, moment-by-moment, to the presence and activity of God. We have to work at awareness, because everything around us is communicating to us that God is absent; secularism is in the air we breathe. The secular way is an attempt to live life without God, blind to presence of God. Awareness in the words of Brother Lawrence is “a realization of the presence of God, which can be brought about either by the imagination or by understanding.”

Prayer is a primary way of growing in awareness. The practice of prayer is first and foremost about carving out time and space to be aware of God’s presence. Prayer is least secular thing we do. It is the reminder of the presence of God.

II. Learning

When Jesus invites us to come and follow him, he does not require us to go to school first. I went to school for a long time, so I naturally gravitate to the learning involved in Christian discipleship. But living as a disciple is not the same thing as entering into a degree program, or, God forbid, going back to middle school.

Learning as a Christian practice is not only about acquiring more knowledge, but more wisdom. (I wrote about the difference between knowledge and wisdom here.) You can accumulate a lifetime of book-learning and never walk in the ways of Jesus. Nevertheless, as a follower of Jesus there are new things to learn.

We need to learn how to speak Christian. Learning a new vocabulary opens up new ways of thinking and living. The way of Jesus requires learning the vocabulary of Jesus. For example, I had to learn what Jesus meant by the word “justice” (often translated “righteousness). For most of my adult life I assumed “justice” had to do with law-enforcement, where the good guys get the bad guys and put the bad guys in jail. As I learned more about justice, I discovered that it is a deeply-rooted biblical word. Justice is God’s activity of setting the world right.

Learning new things implies unlearning old things and between learning and unlearning, unlearning is the hardest part. Don’t abandon the faith when you are in a season of unlearning. None of us have it all figured it all. We are all learning and growing. We remain lifelong learners because there are always new things to discover. So stay curious. People who remain curious will remain lifelong learners. Between learning and unlearning, unlearning is the hardest part. Click To Tweet

III. Reflecting

Experience is not the best teacher; experience reflected upon is. Be intentional to reflect on what you are experiencing and learning. We are not merely collectors of information. We are not primarily autonomous thinking beings. We have to reject what James K.A. Smith in calls “thinking-thingism.” Christian reflection requires mental energy, but it is more than classifying facts in your brain. Reflection is rooted in awareness; it is thinking in the presence of God.

When you are learning new things, make mental note of how you are being challenged and how you are changing. Do not merely absorb information, but work things through in your mind and work to connect dots. Begin to write things down. Thinking is good, but don’t do your thinking alone. Think aloud with friends who are also following Jesus. Learn to think with Jesus. Learn to sit in the presence of Jesus with what you are learning and be open to the surprising work of God.

IV. Action

Following Jesus has movement to it. It looks much more like hiking in the woods than sitting in a classroom. You are aware. You are learning. You have reflected on what you have learned. Now it is the time for action. The four practices are not complete into you put into action what you have discovered.

Following Jesus doesn’t become a living way until we become “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22 ESV). This action flows from hearts that have been changed as we are animated by the Holy Spirit. For example, suppose you have become aware of God’s activity in forgiveness and you have learned what it means to forgive. You have reflected on the meaning of forgiveness and you have sat with Jesus with the pain caused by those who hurt you. Now what? Now you have to go and forgive!

Action means you need to start new habits, good habits, that will replace bad habits. Read a book instead of scrolling through your social media news feed. Pray instead of gossiping with you friends via text. Devote yourself to reading Scripture instead of binge-watching the next series on Netflix. Find ways to serve others instead of starting a new hobby.

When we are done with action, we start over with awareness. These four practices have a natural progression from one practice to the next, but they are intended to be a cycle. As you continue to practice what you are learning through reflection, you will find yourself growing in a deeper awareness of the presence of God. Following Jesus looks much more like hiking in the woods than sitting in a classroom. Click To Tweet

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