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Notes from Spiritual Theology by simon chan

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Notes from: Spiritual Theology by Simon Chan



The accent of the Christian spiritual tradition is on overcoming the hindrances to man’s becoming the person God wants him to be.  Progress is viewed from the perspective of restoring the image of God rather than from the perspective of developing innate human potential.

The Christian life is from beginning to end a work of divine grace. Actual progress in that life, however, comes through diligent exercise of the means of grace. Acts are basic, small acts, which over time form the Christian character.  Without this base of discipline, or training, the practical implications of our theology remain theoretical at best.

Part One:



§        Christian Spiritual Theology


Theology was known as the queen of the sciences because it promotes the highest end of humanity: knowing God and possessing eternal life.  There were no divisions in theology before the rise of rationalistic philosophy in the Enlightenment.

Theology is a rational and precise expression of the believer’s reflection of God. This reflection is no t a disinterested observation but a personal engagement with God and with God’s glory. 

William Ames called theology “the doctrine of living unto God.”

The real function of theology is to lead us to godliness by giving the spiritual life a distinct focus.

Spiritual theology is concerned with life in relation to God, whereas practical theology is more broadly concerned with action in the world, or the practical application of theology.

Without spiritual theology, Christian practice is reduced to mere activism.

Spiritual life grows out of the two basic components: the spirit and the word.

Christlikeness has to do with the development of virtues that can occur in any personality type, while spirituality has to do with living out the spiritual life in accordance with each person’s make up, nature and gifts.  

Theological reflection and prayer are not discrete activities but exist in a dynamic, ongoing relationship in which one activity enriches the other, stimulating the Christian to new insights and greater fervor.

A good Christian spiritual theology must be characterized by:

  1. it recognizes that the world is complex, and within this complexity the gospel can find its own authentic expression;
  2. it is faithful to the Christian story  concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and
  3. it embraces the charismatic reality that sometimes God works in surprising and unpredictable was.   The doctrine of grace that does not include this aspect of divine operation remains impoverished.

1. Complexity of the world and expression of the Gospel:

 In the West in recent years a return to Trinitarian doctrine emphasizing the truth of the eternally self-giving persons in the Godhead has offered hope to a world starved of meaningful and intimate personal relationships.

In addition the implications that God is not about power, self-sufficiency, and assertion of authority, but about mutuality, and equality, and love, provides vision for restructuring society to alleviate racial and sexual inequalities.

In other parts of the world, an emphasis on God’s oneness gains ascendency.  There is one God and no other.  There is a decision to be made between faith and unbelief, between God and not-God.  In highly structured society, where relationships are static and secure, the conflict between monotheism and polytheism is more pronounced.

2. Faithfulness to the Christian story


An openness to the Christian past is one important sign of a genuine Christian spirituality.  At the heart of spiritual theology is prayer, and it is in prayer that past and present are linked.  Prayers bring the world of time in touch with eternity.

A Christology that sees Christ as present in the human community as He is in the Christian community recognizes the larger presence of Christ, but ignores the special relationship of the “bride” of Christ.  It is possible to be selflessly committed to the world without being a Christian.  That is the difference between a moral person and a spiritual person. 

The essence of evangelical spirituality is to be found in the particular way it understands the coming of God in Jesus Christ to the believer.  The preaching of the evangel mediates the experience of that truth.  Each conversion experience involves a living contact with the transcendent person of Christ. The church as a community of such believers is the locus of Christ’s transcendent presence. This is not to deny that Christ is also present in the world. But he is present in the church in a way that he is not present in the world.

The kind of piety that forsakes the world in order to cultivate an otherworldly experience is in fact a false and sub-Christian piety.  It is a piety that is preoccupied with self. It lacks the quality of “self-abnegation” that comes inevitably for a true personal relationship with the transcendent Christ.  Where such a relationship exists there is a true ecstasy, a coming out of one’s self to follow Christ into the world.

Engagement with the world:

The Constantine model calls for the church to take up citizenship in the world in order to influence it.  Yet as a citizen, the church has to play by the rules of the world. 

In the Anabaptist model, the church is a colony of “resident aliens” whose real citizenship is in heaven. The church challenges the world by offering a “real option” to the world through its disciplined life. Its smallness to the world gives sharper focus to its distinctive way of life. This is community of character, a people marked by discipline and cross bearing. Spirituality is at its very core.

3. Charismatic Reality

Traditional Roman Catholic spirituality has been built almost exclusively on a concept of grace working with us, lifting up nature.  While it acknowledges a doctrine of grace, that doctrine has never really played a significant role in the development of the spiritual life.

This grace that is “infused” implies an element of passivity in the recipient.  It can intensify the acts of a person’s will. 

Protestant tradition has polarized between enthusiasm on one hand and rationalistic theology on the other.

Pentecostal spirituality seeks the intimate presence of God. As people of God’s kingdom, they know that God is in control, and because God is in control, they learn to make the unexpected their greatest resource. Ideally, there should be no distinction between charismatic and non-charismatic Christians; every Christian should be both a charismatic and an ascetic.

§        Doctrine of God: Foundational to Christian Spirituality


The doctrine of the trinity is shorthand for the nature and working of God revealed to us in the Scriptures.

The God of the Bible is a personal God working intimately in his creation, unlike the passionless, nameless one of Platonists.

The hiddenness of God is related to the mystery of iniquity. Only when we are prepared to accept individual and collective responsibility for the evil in the world can we speak meaningfully of God’s hiddenness.

If creation is a free act, then God is God even without creation.

The otherness of God is essential. If we are to distinguish between what is of God and what is not of God.

A doctrine that sees history as constituting God’s nature leaves us without a criterion for discerning the spirits.

A conception of God who is both one and three, whose being consists in a relationality that derives from the otherness-in-relation of Father, son, and Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not about the threeness of God per se, but about the mystery of the God who is both one and yet three, both a God-in-himself and a God-for-us in his Trinitarian existence.

A proper Trinitarian spirituality can only be developed from a doctrine that gives equal place to unity and to plurality in God, both to transcendence and to immanence.  Monotheism is a true part of the Christian understanding of God.

Because God is the triune God who is intimately related to each other and to the world in love, God’s transcendence is an open transcendence that fills us with a sense of purpose rather than meaninglessness and despair.

Ecclesiastically, the spirituality of the Father tends toward an inclusive view of the church.

If the emphasis is on Christ as the liberator of the oppressed and the friend of publicans and sinners, the ensuing spirituality is likely to be one that stresses radical discipleship and commitment to sociopolitical justice.

If Jesus is held forth as the model of patient endurance and suffering, then the Christian life is expressed largely in terms of the imitation of Christ and the way of suffering which may result in an unquestioning acquiescence to the prevailing status quo.

Popular evangelicalism generated a spirituality centering in the gospel of forgiveness for personal sins, a warm personal piety, and a church consisting of individuals who have made a personal profession faith.

The strength of a Christocentric spirituality is its stress on conversion to lively, personal faith in Jesus Christ. In a world of depersonalization and loss of self-identity, this characteristic accounts for its tremendous appeal across cultures.   There is an implicit supernaturalism that lifts life out of its ordinariness and gives it a new depth and direction.

But in a too narrowly defined Christological spirituality it can become too individualistic and can be turned into a system to support self-indulgence.  The corporate life could become a purely voluntary and dispensable matter.   All relationships become secondary to “my own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. “  Furthermore the legitimate distinction between the natural world and the supernatural world could widen into an unbridgeable chasm, so that the church’s basic identity is defined in opposition to the world rather than as a transforming agent in the world.  Thus the church is ghettoized, either in self-complacency or in fear.

God may yet do new things because God is personal and therefore never completely predictable. Life with God, for Pentecostals, is a journey into the unknown.  God may take us through un-trodden paths.  This instills a spirit of adventure and a sense of “holy boldness.”

The strength of Pentecostal spirituality works to its own disadvantage in the long term.  A perpetual holiday becomes boring.  An unending adventure becomes unsustainable.

For a spirituality to be holistic, it must be Trinitarian. 

  1. It must be characterized by form and stability and a sacramental understanding of created things. 
  2. It must seek a personal relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. 
  3. And it must be open to the powerful working of God the Spirit in signs and wonders as well as in holy familiarity.

In terms of the church’s mission, Trinitarian spirituality is

  1. oriented toward a critical and constructive engagement in the world;
  2. the preaching of the gospel of the grace of God and personal conversion to Jesus Christ;
  3. and “power encounters” in both the salvation of individuals as well as the created order.

The familiar Christological pneumatology must be balanced by a pneumatological Christology. 

The first refers to the fact that Christ sends the Spirit and the Spirit glorifies Christ John 16:12-15 (NKJV) “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.

The second refers to the Spirit’s anointing Christ and empowering him to fulfill his messianic mission.  Understood this way, our Christology and pneumatology must find their unity in God the Father.

A Trinitarian theology has three major implications for Christian spirituality.

  1. Salvation is essentially personal union with God. Christ and the Spirit are encountered as the word and love respectively coming from the Father. This precipitates further listening to the indwelling word, while the outpoured Spirit inflames the soul with divine love, transforming the whole person.
  2. Spiritual life is essentially relational without ceasing to be particular. To be a Christian is to be “in Christ,” i.e. baptized into his body, the church, of which each person is a constituent member.   There must be mutual dependence.  But individuals are not absorbed into a nameless, corporate entity.  Here is where the social analogy of the Trinity provides us with rich resources for understanding the relational and particular nature of the spiritual life. A Trinitarian approach to ecology makes it distinctively different from that popularized by New Age thought in which nature’s balance can only be maintained by sacrificing human distinctiveness.
  3. Life and work are inseparable. The mission of the church is a participation in the Trinitarian mission, in which the Father sent the Son and Spirit into the world. The mission of God is the extension of the Trinitarian life in which the Father sent the Son into the world. The mission of the Son is carried out by the anointing of the Spirit.  The Spirit is in turn sent by the Son to continue the mission of the Father on earth.

John 15:26 (NKJV) “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. 

John 14:26 (NKJV)  But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.

The life, death, and resurrection of Christ and Pentecost make up one continuous mission of the triune God.

§        Salvation & the Life of Spiritual Progress


In all Gnostic religions salvation is deliverance from a transitory history to a timeless eternity.  For Christianity it is an existential freedom understood strictly in personal terms: communion, love and fellowship. Personality rather than its extinction lies at the root of the Christian conception of the ultimately real.

The task of spiritual theology is to describe and analyze the nature and effects of this story not just as facts but as the facts impinge on the person whose relationship with God has been fundamentally changed by the story.

Why are imperatives given in connection with good works if good works are the fruit of justification?

The imperative is not the means to make us more holy (that takes place by grace alone). It puts in place the condition that makes it possible for grace to be fully operative.

“The disciplines enable me to sit loose to life and thereby makes me ready for new ventures in obedience. “  The imperatives then are in fact means of grace.

The One Who loves us becomes the One Who is loved by us (the Father sends the Son). Our love and good works in response becomes the theatre in which God does His acting.

Calvin defined faith as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward the believers.” Faith denotes a certain kind of relationship with God.  The life of prayer and meditation is but the living out of the life of faith. 

Growth in the Christian life may be said to be growth in the life of faith, i.e. the strengthening of the personal bond with God. 

Grace is not a substantial reality within believers but a favorable disposition of God toward them.

When the Christian life is seen in terms of fostering a relationship there is little concern with technical precision.  This view presupposes grace; a doctrine of grace as divine favor. When growth in the Christian life is seen as the cultivation of virtues, proper instruction in techniques of cultivation is essential.  This view presupposes a doctrine of grace as endowment, an enabling gift.

Surely grace can be seen as both a favor and an infused quality. 

Any sustaining spiritual theology must keep the two aspects of grace together. We need a concept of grace as God’s unmerited favor to undeserving sinners.  Without this concept the Christian saint cannot be distinguished from the Buddhist ascetic. On the other hand, grace must also be understood as an empowering gift, or we cannot hope to develop any meaningful human response. .

Augustine:  God “begins His influence by working in us that we may have the will, and He completes it by working with us when we have the will.”

The protestant fear of virtues is valid only if virtues are abstracted from relationship.

Such a fear is groundless when spiritual disciplines are recognized as the means of grace and virtues as the products of grace.

Christian spirituality must acknowledge the priority of grace in whatever way it comes.

In Scripture salvation occurs in the perfect tense as well as in the present and future tenses. Understanding salvation as progressive gives it a direction and a goal; understanding it as multifaceted gives it richness and depth. 

The alien righteousness of Christ provides a firm basis for personal assurance.  The Assurance of salvation is founded on a right relationship rather than on a virtuous life.

The problem lies in translating these theological realities into practical options for the Christian life. The conscientious Christian asks, “How do I know that I am saved?”

Calvin’s doctrine of the internal testimony of the Spirit was developed into two major ramifications by the Puritans.

  1. John Cotton appealed to the hidden power of the spirit as the direct source of assurance as well as the means for dealing with other practical concerns. He repeatedly challenged the Christian to exercise faith, which he understood as a kind of power to receive “the quickening Spirit.” One yields and gives way to the Spirit.  It is a benign action rather than an active apprehending.  His teaching led to the antinomian heresy in New England in 1636-1637.  John Cotton published The Way of Life in 1641.  His teaching reemerged centuries later in the Keswick movement.  The divine initiative is expressed in terms of passive action on our part.

  1. The second ramification of Calvin’s pneumatology was pursued by the Puritan ascetics who recognized in principle the ‘inner operation of the Holy Spirit’ but paid scant direct attention to it. They chose to focus on the means of grace and duties. Implied in this approach is that the Spirit works mediately in nature, so that someone who focuses on duties is in effect affirming the priority of grace.

“The less able we are to believe of ourselves, the more careful should we be to use the means that God hath ordained, that we might obtain it. Marriage was never held unnecessary for the propagation of mankind, on the basis that the soul is not generated by our parents, but immediately created and infused by God.  That faith is the sole gift of God, wholly infused, not partly acquired by us, should rather incite than anyway abate our endeavor for attaining it.”  John Ball 1637

Ultimately all people long for the very reality that the doctrine of justification by faith so carefully elaborates, namely being accepted by God and by oneself.

Modern Christians proclaim their acceptance of Christ rather than Christ’s acceptance of them!

When Christ is being ingested like health pills by people desperately searching for good feelings, someone needs to reissue the challenge: How can you be sure that you are accepted before a righteous God?

Justification considers the Christian life from a relational point of view, while sanctification views it from the perspective of personal growth and development.

Instantaneous sanctification refers to the initial work of conversion, which reorients a person toward God. In spiritual theology this represents the infusion of habitual grace.

This “turnaround event” is actually a continuing process of daily dying to self and being raised anew.  From our point of view, it is the work of repentance, which is a ‘continuing discipline that we undertake at increasingly deeper levels, bringing more and more of ourselves to God in humility and trust.’   It is always experienced as a response to a prior revelation that utterly humbles us as we see ourselves as we really are.  In short, it is a work of grace.

Grace is both God’s favorable disposition toward undeserving sinners and a transforming power in the soul.

Real progress in sanctification depends on actual grace, which is a supernatural and transitory power which God gives us to enlighten the mind and strengthen the will so that we may act according to his will.

Sanctification has to do ultimately with the formation of virtues---replacing bad habits or vices with good ones.

Virtues are indeed intrinsic values, but they cannot exist as qualities independent of relationship to God.

A vague concept of love is not adequate for spiritual life. Love is concretely expressed in the other virtues.  The theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) are so called because they are God-directed virtues.  Love clings to God as the chief good. Faith holds on to the promises given by God in Jesus Christ, and hope lays hold on the future reality, the fullness of grace given at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Love, faith, and hope are the key concepts for telling the Christian story.

Evangelism is the church’s deepest identity with the world.

The cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—are directed toward the world.  Temperance is love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God; justice is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else; prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it.   (Augustine)

For Augustine the whole duty of temperance is to put off the old man and to be renewed in God… to turn the whole love to things divine and unseen.

All too often discussions of the virtues, even among Christians, have tended to divorce them from the Christian story, on the false assumption that virtues can be objectively defined and that these definitions are universally valid.  The theological virtues ensure that the Christian moral life remains radically distinct from mere ethical culture.

Since the cardinal virtues cannot become independent qualities, then no single virtue can exist apart from the others and still remain essentially Christian.

This means that the primary focus should be on the growth of the theological virtues and only derivatively on the cardinal virtues.  This is not to say that the cardinal virtues are of secondary importance. If the cardinal virtues are ultimately dependent on the theological virtues, they in turn are the means by which the theological virtues are developed.    Acts of virtue in faith, hope and charity form Christian character. 

Christian virtues, as a coherent pattern of living out the Christian story, must challenge values that contradict the Christian story. Only in maintaining this dialectic can the Christian be theologically and culturally authentic.

How are the virtues formed so that they come to constitute one’s character?

  • Christian tradition holds that virtues are formed by acts.
  • When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him---C. S. Lewis
  • Fake it to make it—AA

In order for actions to begin forming a virtue, there first needs to be a certain predisposition of the will to begin the action, that is, some kind of virtue to enable one to act.

Romans 7:24-25 (NKJV)O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.

The Christian story tells us that even the most basic level of human action, is still by God’s enabling that we can act.  Catholics call this infused virtue. Protestantism calls it prevenient grace. It takes intentional repeated actions of growing intensity for virtues to grow.

In the Reformed tradition, which is mainly concerned with the assurance of faith, spiritual progress is seen more as the overcoming of doubt that stems from human frailty.

Sanctification has to do with the perfection of love. Perfection according to Francois Fenelon is total self-abandonment to God in love.

Bernard defines the highest degree of love when a man wants whatever he wants because God wants him to want it.  He only cares for himself for love of God, as a stranger would, and for the sake of loving what God has made. 

“O my God, O love, love yourself in me! In this way you will be loved as you are loveable. I only want to live to be consumed before you, as a lamp burns ceaselessly before your altars. I do not exist for myself at all. It is only you who exits for your own self. Nothing for me, all for you.  Love on, O Love! Love in your weak creature! Love our supreme beauty! O beauty, O infinite goodness, O infinite love: burn, consume, transport, annihilate my heart, make it a perfect holocaust.” Francis Fenelon

The real measure of our love for Christ is our love for others.   Love of God is the only goal toward which all the ascetical disciplines are aimed.  But this love for God always overflows to the neighbor.  


The more complete in love the saint becomes, the greater the identification with the church. The closer the union with God, the stronger the bond with Christ’s body.

Sainthood is perfected in communion with others, never apart from it.


“If you have not first lived rightly with men, you will not be able to live rightly in solitude.” Abbot Lucius

The purpose of Christian formation is not developing a better self-image, achieving self-fulfillment or finding self-affirmation.  It is developing certain qualities that enable us to live responsibly within the community that we have been baptized into.

[Nondenominational agencies in Asia produce churches without any sense of history or tradition.  These churches are not more than collectivities of individuals who profess Christ as savior.  The primary reality is the individual’s relationship with God.  The church is just an ancillary entity that exists to serve the spiritual needs of individuals.]

There is little sense of the church as a corporate, spiritual reality existing in and through time, worshiping God with the apostles, prophets, saints and martyrs together with angels and archangels and the entire heavenly host.

When Christians see themselves as participating in a much larger reality, they experience a sacred and liberating anonymity. No longer primarily conscious of his own agenda, he is primarily a Christian bringing his sacrifice of adoration to the Most High as all other Christians have done before him.

Much recent thinking about small groups in church reinforces a “feel good” spirituality through group dynamic. They hardly challenge individuals to make deeper commitments to objective and absolute norms apart from themselves. Small group spirituality has come to mean no more than reorganizing the congregation into cell groups to make them serve the needs of individual members better. 

The gospel must seek to penetrate the world and all of its parts, but it cannot do so unless there is a sense in which it is in contrast to the world. ---Elton Trueblood

Creating a community that quietly brings about cultural change through negotiation, consensus building, and a way of life that dares to be different requires a committed Christianity.

When Luther invoked the universal priesthood of all believers and abolished the monastic system, the idea of the church was radically reconceived. Theoretically, it should uplift all believers, but in actual fact it tends to reduce them to the lowest common denominator.

What is conspicuously absent in much discussion on small groups is a theology of the visible church that makes sense of the small groups within the larger church.

An adequate theology of the visible church needs:

§         First, an understanding of the church as a corporate reality rather than a collectivity of individuals; and

§         Second, it needs to maintain some kind of theological distinctions within the church.

Martin Thornton suggests church renewal patterned after the monastic model. It focuses on a remnant in the church as the effective agent for spiritual development of the whole church.  Thornton sees the local church as one organic unity, a microcosm of the church universal. The remnant are to the local parish what monasticism was to the larger church. They are not separate form the rest of the church but are organically one with them as their representatives. “the Remnant, far from being an amputated segment—the clique detached from the whole---is at the center of the parochial organism and of power extending beyond it. is the palpitating heart which pumps the blood of life to all the body as leaven leavens the lump or salt savors the whole.”

The work of the remnant is essentially disciplined: Commitment to the corporate rule and prayer.  “There is nothing so contagious as holiness, nothing more pervasive than Prayer. The remnant is sustained less by the public teaching and preaching of the minister and more by the minister’s spiritual direction, which helps them maintain their corporate rule.   It means that the pastor’s main focus is not on large-scale public appeal but on prayer and the spiritual guidance of the small group of committed Christians within the church.

It also requires greater emphasis on the objective character of the church, the factualness of the spiritual life.   Recognizing the objective reality of our spiritual life is what makes for greater spiritual proficiency.  Our spiritual life is first and foremost not something of our own generating; it does not depend on our feelings but is a basic fact, a given.  That is the meaning of being incorporated into the church.  We were baptized passively into the body. 

The prayer of recollection:  if by baptism and communion we live in Christ, He can hardly be other than with us. So an act of recollection can either emphasize the real presence of Christ beside us, or it can form an act of recognition of our membership of the church.  Recollection acknowledges that one is in fact part of an actual corporate reality---the church. 

What we do as individuals does not depend on ourselves but grows out of our participation in the corporate life. We participate in the discipline of “going to church” and corporate worship.  Inner attitudes then are a result of our discipline not the cause of it.

To recognize the factuality of spiritual life is to recognize its communal nature and vice versa, since the fact we participate in is something that others also have a share in.

Emphasizing the factuality of the spiritual life is important, because Protestantism gravitates toward the individualistic and subjective pole of spirituality. Its emphasis on the relational nature of the Christian life has meant that truth has to be internalized to be ‘real’. The process of the internalization is inevitable in any spirituality. But what usually happens is that the subjective begins to swallow up the objective. The fact is then equated with “dead letter,” which is set in direct antithesis to “spirit.”

Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith has a more objective and communal character.  It is not only about the individual’s acceptance before a righteous God, but is also concerned with the larger, corporate issue of Gentile participation in the covenant community.  The righteousness of God is made available for both Jews and gentiles on the same basis—by faith---which is an objective divine provision.   For Paul the signs of justification are also objective, namely the presence of the Spirit in the working of miracles (Galatians 3:5 (NKJV)Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?) And the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26 (NKJV) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. 24 And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.)

Failure to fully appreciate the corporate and objective nature of the Christian life is one reason why Protestantism did not develop a viable theology of the visible church.

Nature of the Visible Church


A community in Christ

There is a profound difference between the Christian community and the general human community. In human community there is direct union as between husband and wife.

In the Christian community Christ stands between the lovers: union is never direct.  Our fellowship is always “in Christ” and through Christ.  He makes fellowship between the most disparate elements a reality. [Ephesians 2:14-18 (NKJV)For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, 15 having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, 16 and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. 18 For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.]

Private prayers are important, but even in the most private enclosure we are always praying as a member o the body of Christ, in communion with other members. No prayer is exactly “private” since all prayer is but part of the total prayer of the church.

Private prayers are “both the actual prayer of Christ to the Father and our own personal prayer to Christ.


“Life together” means that we seek the common good [1 Corinthians 12:7 (NKJV)  But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all:] and live in fellowship with one another.

Fellowship in Christ includes ordinary structures like marriage, family and friends.  In Christ the ordinary becomes a channel of grace


A Christian community that recognizes the reality of ordinary fellowships of everyday life (in Christ) is better able to distinguish more clearly between the periphery and the core of the community and hence maintain both.  Where ordinary relationships are recognized as a part of true Christian community the bond is usually stronger.

This could also be called a sacramental community. The life of the community is undergirded by baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Calvin recognized the sacraments as marks of the church. The word is always primary; the sacraments derive their significance from the word. They are nevertheless marks of the church.

Modern Protestantism, which views the sacraments as minor appendices, generates a community of like-minded individuals concerned with their individual salvation.  The alternative is to return to a symbolic community in which the church is an efficacious sign that carries in the present something of the reality of the future eschatological kingdom of God.

The Lord’s supper reveals the communal nature of the Christian life [Acts 2:42-47 (NKJV)And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.]

It is here in the Lord’s supper that the essence of the church itself is alive, present, and effective. The sermon must be seen with the lager context of the church’s life, which is essentially Eucharistic.  Preaching should point to and confirm that life, not take on a life of its own.

The main task of preachers is to tell the Christian story faithfully, so that the community is constantly reinforced by it.  The family rather than the individual provides the model for understanding the factuality of the church’s life: a family member belongs to that family, willingly or not.

The Lord’s Supper is a constant reminder that Christ is present and also still to come [1 Corinthians 11:26 (NKJV) For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.]  The church is part of an unfolding story.

Thus the signs of a sacramental community are also the signs of an eschatological community: whose life and mission are always directed toward the future. 

Thus the fellowship of Jesus Christ to which God calls the baptized is not just a warm, cozy gathering but a most exacting community, a costly fellowship.

This costliness is seen in suffering, celebration, and solitude.


We regularly share the broken body and the shed blood—powerful reminders that our basic identity if found in suffering together.

We feel pain when we share our material possessions with fellow believers who have few or none. We feel pain when we try to listen empathetically.  C. S. Lewis said, “It’s much easier to pray for a bore than to go and see him.”

Intimacy is more talked about than experienced because it is a painful process.  Relating to another means giving him the space to be truly a person. It means foregoing the temptation to impose our own will on the other. The joy of personal relationship comes by way of death to self. Giving , listening, and personal intimacy are painful processes, but they are life giving processes that form our communal character. They teach us to bear one another’s burden and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Deliverance and healing are at the center of the sacramental life. Healing includes forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration of relationship within the body of Christ and prayers offered by the elders of the church for the sick. 

Because those who exercise charismatic ministry are in danger of falling victim to a power fixation, it is of the utmost importance to set it squarely within the context of the sacramental community of suffering.

Paul’s revelatory function is grounded in the fact that in his suffering he preaches and acts in the spirit, and that in the midst of his being led to death the spirit is poured out on others to bring them to life in Christ.

A community of celebration

Celebration includes this-worldly activities life play. Play should not be the sort of thing that Christians have trouble with.   In the course of play friendships are forged. 

If the community does not learn to enjoy each other at play, it is doubtful that it truly understands what it means to “enjoy God forever.”  Christians who do not play together do not worship well together either, since worship is a “religious form of play.”  Both at play and at worship the Christian community enjoys its Sabbath rest.

Worship is the central focus of the Christian community. Worship is understood in its broadest sense: “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  To glorify God is to proclaim who God really is, and this act is always accompanied by a certain creaturely attitude of humility, wonder, and awe. Glorifying God is not confined to church but extends to every circumstance of life, including eating and drinking.  [1 Corinthians 10:31 (NKJV) Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.]

The Lord’s supper brings worship into its sharpest focus.  It brings together who God is and what he has done. 

Worship in Scripture is the flip slide of theology. In worship we encounter God personally; reflection on that encounter issues in theology.  In one sense, worship is not something we do, but something that happens to us in the face of divine self-disclosure.

We are enabled by the Spirit to worship God the Father, whose glory is revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. The Spirit glorifies Christ and reveals the things of Christ to us. He also joins us to the rest of creation through His intercession with unutterable groanings directing our thoughts to the future consummation of redemption. And lastly as the Spirit of adoption He awakens our cries of “Abba, Abba” and directs our vision to the fulfillment of the promises.

In short, the work of the Spirit is both God directed and future directed. These are the two basic presuppositions of worship. True worship is always turned Godward and to the final manifestation of the kingdom of God.

When the church is praying together, it is the body of Christ with Christ at the head praying.

In reading and listening, the word addresses us afresh and draws us into a living relationship with God and with one another.

What we call the ‘exposition of the Scriptures” should be clarification of the Story so that we can listen to it more attentively and relate to the events more fully.

Singing is not intended to display the artistry of the singer(s) but to let the subject of the Scripture---God---speak clearly through the words.

“No liturgy” simply means bad liturgy formed by years of unwritten and unreflected ritual actions performed out of sheer habit.  This impoverishment has driven some to discover Orthodoxy.

A community of solitaries:

In solitude we become aware that we were together before we came together and that community life is not a creation of our will but an obedient response to the reality of our being united.

Two dangers arise when community and solitude are isolated. One the one hand, a person in community who never learns to be alone becomes dependent on the fellowship, a parasite that feeds on the community. We get swallowed up by the community if we give up on our personal responsibility and let the community do the praying and other spiritual works for us. When an individual becomes part of the mass psyche he does not act, he is pushed. He does not talk; he produces sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises. He does not think; he secretes clichés.

On the other hand,

The one who cultivates solitude without being in community, no longer grows in the community or is accountable to or responsible for it. Such a person becomes ground for the most unimaginable heresies, easily mistaking his or her own voice for the voice of God.  We retreat into solitude in order to serve God and neighbor better.  

Cultivate the habit of personal reflection by taking personal retreats, including the simple daily retreat of praying alone.

Enter into community with a deep sense of responsibility.

Every sin committed is not just my sin against God but also my sin against the church. For the Christian there are no strictly private sins.

The virtues of individual Christians are meant to create a better church, not just better individuals.

Part Two:



§        The Theology & Life of Prayer

Prayer is the first act that links doctrine to practice.

Even though there are a number of approaches/exercises many will find their own spiritual lives progressing on one primary exercise.

Spiritual skills come through practice.  They are a means to an end, not ends in themselves.

The goal of the Christian life is union with God---glorifying and enjoying God forever, fulfilling the ultimate purpose for which we were created. 

The skills must be integrated into a larger pattern of living. This can be done by a rule of life that enlarges the framework of our Christian existence to include the world.

If self-examination does not seriously raise the question about our attitude toward the larger world, particularly the world of human need and suffering, then we are in real danger of more introspection.

Prayer is the one act on which other spiritual exercises depend. Meditation is preliminary to prayer; self-examination leads us to confession; spiritual reading directs the soul to a listening posture.

In prayer one enters into relationship with the Trinity, undergoes mortification and grows in the virtues.

One becomes a practicing Christian by practicing prayer


Prayers are the life signs of faith. As the cries of a newborn baby, prayer is the sign of spiritual life. Because it is nearly an instinctive reflex, it is something that we can all do, because we already know how to pray.    Petitionary prayer is fundamental to the whole life of prayer.

Prayer as Act and Habit

In the broad sense, prayer refers to the Christian’s fundamental attitude toward God and relationship with God. The whole life of a Christian may be described as a life of prayer. Growth in the life of prayer involves different degrees of intimacy with God.

The more a person prays the more intimate she will be with God.

In the narrow sense, prayer refers to specific acts of the soul in communion with God.

Exercises such as meditation and self-examination are more like preliminaries to prayer, but they are included under the category of prayer.

Good lovers, set aside special times for expressing their love, be it a holiday or a special meal together, and regular times of intimate fellowship and communion.

Divine Initiation

 Prayer is the manifesting of baptism. It arises out of the basic fact that we have been baptized into the body of Christ and that we share the life of Christ and his Word in the body.

God’s Word has the initative; we are simply the listeners. It is always God who calls men to keep company with him, never the other way about.

The human race was created to hear the Word, and only in responding to the word rises to its full dignity


In responding to the Word we discover our true innermost being, namely, our life in the Trinity, without which we are dead even while we live, unable to be fully the persons we are meant to be. We are what we are by virtue of this most intimate of relationships.

No relationship is closer, more rooted in being itself that between the Head and the body, the vine and the branches.

Praying Beyond Ourselves

God as the center of all things means all things are ultimately connected to God. 

Pray is an “un-selfing” process that reverberates into every social and political realm.

Most sermons exhort their hearer to practice truth but do not explain how to do it. No consideration is given to the fact that a wide chasm exists between their listeners’’ present state and the final goal.

Everyone should place before himself the aim of service to the needy and not his own satisfaction. As long as you did it to one of these, my least brethren, you did it to me.

To realize the divine purpose for work, we need simply to do our work, if not faithfully, at least relentlessly—with prayer. This combination of work and prayer will begin to have a positive formative effect on our life.  Prayer progressively sanctifies work.

Magic is trying to manipulate natural or supernatural powers to serve our purposes. The self stands at the center of the universe, not God. Modern technologists are the successors to pagan magicians. The magical attitude exists among technologically minded Christians as well. If you have faith, they say, anything you ask in prayer will be yours. Prayer is a technique for twisting God’s arm to get what they want. Such prayers are an abuse of relationship. To abuse a friendship is to lose it.

If young Christians’ prayers are constantly taken up with my health, my family, my personal relationship with God, at least they are prayed in honesty. They are the beginning (but only the beginning) of true discipline leading to union with God (which, no doubt, is still some distance away). But without honesty, we can all deceive ourselves into think that we are praying to God when we are only using prayer as a manipulative tool. As Buttrick reminds us, “sincere prayer will keep you from self-deception, or self-deception will keep you from your prayers.”


Growth in personal relationships is never easy, as anyone who has been married long will attest. Intimate association unmasks us and forces us to face the truth about ourselves.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality”—T. S. Eliot.

Intimacy with God is especially difficult because the faults are never mutual. 

But are we free to express the inner turmoil, the dark confusion and the feeling of being wronged? The psalmist did.

In the beginning prayer tends to be more vocal and Petitionary. Like a young lover, the young Christian loves our to selfish considerations and a need to fill up every moment with words.

Self-love has often a larger share than we imagine in the desire to keep our conscience clear, to correct our faults and to make progress in virtue; however small the share may be, it is always too large, for self-love has no place in holiness which demands its complete destruction.

The one who grows in prayer moves farther and farther away from self-interested prayers of petition to God-directed prayers of adoration and thanksgiving. Prayers become less vocal and more mental. Words and images become unnecessary as the soul draws deeper into the heart of prayer. The one praying engages God with a simple attention of the mind and an equally simple application of the will. The highest prayers are those in which God prays in us: “Pray yourself in me so that my prayer may be directed to your glory.”

I observe that almost all those who confine themselves to vocal prayer generally relate their prayers to themselves; that more spiritual Christians who practice meditation generally use it as a means to the amendment of life, so that their reflections and acts of affection and resolutions have no other aim than the correction of their faults and growth in virtue. It is the interior souls who are the only ones who make God the supreme object of their prayers, for they are entirely devoted to his glory, his love and his adorable will. This will not seem strange when we consider that it is God who prays in them, God who praises Himself and glorifies Himself through them, and that, rightly regarded, their prayer is a more or less perfect image of what he is doing perpetually in himself.—Grou, How to Pray

“initiatory joy is one thing, the joy of perfection is another. The first is not exempt from fantasy, while the second has the strength of humility. Between the two joys comes godly sorrow and active tears.”--Diadochos 

The struggles we have to go through in prayer are part of progress in prayer.  The most sustained treatment is found in Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross.

The soul must not even try to feel and taste God’s presence as it is being led from meditation to contemplation.

Maturity brings growth that is more subtle but no less real. The mature Christian lives with less and less reliance on signs and feelings. Some Christians, failing to understand this principle of growth, have resorted to desperate measures such as frequent and severe—but quite fruitless---self-examinations.

At the altar and seeking reconciliation first suggests the priority of human relationships. But the one who is told to go and to reconcile was first at the altar offering his gift; it was there that he remembered his offended brother. What is crucial is that the reconciling process began in prayer. We are inexorably driven back again to prayer as the first principle of practical theology.

Matthew 5:23-24 (NKJV) Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Praying by Rule


The truth is both simple and utterly basic; the only way to learn to pray is to pray.

The “technique” of prayer is the same as the technique of going to church. The question is not, do you know how to go to church? But do you want to go to church?

The problem of will is the problem of discipline, and that is a problem for practical theology.

The task of practical theology is to provide an efficient rule of life and a good rationale for it so that we are motivated to live by rule.

A regular Christian is one whose orientation in life is to be a full-time Christian.

The rule addresses precisely the problem of will in prayer. Accepting the rule of prayer is not the same as drawing up a list of rules and promising to keep them. It is more like embracing a state of being, such as opting to become married.

The rule of payer ties one to a rhythm of living in which praying is a way of life.

Petitionary Prayer


Petition is our native response when life is torn.  It is as elementally human as a cry.

All prayer begins with petition.  At the heart of prayer is the simple faith that asks, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

“Man desires to get out of his misery, to be free of the evil thing; he begs for it. Unabashed he speaks, ‘Help me dear God!’” Luther

Our lord promised, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock

and the door will be opened to you.”

Prayer language must develop to assimilate the larger knowledge of God.  What used to come instinctually must now be done with some deliberation. 

If God’s will is to be done on earth, how is it to be done?  Every dictator will have to be cast down, every unnatural death will have to be eliminated, every empty stomach will have to be filled, and on and on.

The praying person is united with the God who is Lord over all things---including dried fish!  There is really no ultimate distinction between the simplest petition for daily bread and the highest reaches of the prayer of transforming union of Teresa of Avila.  What affects our inmost spirit also affects our world.

In encouraging His children to ask, God chooses to work through our prayer


§        Spiritual Exercises Focusing on God and Self


A spiritual or ascetical theology trains Christians in the art of unceasing or habitual prayer.

If Christians know what it means to “pray without ceasing” then all aspects of life will be redeemed.

Unceasing prayer helps us maintain spiritual poise—in the midst of hectic activities.   A spiritual poise is formed by repeated acts.

Spiritual theology is meant to help build a bridge from the simple tasks involving small changes of mental habits to the higher reaches of prayer in which God becomes all in all.

The principle of unceasing prayer goes back to Basil’s monastic rule. We fill our moments with teaching rather than prayer.

When in every action we beg from God the success of our labors and express our gratitude for the power to do work, and we keep before our minds the aim of pleasing Him, we acquire a recollected spirit.

The intention of the Sprit is to pray in us always


We can cultivate unceasing prayer by means of three exercises:

  1. practicing the presence of God
  2. conforming to God’s will and
  3. maintaining fidelity to grace.

As habits they are simply different aspects of unceasing prayer.

As acts they offer practical ways of training in habitual prayer.

Unceasing prayer and the practice of self-examination go hand in hand.

The Practice of the Presence of God


Also called the prayer of recollection, this consists in recalling as frequently as possible that God is present everywhere, especially in the depths of the soul.

“I make it my business only to persevere in His holy presence wherein I keep myself by a simple attention, and a general fond regard to God; or a habitual, silent, and secret conversation of the soul with God…” Brother Lawrence


The habit of being in the presence of God can be reinforced by acts of recollection: “the habit of turning to God at regular times throughout the working day”  Brother Lawrence

“Place thyself with reverence before God” Francis de Sales

Engaging in any one of these acts of recollection predisposes the mind to proceed with meditation and prayer.

Recollection can consist of short prayers---no more than a mental note---interspersed throughout the day.

“A holy heart, in heavenly mindedness, will get out of the throng of cares and business, will be often breaking off the thread of earthly thoughts, and interpose some heavenly dart up to heaven, make a short visit thither, refresh itself with some heavenly dainty…have a running banquet of heavenly sweetmeats, when it cannot sit down and feed at large by a fuller set meditation.”  Nathaniel Ranew (puritan 1670)

Short payers can be expressions of gratitude or a desperate cry for help.

The Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Praying the Jesus Prayer helps keep the mind focused and helps strengthen the will to resist temptations.

Attentiveness is the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought.  In this stillness the heart breathes and invokes, endlessly and without ceasing, only Jesus Christ who is the Son of God and Himself God.

The more the rain falls on the earth the softer it makes it; similarly, Christ’s holy name gladdens the earth of our heart the more we call upon it.

The name of Jesus Christ contains within itself all the truths of the gospel. It is the abbreviated form of the gospel, so that in praying the Jesus prayer one is seeking to internalize the entire gospel. It operates on the same principle as regular reading of the Gospels.

Functionally, the Jesus Prayer is similar to the short choruses that are sung in charismatic churches today. Perhaps without knowing it, Pentecostal-charismatics have stumbled on a practice with an impeccable lineage.

The book of providence 

God is present in all things and in all events, and to sense his presence in a situation, thing or event is to learn to read the book of providence.

Brother Lawrence received a high view of the providence and power of God. 

Daily turning points cut small niches in an otherwise seamless schedule to create a space for nurturing the payers of recollection.  We can by small degrees inculcate a new frame of mind, a mind that is oriented toward God as the center of all things.

Conformity to the Will of God


While the desire to live in God’s will is commendable, the motivation for knowing and the very concept of God’s will itself are quite questionable.  Some desire to know God’s will hoping to avoid the need to make painful personal decisions. Knowing in advance and with certitude God’s special blueprint for them would simplify their lives considerably, they think. Such people prefer to live by sight rather than by faith with its accompanying struggle and doubt.

To conform to God’s will is to unite our wills to his in love. Knowing what God wants heightens rather than diminishes our responsibility.

It is impossible to choose to follow God unless we love him with the love with which he loves us. Thus to love God is already to be united to God and to be conformed to God’s will.

Augustine said, “Love God and do whatever you like.”

Everything we do out of love for God will be circumscribed by love and therefore cannot be out of God’s will

Practical practice requires us to ask how we can, by taking small steps, learn conformity to God’s will. 

Every Christian must study Scripture diligently and meditate on it day and night.

When we immerse ourselves deeply in the story through reading and listening, memorizing and meditating, we become a part of the story.

It is from this broad understanding of being in God’s will that we can address the more specific question of God’s will for my life and for this world..

Acknowledging God 

Make a habit of acknowledging God in all circumstances and decisions.  Proverbs 3:5-7 (ESV) Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. 7 Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.

There must be a certain self-forgetfulness in what we do. Simplicity rather than scrupulosity marks the self-surrendered soul.

Learning obedience.

We think that because we have direct priestly access to God, we owe obedience to God and no one else.  We forget that obedience to God may well come through freely embracing the yoke of human authority.

Self-will, not ignorance, is what hinders us from perfect conformity to God’s will.

The monks knew all too well from experience that all who wished to advance spiritually without coming under some higher authority (usually an abba or amma) succeeded only in deluding themselves.

Many modern spiritual helps on the market are based on a Do-it-yourself technology that appeals to our pride and sense of self-sufficiency and minimizes the need for accountability to another human being.

When it comes to the spiritual life, we are our own worst teachers.

Christians need to learn obedience just as their Lord did:  Hebrews 5:8 (ESV)   Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

Fidelity to Grace


Fidelity to grace is the humble response to the workings of actual grace.

Stirrings of grace must be followed without relying for a single moment on our own judgment, reason, or effort. It is God who must decide what we shall do and when, and not ourselves.   Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751)

In all that these souls do, they are aware only of an urge to act without knowing why.

Christians do experience, more often than they realize, moments when they ‘feel led” to do something.

The tasks that these situations call for may be weighty or trivial. But they require an obedient response.

We can:

  1. ignore the promptings;
  2. follow through on every one of them (which over-scrupulous Christians often do) and end up exhausting and confusing ourselves; or
  3. learn to discern the genuine workings of grace.

Under proper spiritual guidance we eventually learn to tell the difference between promptings of grace and the compulsions of over-scrupulosity.

The mistakes of those who are willing to listen in humility are never fatal. Learning to listen is more a matter of being willing rather than a possessing intellectual acumen. Those who will to do God’s will are already doing it.

What we need is to be docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. A readiness to respond facilitates further movements of the spirit and create a habitual obedience to grace, which is a prelude to higher things.

The fear of subjectivism and self-delusion is real and has to be addressed.   There is God’s declared and defined will and His undefined will or providence.  Christians who practice the “sacrament of the present moment” do not ignore the defined will.

In seeking to listen to God’s voice within, the Christian must not forsake the objective norms of faith found in Scripture and the teachings of the church. Nor should the counsels of other Christians, especially one’s spiritual director, be ignored.  Disobeying God’s defined will makes it impossible to find God’s undefined will.

Self-Examining Prayer


“Humble understanding of yourself is a surer path to God than the deep inquiry into knowledge.” Thomas a Kempis

Self examination is not only the condition for but also the result of the three forgoing exercises.

1 Corinthians 11:28 (ESV)  Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

If we have sinned, the only way to come to a conscious knowledge of it and to be truly sorry for it is through self-examination. It is the beginning of self-responsibility.

Self examination forces us to face the real in the world as well as the real within. 

It is only when we begin to question our participation in the “real” that we can begin to seek the true freedom that will enable us to engage the world critically and constructively.

When we search our hearts, we are actually asking the Holy Spirit, the One who searches all things, even the deep things of God to examine us.

Only God can tell us the exact condition of our heart. Self-examination therefore must always be done in the presence of God.  It is this characteristic of self-examination that distinguishes a saint from a neurotic.

The Puritans recommended a daily self-examination that they called the reading of the book of conscience.  Everyday we should be humbled for our sins advised Richard Rogers.

Self-examination is the occasion for humble confession of sins committed , but it is also the occasion for thanksgiving for the good things we receive form God’s hand.

If we truly pray for God to search our heart, it is highly unlikely that the Holy Spirit who convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgment would fail to bring anything of consequence to our remembrance.

The four exercises that we have considered can be practiced throughout life, but they are also simple enough for a beginner to use.


The first concern of Bible study is to explicate the meaning of the text and then apply it to life.

Spiritual reading is concerned with the Bible as the Word of God that calls us to God.  It implicitly asks, how does this particular text tell the Christian story of which I am a part?

Spiritual reading presupposes the Bible as God’s Word calling us to make a decisive response and thus trains us in a certain spiritual attitude----openness to God, humble listening, willingness to obey.  These basic dispositions are the fertile ground from which the seeds of virtue sprout. Unlike ordinary reading, spiritual reading is done to affect the heart, not to gain information.

Instead of wondering if we agree or disagree, we should wonder which words are directly spoken to us and connect directly with our inmost personal story. Instead of thinking about the words as potential subjects for an interesting dialogue or paper, we should be willing to let them penetrate into the most hidden corners of our hearts, even to those places where no other word has yet found entrance. Then and only then can the word bear fruit as seed sown in rich soil. Only then can we really “hear and understand.”  Henri Nouwen

We shall read the Gospel, then, in order to enter into the evangelist’s and the beloved Disciple’s communion with the Lord, not asking at each point precisely what was spoken or done, but knowing that as we share the experience, historical and spiritual, from which the Gospel flows, we shall come nearer to the heart and mind of Jesus our Lord than ever our own minds could bring us by meditation upon the precise words that He uttered. --- William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel

Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate did not behold His glory. But His true disciples did. His glory was not something left behind to which one day He would return---as St. Paul has sometimes suggested…of course the Pauline doctrine  is true. The Incarnation was an act of sacrifice and of humiliation---real however voluntary. But that is not the last word. For the sacrifice and humiliation are the divine glory. If God is Love, His glory most of all shines forth in whatever most fully expresses love. The Cross of shame is the throne of glory.  ibid on John 1:14

A hindrance to spiritual reading is : Instead of letting the text speak to us, we analyze it. Instead of letting it tell us what we do not know, we judge the author by what he does not know, or by what he should have said, or by how he should have said it.  We treat an author more as a competitor than as a teacher.

Another hindrance is that we expect every spiritual reading to be accompanied by good feelings or a powerful challenge. This attitude is symptomatic of our pragmatic reflex.

If the reading does not produce the expected fruit of emotional stirrings, we conclude that it is not the right book for me, since it does not speak to my condition.

Develop the habit of regularly reading Scripture and other spiritual books.

At the beginning be concerned only with reading diligently; understanding will come later.

The church has to re-create itself as a reading-listening community.

The works of Richard Foster and A. W. Tozer are highly readable and are steeped in the Christian tradition.


The first Christians naturally assumed the Jewish practice of hearing the Old Testament read in the synagogue.

Monks memorized short portions of biblical texts and sayings of the fathers called florilegia or “flower-sipping”

Memorized texts are not contextless. Rather, they presuppose the whole context of Christian Scripture. Just as the Jesus Prayer may be said to encapsulate the whole gospel, a memory verse captures what is most essential in Christian tradition.

The posies of meditation remind us of the larger garden of Scripture.

The rhythm of hearing Scripture read and explained and then memorizing key portions of it gradually assimilated the community into the Christian story. Memorization is one of the most basic ways by which the unschooled deeply imbibe the Christian faith and gain real theological competence.

If indeed theological competence depends on technical competence, then we would have to assume that the more highly educated person has the potential to become more saintly than the less educated. The assumption that great saints are necessarily more learned is obviously false. As is often the case, the learned do not always put their vaster knowledge into practice and so remain spiritual dwarfs, while the virtual illiterates who actualize what meager knowledge they acquire, surpass them in sanctity.

The more educated cannot even be said to have more theological knowledge than the less educated. What the former have more of is explicit theological knowledge, while the latter hold theirs implicitly, which is potentially no more or less.

In Charismatic churches it is precisely the repetition of choruses that provide a vital function. A good short chorus is like a good ejaculatory prayer/meditation and functions like the Jesus Prayer or the florilegium. It aids continual prayer by letting a truth run through our minds over and over again so that it becomes a true part of us. Chorus singing could well be a critical mode of empowering the modern church’s collective memory.

If they are to effectively encourage devotional habits, choruses should concentrate on three areas

  1. key portions of Scripture;
  2. great mysteries of the faith which constitute the basic facts of the Christian story;
  3. and key expressions of the faith---the creed, the commandments and the Lord’s Prayer

These key things are to be distilled into ready-to-eat mouthfuls of different sizes, never too large and suited to any taste.

Meditation is the intensification rather than the extensification of the Word. It is like bringing the diffused rays of the sun to a focal point with a convex lens so that the heat can be felt in all its intensity.

Meditation is the main link between theology and praxis.

  1. The truth is read and assimilated by the intellect;
  2. it is made to affect the heart or “raise the affections;” and
  3. truth that has deeply affected the heart moves the will to make a resolution.

Meditation is the chief means for accomplishing the purgation of the soul and the formation of virtues.

The real goal of meditation is to enable Christians to experience afresh their corporate life in Christ.

Frances de Sales’ Method of Meditation

I.        Preparation

A.     Of the Presence of God: One is to place himself in the presence of God by one of these means

1.       A lively and attentive apprehension of the omnipresence of God

2.      To think that not only is God in the place where you are, but that he is in a very special manner in your heart and in the depth of your spirit.

3.      Consider our Savior, who in his humanity looks from heaven upon all persons….but particularly upon Christians…more especially upon those who are in prayer

4.      Using the imagination represent to himself the Savior in His sacred humanity as though He were near to you.

B.     Of the Invocation: Having placed yourself in the presence of God, the next thing is to acknowledge your unworthiness and call on God for assistance.

C.     Setting forth the Mystery: this involves presenting to the imagination the subject of the meditation.

II.     The Body of Meditation

A.     Considerations

1.      Here the meditator thinks deeply on the subject, using imagination if the subject is sensible [for example the crucifixion] or affective thought if it is not perceptible by the senses [our creation].

2.      For example, if we are meditate on our creation we may consider the following: the world has been in existence long before we were born; God brought us into the world even though he has no need of us; and yet God bestows on us a nature which is the chiefest and most excellent in the visible world, namely, our capacity to live eternally and be united with His divine Majesty. This consideration should deeply humble us.

B.     Affections and resolutions:

1.      after the consideration of his own creation, the mediator proceeds to raise the affection of humility by means of affective soliloquies

(1) “O Lord before you and in comparison to your majesty, I am just nothing. And how were you then mindful of me to create me? Alas, my soul, was hidden in the abyss of nothing; and in this abyss of nothing I should have remained until the present, if God had not drawn me forth from there. And what could I have done, within this nothing?”

(2) With this deep sense of humility, the meditator gives thanks to God. But as he does so, he is again driven back to greater humility as he meditates on his own unfaithfulness to God.

(3) “Alas, my Creator, instead of uniting myself to you by pure love and loyal service, I have always been rebellious by my unruly affections, separating and withdrawing myself from you , to join and unite myself to sin and iniquity, doing no more honor to your goodness, as if you had not been my Creator.

(4) Thus thoroughly humble, the meditator then makes this resolution: O God, I am the work of your hands. I will then no more take pleasure in myself, since in my self and of my self I am truly nothing…Wherefore to humble myself, I will do such and such a thing…I will change my life, and hereafter follow my Creator, and do myself honor with condition and being which He has given me, employing it wholly in the obedience of His blessed will, by such means as shall be taught me, and as I shall be informed by my spiritual father [director].

III.   The Conclusion: the meditation closes with three acts

A.     Thanksgiving

B.     Consecrating oneself to God

C.     Petition for grace to carry out the truth learned in practice. 

This is but one method of meditating on the Word.

Bonhoeffer recommended that his seminarians spend half an hour each day meditating on a text of ten to fifteen verses for at least a whole week: “it is not good to meditate on a different text each day, since we are not always equally receptive.”

Just as you would accept the word spoken by someone just as it was said, so you should accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart.  Do not look for new thoughts and interconnections in the text as you would in a sermon. Do not ask how you should tell it to others, but ask what it tells you! Then ponder this word in your heart at length until it is entirely within you and has taken possession of you.” Ibid

What is called discursive meditation leads to deeper contemplation.

At the beginning be concerned with reading it diligently; understanding will come later. This is the first rung of Jacob’s ladder. It is within every Christian’s reach, which is the same as the technique of going to church.



Part of Christian spiritual development involves a growing consciousness of the larger world.  It sees the world as the place where God’s significant actions occur.

The Christian life is expressed in

  1. the world of interpersonal relationships through the cultivation of spiritual friendship
  2. the world of creation though occasional meditation .
  3. the world of human activities through social spirituality

Spiritual Friendship

A law of friendship is that a superior must be on a plane of equality with the inferior

No relationship can hope to endure when its value lies in whether or not it satisfies my personal need for intimacy.  The aim of complex social arrangements in traditional societies is not primarily to satisfy individual emotional needs but to ensure the stability of the larger community, be it family, village or tribe.

Modern culture sees friendship as ultimately serving to enhance the self.

In spiritual friendship two friends help each other grow in grace and virtue while eliminating vice and weakness.

 Friendship serves a higher instrumental end to make the individual more virtuous, to bring the individual closer to the ideal of the Good.

Aristotle counted perfect friendship as friendship that is between the good, and those who resemble each other in virtue.  It is exclusive and is possible only with a few people.

A natural association can be consecrated, set apart, in the body of Christ. Like any other friendship, it includes an element of exclusivity. Francis de Sales recognized that we must love all but befriend only a few. 

A friendship cultivated in Christ manifests a certain likeness to eternity and can transcend its natural barriers.  Even a free person and a slave can become friends.

We appreciate firm but gentle correction from someone who can point out our faults.

Because there is such a thing as spiritual friendship, we need to guard against unspiritual ones.  For he who loves iniquity does not love, but hates his own soul.  He who does not love his own soul will not be able to love the soul of another.

A spiritual friendship can degenerate into sensual one. First, the friendship becomes exclusive. Second, the friendship becomes possessive.  Third, the friendship becomes obsessive.

A condition for friendship is “autonomy.”  One’s own autonomy is seen to be realized only as one promotes as well the autonomy of others. 

Prayer and answer are what constitute human friendship with God and divine friendship with human beings.

Friendship can develop only if there is a willingness to risk opening up to others.  Someone who always waits for the other person to make the first move is not likely to have a friend.

We are to love even our enemies who by definition are not friends. Exclusivity of friendship is not a problem if we recognize that it represents one aspect of our total relationship with God and with each other.

The church should be characterized by exclusive friendships in which everyone has a share.

Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners but he was not on intimate terms with them as he was with his twelve disciples.

Meditation on the Creation


Meditation on creatures is sometimes called occasional meditation because it is not practiced according to set times and places. It suggests itself in the ordinary run of life.

Francis of Assisi saw the creatures that were going to be taken up in the final restoration as “real” brothers and sisters.

All creatures are alive to God in their own respective ways according to Francis.

Puritans practiced the reading of the book of creation.  By comparing the similarity between the earthly and the heavenly, the meditator is led to appreciate God’s earthly gifts.  By contrasting the earthly with the heavenly, one learns to detach from the world.

Reading creation spiritually requires a prior knowledge of God and a personal relationship with God


Read books on nature, animals, plants, etc in order to heighten our sensitivity to God’s world.

A person who has an increased appreciation of God’s world, will love the Giver of all good gifts better and develop a sense of ecological responsibility.

A Spirituality of Social Involvement

Modern eschatology stresses the presence of the future as the basis of our social and political involvement.  The world to come is already in some way present in the committed Christian.

Commitment to the world is based on attachment to the kingdom of God present in the world rather than on detachment from the snares of the world.  Understanding the presence of the kingdom means being committed to structural rather than piecemeal changes in society.

The temptation is to view attractive ideologies as signs of God’s Kingdom.

Theological politics stresses the separation of church and world rather than the diffusion of church in the world.

The church influences the world precisely by being distinct from it.

Character formation of individuals and of the Christian community is essential to making a decisive impact.

If we cannot change the evil structure of society in places where oppressors are too powerful, then we need to change the oppressed through evangelism.

Undercutting the theological foundations of an exploitative system and creating an alternative social structure seeks to live out the truth.

Proclamation that Jesus is Lord implies that there is to be no absolute human ruler who is above the law.  The present evil reality is not the final reality.

Theories of social engagement become convincing only when put into practice.

Without action on behalf of what is right, all forms of spirituality are so much escapism, so much noise.

To become lived realities, theories of social engagement must descend to the level of practical discipline. If our starting point is the distinctive Christian ethics of the kingdom of God rather than some common ethical premise on which both Christian and non-Christian can build, then it is possible to develop a biblical discipline of engagement, beginning with such direct acts as freely offering food and water to the hungry an thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, even if they are our enemies, or remitting our debtors in accordance with Jesus’s declaration of jubilee.   (Matthew 25:35-36 (ESV) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’; Romans 12:9-21 (ESV) Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.)

These acts are observed not as acts for the promotion of personal virtue but as part of the “politics of Jesus,” which identifies us as the community belonging to him.

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray “thy Kingdom come,” he was showing them that in the ultimate analysis the rule of God on earth is to be accomplished through those who pray—those who live by the realization that God is at the center of the universe and at the center of their lives.

Along with prayer we need a larger vision of reality. We need to bring the situation of our world into our conscious thought and prayer.

§         THE RULE OF LIFE

 A rule of life maintains the basic orientation of our lives as Christians.

A rule does n mean that a greater part of our time is taken up with performing religious duties. Rather, the rhythm that a good rule establishes helps us maintain our spiritual focus.

Like the Pharisee we can feel smug about keeping all the rules and miss the heart of Christianity, namely, our relationship with God.

The publican went away justified in site of having broken many rules. Rules can make us or break us. They break us if we pursue them as ends in themselves, and they make us if we see them as means to an end. They have their place, as long as we recognize their fundamental status.

Richard Baxter wrote a massive guide to godliness entitled A Christian Directory in 1670.

Harold Miller offers helpful suggestions in his book Finding a Personal Rule of Life.

Discovering our Personal Rule


A rule that includes too many meticulous details is more likely to frustrate than to help. But if it does not stretch us beyond our present limits, it is not likely to result in the formation of new habits.

Rule should be such that it is invariably kept without strain but occasionally makes a definite demand on the will. It should normally be kept with no fault occasionally, a few faults frequently, and if it goes all to pieces very rarely there is little to worry about. 

The Relation between Personal and Common Rule

Third order of St. Francis -designed for laypersons.

The General Rules of the United Societies by John Wesley revolved around three areas

  1. avoiding every kind of evil (including drunkenness and owning slaves)
  2. Doing good of every possible sort to all men.
  3. attending upon the ordinances of God (public worship, & preaching, Bible reading, family and private devotions, fasting)

A common rule can be used as a guide for constructing a personal rule.

A “covenant group” within a congregation dedicated to monitoring individual progress is also a form of common rule.  The group should not becomes a score-keeping agency.  What counts is whether members remain committed to the principle of rule itself. As long as they persist in embracing rule they will make progress in the long term, failures notwithstanding.  The covenant group is but one small step from the creation of the remnant as the agents of renewal in the church.

Evangelicals tend to underestimate or ignore the power of the corporate life of the church to shape and reorder our private lives. They usually think of the church as depending on the collective input of individuals. The greater truth is the opposite: it is mother church existing through space and time that birthed us. It is we who depend on its life, which finds its highest expression in acts of corporate worship.

The repetitive cycles of set prayers in the daily office rather than making worship dry were like gracious tutors reordering my topsy-turvy priorities, and leading me once more back to the center where the human soul is at home.

The first step in discipline is to learn the “technique of going to church.”

A good rule must allow for breaks and relaxation.  There will be days when rule cannot be kept. 

We need a rule with place for the exceptional.

Also if we keep in view the end to which our rule is directed, we will remain sensitive to the need for enlarging and revising our rule every few years in order to make room for progress.



According to one desert father, discernment is what transforms physical asceticism into virtue.

Many have injured their bodies without discernment and have gone away haning achieved nothing. Our mouths smell bad through fasting, we know the Scriptures by heart, we recite all the Psalms of David, but we have not that which God sees: love and humility.

Discernment is the eye and lamp of the body.

There are two major contexts for discernment: external and internal. 

External discernment comes with the veracity of events, situations and people. John’s test for the early Gnostic was an external test of men’s hearts. 1 John 4:1-2 (ESV) Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,

More difficult is the discernment of signs of the manifestation of God, including extraordinary phenomena.

The sociopolitical context is another aspect of external discernment. What God is doing in the world raises the questions about active participation in it.

The greatest difficulty is discerning God’s will for one’s own life in a particular situation. What is God telling me to do in this situation?  Can I be sure that an urge, impulse or feeling coming in response to an external situation is from God?

Determining the real source of inner impulses has always been difficult.  Most of the work on discernment in the Christian tradition has concentrated on this area.

Discernment and Spiritual Maturity


Discernment is knowing God’s will in particular situations


Knowing God’s will has to do with our whole attitude toward God and ourselves, with an ongoing relationship with God and loving him.


It requires practical wisdom that no amount of formal study can impart, that is, a kind of spiritual sensitivity that comes with long experience.

Spiritual sensitivity is honed through constant training in listening to God and obeying His voice.

God’s will for one’s life is found in the process of living in love and obedience, not in one crucial choice we made or failed to make.

The wrong choice may be the very means that god is using to bring the Christian to the place of contrition and humility.

Do we decide out of a trusting relationship with God and out of humble acknowledgment that God is fully in charge? Do we honestly will to do God’s will?

Desire to know God’s will in a given situation is not always an indication of a surrendered will.  It may indicate a desire to control our own destiny instead of letting God take charge.

The rules of discernment.

The totality of our relationship with God determines whether we are in God’s will or out of it.

Scripture and Christian tradition furnish us with some ground rules for discernment.  A genuine spiritual experience must manifest moral qualities as truth, gravity, submissiveness, humility and Christ-centeredness.

The genuine work of the Spirit characteristically brings greater unity to the body of Christ rather than division, since his work is always consonant with what is deep within the heart of the Father and the Son John 17:11 (ESV) … that they may be one, even as we are one.

Spiritual comfort comes from the Lord, while spiritual distress is from the evil spirit.

It is possible to do good without being good.

The character of a discerning Christian

Discerning Christians are humble because they know they cannot pry open the secret counsels of God.

Ultimately it is God who decides and reveals; the Christian simply obeys.

“The first evidence of this humility is when everything done or thought of I submitted to the scrutiny of our elders.” Cassian

The need to submit to the counsel of more experienced people is especially acute for someone who has extraordinary experiences.  One who rejects such counsel may act presumptuously and as a result fall into delusion.

Confession of faults before others is a sure way of dealing with hidden sins that give occasion for demonic deception. 

We need to be discerning when submitting ourselves to the judgment of others. “our enemy who is very cunning, uses the white hair of age to fool the young” Cassian

Discerning Christians also exhibit courage or boldness. An element of risk taking is involved in seeking to know what God would have us do in a specific situation, because we have no objective basis to act with complete certitude.

Without the boldness to step out “based on a deeply felt sense that things are right,” often little of God’s will would actually be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The test of Abraham’s faith did not begin on Mount Moriah but on a humbler plane when he was given a call that must have seemed undramatic to people used to a nomadic existence.

The discerning Christian avoids vacillating between opposing errors between zeal and sluggishness. 

Excesses meet.  Too much fasting and too much eating come to the same end.  Keeping too long a vigil brings the same disastrous cost and too much sleep.  Extremes are a sign of a lack of discernment.

A holy hope and a holy fear go together in the saints. Joy and comfort are present with godly sorrow and mourning for sin.

Corporate Discernment


Protestants have often taken the priority of Scripture in faith and practice to mean that Christians can come to the Scripture on their own to discover God’s will for their lives.

Scripture functions as a resource book for private interpretation. Fortunately, they are mostly spared the hazards of an implicit Gnosticism because they also recognize the need to check out their interpretation with more mature Christians.

We know God’s will in Scripture not because it is a quasi-magical book that objectively sets forth God’s will for private individuals to discover, but because we belong to a community shaped by the authoritative Word. 

The knowledge of God’s will resides in the church, which is supremely the hearer and the bearer of the Word. Therefore individual Christians can come to know God’s will only in a living relationship with the community.  Scripture is the apostolic tradition, that is, it contains truth handed down by the apostles to the church. It is as tradition that it is alive in the church, and the church is made alive by it.

One important consequence of seeing discernment in the context of the church is that it displays the real role of church leaders. Certain charismatic leaders today claim a spiritual authority far surpassing that of any pope or church council. The leader, they claim, is the especially “anointed” person through whom God reveals his will to the church through a “prophetic word.’ Although this may have been the case in the Old Testament where only certain people were anointed for special tasks, including the work of discernment, the critical difference in the New Testament is that all are filled with the Spirit. The real leader is Christ, the head who communicates his will to the entire body, not just to a special class of leaders. The leader’s role is to make explicit what God is saying implicitly to his people. In practical terms, this means that no Christian leader has the right to lead unless he or she first learns to humbly listen to what God is saying in and through the ordinary members of the flock.

Discerning the Problems of the Spiritual Life

Distraction and Aridity

Scrupulosity Scrupulosity is a ‘serious spiritual disease in which the soul is perpetually oppressed by moral quibbles exaggerated out of all proportion.

The Christian life is marked chiefly by reverence, it is also reverence tempered by holy familiarity. Propriety must be observed, but it ought to be spontaneous rather than forced.

Delusion. It is noteworthy that it was precisely at the point when monks felt most secure in their acts of piety that they were in the greatest danger of self-delusion.

Discerning the Spirit in the World


The scriptures identify an attitude of watchfulness, a stance that Jesus enjoins in connection with signs of the times.  Spiritual alertness comes through prayer, “the loving relationship between the soul and God” that sensitizes heart and mind to the presence of God in the world. 

Living in this relationship we begin to discern God’s action in the world, God’s person in the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty and the naked.  And we act accordingly.

We can speak of discernment as the meeting point between prayer and action.

Watchfulness requires the straining of all our senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. Only bird watchers can discern the song of one bird from the noise of all the others.   Discerning God’s voice in the world requires that we train our ears to listen and obey.

Discerning Extraordinary Phenomena

Prophetic utterances are to be neither accepted unquestioningly nor rejected outright. Rather, they are to be tested.

Jonathan Edwards observed that a person can have a genuine spiritual experience that does not result in any abiding or “saving” fruit.

Natural working is even regarded as a sort of concession to human weakness. For example, anyone who has real faith expects a supernatural healing. Someone who lacks faith takes medication. Such a mindset creates a false disjunction between nature and grace. They perpetuate the same dualism that signs and wonders people often accuse other evangelical Christians of falling into.

The affections of a  person are not essentially different from his will. The inclination or disinclination of the will involves some degree of affections such as love and hatred.

Affections are the “moving springs in all the affairs of life, which engage men in all their pursuits; and especially in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigor.” The Religious Affections Jonathan Edwards

Affections are dispositions that incline a person to act in a certain way more or less consistently. True religion consists in affections of a certain quality.

We must avoid identifying any religious affection as a sign of true grace, such as religious zeal that leads to error or short-lived emotions from the religious life.  We need to distinguish between true and false affections and between ‘gracious” and natural affections.

Any kind of affection, whether religious or natural has effects on the body. This is due to the natural laws of the union ob body and soul.

Confidence alone is no sure sign of grace.

Jonathan Edwards insisted that true religion must go beyond immediate practical results to combine good effects with theological truths, as he elaborates in part three of Religious Affections.  Edwards’s approach is set squarely within the Calvinistic framework that presupposes the doctrine of perseverance. Even a non-Calvinist has to agree that salvation must be evidenced by a certain degree of permanence. A person does not just fall in or out of grace easily.

The theological criterion of discernment.

The two great works on discernment by Ignatius and Edwards place strong emphasis on the theological criterion as the ultimate test of any religious experience: the growth in faith, hope and love.

The prerogative does not belong to us to make a full and clear separation between sheep and goats.

True saints who are low in grace are often incapable of judging their own estate.

The Spirit imparts to the true believer a permanent principle of new life that is not found in temporary believers.

The Spirit produces effects consonant with His own nature in the true saint.  The Spirit communicates Himself to them in His own proper nature. It is entirely different from natural goodness, not an improvement of the natural.

The false prophet Balaam had a natural impression made on his mind and accordingly prophesied about Christ, but he remained a natural man.

The real work of God is not determined by what a person does but by who one is, one’s character, or what Scripture calls fruit.

A supernatural operation is first Christ centered experientially, second God related so that God’s excellent character is perceived, an third objectively Spirit witnessed.

Spiritual understanding consists primarily of the sense of the heart of the supreme beauty and sweetness of holiness or moral perfection of divine things.

The fist four signs are integrally related to each other. True affections must arise from a spiritual understanding of the moral beauty and excellency of divine things for their own sake. The cause of these affections is the sanctifying influence of the indwelling Spirit. The rest of the signs reinforce in different ways the theological criteria. The fifth sign describes true saints as those who have a solid, full, thorough and effectual conviction of the truth of the great things of the gospel. The sixth sign discusses evangelical humiliation, which is distinct from legal humiliation. The former arises from a discovery of the beauty of God’s holiness and moral perfection. It is humility under a disposition of grace. In true affections there is to be found a continual change in a person’s nature, the spirit and temper of Jesus Christ, a Christian tenderness of spirit, poise and orderliness and finally consistency in Christian living to the end of life.

A work of discernment that lacks spiritual poise tend to overreact to excesses and then create excesses of its own.

A common mistake in discernment today is to treat phenomena in isolation. Questions like, is being slain in the Spirit biblical? How about holy laughter? And Are having gifts of healing valid? miss the heart of the issue. They imply that certain phenomena in and of themselves can be right or wrong, whereas such phenomena are better classified as “no certain signs.” They can be true or false.

Applying the character test makes questions regarding the origin of the experience quite irrelevant in most cases.

Can someone misuse God’s gifts and yet be right with God?  The answer would have to be “Yes, but not for long.”

Understanding the nature of extraordinary phenomena.

Extraordinary phenomena are not necessarily spiritual.

Many paranormal experiences occur in contexts that cannot be understood as coming from either God or the devil.

Melancholics and depressives are prone to hallucinations and visions. People with lively imaginations are prone to similar experiences.

The test of a phenomenon is not whether it can be found in Scripture but whether it comports with the moral and theological criteria.  Saints have had many strange experiences that have no parallel in Scripture.

Through discerning we grow, and as we grow we become more discerning.


The main focus of pastoral care is to help Christians develop their prayer life and discover the will of God.

This was known in most of church history as the “cure of souls.”

“If anyone makes himself his own master in the spiritual life, he makes himself scholar to a fool.”  Bernard

Spiritual direction seeks to integrate theory and practice.

The Nature of Spiritual Direction


Some form of general spiritual direction takes place in most Protestant churches through preaching and teaching.  But in its specialized sense it is a one-to-one relationship. Spiritual direction is personal help in achieving full maturity in Christ.

Spiritual maturity involves a person’s relationship with God, while psychological integration does not.

Unlike psychotherapy, spiritual direction may involve self-disclosure on the director’s part. The director is aware of being a fellow pilgrim on the same journey. Part of that awareness is translated into a willingness to share from his own experience his weaknesses, failures and struggles in life.

Discerning the will of God.

Spiritual direction aims at helping the individual grow to be uniquely the person God wants him to be. Tildern Edwards call it unique attentiveness to your naked soul.

The spiritual director is a teacher of discernment who helps another distinguish between the workings of grace and contrary movements.  Discernment may be in the form of a charisma or an acquired skill.  The desert fathers often gave a spontaneous prophecy inspired by the Spirit. This was a charisma.

There is the necessity of patient waiting for healing sight. And there is also awareness that the director sits outside of his awareness for the Spirit to open heart and mind.

Spiritual Direction and the Christian Community

Interior awareness should lead us to the recognition of our calling in life. It begins with the basic relationship that the Christian has with Christ. A person needs to be brought to an awareness of it.

A second level of awareness is to discern the human covenant state.  The human covenants are the basic long term commitments that provide a general framework for our living and caring: marriage or celibacy, ordained or lay, career or labor, our covenantal community.

The spiritual life of an individual will always remain in flux if there are no stable structures of church, family, friendship, and work through which one expresses one’s covenantal relationships.

The third level of awareness involves discerning the person’s gifts for ministry. The evangelical-charismatic church emphasizes this level of vocation—discovering your ‘giftings” as it is often called.  One moves straight from personal relationship with Jesus to service for the Lord with only a vague awareness of covenantal responsibilities.

Spiritual direction should begin as early as possible for children in a Christian family. It is never too early to begin discerning the basic direction of one’s life. This will ensure that every level of vocation is planned.

How should my life with God be best lived in the world? What sort of work am I best suited for? Should I get married or should I remain single?

A planned life under direction can give us the freedom to make choices that fulfill what we deeply sense to be God’s calling for our lives.

The fourth level involves “immediate callings” also known as the sacrament of the present moment.  The unexpected crops up and then a call comes to fulfill our duty to God.  The spiritual director should help the directee open up to the unexpected.

A Christian receiving direction and observing a sensible rule is more likely to experience solid spiritual advance over time than one who is constantly seeking new spiritual experiences and experimenting with the latest techniques of prayer, Bible study, and group dynamics.

A traditioning process.

The real danger of the church becoming a collectivity of individualists comes not from those who are properly guided by a director but by self-taught saints. It is those without competent guidance who are liable to be driven into a holy corner.

Whether or not other rites like marriage and laying on of hands or ordination or healing are to be regarded as sacraments, there is no doubt that they have a sacramental value. They are means of grace to draw us more fully into the life in the body of Christ.

It is all the more needful to see these works within the life of the church and within the normal channels of ministry like prayer, fasting, confession of sin and Communion.

Can spiritual direction be carried out in the modern church context?

In spiritual direction personal knowledge of the one being directed is essential if the director is to lead the directee effectively and efficiently to spiritual maturity.

Late seventeenth century pietists conceived the idea of the ecclesiola in ecclesia, a small church within a larger church. This became the basis of Wesley’s class meeting.

The pastor will have to seek out a remnant within the church for spiritual direction. It is one way to ensure that the church is led by mature Christians who understand the spiritual nature and mission of the church, are capable of discerning God’s will, and have within them the spiritual resources to carry out God’s will in the church and in the world.

Qualities of a Spiritual Director


The greatest emphasis has always been on the personal quality of the director. First, he needs to know himself, and to do this he needs to cultivate intimacy with others through spiritual friendship. A director is not merely a resource person who provides information for others. He must be a fellow traveler along the way.

He must be humble. He is constantly tempted to bask in the directee’s adulation.  He also needs to be aware of the anger within himself

Honesty is another essential quality. He must be prepared to speak the hard truth at times, as Jesus spoke the truth to the rich young man who asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The man had the right question, but he was not prepared for the hard truth that Jesus delivered in love.

A director needs to be well versed in systematic and spiritual theology. Spiritual direction is ultimately concerned with spiritual realities and their basis in theology, not psychological problems.

Dogma to a spiritual director is like a map to a traveler. It charts a safe path for travelers to their final destination.

Some knowledge of counseling techniques, psychology, and abnormal psychology is immensely useful because spiritual development is closely tied to psychological development.  For instance a spiritual director should have some understanding of the dynamics of midlife crisis.

Spiritual theology finds its fulfillment in direction just as biblical study finds its true end in the preaching of the word.


We need a pathway with many small steps, especially at the bottom, so that no one is excluded from making the climb for lack of skill.

New Christians beginning the spiritual journey will find it less daunting if they are shown a stairway of small steps: the technique of prayer (essentially the same as the technique of going to church, obedience, the acts of reading, the acts of befriending, of taking nature walks, of giving a cup of cold water to a stranger)




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