Posts Categorized as: spiritual formation
Early in my education for Christian leadership I heard and felt the tension about reading your Bible every day. There were some voices who had nearly angelic visions of word studies and parsing Greek verbs and there were others who wondered (usually aloud) about ineffectiveness, Pharisaism and a loss of love for the lost. That tension has followed me my entire ministry career. In this post, what I want to do is share why I try to read the Bible every day. I am aware of the nature of illiteracy, dyslexia, orality and individual personality, and the roles they play in this process. I believe that the fundamental issue is placing our confidence in Jesus to be our teacher and King for salvation—His love is the basis for life. A new legalism is not my goal and spiritual smugness is not in my heart as I write. Rather, this is a short explanation of why this is my practice as a leader. At its root, my issue is practical.
The godly leaders I most admire all used this practice
Joshua chapter one is the starting point for me in this regard. God tells Joshua that he is supposed to “growl” over the Word of God (usually translated “meditate”) in order to obey God fully and to lead Israel in their battles. I would like to be more like Joshua as a leader. That same idea is also found in Psalm 1 where the one who focuses with God’s word day and night will flourish (like David). Peter, Paul and Jesus all mirror this idea as well.
Beyond my Biblical heroes, my missionary heroes also were deeply focused in the Word of God! Patrick’s mind was so saturated by the Bible that even as he was writing, his own syntax would slip into quoting long sections of the Bible. He uses over 200 scripture quotations in his Confessions alone. But Patrick was far more than just an introvert writing in a scriptorium somewhere lost in Ireland. Celtic Christianity became the dominant missionary force in Northern Europe for hundreds of years because of him. J. Hudson Taylor and Andrew Murray are two more missionary heroes who loved the Bible. John Sung and Watchman Nee along with the Bible women of the Chinese house church movement have been people of “one book.” Even today, effective, godly leaders of the church (and academy) that I admire have this in common.
The nature of life
Here I am thinking of what Dallas Willard refers to in his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. He says that you define “life—whatever its ultimate metaphysical nature and explanation—to be the ability to contact and selectively take in from the surroundings whatever supports its own survival, extension and enhancement.”  Later he talks about part of life being our ability to interact with God as part of that contacting and taking in life. If you compare this with some of Jesus’ teachings in John 5 and 6, I think the picture of the Word of God being part of what brings us life seems obvious. Athletes use nutrition as part of their main strategy for performance. As a leader, I want a wise and steady intake of the Living Word that brings life. For me this is a significant part of renewing my mind (Rom 12:2, Eph 4:23).
Whether you call it the Protestant work ethic or Western Cultural improvements, Bible readers have had enormous influence on the betterment of society. Hospitals, education, child labor laws, the ending of the slave trade, anti-corruption laws, fair trial systems, etc. are all results from people who were influenced by what they read in the Bible. Literacy movements, human-trafficking opponents and people involved in the war on poverty have all been influenced by the Bible. Bob Woodberry’s  amazing research shows the power of what happens when Protestant missionaries are part of a culture’s development! In the end, God’s ways are good here and a guide to what is to come. I want to know more about that kind of wisdom because I want to be productive in my work for the Lord here.
Grounding in Wisdom
In the trends of culture, I am interested in what is supra-cultural—what transcends cultural boundaries and is common for all people, everywhere, for all time. In church life this is particularly important as blogs (yes, I see the humor here) books, and church events constantly expand. I have read statements that suggest that Christians read the Bible far too much. I’ve also heard statements about how it does not matter how much Bible you know, it matters how much you love people. One recent Christian leader said that they don’t care as much about what the Bible says is “wrong” but how we are supposed to treat others. Daily exposure to God’s Word gives me a starting point to evaluate the many voices I hear. What I seem to find is that “love” is usually culturally understood, but the source of love is scripturally defined. The Wisdom literature of the Bible gives us insight into how the universe functions. I remember reading Covey’s concept of the P/PC balance for effectiveness and thinking that a lot of what Proverbs has to say correlates with that idea. Regular Bible reading keeps us from being carried away by any kind of trend by passionate folks who can get out of balance.
The most important command is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength (Mt 22). In my opinion it is nearly impossible to love someone without knowing a lot about them. Two of my favorite books coincide here: The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer and Knowing Christ Today by Dallas Willard. Both books say that knowledge is a pre-requisite to loving God. Now, let’s be clear. I’m not saying that you need to know the order of the books of the Bible to become a believer. I AM saying that the longer we are disciples, the more critical it becomes to know about the One we claim to love and serve. Knowledge is not the enemy of action or evangelism—it is the best foundation for them. The more we know about the nature, history and power of God, the more awe and reverence we receive. It is a gift. At that point, our response is the issue. But replacing poor responses with intentional ignorance is a foolish choice. Beyond the information required, as I know more about God, the more immediacy I have in my experience with Him. He gives me help, guidance and reminds me of his presence and love. He reminds me to trust him for the day and to submit to Him. I never weary of hearing Him say, “I love you.”
So. For these five reasons, I try to read the Bible every day. I don’t mean to be legalistic (I hope it’s obvious). I am not slavishly bound to this practice. If I miss a few days, I have freedom. I want to avoid Pharisaism or doctrinal arrogance. I am also aware that some people just hate the process of reading in general and some are simply unable. I don’t mean to suggest that this is something that is required for being loved by God.
Yet I will continue to invest my time, money and effort into reading God’s Word. The Word of God helps me be more productive, wiser, braver, and kinder. It sharpens my mind about human behavior (including my own). It keeps me focused on the eternal and quickly checks my bad attitudes. It is a singular blessing in my life. Final Issue: I am a better leader when I am established on the Word. This is my attempt to keep my lamp “trimmed and burning” (Matt 25) and be ready when Jesus is calling on me. Matt Perman says that “the Scriptures are at the foundations of our productivity because the Scriptures are one of the chief ways God…builds our character.” O Lord, grant me more character that will be productive.
Sometime soon, I’ll write about HOW I read the Bible, but this is the foundation of WHY I do. May God bless you as you learn more about his Word in whatever way you can…
 From Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book, Eerdmans, 2006, pg 2. The word is “Hagah” in Hebrew
 An excellent example of this is Bryant Myers’ amazing book Walking With The Poor, Orbis, 1999
 An easy intro to his research can be found here
 The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People 2004, Free Press, pg 54
 From What’s Best Next by Matt Perman, Zondervan, 2014
He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, But he who walks wisely will be delivered - Proverbs 28:26
Most of my readers know that my family and I are in a time of transition. As I write this, my office at Lincoln Christian University is now available for the next tenant and I’m writing from my home that has a big “For Sale” sign in the front lawn. Transitions can be tough (I know… call me “Captain Obvious”) but they are also excellent seasons to experience God’s presence in a different way. An interesting facet of this upcoming move is how I am learning to frame the narrative behind it. This has not been a deliberate editorial process. Rather, it is out of necessity—people keep asking, “Why are you moving?” I need to have an answer for this because, if I don’t, people will try to guess anyway and it’s better to just tell the truth in a concise way. But, since the truth took weeks and weeks of time and many, many conversations to unfold, I am forced to try to edit it down into a semi-coherent story that explains the reasons we would pull up stakes and head southwest. It’s been a challenging venture.
Recently, I saw a video skit from a friend that discussed things Christians say that don’t mean anything. There were several humorous bits as well as this one: “I feel led to do this.” This is a problematic sentence indeed. Over the years when I have tried to explain our family’s moves to Joplin, Carterville, Amarillo, Wheaton, Mexico City and then Lincoln, we have consistently been asked questions about the “why” behind our decision. What I have discovered is that a great deal of confusion can come in to a question like this. “Feeling led” and “hearing God’s voice” can sound pretty subjective and mushy. But “better salary” or “growth opportunity” can perhaps mask selfish ambition or greed. What’s better; a spiritually-vindicated lie or honest greed? Both sound like bad options. What I want to do in this post is explain my understanding and experience with hearing God’s call on our family to move. Disclaimer: I am NOT suggesting this is a) the only way or b) the best way or c) a water-tight theological argument. But please don’t think that I’ve come to this process lightly—due diligence is behind this. I’m sharing this process because many people I work with and love face questions about relocating according to their sense of God’s call, and many have asked how I go about the process. So then, this is how I go about hearing from God. Last caveat: a great intro to the concept of being directed by God is “Hearing God” by Dallas Willard. That book has helped me understand some of the underlying ontology behind this experience…I highly recommend it. Now then, on to my own process.
The first thing on the docket is the concept of invitation. On a day-to-day basis, I want to serve as an “under-rower” (Acts 13) in whatever context God has placed me. It is always a temptation to think about new things, opportunities and look for a good angle. Yet, for me, it is a spiritual experience to just put my head down and focus on working diligently and wisely each day. This idea came from my farming background and reading Eugene Peterson as a young pastor. Yet, because there are so many stories of God moving his pilgrim people (Ex 19:4-5 et al) I believe that there are times to move. When I was at Wheaton, I did an in-depth study on the first missionary journey of Paul. After some robust text work, my study group noticed that Paul was invited to speak, travel or move during that first journey. This the point: I try to stay put and be faithful unless there is a clear invitation to go. Again, I’m not saying this is for everyone—but this is my format.
The second element to my process is evaluation. I think it’s normal for people to weigh pros and cons and evaluate future possibilities. When I was younger I spent time judging whether or not I was suitable for the work and the context. As I’ve grown older, I can judge that more rapidly but now I spend more time dissecting my motives for leaving. Like all people, I want to flee hardship and find a “nicer” life. At the same time, like all people I sometimes reject change because it is so consuming and difficult. I am a mix of daydreamer and coward; pilgrim and planted. The evaluation process helps me cut through both of those tendencies and listen carefully to who is really doing the talking. Proverbs 28:26 says that “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.” I don’t want to allow a foolish desire to trump what God is doing in my life. The issue is that if my heart is centered on Jesus and his voice, then I will trust him leading my heart (see Willard again for more help with this).
After evaluation I seek counsel. I have a list of trusted friends who know me, who have worked with me and who are aware of my deepest brokenness and best intentions. I don’t ask each one of them every time a decision comes up (time and availability play into this, of course) but I do ask a majority. I tell them the situation, answer their questions and then, I listen and write down their advice. Sometimes I dislike what they have to say, most of the time, they are very encouraging but they are always extremely helpful. They bring insight and wisdom to me that always seems obvious after they say it—but I never would have gotten there on my own.
Next, I wait. Yep. I wait. I watch and listen. I pay very close attention during my prayers and Bible reading. I pay close attention to speakers, preachers, friends, neighbors and the ambient things in my life. One of my friends told me (a loooong time ago) that “If you are ready, and if you are listening, then God will show up for you in a time and place that you will know, without a doubt, was for you.” In all of our moves, it has been in the waiting phase that we have received the general direction for where to go or if we should stay. For some of our choices there were dramatic Holy-Spirit-showed-up-and-freaked-us-out moments. In others, a growing realization that God was quietly calling became clear. And, like many times, we began to realize that God was asking us to choose: both options were good ones. The reason I am saying this is that for some people, it’s tempting to try to use any of these as the norm for most Christians. But, the waiting season has allowed us to draw near to God while he speaks. While his methods are not always the same, His character and love are.
The next-to-last thing I do is review. For many years I have journaled. Sometimes I use my journal entries to go back over the all the earlier stages. This time (as well as when we moved to LCU) I bought a specific, pocket-sized journal that I carried throughout the duration of our decision time. I kept copious notes and, as the deadline for the decision drew near, I began to go over those notes and look for themes. For this particular move, Shannon and Kate’s health were on every page. Other themes were repeated in each of those who counseled me. After some time reviewing all of that, I get to the hard part—pulling the trigger.
My personality and history lend me to be introspective. If I am able, I try to find a quiet place, lay out my review before God and then ask for wisdom. Usually by this point I have had a strong idea what should be done. But in this moment, I try to square up to my fears and just ask God for help and direction. If I sense God’s pleasure or peace. I go forward. If I do not. I either wait some more (if that is an option) or decline the invitation. I know it sounds very subjective. I’m sure an INTJ would resonate with this but in any case, that is my process. It’s not always right or for everyone, but God has graciously led me. I have lots of friends that I love and respect who have a much simpler process. Sometimes, life changes are forced upon us by context or illness. In those moments we trust God and do the best we can. But this process is certainly not something I’ve come up with…this is an old way.
The downsides of this process are obvious: it takes so much time and energy! It can also be unclear and hard to describe to others! But for me, the major benefit is a deep conviction that I am willingly participating with a Sovereign God in the square foot where he wants me (for now). This understanding gives me confidence to face difficult seasons and conflict. It keeps me rooted when the cowardly part of me wants to run and it gives me a clear reason to explain to my kids why I do what I do. For me, it is joy.
I don’t use this process while I am in the middle of a ministry context or venture—I use it when I have a major change in life. Walking wisely for me is inclusive of the idea that we need to plan well and use our minds. Sometimes a well-trained instinct can be a good tool. But when the BIG decisions are there, this process has helped.
If you are in a season of transition, I pray that God would speak clearly to you regardless of any process you use (or don’t). His love and mercy are always with us and our full submission to God’s leading is always a privilege. I would covet your prayers as we live out the results of our willing obedience. Blessing and peace of Christ to you.
When it comes to reading for spiritual growth, obviously nothing compares to the Bible. There are (surely by now) thousands of Bible-reading plans you could use if that helps you. I personally still use the McCheyne plan and Proverbs every day (the McCheyne plan is on the ‘net). But, lots of people have been helped by reading for spiritual growth. Although it is seems to be slowly falling out of fashion, there is still something about taking the time to read something that stirs some small ember of Spirit back into a flame. As people read peers and bestsellers, the sometimes begin to hear the calling of the spiritual classics. This is GREAT but can sometimes be problematic. Many of them are ancient, some are quite mystical and others seems extremely racist or sexist. What do we do with this?
I am blessed to get to teach a class called “Readings in Christian Spirituality” for the MA in Spiritual Formation at LCU.
Shameless plug: It’s genuinely a wonderful program that can be almost all done from a distance. There are a few on-site visits but not many. Contact me for more info!
As part of that course I do a section on reading ancient Christian books. Here is a short synopsis of that lesson.
- First: Start with a primer book on how to read these books Here is a good option by Kyle Strobel. Another one that I use in class is Richard Foster’s Devotional Classics. You can find that here. I like them both but the Foster book lends itself to a huge sampling of different authors and is structured in such a way as to allow the reader to customize their reading. I would also recommend Os Guinness’ and Louise Cowan’s book on reading general classics as well. The reason I encourage people to use a starter is just to get a feel for the volume and scope of what’s out there. The Church Fathers are inspiring but, let’s face it, not light reading when you just want go home at the end of a long day and “disengage.” Once you find an author or a book you want to read, here’s a good next step.
- Second: I encourage my students to do at least a good background check on the author. This really matters because, in the end, our lives preach/teach far more than any book we read or write. Find out their cultural background, their family situation, their intellectual bias, their denominational/doctrinal stance etc. Let me give you an example of this: If you just try to read Teresa of Ávila without recognizing that she was a) a Carmelite (how many people even know what that means?) and b) deeply persecuted, it’s hard to understand what she was trying to get at regarding the soul’s interior castle. People who don’t see that might think, in the words of my daugher, “Ew. That’s so weird.” Another element to consider is the political / cultural structures surrounding the author. Watchman Nee’s writings would have been different without the severe persecution he faced, and Augustine’s City of God would not have been the same without Alaric the Goth. Those external factors really matter.
- Third: Consider the timing and worldview of the author. Are there translation issues? Neoplatonism? Heresies to be dealt with? John Cassian’s writings are very helpful and very profound but in his era, the prevailing worldview assumed that demons took the guise of “loathsome Ethiopians.” My Ethiopian friends today would have something to say about that… If the author’s doctrine has been shown to be normal-for-the-time-but-now-heretical you should take that into account and have some grace.
- Lastly: Allow for variance of personality, life-stage and intent. As I have grown in my academic efforts I have found that whereas reading Evelyn Underhill (not Baggins) used to seem like taking a bite of chalk, now her writing engages me. In fact, during the last class of “Readings” I taught, I was extolling E.U. (not the European Union) and her insight. While doing so a female student told me that reading her book on mysticism was agonizingly dry. I used to feel the same way. Every one should find authors they emotionally connect with. Sometimes the author is trying to inspire and sometimes is only trying to report. If you read Frank Laubach’s Letters of a Modern Mystic, you need to know that it was designed to be a report (in the form of letters to his father) rather than a defense. Brother Lawrence’s work on the same concept was just the opposite—he was trying to instruct fellow monastics on the practice of the presence of God.
For the reader who is tempted to be contrary, read any way you want. But I posit these things for those who have the longing to read more, on a deeper level but just get stuck. The reason that these things matter is that the evil one does not want you to grow. Period. If he can get you even a little distracted, discouraged or off-kilter you are less able to think clearly or act wisely.
Another post in the future will be about designing a reading plan to help you move toward some reading goals. Happy reading and hopefully growing.