During my two babies’ nap-time the other day, I googled some articles on spending time with God. Among my search results was an article that seemed perfect for me at this stage in my life: “No Time for God?…How busy moms can rekindle their spiritual lives.” Just for me! The woman being interviewed urged busy moms to set aside time for personal Bible study, even just a few moments each morning. “It can be as simple as writing in a journal every morning or spending two or three minutes a day with the Lord,” she explained. She went on to offer a few other suggestions: prayer, journaling, and time for fellowship with other moms. All helpful suggestions. And yet, there was something missing from the equation. I couldn’t help but feel let down by her short, manageable list.
I think the list plays into a pattern I have noticed in my spiritual life. When I look back on my journey, I am struck by the fact that at various points I have lived as if it were my own work and discipline that brought about my spiritual growth. Sometimes this took the shape of well-meant quiet times-Bible and journal in hand-that were undertaken as my most essential spiritual duty. Later, as a more sophisticated college student, I began to explore the “spiritual disciplines” laid out by Dallas Willard and Richard Foster, and found in them natural extensions for my daily quiet times. “Spiritual formation” was all the rage. I was determined to grow spiritually, and Foster promised that I was virtually guaranteed growth as I participated in ancient practices such as contemplative prayer, simplicity, and solitude.
A few years later, I taught a course on spiritual formation to a dozen eager college students. Imagine the scene: a small circle of desks pulled into a courtyard from the classroom in order to bask in the California sunshine. On alternate days we would scatter among the garden paths, sitting under the trees or among the bird-of-paradise to spend individual time practicing classic spiritual disciplines. We would spend time meditating on Scripture, envisioning ourselves as participants in the stories, and then reflect on what we had learned. We practiced different methods of prayer gleaned from dusty centuries of church history. Surely we were on the fast-track to spiritual growth!
My life now? Gone is the monastery-like tranquility. I’m not a monk, I’m a mother! In fact, I am the mother of two children under the age of two. My days are filled with sippy cups, bottles, diapers, Elmo, crayons, chores, church activities, and occasional moments of coveted nap-time solitude. My individual spiritual practices? Let’s just say they don’t involve hours spent alone under the trees with my Bible imagining myself as Mary Magdalene. A few moments reading Scripture, and prayer for friends and family as they pass through my mind. Am I missing out? The writers I used to admire asserted that those disciplines were actually God’s means of grace for me. Was I more spiritual then? Happily, I have discovered that the answer is no. And, indeed, I have discovered that there are some serious problems with the framework of spiritual disciplines that I once held dear. That discovery has brought freedom and hope for this busy mom.
Perhaps you, like me, did not grow up in a church that used terms such as “the means of grace.” Historically within the Reformed tradition, the phrase “means of grace” refers to that which God uses to convey Christ and all of his benefits, including making his people more like Christ.
These are the ordinary ways that God nurtures his people. The most fundamental aspect of something being a “means” lies in the consistency with which it provides the expected result. For example, by means of soil, seed, rain, and sunshine the Lord provides food for his creation. Likewise, spiritual means of grace by definition bring about the expected result-growing in Christ-likeness. For the church, these means are the Word, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and prayer.
Foster and other modern writers on the disciplines are not content with this list. Foster asserts in his hugely popular Celebration of Discipline that it is the spiritual disciplines that are “God’s means of grace.” He writes, “The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us.” Is this true? Are the disciplines-such as prayer, fasting, solitude, meditation on Scripture, service, and celebration-the means that God has given whereby we might grow in grace? Some of these are worthwhile and biblical activities; indeed, I have seen their value at various times in my own spiritual life. But are these activities necessary for spiritual growth? Are they in fact “means of grace”-instruments that God promises to use to bring about our spiritual growth? Without them, am I destined for a life as a second-class citizen in the kingdom of heaven or, worse yet, incapable of reaching my full potential as a believer?
In order to answer these questions, let’s first establish a basic theological framework for understanding where any spiritual disciplines fit into the Christian life. Are they necessary for justification before God? Clearly not. We are not made righteous by works of law, but by the grace of God: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-23). Justification is a legal declaration of our status by God: we have been justified through the atoning work of Christ.
Paul goes on to assert that justification has always come through faith in God and his promises, all the way back to Abraham (Rom. 4:18-25). The benefits of this justification are manifold:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly….But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Rom. 5:1-9, italics mine; see also Titus 3:4-5)
If you tend to skip over long quotations, go back and re-read that one. (How do I know that temptation? Guess!) If it’s the only Scripture you meditate on today, it will be worth it. If we are Christians, it is because we are justified by faith in Christ. Because of this justification we have peace with God, hope in the gospel, meaning in our suffering, and the love of God poured out in our hearts. And that’s before we even start practicing any kind of spiritual discipline! These truths alone should bring great comfort and peace to our hearts.
Justification is not the end of the Christian life. It is not the goal toward which we work, but the very beginning of the path. If your trust is in Christ, then you have been adopted into the family of God and all of these benefits are already yours. And then comes growth. The theological term for our growth in Christ is “sanctification” or “our growth in holiness.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines it like this: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, (1) whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, (2) and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness (WSC, 35). We are renewed, and as we grow in the grace of Christ, we begin to look more like him.
Who is responsible for sanctification? Many would say that this is where the spiritual disciplines come in. Only God can transform us, but the disciplines are described as a means of grace that God uses to bring about that transformation. Foster’s instruction is clear: the disciplines are something we do in order to place ourselves where such transformation can occur. Marjorie Thompson puts it a slightly different way: she compares the undertaking of spiritual disciplines to the training regimen of an athlete or the consistent practice of a skillful artist. She asserts, “We will choose spiritual disciplines only if we have a strong desire to grow.” If we desire to grow, we will structure our lives in such a way as to include these practices. As a result, we will be “open to the mysterious work of grace in our heart and our world.” Foster warns against turning these disciplines into laws, and he emphasizes that we must listen to Jesus as our Guide and follow his direction. They are not to be treated as laws, and yet the fundamental principle remains: the disciplines are to be understood as a key means of grace in the life of the believer.
There is a significant underlying problem with this understanding. The truth is that our sanctification is not ultimately up to us. Abraham Kuyper describes sanctification as “the confession of an awful power, which lives and works effectually in us.” He argues that mere self-betterment has nothing to do with sanctification, even when the attempts are to better ourselves spiritually. Instead, we must give ourselves to hearing the Word and to confessing our sin: “In city and country church the Word must be preached persistently, and with ever-increasing purity, until, convicted of personal unholiness, men begin to see that by absolute sanctification, not mere self-betterment, they must restore unto God His right; until, feeling their inability, with broken hearts they turn to God to receive the Mystery of Sanctification from the treasures of the Covenant of Grace.” Thus sanctification is not a work we undertake through various methods and disciplines, but an amazing act of God’s grace. We simply turn to him in our brokenness and receive from him this treasure of grace as he makes us more like Christ. This is fundamentally different from believing that it is up to you to cultivate spiritual growth through the faithful practice of spiritual disciplines.
Honestly, this goes against everything that is popular in the world of evangelical spiritual formation. We want mystical ancient practices! We want labyrinths and retreats of solitude, candlelit vigils of contemplative prayer, something that we can do to achieve new highs in the spiritual world. We want just a little control, just a little self-reliance. Unfortunately, this is not what the Lord has in mind. As the Old Princeton theologian Archibald Alexander affirmed, our spiritual growth is not found in our own attempts at devotion. Instead, “To be emptied of self-dependence, and to know that we need aid for every duty, and even for every good thought, is an important step in our progress in piety.” I don’t know about you, but I find great comfort in this fact, even as it sobers and humbles me. The truth is that I don’t really want to be “emptied of self-dependence.” I like being self-dependent. But in my life-mission of Christ-likeness, it undermines everything. The more I realize that I am incapable of moving toward spiritual maturity by my own feeble attempts, the more I can see Christ working in me.
So, if it’s not ultimately up to me to assure my own growth in Christ, then how do I grow spiritually? Do I just sit around waiting for God to do something? Christ prayed for his followers, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17; see also Eph. 5:26). It is through the Word of God that we are sanctified. It is helpful to remember that, by the Spirit of God, the Word of God himself indwells us. We are sanctified through this ongoing work of the Spirit who leads, guides, and teaches us (John 16:13-15). When we look to the early church members’ own practice, we see that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). In other words, the early Christians were devoted to hearing the Word of God (the apostles’ teaching) in the fellowship of believers, to the Lord’s Supper (the sacraments), and to prayer. The Lord has not changed-he uses these means of grace today to sanctify his people. The Word and sacraments work in tandem to strengthen our faith. Calvin notes that “the office of the sacraments differs not from the word of God; and this is to hold forth and offer Christ to us, and, in him, the treasures of heavenly grace.” Thus it is in the context of the worshipping community that I can expect to experience growth in grace.
This teaching seems rather countercultural in today’s Christian world. “What?! Go to church? Listen to the sermons, receive sacraments, and pray? Well, sure, pray…I can see myself going on a silent retreat, or going to the mountains or the ocean with my Bible to pray…that sounds more like spirituality to me. But the rest of this teaching seems really outdated.” It strikes at the heart of our individualized, American Christianity. It goes against the spiritual trappings of many popular retreats and special events. But it’s the truth. Are you the mother or father of young children, trying to structure your life in a way that makes the most of your days, looking to grow spiritually but unsure of how to do it? Listen to the Word preached in fellowship with other believers and reflect on it; make it a priority to be there when your church celebrates the Lord’s Supper; and be consistent in prayer-not just on your own, but with other believers. There are lots of practices you can add to this list, but these are the “means of grace”-the places where we can expect God to meet us, and the manner in which we know he will sanctify us.
I’ve watched documentaries on Chinese brothers and sisters praying in secret, and I’ve worshipped with brothers incarcerated in San Quentin. No matter the circumstances, we need the church, the Body of Christ. Christians must worship together. Christianity is not, at its heart, individual. I would even go so far as to say that daily personal quiet times are not the most fundamental aspect of spiritual growth. While our time studying and meditating on the Word is important, we cannot underestimate the significance of the corporate nature of our spiritual life. We read in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”-but the rest of that verse reads, “as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” The context in which the Word of Christ is to dwell in us is in our corporate identity as the Body of Christ. Because of this, our spiritual disciplines must have at their core a corporate setting. This also helps to remind us that ultimately, our spirituality is not all about us. If I see retreats or even time for personal Bible study as the fundamental component of my spiritual growth, it is easy to become self-absorbed in my spirituality. But if my spiritual life is shaped by meeting with God in the presence of his people and hearing the Word preached by someone set apart to preach it, then the chance of me focusing only on what I want to hear is somewhat lessened. There I am reminded that it was not something I did that made me part of God’s people, any more than any other Christian person; rather, he chose me to be part of his people (1 Pet. 2:9-10). I am part of his Bride. The gathering of his people is to his glory, and to spend time with his people is to my great benefit.
I experienced this last Sunday. I had rushed to get to evening church, setting up my toddler with a few bites of supper while I fed our three-month-old baby. After a drive bombarded with the sounds of Elmo and his Sesame Street friends, I deposited my daughter in the nursery and, finding my usual side-door entrance locked, hurried up the long hill to the front of our church. I careened into the foyer, my beeper from the nursery falling out of the diaper bag and sailing across the floor. Finally, I settled into a seat in time to hear my husband begin the service, noticing that Baby Boy was once again wide awake. And then I encountered God. Not with flashes of light and angels singing, but in the sweet voices of the men and women around me as they began to sing his praise. I heard him as my husband Joel directed our attention to John 6, turning our gaze to the men and women who had just seen the miracle of Jesus feeding five-thousand hungry men and their families, as they now sought more bread and fish. Joel reminded us that we often seek that which only gives temporary satisfaction, when Jesus would draw us to be satisfied in him. We turned to the Lord in prayer, asking him to help us find our satisfaction in him. Then I came forward to receive the Lord’s Supper, little baby dozing on my shoulder. I had received the Word preached, and now received the Word in the Supper; I was reminded of his sacrifice, was given a foretaste of heaven. As I stood, holding my again-awake baby and singing “Blessed Assurance” in his ear, I knew that my satisfaction is in Christ alone, and that I need this time with his people to remember that. I can count on the Lord to use these means of grace to bring his spiritual work in me to completion and to glorify himself in the midst of it all.
I am not sentenced to second-class status in the Kingdom of God because I am a busy mom. The Lord is faithful and he has promised to complete the work he began in me (Phil. 1:6). And as I grow in grace, I have the joy of teaching my children that God will faithfully complete the work that he has also begun in them. The purpose of their lives is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. And because it is he alone who is responsible for our spiritual growth, that growth will be to his glory.