Christianity has often focused on doctrine—the things you're supposed to believe. Christianity has placed a lot of emphasis on having the "right" beliefs. You believe what you’re supposed to believe. There’s a lot of emphasis on getting people to believe the correct things.
For that reason, Christianity can seem to be a “letter of the law” religion. It emphasizes having correct beliefs. With that kind of attitude, Christianity can deteriorate into an impersonal, “just the facts” kind of religion.
That kind of Christianity can seem cold, impersonal, and sterile. In that kind of Christianity, we know about God. But instead of just knowing about God, instead of just knowing correct beliefs, many people want a direct experience of God themselves; they want a personal connection with God.
Instead of just knowing the letter of the law, instead of just knowing what the correct beliefs are, many people desire to know the spirit of the law. Rather than just being told about God, people want to live with the personal experience of God, and presence of God, in their daily lives.
But there’s also something else to think about. During my lifetime, I have seen Christianity change tremendously. What used to be almost unquestioned beliefs have been thrown out, and new beliefs have taken their place. But from what I have learned from studying the history of Christianity, I know that is nothing new. Throughout its history, Christianity has experienced change after change after change. It's never stayed the same. It's always been constantly changing.
But even though Christianity has changed, God is the same. God hasn't changed a bit. Christians believe God is unchanging. That means God is the same today as He was 1000 years ago and as He was 2000 years ago. And so we have the same God as we had 2000 years ago when Christianity first started, and God hasn’t changed a bit. It's only the religion of Christianity that has changed, and it has undergone tremendous change over the past 2000 years.
People see that. People see how Christianity constantly changes, how Christian beliefs constantly change. Official Christian beliefs, as put out by the various institutional church organizations in Christianity, change with the flow of the times.
That has always been the case. Organized Christianity has always been very adept at changing to keep itself in line with the beliefs of society. And people see that. People see that there is no anchor in Christianity. It's a religion with very fluid beliefs, a religion with an ever-changing flow of different beliefs. Because of that, many people want to get behind the religion of Christianity as expressed in the various forms of organized Christianity, which constantly changes, and form a direct connection with God, who never changes.
Many people want a direct and personal experience of God, one that is unfiltered through the constantly changing beliefs of institutional, organized Christianity. They want to have a direct experience and a direct connection to the unchanging God Himself.
It's not an unreasonable thing to want a direct connection with God. We see people with a direct connection with God many times in the Bible. In Genesis, it says that God walked with Adam in the Garden. God spoke directly to Noah. God spoke directly to Abraham. God spoke directly to Jacob. God spoke directly to Moses. All these people had direct, personal experiences with God. All the prophets of the Old Testament had a direct connection with God. In the book of Job, God speaks directly to Job, and Job speaks directly to God. Moving on into the New Testament, to the conversion of Paul, even though Jesus had already ascended into heaven, Paul saw Him. Paul had a direct connection to God.
And so the idea of having a direct connection to God is not weird. It's all over the Bible. In fact, that's what much of the Bible actually is—a reporting of the direct connections God had with people. People today hunger for that in their own lives.
And so many Christians turn to something that is popularly called "spirituality." There are a lot of different meaning attached to the word spiritual in the secular culture, but from a Christian perspective, we can say that spirituality is an attempt to have a personal connection with God and a personal experience of God in your daily life.
It is called “spirituality” because you’re trying to develop a connection with God, and of course God is a spiritual being, so you’re trying to develop a connection with the spiritual. This is what is known as your “spiritual life”—you trying to develop a connection to the spiritual and have a personal experience of God in your life.
The idea is that you develop your spiritual life just like you develop muscles. If you want to develop muscles, you have to exercise them. And so in order to develop your spiritual life, you do spiritual exercises. These spiritual exercises are popularly called "spiritual disciplines."
Spiritual disciplines are things like extended sessions of prayer, meditation, solitude, study of Scripture, chanting. All these things are done in an effort to develop your spiritual side and bring you into connection with God. These spiritual disciplines are said to exercise and develop the spirit and hopefully lead to a connection with God, and to an experience of God, in your daily life.
In years past, spirituality was often called "mysticism." That word might have a weird and sort of far-out overtone to many Christians, but really, it’s just the older term for what today is known as spirituality. Whether you call it mysticism or spirituality, it’s the same. It's an attempt to go beyond beliefs, to go beyond just hearing about God, thinking about God, and talking about God, and really know God personally, to have a personal connection with God. That is the goal of mysticism, or spirituality—to have a personal connection with God, a direct connection with God, unfiltered and unhindered by organized, institutional Christianity.
The basic idea behind this is that the way God created us, we are naturally drawn to God. Each individual is naturally drawn to God because that’s the way God made us—to be naturally drawn to Him. According to this view, there is some spark within each person that gives a desire to seek out and know God. There is something in us that needs God. We hunger for God. We thirst for God. We desire God. That, then, is our "spiritual side"—that something within us that is drawn to God. And the idea is that every person—everyone—has that inside them.
It's important to realize that this “spiritual side" of a person does not refer to the "spirit realm." Sometimes when we hear the words spirituality or mysticism in Christianity, it conjures up images of people trying to contact beings within the spirit realm. But that's not what spirituality means in Christianity.
Spirituality in Christianity usually doesn’t mean the “spirit realm” at all; rather, it’s that part inside each human being that is drawn to God.
Spirituality is an attempt to develop our spiritual side. It is an attempt to follow that spark in us that makes us drawn to God move us closer to God. As I said, it is usually associated with different practices called spiritual exercises or spiritual disciplines.
I thought it might be interesting to give you a brief overview of some of the more popular spiritual disciplines.
From the outset, I will emphasize that these spiritual disciplines do not come straight from the Bible. The Bible does not outline these. However, the idea of spiritual disciplines derives from something we see Jesus often doing in the Bible. Many times the Bible reports that Jesus went out alone for prayer. We first see that right after Jesus was baptized. He went out into the wilderness and was there alone for 40 days. The Gospels report several times that Jesus would go out alone for prayer. And then, right before He was arrested, He went to the Garden of Gethsemane. He had the disciples wait while He went alone into the garden to pray. Exactly what Jesus did during those times is not described. We’re told that He prayed, but we’re not told exactly what that consisted of. Although we have our own idea of what prayer is, there are many different kinds of prayer, many different ways of praying, and many different meaning attached to the word prayer. So we don’t know exactly what Jesus did during those times. We’re only told that He went out alone and did something. And so people who are attracted to spiritual disciplines reason that Jesus went out alone and did something spiritual, and that is the example to follow, the basis for the various spiritual disciplines.
One popular spiritual discipline is something called "contemplative prayer." Usually when we think of prayer, we think of going to God and making requests, making our desires known to God. But contemplative prayer is different. It doesn't involve asking for anything. It usually involves two steps.
First, you have some kind of meditation. To do that, you choose one word or short phrase to repeat over and over again in your head. That word or phrase might be something from the Bible, maybe something like "God is love," “God so loved the world,” “Do not be conformed to the world,” it could be anything. But whatever it is, you repeat that word or phrase over and over again. The purpose in doing that is to clear your mind and make you receptive to God.
Then, the second part is that you just are still. You sit there with your mind hopefully clear, and you listen for God's voice and try to feel God's presence. The theory behind it is that if you can clear your mind of all the extraneous things running through it, you can be still and hear God speaking to you, and you can feel God's presence.
Another spiritual exercise is the study of Scripture. But it's not just regular reading the Bible as we usually think of it. It's different from that. It may be something very simple. For example, some people read one entire chapter of the Bible every day at a certain time. Maybe you read a chapter every morning at exactly 7:00. The important thing is that you do this every day at that same time. You plan your schedule around it. This is the way it’s a discipline. It's something you do at a certain time each day whether you particularly want to or not and even if you really don’t have time for it.
But some spiritual disciplines regarding reading Scripture are more complicated. One of the most popular ways is something called "lectio divina." That used to be very popular, so popular that doing it, or at least talking about doing it, became like a fad in some corners of Christianity.
“Lectio divina” is a particular way of reading Scripture, and it’s done in four steps. First, you chose a scripture passage and read it. But you don't just read through it like you normally read. You read it very slowly several times. And then you sit quietly and meditate on the passage. You don't try to think about it, and you don’t try to analyze it and figure out what it means; you just sit quietly with your mind open. This is to allow God to inspire a meaning within you. And then you pray. This prayer time is seen as a time when you and God communicate. It is a back and forth communication between you and God, a time when you speak to God and listen for God speaking to you. And finally, you are silent. You try to banish everything from your mind and just remain silent. This is the practice called lectio divina.
Another practice used in Christian spirituality is called solitude. This is really a type of prayer that you do alone. But in this type of prayer, you don't do any talking. It is being alone with God, clinging to God, and letting Him do all the talking. You try to clear your mind of everything, absolutely everything, because anything that’s in your mind might get in the way of God speaking to you. It’s like a pause in your life, a time to be alone with God, a time to empty yourself before God, open yourself to God and let God examine you and suggest ways you might improve.
Another practice is called journaling. This consists of writing down your thoughts. There are no rules in journaling, but the most popular way it’s done is to write down your thoughts about things like: How is my relationship to God changing? How is my faith or beliefs changing? What kinds of experiences have I had lately, good and bad? How did I react to those experiences?
There are no rules about what to write. You write down whatever you feel you need to. The idea behind this is that as you write these things down, whatever you feel like writing, you unconsciously organize them. The way you unconsciously organize your writings forms a pattern that helps you gain perspective on what is going on with your spiritual side. Plus, it can be helpful to later go back and read through the writings. That will help you see how your thoughts and feelings have developed and changed over time. This can represent what can be called your spiritual autobiography.
Repetitive prayer is another spiritual discipline. In this form of prayer, you choose a short prayer or short religious writing and say it many times. Some people use prayers from the Bible, like the Lord's Prayer. Some people use prayers other people have written. Some people use things like the Apostles' Creed, the Gloria Patri, or the Doxology. Whatever you use, you repeat it many times. Repeating it 30, 40, or even more times is not uncommon.
There are various ways of keeping up with the number of times you have said the prayer. One way is to use prayer beads. Prayer beads are a string of beads that are used that to count the number of prayers. With each repetition, you move to the next bead. When you have gone all around the string, you are finished. Instead of a string of beads, some people use small ropes with knots to count the repetitions.
The purpose of repetitive prayer is not to just say a prayer a certain number of times. The purpose is to get you to focus on the words. As you say the prayer over and over again, the idea is that you focus more and more on the actual words. The purpose of repetition is not to wear God down by hearing the same thing from you over and over again. The purpose of repetition is to get you to pay attention to the words and focus on them.
There are many more spiritual practices than these, and there are many variations on the ones I've talked about. I've just talked about some of the more popular ones to give you an idea of some of the ones people use.
Whatever the spiritual practice is, the goal is to move you closer to God, to help you have a direct experience of God. The goal is for you and God to draw together, for you to grow and deepen in your life as a Christian.
All these different spiritual disciplines are rituals. A ritual is something that is done according to a prescribed order, something that has a method you follow each time you do them. You do the same thing, in the same way, over and over again. That’s a ritual. While some within Christianity criticize the use of rituals, rituals have always been part of religion, and they have always been part of Christianity. There seems to be some built-in need within human beings for rituals in religion.
Please notice that what all these spiritual disciplines have in common is that they involve just you and God. They do not involve other people. They are not something you do in church or as a group with other people. Their purpose is to create a private time between you and God. This is because spiritual development is something personal. The goal is for you and God to draw closer together, for you to encounter God personally and have a personal and direct experience of God. They involve just you and God.
For this reason, some versions of Christianity discourage their use. Some versions of Christianity are all about church, and the idea is that you can get all you need from what the church says. Having you personally trying to establish a connection to God is seen as a threat by many church leaders because it diminishes their importance and their authority. They want you to get everything from them and frankly get jealous if you go to other sources.
I guess the big question is: Do these spiritual disciplines really work? If you take some of these things and start doing them in your life, will you really draw closer to God and have a direct experience of God?
I don’t think Christians who seriously promote them would see them as being like magical incantations that automatically produce results. The practices themselves really don’t have any power or magical properties. They should be seen as creating an environment where something could happen and not as tools that magically make something happen.
Whether any of them will produce results depends on the individual. Some people try spiritual disciplines and find that doing them is meaningless. Other people, however, use them and feel that they do develop a closer relationship with God and do have a direct experience of God. For many people, they can be helpful, but that doesn't mean they are for everyone. They are not something you have to do, and they are not something you should do. They are an option for people who want to use them and find them meaningful.
Finally, we need to consider whether the basis behind these spiritual disciplines is wrong. Is it wrong to want a direct experience of God? I don’t believe it is. After all, as we talked about earlier, the Bible is full of people who had a direct experience of God. Is it wrong to want to communicate directly with God? No. That's the whole reasoning behind prayer in the first place—to communicate with God. Is it wrong to stake out on your own to achieve these things, to go beyond the confines of church and organized religion? I don’t believe it is.
While spiritual disciplines may not be for everyone, they can be helpful to many people. And there’s nothing that says you have to stick just with ones like we talked about today or ones you will hear talked about other places. Maybe you could develop your own, something unique to you that helps you. You don’t have to copy and follow what others do. That’s the whole idea behind a personal, direct connection with God and a personal experience of God in your life. It’s personal, just between you and God.