Practicing Jesus: Part 5, The Missing Spiritual Discipline

To summarize, over the last four posts we've discussed four mistakes we make in regards to spiritual disciplines. These mistakes are:

  1. Treating spiritual formation as an educational problem, trying to teach our way into Christlikeness.

  2. Assuming the Christian life is facing a series of ethical dilemmas and asking ourselves "What would Jesus do?", rather than preparing for dealing with days filled with emotional triggers.

  3. A chronic indirectness in our spiritual formation efforts, where intimacy with God is pursued but we never turn to practice interpersonal and emotional virtues in daily life.

  4. Assuming that acts of service provide sufficient daily practice and "time on task" in acquiring interpersonal and emotional virtues in daily life.

Each of these problems add up and point to a gaping hole in the spiritual formation literature, a hole that sits smack in the middle of spiritual formation books, the guidance of spiritual directors, seminary syllabi, and spiritual formation efforts within the church. We can call this hole "the missing spiritual discipline."

Examining the contours of this hole in our spiritual formation efforts gives us a list of what "the missing spiritual discipline" must provide if it is to fill the gap for us. The spiritual discipline we are looking for must possess these features:

A practice that is...

  • daily

  • situational

  • direct

  • interpersonal

Let's walk through the list to show how such a practice fills the gap.

First, this is a practice. It's not an educational intervention. This is something we do, actions we take.

Second, this this a daily practice. This is something we wake up to each day, Sunday through Saturday. This daily engagement provides us with time on task, allowing us to acquire those 10,000 hours of practice which shape our automatic responses. This is a practice similar to practicing a musical instrument every day. 

Third, the practice is situational. If we're practicing how to deal with emotional triggers, we have to practice at the specific times and places where we struggle. If, for example, you're struggling with impatience with a particular person in your life (say a co-worker or a family member) you need to practice patience with that specific person. Being patient elsewhere doesn't form you where you're struggling. It's like a smoker not smoking during a movie in a non-smoking theatre. Any smoker can resist not smoking during the show. Self-control in that context isn't the issue. Our battles in acquiring virtue are not vague and generic, but contextual and situational. Focusing on this situational specificity helps us overcome the chronic indirectness of most spiritual formation efforts. We need a practice that helps us right here and right now where we struggle and fail. 

Fourth, the practice has to be direct. That is, if you're wanting to be more kind the practice has to be practicing kindness, directly. You're not praying or fasting, you're being kind. To be sure, you should keep praying and fasting, but practicing kindness has to involve practicing kindness. 

And finally, the practice has to be interpersonal. This is obviously implied in everything already shared, but we make the point separately to highlight that this practice is a face to face practice that shapes how we treat and respond to people, especially the person standing right in front of me. There are many spiritual practices that demand we retreat from social life, taking us off into the contemplative "desert," but we need a practice that forms us within the crucible of daily life with others. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, we share "life together." We need a practice that forms us within and for this intimate and difficult social space. 

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