When we think of spiritual formation, we often think solely of the spiritual disciplines. We tend to gravitate towards ancient practices of discipline because they are things we can do and actions we can take that will, in our mind, cause us to grow spiritually. The disciplines give us a sense of control. The concept of depending upon another person (the Holy Spirit) for our spiritual growth may seem confusing and might even leave us with a feeling of helplessness. We at Metamorpha believe this feeling of helplessness is born out of the fact that many of us have spent our Christian lives attempting to grow ourselves. The answer to our spiritual vices has always been to simply work harder. To become completely dependent on the Spirit for our growth throws us into uncharted territory, because the power and control that was once in our hands is now in God’s.
We have included a spiritual disciplines section on our website because we do believe the Spirit can use the disciplines in a believer’s life to bring forth incredible transformation. However, Metamorpha believes that all of life can be seen as a spiritual discipline, and that the term does not apply only to these classical forms and practices. We believe that Christ has called us to a life in which we see driving in the car, going to work, talking with a friend or eating a meal as disciplines that God can use to form us spiritually. In everything we do, we can open ourselves to what God is doing in and around us. The classical spiritual disciplines simply give us specific opportunities to open ourselves to Another. God is with us at all times and is calling us to Himself through every mundane and tedious moment of life. The classical spiritual disciplines are just specific activities that fit into this life of openness to God, and can be helpful in refocusing our attention upon Him since it is often difficult for us to be aware of God’s movements throughout our everyday lives.
It is important to remember, however, that the disciplines do not grow us and do not change us. There is nothing specifically holy about fasting, prayer, solitude, etc. These activities are holy only by being opportunities to open to the Holy One. Thus, we encourage you to refrain from doing the disciplines described on our site as a means of growing yourself, and to instead remember to open yourself to the Person who is always with you. Explore other resources and information on our site if you are new to the idea of spiritual formation and the concepts we discuss here. Then ask the Lord which of these practices, if any, He is calling you to do right now in your life, and in what way He is calling you to these practices.
Also keep in mind that everyone brings certain unhealthy desires and goals to the disciplines. The fact that we bring unhealthy desires to these practices does not necessarily mean we should not do them altogether. It is precisely these unhealthy desires that God wants to address during our time in the disciplines. While we physically engage in the disciplines, we must be sure to remain open to the truth of our heart. In the disciplines we must lead with our body in order to be open to our heart. It is important to pay attention to what comes up in our heart as we practice a certain discipline and to bring those things to the Lord when they arise.
Experiencing the Disciplines
Each time we meet with the Lord or engage in one of the disciplines, we do so with a whole host of feelings and thoughts about what is going to occur or what we want to occur during these times. Because the spiritual disciplines are not holy in and of themselves, they have the ability, just like any other activity, to be unhealthy and harmful to our spiritual formation. Thus, we want to identify some possible temptations that Christians face when approaching the disciplines so we may engage in them in a healthier and more appropriate manner.
There are many common temptations people fall into when they begin to focus on the disciplines, and it is important to be aware of these at the beginning of your journey. We have divided the temptations into two categories: “general temptations” and “specific temptations.” The “general temptations” are broader categories under which the “specific temptations” may fall. The “specific temptations” are worth mentioning because many people in our culture are specifically tempted in these ways, so we want to offer further analysis for those who identify with these aspects of the “general temptations.”
- The “I should” temptation: This is the temptation to do the disciplines because we feel as though we “should.” At first this may seem like a good reason. The “I should” temptation is the neurotic or unhealthy response to our conscience telling us that if we were a “good Christian” we would do the disciplines. This happens frequently when someone else tells us about a great time of study they had in the Word. Our first response is to think, “I should be spending more time in the Word.” While this might be true, it is not the motivation we should have for doing the disciplines.
- The temptation to hide: This is the temptation to use the disciplines as a means of hiding from our guilt. This is a strong temptation for many in the church today. We are tempted to do “good things” to keep our mind off of what is truly in our heart. We keep ourselves busy with religious activities to avoid thinking about the real things God is calling us to explore with Him. Thus, while we are doing these good activities we do not have to deal, for example, with the sin we committed an hour before. This is often born out of a deep belief that God will not truly love us if he knew what was really in our hearts.
- The temptation to cover: This temptation is similar to the temptation to hide. In this we will be tempted to use the disciplines to cover up our shame, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden. We will use the disciplines to project a false persona, both to God and to the world. It is difficult to foster a meaningful relationship with God through the disciplines when we fall into this temptation, because we are not bringing our true self to our time with Him. We can easily spend our time praying, reading the Bible, fasting, etc. simply to show God that we are “good” and never actually bring the real truth of ourselves to Him in these activities. In a sense we use the disciplines as a mask. Many succumb to this temptation after they have sinned, and they immediately attempt to go do something “good” (read the Bible, serve, go to church) to avoid dealing with the sin in their life and to cover up the bad that they do not want God to see.
- The temptation to fill: When blinded by this temptation, the person will love the disciplines for the pleasure they receive from doing them. This is loving God for pleasure’s sake. The person struggling with this temptation loves God because of the feelings that, say, a worship experience gives them. The danger arises when those feelings are absent, and the person is unable to be open to God without them. We may say after having gone to church and having felt good, “Wow, God really showed up,” as if God was not present on the way there. In this sense the disciplines are used to gain a particular feeling. This temptation may lead us to develop a false sense of accomplishment. Many people feel good about themselves after they have completed a discipline because of the sense of accomplishment it brings forth. They are then tempted to approach the time of spiritual disciplines simply for the sake of getting a good feeling, and instead of for the sake of opening themselves to the Spirit so that He can fill their heart. This temptation creeps in when we start making the disciplines things for us to do or accomplish, rather than times to be with God.1
- The temptation for a feeling/experience: Let’s look more closely at a specific facet of the general temptation to fill: the temptation to exploit the disciplines in order to achieve a particular emotion or experience. God does not promise us a particular feeling in the disciplines, but He does promise to be with us. Feelings are a dangerous barometer of success or intimacy. What often happens when we fall into this temptation is that we reject reality in order to try to discover some other world of the Spirit. This temptation reveals the subtle belief that we cannot experience God in the world we are in, but rather must go beyond this world to experience the things that are truly spiritual. This belief reflects a subtly Gnostic tendency in many of our prayer lives.
- The temptation for immediate gratification: This temptation often goes hand in hand with the temptation for a particular feeling or experience. Not only do we want a specific feeling or experience, we want it now to prove our time was worth it. This temptation is typically born out of a desire to feel like we are growing. Thus, we use the disciplines as a self-soothing mechanism to feel good about our spiritual growth. We judge the value of our time with God on insight gained or conviction felt.
- The temptation to feel mature and advanced: It takes time to become more like Christ and to develop our spiritual muscles. Acknowledging that it takes time for us to become more aware of God’s leading and more in tune with the Spirit in our lives is sometimes difficult. This temptation clearly has ties with the temptation for immediate gratification, and is marked by a desire to use the disciplines to simply become more spiritually mature. An unhealthy spiritual maturity is marked by a self-focused perspective in the doing of the disciplines. We want to feel advanced, and we hate being beginners, but the reality is we can only start from where we actually are. This temptation is marked by a deep belief that God will not accept me as I am, but rather I must prove to be spiritually mature enough to be worthy of Him. We may even believe that if we were just spiritually mature enough we would not even need to depend upon God. Thus, we may become infatuated with doing the disciplines “well.” We may even begin to grade ourselves on our time with the Lord, and critique our ability to understand Him or discover His ways. However, the reality is that God must be seen as the revealer rather than us seeing ourselves as the discoverers.
- Focusing on doing the disciplines well: This mistake is common because we are so often critiqued in life for how well we do things. With the disciplines, however, we may come to realize how much more we care about, say, getting something to eat than about being with God. While this may seem like a discipline gone wrong, this is in fact a perfect opportunity to open to God in prayer about the truthfulness of your soul.
In summary, each of these temptations leads to unhealthy desires and beliefs in our time doing the disciplines. If we are going to open ourselves up to God through the disciplines, we must learn to recognize these temptations. Fortunately, God is always with us, moving and communicating, even when we may not be aware or certain of it. Furthermore, we can rest in the truth that God will perfect us until the day of Christ Jesus.
For the most part, the practicing of the disciplines will usually have two outcomes for our soul. The disciplines can either bring consolation (a feeling of closeness with God) or desolation (a feeling of God’s absence). For example, Lectio Divina can allow God’s Word to penetrate our spirit and cause us to experience the Holy Spirit affirming the truth of the Word in our heart, or it can reveal that we are disinterested in God’s Word and feel alone when we open our heart to the text.
It is important that we be careful to avoid expecting the disciplines to bring growth and a felt experience of God. The disciplines can be purgative and can prove to be a time in which God reveals to us more of who we are. We must be aware of these temptations and open to the fact that we bring our own agendas to the table in our time with the Lord. The reality is that we will always bring these unhealthy desires and beliefs to our time in the disciplines, but the key is to begin to recognize them and bring them before the Lord.
1. All of these “general temptations” are taken from class lectures given by Dr. John Coe at the Institute of Spiritual Formation.