Recipe for Spiritual Health
All true Christians want to be spiritually healthy. We also hope to grow in grace, and bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. We know that Peter’s admonition to add one virtue to another (2 Peter 1:5-7) applies to all those who eagerly long for spiritual fruitfulness and solid assurance of salvation. But we also have to admit that we aren’t as healthy as we ought to be. We lack vitality and strength, and we don’t always see the progress in holiness for which we long. To address this condition, physicians of the soul have prescribed a number of remedies over the centuries, including the Puritans in their weighty tomes. Recently, evangelical writers have revived an interest in what they call spiritual disciplines, with Richard Foster leading the way and a number of others following. I confess that I have only read a small part of this growing body of literature. In what follows, I shall be sharing from my very limited experience and knowledge over the last forty-three years of being a Christian.
What, then, are the essential ingredients for spiritual health? Briefly, the recipe must at least include: Personal Bible reading; private prayer; worship; a spiritual partner of the same sex; a balanced life of obedience and rest. Other very nutritious and tasty ingredients are: written notes on Bible study/reading; a prayer notebook; a spiritual journal; a planner; Christian literature; fasting; small group life; and occasional retreats.
Personal time in the Word of God
Without the spiritual milk of the Scriptures, we shall starve. There is no substitute for regular physical meals each day, and the same is true for our life with God. Prayer alone, though necessary, is of virtually no avail without basis in the Bible. Proverbs 28:9 tells us that our prayers are disgusting to God if we refuse to listen to his teaching in the Scriptures. Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1; Psalm 119; Colossians 3:16, and John 15:7 all urge upon us the benefits and necessity of filling our minds with God’s truth as contained in the Bible. So, let us resolve to read the Bible daily; to meditate upon it; study it; to memorize it; and to fill our lives with these words from God in every possible way. Use a good translation. I prefer the New King James Version, especially a reference edition, which gives both cross references and alternative translations of Hebrew and Greek words. Next in line would be the New American Standard Bible and the English Standard Version (though its lack of italics for supplied words is a major flaw). A study Bible can be either useful or distracting. I recommend the NASB Study Bible or the MacArthur Study Bible. Although the former is probably better in many places, the latter avoids compromise in others, such as the first chapters of Genesis and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 (on the roles of men and women). Be sure to spend more time reading the text itself than you do reading the notes! Read the Bible slowly and intensively daily, asking for illumination by the Spirit before, during, and after opening its pages. Think about context, sentence structure, meanings of words. Use a concordance, Bible dictionary, and other helps as necessary, but don’t let them distract you from the Bible itself. My wife Dori and I use Scripture Union materials daily. The feature a passage from the Bible, following either whole books or large sections of them, so you benefit from knowing the context. Each day has a suggested prayer at the beginning, the passage to read, a brief exposition of it, questions for application, and a closing prayer. There is also a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan for those who want to follow it. Meditate on at least one verse each day, and commit as much Scripture to memory as early in life as possible, before your mind loses its retentive capacity! It’s better to memorize passages rather than isolated verses, though they can be useful when facing specific situations. In my experience, memorization and meditation upon Scripture is THE MOST IMPORTANT component of spiritual life and growth. Find time to do it. Be flexible, but seek for a routine, such as early in the morning (after you’ve had your coffee or tea!) before you read the newspaper, watch TV, or go to work. If that’s not possible, read at lunch or during breaks. Listen to the Bible while commuting. Fill your home with God’s Word, through calendars, wall posters, and Christian music that is saturated with Scripture. Combine some time in the word with other activities, such as exercise, bathing, or chores that don’t require mental attention. You can even read while eating, but that’s more suitable for extensive, rapid, through-the-Bible-in-a-year (or three years), not the intensive study that we must also do each day.
Prayer flows naturally from the Scriptures, as we respond to God’s promises, warnings, commands, instruction, and narratives of his mighty works and ways. I love to use the Psalms to form my prayers, but I also try to turn any passage into the launching pad for talking with God. It’s good to memorize the prayers of the Bible, such as Paul’s grand praises and petitions in Ephesians One and Three, as well as Colossians 1:9-14, and to use these as your own prayer for yourself and those whom you love. For a healthy walk with God, we must confess our sins as soon as we discover them, and then ask for God’s forgiveness, depending wholly on his promises of grace and mercy. The penitential psalms (such as Psalm 25 and 51) are useful here, but don’t forget 1 John 1:9-2:2. As a structure for my weekly morning prayers, I have long used the Lord’s Prayer. Starting with “Hallowed be Your name” on Sunday, I take on petition each day, concluding with “But deliver us from evil” on Saturday, and order my praises and requests around the major theme for that day. For example, on Tuesday (“Your will be done”) I ask guidance for myself and others, as well as for God’s will to be worked out in our church, city, country, and nation; this is especially helpful when elections are looming! On Thursdays, I ask God to forgive my sins, and then pray for couples in whose weddings I have taken part, asking the Lord to grant them mutual forbearance and forgiveness. God gives us many promises and commands about prayer, including Psalm 62:8; Matthew 7:7-11 (which I think needs to be set in the entire context of Matthew 7:1-12, and deals primarily with relating to annoying people); Luke 18:1; John 14:12-14; Ephesians 6:18-20; Philippians 4:6-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:18; 1 Peter 5:7. Jesus’ own prayer life, as well as his personal experience, should motivate us both to approach God boldly and to submit the outcomes to God (Mark 1:35; 14:32-42).
Though we are not under law, but grace, yet Christians throughout the ages have rejoiced to join with other believers to attend regular services of worship, teaching, prayer, including confession of sin, and fellowship. The Lord’s Day has been observed from the beginning of our era, and deserves the best we can give. That means going to bed early enough on Saturday night to be able to get up on time for church, and scheduling our work so that we have space in our calendar for several hours on Sunday morning. Those who try to grow spiritually without attending church usually find themselves withering on the vine. Worship refreshes us; teaching enlightens us; prayer with others joins us in a community that is larger than our little selves; sharing with believers opens our hearts to theirs in a common pursuit of God and his will in the world. Find a church that follows at least some of Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5:18-21 and Colossians 3:16.
A Spiritual Partner
The famous evangelist Billy Graham was once asked what he thought were the most important requirements for of true Christian living. His reply has stuck in my mind: A regular quiet time (Bible and prayer), and a faithful friend of the same sex with whom one can share your life’s journey. Marriage may provide some of that for some people, as mine certainly has, but there is no substitute for a believer of the same sex with whom you can pray about your temptations and struggles without fear of censure or gossip. My own marriage improved markedly when I began meeting weekly with a brother to pray. You should “meet” at least weekly, even if you can’t be in the same place. One woman I met in Taipei calls her spiritual partner each week and they share on the telephone: First they read the Psalms to each other, then they share and pray.
A balanced life of obedience and rest
If you are exhausted, it’s hard to read the Bible or pray. If you are overworked, going to church or meeting with Christian friends will be difficult. Thus, it’s essential to balance your life as much as possible. Go to bed as long before midnight as you can, since every hour of sleep before midnight is worth much more than sleep after that time. Exercise at last twenty minutes a day, preferably outside in the sunshine. Eat three meals a day, avoiding sugar, white flour, white rice, fried foods, and too much animals products. Major on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, with animal and fish products as condiments in moderation. Take Sunday off if you can, and don’t fill it with tiring ministry. Allow yourself a few hours of silence and solitude. Some folks can’t follow this pattern easily. Mothers of young children, for example, or investment bankers, or CPAs during tax season. But they should try to maintain their strength and sanity by limiting unnecessary drains upon their health and concentration. So, mothers at home should avoid watching soap operas, which do not (to put it mildly) feed the soul. Professionals should consider the demands of the job, and decide whether these are self-imposed (issuing from ambition, greed, or fear) or whether they really come with the position, in which case perhaps a change may be in order. Obedience is essential because we are blessed not if we only know the Lord’s will, but if we do it (John 13:17). Nothing stunts spiritual growth like a life of unrepentant sin!
Written notes on Bible study/reading
Over the years, I have noticed that I get much more about of my Bible reading when I write down something – anything! – as a response. Somehow, just putting pen to paper (or typing) sets the mind in motion, and we gain insight. At the same time, we record our reactions for further reflection, and we preserve our findings for future reference. You may take notes in many ways. There is the time-tested Observation, Interpretation, Application method of inductive Bible study. You can write out a verse that “spoke” to you that day and brief comments upon it. Some like to ask, What are the commands, promises, warnings, examples, or general teachings in this passage? Others find dividing their observations into the categories of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit); Man; Sin; Salvation; The Christian Life; The Last Things. Be flexible. I once spent a year looking up every word in Isaiah 53 in a concordance. Another year I dedicated a whole notebook to the topic of “God.”
A prayer notebook
Over the years, I have used a prayer diary (noting the date, the request, and the date of God’s response) and found it quite helpful, but I must confess that I haven’t been as consistent as I should be, for this is really a good way to record your requests and God’s answers. You’ll be surprised at how many prayers are answered, and perhaps at how God delays giving you some of what you ask, including, perhaps, some of your heart’s deepest desires. Don’t let that discourage you, but do ask God for wisdom to know why he has not granted your petition, and expect him to reveal more of his goodness as the years go on. Maybe you’ll receive what you ask for, but you will be given sufficient grace for each day. Remember Romans 8:28!
A spiritual journal
Journaling has become popular in recent years, and with good reason. I have found that writing down thoughts about my walk with God brings greater focus and clarity, and provides a way to assess the present in the light of the past. One caution: Don’t be too morbid or detailed about your sins! Just Relate in a general way how you are doing, so that anyone reading your diary will be edified, not horrified!
Since one of our goals in reading the Bible, prayer, and fellowship is to know God’s will in order to do it, I find keeping my daily planner handy to be useful. As I read and pray, I jot down things to do, people to call or see, books to read, meetings to attend. In other words, this helps us move from theory to practice, from wishing to willing.
Others have followed Christ before us, and we can learn much from them. Dozens of helpful devotional materials exist to help us know, love, and imitate God. I have enjoyed the following: Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life; The Valley of Vision book of prayers; Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ (though I don’t agree with some of his medieval Roman Catholicism); John Piper’s many books, especially The Pleasures of God; and Lancelot Andrewes’ Private Devotions. Augustine’s Confessions have been a source of great inspiration to many, as have the sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon and his Morning and Evening devotional books. Dori and I read the classic Daily Light separately in the mornings, and together after supper. This book contains nothing but Scriptures, arranged by theme around a topic verse for the day. It’s amazing to me how often that day’s passage speak to my particular needs. My own devotional meditations upon the Scriptures may be found at http://www.chinainst.org/en/devotionals/.
Small group life
I don’t want to sound legalistic, but the truth is that some sort of small group life seems to be almost necessary for healthy spiritual life and growth. Over the years, I have been in dozens of small groups of one type or another, and almost all of them have contributed significantly to my own development as a child of God. Bible study – or at least some reading and discussion of the Bible – should form the core of the meeting, so that we share not just our sin but God’s salvation, not only our weakness but his strength, not merely our ignorance but his illumination. Honest sharing that respects the dignity of the other and preserves confidentiality, even if it is only general (such as, “I’m really needing patience these ) days”) can foster mutual intercession that God uses to transform our lives. As we talk, listen, sing, and pray together, we learn more about ourselves and bout God. A service project and ministry responsibility teaches us how to work with others and gives real satisfaction of having done something worthwhile for others. Let Colossians 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 be your guide. But remember – sharing with others in a group or one-on-one should NEVER, EVER be an occasion for confessing the sins of people who annoy you. Not even when wives get together to “share” about their marriages should they expose the flaws of their husbands. That short of “sharing” is nothing other than slanderous gossip, and it corrodes not only our own soul, but eats into the heart of the marriage. Instead, we can simply say that we need help loving the other, or saying only what is edifying, etc. Deflect the probing questions that will inevitably come, and keep the focus on the beam in YOUR own eye.
Fasting has also been receiving much attention recently, with beneficial effects. Some form of self-denial in eating can’t do us anything but good, especially when connected with concentrated prayer for oneself, others, or a particularly difficult situation.
Finally, getting away, either by yourself or with others, to a secluded place for a short period of meditation, prayer, worship, and edifying conversation can do wonders for a tired and listless spirit. Jesus did it, and countless others have followed his example since then. Be careful to make the most of the time. Satan will try to distract you, so stay alert and focused on the primary aim of your time away from home and work to draw near to God and to each other.
The main thing
After all is said and done, however, the main thing is to want to grow. Nothing can keep us from what we really, deeply desire. For most of us, the only excuse for not living a disciplined, godly life is laziness and self-indulgence. Let’s all ask God to send his Spirit to revive us again, so that we may regain our first love and burn with renewed zeal to know, and love, and serve our glorious Maker and Savior.
For Bible study, I found Search the Scriptures, an old Inter-Varsity classic, of inestimable help in learning how to study the Bible. IVP has published many other Bible study guides, both for individuals and small groups, including The Quiet Time Companion: A Daily Guide Through the Bible, which looks quite helpful. From my friend the Rev. Tony Giles, Pastor for Discipleship at our church, here are a few book recommendations on spiritual disciplines:
- The Discipline of Grace: God's Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness Jerry Bridges (Navpress)
- Praying Backwards: Transform Your Prayer Life BY Beginning In Jesus' Name Bryan Chapell, (Baker) The author helps us re-order our prayers around God's kingdom
- Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind Tremper Longman (Navpress) The author discusses how we read, understand and apply various genres of literature in the Bible
- The Acceptable Sacrifice John Newton (Banner of Truth) This is a devotional examination of repentance through an exposition of Psalm 51:17
- An excellent summary of the crossing of prayer and Scripture in meditation http://www.redeemer.com/connect/prayer/prayer_and_the_gospel.html