Spiritual Disciplines, without Missing the Obvious

I just finished reading “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry” by John Mark Comer, a pastor from Portland. The book was both refreshing and concerning – it reminded me of some much-needed truth, and yet left something lacking.

Knowing Comer to be a young mega-church pastor, I expected a this book to be an entry-level engagement with this topic. And, while that was true for the first two sections, the third section surprised me with a pretty unique contribution to this important topic.

The first section introduces readers to the problem of hurry in our culture. Full of statistics and anecdotes, Comer grabs the reader’s attention by shedding light on the fact that we, as a society, are unwell. Rushing at our frenetic pace of work, consumption and even recreation, we are in danger of crashing and burning. To illustrate, Comer shares his own story of pastoral burnout – and his decision to step down from his role, making big changes to his life. He has me engaged – like any good gospel presentation, Comer has established the need for what comes next.

All along, Comer has been quoting and name-dropping various wise, Christian sages who agree with his prognosis. Many well-known authors have identified this same problem of hurry; in fact, Comer lifted the title of this book directly from a quote by Dallas Willard. So, as this section carries on, I have a growing desire to hear the solution – when are we going to hear from Jesus on this topic?

For Comer, the solution is found in a well-known invitation by Jesus found in Matthew 11:28-30:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”


This is a wonderful quote – it’s been the basis for much freedom and fruit in my life, and it forms the basis for the rest of Comer’s book. However, from here, rather than diving into the Gospel accounts to exploring the ways of Jesus in greater detail, Comer pivots back to his favourite authors, and enters the stream of spiritual formation. Eugene Peterson persistently reminded people that Jesus is not only the Truth, but also the Way. Dallas Willard pointed out that Christ’s gospel message was an invitation to enter life in His kingdom. And Richard Foster famously laid out various spiritual disciplines as a pathway to open ourselves to God’s work in our lives. These authors, among others and those who have popularized their work, have formed an entire stream of Christian literature and thought – known as spiritual formation.

This is good – I like these authors, and I agree with the need for disciples of Jesus to adopt His lifestyle, and not just parrot certain beliefs about him. There are practical things that we can and should do, to open ourselves up to God’s work in our lives. I’ve read fairly widely on this topic, and Comer’s work here serves as a primer. He even freely admits that his readers should go and read the authors he quotes! I’d agree, if you’re willing and have the time. But, upon further reflection, I believe something is missing here – which I’ll explain after describing his third and final section (which was a surprise and pleasure)!

After spending the first two sections of his book identifying the problem and proposing a solution, Comer comes back down to the ground in the third section, planting his feet and offering some practical steps for his readers to try. For me, these chapters were a delight. Though they were by no means a complete and thorough treatment of spiritual disciplines, they present four particular disciplines in a fresh and winsome way. With practical examples and personal candor, Comer casts a vision for the practice of Silence/Solitude, Sabbath, Simplicity and Slowness in a uniquely relevant way. Above all else, this is why I enjoyed the book so much, and finished it so quickly – drawing from deep Christian traditions, the author really puts flesh on the call to live differently, and more contentedly, in our society today.

However, here’s what I found to be missing – or, at least in need of strengthening. While it could be argued that Silence/Solitude, Sabbath, Simplicity and Slowness are disciplines that characterized Jesus’s life, the call to follow Jesus is only part of the Christian message. It may be the part that many believing Christians need to hear – a call to live out their faith, and arrange their lives for maximum fruitfulness. But should we assume that readers truly believe in Christ and have a relationship with God?

Without the gospel’s call to repentance and faith, without an invitation to enter into a living relationship with God, then a book on spiritual disciplines remains only self-help. If we merely extract useful Christian principles and an apply them wherever they seem relevant to our current needs, then we’re trying to follow Jesus on our own steam. Jesus calls people to be born again – to surrender their lives to Him and receive new ones. Before the call to follow is the call to repent and believe in Him as Savior and Lord. Perhaps this is why various other books on Spiritual formation explicitly mention disciplines such as prayer, Scripture and worship. In this day and age of self-help, an active relationship with God does not go without saying.

Time alone in silence. Time to rest. Simplifying our consumption. Slowing our life pace. These can certainly be helpful practices for anyone – God’s truth is true, no matter where you are. These practices are ultimately based on Christ’s lifestyle and principles, and He is worth following. But trying to emulate these practices of Jesus without knowing Him personally seems like picking fruit from the Vine, rather than abiding in the Vine and letting it produce fruit through us.

I love how Comer calls Sabbath an “anchor discipline” (163). It creates time & space for good things to happen. And so do the other disciplines that he mentions. Point taken! But, based on my own experience, I don’t think it’s helpful to assume that an audience is Christian, and that they will use that time and space to truly seek Jesus. Perhaps Comer is simply targeting people in his church – Christians who need a deeper spiritual life? Fair enough. But an opportunity is lost if we skip to Jesus’s invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 before first heeding His call in Matthew 4:17. People certainly come to faith in different ways – this is my area of study! But I would argue that they need to come to faith to fully benefit from the Spiritual Practices mentioned in this book. We must move beyond therapeutic self-help, to a call to transformation – the death and new life so clearly symbolized in baptism.

So, after this primer on spiritual formation, I’d recommend digging a little deeper. Many of the authors that Comer quotes deal thoroughly with the call to discipleship and its implications – perhaps Dallas Willard being the chief of them all. In addition, Ronald Rolheiser has an interesting way of describing the process of death & rebirth in a Christian’s life. Or, to mention a favourite of my own, Andrew Murray has a wonderful way of calling people to surrender, abide, and experience the best of life in Christ. But, if I could recommend one book as a prerequisite and supplement to Comer’s, it’d be Surrender to Love by David Benner. In it, he gets to the heart of the Christian life – the basis for all of its practices and lifestyle: Before any genuine transformation can take place, we must first truly encounter the God of love, and respond with surrender.

We can’t just use God’s ideas for our own benefit. While I don’t think that this was Comer’s intent, I’d just point out the need to state the “obvious” which, to my mind, is no longer obvious to many.

Gaining a Vision beyond the Virus

These are troubled times. As of today, there have been 453,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Though that represents “only” 64 people per million worldwide, it would be hard to find anyone, anywhere, who does not feel that this outbreak has profoundly affected their way of life. Stores are closed, people are laid off, events are cancelled, and we are urged to stay home if at all possible. Though the current global death toll of 20,000 is still less than the average annual number of Americans who die from the flu, we daily watch that number climb as the news speaks of little else. Though, a month ago, news headlines were inundated with American politics and pipeline protests, today we watch helplessly as our way of life transforms before our eyes. To me, the sense of dread we feel bears a striking resemblance to feelings expressed by characters in Gone with the Wind – as they faced imminent defeat at the hands of union soldiers. Their way of life would never be the same. Yet, they did their best to live and love while the world around them fell apart.

Is that being a little melodramatic? Maybe. But, feelings are real, and should not be invalidated. They are part of a natural process of responding to the events of life. Recently, some have shared charts like this one, below, which explain the Process of Grieving based on the Kugler-Ross Model:

Applied to the current situation of widespread lockdown, these stages might look like this:
Shock: Emotional shutdown/suppression
Denial: Discrediting sources of information and refusing to change (flight)
Anger: Feeling cornered, like there is no escape, lashing out and releasing bottled up emotion (flight)
– Bargaining: When change feels inevitable, trying to find a “middle ground” to still hang onto some things
– Depression: A sense of hopelessness and helplessness to stop change from happening
– Testing: Experimenting with new ways of life and new plans going forward
-Acceptance: Fully adjusting to the new reality, and learning to ruction again

Perhaps this can be illustrated most memorably with a scene from the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo expresses grief at the heavy task that lay before him. In response, the wise Gandalf guides him towards acceptance:

Gandalf adds an encouraging thought – that there are “other forces” at work in this world, and that what has happened to him was “meant” to be. Gandalf’s sense of a greater good, and a higher power gives Frodo encouragement that there can be meaning and purpose to everything in life, and that there is hope in a better future. Gandalf’s advice helps Frodo to move beyond feeling like a victim, to accept and embrace this unique opportunity to make a difference.

…to move beyond feeling like a victim, to accept and embrace this unique opportunity to make a difference.

In fact, his advice is not unlike Mordecai’s wise words to Esther, when he encourages her to take action in a time of trouble. Like Frodo, she needed to come out of hiding and recognize her opportunity to make a difference. Mordecai, like Gandalf, added meaning to her experience, and pointed to the greater purpose that she could serve.

Another interesting expression of this attitude comes in the form of Christian Spirituality. Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic writer, describes the “Paschal Mystery – A Cycle for Rebirth.” In light of Jesus’s comment in John 12:24 that a seed must die in order to multiply, Rolheiser proposes a model of following Jesus through death, resurrection, adjustment, ascension, and pentecost – for our personal spiritual transformation. That may sound a little strange, but considering Christ’s call in Luke 9:23-25 to carry our cross, follow Him, and give up our lives to gain new lives, Rolheiser doesn’t sound far off. Moreover, Paul’s description of baptism in Romans 6:3-7 sounds quite similar – of joining Jesus in death and finding new life.

In light of this, Rolheiser offers a 5-step model for spiritual transformation:
1.) Good Friday: “the loss of life – real death
2.) Easter Sunday: “the reception of the new life
3.) The Forty Days: “a time for readjustment to the new and grieving for the old
4.) Ascension: “letting go of the old and letting it bless you, the refusal to cling
5.) Pentecost: “the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living

While this is not identical to Kuber-Ross’s 5 Stages of Grief, it shares the idea that grief is an opportunity for growth and newness, if it can be properly processed. For this to happen, one must acknowledge the death of the old, and welcome what is new.

…grief is an opportunity for growth and newness, if it can be properly processed.

However, if this process is not embraced, then we can get stuck in the past, and left behind. Jeremiah, the doomsday prophet of the last years of the kingdom of Judah, repeatedly warned his fellow countrymen of the approaching invasion – allowed by God to discipline His people, and turn them back to Him. Time and time again, he called his own people to surrender to their invaders, promising them that God had good plans for them in exile, and would one day restore them to their homeland (29:1-14). Yet, each successive king refused to give up what little control they had. They would rather stand against both God and the greatest empire on earth than relinquish their crumbling kingdom. They wanted to know the word of God from Jeremiah, but were unwilling to obey it; they were more fearful of change than of their impending doom (38:14-28). They refused to trust God and let Him use this crisis for good.

They refused to trust God and let Him use this crisis for good.

For our church, we have lost some things that are dear to us. Being a smaller size, we cherish the warm fellowship, and face to face contact of Sundays. Not that we’re an exclusive clique – we actually enjoy a beautiful diversity of culture, age, and background. And the wonderful opportunities for personal mentoring and practical service will be missed during this time of the virus. Just weeks ago, we were preparing a rotation of Sunday school teachers to lovingly teach our children; we were selecting new missionaries to support; we were approving our ministry budget for the coming year; we enjoyed a celebration meal with Daycare staff. My, how far we’ve come since then!

Yet, with loss, comes newness. We have embraced new technologies, like Zoom, which enable us to continue face-to-face interaction online. We’re learning to pick up the phone and call each other more, to check in and catch up. And we’re turning back to the Word for advice, and to God in prayer.

So, how might this time of crisis lead to positive change in your life? In this world?
What will come to an end?
What will take its place?

One change that has resulted from the crisis is that some people have gained a lot of free time.
Whether people are laid off or working from home, there are new spaces in our schedules.
With what will we fill them?
What new habits will emerge from this time?
How can we be intentional about the new lives we’re forming through this?

Others have experienced another change: more time at home with family. With schools closed and people working from home, new routines are required. Family members may have more time, but less personal space.
Will we learn to get along through this?
Will we grow through this to deepen our relationships, or will we “hold on until it’s all over?”

We need to develop a vision for life beyond the virus. If we do, then our actions can be informed by that, guided and empowered toward a new way forward. If we can move through the stages of grief, and accept the new reality, we can come to see this time as an opportunity to learn and grow in new ways.
Rather than “grinning and bearing it,” fighting against change, or hiding from it, we can welcome change, and approach each day with a desire to learn what we need to learn, and grow how we need to grow, in order to change how God calls us to change in these times.

…approach each day with a desire to learn what we need to learn, and grow how we need to grow, in order to change how God calls us to change in these times

Where do we go from here? How do we actually process grief in the midst of change?
What words can express what we’re feeling?

I’d encourage you to look to the Psalms, where David and other writers are doing just that – expressing their grief to God, and moving through it to a new reality, firmly footed on faith in God.

Psalm 143

A psalm of David.

Lord, hear my prayer,
    listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
    come to my relief.
Do not bring your servant into judgment,
    for no one living is righteous before you.
The enemy pursues me,
    he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
    like those long dead.
So my spirit grows faint within me;
    my heart within me is dismayed.
I remember the days of long ago;
    I meditate on all your works
    and consider what your hands have done.
I spread out my hands to you;
    I thirst for you like a parched land.

Answer me quickly, Lord;
    my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
    or I will be like those who go down to the pit.
Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
    for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go,
    for to you I entrust my life.
Rescue me from my enemies, Lord,
    for I hide myself in you.
10 Teach me to do your will,
    for you are my God;
may your good Spirit
    lead me on level ground.

11 For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life;
    in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
12 In your unfailing love, silence my enemies;
    destroy all my foes,
    for I am your servant.

“Know Thyself:” An Introduction to the Enneagram

Navel Gazers 

The ancient Greeks are known for their philosophy – almost any idea can be traced, or connected in some way, to the preserved writings of their famous thinkers.  The phrase in the title, “Know Thyself,” or γνῶθι σεαυτόν in Greek, is a well-known aphorism, attributed to various ancient philosophers, but famously expounded by Socrates, who concluded, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

While this idea may sound like self-absorbed navel-gazing to a Christian, the value of introspection is not foreign to Biblical and later Christian writers.  For example, King David’s words in Psalm 139:23-24 are still repeated by Christians today, as part of what is called the Prayer of Examen:

Search me, God, and know my heart; 
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

Such a prayer makes it clear that, while a Christian’s primary pursuit would be to know God (Philippians 3:8-10), a healthy and reciprocal relationship with our Creator will involve learning about ourselves from the One Who knows us best.  Perhaps the greatest example of this in later Christian writings would be Augustine of Hippo, who practically invented the genre of autobiography.  After his long search for meaning and truth brought him back to the faith of his childhood, he confessed:

For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. 

Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with thee. (Confessions)

Centuries later, Paul wrote to the Roman church, instructing them on the essential beliefs of the Christian faith.  Then, he closes his letter with practical instructions on how to get along and function in relationship to one another:

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.  For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. (Romans 12:3-6).

For Paul, a self-awareness of one’s personal identity in Christ, and of one’s personal gifting, is crucial for healthy participation in Christ’s community. While many later writers have built on this idea, one notable example from recent times would be Henri Nouwen.  In his book, Reaching Out, he argues that one must come to peace within themselves in order to reach out to others:  

It is there that our changing relationship to ourself can be brought to fruition in an ever-changing relationship to our fellow human beings.  It is there that our reaching out to our innermost being can lead to a reaching out to the many strangers whom we meet on our way through life (65).

Again, one last time, this idea should not lead to self-absorption.  For Paul, knowing one’s unique gifting comes after surrendering oneself to be transformed by God and conformed to His will (Romans 12:1-2).  It is in relation to God that we find our true selves.  Jesus states, even clearer, that we must give up our lives in order to truly gain them (Luke 9:24)  As C.S. Lewis states in Mere Christianity,

But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away “blindly” so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him…Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

So, as we proceed to explore the Enneagram, may we do so with an attitude of openness to God, joining David in saying, “search me, O God.

The Enneagram

I recently finished reading Discovering Your Personality Type: The Essential Introduction to the Enneagram by Riso and Hudson.

As the title indicates, this would be a good first book for anyone wanting to learn about this fascinating and useful personality indicator.  It contains introductory materials, a 144-question survey to indicate your type, an explanation of each of the 9 types, and some guidelines of interpretation.

As with any good personality indicator, the results should seem intuitive.  This test should put into words what a person already feels and observes.  And, equally important, it should give language to what we observe in others.  The enneagram has become widely used in business circles, counseling, and faith communities in order to gain insight into our personal, relational, and spiritual dynamics.

Underlying the mechanics of the enneagram is a belief that everyone has a basic type.  While nurturing factors can affect the way that we develop, relate, and act outwardly, there is an assumption that, deep down, we all have an inborn nature that affects the way we experience life.  As far as this paradigm is concerned, our “type” is  irrespective of gender, ethnicity, or season of life.  Rather, those external factors may affect other aspects of the enneagram.  No type is better than another; rather, each type has its own corresponding vices, fears, and levels of health.

While many personality paradigms present binary choices, and simply provide people with a static label, the
enneagram is more dynamic.

First, rather than binary, it is tertiary.  All people are divided into one of three triads, based on their “centre of consciousness:” thinking, feeling, or instinctive (gut).  These three categories essentially express how people make decisions.  Then, within each triad are three sub-sections: one assertive, one dutiful, and one withdrawn.  The result is that each person has two characteristics, assigning them one of nine basic types.  There are additional levels that psychologists have added, further dividing each type again.

Perhaps most uniquely, the enneagram is dynamic.  Not only does a person stand solidly within their “basic type;” but there is also conditional movement between the types.  When a person is stressed, they tend to act like a specific other type; when they are secure, they tend to act like another type.  People also tend to have a “wing,” or secondary type that is adjacent to their main one.  Thus, the enneagram accounts for the diversity we experience, and provides an explanation for human development and regression when experiencing consolation and desolation.

In short, the enneagram explains a lot.  And the more familiar one becomes with it, the more insight one can gain into personal, relational, and spiritual dynamics.  We can gain language to explain why we feel, think and do things, why we clash with certain people, and what wholeness and health looks like for us and others.  The enneagram does not rank types in comparison to each other, but provides a framework for seeking maximum health within one’s own type.

So, if you are curious to explore your personality dynamics further,
or if you are inclined to openly approach God as David did in Psalm 139,
or if you are ready to heed Christ’s call to turn your life over to Him for transformation, consider using the enneagram as a practical tool!