Basic Concepts of Spiritual Development
The spiritual journey is personal and variable. Not everyone approaches God in the same way. Each is a pilgrim bearing different needs, wounds, experiences, ways of knowing, and ways of believing.
Our approaches to God vary over time, and not necessarily in a predictable pattern by, say, age. People happen on their own to discover their "need of God." Encouragement helps, expectations hinder
Encouragement, not pressure
Jesus extended invitations -- "come and see" -- not commands. As in the Prodigal Son parable, the road home needs to remain open.
- Encouragement reminds the pilgrim that home awaits
- Encouragement points some ways there
- Encouragement offers to help
Why instruction matters
Instruction can help, if it remains non-directive. Spiritual development isn't a matter of acquiring expertise. It's more about developing a desire to try.
Instruction in each of the classical spiritual disciplines can show what forms trying could take, but should not rule out other ways or impose a timetable or necessary outcome.
Instruction can show an interested pilgrim how to set aside time, attention and resources, so that when the moment is right, the pilgrim has some ideas about where to start.
Instruction can establish a relationship with a trusted spiritual guide.
Instruction can use stories of other people to demonstrate the experiences and feelings sometimes associated with a spiritual discipline.
Yearning, not expertise
Spirituality isn't a matter of "expertise," but of yearning. Paul said God has planted in us a "spirit of adoption" that cries out to God as a child cries out to a parent.
Life, in its joys and sorrows, taps that yearning. At that point, we seek avenues for drawing closer to God. If we have developed habits, or disciplines, of spirituality, we can respond with confidence to that yearning. If we haven't developed such habits, we will need to be shown how to draw closer to God. It's like keeping a car maintained so that it's ready to drive when you need to drive. The maintenance isn't an end in itself, but an act of preparation.
Collaboration, not competition
Christians have been competing with each other over spirituality from the beginning. Paul devoted much of 1 Corinthians to that unseemly competition. It troubled him greatly.
Many Church leaders have tried to identify a single spiritual path and then insist that everyone walk it. In fact, spirituality takes many pathways.
Many have tried to say that some spiritual practices are superior to others, such as speaking in tongues (the Corinthians' problem) or studying Scripture a certain way. At our best, we value diversity, autonomy and creativity. Paul identified 25 gifts of the Spirit, and within each of those can be found an infinite variety of acceptable practices.
Competition over spirituality simply divides Christians and renders us ineffective in ministry. Spirituality is an occasion for collaboration.
As Frederick Buechner said, the best theology is autobiography, the telling of one's own story. Just as Jesus told parables from real life to make his points, so we bring God alive, to ourselves and to others, when we share our experiences of God. Even God is a story in the process of happening, not a set of definitions and demonstrable assertions.
Two best practices:
- Listening to the other: allowing them room to tell their story without fear of criticism or judgment.
- Telling one's story to the other: in humble gratitude and discovery, not in triumph.