When Adding More Means More of God:
Rebuilding Your Life Through the Spiritual Disciplines of Engagements
By Esther Liu
He is a young and popular preacher. But he seems to be drastically different from the other preachers/teachers of his day. He prays a lot: during his baptism, after his baptism, in the wilderness, up on the mountain. He is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and teaches with great authority, unlike the others. His name spreads quickly throughout the whole city and the countryside. He also lives, acts and reacts quite differently from other preachers/teachers. He is casting out demons, healing the sick, and calling all kinds of “weird” people to follow him. The greatest difference about him is that he reaches out (at all hours and under all occasions!) with compassion and love so freely and naturally. Nothing that comes from him seems forced, but comes out of his very being. He is the same in front of people and when no one is watching.
My dear friends, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) does not describe Jesus’ life. He did not walk around thinking: “OK! I am Son of God, so I ought to do this and that, heal this man and that child, teach the rabbi and tax collector…. hmmm, I better resurrect that young man to show my power to conquer death!” Jesus acted and reacted out of who he was. As Jesus’ apprentice (and sons and daughters of God!), we also long to be like him in this way….our lives rebuilt, formed and transformed in God, through God and by God, so that we can one day act and react out of who we have become in Christ.
In my last article about rebuilding our spiritual life through spiritual disciplines, I talked about three disciplines found in the category of “Abstinence.” The common thread of these disciplines – fasting, solitude and silence – is that each takes away something vitally important to our humanity. When the most basic human needs and desires (to eat, to communicate, and to associate with others in a community) are purposely taken away, we are forced to turn inward in self-reflection and upward to God.
For this article, I would like to share with you two disciplines from the category of “Engagements.” Instead of taking something away, we are encouraged to engage in something vitally important to our spiritual rebuilding. I will share two of the disciplines: prayer and confession now, and hopefully, Lectio Divina (a type of prayer method) in the next article.
In Luke 11: 1-13 Jesus was praying at a certain place, and after he finished, one of his disciples asked him to teach them how to pray (like John taught his disciples). Did they not know how to pray before this incident? As faithful Jews, they must have been praying to God for most of their lives. According to the Scripture, most likely they have also all listened to John’s teaching about prayers, too. Like the disciples, you probably have read not one, but several books about prayer (for example, Amazon carries 71,531 books on prayer) and listened to countless sermons about prayer. You maybe even attended conferences and workshops focused on prayer. You certainly have been praying to God all your Christian life. Then what’s so different about Jesus or his prayers that prompted the request? What possibly can you learn more about prayer reading this article?
Maybe it’s the transformation of Jesus each time after he prayed? Maybe it’s the power exhibited in Jesus’ prayers? Maybe the frequency, the length, and the authenticity of Jesus’ prayers seemed to be out of the ordinary? Jesus was a man of prayer. He seemed to be so comfortable in the constant presence of (and in communication with) God. Maybe it is that sweet intimacy between Jesus and God that the disciples (and we) long for? Maybe it is because of prayer’s power to shape and mold us, and to open our hearts and make them a true dwelling place for God?
Most of the time our daily prayers sound more like shopping from a department store’s mail-order catalog: need this, want that, heal this person, provide for the other, guide her, give him, protect us ….and on and on we go. But Jesus’ prayer is more like conversing and communicating with God. When we pray as Jesus did, we stay “in action” with God by asking, listening, and waiting. It removes the habit of “self-reliance” and the despair that comes from the mind of flesh (Romans 8:6-7). It transforms us as we see that the humanly impossible can be done. Praying allows us to be more aware of the here and now, but, at the same time, it connects us with the Eternal and the Unchanging.
Here is a prayer exercise from Martin Luther1 that might help us to get away from the “petition-only” type of prayers. This exercise is centered on meditation of God’s Word:
Using the 10 commandments to practice, first, take each commandment as a teaching and reflect upon what God so earnestly requires of you. Take your time and “allow the Holy Spirit to preach to your heart.” Second, find a reason for thanksgiving. Third, a confession. Fourth, a prayer petition. This prayer exercise will help us to not just focus on petitioning, reciting, and speaking, but to engage in learning, meditating, searching. Thus, we will begin to acquire the perspective of eternity.
Another aspect of the spiritual discipline of prayer is writing in a prayer journal. My professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Richard Peace, said it well in his book “Spiritual Journaling” 2:
“Journaling is a spiritual discipline. A journal is a tool that enables us to remember, to probe, to understand, and to question our lives. In this way we grow spiritually. Journals are a wonderful tool to nurture our spiritual lives because we can do so much in them. We can work at forming a God-centered worldview as we wrestle with ideas and learn to think theologically about life. In our journals we seek to understand ourselves better and to offer our lives up to God. In our journals we wrestle with the choices we face, seeking to know and do God’s will. Most importantly, our journal provides a tool for discerning the presence of God in us, around us, and in other people. Journaling also aids us in the practice of other discipline…such as prayer” (p. 75).
If you have never tried writing in a prayer journal, maybe you can start with the simple exercise in his book of writing a daily log (the past 24-hours) from the following checklist: major events, key relationships, important ideas, external happenings, internal happenings, strongest feelings, notable physical experiences, spiritual events and ending with conclusions. In writing down these items, you might discover the focus of your day, start noticing little things in life, become aware of your own feelings, and gain information from interactions. Then, you can ask God to help you understand and wrestle with current issues in your life, prayerfully discerning new insights that God wants you to see, and most importantly, become increasingly aware of God’s hand in your daily life.
Confession is the second spiritual discipline of Engagement for discussion. We have all made mistakes in life and healthy guilt leads to confession, repentance, and retribution. However, we are not the mistakes, which surfaces as shame! Asian cultures in so many ways are “shame-based” and the very thought of confessing sins to others simply horrifies us. Therefore, I consider this spiritual discipline crucial among Asian Christians. It is a discipline, practiced wisely, which will set us free.
Confession is a discipline that functions in fellowship. We let trusted people know our deepest weaknesses and failures. It allows us to be known (selectively and wisely). It enables us to drop the burdens of pretense (which really require quite a lot of human energy) and be fully humble before God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. It prepares us for the time when will be known by the whole universe as what we really are (Luke 12:1-5). It is training in trusting God, rather than our manipulation of our appearances to others. Confession (in fellowship and community with authentic and open relationships) also helps us to avoid sin. Confession with accountability is much needed in our Asian Christian community.
The story about the paralytic with his four friends touches my heart deeply. They clearly know about his unspoken sin and still choose to stand beside him. Their love for him, their unwavering determination to bring him before Jesus, and their corporate faith in the healing power of Jesus is a beautiful picture of true community, authentic fellowship, and active faith and love. I pray and hope that each one of us has established a community such as this as we continue to rebuild and strengthen our spiritual life.
May the Lord speak to you and be close to you as you wait upon him in your prayers! May God be merciful and gracious to you as you discern areas of your life that need God’s forgiveness and as you confess honestly to your trusted brother and sister in Christ! May the Lord grant you a loving community where you can grow and blossom into the man and woman seeking God’s own heart!
1 Trobisch, Walter. Martin Luther’s Quiet Time. Springfield, MO: Quiet Waters Publications, 1996. This little booklet is Luther’s response to his barber’s question concerning prayer life. In his “garland of four twisted strands” of Teaching, Thanksgiving, Confession and Action, Luther encouraged the man to “allow the Holy Spirit to preach to your heart.”
2 Peace, Richard. Spiritual Journaling: Recording Your Journey toward God. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1998, p. 75.