A morning run, an hour of reading at bedtime, a weekly gathering with friends — over time, our habits and routines impact our lives and play a role in forming what kinds of people we are. Throughout the constant changes that life brings us — in seasons, in sudden events — we often rely on routines and habits to see us through. It makes sense to reflect on the practices we engage in daily, weekly, or at other regular intervals to see if they align with who we want to be. As Christians, by God’s grace, our spiritual habits and practices can contribute positively to our growth and formation in Christ.
It’s important to remember that spiritual practices, such as prayer and worship, aren’t about earning our salvation. Rather, engaging in such practices creates intentional spaces for us to receive God’s grace in our lives. According to Mark Maddix, Ph.D., dean of PLNU’s School of Theology and Christian Ministry, spiritual practices thus shouldn’t be viewed as a form of legalism but rather as channels through which we can experience God’s grace in our lives.
“For some reason, the term ‘Christian spiritual formation’ is sometimes misunderstood,” he writes in Spiritual Formation: A Wesleyan Paradigm, which he co-edited with Diane Leclerc. “A definition is, and should be, very simple. Spiritual formation refers to the transformation of people in to what C. S. Lewis calls ‘little Christs.’”
Though the goal is straightforward — to become more Christ like — spiritual practices are often most beneficial when they are done with regular commitment. Just as physical disciplines, like eating healthfully or exercising daily, help our bodies, spiritual practices help nourish and strengthen our souls. In 1 Timothy 4:7-8, Paul exhorts Timothy to “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
What are spiritual practices?
While the Bible doesn’t offer a single list of spiritual practices that every person should develop, it does provide examples, many of which Jesus Himself engaged in while Jesus was on earth. Jesus modeled knowing Scripture, praying, worshiping, fasting, engaging in fellowship, spending time in solitude, giving, serving, and making disciples, among others.
Historically, spiritual practices have also been part of the church. We read in Acts 2:42 that “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” The practices of early Christians developed over time, particularly through Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodoxy. Maddix noted that many Protestant and evangelical Christians have begun to rediscover these ancient practices such as examen (a type of contemplative prayer) and lectio divina (“divine reading” in Latin).
“When we talk about spiritual practices or spiritual formation,” said Maddix, “I want to talk about it in a couple of different ways. It’s not only about our relationship with God, but it’s our relationship with others, with ourselves, and with creation.”
Maddix noted that spiritual practices can be categorized in different ways. One is to think of inward practices, or things that nurture our relationship to God and the inner aspects of our lives, such as prayer and solitude; outward practices, such as service or compassion; and corporate or community practices such as worship and small group gatherings. Wesley often referred to the means of grace as including both “acts of piety” and “acts of mercy.” Another way of categorizing spiritual practices is into “the contemplative life,” which are the more reflective and internal practices, and the “apostolic life,” which includes engaging in acts of compassion and justice.
Benefits of regular spiritual practice
The reason for us to pursue spiritual practices is in obedience to and in love for Christ. Benefits to our health and well-being are additional blessings to us from God. As we grow in Christ-likeness, we are likely to find ourselves feeling better not only spiritually but physically and emotionally as well.
Research in neurotheology has helped show the ways spiritual contemplative practices benefit the brain and increase social awareness and compassion for other people. Contemplative practices also help people feel more at peace and can improve memory.
Maddix helped conduct a neurotheology case study in which 38 college students spent 20 minutes a day for four weeks engaging in spiritual practices, including contemplative prayer, centering prayer, silence and solitude, meditation, and lectio divina (sacred reading). The researchers measured 12 brainwave sites, galvanic skin response, heart rate, and levels of anxiety and depression in comparison with a control group of 22 students that didn’t engage in the practices.
“What is notable from this study is that brain wave changes occurred, depressive symptoms decreased, ‘anxiety’ as measured by galvanic skin response decreased, and students anecdotally reported positive changes in sleep, attention, concentration, and self-efficacy,” the study concluded. “These outcomes occurred as a result of a mere 20 minutes of meditation each day within four weeks. The takeaway message would seem to be that we can positively change our brain activity with a minor change in behavior. Spiritual disciplines not only focus us toward our relationship with God, but in doing so can also positively affect our mood and improve the efficiency of our cognitive functioning. It would be interesting to see what changes occur if these practices were measured after six months, one year, five years, or 25 years of practice.”
In addition, Ross Oakes Mueller, Ph.D., is one of several PLNU psychology professors to study how our habits and practices influence our moral character. In psychology parlance, this is often referred to as “relational generativity” or “generative care.”
“Generative care is both the motivation and the capacity, not just to care about someone, but to care for another in such a way that you catalyze their growth toward their ideal self. What is more, in such a generative relationship you allow that other person, in turn, to contribute to your own growth,” Oakes Mueller explained.
Along with fellow psychology professor Michael Leffel, Ph.D., Oakes Mueller has studied how care-related virtues affect physician-patient interactions. They are currently conducting similar research involving undergraduate students as well as pastors-in-training. They have found that interventions such as mindfulness and gratitude practices tend to positively affect people’s behavior toward others in ways that enhance relationships.
For example, their recent research with students indicates that mindfulness practices may make a difference in how students interact with their friends. The study involved tracking change over time in students who engaged in mindfulness practices and in their friends.
“We also interviewed the friends of our students, who described the ways in which they felt cared for by this student. Those students who grew in their capacity to be mindful were described, by friends, as growing in their ability to actively care for them,” Oakes Mueller said.
“Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.” — Romans 12:12-13
How to start
For many people, some traditional Christian practices come more naturally than others. An introvert, for example, might feel more comfortable with personal prayer than in a large fellowship setting while an extrovert might feel that serving others comes more easily than spending time in meditation. Maddix suggests that people who are new to spiritual practices start with what makes sense for them.
“I would encourage them to start based on the way they are wired and their own giftedness,” he said. “Start out slow and give yourself a lot of grace. We all have seasons in our life where we do this well and seasons where we don’t.”
However, Maddix does encourage Christians to also engage in practices that are less natural for them.
“Obviously, you should build on your strengths, but you also need to focus on the areas where you are not strong,” he said. “It’s really important to have balance.”
When Maddix teaches about spiritual formation, he encourages students to experience the practices and then write about them.
“Whether it’s a technological sabbath, lectio divina, examen, prayer, or fasting, I try to help students cultivate these things and have them write reflections on their experiences,” he said. “It forces them to stop in their busy schedules to do some meditation and mindfulness.”
Whether someone begins their spiritual habits as a student or much earlier or later in life, regular practices help create a rhythm of life with God at the center.
“It’s not just cultivating practices; it’s cultivating a way of life,” Maddix said. “The Benedictine monks call it a ‘rule of life.’ And it changes our character over time. We are being transformed and formed. You don’t just wake up one day and become compassionate; it’s because you engage in compassionate acts over time.”
For internal practices, someone might start with daily prayer or Bible reading. They also might reflect during exercise or take time for solitude and silence in nature. For outward practices, a person might spend time in service to others by volunteering or helping friends and neighbors. Communal practices might include attending worship services, joining a small group, and participating in the Lord’s Supper. The more we engage in these practices, the more we open our hearts and minds up to the work of the Spirit.
One thing Maddix believes is important is that Christians should participate in a local church. In Western culture, much emphasis is put on individualism, even when it comes to faith development, but Maddix believes that is a mistake.
“Our faith is not individual,” he said. “It’s communal.”
Finally, Maddix believes it is important for us to remember that it is God who does the work in us.
“I am cautious not to make people feel guilty or that they aren’t doing well in their spiritual life if they aren’t engaged in these practices,” he said. “Theologically, spiritual practices are channels. This doesn’t preclude God’s power to change us … but it’s typically through the ordinary practices of our life that we are being shaped. Some people may see it as works, things we have to do, but it should be things we want to do.”
“So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.” — Hebrews 10:24-25