“It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”
I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve heard this phrase uttered in reference to Christianity. The idea of being in a relationship with God is one of the things that sets Christians apart from other belief systems. We are not bound by the obligation to adhere to a rigid set of rules. There is an appeal in this—in the idea that the God of the Universe wants to be in a relationship with me, a mere person.
But it can be challenging when we learn that God expects something from us as well. A relationship with God, like any relationship, is a two-way street, built out of intention and effort. In Matthew 22:37-38 Jesus instructs his disciples, “And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” God doesn’t just love us—he wants us to love him in return.
It can be difficult at times to know what that looks like—after all, loving and building a relationship with Someone who is not seen or near in the same way as a friend, family member, or spouse can be a challenging task.
So how exactly do we go about being in a relationship with God?
The answer is surprisingly simple. Much in the same way that we go about the other relationships in our lives, it’s through communication, quality time, giving of our gifts and our talents on behalf of one another. Our predecessors in faith understood that an intimate relationship with God requires the same type of work that our human relationships need, and over the centuries Christians have cultivated ways to draw near to God, known as spiritual disciplines.
A spiritual discipline (or spiritual practice) is a formalized activity aimed at fostering a relationship with God. In the Bible, we see Jesus himself engage in different activities—fasting, prayer, celebration, and service to name a few—in order to stay closely connected to God the Father. Disciplines give form and action to our yearning toward God; they are habits that move us along in our journey to spiritual maturity.
But these habits (as with most “good” habits that we want to cultivate) take time and energy.
While the terms spiritual discipline and spiritual practice can be used interchangeably, I prefer to use the word practice – it reminds me that a spiritual discipline is something that I may have to try a number of times if I want to experience greater intimacy in my relationship with God. In the same way that I had to learn to communicate with my spouse, or adapt my interactions with family as I have matured over the years, it takes continued effort to keep up my relationship with God—it requires practice.
This series will be an exploration of the various spiritual practices that Christians have cultivated throughout the ages. Whether you are someone who is just exploring Christianity, or if you have been a Christian for a number of years, spiritual practices are tools that you can use to get to know God better. A spiritual practice in itself is not the goal of a deep spiritual intimacy, but rather a means to achieving this end.
There are a wide variety of spiritual practices, and most can be put in one of two categories: inward practices or outward practices. Inward practices include prayer, fasting, study, meditation, and contemplation, and mark our inward journey toward becoming more Christ like. Outward practices are an external expression of the inward reality that we experience, and include simplicity, solitude, submission, service and giving. This series will delve into each of these practices.
I want you to know that I don’t write to you from a place of expertise. If I am being honest, most days I struggle to live as if I love God with all my heart, soul, and mind. I don’t have a well-honed set of disciplines that I choose from on any given day. I do write to you from a desire to develop some spiritual practices that will strengthen my own relationship with God.
As we start this series together though, I will start with prayer, and I will be asking God for the ability to dive into these spiritual disciplines with enthusiasm and consideration for the people who will be reading this series. I invite you to pray this prayer along with me:
Dear God – I want to have a deeper relationship with you. I don’t always know how to do that, and I don’t always feel like putting in the time either. Please increase my desire to know you better, and the patience to practice spiritual disciplines that will help me to grow closer to you. Amen.