Central to the Way of Jesus, is becoming a person of love. Being a follower of Jesus invites us into a lifestyle which shapes us into people who love God, love humanity (including our local and global neighbours, and ourselves) and all of God’s creation. We learn to love like Jesus loves: sacrificially, faithfully, generously.
I’ve been struck recently by the relationship between ‘love’ and ‘attention’. Dallas Willard has written much on Spiritual formation (i.e., the journey of discipleship to Jesus whereby we grow into people of love) and he has sharply noted:
“The first act of love is always the giving of attention.” Dallas Willard
It seems that it is almost impossible for me to love someone or something without being able to give it some measure of appropriate attention. I cannot love a person without ever seeing them, interacting with them or thinking of them. Just knowing about them doesn’t avail a true, Jesus-esque love in me for them. Love necessarily includes attention. Arguably, love is much more than attention, but it is not less.
We live today in what some are calling the ‘attention’ economy, where big businesses are spending countless billions to try and grab hold of our attention. Whether it’s our phone calling out to us from our pocket, a notification from social media that someone likes/dislikes something you said, the latest Netflix series that ‘you just have to see’, the inboxes with emails that seem to breed like rabbits, the larger-than-life billboards we pass on the streets heralding the latest car, iProduct or ‘time-saving’ device… Everyone, it seems wants a piece of my attention. Of course, almost all big corporations want my attention for one simple reason: to commodify it.
Followers of Jesus need to think long and hard about where our attention is going. How does my relationship with God grow deeper if I’m generally too busy and distracted to be aware of God’s generous, loving presence in each moment? How can can my life-with-God grow richer and fuller if I struggle to find time to connect with God, and when I do my heart and mind quickly run away to my Amazon shopping basket or something a colleague said to me last week…?
In my journey of faith, I had been aware of these problems for quite a while, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I would try to grow in awareness of God’s presence, try be more prayerful, try to have a deeper, richer relationship with God, try to be more loving, try try try…. but it seemed like just trying to be the person I wanted to be went nowhere.
Then I discovered that millions of Jesus followers have noticed the same thing. I discovered two ideas that have sat centrally within Christian faith since the 1st Century AD: Training and practice.
As Paul wrote to Timothy, describing how to live a godly life, Paul doesn’t instruct his prodigé just to try harder and harder… But rather he says:
“Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7)
The word that Paul uses here for ‘train’ has the same root from which we get our word ‘gymnasium’. The idea is: just as we can train our bodies towards physical health, we can also train ourselves – our hearts and minds – towards godliness.
Over the last 2000 years, followers of Jesus have engaged in all sorts of practices with the intent of becoming people of love. This set of activities has gone by all sorts of names, including ‘habits’, practices, and, more formally: ‘spiritual disciplines’. Today, some find the word ‘discipline’ helpful, while others less so.
I’m an Enneagram Type 1 – a ‘perfectionist’ or ‘reformer’. So for me, talking about spiritual ‘practices’ is very helpful as it reminds me that I don’t have to be perfect, and that I’m on a journey with God, and that I’m practising (i.e., training) to become more like Jesus.
There is no formal, exhaustive list of spiritual practices, but over the centuries, many people have found practices such as these helpful in the journey of deepening and enriching a their relationship with God:
silence & solitude
honouring the Sabbath
corporate and personal sung worship
Bible study / Lectio Divina
Various types of prayer, including, for example, silent centring prayer, the examen prayer, prayers of thanksgiving, intercession, or petition…
Different people will have different reactions to seeing lists like this: perhaps you’re excited, daunted, disinterested, overwhelmed… Also, depending on your church background, it’s likely that at least some of these are familiar to you while others are not.
I think it can be helpful to liken these spiritual practices to exercises one might do in the gym (for those who know anything about such training!). Let’s say Wendy wanted to start a gym program in order to become healthier and stronger. Wendy should not, on her first day in the gym, walk up to the bench-press machine and try and bench-press 100kg… She’d probably hurt herself badly, and likely not return to the gym any time soon. Rather, she should develop a healthy training programme of different exercises that challenge and train her body in different ways. She should start with what is possible for her. Perhaps in her first gym session she does some simple exercises with some light weights. Then, she goes back to the gym a few days later, and trains again. Then again. Then again. Then again. ‘Training’ is about a long term journey. Over time she may reach her goal of being able to bench-press 100kg.
I have found ancient spiritual practices incredibly helpful. It has given me a clear concrete pathway to help enrich my relationship with God and, hopefully, set me on a path to increasingly become more of a person of love through training my heart. I have loved slowly growing in greater awareness of God’s loving presence in the everydayness of life.
When talking about employing spiritual practices, a careful distinction needs to be made, implicit in Willard’s oft-quoted maxim:
“Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Dallas Willard
I believe that God’s gracious forgiveness and acceptance of us is based on God’s character and actions, and not on our character or action. That means that these practices in no way ‘earn’ us God’s forgiveness and acceptance. In fact, these practices are built on the foundation of what God has already made available to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We’re not ‘getting into God’s good books’ by employing these practices. Rather, we’re diving ever deeper into the rich gift of vibrant life and relationship that God has made available to us.
Spiritual disciplines/practices don’t earn us God’s love. We cannot earn God’s love.
But living a life which increasingly enjoys and experiences God’s love does require effort on our part. It takes intentional, active effort over time to have a rhythm of life that notices and sees God in the midst of all things. It takes effort to (re)train our hearts towards God and the Way of Jesus. It takes effort to train our minds to be able to give God an appropriate attention in prayer.
A final quote by Willard reflects both how the disciplines/practices can facilitate the spiritual journey into love, and also the sustained effort that this journey requires:
“The disciplines promised to give our lives a form that would serve as a receptacle for the substance of the Christ-life in God’s present Kingdom. To undertake the disciplines was to take our activities – our lives – seriously and to suppose that the following of Christ was at least as big a challenge as playing the violin or jogging.” Dallas Willard
The Way of Jesus is a journey towards love. It is an attuning and redirecting of our attention towards God’s presence and restorative activity in the world. It is a diving into the living waters, the bread of life, and the eternal life that Jesus has availed to us. It is a transformation and a recalibration of the heart. It is a training that takes time and effort.