A friend of mine, for whom I recently wrote a few hundred words for an article she is writing, raised an interesting and challenging question. She raised it as a fellow spiritual formation leader and trainer. I’m rewording it a little, but the substance of the question was this:
Does practicing spiritual disciplines guarantee life transformation?
Some who have participated in The Leadership Institute training over the years have, as far as I can tell, tried practicing the disciplines regularly but haven’t seemed to experience much life change. I’ve wondered about the reasons for this. My friend mentioned the barriers of legalism and pride. These are certainly two major barriers to transformation I’ve witnessed in my own life.
First, my friend and I would both be annoyed by anyone using “guarantee” language related to spiritual practices. I shudder at the thought of a spiritual practices infomercial:
“We can guarantee that you’ll be satisfied with how well these practices work. Imagine feeling peaceful, confident, and in control. All this can be yours now, if only you’ll follow these few easy steps. These practices are centuries old, but fresh as new-fallen snow. Don’t delay! Operators are standing by…”
Some practice spiritual disciplines as one more Christian self-help technique. This is probably just another subtle expression of pride. USAmerican Christian leaders often want to mass produce and franchise any vital Christian practice, draining away spiritual vitality in about the same way a rose cut from the bush starts dying immediately.
In light of the question, I remember Henri Nouwen’s definition of a spiritual discipline: “the human effort to create open space to listen to the voice of the One who calls us the beloved.” If I think about times and seasons when spiritual practices have resulted in little transformation in my own life, one reason has been that I failed to practice them as open space and unhurried time to be in God’s presence.
I think of 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” I have engaged spiritual practices, but with a veiled face. Instead of seeing the glory of the Lord and being transformed over time by such a vision, I have hidden my face even in the midst of my spiritual practices. A veil of hurry, or of drivenness, or of unconscious resistance has veiled my face from beholding His.
I’ve been finding that a therapy process may uncover emotional woundedness that produces a veil of fear and anxiety that, even in the practice of disciplines, veils my face. I don’t even realize that I’m hiding even when think I’m coming to Him. I intend to come to God through spiritual disciplines, but deeper movements of fear and anxiety clutter the space and hurry the time I’m trying to offer to God.
I’m learning that transformation is the fruit of unveiled encounter between my heart and God’s. Spiritual practices can be the opening through which this gradually occurs.