Formation | Culture | Mission

Five Good Reads: On Spiritual Formation

To quote from one of my leadership professors who assigned 22 books in a single class, “leaders are readers.” Leaders in my opinion don’t have to be experts, but they should be well-read in their area of service and widely-read in all fields surrounding it. Thus, a pastor should be proficient in the Scriptures, theology, pastoral care and spiritual formation, and also somewhat familiar with major schools of thought in history, psychology, communication theory, management and creative writing, among other fields.

Anyway, what I’m hoping to do here at Formation and Fidelity is to post a collection of Five Good Reads on a variety of subjects that I have read at least ten books. (So I’m not just posting/recommending five books because they’re the only ones I’ve read on the topic!) Then, in due time, I’ll invite some of my friends in various other fields to pass along Five Good Reads from their areas of interest, and before you know it, we’ve got a heckuva reading list.

So I’m beginning with Five Good Reads: On Spiritual Formation, and posting book excerpts that I’ve either used before or plan to use in sermons and essays, and we’ll see what happens next. Look forward to some more Five Good Reads—including On Leadership; On Pastoral Ministry; On Personal Development; On Human Behavior & Culture; and so on.

Honorable Mention

In this category, a handful of other books could have been included here, but I’ll just recommend them in passing—they are also Good Reads, just not quite in the Pantheon of Spiritual Formation.

AW Tozer’s Pursuit of God, Pete Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, NT Wright’s After You Believe, Eugene Peterson’s Answering God, Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out, Mark Buchanan’s The Rest of God and Leighton Ford’s The Attentive Life are quite worth your time.

There are many other phenomenal books on spiritual formation and prayer, of course, but chances are, I haven’t read them yet, or I have plans to include them on another list—like Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy in Five Good Reads: On the Kingdom of God or Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Spiritual Depression in Five Good Reads: On Sadness and Suffering. (Seriously, I’ve got a few hundred books listed by category in this sweet new thing called microsoft word. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the only thing I love more than statistics is rankings. I’ve been working on the Pantheon of Protestants for months.)

Let’s get to your Five Good Reads: On Spiritual Formation!

5. Paul Miller’s A Praying Life

Miller’s simple book was a life-saver during a difficult season about five years ago. Prayer was becoming rote and inauthentic for me, and I frequently felt like God was disappointed with my lack of personal holiness. But Miller reminded me throughout his book that God invites us to a deep life of childlike prayer. It cracks my top five, putting Miller with some of the giants of spiritual formation in the last few hundred years, and it’s also a helpful place to begin because of some of the temptations to pride in growing spiritually. Here’s a bit of his writing on how prayer becomes integrated in our lives.

Many assume that the spiritual person is unruffled by life, unfazed by pressure… But even a cursory glance at Jesus’ life reveals a busy life. All the gospel writers notice Jesus’ busyness, although Mark in particular highlights it. At one point, Jesus’ family tries to stage an intervention because he is so busy. “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:20-21). Given the sacredness in the ancient world of eating together, Jesus’ life seems out of balance. But he loves people and has the power to help, so he h as one interruption after another. If Jesus lived today, his cell phone would be ringing constantly.

The quest for a contemplative life can actually become self-absorbed, focused on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life; it offers us a less busy heart. In the midst of our outer busyness we can develop an inner quiet. Because we are less hectic on the inside, we have a greater capacity to love—and thus to be busy, which in turn drives us even more into a life of prayer. By spending time with our Father in prayer, we integrate our lives with his, with what he is doing in us. Our lives become more coherent. They feel calmer, more ordered, even in the midst of confusion and pressure. –23-24

4. Richard Foster’s The Celebration of Discipline

Foster’s little book was first published in 1978 and sparked an entire genre of Christian writing on spiritual disciplines—Bible reading, prayer, fasting, etc. Foster is an evangelical Quaker. (The Quakers have made two major contributions to Western society: this book and instant oatmeal.) RF became a well-known and accomplished writer through his Celebration, but to quote an old artist in a recent documentary, “an artist’s first work is usually his best.

Disciplined obedience is often seen in the church as an opposing doctrine to grace. Foster gets a little off in some of his theology (in his chapter on prayer, he seems like an open theist), but he does a great job of inviting the believer to a life of freedom through these routines/activities of receiving grace. “The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us,” he writes in the intro. Consider two pianists—one a world-class performer and the other a novice with a keyboard and an instructional book. Which one has more freedom to enjoy the instrument? The one who has disciplined herself to hours of daily practice for several decades! As someone else once said, “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly for a while.”

Foster divides 12 activities into three categories: Inward disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting and study), Outward disciplines (simplicity, solitude, submission and service) and Corporate disciplines (confession, worship, guidance and celebration). In his chapter on solitude, he offers some great nuggets.

Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude. The fear of being left alone petrifies people… Our fear of being alone drives us to noise and crowds.

Solitude is more a state of mind and heart than it is a place.

We must seek out the recreating stillness of solitude if we want to be with others meaningfully.

If we are silent when we should speak, we are not living in the discipline of silence. If we speak when we should be silent, we again miss the mark.

Silence is intimately related to trust.

When God lovingly draws us into a dark night of the soul, there is often a temptation to seek release from it and blame everyone and everything for our inner dullness…. Be grateful that God is lovingly drawing you away from every distraction so that you can see him clearly. Rather than chafing and fighting, become still and wait. 

Let’s discipline ourselves so that our words become few and full.

3. John Owen’s Communion with God

I recently posted some great notes on rest, contentment and delight from this great book—the second of twenty-three volumes published together as his Works. Owen lived from 1616-1683 and was a leading Puritan pastor in Britain, teaching and ministering at Oxford among other pastorates. His Communion with God teaches that a deep, constant fellowship with God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is the entire basis for spiritual formation. Owen is probably most well known for his great works on the death of Christ and justification by faith, but do yourself an eternal solid and pick up this little paperback for roughly the price of a burrito.

Here is a great section on the eternal love of God.

The love of God is like himself. His love is the same for all he has chosen to love. His love is constant and not capable of being increased or diminished. Our love is not like ourselves, never the same, but increasing or decreasing, growing or declining. God’s love is like the sun, always the same in its light, though a cloud may sometimes hide it. Our love is like the moon. Sometimes it is full. Sometimes it is only a thin crescent.

The love of the Father is the same for all whom he has chosen to love. Whom God loves he loves to the end, and he loves them all alike. On whom he sets his love, it is set for ever. God’s love does not grow to eternity or lessen in time. God’s love is an eternal love that had no beginning and that shall have no end. It is a love that cannot be increased by anything we do and that cannot be lessened by anything in us. –23-24

Wait, did you catch that, O reader? God’s love “cannot be increased by anything we do and… cannot be lessened by anything in us.” That seems too good to be true! So Dr. Owen continues:

Does God then love his people while they are sinning? Yes! He loves his people but does not love their sinning… ‘But won’t this encourage sin?’ To suggest such a thing is to admit you have never tasted the love of God. –25

Well played, Sir!

2. Richard Lovelace’s Renewal as a Way of Life

I’m including here both of Lovelace’s books Dynamics of Spiritual Life (which was published first, is roughly 400 pages and includes more historical perspectives on spiritual change as well as corporate revivals) and Renewal as a Way of Life (a shorter book released a few years later containing only his sections on personal spiritual renewal). I highly recommend reading Renewal first and getting around to Dynamics when you get a chance—especially if you’re in local church leadership. Lovelace was a church history prof at Gordon-Conwell and has had a huge influence on Sojourn’s theology of formation. Here’s an extended quote from Dynamics that I’ve often read with leaders and even my community group.

The failure to recognize the Holy Spirit as personally present in our lives is widespread in the churches today.  Even where Christians know about the Holy Spirit doctrinally, they have not necessarily made a deliberate point of getting to know him personally. They may have occasional experiences of his reality on a hit-and-run basis, but the fact that the pronoun “it” is so frequently used to refer to him is not accidental. It reflects the fact that he is perceived impersonally as an expression of God’s power and not experienced continually as a personal Guide and Counselor….

We should make a deliberate effort at the outset of every day to recognize the person of the Holy Spirit, to move into the light concerning his presence in our consciousness and to open our minds and to share all our thoughts and plans as we gaze by faith into the face of God.

We should continue to walk throughout the day in a relationship of communication and communion with the Spirit mediated through our knowledge of the Word, relying upon every office of the Holy Spirit’s role as counselor mentioned in Scripture….

 When this practice of the presence of God is maintained over a period of time, our experience of the Holy Spirit becomes less subjective and more clearly identifiable, as gradually we learn to distinguish the strivings of the Spirit from the motions of our flesh.

1. Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart

Willard, who just passed away last year, provides my favorite (longer) definition of spiritual formation in this book: “Spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself” (22).

My favorite chapter is the eleventh: “Transforming the Soul.” He begins:

What is running your life at any given moment is your soul. Not external circumstances, or your thoughts, or your intentions, or even your feelings, but your soul. The soul is the aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates and enlivens everything going on in the various dimensions of self. It is the life-center of the human being. It regulates whatever is occurring in each of those dimensions and how they interact with each other and respond to surrounding events in the overall governance of your life. The soul is “deep” in the sense of being basic or foundational and also in the sense that it lies almost totally beyond conscious awareness. In the person with the “well-kept heart,” the soul will be itself properly ordered under God and in harmony with reality.

And later on:

But in the contemporary context you will hear very little about the soul in the Christian groups of whatever kind in the Western world, and you will see very few people seriously concerned about the state of their own soul. There is very little said from the pulpit about the soul as an essential part of our lives and almost no serious teaching about it at any level of our various Christian educational undertakings…. This has to change….

Once we clearly acknowledge the soul, we can learn to hear its cries.

Transformation of our soul requires that we acknowledge its reality and importance, understand scriptural teachings about it, and take it into the yoke of Jesus, learning from him humility and the abandonment of “outcomes” to God. This brings rest to the soul. Then our soul is reempowered in goodness by receiving the law and the Word into it as the structure of our covenant fellowship with God in grace. The law is the structure of a life of grace in the kingdom of God…. The most powerful force for transformation of the soul born “from above” is to walk in righteousness upheld by grace.

Amen! Some very good things to think on.

Happy readings, folks!

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