I like complicated things, and so I am often guilty of overcomplicating things. If I decide to log my running miles, I won’t be satisfied with a simple log. I start thinking about all the other variables I can track and ways I can include them in the log. I am always in danger of complicating something so much that it’s too unwieldy to be effective anymore.
This is even true of my spiritual life. I can’t just keep a simple prayer journal. I make different sections and categories. And my bible reading plans get complicated to the point that I only follow them for a couple of days.
Since I prefer the complex, if I retain something simple, it’s because I find it really effective.
So you should pay attention when I tell you that the best advice about spiritual formation I’ve ever received is as simple as two short questions.
The core of spiritual formation is prayerfully answering these two questions:
- What is God teaching me?
- How should this change my life?
I first encountered these two questions when a good mentor of mine, Mark Parker, told introduced them to me. Then, years later, I encountered these two questions in Dallas Willard writings and, most influentially, in the discipleship concepts of Mike Breen. (There’s nothing innovative about these questions; they appear in a lot of writings on spiritual formation.)
Two years ago I began talking through these questions with guys I discipled, and I found that these questions had more effect on the guys than anything else I did. They were reflecting on what they were learning from God and how they should respond to that.
I have three reasons, but before I explain those three reasons, though, let me explain what I mean by God teaching us
Learning From God
Some people will find this way of talking strange. When I first heard people talking about what God was teaching them, I found it odd. It seems like pseudo-spiritual talk, patterns of talking that make one sound especially spiritual or in touch with the Holy Spirit.
Of course, these ways of talking can be, and have been, abused. But not all of it is abuse.
To take an obvious example, we learn from God through the Scriptures. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says:
“16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (NIV)
We learn from reading the Bible. If we are comfortable reading the Bible and coming away with a “Thus saith the Lord…”, why not read the Bible and come away with a “Thus saith the Lord to me…”?
In other words, despite the fears of abuse, we can legitimately talk about God teaching us something through the Scriptures.
There are other ways that we learn something God wants us to learn. For example, we learn through our singing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Similarly, we learn from other godly people.
And we learn from experience. It’s not that we should think our strong feelings or inclinations are a sign of what God wants us to do. Instead, we look back on past experiences and see God’s faithfulness, or perhaps we see a spiritual problem that we were previously blind to and know that God made us aware of it.
To take a common example, people can learn from the suffering they go through, like cancer or the loss of a loved one. Paul gives us a great example of this in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10. He writes:
“8We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” (NIV)
Notice that in this passage Paul says that he learned something from his near-death experience: he learned not to rely on himself but on God.
So we can look at our experiences and learn from God. I urge extreme caution here, though. Many people will be tempted to turn every pang of their consciences and every desire of their hearts into a lesson from God. There are few surer ways of deceiving ourselves. Let me suggest a practice that can ground what you are learning in the Bible. Try to tie each insight from an experience into Scripture. Show that what you think God is showing you is consistent with the Bible.
Why This Is Effective
Now, back to the three reasons I find these two questions so powerful: first, it forces a reflection upon one’s life that is rare; second, it makes one attentive to what God is doing in his or her life; third, it causes one to respond to what one is learning from God.
I’m not old enough to say if people are now more distracted than fifty years ago. I’ve read articles and books that state that the ability for prolonged focus has atrophied in the current generation.
But I also suspect that spiritual focus has not worsened. People were probably as bad generations ago as we are now. The first step to learning from God––through Scripture, worship, and experience––is being focused on what God wants to teach us. We can’t be so distracted by our careers and hobbies and material possessions that we don’t keep our focus on God.
My favorite illustration of this is the story of Jesus calming the storm. It’s told in Mark 4:35-41. Most of you will know the story. Jesus and his disciples are in a boat, and Jesus is asleep. A fierce storm quickly develops, and the disciples are scared for their lives. Jesus, though, is still asleep. Picking up the story in verse 38:
“38Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’
39He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?'” (NIV)
Stop here. If you are attentive, you’ll notice that there is still one more verse. Notice that the disciples have a choice to be distracted by the next items on their to-do lists and not reflect on what they had just seen. God the Son was trying to teach them something about his power and authority. But they are presented with a choice to pause and reflect on that, or to go on about their day without a moment’s thought about the significance of what they’ve just experienced.
Mark tells us that the experience wasn’t wasted on the disciples. Verse 41 says:
“41They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (NIV)
They reflected on what they had experienced, and so began to learn what God was trying to teach them.
We are faced with similar choices everyday. Will we stop and reflect on what we have seen of God in our lives or worship or prayer or His word or the timely rebuke of a close friend.?
Asking these two questions trains you to stop and reflect.
Recognizing What God Is Teaching You
Not only do most people stay so busy and distracted that we don’t make time for reflection, but most Christians don’t make the time to reflect on what God is teaching them and how it applies to their lives. In other words, most Christians spend very little time learning from God (His Word, His people, etc.) and changing their lives based on that.
But if you believe in a God who is active in your life, why wouldn’t you reflect on what He is teaching you and what you should do about it?
I’ll give you an answer to why we don’t take time to reflect on what God is trying to teach us: we have all become so affected by a modern mindset–one that assumes that God can’t, or at least doesn’t, doesn’t act in the world––that we simply don’t believe that He does. But nowhere in the Bible does such a modern view appear. God is active, and that dictates much of how Paul thought about ministry. So, for example, he says in Philippians 1:6:
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (ESV)
And later in the same book, in 3:15, he says:
“Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” (ESV)
These two statements can only be made by someone who thinks God is active.
The Bible teaches that God is active in the world. We can’t escape that idea. And so we cannot allow the assumptions of the world to govern our thinking.
And this is a clear reason that I like these two questions: they form a spiritual discipline which trains us to see God as active in this world rather than a removed creator
An Active Response to God
Finally, these two questions should be processed as a pair. We should never separate what we are learning from God from how we should live in the upcoming week. Many Christians are not deliberate about maturing in their faith. They are deliberate about improving their career skills or improving at their hobbies. Some are just passive about their faith. Others think that intentionally doing things to mature as a Christian sounds like legalism or works righteousness. (To them, I’d remind them of Dallas Willard’s great phrase: Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.)
But specifying concrete ways that your life should change is a healthy practice, because it keeps you responding to God in your life. This is especially true when you build in accountability, that is, you allow others to check in on whether your life is changing in the ways it should.
For Christians, there is always the danger that we will merely learn about God and not live differently because of that knowledge. I think this is one reason Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount by saying, in Matthew 7:26, that the foolish person is one who hears from him and does not “put [his words] into practice.”
Likewise, we are foolish if we reflect on what God is teaching us but never put it into practice.
Some Parting Advice
I have spent two years asking others these questions and being asked these questions by others. So let me share a few things I have learned that might help you:
- Despite the language, be cautious about the claim that God taught you something. Why? Because if you are wrong then you have misrepresented God. That’s a serious thing.
- Because of this, strive to ground what you are learning in Scripture.
- Talk through these questions with a more mature Christian, someone who is willing to tell you that she thinks you are wrong or that your claims contradict God’s Word.
- Work through these questions in groups. There is more accountability and also more experiences which will be helpful.
- Be as specific as possible as to how your life should change in response to what you are learning. The more vague the planned reaction to what God is teaching you, the more vague the accountability.
I hope these two questions are both as helpful and transformative for you as they have been for me.
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