I’ve found a number of dangers when it comes to introducing my students to the spiritual disciplines, or the regular rhythms of the Christian life like prayer, Scripture-reading, and commitment to regular corporate worship. Aside from giving them the false impression that I’m good at them, the chief difficulty I find is explaining their importance while avoiding a sort of magical ex opere operato idea that encourages discouragement when nothing happens as you first attempt to adopt them in your own life.
To do this I’ve sort described them as ways of putting yourself in a position to communicate (commune) with God. In the same way that it’s silly to expect hear from your friend if you’ve got your phone turned off, it’s silly to expect to hear from God if you never actually open your Bible, try to pray, or go to church with regularity. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll “hear”, in the sense of having some subjective experience, from him each time. Yet still, if its going to happen, it’s more likely to happen in one of these ways.
James K.A. Smith uses an analogy from philosopher Maurice Mearleu-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception (PP), that I found quite illuminating on this point:
In the context of discussing this mode of intentionality between intellect and instinct, and a kind of action that is neither voluntary nor involuntary, Merleau-Ponty points to an intriguing analogy: sleep. I cannot “choose” to fall asleep. The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythms that welcomes sleep. “I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up. I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there” (PP 189). I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed–but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. “I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper…There is a moment when sleep ‘comes’,’ settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be.” (PP 189-90, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception–a kind of active welcome.
Then Smith asks the money question:
What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls “habitations of the Spirit” precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?
–Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, pg. 65
Much in the same way that we can’t force ourselves to fall asleep but can only adopt postures that welcome it, so in the same way, we cannot force God to attend to us, speak to us, make his presence known, and so forth. And yet, and yet, we can adopt practices and postures in prayer, Scripture, and corporate worship (alongside of the other classic disciplines such as silence, solitude, etc.) that indicate a welcome, an openness to the Spirit of God to work in our lives.
Soli Deo Gloria