Disenchanted with church branding, flashy worship, and what they perceive as an attempt to sell Christianity, a growing number of Christians are moving from contemporary congregations to more traditional ones. They’re looking less at presentation and more at the stability offered by ancient liturgy and worship trusted by Christians for hundreds of years. This shift signals a renewed respect for the sacraments and spiritual disciplines.
I, too, found myself drawn to a more traditional church setting a couple of years ago and, shortly thereafter, began exploring spiritual disciplines to steady my time with Christ. The idea of observing the Sabbath, setting aside time for prayer and solitude, and learning about fasting all appealed to my noisy, overextended life. But I was skeptical about whether those practices could actually encourage my desire for God rather than drain it.
The idea of observing the Sabbath, setting aside time for prayer and solitude, and learning about fasting all appealed to my noisy, overextended life.
Ruth Haley Barton sits at the intersection of these two perspectives, exploring how the disciplines and what captivates us interact in our spiritual formation. She is the author of several books and founder of the Transforming Center, a nonprofit organization that focuses on equipping and developing Christian leaders. Barton encourages believers to practice spiritual disciplines as a way of discovering not only our attraction to God but also what compels us and ultimately supports our relationship with the Lord.
In her book Sacred Rhythms, Barton discusses several spiritual disciplines—solitude, reading Scripture, prayer, honoring the body, self-examination, discernment, observing the Sabbath—, how to practice them, and how to incorporate them into our life in a regular, sustainable way. When we know how to create space for God and figure out a rhythm that works for us, we’re most aware of His presence. I decided to reach out via email to ask her questions on spiritual rhythms and desire, and perhaps why our worship—personal and corporate—flourishes with both.
In Sacred Rhythms, you write, “I cannot transform myself … What I can do is create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place, by developing and maintaining a rhythm of spiritual practices that keep me open and available to God.” It’s tempting to see this posture as an exchange: If I open myself to God through these spiritual practices, He’ll speak to me and transform me. How do you manage your expectations of the fruit that comes from these rhythms?
Ruth Haley Barton:
I experience sacred rhythms as “means of grace,” as those in the Wesleyan tradition might talk about it. They are concrete activities we can engage in that open us to God’s grace—which is always unmerited and never transactional. The formation of an embryo in its mother’s womb and the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly can help us understand the fact that spiritual transformation is a mysterious work of God—it is God-initiated and God-guided. We do not have God in our back pocket. That said, we seek a God who is already seeking us and is faithful to come into any space we create for Him. Spiritual practices give us a way to create space for grace.
Like many Christians, I was raised to follow the voice of discipline because desire would lead me astray. You, on the other hand, write about desire as our invitation to meet with God. If desire and discipline are not in fact opposites, how would you describe their relationship? How do they interact in our spiritual formation?
First of all, we must embrace the truth that there are legitimate desires God places within us as human beings that He promises to meet (Psalm 37:4). This is just true. Moving to the New Testament, one of the questions Jesus asked most often while He was walking among us was some version of “What do you want Mee to do for you?” or “What do you seek?” (John 1:38; John 5:6; Mark 10:36; Mark 10:51); He seemed to use this question to take spiritual conversations to a deeper level. The way I see desire and discipline connecting in the spiritual life is that when we are in touch with our deepest spiritual desire, we can set our intention and then through discipline actually arrange our life for what we say we really want.
We must embrace the truth that there are legitimate desires God places within us as human beings that He promises to meet.
You write that desire “brings us face-to-face with our humanness, our vulnerability, our need.” But our current Christian teaching, with its roots in the Protestant work ethic, discipline, and productivity, discourages desire. How do you think that impacts our modern faith?
Desire is a much more consistent and powerful motivator for life change than “oughts” and “shoulds,” which really have more to do with responding to others’ expectations than living out of what is true within us. When we discourage paying attention to desire, we cut ourselves off from connection with our authentic self and with the most powerful and consistent motivation for real life change. “Oughts” and “shoulds” can carry us only so far. When we are in touch with God-given desire, we can order our life around what is truest within us; when we stay connected with desire, it can become a consistent organizing principle for our life over time. This is not to say we are free to do anything we want; it is that we are free to do what we most deeply want.
When I read that spiritual transformation requires “choosing a way of life that opens us to the presence of God in the places of our being where our truest desires and deepest longings stir,” I feel free but also apprehensive. How would you encourage someone who has learned to drown out the voice of intuitive desire? Where should he or she begin?
We really must begin by believing the biblical truth that there are good desires God has placed within us and longs to meet. Yes, the human heart can be very deceitful, and there is a true self hidden with Christ in God, that knows what to want! Another truth that can help us trust our desire is this: The very presence of desire means God is already at work drawing us to Himself. After all, we love God because He first loved us. We long for God because He first longed for us and created us with a God-shaped vacuum. We reach for God because He first reached for us—in Christ. While desire might feel very personal and as if it originates with us, the deeper truth is that our desire for God actually originates with God because He put it in us. This should be very encouraging!