In this article we will discuss spiritual disciplines; what they are, their purpose and what they contribute toward our experience of God leading us toward spiritual maturity and transformation.
The aim or goal of practicing spiritual disciplines is to engage with God so we may experience Him in a deeper more impactful way and subsequently be changed through a meaningful encounter with God. As we mentioned in our last training, not everyone learns and processes information in the same ways. While some are moved by engaging in reading and study, others are moved by nature, music or art. Each one has their own way that touches them on another level moving them along with their experience of God. Through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we engage and experience God in multiple ways that can be more helpful for the individual with their experience of God leading to growth and spiritual formation.
These disciplines are the same time worn traditions lovers of God have practiced throughout the centuries. They are the same practices Daniel practiced prior to his arrest and imprisonment, and they are the same traditions practiced by Christ prior to His crucifixion. However, before we commence with our discussion on the disciplines, we must first take a few moments to discuss the process of spiritual formation and transformation.
It is not uncommon in the counseling profession and biblical counseling ministry to find some, after meeting with their counselor a few times, to become indifferent to the process and begin to lose interest and fail to keep their scheduled appointments with their counselor.
This, unfortunately, is very common and is symptomatic of the differing perspective each one carries with them to the process and methodology of discipleship and Christian/Biblical counseling. There are many who merely see discipleship or any form of Christian counseling as a means of crisis care; therefore, once the crisis has been sufficiently resolved enough for them to go back to their usual schedule and habits the person quickly does so.
The very title “crisis” is indicative of the attitude of viewing the endeavor as merely something one does when faced with a crisis emergency of some sort. The person approaching discipleship or counseling with this perspective will generally only continue with regular meetings with their counselor/mentor until they have resolution to the crisis. Once the dust settles and the crisis appears to be over, longing for some sense of normalcy to their life, they quickly return to business as usual. There are, of course, a number of difficulties with this particular viewpoint and this approach to counseling and discipleship.
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
James tells us that even though trials are rarely fun, we are to count the trials in life as joyful events. Why do you suppose this is? Because of the result to be experienced and realized in the life of the person who goes through such trial. As a result of the trial, the individual is to receive something from God that produces endurance for future difficulties and this process will culminate in perfection and/or spiritual maturity.
What James tells us is indicative of a growth process. The trial is to produce spiritual growth and maturity in the person who completes the trial. The person who simply wants to blow through the trial unscathed and unaffected is short-sighted and fails to view the trial for what God has intended for it.
God wants to impact your life so you may experience something of Him as you go through the difficulties in life. The person who fails to recognize this and merely insists on hurrying through the process is essentially rejecting God’s work in their life. Neglecting the opportunity to receive from Him, they will come away from the trial having received little or nothing from the Lord and will remain unchanged. The prophet Jeremiah writes,
““Moab has been at ease since his youth; He has also been undisturbed, like wine on its dregs, And he has not been emptied from vessel to vessel, Nor has he gone into exile. Therefore he retains his flavor, And his aroma has not changed.”
When a person merely views discipleship as crisis counseling, they essentially are doing the same thing Jeremiah saw in Moab. They are short-changing themselves and resisting God’s work in their lives. Unfortunately, the person who does this will remain unchanged by God. Failing to receive God’s work in their heart and life and never entering into anything in the way of spiritual maturity.
Spiritual Growth in the Life of the Believer
While it is unfortunate, there are many in the church today who fail to see that there is more for them in their experience of God and His plans for their life. One of my favorite Scriptures, Ephesians 3:20, reminds me of this very fact.
“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us,”
We are so very short-sighted concerning our relationship with the Lord failing to understand He has far more for us than we ever imagine. Many, in the early centuries of the church, recognized this and sought more of God in the way of actually experiencing His work in their hearts and lives. For many today, this is completely foreign to their way of thinking about God and their Christian life. For many, this sounds like a lot of mystical hocus-pocus voodoo to think that they could actually experience God on a consistent and regular basis in their day-to-day life, but they can, if they seek Him with their whole heart, for He has promised it to be so. Again, the prophet Jeremiah writes,
“‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. ‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.”
Interestingly enough, corresponding with our discussion on spiritual disciplines, the prophet Jeremiah links the concept of prayer with seeking and searching for God earnestly with our “heart.” Earlier believers and followers of Jesus Christ desired more of God and sought to experience God in their day-to-day life.
Why do you suppose a professing Christian may lack interest or be resistant toward experiencing more of God and moving forward with spiritual growth and transformation?
The reasons for a person’s lack of interest to move forward in their walk with the Lord are many. Often there is unconfessed or sin in the person’s life they have not or are not willing to confess and repent of. There is something that they either refuse to release or some habitual habit or sin they feel they simply cannot stop. In such instances, obviously, discipleship and Biblical counseling could help the person with this matter.
Concerning others, however, the person simply feels they have reached a place in their relationship with God that is sufficient and comfortable and there is no reason to push to go further. When comparing themselves with others at their church, they see very little difference between themselves and others serving, or perhaps, even their pastor so they assume they’re ok with God. The problem is most attendees in your average church today are stuck in an arrested state of spiritual development somewhere between the third and fourth chambers of the interior castle, as defined by St. Teresa of Avila and her Interior Castle model of spiritual formation.
God is not happy with the attitude of complacency, as Jesus Himself said He would reject the church of Laodicea because of their lukewarm attitude and feeling as if they were simply good enough and in need of nothing from Him (Rev 3:15-17). Neglecting Scripture, the person persisting with this unbiblical attitude resists further revelation from God and fails to ever enter into an experience of God and true spiritual growth and transformation into spiritual maturity.
Jesus and Spiritual Habits and Disciplines
The expectation of disciplined spirituality is implied in Jesus’ offer of Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” The same is true in this offer of discipleship: “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’ ” (Luke 9:23). These verses tell us that to be a disciple of Jesus means, at the very least, to learn from and follow Him. Learning and following involve discipline, for those who only learn accidentally and follow incidentally are not true disciples. That discipline is at the heart of discipleship is confirmed by Galatians 5:22–23, which says that spiritual self-discipline (i.e., “self-control”) is one of the most evident marks of being Spirit-controlled.
The Lord Jesus not only expects these Disciplines of us, He modeled them for us. He applied His heart to discipline. He disciplined Himself for the purpose of Godliness. And if we are going to be Christlike, we must live as Christ lived.
This is the message of Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines. Willard writes,
“My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing—by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father.”1
Our lives as Christians are to be modeled after the life of Christ. Paul writing to the church in Corinth writes, “Be imitators of me, [Corinthians,] as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 4:16). The church in ancient Corinth did not physically have Jesus with them but they had Paul, so Paul says watch what I do and imitate me as my life is an imitation of Christ. We are supposed to be practicing the imitation of Christ. That’s part of our spiritual formation on a day-to-day basis.2
Many professing Christians are spiritually undisciplined and produce very little fruit and experience little power in their lives. I have witnessed men and women who have disciplined themselves for the purpose of excelling in their profession, yet they discipline themselves very little “for the purpose of godliness.” I have seen Christians who are faithful to the church of God, who frequently demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for the things of God, and who dearly love the Word of God, trivialize their effectiveness for the Kingdom of God through lack of discipline. Spiritually they are a mile wide and an inch deep (Colson). There are no deep, time-worn channels of communing discipline between them and God. They have dabbled in everything but disciplined themselves in nothing.3
Spiritual formation is not just about your prayer life or even just about studying the Bible. It’s about modeling yourself on the exemplar of Jesus Christ.4 Remember these words of Paul:
“Have this mind in yourself that was also in Christ Jesus, who, though being in very nature of God, did not take the having of equality with God something to take advantage of; but instead, He stripped Himself, He emptied Himself and took on the form of a human being and a servant amongst human beings and was obedient even unto death on the cross.”
Change does not come easily, but only through establishing consistently regular spiritual habits that are going to set up structure and consistently edify the spiritual life.
Historical Review of Christian Spirituality
Earlier believers and followers of Jesus understood there to be a rhythm of life and a path that must be followed in order to create structure and develop good habits leading to spiritual growth and a deeper experience of God that leads to spiritual maturity and transformation.
In the primitive church, sanctification was initially associated with holiness of the heart which was evidenced by a way of life and spiritual practices and personal discipline.5 With this, the early believers’ personal disciplines and outreach to the poor and needy of the community were earmarks of their faith and piety.6
Many church historians today believe there was a prevailing attitude of integration with the study of theology and spirituality over the first four centuries of the church, and there was no motivation to separate the study of Scripture and theology from the spiritual life of prayer and transformation. Evagrius Ponticus, a Christian Monk from the 4th century, expresses this when he states, “A theologian is one wo prays truly, and one who prays truly is a theologian.”7
Unfortunately, by the late medieval period, a change had definitely begun. The towering theologians, Thomas Aquinas, argued in favor of a holistic approach to sacred doctrine; however, the separation of theology in the first part of his Suma from moral theology and the spiritual life in the second part became a pattern for subsequent theology in the West. Much more, the separation of moral theology from spiritual theology in subsequent centuries ultimately became an unhelpful divorce of morality and virtue from a spirituality that focused more and more on religious experience in prayer.
Although the work of God’s grace in the life of the believer took the forefront of the Reformer’s theological interests, there was some resurgence among Luther and Calvin concerning the spiritual life of the believer.
Luther, although an enormous theologian in his own rite, edited and published a work titled, Passionālè, which consists of three volumes and sings of the lives of Jesus, His mother the virgin, the apostles and evangelists and of the saints. The purpose is clearly stated in the thesis of the work, “To incite men to adoration, and to strengthen their virtuous habits.”8 In other words, the spiritual lives and practices of the saints.
Later, spirituality itself became further fractured into “ascetic” and “mystical” divisions. Sometimes the two were conflated; more often rigorous moral-spiritual training of the religious (ascetical theology) was differentiated from the special ecstasies and stages of those having extraordinary religious experiences (mystical theology).
As a result of this, the disciplines of studying doctrine, morality, and the spiritual life/experience gradually separated from one another, with the latter becoming chiefly the concern of clergy and monks.
There have been a number of suggestions for these divisions, including the rise of scholastic theological methods, and later Protestant Scholasticism; the eclipsing of spiritualty by dogmatic theology as a response to the threat of heresy; the slow divorce of theology from pastoral concerns; the modernist university and response of theology to critical studies; and others. With the passing of time, there developed a clear academic-theological dividing of the faith into fields of discourse, with some identified as more important to the faith itself.
Entering into the 20th century, the church and academy in the West were fractured by numerous splits: science and the humanities separated from theology; theology separated from pastoral and moral theology, which was further divorced from a spirituality that more and more focused on extraordinary growth and spiritual experiences. Most often, moral and spiritual issues were cut off from serious theological concern and relegated to a piece of pastoral theology or merely a part of praxis and the personal. This was most frequently experienced in institutions of higher learning where scholarly work became preoccupied with higher critical concerns. But this also does not exclude conservative seminaries, where one can see this divorce evident in the split between theology, exegesis and historical studies on the one hand, and praxis-oriented disciplines like pastoral theology, counseling, and Christian education on the other—with spiritual formation relegated to the latter or absent from the curriculum altogether.9
In more recent history, interest in spirituality and spiritual formation in the Christian church, Catholicism, Protestantism and Evangelicalism, has prompted a renewed interest in the academic understanding of the spiritual life. This movement has encouraged a resurgence of interest in the study of the history of spirituality and in bringing back some rigor to the study of the spiritual life itself. Therefore, more recently we are witnessing a correction to the imbalance of interests that have occurred in the church over the centuries bringing much needed balance to the spiritual life of the church.
Spiritual Growth Models
In the centuries that followed the completion of the New Testament, a number of Christian models gained the respect of many Christians. Christians sought a way of illustrating and explaining spiritual growth and the sanctification process in the life of the believer. The following are a few of the more well-known historical models for spiritual formation:
- Origen of Alexandria, an early Christian ascetic, suggested that the soul passes through stages of learning virtue, reflecting on reality, and contemplating God.
- Bonaventure, a thirteenth-century Franciscan philosopher promoted an influential threefold schema that distinguished between stages of purgation or cleansing, illumination, and union.
- Dominicans, such as Thomas Aquinas, a contemporary of Bonaventure, preferred a simple division of beginners, the proficient, and the perfect.
- Much later in history Thomas Keating describes it as a journey through four “yous”:
- the you of ordinary everyday awareness,
- the you of your personality and character,
- the you that is in relationship with those who love you for exactly who you are, and
- the you that at the deepest level is not separate from God—distinct, but not separate. It is God sharing the divine life with us.10
- Many contemporaries today, such as Rick Warren (for one), also use a 4-part division to describe the process of spiritual formation.
While these represent a good effort toward identifying spiritual growth in believers, they really are not helpful as they are too broad and lack scope defining the various stages of spiritual formation. As you can see, these models are only comprised of 3-4 stages explaining the spiritual growth of a Christian. While we appreciate the simplicity of these models, most Christians when taking time to reflect on their spiritual growth would admit to more than 3-4 milestones concerning their spiritual growth.
Saint Teresa of Avila
Another influential model is Carmelite saint Teresa of Avila’s Seven dwelling places, which she outlined in her work, The Interior Castle.11
St. Teresa of Avilla was a 15th century lover of Jesus. She is known as a Spanish saint, mystic and Carmelite reformer (known as the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel). St. Teresa of Avila is one of but three women in the history of the Roman Catholic Church who have been designated doctor of the church by Rome. At twenty, she entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation at Avila. At the age of forty, Teresa began a more mystical period in her life and received visions which led to several influential writings, including The Way of Perfection, a guide for her nuns; Life, a spiritual autobiography; Foundations; and The Interior Castle, the latter two being classics in spiritual discipline. These works, as well as her efforts to reform and found Carmelite monastic houses for women, have extended her influence to the present day.12
St. Teresa spoke of the spiritual journey as finding yourself in God.13 I find Teresa’s discussion concerning the “Inner Castle” with 7-rooms signifying the 7-stages of growth toward spiritual maturity to be helpful as it gives you some sort of scale by which to understand your spiritual growth. Also, with 7-rooms or stages, there is enough gradation between them to recognize the various nuances and truly identify the varying degrees of growth.
While most models simply recognize witnessing and evangelism as indicators of growth, Teresa was strictly interested in the prayer life, contemplation, meditation, fasting and silence before God which, according to Teresa, are earmarks of true spiritual growth.
But as stated earlier, the pilgrimage of Christian growth is not linear, and one moves back and forth from room to room within Teresa’s metaphorical castle until the end of their spiritual pilgrimage.
Saint Teresa’s Seven Chambers of the Interior Castle
Spiritual writers since the sixteenth century have so gladly embraced Teresa’s sevenfold schema for the development of prayer that it has become classic work concerning spiritual formation. St. Teresa, in her work, The Interior Castle, delineates 7 chambers representing 7 stages of spiritual growth and maturity.
The First Mansion: New Beginnings
This is the story common to all Christians as the Holy Spirit opens the heart and eyes and the person is “born again.” This is the testimony of new believers that we so often hear. While it is important, there are many believers who never progress and develop beyond this point of spiritual maturity.
C. S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, describes the kinds of attachments that can remain for Christians and cloud the ability to discern good from evil, and confuse God’s gifts with false securities and pleasures.14
Most often, new believers still view themselves as the center of the universe and define success as becoming important, respected, and loved.14 It will take significant spiritual growth before they discover that God is the Center and that she is successful because He profoundly loves them.
The Second Mansion: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Like the first mansion, the second mansion, is still the condition of a relatively new Christian, but spiritual growth has taken place. We have come to realize that God’s way is right, and we earnestly determine to live according to God’s desires for our lives, with an increasing desire to follow Christ. But the pull of the world, with its false pleasures and gratifications, is still strong. We also experience new levels of spiritual attack as the enemy increases the deceptions that the world, rather than God, is the source of security, significance, and happiness.15
The second mansion of spiritual formation is little understood or seldom taught in typical discipleship material. Life took a major turn for the better as we entered the first mansion of new life with Christ, but the second mansion is a dark valley for which few new believers are prepared. We have all experienced this season, and still do at times, though it is rarely seen as “spiritual growth.”
Remember that although our experience of the mansions is progressive, it is not linear, one right after another; we journey back and forth. This is due to the Iterative Development Process.
As human beings and thinkers, we are constantly taking in new information and evaluating, testing, trying and re-evaluating it before we adopt it as a habit.
With our spiritual growth, we may live mainly in one, explore further ahead, and go back. As we said in the introduction to the first mansion, you will want to ask the Holy Spirit to help you recall a similar season in your life, so that you can not only understand the second mansion but learn from your own experience and deepen your understanding of your spiritual formation (Gal 5:16-25; Eph 6:10-18). Thomas Dubay comments:
The man or woman in the second mansions is a battleground where the conflict between the world and the divine call is being waged. There is a tug-of-war going on, and the individual experiences the two opposing pulls. The world’s tug is experienced in several ways: earthly pleasures remain attractive, and they appear as though almost eternal God’s tug is likewise felt in diverse manners: reason itself shows the person how mistaken the world’s message is and why it is mistaken. Significant growth has taken place and has instilled a conviction that only in God is one’s surety.16
It’s obvious that the second mansion does not feel like spiritual growth!
The Third Mansion: Following Jesus
We now take a huge leap in our discussion of spiritual growth, as we move from the second mansion to the third. There is much written about discipleship of relatively new Christians, but the more mature phases of growth seem much more a mystery to us, so we want to spend our time in the later mansions of Christian maturity. We therefore jump to a time in our spiritual growth when the struggles and warfare of the second mansion are largely over, and considerable “discipleship” now exemplifies our life. For most people, this takes a number of years, maybe even decades.
By the time we have come to “make our home” in the third mansion, we have developed a relatively balanced life of discipleship. Regular church attendance and ministry, consistent prayer, a concerted effort to live the Christian life, and a genuine desire to please and honor God are evidences of spiritual growth.
It is worth observing that the third of the seven mansions is about as far as most churches go in their teaching about the spiritual life.
It’s an important phase of our growth, and many of us get stuck here. But we will see that there is more, much more (Eph 4:1-3; Phil 2:12-16).
“Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.”
Changing Patterns of Prayer in Communication with God
Our life of prayer has also deepened. We’ve discovered an ongoing reflection on the presence and activity of God, both in formal prayer times and in daily life.
Teresa often uses the word recollection in her writing. This is a technical term meaning a reflective recalling of God’s activity in daily events. Kieran Kavanaugh, in his introduction to St. Teresa’s Inner Castle writes concerning Teresa’s use of “recollection”:
“Teresa’s teaching on prayer, we would have to begin with her own words: “Draw near, then, to this good Master.…” She calls this practice “recollection,” and insists that an important aspect of prayer is the fundamental truth that God is close, very near. “All the harm comes from not understanding that He is near.” Drawing near to God is called recollection because “the soul collects its faculties together and enters within itself to be with its God,” to look at Him, to be present to Him (who is present to and looking at us), to center its attention on Him.”17
Our prayers are still mainly discursively talking to God, but at this stage of maturity times of reflective reading and meditation on Scripture have deepened our quality of prayer and deepened the level of communication and communion with God.
A typical format for prayer in the third mansion might be exemplified in the acronym ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Some of us in the past may have been taught that prayer should be balanced and were taught this acronym to help us with balance. Unfortunately, many of us were also taught that prayer is mainly us talking with God, and as you will see as you grow in your prayer life, this is not really the case as prayer is more listening to God than talking.
The Fourth Mansion: Discovering the Love of Jesus
Our journey from mansion three to mansion four is not as great a jump in our spiritual life, as we described from the second to the third mansion, but a subtle transition of huge significance. Over the years, we have made visits and peeked into the mysterious rooms of Jesus’ invitation to personal intimacy. Jesus has always been with us, and we have experienced His love to various degrees. Whether we were brought up in the church or became believers later in life, we learned the Gospel message that God loves us. We experienced His love in a variety of ways, mostly through His Word, answered prayer, blessings, and deliverance from distress. In the fourth mansion our love for the God has grown to such an extent that we are now ready to enter into His love.
Jesus asked His disciple Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” (John 21:15). We are to love God with our entire being: heart, mind, soul and strength (Mark 12:30). This has been God’s aim in our relationship with Him from the beginning, and now in the fourth mansion we begin to truly enter into the relationship God desires to have with us.
But as we enter further into and stay longer in the rooms of the fourth mansion dimension of spiritual growth, God makes Himself and His love known not only in blessings but in inner feelings and awareness of His presence. Even though we have known Christ for many years, this experience of His love and person (touches, Teresa calls them) births a dramatic refocusing of our spiritual walk.
Teresa uses the analogy of a developing love affair with Jesus for our spiritual development in the last four mansions.
This transition could be compared to a man who attends the college dance as a place to have fun and meet people. One night, he meets a special woman who makes his heart race. He now attends the college dance for only one reason: to meet “her,” to get to know her, and maybe share some time with her beyond the monthly dance. That’s what happens to us in the fourth mansion. We begin to fall in love with Jesus.
As we venture into the fourth mansion, God begins to reveal His presence through profound touches of His love and presence. To encourage us to seek Him more fully and singularly, He may take away the affirmation we have been receiving, or the “well done good and faithful servant” we sensed as we saw the fruit of ministry in the third mansion. Although we continue life and ministry characterized by the third mansion, the Holy Spirit gives us the beginnings of new grace to “see” and “feel” God in prayer and in life.
These experiences shift our attention more toward the Giver than the gifts (even the gifts of the experiences themselves). God’s love transforms our heart, as we experience a new longing for deeper intimacy with the Lord.
The Fifth Mansion: Longing for Oneness with God
As we enter into the fifth mansion, as you and I journey in this season of our spiritual growth, we have stumbled headlong into the mystery and wonder of a Love beyond expectations, a relationship with the Creator of the Universe that seems presumptuous to even think about.
Paul, writing to the believers in Ephesus writes,
“. . . so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”
All through this transformation process, God has been revealing a greater Truth, a greater Reality, a greater Work, a greater Life. Through the Holy Spirit’s gentle “touches of love,” God has been revealing Himself. As our gaze is distracted from our work and service toward these glimpses of His love and grandeur and glory, our heart’s attention begins to shift.
We are smitten by love and it is to Love we are drawn. Instead of the urge to exert our own power to learn, understand, and serve, we now find ourselves weak, hungry, thirsty, yearning, in love and desiring only to respond to the Love that has possessed us.
The roadmap, from here on, will use the biblical images of Bride and Bridegroom, of Lover and Beloved, to describe the overpowering desire that emerges in us to experience the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus in John’s gospel chapter 17.
The fifth mansion is a time of transition where our focus moves even further from doing to being, from serving to loving. God is calling us to begin to live according to the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus in John 17. The call to union with God.
Our one desire is for God, Himself. We want more than anything else in the world to know Him, to love Him, and to experience His love. We desire to serve Jesus by somehow sharing His suffering in the lives of others.
Teresa believes that most Christians enter the fifth mansion to some extent, but in her own words she states, “There are various degrees, and for that reason I say that most enter these places. But I believe that only a few will experience some of the things that I say are in this room.”18
The Sixth Mansion: The Passion of God’s Love
By the time we reach the Sixth Mansion, subtly, we realized that our hearts would no longer settle for occasional rendezvous with God and the “first place” we had so magnanimously given Him on the throne of our activities. Somehow the tables had to be turned. Instead of having Jesus live as part of our lives, we had to discover how to live as part of His. We were grateful for the gentle place He took within us, but we now sought the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords inHis throne room. The longing expressed in Psalm 27:4-6 is made alive in our heart’s experience of God:
“One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD and to meditate in His temple.”
We develop the audacity to see ourselves as His beloved. Lamb, child, follower, apprentice, son, daughter, all had been at one time adequate self-understandings. Now our hearts longed to know Him as His bride.
We saw that when we visited the fifth mansion this longing increased. His light and love both drew us closer and purified us to be able to behold His beauty more completely. The thoughts of oneness with God once whispered to us from the silences of our prayer times; now they consumed us and we longed to be fully His. We were ready to let go of all that the world offers, shed the significances we had accumulated, and live for Him alone. We wanted to be able to join the apostle John in his relationship as the “disciple who Jesus loves,” and we explored the rooms of the fifth mansion.
While our journey into the Sixth Mansion brings us face to face with the glory of our King, it also shows us how far we have to go to fully become what He created us to be.
In the sixth mansion, God shows what it means to live fully “in Christ.” Through spiritual experiences, Jesus heals our hearts so we can live more fully in the mystery of God, in the unseen as well as the seen.
The Seventh Mansion: A Life of Love in the Trinity
The seventh mansion represents the ultimate degree of intimacy with God that one can experience in this life: spiritual union with the Trinity. As is true with each of the prior mansions, this is still a season of our journey, not a milestone or destination. But in this season, we come to experience a complete integration of mind, body, and spirit in the life of Christ. At its fullest, it is the realization of the apostle Paul’s statement, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Our relationship with God becomes a fulfillment of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, recorded in the Gospel of John:
“that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”
In this seventh dwelling place the union comes about in a different way: God now desires to remove the scales from the soul’s eyes and let it see and understand. When the soul is brought into that dwelling place, the Most Blessed Trinity, all three Persons, through an intellectual vision, is revealed to it through divine revelation.
This Trinitarian vision is unique, different from anything we may have experienced before. Teresa calls it an “intellectual vision.” It is different because we don’t experience the Trinity, imaginatively or visually with our eyes, but we “see” in our heart in a way that actually communicates and accomplishes the truth of what we experience. Unlike past visions that have come and gone, this “communication” remains present within our heart, although not always discernible or felt as clearly as the first time it happened. But we know, from this time forward, that the three Persons of the Trinity are there, within us. An example of an intellectual vision might be Paul’s implied visit to the third heaven, where he experienced wonders too great for human words (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).
This experience, like the first one, is not transitory in the way touches of union have been experienced in past years; it remains a living reality. We abide with our God in the center of our heart, in a very conscious way, as fully as can happen without being transported into heaven itself.
The Purpose and Benefits of Spiritual Disciplines
I have become convinced by my own personal experience and from counseling and discipling others that Real transformation seldom comes simply from reading a book or listening to a lecture. It requires the fertile place of solitude and stillness. It demands the openness of heart and mind that can only be given when space is created for whatever measure of stillness we can receive from God and are then prepared to offer back to God as our gift. Seeking silence, solitude, and stillness is always, therefore, a response to the Spirit, who calls us within our spirit to deeper places. It’s a response to a longing that we may not even know is present. Acknowledging and responding to this longing is itself a way of expressing faith and saying yes to God. 19
While there are a number of reasons and benefits for consistently practicing and engaging in spiritual disciplines, one of the foremost reasons that I can think of is that spiritual disciplines are a way for us to experience God in a more holistic and deeper manner.
Now, you may be wondering, “How is it that the practice of spiritual disciplines will bring me into a deeper experience of God?” The answer to this question goes back to our last article and training on spiritual affections. In fact, not everyone learns in the same way. Some people are literary types who learn and are impacted in meaningful ways through reading and study, while others are moved and touched deeply by nature, music and other means. In fact, truth be told, there are a significantly larger group of people, approximately 78 percent, who fall into the latter category and come into a deeper experience with God through means other than studying and reading their Bible. For these people to experience God, they need something that engages their physical senses that they can participate. Through their engagement in practices where they participate their experience with God impacts them in a deeper way as the experience of the Spirit moving touches their heart in a visceral way inspiring their imaginations and setting aflame their affections toward God.
Kenneth Boa has outlined a number of other benefits associated with practice spiritual disciplines:
- They encourage the imitation of Christ and allow us to act in ways that are centered in God’s will.
- They personally connect us with an ongoing tradition of time-tested ways of incarnating the spiritual life.
- They give us a rule of conduct that directs us in the path of growing skill in living before God.
- They equip us with resources on the three battlefronts of the world, the flesh, and the demonic.
- They remind us daily that the spiritual life is a balance between radical dependence and responsible action; both grace and self-discipline are required for spiritual maturity.
- They are vehicles for internal transformation. Given enough time, an average person who consistently practices spiritual disciplines will achieve spiritual productivity and proficiency.
- They replace habits of sin by cultivating habits that lead to character (e.g., integrity, faithfulness, and compassion).
- They increase our willingness to acknowledge the daily cost of discipleship and remind us that whatever comes quickly and cheaply is superficial, while the insights that we learn from pain will endure.
The Problem of Occasional Sacraments
Here’s the thing: One of the things that seems most clear to me about Protestants/Evangelicals is that they do not take the sacraments, the means of grace, enough; they don’t take it seriously enough. John Wesley said, “Take daily communion, take daily the Lord’s Supper, for it is a means of grace and will nurture your life in Christ. There is an important piece of the Christian life that is not done if we don’t regularly partake in the sacraments. That’s one of the ways that God strengthens our Christian life, so that we might be the person He would want us to be.”20
Let’s assume you’re involved in discipling and pastoring other people in your church. Perhaps you read the Bible regularly with someone. Perhaps you’re part of a prayer partnership. Perhaps you’re a youth group leader. In these kinds of contexts, how often do you point people to their baptism?
I ask the question because it’s something Paul does often in his letters. Check out 1 Corinthians 12:12–14; Galatians 3:26–29, and Colossians 2:11–12 if you don’t believe me. Peter does the same thing in 1 Peter 3:18–22. For the apostles, baptism was not simply an event that took place back in the day. For them it shaped the whole Christian life. Christians were baptized people living a baptized life. So why don’t we live like this? Lewis Allen writes:
“Where did we go wrong, that we preachers have so undervalued the Lord’s Supper and baptism? A glance around evangelical churches shows that the sacraments are the church’s Cinderellas—tolerated, patronized, and even put to work, but little loved and even less gloried in. We love to celebrate a baptism and share the joy of grace in a person’s life; but do we teach the saints to live in the light of their baptism, and to draw strength from the fact that they bear the name of the Trinity? And are our Supper services more obligation than celebration, something we would feel embarrassed to leave out of our worship, rather than something we love to share together?”21
The Sacraments Have a Way of Making Real What Jesus Has Done for Us
To underscore the importance of the sacraments to our spiritual life, I will share this little vignette with you.
Something I have in common with Timothy Keller is we both have a love for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Keller uses a segment from the Lord of the Rings to illustrate the point of how the sacraments we engage in our corporate worship act as a thick liturgy impacting us to our core helping us to be transformed.
“There is a scene in the Lord of the Rings where the hobbit Pippin is standing at the gate of the city and in comes the great Witch-king, the demon king. He comes through the gate, and he’s about to destroy the city. All of a sudden off in the distance, horns. The horns of the cavalry, basically. The horns of the Riders of Rohan. They have come, and even though the king of Rohan rides to his death that day, the city is saved.
We’re told for the rest of his life Pippin could never hear a horn off in the distance without bursting into tears. Why? Because every time he heard a horn in the distance, it reawakened the memory of his salvation and the memory of the one who died for him.”
How do you listen to a distant horn? What are your distant horns? The sacrament, when you take the Lord’s Supper. Christian friends coming to worship. In the sacrament of communion, we have a visceral way of experiencing the work of the Lord in our life.
We must find ways of making it spiritually real to us. We need to find ways of doing that. This is where the sacraments and spiritual disciplines come in—to awaken and stir the passions of our hearts toward God—to make us aware of His presence in our lives and help move the knowledge of the Lord (informational) to experiential and active in our daily lives.
What are the Spiritual Disciplines?
There are a number of spiritual disciplines used for varying purposes to help believers draw into God. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook has identified around fifty spiritual disciplines that she views as being helpful for believers.22
Now, I would not discount of scoff at the apparent over-abundance in number of these disciplines, for it all depends on the person and their circumstances and emotional and spiritual condition as to the particular set of spiritual disciplines they may find helpful. The purpose of these disciplines must always be held in view in order to determine the utility and usefulness for the believer. Please keep in mind, while we may not see a purpose for a particular discipline today, given the circumstances we may find a discipline that we previously saw no use for to be helpful.
Kenneth Boa, in his Handbook for Spiritual Growth, has identified about twelve to fifteen disciplines.23 For the sake of brevity, we will save detailed discussion of these for another article and only briefly discuss each of the disciplines from Boa’s list.
Solitude and Silence
Solitude is the most fundamental of the disciplines in that it moves us away, for a time, from the lures and aspirations of the world into the presence of the Father. In solitude, we remove ourselves from the influence of our peers and society and find the solace of anonymity. In this cloister we discover a place of strength, dependence, reflection, and renewal and we confront inner patterns and forces that are alien to the life of Christ within us.
Silence is a catalyst of solitude; it prepares the way for inner seclusion and enables us to listen to the quiet voice of the Spirit. Few of us have experienced real silence, and most people would find it to be quite uncomfortable at first. Silence is totally at odds with the din of our culture and the popular addiction to noise and hubbub. This discipline relates not only to finding places of silence in our surroundings, but also times of restricted speech in the presence of others.
As we move up the Teresian ladder toward spiritual maturity, silence becomes the earmark of the mature believer as their prayer time is spent mostly in silence.
Prayer is personal communion and dialogue with the living God. Seen from a biblical perspective, prayer is an opportunity and a privilege rather than a burden or a duty. It is the meeting place where we draw near to God to receive His grace, to release our burdens and fears, and to get honest with the Lord. Prayer should not be limited to structured times but should also become an on-going dialogue with God as we practice His presence in the context of our daily activities.
Many have found that keeping a spiritual diary heightens their understanding of the unique process of spiritual formation through which God has been taking them. By recording our insights, feelings, and the stream of our experiences, we clarify the progress of our spiritual journey. This discipline relates closely to those of prayer, meditation, and study; journaling enhances personal reflection, encourages us to record perspectives we have received from Scripture, and serves as another form of prayer.
Study and Meditation
The discipline of study is central to the whole process of renewing the mind in such a way that we can respond in appropriate ways to the truths of God’s Word. Study of Scripture involves not only reading, but active involvement in observation, interpretation, and application of its contents. This discipline also includes devotional reflection on the beauties and intricacies of nature as well as exposure to gifted writers and teachers in the past and in the present.
Meditation is a close relative of the disciplines of prayer and study, and it also depends on the disciplines of solitude and silence. Meditation has become such a lost art in the West that we typically associate it with Eastern religions. Far from emptying the mind, however, biblical meditation focuses the mind on the nuances of revealed truth. To meditate on the Word is to take the time to ruminate and ponder a verse or a passage from Scripture so that its truth can become more real and sink more deeply into our being.
Fasting and Chastity
The spiritual discipline of fasting is abstention from physical nourishment for the purpose of spiritual sustenance. This difficult discipline requires practice before it can be effective, since it is not natural for us to pursue self-denial. There are different methods and degrees of fasting, but all of them promote self-control and reveal the degree to which we are ruled by our bodily appetites. Fasting can also consist of abstention from other things that can control us, such as television and other forms of entertainment.
The discipline of chastity is relevant to all believers, whether single or married. This discipline recognizes that the sexual appetite is a legitimate part of our natures, but it encourages us to resist the painful consequences of improper feelings, fantasies, obsessions, and relations that are so frequently reinforced in our culture. Chastity elevates loving concern for the good of others above personal gratification.
The practice of secrecy is dependence on God alone for what should and should not be noticed by others. Secrecy is the opposite of grasping and self-promotion, since it teaches us to love anonymity and frees us from the bondage of the opinions of others. Secrecy is not a false humility, but a heartfelt desire to seek the praise and approval of God regardless of what people may think.
This discipline sets us free from the burden of hidden sin, but it requires transparency and vulnerability in the presence of one or more people whom we implicitly trust. When we uncover and name our secrets, failures, and weaknesses, they lose their dominion by virtue of being exposed. Sadly, we are generally more concerned about the disapproval of people whom we can see than we are about the disapproval of God whom we cannot see, and this is what makes repentance and confession before others so difficult.
For some people, the enjoyment of community is not a discipline, but a delight. But there are many in our individualistic culture who are more inclined toward autonomy and independence than to body life. For them, a willingness to actively seek mutual encouragement and edification is a discipline that will eventually pay dividends through regular exposure to a diversity of natural and spiritual gifts. We will discuss and develop the discipline of community in the section on corporate spirituality. There we will see that our experience with God is mediated through the body of Christ, and that koinonia (communion, fellowship, close relationship, association) with other believers plays an essential role in our spiritual formation. This dynamic of fellowship should not be trivialized by reducing it to “punch and cookies” or “potluck suppers.”
Submission and Guidance
The discipline of voluntary submission to others as an expression of our submission to Christ is based upon the biblical mandate for us to seek the good of others rather than our own rights. Mutual subordination and servanthood frees us from having to be in control and to have things go our own way. By imitating Christ in this discipline of self-denial, we become increasingly concerned with the needs of others.
Paul says, “Be imitators of me, [Corinthians,] as I am of Christ.” We are supposed to be practicing the imitation of Christ. That’s part of our spiritual formation on a day-to-day basis.24
The discipline of guidance involves the recovery of the widely overlooked pursuit of spiritual direction. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness in the evangelical community of the need for seeking spiritual guidance through accountability to mentors whose credibility is established by experience and maturity. Guidance is also a corporate discipline in which a body of believers seeks a Spirit-directed unity.
Simplicity, Stewardship, and Sacrifice
These disciplines reinforce each other since they all relate to our attitude and use of the resources that have been placed at our disposal. The discipline of simplicity or frugality refers to a willingness to abstain from the use of these resources for our own gratification and aggrandizement. A mindset of simplicity helps us resist the cultural endorsement of extravagance and consumption that entices us away from gratitude, trust, and dependence upon the Lord. This discipline frees us from the multiplicity of fleshly desires and anxiety over trivial things, and it helps to deliver us from the bondage of financial debt.
The related discipline of stewardship encourages us to reflect on our lives as managers of the assets of Another. In addition to the usual trilogy of time, talent, and treasure, I also include the stewardship of the truth we have received as well as the relationships with which we have been entrusted. In this discipline, we periodically review the ways we have been investing these assets.
Sacrifice is a more radical discipline than simplicity in that it involves the occasional risk of giving up something we would use to meet our needs rather than our wants. This is a faith-building exercise that commits us to entrust ourselves to God’s care.
Worship and Celebration
To worship is to be fully occupied with the attributes of God—the majesty, beauty, and goodness of His person, powers, and perfections. For the individual, worship often involves devotional reflection on the person and work of Jesus Christ as our mediator to the Father. In a corporate setting, believers are united together in heart and mind to honor and extol the infinite and personal God. The discipline of worship expands our concept of who God is and what He has done.
Celebration focuses on all that God has done on our behalf. It is the discipline of choosing gratitude rather than grumbling and remembrance rather than indifference. When we celebrate, we review and relive the history of God’s blessings, and this stimulates a renewed sense of devotion. Celebration, whether individual or corporate, is taking pleasure, amazement, and joy in how good God has been to us in specific ways and times. To revel in God’s goodness is to gain a new sense of perspective.
The discipline of service does not call attention to itself but to the needs and concerns of others. True service does not look for recognition but is borne out of love for Jesus and a desire to follow Him in “washing the feet” of the saints. In this discipline, we take on roles that are passed over and that do not call attention to ourselves; we steadfastly refuse to live for appearance and recognition, choosing instead to show kindness, courtesy, sensitivity, and concern for people who are often overlooked.
The reason many believers are not involved in evangelism is that they do not see it as a discipline that requires a corresponding lifestyle. To witness is to choose to go beyond our circle of believing friends and to walk dependently in the power of the Spirit as we invest in relationships with those who have not yet met Christ. The discipline of witness takes seriously the biblical mandate of bearing witness to Jesus by building non-manipulative relationships with eternity in view.25
For many evangelicals, witness and evangelism has become the mark of spiritual maturity. If a believer is witnessing and leading people to Christ, then it is assumed they are spiritually mature. However, statistics do not support this claim; therefore, spiritual maturity and witness and evangelism must be viewed as entirely separate aspects of the Christian life. While witness most certainly contributes toward our experience of God and can promote spiritual maturity, it in and of itself, is not an indicator of spiritual maturity.
Meaningful changed does not happen in a person’s life by accident and God rejects neglect and half-hearted efforts but rewards us when we seek Him with our whole hearts. Through consistent practice and application of the disciplines we open ourselves to receive from God in ways we otherwise would not make available to Him and we experience God in deep and meaningful ways leading to transformation in our lives.
- Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1988), page ix.
- Ben Witherington III, PD211 Christian Life from a Kingdom Perspective, Logos Mobile Education (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017).
- Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991), 20–21.
- Witherington III, PD211 Christian Life from a Kingdom Perspective.
- See 1 Clement 29:1; 32:2. Also, A. Sheir-Jones, “Sanctification,” ed. Martin Davie et al., New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (London; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press; InterVarsity Press, 2016), 805.
- Shepherd of Hermes, Mandates 8:9; 2:4.
- John H. Coe, “Approaches to the Study of Christian Spirituality,” ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 34.
- John M’Clintock and James Strong, “Passionālè,” Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1894), 732.
- Coe, 39.
- Thomas Keating, “The Four You’s,” Contemplative Outreach 23, no. 2 (June 2008): 1–2.
- According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: The Carmelite Order, newadvent.org, the Carmelites, formally known as the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel (Latin: Ordo Fratrum Beatissimæ Virginis Mariæ de Monte Carmelo) or sometimes simply as Carmel by synecdoche, is a Roman Catholic mendicant-religious order for men founded, probably in the 12th century, on Mount Carmel in Palestine in the Crusader States, hence the name Carmelites. However, historical records about its origin remain very uncertain. Evan B. Howard, A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation: How Scripture, Spirit, Community, and Mission Shape Our Souls (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2018), 90-91.
- Nathan P. Feldmeth, Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 130–131.
- Teresa of Avila, Complete Works of St. Teresa of Avila, vol. 1 (New York: Continuum International, 2002).
- S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1946), 96-97.
- The concept of human motivation and unresolved emotional needs and attachments are discussed in my earlier article titled, The Question of Motive: https://timmcmillian.com/2019/10/06/the-question-of-motive/
- Thomas Dubay, Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel—On Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 83.
- Kieran Kavanaugh, “Introduction,” in Teresa of Avila: The Interior Castle, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979), 14.
- Teresa of Avila, Teresa of Avila: The Interior Castle, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979), 85.
- David G. Benner, Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012), 67.
- Witherington III, PD211 Christian Life from a Kingdom Perspective.
- Lewis Allen, The Preacher’s Catechism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 180 in Tim Chester, Truth We Can Touch: How Baptism and Communion Shape Our Lives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 14–15.
- Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2009).
- Kenneth Boa, Handbook to Spiritual Growth: Twelve Facets of the Spiritual Life (Atlanta, GA: Trinity House Publishers, Inc., 2008), 67–73.
- Witherington III, PD211 Christian Life from a Kingdom Perspective.
- Boa, 67–73.