Recently someone posted and asked which aids I would suggest for Spiritual Growth and Formation in my personal life. In this post, I endeavour to give a few resources that I have read repeatedly to align my posture in my devotional time with God. It is in no way a very exhaustive list but I think these few books might give you an indication to allow the sovereign God to guide, commune and direct you. Allow me to just say that I read with a different intention when I read “devotionally” than when I read “theologically.” This is not to say that my head is detached from my heart; but rather my intention is attuned to achieve different results. What I have done is to give a provocative description of each title and then to describe very concisely the author’s intent followed with a quote. I will try to keep it into a sequential flow so, here we go!
“When the heart waits” from author Sue Monk Kidd was probably the most definitive book I read in 1992. In a pragmatic society where we want a “quick fix” Christianity she cautions us to rather go the “long way around” and allow God to take us through the complete process in our transformation. In the Preface she writes; “You’ll find me talking a lot about waiting, for in many ways waiting is the missing link in the transformation process. I’m not referring to waiting as we’re accustomed to it, but waiting as the passionate and contemplative crucible in which new life and spiritual wholeness can be birthed” (Pg.ix).
The very first reading given to me when I came to the realization of Christ’s drawing power was the Augustinian Monk Thomas A Kempis’s book “The Imitation of Christ” [De Imitatione Christi] (1380-1471 A.D). Thomas calls for a radical reflection on our intentions for our devotions. In Chapter 42 he reminisce about Christ giving instructions to His Disciple when He says; “Some carry their devotion only in books, pictures, and other visible signs and representations. Some have Me on their lips, but seldom in their hearts. (Isa. 29:13) There are others who are enlightened in mind and pure in affection, who long always for the things of heaven. These listen with reluctance to worldly matters, and grudge even to serve their bodily needs…”
“My Utmost for His Highest” penned by the Scottish minister Oswald Chambers (Born. July 24, 1874, Died. November 15, 1917) is a reading that cuts to the core and totally dismantles our legalistic religiosity that always wants to affirm our own greatness because of our own giftedness. A salvation through works empties the work of Christ, which makes it no salvation at all! Oswald writes: “We tend to say that because a person has natural ability, he will make a good Christian. It is not a matter of our equipment, but a matter of our poverty; not of what we bring with us, but of what God puts into us; not a matter of natural virtues, of strength of character, of knowledge, or of experience— all of that is of no avail in this concern.” “The most important aspect of Christianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain and the surrounding influence and qualities produced by that relationship. That is all God asks us to give our attention to, and it is the one thing that is continually under attack.” (August 4 Reading).
François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (Born: August 6, 1651, Died. January 7, 1715). In his book “The Seeking Heart” he writes about the cross that we need to bear as followers of Christ. He says; “God prepares a cross for you that you must embrace without thought of self-preservation. The cross is painful. Accept the cross and you will find peace even in the middle of turmoil. Let me warn you that if you push the cross away, your circumstances will become twice as hard to bear. In the long run, the pain of resisting the cross is harder to live with than the cross itself. See God’s hand in the circumstances of your life. Do you want to experience true happiness? Submit yourself peacefully and simply to the will of God, and bear your sufferings without struggle. Nothing so shortens and soothes your pain as the spirit of non-resistance to your Lord. As wonderful as this sounds, it still may not stop you from bargaining with God. The hardest thing about suffering is not knowing how great it will be or how long it will last. You will be tempted to want to impose some limits to your suffering. No doubt you will want to control the intensity of your pain.” Francois concludes: “May the Lord deliver you from falling into an inner state in which the cross is not at work in you!” (Pg. 3-4). This is exactly what today’s “comfort Christianity” seeks to avoid!
The Author of “the Message” paraphrase Eugene H. Peterson is a giant in spiritual direction and had an incredible impact on my own thinking. In his book “A long obedience in the same direction” he mentions the ineptitude evident in Churches today where we sometimes fail to “do” Christianity. He writes; “Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying. And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time. It is the opposite of making plans that we demand that God put into effect, telling him both how and when to do it. That is not hoping in God but bullying God. “I pray to GOD-my life a prayer-and wait for what he’ll say and do. My life’s on the line before God, my Lord, waiting and watching till morning, waiting and watching till morning.” (Pg.144).
This is an incredible practical (and short) booklet “the Practice of the presence of God” written by Brother Lawrence (1611-1691) describing the practice of consistent prayer (1 Thes.5:17) through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. He writes, “we must continuously walk in God’s Spirit, since in the spirit-life not to advance is to fall back. But those who have the wind of the Holy Spirit in their souls glide ahead even while they sleep. If the vessel of our soul is still being tossed by winds or storms, we should wake the Lord Who has been resting with us all along, and He will swiftly calm the sea” (Pg.27). His friend Monsieur de Beaufort writes about Lawrence that he “insisted that, to be constantly aware of God’s presence, it is necessary to form the habit of continually talking with Him throughout each day. To think that we must abandon conversation with Him in order to deal with the world is erroneous. Instead, as we nourish our souls by seeing God in His exaltation, we will derive great joy at being His.” (Pg.8).
“Celebration of Discipline” written in 1978 by Quaker Richard J. Foster I would consider this the ‘magnum opus’ on the Devotional Disciplines. He writes that “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The Doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary Spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people” (Pg.1). When he mentions depth, he does not mean the mastery of different religion experiences. He writes; “The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us” (Pg.7).
“The way of the Pilgrim” (Written between 1861 with the liberation of the serfs) translated from Russian into English by R.M. French is probably the most interesting books that describes the journey of a “straretz” endeavouring to “pray without ceasing.” A Holy man encourages the pilgrim to “learn first to acquire the power of prayer and you will easily practice all the other virtues” (Pg.8) This leads the pilgrim to the ‘Jesus prayer’ which is simply repeated constantly by pronouncing the words “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner” as often until it becomes an exercise of breathing (Pg.9).
Brennan Manning (April 27, 1934 – April 12, 2013) is probably one of the most honest, raw and perplexed authors we had in our time. As an alcoholic, he brimmed with the assurance that he is simply the one loved by God. In his book “Abba’s Child” Manning writes, “God loves who we really are-whether we like it or not. God calls us, as He did Adam, to come out of hiding. No amount of spiritual makeup can render us more presentable to him” (Pg.22). He affirms that “What makes the Kingdom come is heartfelt compassion: a way of tenderness that knows no frontiers, no labels, no compartmentalization, and no sectarian decisions. Jesus, the human Face of God, invites us to deep reflection on the nature of true discipleship and the radical lifestyle of Abba’s child” (Pg.76).
Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon (Madame Guyon) (Born, 18 April 1648, Died, 6 – 9 June 1717) was a French Quietist who tried to share her incredible insight pertaining to prayer and the experience of Jesus Christ. From her I have learnt to “pray the Scripture.” In her book “Experiencing the depth of Jesus Christ“ She writes, “Praying the Scripture” is a unique way of dealing with the Scripture; it involves both the reading and prayer.” (Pg.7). She makes it clear that “Praying scripture is not judged by how much you read but by the way in which you read. If you read quickly, it will benefit you little. You will be like a bee that merely skims the surface of a flower. Instead, in this new way of reading with prayer, you must become as the bee that penetrates into the depths of the flower. You plunge deeply within to remove its deepest nectar.” (Pg.8).
In Dr Dallas Willard’s (Born, September 04, 1935 – Died, May 08, 2013), book “the Spirit of the Disciplines” he makes it emphatically clear 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” (Pg. xii). The pursuit of the book then takes us to these styles of life Christ engaged in when he writes; “solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, intense study and meditation upon God’s Word and God’s ways, and service to others” (Pg. xii).
Henry J.M. Nouwen (Born: January 24, 1932, Died: September 21, 1996) was one of the most lucid authors of our generation and he had an ability to verbalize in written form exactly what the heart was yearning to say. In his classic book “The Return of the Prodigal Son” he relates his own struggle to live where God dwells. He writes, “The invitation is clear and unambiguous. To make my home where God had made his, this is the great spiritual challenge. It seemed an impossible task: With my thoughts, feelings, emotions, and passions, I was constantly away from the place where God had chosen to make home. Coming home and staying there where God dwells, listening to the voice of truth and love, that was, indeed, the journey I most feared because I knew that God was a jealous lover who wanted every part of me all the time. When would I be ready to accept that kind of love? God himself showed me the way.”
“The Sayings of the Desert Fathers” translated with a foreword by Benedicta Ward relates the early Fathers of the Fourth century that “escaped the world into the desert.” In the desert, these Christians could live as contemplatives in simplicity and prayer. Through stories that carried great wisdom and insight these fathers related spiritual truths. Here is an example: “There’s a legend that years ago the devil was crossing the Libyan desert. While traveling, he came upon a group of his demons trying to tempt a holy hermit. The man had withdrawn from society to live a pious, upright life in the desert. The demons were doing their best to get him to fall. Each tried their best temptation. One tempted him with seductions to satisfy his body. The holy man didn’t flinch. Another whispered to him that all of this devotion to God was wasted, that no one would ever know about it. He was unmoved. After the devil watched, he said to his demons, “When you’re dealing with a really holy man, ordinary temptations just won’t work.” Then the devil went to the pious saint and whispered in his ear, “Did you know your best friend was just made bishop of Alexandria?” According to the legend, a look of foul envy crossed the holy man’s face.”
During a train trip from Chicago to Texas in the late 1940s, A.W. Tozer (Born: April 21, 1897, Died: May 12, 1963) began to write ‘The Pursuit of God”. He wrote all night, and when the train arrived at his destination, the rough draft was done. The depth of this book has made it an enduring favourite. When reflecting on the cross we pursue and our sinfulness he writes, “Self is the opaque veil that hides the Face of God from us. It can be removed only in spiritual experience, never by mere instruction. As well try to instruct leprosy out of our system. There must be a work of God in destruction before we are free. We must invite the cross to do its deadly work within us. We must bring our self-sins to the cross for judgment. We must prepare ourselves for an ordeal of suffering in some measure like that through which our Saviour passed when He suffered under Pontius Pilate…. Let us beware of tinkering with our inner life in hope ourselves to rend the veil. God must do everything for us. Our part is to yield and trust. We must confess, forsake, repudiate the self-life, and then reckon it crucified. But we must be careful to distinguish lazy `acceptance’ from the real work of God. We must insist upon the work being done. We dare not rest content with a neat doctrine of self-crucifixion. That is to imitate Saul and spare the best of the sheep and the oxen… Insist that the work be done in very truth and it will be done. The cross is rough, and it is deadly, but it is effective. It does not keep its victim hanging there forever. There comes a moment when its work is finished and the suffering victim dies. After that is resurrection glory and power, and the pain is forgotten for joy that the veil is taken away and we have entered in actual spiritual experience the Presence of the living God” (Pg. 45-47).”
C.S. Lewis (Born: November 29, 1898, Died: November 22, 1963) died the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and there is no doubt that he was one of the previous age’s most prolific authors and thinkers. In his book “the Screwtape letters” he depicts a behind the scene look at how the devil and his cohorts operate. The reason I put this under devotional reading is because I think the successful spiritual life is always aware of the forces around us and above us and need to calculate for their influence. Lewis tells how they think when Wormwood mentions: “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (Pg.56).
I conclude this article with a bit of frustration, obviously there is still so many books that could still be mentioned but I tried to keep it contemporary and also accessible to the readers of this blog.
Hope you enjoy
Rudolph P. Boshoff.