Spiritual practices (like prayer, sabbath, silence, and solitude) have fundamental significance for the practice of ministry. But perhaps not in the way we’re accustomed to thinking about it. It seems we primarily imagine spiritual practices as ways in which we can experience God. They are primarily a tool we employ to foster an encounter with God. And while we may indeed have significant experiences with God in and through spiritual practices, I think we may be putting the cart before the horse.
Spiritual practices can become just another thing we do, another compulsion of life from the felt need to do something spiritual. I remember when I was in high school. The thing good Christians were supposed to do was to have “devotional time”—time (usually in the morning) that was dedicated to the reading of scripture with the expectation of meeting and hearing from God. Either out of some spark of spiritual maturity or out of some form of frustration (not sure which one), I decided to give up my devotional times for a while. I decided that it would actually be better for my relationship with God if I just quit pressuring myself to be more spiritual. I was quitting devotionals for Jesus. I remember telling my youth pastor and getting a strange look. “You’re giving up your devotional time!? …for Jesus!?!?”
My devotional time, that spiritual practice, had become such an obligation and an expectation. I was trying so hard to create an encounter with God and I was apparently failing. It rarely felt like God was there or speaking to me in those pages. The real problem was that I was missing the point of spiritual practice altogether. I thought that the terms for spiritual practice were set by my own action, my own ability to create an experience of God. I missed that the importance of spiritual practice is not in what humans do, not in the practices themselves, but in the action of God toward which they can orient us.
With my devotional time in high school, I was placing God’s action and the divine encounter on the wrong side of spiritual practice. I thought that the role of spiritual practice was to create a divine encounter, that divine action (if God had any agency at all) really was on the other side of my endeavor to be spiritual.
Human action is only secondary. God’s action is primary, and God’s action is saving action. The fact is, none of us can be our own savior. All human beings are subject to death. What we do, then, will never resolve death, it will never be able to produce an encounter with the living God who has taken death into God’s very self and turned it toward life. In Douglas John Hall’s words, “[death’s] resolution is only God’s possibility” (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, 214). It is only by God’s grace that we are met by God and it is only God’s action that can set the terms for our participation. We can never earn or create an encounter with God, all we can do is respond to it. So spiritual practices actually belong on the other side of the divine encounter. God always makes the first move and determines the shape and quality of our response.
But it doesn’t stop there. If we’ve determined that spiritual practices come out of the divine encounter, as a response to divine action and a receiving of God’s grace, we’ve yet to say where these spiritual practices lead us. Andrew Root writes “Our response…is not to harvest spiritual experiences like a religious consumer, but rather to be led by the Spirit to participate in Jesus’ own praxis.” (Root, Christopraxis, 93) The Spiritual practices ultimately lead to ministry. They are not meant to produce anything. Again, when spiritual practices are oriented toward productivity, they become just another human work and compulsion. But these practices are meant to allow God’s action to set the terms for our participation in ministry, thus the impulse of this spiritual response to the divine encounter will be ministry itself. As Henri Nouwen writes, “When we have found rest in God we can do nothing other than minister” (Nouwen, The Way of The Heart, 90).
The Spiritual practices become, in essence, the actions of inactivity. In this way, we might even be able to name my teenage action of refraining from devotionals for a season as a spiritual practice in and of itself, a practice which served to remind me that my relationship with God does not hinge on what I can and cannot do. Spiritual practices are ways in which God’s action is placed in the drivers’ seat. They remind us that ministry does not depend on us. When, through spiritual practices, we embrace the impossibility of our action to produce an encounter with God, and when we allow God’s action to set the terms for our participation in ministry, we may find the rest that Jesus was talking about when he said, “…you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).
Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PCUSA settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.