The Spiritual Side of Change

The Spiritual Side of Change

Spirituality will either help, or hinder, the process of change.  How it effects the change process is complex. Answers vary widely according to the perspective of the person giving the answer. (Just Google “Spirituality and Change” to see what I mean.) So as I begin to address this question I should first of all identify my assumptions.

Assumption #1: Every person is a spiritual being. We all have a spiritual nature. For some, this is acknowledged and well developed. In others, the spiritual dimension of his/her life appears to lay dormant. Call it what you will, the imago dei, the human spirit, creative urge, etc. We are all spiritual beings.

Assumption #2: There is a God who is Personal, Knowable, and has Revealed Himself to us. Yes, I am a Christian. I say this not in a dogmatic “I’m right you’re wrong manner,” but as a statement of my faith and my identity.

Assumption #3: Every person either embraces his or her own spirituality, or rejects it. The theory of social constructivism tells is that we are all products of our environment. Part, of the answer to why some are more “spiritually in tune” than others is that it has been fostered within her or his life and reinforced by events, choices, and behaviors.

Assumption #4: Everything we do either contributes to our spiritual growth or detracts. My doctoral studies focused on how we grow spiritually. One of the fundamental principles of spiritual formation is that everything we do shapes us, either positively or negatively. So from that perspective we are always changing. When a person chooses to act in a manner consistent with his or her peers, there is a willing participation in allowing that behavior to shape them…either positively or negatively.

What does all this mean?

So how does spirituality facilitate the process of change? Since the topic is so broad, a few general statements will have to do.

First. Change is evitable, but growth is optional. How do you define what it means to be healthy? Part of the challenge of change is knowing what kind of change to strive for. What does it really mean to be healthy? Many people simply want the pain of life to stop but lack a clear sense of direction in life. I define health in terms of wholeness. I conceptualize that wholeness in terms of five core dimensions: Mental, Emotional, Physical, Social, and Spiritual (MEPSS). Growth demands a plan to address each of those five areas with specific goals in mind of what I want to accomplish. Do you have a plan for what you want your life to look like? Is it holistic, in the sense that it addresses more than just problem solving strategies?

Second. Positive change is not automatic. Being intentional is essential. One of my professors in my undergraduate program used to talk about the man who “jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions.”  Without a map, without a goal, we have no criteria by which to judge whether our behavior is healthy and constructive or destructive. Remember everything you do either contributes to your spiritual well being, or detracts from it. Closely related to this is what determines your map. For the Christian, the Bible serves as the final arbiter of Truth. Admittedly, interpretations of what this means in everyday life are legion. The point is…we need a map we can trust.

Third. Fostering the spiritual dimension gives is that sense of direction. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, wrote of four tests to help determine what was genuinely true. To verify something as true and good it must be Scriptural. Secondly, it must have historical precedent. If you are the first person in the history of the Judean-Christian belief system to come up with this idea…check your facts. Third, it must reflect sound reason. And lastly, does it feel right, or does our experience back it up? Unfortunately, in our culture, experience has taken the lead for many in terms of determining truth. In our postmodern world, we tend to look within first, and often ignore the other possible tests of truth.  But here’s the challenge. If we have a Scriptural, historically based, reasonable grasp of what we believe to be the right way to live our lives, and if experience backs that up (that it feels right in our hearts) we have a good map.

Spiritual exercises for growth:

There are numerous ways to respond to this topic as well, so I must be brief.

The classic spiritual disciplines have been around for centuries for a reason. They produce results. Dallas Willard’s writings remind us that those disciplines are not things we do to try to convince God that we are good and that He should therefore give us what we want. Rather, they are formative. He uses the analogy of the surgeon who practices sewing sutures, or the athlete who practices his or her craft until they can do what they do as a natural motion.  Peyton Manning has felt the football in his hand so many times he does not have to stop and think, “Now how do I hold this ball so that I can through a perfect pass?” It comes naturally. When we practice the spiritual disciplines consistently, so too does our Christian living. That brings a certain degree of peace and comfort to the struggles of life. That helps bring clarity to our sense of direction and gives us a purpose. Within that type of life we find security. Willard writes about living life in one direction…the mental, emotional, physical, social and spiritual aspects of our lives directed toward one single purpose. That is focus; that is health. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about Level One and Level Two thinking (Blink). Level Two thinking is the automatic thinking that occurs when something becomes second nature. This is what Dallas Willard is writing about with regard to the value of consistent practice of the spiritual disciplines.

The very mention of Mindfulness practices strikes fear in the hearts and minds of many Christian because of its eastern roots. Not to fear my friends. Mindfulness has deep roots in Christian literature as well. Increasing our awareness, meditating on Scripture, dwelling in God’s presence in a spiritual sense, are all examples of mindful practices. (Read the classic The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence for a primer on Christian mindfulness.) A multitude of studies have demonstrated health benefits to mindfulness practices. Check out the writing of Jon Kabat-Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living) or Alan Marlatt’s work on Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (www.mindfulrp.com/) for more information on the value of mindfulness from a mental health perspective.

We’ve only just scratched the surface of this topic. More to come.

See you soon.

Tim Barber LPCC-S, CSAT-S, NCC

 

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