Book Review: Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun
I started my journey with Jesus when I was in junior high. I learned that I should read my Bible and pray.
I had no idea how to do it, and to be truthful, there were times when I had no idea why I needed to make time for it.
When other more interesting things came along my path, they were the first things to go.
But if we want a sustainable, growing, and vibrant faith, that’s not the way there. Not as a lifestyle.
Growth requires discipline.
And not just when we feel like it, but especially when we don’t.
There is good news, however, and that’s this: there are many ways to meet with God.
That’s what the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun is all about. It is a treasure trove of over 60 spiritual disciplines, centered around seven God-given desires:
Opening myself to God,
Relinquishing the false self,
Sharing my life with others,
Hearing God’s Word,
Incarnating the love of Christ, and
Each discipline is introduced with a summary chart detailing the desire behind the discipline, a simple definition, Scriptural references, practical ideas, and the fruit of the discipline. Then follows a short explanation, reflection questions, more detailed spiritual exercises and additional resources for you to explore if you need it.
Fifteen years ago, I was in bad shape. I was burned out, and I needed help.
This book had just hit the shelves, and I immediately picked up a copy at the recommendation of a mentor.
Since I purchased it, I have turned to it over and over when my spiritual life flagged or I needed a fresh way to meet with the Lord. I have recommended it to many friends through the years.
And I’d love to share it with you too.
Basic Premise: Many of us read Jesus’ invitation to the weary in Matthew 11:28-30 and long for the rest He offers. But rest is not merely a relaxing day on the beach doing nothing.
It is an invitation to learn.
Eugene Peterson, translates this passage in The Message this way:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (emphasis mine)
Isn’t that beautiful?
And that is exactly what this book is all about: learning the unforced rhythms of grace by keeping company with Him throughout your day.
Within each of us is the longing for this transformation. It can get hidden under the busyness and the fast tempo of our days, but that desire is there.
When it is ignored or unfed, there are consequences. It never really disappears. It just shows up in an ugly form.
So how does the invitation of Christ and the longing of our hearts intersect?
Through spiritual disciplines.
The author makes it clear that “[w]illpower and discipline alone can never fix your soul. Striving, pushing and trying harder will not recover your life. Unforced rhythms of grace depend on something more than self-mastery and self-effort.”
So how do we integrate spiritual disciplines into our lives in a healthy way that will benefit our souls and spirits? Let me share a few thoughts from the book.
A desire to work with and watch Jesus is the starting point of transformation.
“The simple truth is that wanting to keep company with Jesus has a staying power that ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ seldom have. Jesus wants us to recognize that hidden in our desperations and desires is an appetite for the Lord and Giver of life,” Calhoun writes in her introduction (p. 16).
Over and over, Jesus asks “What do you want?” in some form or another (John 1:37, Matt. 20: 32; John 5:6).
Some wanted healing from leprosy (Mark 1:40). Some wanted to learn how to pray (Luke 11:1). Some wanted power (Matt. 20:21). Some even wanted Jesus to leave (Matt. 8:34).
Even if these desires are misguided or unhealthy, when brought to Him honestly, the doors are opened for relationship.
But as they turned to Him, He willingly met them in their need. As He interacted with them, He helped them both learn something about the nature of their desire as well as gave them a practice to go with it—a prayer to say (Luke 11:1), a practice to engage in (Luke 10:41-42), a sin to confess (Mark 10:21).
Action: Consider what it is that you want. How would you answer Jesus’ question? Would you take that to Him and learn from Him?
We partner with God in our transformation.
With our earnest desire for God comes a responsibility to participate with Him in it. He is not a genie who will grant your wish by waving a wand.
Throughout the history of the church, various traditions have emerged to help believers walk with God in the process of the transformation we long for.
These disciplines “give the Holy Spirit space to brood over our souls.” (p. 19) He “knows the spiritual practices, relationships and experiences that best suit our unique communion with God. He knows how to help us move into the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ that Jesus offers to teach us.”
This space is not always a comfortable place to be. We can wait and long for Him, but sometimes nothing happens.
But we do not practice disciplines to get something from Him or to earn brownie points. We do it so that we keep company with Him.
They give us a way to keep ourselves in His presence. In His time, He will change us as we spend time with Him.
Action: As you select a discipline to work on, remember that the end goal is not merely the practice of the discipline but an opportunity to create the space to interact with God. That is what transforms us.
When you are tempted to flag or when “nothing happens,” honestly share that with the Lord—and keep moving forward with it faithfully in trust. That is our part. The changing is His part—and He will do it in His time.
Worship is the ultimate aim of the disciplines.
Take a look at the list of the seven God-given desires above. Together, they form the acronym WORSHIP.
While there are many ways to categorize the disciplines, the author believes that “the root of all desire stems from our innate need to open our lives to God in worship.” (p. 19) She goes on to say:
“Worship is not something we work up or go to on Sunday morning. Worship is every discipline’s end game! We miss the point and endanger our souls when we think of spiritual disciplines as ends in themselves. Spiritual practices exist to open us into God. They are never the ‘be all and end all’ of discipleship. The ‘be all and end all’ is a loving trust of and obedience to the God who is within us yet beyond us and our very best efforts.”
In short, when we make time and space for God through the disciplines, we are opening up our lives for worship through our body, soul, mind, and strength. In a day and age where we are running ourselves ragged, these disciplines give us the space we need to refuel our spirits with the much-needed life of the Spirit.
Action: Do you practice disciplines to get something from God? Or do you practice them to get to know God and worship Him? As mentioned earlier, our motives will impact how long we stick with the disciplines.
When I create a rhythm of life with these disciplines (a discipline in itself—see page 35 of the book!), we maintain a more continual connection with God so that we are not just getting a $5 shot of gas so we can get home.
It allows us to live a life of worship in a variety of different ways, even as we go about the ordinary.
In this way, we can keep company with Jesus and learn from Him through the nooks and crannies of life.
How This Book Changed Me: This book is not one to read through but one to prayerfully work through. It is a book that calls us to action.
It has changed how I viewed disciplines. For someone who can be rather works-oriented, it helped me to put the disciplines into perspective.
It also opened my eyes to the wide variety of disciplines. It’s so easy to get into a rut with the same old routine.
There were some disciplines in the book that I didn’t even think were disciplines, like unplugging from electronics, self-care, or hospitality. Some were brand new, like the examen, detachment, or fixed-hour prayer. With this book, I began to see there were so many ways to connect with my Father.
Even within the disciplines of Bible reading and prayer, there are many ways and types, which added variety and flavor to my walk with God, giving me more ways to meet with Him.
Should You Read This Book? If you are uncomfortable with the more mystical aspects of church tradition, you may wish to skip over those and stick with those that are a bit more traditional.
On the whole, I did not find a lot that was too suspect. I would consider myself pretty conservative in my beliefs, but I still found this book very helpful. I wouldn’t throw the whole thing out because of a few questionable suggestions.
Remember: the bottom line is about worship. And there are many ways to worship Him. I encourage you to browse through the book to find the one(s) that you feel comfortable with and give them a try.
Bottom Line: The ultimate goal is to worship the Lord. In our busy world, it is so easy to get distracted.
Learning to thoughtfully consider our heart’s desires before Him and practice a discipline that allows us to connect in a way that is meaningful to us allows us to participate in that transformation into Christlikeness as we go about our daily lives.
May this book become a resource that helps you to find practical ways to become more like Jesus and worship Him as you do so.