Friday, January 29, 2021

Cultivating the inner life

Last week, Andy Robinson wrote this excellent post, which I encourage you to read in full.  Drawing on Lloyd-Jones and his wartime experience, Andy points out that Christians have resources to endure difficult situations with joy - resources which are not available to others.  However, we often find, and perhaps have found in the last year, that we find it difficult to draw on those resources; our reactions to Covid and lockdown have perhaps not been as different from those of our unbelieving neighbours as we would like.  Andy speculates:

I have a small suspicion that the last few months have flagged up our (my?) neglect of the inner life for the Christian in favour of activism, a reliance on events and so forth.

I wonder.  For me, I think it hasn't been activism that has led to the neglect of the inner life (a charge which I will make no attempt to evade), but an over-reaction to a way of thinking about the life of faith which is deeply individualistic, perhaps even introspective.  The evangelicalism of my student years laid great emphasis on the quiet time, individual prayer, one-man-and-his-Bible religion.  Over the years I've come to think that actually public worship, the sacraments, and the community of the church are the main helps in the spiritual life, and that personal piety ought to derive from the corporate life of worship.  That is to say, the church comes first, and the individual second; preaching first, private reading second; the Eucharist first, private spiritual nourishment second; the Lord's Prayer in the sanctuary first, private prayer second.

Look, I'm not about to recant my journey over the last couple of decades.  I'm confident that the Scriptures teach and display this order to the spiritual life.  I think it's right.

But, as is often the case, I've probably swung the pendulum too far the other way.  Just because something is second, does that make it unimportant?  Surely not!  The relative deprivation that we've endured when it comes to public worship and church community over the last year has really highlighted what should have been obvious all along: personal prayer, personal Scripture reading, personal spiritual disciplines matter.  They matter hugely.  We are called to live out of the resources offered to us in Christ - which means first and foremost, by the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And that requires the word, it requires prayer.

I am glad that quite a few years ago now I took the decision that I was going to say Morning Prayer every day.  I do that now pretty much automatically, so much a part of my routine that I can't really face the day without it.  But that discipline of reading and prayer is so valuable.  I don't make as much of it as I could and should, but it is there.  I am grateful that the Lord got me into that habit before this time struck.  If you're not in the habit of regular reading and prayer, can I commend it to you?  For me, the liturgical form of Morning Prayer helps me to get started before the coffee has kicked in and I can think independently about what I should be praying!

A word about the attitude with which we ought to approach our reading and prayer.  A great hindrance to this cultivation of the inner life, it seems to me, is that we are taught by the culture of the world that rest means passivity (which is to say, for the most part, television), and we are often taught by the culture of the church that Scripture reading in particular means activity (which is to say, for the most part, a comprehension exercise).  One of the things I love about the Morning Prayer service is that there is simply too much Scripture for it to turn into a Bible study.  It is, in fact, a model of receptivity rather than passivity or activity.  Just to receive the words, just to hear the Lord; that is enough.  There will be times for grappling with meanings and chasing down applications; but first thing in the morning is probably not that time.  Cultivating the inner life, for me at least, has meant primarily cultivating the open ear.

Anyone else got thoughts on how we balance the corporate and individual when it comes to the spiritual life?  Tips for devotional reading or prayer that might help us?

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