How to Grow Spiritually and Intellectually
Bulletin Roundtable Question
In this Bulletin Roundtable, our four contributors respond to the question: “What practices, habits, or disciplines have you found most helpful for growing spiritually and in your knowledge of the Christian worldview?”
As the son of a pastor, I grew up singing a simple children’s chorus in Sunday school and at Christian summer camp: “Read your Bible; pray every day; and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” It’s simple—but so true! These two disciplines—Scripture reading and prayer—have been so important to me over the years. And I have grown, grown, grown spiritually by remaining fairly steady in these practices.
As for Scripture, I have been reading through the Bible each year since high school. At certain points, I’ve taken time to focus on studying certain biblical books in greater depth, but I’ve pretty much stayed with this pattern and been nourished by it. And with Paul Gould, Scripture memory has been part of this practice. While I’ve memorized biblical books or passages like the Sermon on the Mount, I also make note of verses that stand out to me in my daily Bible reading. I then write these down for meditation and memorization.
In the remainder of this piece, I want to focus on prayer, noting a few “nuggets” that I have found helpful in shaping my prayer life.
Scripture first: I have found that praying after having read Scripture assists me in staying more focused. My mind tends to wander without having the Scriptures as the foundation for prayer. (I learned this from the example of George Mueller of Bristol.)
Scripture-praying: In addition to using Scripture to give substance to praying, we can carry this further by actually praying through Scripture texts. Of course, the Psalms are an excellent, obvious example for us, as the psalms were the prayer book of Jesus as well as for the church across the ages. Also, using Paul’s prayers in his epistles can serve as an additional guide as we work through our intercessory prayer list.
The Lord’s Prayer: Martin Luther used the Lord’s Prayer as the framework for his own prayer life. I think this too can be helpful in giving structure and focus to praying, and I have appropriated this over the years as well.
Hymnbook: While I was in college, I had the privilege of having breakfast with Oswald Sanders, author of the classic Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer. I asked him what he included in his own devotional time, and he said he always read and pondered a hymn before praying and Bible reading. He said that it helped him “warm up” his mind and his spirit, which can often be somewhat lethargic when we begin our day. Since then I too have regularly used a hymnbook to warm or awaken my heart as I enter into a time of prayer.
Praying together: In addition to individual prayer, my wife and I have truly entered into, enjoyed, and profited from our times together in prayer as we start our day. Whether in marriage or with a prayer partner or regular corporate prayer, praying together further strengthens commitment to Christ. For my wife and me, it has been a joy to see God at work both in us and through us as we pray.
“Pray until you pray: Those sturdy, practical Puritan divines recognized that prayer does not always flow easily, that it is a discipline. It’s easy to start out one’s prayer in a more rote manner, and the Puritan practitioners emphasized “praying through” the rote-ness and until one steps into a greater freedom and focus in prayer. Pray until you pray!
Articulate your prayers: We can avoid a lot of distraction if we simply articulate our prayers with our mouths—perhaps quietly, if there are others in the vicinity. This helps in keeping prayer more intentional and focused.
“Get to the kernel”: Back in 2016, I (along with fellow-apologist Mike Licona) had the joy of conversing with J. I. Packer, another author of a Christian classic, Knowing God. We talked with him about his prayer life. We assumed that Packer’s prayer life might be characterized by more thorough or elaborate prayers. However, he told us that he prayed terse prayers, trying to get to the “kernel” or “essence” of what he wanted to express before God. This too has been helpful for me ever since.
In addition to these, suggestions, I would mention two books that have been so instrumental in teaching me to pray and enriching my own prayer life:
A Diary of Private Prayer. This book by theologian John Baillie (who, incidentally, had been a professor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Union Seminary) is a rich treasure. My wife and I have used this old marvelous prayer book for over three decades, and it’s been a regular part of our daily family devotional times. This slim volume has a prayer for every morning and evening of the month—and a special one for Sunday. I prefer the older versions (here and here) that utilize King James language (yes, “thee” and “thou” throughout!); there is a more modern rendition with the pale blue cover that doesn’t capture the majesty of the earlier print versions.
The Divine Hours. This three-volume set by Phyllis Tickle has prayers for morning, noon, and night. It draws on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and appropriates prayers and Scripture readings that follow the church calendar. My family and I have, in more recent years, greatly profited from using this in our family devotional time. (Here is a link to volume one.)
I trust some of these suggestions will be helpful to you and deepen your prayer life as they have mine.
Paul M. Gould
One of the practices that I’ve found helpful in my spiritual growth is Scripture memory. While in college, as a new believer, I was handed a stack of “memory cards” and told to start memorizing Scripture. That made sense to me. God’s word is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). I thought that everyone who was a Christian memorized Scripture, and so I started too. The memory muscle, like normal muscles, needs to be developed. So, I started with some easy passages. “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) was one of my first to memorize, followed by 1 John 4:19: “We love because he first loved us.” Soon I was flipping through a stack of memory cards daily. God’s word was seeping into my bones. It was there in my mind and in my heart and it was changing me.
Since college, I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with memorizing Scripture. I now realize, unfortunately, that the habit of memorizing Scripture is not the norm for Christians. And I understand part of the reason: it is hard. But like most things that are hard, they are worth it in the end. I’m now “on-again” working through a couple of stacks of Scripture cards every morning as part of my devotional time. And I’ve benefitted immensely from this practice. In particular, just over two years ago I suffered a great loss in my life. During that time, I turned to God and to his word for comfort. I memorized a ton of Scripture on loss, faith, trust, and hope. Each day, I would cry out to God. I’d also meditate on his word, including reciting my memory passages. Over time I began to see my life from God’s perspective. And that perspective changes everything. (Passages I’ve committed to memory over the past two years on the topic of loss, faith, hope, and trust include Hebrews 10:23, Psalm 25:15, James 4:7-8, 1 Corinthians 16:13-14, Micah 7:8, 1 Timothy 4:8, Proverbs 3:5-6, Psalm 27:4-5, 13-14, Romans 8:28, Romans 15:13, Romans 12:12, 1 Peter 5:6-7, James 3:13, 3:17, Psalm 37:3-4, Psalm 94:18-19, and Lamentations 3:25-26, to name a few.)
Memorizing Scripture, like most spiritual disciplines, is not a silver bullet. Rather, it is one discipline, among many, that I’ve found helpful in my own faith journey. I commend it to you as a practice that will reap eternal dividends in your life.
The second part of this month’s question is connected to my first answer. Scripture memory, along with the regular study of God’s word, is probably the single most important discipline for developing a broadly Christian worldview too. I’d add to this my study of philosophy, which of course helps (it helps too, admittedly, that I teach on these topics—the best way to learn is often to teach on a topic). More broadly still, I’ve developed a Christian worldview by cultivating the habit of reading. I read around 50 books a year and try to read broadly: theology, philosophy, apologetics, and books on cultural issues. I don’t just read nonfiction either; it is very important to read fiction for the sheer enjoyment and pleasure of a good story, but also to learn about the hopes and longings of those in culture. So, do you want to develop a Christian worldview? Start with Scripture: read it, memorize it, study it, meditate on it. And then, read. Read widely. Read for enjoyment. Read to learn and discover. And then ask yourself how the truths you discover connect to and illuminate the divine.
For some time now I have been trying to sell a house, to no avail. This thing is like the sword of Damocles over my head, thorn in my flesh, and albatross around my neck all at once. Finally we got an offer on it, and I was relieved beyond words. But then the inspection was approaching, and it gave me a sinking feeling. It's an older house, and you just never know. Sure enough, suffice it to say, it was an unmitigated disaster, and now I'm back at square one. (Well, actually, that remains to be seen—I’m just expecting the worst, as is my wont.) As a philosopher I often desperately want to know the reasons behind things, yet two verses keep striking me as I find myself in a situation that doesn’t make any sense—all this time and energy devoted to selling a silly house, not working on my craft, reading good books, writing, binging Cobra Kai, but this.
One is the well-known verse that we are to trust God with all of our heart, and lean not on our own understanding. That’s from Proverbs, and the other is from Philippians: The peace of God that surpasses understanding will keep our heart and mind in Christ Jesus. This shared theme of the limitations of our understanding really struck me like a kick in the face from Daniel-san. (Okay, I haven’t foregone a little binging.) Embracing such limitations is not my forte. I suppose one way that life gives us a chance to go beyond our understanding is by landing us in situations that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t get our minds around, can’t make sense of. I really, truly don’t see how this house debacle is going to be redeemed. Just seems like such a horrible waste of money, time, and energy.
Regarding peace, I’ve also been remembering the promise that he will be kept in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on God. I admit, though, that if this is something of a test, I seem not to be faring very well. My imagination keeps indulging worst case scenarios. Then again, Marybeth joked with me this morning that, in anticipating something might go wrong at inspection, sometimes I have a freakish prescience about impending bad stuff—“if that’s any consolation,” she joked. Ah, sweet vindication!
A devotional practice of great value to me is listening each morning to readings from scripture—the OT, NT, Psalms, and Proverbs. All sorts of apps are available for such a thing. Three things in particular from doing this have been helping me in this trying circumstance. First, the Bible constantly reminds me that its characters find themselves in challenging, messy circumstances. God’s kingdom often makes its presence felt in the nitty gritty of life. Second, verses like those mentioned above challenge the assumptions I too easily accept without question, but that, on reflection, are eminently false. Third, recently I spent a lot of time in Job. The theme of innocent suffering was a minor theme in the OT—but Job was a big piece of that, as well as the suffering servant image of Isaiah 53. In the NT it becomes quite a major theme.
I’m no Job; as I confessed above, my confidence in God’s faithfulness is much too prone to waver. But it’s heartening to be reminded that suffering, even suffering that doesn’t make sense, is not beyond God’s power to redeem, often in mysterious ways that exceed our cognitive grasp. I’ve been praying for God to enlarge my capacities, and somehow to use this latest challenge to accomplish work within me that otherwise would not get done.
The following are a few miscellaneous observations on these topics.
About growing in one’s knowledge of the Christian worldview, it’s a great blessing that so many easily accessible resources are available today. When I was studying apologetics in college in the nineties, there were books and occasionally VHS tapes and audio cassettes that had to be ordered through postal mail. Today, we have nearly the opposite problem—an overwhelming number of resources that can feel paralyzing. In that light, it’s helpful to find a few trusted resources and follow those rather than trying to stay current with a dozen or more.
My fellow contributors have mentioned the importance of reading, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Unfortunately, everything around you will often conspire to prevent you from reading. As Bertrand Russell once said about philosophy, reading appears to “bake no bread.” You yourself, and perhaps those around you, may be tempted to view reading as an interruption to productivity or an obstacle to accomplishing something of real value. So, we often have to be zealous about setting aside time for reading. Though in our day some will interpret reading as a waste of one’s time, there are few activities that provide more of a return on your investment of time and energy (assuming you’re reading edifying material). As one Christian writer has noted, your ability to help someone will often depend on how much you’ve read.
Concerning understanding and defending the Christian worldview, I’ve found inspiration in the following two quotations, one from Erasmus and the other from C. S. Lewis.
"It was not for empty fame or childish pleasure that in my youth I grasped at the polite literature of the ancients, and by late hours gained some slight mastery of Greek and Latin. It has been my cherished wish to cleanse the Lord’s temple of barbarous ignorance, and to adorn it with treasures brought from afar, such as may kindle in hearts a warm love for the Scriptures."
— Erasmus, Enchiridion militis Christiani (1501)
“To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
— C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 58.
In terms of spiritual growth, I have found it helpful this year to read through portions of systematic theology books for my devotional times. That may sound ostentatious, but it’s a great way to work through, in a comprehensive way, what Scripture says on a number of important theological topics (God, man, salvation, etc.). Along the way you also learn about important theological debates and events in church history. A few good evangelical treatments (among others) include Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Millard Erickson), Systematic Theology (Wayne Grudem; soon to be released in a second edition), and Evangelical Theology (Michael Bird; also coming out in a second edition). Reading these with Bible software (Logos, Accordance, etc.) brings the added benefit of only having to hover over a Scripture reference in order to read it, which saves lots of time compared to flipping through your Bible to find each one.
Do you have a question you’d like us to consider for an upcoming Roundtable? If so, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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