Jesus-Centered Spirituality: What does this mean? How is this done?
Everywhere you look these days, “spirituality” is a big deal, among Christians of all stripes, denominations and groupings. “Spirituality” means something entirely different, depending on whom you are talking to. The goal is to have a Jesus-centered spirituality, a life of prayer and meditation on God’s Word that is anchored in Christ, one in which our eyes are firmly fixed on Him (Hebrews 12:2). But not just any Jesus will do. The Jesus who is the author and giver of life is known only through Sacred Scripture. Jesus-centered spirituality is a Word-centered spirituality. So, what does it mean to have a Jesus-centered spirituality? And how is this done?
If we regard the Scriptural text as being, primarily, “information on a page” we are regarding the Scriptures entirely incorrectly. The Scriptures are the God-given, God-breathed words of life. They were written precisely so that we would know Jesus, and that by believing in Him, have life in His name (John 20:31). A profoundly deep and authentic life of Jesus-centered spirituality is our Lutheran birthright, but one that has been allowed to go dormant, as Lutherans chase after the latest fads in pop-Christianity, spirituality that float free from the text of Scripture and instead thrust a person into his or her feelings as the primary source of “spirituality.” Just the opposite is the case: the Word is the anchor and foundation and the bedrock, through which we communion with our Lord.
Here then are some suggestions for establishing and deepening your spiritual life.
(1) It takes work to be disciplined about your daily life of prayer and meditation on the Word. There are no short-cuts and quick fixes. An intentional life of prayerful meditation on God’s Word is a habit that must be formed, shaped, developed and increased through daily use. It like any other habit: it takes some time to develop it, but it is well worth it. I promise you, beyond a shadow of doubt, that as you develop the habit of intentionality and purpose in your prayer life, you will find it to be a very rich blessing. Why? Not because somehow it will earn you eternal points on your heavenly credit card, but simply because you are spending time with the Word of God, you are being put into the presence of God when you come before Him through His Word. God’s Word never returns empty and without accomplishing its intended purpose (Isaiah 55:11).
(2) Practice makes perfect. In other words, stop reading about spirituality and start doing it. Many make a hobby of Christianity spirituality and accumulate many books, guides, handbooks and how-to guides. It is not a hobby. It is our calling in Christ, and it is the source of our life in Christ: being rooted deeply and richly in the Word of Christ. There is no substitute for simply doing it. And, with anything else, practice is key. You won’t grow in your devotional life, unless you do it, and you won’t do it, unless you simply force yourself to do it. Don’t fool yourself into thinking, “Oh, I don’t feel spiritual enough today” or “I’m not in the mood.” Your mood and feelings don’t matter. Just do it. Feelings and moods, come and go. Stick with the Word. Stick with Christ. As we abide in Him, He abides in us. (John 15:4). We continue as His disciples, as we continue in His Word. No Word? No Christ. No Christ? No disciple. (John 8:31-32).
(3) Pick a time that is good for you. For me it is very early morning. A friend recently gave me a nice way of putting it: “I’m in the Word before I’m in the world.” In other words, before the cares, worries and responsibilities of our various vocations crowd into our thoughts, it is good to spend time with God’s Word, first thing of the day. If it means setting your alarm clock to wake you up fifteen minutes or half and hour early, set it. For other people, the best time is in the evening, or before bedtime. Again, no rules. But do identify a time to remove yourself to be about prayer with your Lord (Matthew 6:6).
(4) Use the classic Christian treasures of prayer. Take up a resource that puts before you the classic prayer hours and forms of the Church, like The Treasury of Daily Prayer. I’m aware of no single-volume resource that is better and more complete than the Treasury of Daily Prayer. But whatever resource you use, you may find it very meaningful to be using resources that are in line with the great traditional of prayer and spirituality since the earliest days of the Church, using the classic key hours of prayer: morning and evening prayer. Of course, the essential resource is God’s Word, and particularly, the Psalms.
(5) Remember there are no “rules” that “must be followed” in order to have a meaningful life of prayer. Key is being in the Word, as much, or as little as needed. If you use a resource like the Treasury, do not think you “have to” use all of it, or a certain part of it. Use whatever is helpful. Grow into a more robust use of the classic prayer hours, if you wish. For me, Matins is the key prayer office of the day and allows me to read a good portion of the Psalms, an Old Testament and New Testament reading. Prayers continue through the day, but Matins is the full prayer office I find most helpful to me. Others may wish to use Matins and Vespers and then the final prayer office of the day and Compline. Remember though: no rules, just guidelines. Don’t think that unless you have put yourself through some extended liturgical prayer experience that you somehow are doing something “less” or “not enough.” If that is the attitude by which we approach the liturgical orders of prayer, we are going about it all wrong. All these things are helps and aids. They give us a framework and the very words we can use to structure our prayer life.
(6) Be intentional about your life of prayer. Don’t allow yourself to get lazy and slip bad habits. An ordered life of prayer and meditation on God’s Word sets you free for a deeper life of prayer and meditation on God’s Word. That’s the point. Skipping around from thing, to thing, or thinking that somehow you are not “really praying” unless you can sit with your eyes closed and think prayerful thoughts for long blocks of time is the wrong way to go. Meditative prayer is prayer grounded in interaction with Holy Scripture.
(7) Remember that you never pray alone, even if you are physically by yourself. First, you are always, in Christ, as His own dear child (Galatians 2:20). You are a new Creation in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17). When we fail for words in our prayers, the Holy Spirit prayers with us and for us with groans and sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26). And recall that as you pray daily, there are literally millions of Christians around the world whose prayers also are ascending. One of the beauties of using the classic forms and hours of prayer, like Matins, is that you are in a great line of Christians who have prayed using even the very same, or similar words, for thousands of years. Key is the use of the Psalms, which is the church’s prayerbook. I can’t recommend highly enough Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s masterful short work on the Psalms.
(8) Don’t consider your daily devotions a substitute for Sunday’s church service. It might be tempting for Christians to think, “I’ve done my daily devotions, so I can skip Church.” No, in fact, the daily devotions are the bridge from Sunday to Sunday. We receive Christ’s gifts in Word and Sacrament on Sunday and then daily we are refreshed with His Word so as to come together again on Sunday around the preached and taught Word and the Sacrament of the Altar. Certainly it is never a case of either/or, but always very much a both/and situation.
I hope these thoughts are helpful to you. You are loved by God. You have a dear father in heaven who waits to hear your prayer, who wants you to pray, who commands you to pray, and who delights in your prayers, offered in the name of the One who loved You so much, He gave Himself up for you, and was raised again, so you too may walk in newness of life. Rejoice in the gift of prayer He gives to you. And may God bless!
Here is the article by John Kleinig on how to meditate on God’s Word that I’ll append to this post, in order to have these two pieces together.
Christian meditation differs from all other kinds of meditation because it concentrates on what Jesus says; it is meditation on His Word as it is given to us in the Scriptures. We meditate on His powerful Word. His Word has an impact on us as we pay attention to it, does its work in us as we listen to it, and reshapes us inwardly as we let it have its say. The words of Jesus actually produce our meditation. Yet that does not happen automatically but only as we put our trust in it.
As Christians, we have all experienced the power of God’s Word in us as a word of judgment and salvation. Its impact on our conscience is described most vividly in Hebrews 4:12–13: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.
As we meditate on God’s Word, we stand spiritually naked before God and in His sight. His Word puts us face-to-face with Him. That Word penetrates and exposes the secret reaches of our hearts; it lays us bare before God and holds us accountable to Him. But, best of all, it does all this so that it can give us life and do its work in us.
Martin Luther explains the power of meditation on God’s Word most memorably in a sermon that he preached on Christmas Day in 1519. There he speaks about “sacramental” meditation on the Gospels and their stories about Jesus:
“All the words and stories of the gospels are sacraments of a kind, sacred signs by which God works in believers what the histories signify. Just as baptism is the sacrament by which God restores us; just as absolution is the sacrament by which God forgives sins, so the words of Christ are sacraments through which he works salvation. Hence the gospel is to be taken sacramentally, that is, the words of Christ need to be meditated on as symbols
through which that righteousness, power, and salvation is given which these words themselves portray. . . . We meditate properly on the gospel, when we do so sacramentally, for through faith the words produce what they portray. Christ was born; believe that he was born for you and you will be born again. Christ conquered death and sin; believe that he conquered them for you and you will conquer them.” (WA 9:439, 442; author’s translation)
When Luther speaks of the words of Christ as sacraments, he is not using the term in its narrow sense, but more broadly as a divine enactment, a sacred sign that conveys what it signifies. Neither God’s Word by itself nor faith in itself produces the kind of meditation that God desires. Rather, meditation is the exercise of faith in Christ and His performative Word, for faith receives what Christ gives to us through His Word. We receive, as we believe. . . .
Our Spiritual Director
Luther, in his teaching on meditation, highlights this role of the Holy Spirit as our teacher and guide. His basic assumption is that the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures still animates them and us through them. Thus he says:
“You should meditate . . . not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them. . . . For God will not give you his Spirit without the external Word; so take your cue from that. His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc., outwardly was not given in vain.” (AE 34:286)
So we receive the Holy Spirit from God the Father by meditating on the external Word, the Word that comes to us from outside, the Word that speaks to us from the Scriptures. This understanding of how God’s Spirit is given through God’s Word shapes the evangelical practice of meditation. Before we meditate on what is written for us in the Scriptures, we do well to pray to God the Father through His dear Son for the gift
of the Spirit to guide, enlighten, and empower us. Yet we do not just pray for the Holy Spirit to direct our meditation on His Word; we actually receive the Holy Spirit as we meditate on the Word. Thus we meditate on the Word so that the Spirit will tell us what God the Father has to say and to give to us through His Son.
The Preaching of the Holy Spirit
This gift of the Holy Spirit is most evident in what Luther calls the preaching of the Spirit. By this he refers to the occasional flood of inspiration and enlightenment, jubilation and empowerment that breaks in on us as we meditate on God’s Word. We can’t force inspiration but can only receive it when it happens. Enlightenment is given as we attend to the Scriptures and become engrossed in them as they speak personally to us. Luther gives this advice about the enlightenment that comes in meditation:
“If such an abundance of good thoughts comes to us, we ought to . . . make room for such thoughts, listen in silence, and under no circumstances obstruct them. The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is far better than a thousand of our prayers.” (AE 43:198)
John W. Kleinig, Grace upon Grace: Spirituality for Today (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008), 100–102, 110–11.
Also by John Kleinig: