Listening for God: The Joy of Spiritual Practices

Originally published in Horizons: The Magazine of Presbyterian Women. May/June 2019, 11-14.

I really disliked the first Saturday I spent living in Tel Aviv. The Jewish Sabbath appeared to be boring. Deadly boring. Everything was closed, from the smallest business to the largest—mini-marts, restaurants, supermarkets and movie theaters. What could we do to fill the 24 hours that suddenly seemed to go on forever?

My husband Dave had an 18-month job at Tel Aviv University, and I was thrilled that we would be able to see biblical sites during our stay in Israel. I thought that my faith would be enriched by seeing the places where Jesus walked and taught. That was accurate. I was awed by visiting Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.

However, the Jewish Sabbath changed my life. A day with nothing to do. A day to rest in God. A day to let God run the universe without our help.

It took many months for us to enjoy this quiet, leisurely day. We were young adults, and the internet didn’t exist yet, so we couldn’t turn to online entertainment. We didn’t have a car, and the buses didn’t run. Dave learned that a source of joy for him was bird watching. He took his binoculars across the road to an empty field to watch birds. I wrote long letters home and cooked nice meals. We talked. We read. We prayed together.

After six months we had settled into this new routine, and after 18 months we saw the great gift the Sabbath had given us: having a day together without stress and without many options. When we moved back to Seattle, we decided to continue to observe a Sabbath. We decided we would go to church Sunday mornings and keep the rest of Sunday like a Jewish Sabbath. No shopping, restaurants or other entertainment—just a relaxed day.

Understanding Spiritual Practices

At that time, in the early 1980s, Dave and I didn’t know any other Christians who were keeping a Sabbath day, so we simply did it on our own. In the late 80s and early 90s, Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson began writing about the Sabbath. Their books and articles made us feel grateful we weren’t alone in our commitment to Sabbath keeping.

Around that same time, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline was becoming popular, and the language of spiritual practices or spiritual disciplines began to become more common. While some people balked at the “discipline” terminology, it was a time when people were looking for ways to recognize God’s loving presence and guidance. I saw that for me, keeping the Sabbath was a primary spiritual practice.

I’d been a committed Christian since I was 19, and I had engaged in other spiritual practices for my entire Christian life. I studied the Bible, memorized favorite passages, prayed alone and with others, went to church almost every week, and attended a small group where we studied the Bible and prayed together. All of these are spiritual practices, but we simply hadn’t used that language.

A spiritual practice is something that we do for two reasons: (1) to cultivate our relationship with God and stay connected to God, and (2) to make space so God can transform us more and more into the image of Jesus. Spiritual practices are about relationship and transformation. For me, the Sabbath became a kind of lens that taught me many things about how spiritual practices work and how joyful they can be.

Making Space

The root word that “Sabbath” comes from means “stop,” “cease,” “desist” or “rest.” To keep a Sabbath day, we have to decide what we’re going to stop doing. What forms of work will we set aside? What kinds of entertainment will we leave alone?

In the same way, in order to engage in any spiritual practice, we have to stop doing something else. To read the Bible, we have to put down the novel that’s racing along to a thrilling conclusion. To pray, we have to turn our thoughts away from our to-do list. To thank God for the gifts of each day, we have to set aside our worries and irritations and focus on the good things God has given us. To go to church on Sunday morning, we have to choose not to go hiking or sleep until noon. We relinquish something good so that we can open the space for something better.

Because I have grown to love my Sabbath days so much, I’ve been able to see the joy and blessing in making space for God, who has given us so many gifts. Noticing those gifts gives moments of joy in the midst of challenges. I find I simply cannot notice those gifts without stopping my ceaseless activity.

God Runs the Universe

The Sabbath, more than anything else, has helped me experience deep in my heart that God runs the universe and I do not. For one 24-hour period each week, I don’t do very much that could be called “productive” or “important.” Yes, God desires that I work hard and love my family, but God also desires that I rest in the deep truth that all power comes from God. I am not in control. I do not run the world.

All spiritual practices enable us to experience these truths. When we read the Bible, we read about a God of power and love, a God who answers people’s needs and blesses people in ways they could not even dream of asking. When we pray for the great needs in our world, we remember that ultimately only God can meet those needs.

Honoring the Sabbath has helped me rest in God’s power and love, and I now see the ways that going to church, reading the Bible, praying, journaling, fasting and other spiritual practices do the same. As we grow in our ability to rest in God’s power and love, we also grow in letting go of the idolatry of our own control and competence. Relinquishing the illusion that we are in control is a huge task of maturity, and it brings such peace and joy.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30). Spiritual practices help us take up that easy, light yoke that Jesus longs to give us. Part of how they do that is by helping us experience God’s power to run the universe and God’s love for each of us.

Resting in God’s Love

Psalm 131 paints a vivid picture of contentment. “I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content” (v. 2, niv). My husband and I often refer to this image when we pray together.

A child who has been weaned sits on her mother’s lap without thinking of nursing. She sits there simply to receive companionship, comfort and affection. She leans back and soaks up the joy of nearness to someone who loves her.

Through spiritual practices, we experience moments like that. The Sabbath, by stripping away my drive for productivity and activity, has made space for those moments of intimacy with God. All spiritual practices can help us have moments when we know that kind of rest and joy.

When we rest in God’s love, we grow in understanding our call to extend that love to others. Intimacy with God helps us understand and embrace God’s priorities in the world. We understand who we are and what God is calling us to be and do.

Created for Rhythms

I’m a big fan of the gifts of electricity. I have no desire to wash clothes at a river, cook over a fire, or use candles for reading in bed at night. Electricity has given us so many gifts that bless us every day, but it does have a downside. Artificial light took away the daily rhythms that people lived by for millennia. Electricity keeps us active and moving long after our ancestors would have slowed down for some fireside conversation, music, stories and sleep.

We were created for rhythms, and spiritual practices can help us recover some of the simple joy of not doing the same thing all the time. The Sabbath, of course, provides a restful and joyful weekly rhythm, where we let ourselves have a change of pace one day a week. We were created for work and rest. Daily life in the 21st century can easily rob us of this essential rhythm.

Church attendance provides another weekly rhythm. The worship service turns our thoughts toward God through music, prayers, Bible reading, preaching and time with Christian friends. My heart needs weekly worship with others.

Spiritual practices can also help us adopt daily rhythms. A friend of mine uses a cell phone app that gives him an alert every day at 9 am, noon, and 3 pm. Those are the prayer times at a monastery he has visited, and when his phone pings, he stops, remembers he is a child of God, and prays for the activities of his day.

For Individuals or In Community

Even without an app, regular prayer times during the day can help us slow down, remember God is in control, and rest in God’s love. A friend keeps a scripture verse posted by the kitchen sink, so she can memorize that verse and meditate on it while she does the dishes. Another friend writes prayer requests on sticky notes, which she places on her kitchen window. When she works in her kitchen, she prays for her friends’ needs.

That same friend asks her children, every night right after saying grace, to describe something that happened during the day that they perceived to be a gift from God. That daily rhythm has helped her children see God’s hand in their lives. My friend and her husband join in as well, giving examples that help them take the time to notice God at work in everyday life.

These examples illustrate that we can engage in spiritual practices alone or with others. Both are helpful, and the back and forth of spiritual practices alone and with others creates another kind of rhythm that helps us receive God’s gifts and experience joy.

Joy Is a Flag

When I was a young adult, the Christian fellowship group I belonged to often sang a song that I really didn’t like. To me, the words sounded like up-beat happiness is always present when we are near to God. The words went like this: “Joy is the flag flown high from the castle of my heart when the King is in residence there.”

In those years, life felt quite challenging to me, and I found it helpful to see Jesus as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). I wanted to affirm that sometimes when Jesus is present in our lives, we join with him in sadness for the great pain and sorrow of the world.

I still believe that God calls us to lament with Jesus about the huge needs in our world. However, God also invites us into the joy of resting in God’s companionship, power and love. Even in the midst of sadness, we can experience deep peace, like a child who is comfortable and content on her mother’s lap. Even when the pain of the world seems intense, we can know joy because God gives so many good gifts even in the midst of sorrow. Spiritual practices help us grow in the peace and joy that only God can give.

Spiritual practices help us pray and engage with the Bible in many diverse ways. They help us walk through our daily lives with an awareness of Jesus at our side, and they help us become more like Jesus. Spiritual practices shape our desires so we grow in embracing God’s priorities. The Sabbath was my starting point in understanding how spiritual practices work, and I rejoice in the great gift of knowing a God who invites us to draw near in so many ways, throughout our days and weeks.

Try a Joy Journal

  • What spiritual practices help you recognize and rest in God’s presence?
  • When was a time that a spiritual discipline helped you experience a moment of joy in a context of suffering or sadness?
  • Is there a spiritual discipline you feel the Holy Spirit nudging you toward? Commit to it for a set period of time and keep a journal about your experience.

Learn More

Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation by Lynne Baab, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012.

An excellent resource for congregations or PW groups, Lynne offers an introduction to six spiritual practices—thankfulness, fasting, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, hospitality and Sabbath keeping—and suggests ways these can strengthen groups who practice them together.