Author: Kyle David Bennett
Publisher: Brazos Press
Publish Date: August 22, 2017
Pages: 208 pages (Paperback)
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all of your heart,” God says through the prophet Jeremiah.
Then I must be doing this wrong.
At least, that’s often how it feels. I have never been able to crack the spiritual disciplines code. I have very old memories of being jealous of people who experience God in their “secret place” whenever the lights are dimmed. I distinctly remember my brother coming home one evening after a mountaintop spiritual experience. He left the house just as it was starting to rain. He returned drenched and ecstatic about a lightning bolt that “brought him to his knees.” He was glowing. I was only 12, but I thought his account was a bit sensational. It seemed more likely to me that the bolt was a warning shot from God about taking walks during thunderstorms.
It was never stated as such, but for a long time I understood faith to be measured by the quality of one’s relationship with God. This relationship was dependent upon my own efforts, measured by the amount of time I spent in prayer, Bible reading, and journaling, along with how frequently I got goosebumps while doing these activities. I envied people like my brother who claimed to have palpable intimacy with God. I longed for that. I may have experienced such moments along the way, but my constant chasing after fickle sensations left me burned out on spiritual disciplines.
In his book, Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, Kyle David Bennett calls that chase spiritual heroin. “We don’t just value ‘positive’ emotions,” Bennett writes, “but in our lived experience and practice, we demand them from God every time we step foot in a church or ‘meet’ with him.”1 I found myself nodding through Bennett’s introductory chapter as he questioned the assumption that the purpose of the spiritual life is a set of emotional stimulations. What if spiritual disciplines are not primarily intended to produce a personal spiritual high? What if the goal of spiritual disciplines is to love your neighbor better?
Bennett’s book offers a sideways approach to engaging spiritual disciplines based on the simple premise that “spiritual disciplines are for the well-being of one’s neighbor.” Bennett reminds us that the goal of the Christian’s spiritual life is not some form of mystic elitism, but rather a more faithful presence in the world. His simple redirection of the purpose of spiritual disciplines away from the self and towards the neighbor was shockingly biblical and made the Christian spiritual life seem refreshingly relevant.
Bennett’s chapters each take a basic human function and cast them as spiritual disciplines. Rather than identifying a set of unique practices that might inform our daily life (ie. praying for 10 minutes throughout the day and how that practice ought to impact our relationships), Bennett calls out our daily activities and imagines what it would look like to perform them Biblically with our neighbor in view. Owning, thinking, eating, socializing, working, and resting all become opportunities for Christians to love their neighbors.
As he explores each discipline, he identifies malformed ways we selfishly go about eating, owning, etc. He then directs us towards Biblical ways of engaging these practices. In his chapter on eating, for example, Bennett identifies gluttonous eating and miserly eating as two malformed ways that we engage the practice of eating. Both are rampant cultural practices. Neither considers the needs of our neighbor, and, in fact, they may even harm our neighbor. Fasting and feasting are better, Biblical options, Bennett suggests. Bennett’s simple suggestion that spiritual disciplines exist For the Life of the World centers our practices of eating around love of God and neighbor. Even fasting ought to have the primary goal of paying a particular kind of attention to one’s neighbor. In Isaiah 58, the prophet reminds God’s people that the sort of fasting in which God is interested is the kind that looses the bonds of injustice. “Fasting and feasting are more about our neighbor and her well-being and livelihood than whatever benefit we get from them.”2 What if fasting isn’t about creating a mountaintop experience between God and I, but is more about using discipline around food in order to better care for my neighbor?
Taking the emphasis off of ourselves, Bennett succeeds in turning spiritual disciplines on their head. It should seem obvious that the Christian spiritual life would have as its end the life of the world. Yet, his approach to the Christian spiritual life feels ground-breaking.
This book offered me good news. I don’t need to chase “the feeling,” as if God’s existence and my faith depended on an allusive spiritual experience which I had to track down through the exact right amount of prayer. The result of Christian spiritual discipline is far more relevant and impactful than that allusive chase. It also offered me the challenge of reimagining the most basic daily practices—thinking, speaking, eating, etc.—as opportunities to love God and neighbor. Books on spiritual disciplines are good at producing anxiety and making Christians feel like they’ll never measure up; this book, however, made me hopeful. It did not ask me to do 7 practices I’ve never tried. It asked me to make thoughtful changes to my own habits. It asked me to love my neighbor better, and it gave me helpful prompts toward that end.
The one anxiety these first chapters did not quell in me is something that theologian Miroslav Volf calls an infinity of responsibility. In a sermon at my home church, Volf described two infinities that prevent us from experiencing true joy. The first is the infinity of desire. Simply put, we’re never content. The second infinity is un-dischargeable responsibility. Describing the modern world as one where our “neighbor” can be ever before us, Volf says, “the range of our potential moral responsibility expands to infinite proportions… when we don’t feel guilty, we feel guilty that we don’t feel guilty… those who feel infinitely responsible never do enough.”
So, while I agree with Bennett that our owning, eating, listening, and even thinking have moral qualities, I am often overwhelmed by this reality—sometimes to the point of being paralyzed. I felt the weight of infinite responsibility building as I read through Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World. Helpfully, however, Bennett touches on the necessity of a reality grounded in a larger reality.
For example, humanity is becoming increasingly aware that every action is a moral choice. I remember one fifteen-minute stand-off in the grocery store as my wife and I debated which orange juice was the right moral choice. Every click is a vote for a product or a company. Every dollar spent is a “vote” for one business or another. In this world where every decision seems to carry with it an unspecified impact upon neighbor, I need my life to be rooted in a reality larger than myself and my own actions. I need to know that, in the words of Alexander Schmemann, “Christ has filled all things with Himself.” In For the Life, Bennett continues to quote Schmemann in writing that: “A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life of the world.”3
At its core, Bennett’s book is an exposition on the reality that all human plans, programs, decisions, and actions ought to serve the life of the world. If we lose the world from the heart of our spiritual practices, we are simply a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal. Yet, we also need to allay the infinity of responsibility that causes us to be dragged through life by guilt. Christ has overcome the world. We can engage spiritual disciplines for the life of the world, with confidence knowing that God is sovereign and that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”4
“The way of Jesus does not involve endless private, mystical experiences which tickle our fancy. Rather,” Bennett writes, “it is the transformation of mundane activities that have vast public implications for our neighbor.”5The passage from Jeremiah at the opening of this review comes on the heels of Jeremiah’s simple yet profound command to plant trees, build houses, settle down. In other words: own properly, eat faithfully, do the little things right, always considering your neighbor. This book flips the purpose of spiritual disciplines on their side and steers us back towards a more biblical understanding of Christian discipleship. If the love of neighbor is not at the heart of our spiritual disciplines, we might want to ask what we are doing at all.