The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People

Summary

Ortberg, J. (1997). The life you’ve always wanted: Spiritual disciplines for ordinary people. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan. This book primarily deals with issues related to spiritual growth. Ortberg (1997) outlines a number of practices to reflect on his understanding of spiritual growth, hoping to convince the reader to live like Christ. By using statements like, “my failure to be the person God had in mind when he created me. It is the ‘pearly ache’ in my heart to be at home with the Father,” (Ortberg, 1997, p. 13) he invites the reader into his personal experiences to understand what he calls “It’s morphing time” (Ortberg, 1997, p. 21).

He does that in order to indicate the divine call for every Christian to develop and advance into spiritual discipline, transformation. Quoting Paul’s word “… until Christ is formed in you” Ortberg challenges the reader that “God is not interested in your ‘spiritual life.’ God is just interested in your life. He intends to redeem it” (Ortberg, 1997, p. 15). The goal of a spiritual life is to have an authentic transformation in contrast to what Ortberg (1997) calls “pseudo-transformation (p.30). By calling the legalistic approach a “boundary-oriented approach” he condemns it and proposes that it is a pseudo-transformation.

The rest of the book highlights a series of disciplines to identify and avoid such a pseudo-transformation. Ortberg (1997) challenges the readers to understand the failure of trying and desires after training as Paul says “train yourself in godliness. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” He suggests just like physical and intellectual activity, the application of training is needed to learn “the art of forgiveness, or joy or courage” (Ortberg, 1997, p. 44). After inviting the reader into his personal experiences, he takes the reader to his family’s experience; “Dee Dah Days” his daughter would sing a song as she danced with joy. He considers joy to be a strength, and a learned skill that should be treated as a serious essential in life.

In the line of spiritual discipline, Ortberg (1997) put “Slowing”, or removing hurry, as an essential discipline right before the essential discipline. The setting of the chapters and the discipline seems intentional because he suggests that the reader practice solitude first before entering into conversation with God. By giving the example of the Russian church he redefines and introduces the idea of solitude “being with everybody” to advise the readers that servanthood as a spiritual discipline is part of slowing, and praying. It is to be open to be “interruptible for tasks that are not on our agenda” (Ortberg, 1997, p. 120).

He connects confession as the discipline of spiritual growth back to his premises of transformation because the confession is an action of self-examination of the sins and the reasons why they occurred. So when one understands that he or she promises not to do it again they then experience the grace of God that comes in the form of forgiveness. This is true freedom which comes from the guidance of the Holy Spirit he suggests in Chapter 9 and 10.

In the following three chapters he offers some thoughtful practical understanding of a balanced life as a discipline so that one can endure suffering and yet know that God is there with him or her.

Ortberg (1997) closes with cautions and encouragement to the readers not to read too quickly through Scripture, but to slow down and meditate on short passages and have the heart of Jesus in all that they do and to persevere through all trials.

Concrete Responses

This book made me think about so many things in my life. However, the last chapter on enduring suffering is something that I resonate with the most. This morning I was talking to my younger sister on the phone in Pakistan. I live in exile in the United States of America and have not seen my family for the last 9 years. Every time when a call comes, I hesitate to answer because I do not want to know what is going on in Pakistan.

To me, no news is good news. Suffering is something that is so prominent among Pakistani Christians that I know there is not going to be any good news whatsoever. She shared with me about my mother whom I have never seen well. As long as I can remember she has been suffering. Constant attacks on our church (my father is a Pakistani pastor), death threats to the family members, imprisonment of my father (for building a church), lack of food, lack of health, and almost every different kind of physical issue.

Yet my mother is so faithful, she always has a message of encouragement for me. I have been hearing her saying “it will change for the better” since I was a little boy. Unfortunately it has not yet. Reading Ortberg’s book, I have realized that it is the work of true transformation that gives her hope that it will change one day. Reading “suffering always changes us, but it does not necessarily change us for the better” (Ortberg, 1997, p.211) I was reminded of how suffering has not changed but we have, we have become older and more realistic and more pessimistic in our confidence that it is never going to go away. So, if the last 20 years have taught me something then it is that “For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17, NIV), and also “But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (1 Peter 2:20 NIV).

Reflection

What bothers me in his writing are the contradictions he has in his teaching and practice. In talking about Pseudo-Transformation, Ortberg (1997), presents the idea of the Boundary-Maker Spirituality which he condemns and lists under The Goal of Spiritual Life. Now what is Boundary-Maker Spirituality? Is it basically a legalistic (strict) approach to spiritual discipline? He uses repetitive language to ensure that the readers get it, “Groups have a tendency to be exclusive. Insiders want to separate themselves from outsiders. So they adopt boundary markers. They are highly visible, relatively superficial practices-matters of vocabulary or dress or style-whose purpose is to distinguish between those inside a group and those who are outside” (Ortberg (1997, p.31). Later he calls it “both intimidating and unchallenging at the same time” (Ortberg (1997, p.31). He includes “a quite time praying” and “reading the bible each day” as well in the list.

His whole rational behind his understanding and teaching about Boundary-Maker Spirituality is that “God’s primary assessment of our lives is not going to be measured by the number of journal entries” (Ortberg 1997, p.39). So why does one have to have one or the other? Why can’t he use both? It is usually even in the writer’s own experience that as we grow in Christ we mature and eventually excel to that level which he proposed the reader should be. The first level should be the discipline of praying, observing the Sabbath or other things related to faith, and as you become comfortable and acquainted you will learn the depth. Besides, how would we show that we are different unless we practice differently, it must start from somewhere.

It is interesting his whole book is a step by step check list and a to-do list to develop spiritual growth, yet he dismisses the practice or tradition, and strikes discipline in its best sense. He suggests that doing a regular bible study and devotional exercises in the morning or at night are not meaningful without a deeper understanding. Yet in chapter 5 An Unhurried Life-The Practice of Slowing, he gives his own check list to measure spiritual growth by following “Reviewing the Day with God” ” (Ortberg 1997, p.87), followed by full day roster to learn how to have a “Extended Solitude” (Ortberg 1997, p.89). Why does he then use the same traditional discipline to encourage the reader to adopt his proposed disciplines for spiritual growth: true transformation.

Application

The book highlights many solid and interesting points that I have not noticed in my everyday life. Though transformation is something I have preached and studied as a topic, it was never the way Ortberg (1997) challenges. I will use Ortberg’s (1997) discipline in my life as well as in counseling to teach what spiritual disciples are not;

  • Spiritual disciplines are not a barometer of spirituality. The true indicator of spiritual well-being is growth in the ability to love God and people.

  • Spiritual disciplines are to life what calisthenics are to a game.

  • Spiritual disciplines are not necessarily unpleasant. What counts as training can only be determined when we know what it is we are training for.

  • Spiritual disciplines are not a way to earn favor with God. They have value only insofar as they help us morph. They are a means of appropriating or growing toward the life that God graciously offers (pp.45-47).

The major problem with learning and teaching spiritual disciplines is that everything that seems or sounds good and helpful tends to creep into the growth process. Most of the sermons and teachings available are on how to grow spiritually. They give a very long to-do list assuming that people know what they should not do. The absence of a don’t list exposes everyone to the unavoidable possibility of pseudo-transformation.

References

Ortberg, J. (1997). The life you’ve always wanted: Spiritual disciplines for ordinary people.Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan.

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Alfonse Javed

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