My Favorite Books on Spiritual Formation Topics
But first, a caveat. These books are not listed in any particular order. All are significant because they found me – I didn’t find them – at different stages in my journey, which reinforces my conviction that spiritual formation is first about God’s initiative. It’s not about self-improvement schemes, to which we are so addicted. As you read these books, or your own favorites, ask God, “What is your vision of me and how can I respond?”
Celebration of Discipline
by Richard Foster
This was the first book I read on the topic of spiritual formation years ago, and it gave me a desire to know more about how God changes us. Hailed by many as the best modern book on Christian spirituality, Celebration of Discipline explores the classic disciplines, or central spiritual practices, of the Christian faith. The disciplines cover the inward, the outward, and the corporate dimensions of spiritual formation. Along the way, Foster shows that it is through these practices that the true path to spiritual growth can be found.
Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home
by Richard Foster
This is a powerful book that introduces a variety of ways to pray. Many re-read this book to discover new and fresh ideas of prayer. I keep going back to it because it takes years to practice all the types of prayer explained in this book. When I was going through a particularly dark period of my life, I found Foster’s chapter on “The Prayer of the Forsaken” especially healing. Foster writes in a warm, compelling manner, and I find myself drawn to explore the various prayers he describes. As a result I have enriched my prayers and by them enriched my relationship with God and others.
The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith
by Janet Hagberg, Robert Guelich
I continually refer to this book and gain something each time I do. The Critical Journey is a description of the spiritual journey. Faith develops over a lifetime through equally important stages. The authors have identified 6 stages: awareness of God, learning about God, serving God, the inward journey, the outward journey, and the life of love. This is an excellent resource for the reader and also for those who are spiritual mentors to others. One of the most helpful sections is what happens in the inward journey and the wall, a stage that churches often don’t understand. This book will significantly increase your understanding of where you are in your spiritual formation, ways you might get stuck, what practices enhance the experience of that stage, and suggestions for how to move to the next stage.
In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership
by Henri Nouwen
I read this book every year; it stirs me to examine the spiritual formation of my leadership. Nouwen deals with the temptations of leadership and suggests a Christ-centered solution. In this small book (81 pages) Nouwen tackles three temptations faced, but all too often not acknowledged by, Christian leaders: (1) the temptation to be relevant, (2) the temptation to be spectacular, and (3) the temptation to be powerful. Reflections on the life of Christ encourage the Christian leader to reflect on these temptations and increase his/her desire to lead like Christ by leading in the opposite spirit. There is no better book on leadership.
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us
by Adele Alberg Calhoun
This book is a bit more modern than Richard Foster’s book. For example, it includes the non-traditional discipline of “unplugging.” (That’s right. Go a day or two without the phone, television, iPod, internet, etc). The author divides the book into seven areas of Christian growth and suggests a total of 63 practices that cover all seven areas: worship, opening to God, relinquishing the false self, sharing life with others, hearing God’s word, incarnating Christ’s love, and prayer. For each discipline the author gives a description of it, scripture passages that pertain to it, reflection questions, and suggested spiritual exercises. There is something for everybody at any time on their spiritual journey.
Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation
by M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.
This is a standard work on the subject and has, for good reason, been very influential among evangelicals in any discussion of the topic. If you want to introduce someone to the topic of spiritual formation, do it with this book. Mulholland defines spiritual formation as “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others" (pg. 12). The "for the sake of others" provides a kind of focal point for much of what the book has to say about being conformed. Second is Mulholland's emphasis on the need for believers to be conformed in areas of their lives where they are most unlike Christ. A particularly helpful section identifies our personality types, what this brings to our spiritual formation, and identifies areas where we get stuck if we are unwilling to move forward into less comfortable areas of spiritual formation. For example, I am more contemplative by nature. I knew – and this book confirmed it – that in order for me to grow I had to develop my “shadow side” by choosing activities that encourage obedience and not understanding.
A Testament of Devotion
by Thomas Kelly
I read this for a graduate course and forever thanked my professor for introducing our class to this Quaker scholar and pastor. I literally prayed my way through this book, meditating slowly on ideas both strange yet somehow achingly familiar as they called out longings deep within me. Kelly assures us that we can attend to God’s voice while, at the same time, we are doing something else. He confronts our fragmented selves – “the committee of selves” as he called it – the civic self, the parent self, the professional self, and so on — who forever pull on us to meet all our obligations, each self putting more pressure on the other selves to outdo each other. "Enough!," says Kelly. "Simplify!," says Kelly. "Live life from an unhurried Divine Center." If there’s a book for busy 21st century Christians – and more importantly, who long for something else — this is it.
Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction
by David G. Benner
We need companions on our spiritual journey. My own life testifies to this. Benner calls this “the gift of hospitality:” being truly present to another person. As I read this book slowly over a few days by Lake Dillon in Colorado, I realized that God had given me friends to assist me in becoming a “great lover,” the goal of spiritual formation. I have a long way to go to make that reality, but my friends and those who give me spiritual direction help me discern what I am experiencing of and with God, who Jesus is; what God is saying to me through Scripture, daily life, and even my dreams; and ways I am resisting or cooperating with God.
Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works
edited by George E. Ganss, part of The Classics of Western Spirituality series
This is not an easy book to read. In fact, one doesn’t read the book; one prays through the book. I select it, however, because Ignatius has given me a deeper appreciation for prayer and for the rules of discernment. Here, for the first time in my evangelical upbringing, was someone who encouraged the use of imagination and who taught how to discern emotions as part of God’s work in us. I caution against doing the spiritual exercises by yourself. Find a trained spiritual director who can take you through them. The average amount of time for lay people to pray the exercises is about 7-9 months. An excellent Protestant version of the exercises is Larry Warner's book, Journey with Jesus, IVP, 2010.
Saint Augustine Confessions
translated by Henry Chadwick, part of the Oxford World’s Classics
Years ago I attended a day retreat on sexual purity. The teachers took insights from St. Augustine’s life and applied them to our situation. St. Augustine addresses our need to look at the deeper issues of the heart and encourages us to give up lesser desires for the greater beauty of knowing God. “You stir man to take pleasure in praising You, because You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You,” says Augustine in the opening paragraph of his Confessions. We will not grow unless we are honest with our failings. St. Augustine courageously exposed his sins and his increasing desire for God. Reading and praying this book can help us confront our paltry satisfaction in transient matters and move us to the greater good. “You called us and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, You put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after You. I tasted You, and I feel but hunger and thirst for You. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is Yours.”
When The Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings
by Thomas H. Green, S.J.
I picked up this book at a sidewalk sale in Sugarland, Texas at a point when I was discouraged by my prayer life and wondering how I could grow in intimacy with God. The author, a Jesuit missionary in the Philippines, explained that God’s purpose during these dry spells is to move us from knowing to loving and then from loving to truly loving. Intrigued by Green’s description of prayer as “an encounter with God in love,” I explored prayer as a way of being with God, not just talking to Him. It is hard to be still; even now I fight against the temptation to believe I am wasting my time. But without this desire to be with God in silent listening until one knows he or she is loved, prayer becomes a one way conversation with oneself.
Rhythms of Grace
by Tony Horsfall
The first edition of this book, A Call to Intimacy: Finding Rest in the Love of God (isn’t that a delightful title?), made me realize how hungry I was for God. I was a spiritual anorexic and didn’t even know how starved I was for something other than what I thought it meant to be a Christian. In England, at a retreat center near Oxford, I absorbed the book walking in fields, dangling my hot feet in cold creeks, sipping wine in pubs, and late at night huddled under warm blankets. Horsfall, a charismatic evangelical missionary, told his own experiences of becoming worn out following evangelical voices urging us to win the world for Christ and charismatic voices promising us to be able to do it faster and better with the power of the Holy Spirit. He found rest in the contemplative tradition. For the first time in many years I felt I could breathe and relax in God’s company.
Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith
by Richard Foster
This book is not as long as it looks, because one-third of it is an appendix, and a particularly good one on critical turning points in church history. This book helped me understand spiritual traditions that wove their particular strand into my own spiritual formation pattern. My faith and the way it expresses itself exists largely due to the influence of six spiritual traditions: the contemplative, the holiness, the charismatic, the social justice, the evangelical, and the incarnational. Foster encourages us to learn from all of them, applying the strengths of each in our spiritual formation. Buffet-style Christianity can produce picky eaters that want to indulge only on foods that taste good, but it can also introduce us to the joys of foods that we might never have wanted to taste before. The need to think our tradition is the right one, with little appreciation for (and, at times, even envy and even loathing of) other traditions is so not attractive, wouldn’t you agree?
The Practice of the Presence of God
by Brother Lawrence
I am a mom who spends many hours cooking and cleaning. Is there a “spirituality of the kitchen,” I wanted to know, that could help busy people listen to God while digging a garden, mopping a floor, and meeting in the office? This is not a how-to book. Rather, through conversations and letters, Bother Lawrence communicates his affection for God in whatever task lies in front of him. “I am doing now what I will do for all eternity. I am blessing God, praising Him, adoring Him, and loving Him with all my heart.” My longing is to be able to affirm the same thing in whatever I do.
The Prayer of Examen
by Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV
In 2008 I went on a silent retreat to a Benedictine monastery. Until then, I had prayed the prayer of examen on almost a daily basis. It wasn’t until I found this book at that retreat that I learned what this prayer is really about. It is such a simple prayer, really, that helps us review our day with gratitude, examine our feelings and thoughts, and to discern where we are moving closer to God or further away from Him. Discernment is key to spiritual growth, and the prayer of examen builds the daily practice of discernment. I am profoundly grateful for Ignatius, who formalized the prayer – though he wasn’t the first one to do it – and to God Himself, who awakened a desire in me to pray the prayer of examen long before I knew what it was.