As a young pastor back in 1978, I read Richard Foster’s book “Celebration of Discipline.” It was a kind of spiritual awakening for me. I felt like I was breathing “fresh spiritual air.” I was concerned about matters of the heart and soul, but there were few evangelical leaders speaking to the issue
s of “soul care.” Foster opened new doors for me.
I was captivated by the opening words of Foster’s book: “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. Foster went on to say, “the spiritual life calls us to move beyond surface living into the depths.” He was talking about soul life.
Recently I watched a video of Foster giving a presentation in 2018 at the celebration of the 40th anniversary of his book. What was true then is true today: “The need for the growth of the soul.” In Foster’s view, “The most lasting work is accomplished in the depth of the heart.” All real spiritual formation is “heart work.” The focus is on the purity of the heart (Proverbs 4:23). “We must not neglect this work,” he warns, “Spiritual formation is not a tool kit to fix things.”
When Foster looks at our culture, he listed four areas of concern:
First, information technology. We are all wired to the information age. The changes have been rapid and all pervasive. The demands on each of us can be a spiritual drain. The inner life can easily be neglected. Soul care takes time and attention. Foster cautions us with one word: distraction. “We need,” he maintains, “a discerning, life-giving ascetism.” We need practices to help us “unplug” so we can listen and learn to just be.
Second, the loss of Christian consciousness. The Christian story and culture are being lost in the collective consciousness of our nation. How do we minister to people who have no roots in Christianity? We need to focus on spiritual formation and the growth of the soul. The inner life of many is an empty, confused spiritual space that needs to be addressed.
Third, learning to live courageously through dark times. We live in what Foster calls, “a wilderness of cultural unbelief.” We may be witnessing “the beginnings of a new dark age.” Evangelicals in our day are considered “hypocrites.” How are we to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land? Foster’s advice is stark: “Shut up” and “listen.” Talk less. Listen more.
Fourth, narcissism is the spirit of the age. Culture has changed in this regard over the last 40 years. We live in the age of “expressive individualism” (Carl Trueman). It is the very air that we breathe. Only inner transformation of the soul can help us to be “other-centered” rather than “self-centered.” Jesus is our model in a life of surrender.
Recently I came across a review written by Foster. He mentioned a prayer that he was using in his devotional life. I have memorized it and use it both in prayer and during the day. “Lord Jesus, please/Purify my heart/Renew my mind/Sanctify my imagination/Enlarge my soul/Amen.” This is a prayer that helps us focus on our inner life.
Notice: a purified heart comes first, then the renewal of the mind. I continue to need much sanctifying of my imagination. Recently, I have become aware of the Spirit enlarging my soul as I focus on Jesus at the center. May the Lord help us all to do this (Hebrews 12:1-3).