Monday, July 22, 2024

Identity - Who You Are, and Who You Are Not

(Green Lake, Wisconsin)

(Since 1977 I have taught spiritual formation and transformation at several seminaries, retreats, and conferences. This coming weekend I'll teach this material at Stelton Baptist Church in Edison, New Jersey. Then, in two weeks, I will again teach spiritual formation at Payne Theological Seminary (I've taught this class aet Payne since 2007). On August 5 I will be interviewed on spiritual formation by a Canadian podcast (The Witness).)

In my spiritual formation classes for pastors and Christian leaders I begin class by sending the students out to pray for an hour, using Psalm 23 as their meditative focus. My instruction is simply: when God speaks to you, write it down.

Upon returning from their hour with God, many of them will have heard God tell them, "I love you." Some have not heard those words in a long time. This is a powerful time of sharing.

This gets at the heart of who we are. Henri Nouwen wrote that he was "firmly convinced that the decisive moment of Jesus's public life was his baptism, when he heard the divine affirmation, "You are my Beloved on whom my favor rests." (Spiritual Direction, 28) 

When God tells someone "You are my beloved," or "I love you," the most intimate truth about that person is revealed. God loves you: this is the ultimate truth about you. Nouwen says "the ultimate spiritual temptation is to doubt this fundamental truth about ourselves and trust in alternative identities." (28)

Who are you? Nouwen counsels us not to define ourselves by the following alternative identities.

1. Do not define yourself as: "I am what I do." He writes: "When I do good things and have a little success in life, I feel good about myself. But when I fail, I start getting depressed." (Ib.) To define yourself by what you do is to live on a spiritual and emotional roller coaster that is a function of your accomplishments.

2. Do not define yourself as: "I am what other people say about me." "What people say about you has great power. When people speak well of you, you can walk around quite freely. But when somebody starts saying negative things about you, you might start feeling sad. When someone talks against you, it can cut deep into your heart. Why let what others say about you - good or ill - determine what you are?" (Ib., 29)

3. Do not define yourself as: "I am what I have." Don't let your things and your stuff determine your identity. Nouwen writes: "As soon as I lose any of it, if a family member dies, if my health goes, or if I lose my property, then I can slip into inner darkness." (Ib.)

Too much energy goes into defining ourselves by deciding "I am what I do," "I am what others say about me," or "I am what I have." Nouwen writes: "This whole zig-zag approach is wrong." You are not, fundamentally, what you do, what other people say about you, or what you have. You are someone who is greatly loved by God.

Today, God speaks to the deep waters of your heart and says, "You are my beloved son or daughter, and on you my favor rests." To hear that voice and trust in it is to reject the three alternative ways of self-definition and enter into freedom and joy.

Three of my books are:

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God

Leading the Presence-Driven Church

Encounters with the Holy Spirit (co-edited with Janice Trigg)

Understanding Comes First

(Monroe County)

To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.
Proverbs 18:13

I wrote a letter to a young person whose marriage was struggling. There's a lot of fighting and yelling in this marriage. One of them keeps repeating past failures to the other,. The  other called me and asked "Why do they have to keep reminding me of mistakes I've made in the past!"

Here's the note I sent to them. 

Dear _________:

Understand ______. 

Understanding always comes before evaluation. 

Linda and I spend little time evaluating each other,
and tons of time understanding one another.

To understand is to love; to be understood is to be loved and to feel loved.

Understand why ______ feels a need to repeat things to you. It's probably because they feel you are not really listening, 
or because they cannot trust you. 

You do not need to defend yourself.
Work to understand why they feel the need to repeat things to you, 
and they will begin to feel understood, 
which is to feel loved.

Communicate with me as needed, and we'll talk on the phone again.



Making judgments without understanding is the cause of many relationship breakdowns. To judge without understanding is foolish. Here's the order of relational priority:

1. Understand.
2. Evaluate.

In knowledge and relationships understanding comes first. Which is a way of saying that love is greater than judgment.

(After sending that note I went looking for a book in my library - To Understand Each Other, by Paul Tournier. This is one of the books that shaped Linda and I in how we approach relationships and marriage. We used to give newly married couples a copy of it. For those who value depth and wisdom, Tournier's works are must reading.)

One of my books is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Spiritual Formation & Transformation: My Method

Image result for john piippo formation
(Michigan beach, on Lake Michigan shoreline)

When I teach spiritual formation and transformation to seminary students, pastors, and churches, this is my method.

1. Assumption: God is the agent of personal/spiritual transformation.

2. Point People to God's Presence: Lecturing to people or assigning books to read won't transform the human heart. But God can. Therefore: I assign people to pray. I can point people to the presence of the One who does the transforming. 

3. Share With Others What God Is Doing In You: Transformation has a corporate dimension. This is realized as we return from our solitary prayer times with God and share with others what God has spoken to us. Here we arrive at the center of biblical koinonia ("fellowship") which is, literally, sharing what we have in common; viz., Christ in me, the hope of glory.

The method God has given me to do this is:

Give people Psalm 23 and send them out to pray for an hour. Or sometimes I send them out to pray for 30 minutes. For pastors I use 60 minutes; for non-pastors I use 30 minutes.

Here's the paper I give them. I read the instructions aloud. 

I use this document when teaching seminary classes and doing spiritual formation retreats for churches.

WARNING: If you are a pastor who wants to do this kind of thing with your people you must be engaging in it yourself. 

Dr. John Piippo

  1. The purpose of this exercise is to enter into the presence of God for the sake of deepening your relationship with God alone. My assumption is that you need God. You need to spend much time in God’s presence. And that time is to be spent in a certain way.
  2. Find a “lonely place apart.” When you get to that place, spend 60 minutes with God.
  3. Take with you only Psalm 23 and your journal. You may also take a Bible with you. But I want you to use Psalm 23 as your focus of meditation.
  4. Leave any cell phones, computers, books, shopping lists, and xerox machines behind. They will be waiting for you when you return from this time.
  5. Use Psalm 23 for meditation.
  6. Your purpose is not to exegete Psalm 23, but to be yourself exegeted by the Holy Spirit.
  7. When God speaks to you, write it down in your spiritual journal. A spiritual journal is a record of the voice of God to you.
  8. If your mind wanders, you may wish to write down where it wanders to. Your wandering mind is a barometer of your true spiritual condition. Your mind will never wander arbitrarily, but always to something like a burden or a hope.

Psalm 23

A psalm of David.
 1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
       he leads me beside quiet waters,

 3 he restores my soul.
       He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
       I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
       your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

 5 You prepare a table before me
       in the presence of my enemies.
       You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
       all the days of my life,
       and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

How to Keep a Spiritual Journal

(C. S. Lewis, "The Trouble with X." Also in Lewis, God In the Dock.)

I've been keeping a spiritual journal for fifty-two years. I have read and responded to over 3000 spiritual journals that pastors and Christian leaders have sent me, as part of seminary classes, retreats, and conferences I have taught. Here are my thoughts on keeping a spiritual journal.
A spiritual journal is a record of the voice and activity of God, to you. When God speaks to you, write it down. To do that is to keep a spiritual journal.

People write differently. Some include lots of detail, such as the place where they are praying, prayer concerns, and biblical exegesis. But the core of the journal is: God's words, spoken to you. When I read the journals of others, that's what I am looking for. What is God saying to you? What is God doing with you?

When your mind wanders, I suggest writing where it wanders to. The mind does not wander arbitrarily, but always to something like a burden. The wandering mind is a barometer of your spiritual condition. Then, following 1 Peter 5:7, "cast your burdens on God, for he cares for you." I find it helpful to get the burdens on paper. To see them on paper makes it feel like they are not inside me any longer. Now, it's at a distance from me. De-burdening is an important part of entering into God's presence more fully. We have a greater focus on God because we are not so distracted by our burdens.

If keeping a spiritual journal is writing down what God says to me, how can I know it's really the voice of God? I have found that one better hears God's voice when they:

1) Saturate themselves with Scripture.
2) Spend MUCH time alone in God's presence.
3) Hang around people who do 1 and 2. 

There are some good books about this, such as Dallas Willard's 
Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God.

Because the spiritual journal is a record of God's voice to you, it is fruitful to occasionally re-read and re-meditate on your journal. A number of the things God tells you will become thematic in your life. It is important to remember them. "Remembering" is huge in a person's spiritual life. When we have a written record of God's words for us, it can be easier to recall them as we re-ponder them anew. The maxim here is: "I will not forget God's words to me."

A spiritual journal, because it is a record of God's voice to you, is about you. Not others. Yes, I sometimes write about others in my journal. For example, I pray for others. Or, If I'm upset with someone, I use letters such as 'X' to refer to those persons. I don't want my journal to be found or read by someone with whom I'm angry with. When I write down such things before God I'm primarily asking God to help, not 'X,' but me, and with anger inside me.

What can you expect God to say to you? My experience tells me that God will say things like: his love for you, things he wants to heal inside you, things you need to repent of in your life, that he forgives you, things about his essence (the glory of who he is), giving you deeper insights on Scripture, giving direction, and so on. And, God impart things to you. When this happens to me I write down things like grace, mercy, peace, joy, love, hope, and power.

I don't believe journaling is for everybody. But remembering is. So is entering deeply into God's presence and hearing his voice.

On prayer and hearing God, see my book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Spiritual Transformation Conference in New Jersey - July 27-28

Linda and I will travel to Edison, New Jersey, to lead a "Spiritual Transformation Conference," July 27-28.

Where: Stelton Baptist Church

Sat. evening, July 27. 7 PM.

Sunday morning, July 28. 11 AM.

Sunday evening, July 28, 7 PM.

Stelton Baptist Church
334 Plainfield Ave
Edison, NJ 08817


54 Thoughts About Prayer

(Our front yard - snow in April!)

1.  You will learn more about prayer by actually praying than you can get from a book.
2.  Prayer is talking with God about what God and I are thinking and doing together.
3.  Praying is revolutionary activity whereby I revolt against the kingdom of this world as I meet with the true Lord of heaven and earth.
4.  If you believe God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then you believe God is powerful enough and knows enough to address your struggles.
5.  If you believe that God is all-loving, then you believe that God desires to address your struggles.
6.  What we think about God affects how we worship and pray.
7.  Prayer is not a religious duty, something I “have” to do, but a relationship with God.
8.  In praying I must let go of control and trust God.
9.  The focus of praying is not prayer itself, but God.
10.             I can meet God at a conference. I can also meet the same God wherever I am.
11.             Assume God is doing something in you, now.
12.             Praying is the act of interfacing this world with the kingdom of God.
13.             I can hear the voice of God, speaking to me.
14.             Hearing God’s voice is a function of intimacy with God.
15.             Humility is needed to hear the voice of God.
16.             Discernment is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and activity of God, both in the ordinary moments of life and in the larger decisions of life.
17.             As intimacy with God increases, discernment increases.
18.             Discerning should always come before deciding.
19.             In praying, God changes me.
20.             I pray to be able to see God’s Bigger Picture of my life and reality.
21.             I pray for my heart to be shaped into a heart of God’s love.
22.             Praying for people is a God-given, holy burden.
23.             In praying I bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.
24.             I pray for others because I believe that where prayer focuses, power falls.
25.             Blessed are the mono-taskers, for they shall see God.
26.             Praying is a slow-cooker, not a microwave.
27.             Teaching people to pray in solitude is one of the greatest needs and challenges of the church today.
28.             Solitary times with God prepare us for fellowship with people.
29.             If you commit to praying God will lead you deeper into community.
30.             One’s personal prayer life can never be understood if it is separated from community life.
31.             In praying we cry for the in-breaking of the kingdom into the brokenness of the present.
32.             In praying God aligns our heart with his kingdom heart.
33.             To pray is to explore and venture into the vast, limitless regions of God’s beautiful kingdom.
34.             Authentic praying is an act of self-denial.
35.             To pray is to let go of control.
36.             When God reveals personal faults it is never to condemn us, but only to rescue us.
37.             There is a “spiritual Alzheimer’s disease” which results in forgetting the many times God has rescued and delivered us.
38.             A main antidote to fear is remembering.
39.             In praying I enumerate things I am thankful for and give thanks to God.
40.             I pray because Jesus prayed.
41.             I pray for protection and guidance.
42.             In praying I am detoxified and released from burdens.
43.             Renewal can begin with one follower of Jesus, praying.
44.             The more Westernized a person is, the less they pray.
45.             Prayvailing – Travailing prayer brings prevailing in a person’s life.
46.             I need to set aside some time very day for active talking and listening to God. Just ten minutes each day can bring about a radical change in my life.
47.             Nothing can stop me from praying today.
48.             If I humble myself and pray, turning from any wicked ways, God will hear from heaven and heal the land.
49.             The antidote to spiritual burnout is time alone with God, praying.
50.             Pray even when, especially when, it seems or feels like God is absent.
51.             God isn’t in a panic room when you or I have doubts.
52.             Life is best lived when death is acknowledged.
53.             Kick the “bucket list” and live for a greater purpose.
54.             How a life begins and ends is important. Don’t forget the ending part. 

Saturday, July 13, 2024

I'm Still Beating These Drums


                                                     (Eldoret, Kenya)

I am a small voice sounding a drum from deep in the jungle. Here are some of the drums I beat when I was in Kenya.

I told the Kenyan and Ugandan pastors that the #1 thing they need to do, as pastors, is stay tight with God. Abide in Christ. Dwell in the shadow of the Almighty. Send roots to the river of God. Live, 24/7, in the fortress of God. That's what you need to do. And that's what your people need you to do. Because what they need is not you, but God. They need "Christ in you, the hope of glory."

Dwell in God's presence and he will free you from the illusion of your indispensability. I told these African pastors that they are not needed by God. God can and will accomplish his purposes with or without them. But God loves them and wants to use them. And he will, if they trust in him and abide in him.

We can't change other people. Only God can do that. So I told the pastors: "Today you can let go of your striving to change other people." 

Some of them told me how novel and freeing this was. I added, "But God can change you." 

The change happens as we hang with God. You cannot consistently nurture the "in Christ" relationship and remain unchanged. And, as a bonus, make God your Shepherd (in practice, not theory; viz., trust in him) and he "restores your soul." So, you don't have to "work on your own self." Just step into God's presence, stay there, and the Restorer of Souls starts to strip away all that has covered over your soul to get to the original "in God's image" psuche

The changes God works in you will not be just for you, but for others. This is called influence. We cannot change other people. But what God works in us can and will influence other people, by God's Spirit.

Today, I will abide in Christ. As he speaks, I'll obey. This is the place of all authentic formation,
transformation, renewal, restoration, and in some cases resurrection. This is the place of my need, and my influence.


Friday, July 12, 2024

One Simple Secret to a Healthy Marriage


                                                                     (At Toledo Zoo)

In a month Linda and I will celebrate our 51st wedding anniversary. We are both thankful for having these wonderful years of life together!

We're not the perfect marriage. Acknowledging this helps us be better life partners.

One thing that has helped us is that we communicate about and coordinate our busy schedules, meetings, desires, and obligations. We do this every day, usually in the morning, or the evening before.

We ask each other questions, such as...

"What is your schedule today?"

"What do you want to get done today?"

"How can I help you today?"

"What time will we have together today?"

"Are you OK with me doing this (_______) today?"

"What do we need to do together today?"

"What commitments do we have this week?"

"What shall we do for dinner tonight?"

"What do you need to talk about?"

We ask questions like these. Because we do this all the time, responding to them often takes little time.

We want to share expectations, and be on the same page.

We let each other know what we are up to. For example, Linda might tell me, "I'm doing laundry this morning. Do you have clothes that need washing?"

I always let her know where I am going. Today, e.g., I said, "I'm going to Panera Bread to get a coffee." And later, I said, "I'm going upstairs to work in the office."

This is not rocket science. We always let each other know what we are doing and where we are going, even if it's just going outside to water the flowers. And, we are willing to give up our agendas for the sake of the other.

Linda is excellent at keeping a datebook. We meet together, and she brings her datebook with her. She says, "Remember, John, that we have the graduation party this Saturday at 1."

We communicate like this because we are not single anymore. We are doing life together

Coordinating our schedules is a way of honoring one another. In doing this, expectations become clear. Uncommunicated expectations breed marital conflict.

For us, this is one secret to a healthy marriage.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Amusing Our Infantile Selves to Death



Over 2000 years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote:

"It is indeed a strange thought that the end should be amusement, and that the busyness and suffering throughout one’s life should be for the sake of amusing oneself." (In Skidelsky, Robert; Skidelsky, Edward, 
How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, p. 96)

And yet, this is where we now are as a culture, amusing ourselves to death. Think of the people of Panem in The Hunger Games. Think of Philip Seymour Hoffman consenting to the needle of happiness that one day would suffocate him. Think of the increase of happiness studies and "happiness economics" that have their statistical fingers on the pulse of our satisfaction.  Economic growth has been divorced from any humanly intelligible end. (See Ib.) 

(See especially Neil Postman's prescient, prophetic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse In the Age of Show Business.)

Spiritual Formation Happens in Connection to Community

                                            (Redeemer kids)

Spiritual formation is the shaping of the human heart into Jesus-likeness. Paul's prayer in Galatians 4:19 expresses this: 

My dear children, I feel the pains of birth upon me again, and I will continue in labor for you until the Anointed One is formed completely in you. (The Voice)

We see this idea in Romans 12:1-2, where the word "transformed" is from the Greek word metamorphe. Meta-morphe is a "change of form." It is like a caterpillar changing into a butterly, only more profound (because, I think, it involves changing of essential, not merely contingent, attributes).

Offer your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice to God, a sacred offering that brings Him pleasure; this is your reasonable, essential worship. Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete.

Dallas Willard writes: “Spiritual formation can be understood as the process by which true Christlikeness is established in the very depths of our being. Spiritual formation” is “a term for those processes through which people are inwardly transformed in such a way that the personality and deeds of Jesus Christ naturally flow out from them when and wherever they are. When we talk about spiritual formation we are talking about framing a progression of life in which people come to actually do all things that Jesus taught. So we are obviously going for the heart. We are aiming for change of the inner person, where what we do originates." 
 Jeffrey Greenman - "Spiritual formation is our continuing response to the reality of God's grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world."
- Jeffrey Greenman, Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective, p. 24 

Spiritual formation into Jesus-likeness happens as we are connected to community. Henri Nouwen helps me here. He writes, 

"Spiritual formation requires taking not only the inward journey to the heart, but also the outward journey from the heart to community and ministry. Christian spirituality is essentially communal. Spiritual formation is formation in community. One’s personal prayer life can never be understood if it is separated from community life. Prayer in the spiritual life leads to community, and community to prayer. In community we learn what it means to confess our weakness and to forgive each other. In community we discover our own woundedness, but also a place of healing. In community we learn true humility. Without community, we become individualistic and egocentric. Therefore, spiritual formation always includes formation to life in community." (Nouwen, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the SpiritKindle Locations 309-315)

Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Inner Healing Sermons


                                                                     (Lake Michigan)

Here are three sermons on inner healing.

Breaking the Chains of Shame