Online Conversation | Practicing the Way with John Mark Comer

The Gospels speak often of following Jesus and becoming his disciples. But what does it mean – millennia later and half a world away – to follow after Christ?

Drawing from his new book Practicing the Way, John Mark Comer explores the depths of the three seemingly simple steps he describes to becoming a disciple: “Be with Jesus. Become like him. Do as he did.” Building upon his landmark previous book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, he will help us to consider how we are already being formed spiritually, and to take steps toward a better way.

We hosted an Online Conversation with John Mark Comer on May 3 to discuss his new work Practicing the Way and explore the practical means of accepting the metaphysical invitation to live like Jesus.

Thank you to our sponsors for their support of this event!

Mike Brenan
David Campaigne with Blue Trust
Cheryl & Chris Bachelder



John Mark Comer | May 3, 2023

Cherie Harder: On behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, welcome to today’s Online Conversation with John Mark Comer on “Practicing the Way.” I’d like to add my own thanks to our sponsors, Mike Brenan, Chris and Cheryl Bachelder, and David Campaigne. We so appreciate your support and generosity that’s made today’s program possible. And we’re delighted that so many of you are joining us today. I believe we have over 1,700 registrants and would like to send a special welcome out to our nearly 400 first-time registrants, as well as our over 200 international registrants from at least 35 different countries that we know of, ranging from Albania and Australia to Singapore and South Africa. So thanks and welcome from across the miles and time zones. If you haven’t already done so, let us know where you’re joining us from in the chat feature. It’s always fun to get to see where people are tuning in from, from all over the globe.

And if you are one of those 400 or so first-time registrants or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so, and ultimately to come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s program will be a small taste of that for you today.

In the midst of all the duties, demands, and distractions of life, where so many of us spend our waking hours in some combination of sitting in front of screens or in traffic, rushing and pushing, running late, ragged, and on empty, it can be hard to remember that we are actually in the process of being formed. That is, that what we habitually do and prioritize—where we invest our time, trust, and attention—will shape who we are and what we become. Our guest today has argued that if we are not intentionally modeling our life after Jesus, we are likely unintentionally being formed by something or someone else. Left to drift in the cultural current, we’re likely to be carried to places we never consciously chose and wonder how we got there. Whether or not we like it or even notice it, we are all disciples following a way of life.

In his new book, our guest today explores what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, to be with him, to become like him, and to do as he did, and what practicing the ways of Jesus means for the formation and transformation of our own heart and life.

John Mark Comer, our guest today, is a teacher, pastor, and writer, as well as the founder of the ministry, Practicing the Way. He served for nearly two decades as Pastor for Teaching and Vision at Bridgetown Church in Portland, before leaving to start Practicing the Way as a ministry and nonprofit, and now serves as a teacher-in-residence at The Vintage Church in Los Angeles. He is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, Live No Lies, God Has a Name, Garden City, and his new work, Practicing the Way, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.

John Mark, welcome.

John Mark Comer: Hi, Cherie. Good afternoon. Really happy to be with you.

Cherie Harder: It’s great to see you. I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation.

John Mark Comer: Same here. I’m a long-time listener to the Trinity Forum, and I have no idea what I’m doing here because I normally listen when somebody very erudite and brilliant and who went to an Ivy League school has something compelling to say, but happy to be with you.

Cherie Harder: Well, we’re honored that you’re here, and we’re excited to get to listen to you today. You know, as we start out, I’d love to hear what led you to write this book. You’ve now formed a nonprofit or a ministry by the same name as the book, and I also want to—you know, you mentioned different professors, philosophers, scholars—I wanted to note that there is a real connection between you and one of our late and certainly great senior fellows, Dallas Willard, whose ideas you have developed and built on and made in many ways more accessible. Dallas was a philosopher and a phenomenologist, and his prose could be intellectually rigorous and even rather dense. So I would love to know just kind of what led to this book, how Dallas’s ideas affected you, and how they impacted you.

John Mark Comer: Yes. I’m so grateful for Dallas and his life and legacy. You know, in the Catholic tradition as well as in, those of you that are academics, where you specialize in a subdiscipline, it’s very common to have what our Catholic brothers and sisters would call an intellectual father or mother, where one person’s body of work forms the foundation for your library of writing or what have you. So I recently read through the entire library of Jacques Philippe, who’s just a gift to my heart. And for him, it’s Saint Therese [who] has formed the basis of his kind of spirituality. So for me, certainly, Willard would play that role in my life. And I like to quip that, you know, N.T. Wright taught me how to read the Bible, and Dallas Willard taught me how to follow Jesus. And I’m deeply in debt to his life and very grateful.

As for how I came to this work, I certainly did not grow up in this stream of the Church. I did grow up in the Church. I’m actually the son of a pastor. You know, they say we come to—whatever you want to call it—formation or the inner journey or whatever—through one of two sources: desire or pain. But for most of us, it’s pain. And it certainly was in my life. And without going into all the details, I grew up in, what at the time would have been called evangelicalism. And that word used to mean something. It’s fractured now. I have no idea what it means anymore. But I grew up in kind of the hallmark concept of that idea, kind of a West Coast [evangelicalism]. Born in 1980, grew up in the church, 80s, 90s. Was actually in one of the first megachurches in America [which] was where my dad became a Christian out of the Jesus movement and ended up as a pastor on staff. So I grew up in that, and I’m really grateful for it. I’m really grateful for the foundation it put in my life and the high view of Scripture. Lots of secular psychologists have made the point that it’s just much better for children’s mental health to grow up— if there’s a spectrum between conservative and progressive, you want to grow up closer to the conservative side, a healthy version of that, just at a mental health level.

And I’m just really grateful for, in particular— you know, I grew up in Silicon Valley, spent 20 years in urban Portland, and now I live in LA. So I’ve lived my whole life in what I think the writer of Revelation would call Babylon. In a very secular— and LA actually calls itself Babylon. I like to quip, you know, conservatives from different parts of the country rail against the Left Coast and such. And half of their criticisms are entirely true. But this city actually self-identifies as Babylon, the biblical archetype of society and rebellion against God. So that’s just what I’ve grown up in. And I’m really grateful for the foundation that it laid in me and the strong moral compass, you know?

But at the same time, I’m a product of it in so many ways. And I came to the end of what the evangelical model of discipleship had to offer. And in my case, I was still miles away from anything approximating the fruit of the Spirit, the sermon on the Mount, the inner disposition and outward lifestyle of Jesus. And there wasn’t anything, you know, scandalous. I wasn’t out doing something that would make it onto a blog. It was just the pedestrian ungodliness of being a critical husband and an uptight dad and stuff like that. And I really came to the end of myself. And, you know, part of that is burnout, which I’ve written much about, but it was much deeper than just overwork and I have an iPhone and I’m in too demanding of a job. It was way deeper than that. It went to unhealed and untransformed parts of my deepest self.

You know, there’s— I’m not sure what you think about personality theories. You know, people have different opinions on them, and I have mixed feelings about them. None of them are true, but I think many of them are helpful. And Myers-Briggs, which is one of the older ones, so it has a lot of research behind it, you can Google your Myers-Briggs number and famous movies, and it will show you out of the 16 Myers-Briggs types, the character. And so if you Google my Myers-Briggs, if you Google historical figures, I’m basically all the genocidal idealists. So I’m like Stalin and Marx, I’m Ayn Rand. And then if you— literally one of the taglines for my personality type is “most likely to be an atheist.” And then if you Google movies, I am always, I’m not even the bad guy. I’m like the super villain. So in Star Wars, I’m not even Darth Vader. He comes around in the end. I’m the Emperor Palpatine. In Harry Potter, I’m he-who-must-not-be-named. You know, in Breaking Bad, I’m whatever his name is.

So my point is, I am not by disposition—they say half of your emotional disposition is genetic—I did not win the genetic lottery. I am, by disposition, grumpy and anxious and cantankerous and critical and perfectionistic. My wife, who is so lovely and is a deeply godly soul, kind of a desert mother in the city, but I think if she was an absolute pagan, she’d be like a really sweet bohemian who just was really kind. And, you know, I just think she’s so kind and joyful by disposition. I am not. And so—

Cherie Harder: I have to ask, is this an INTJ Myers-Briggs or—.

John Mark Comer: Oh, see, you must be friends or ex-friends with an INTJ or something. Yes. You read my mail. Exactly. Thank God we’re the least common of all the types. So all of that to say, yeah, I reached a crisis point and the evangelical model of “go to church more and study the Bible more”—both things I am very grateful for and still do, continue to do and always will—it just was not working on the deeper stuff. And that’s when I discovered the writings of Dallas Willard and did not remotely understand it the first time through. I had a chance to have dinner many years ago—I doubt he would even remember it—with Gary Haugen of IJM. I’d never heard of The Divine Conspiracy at the time. This would’ve been the early 2000s. I was not familiar with the book, and he said it was the most influential book he’s ever read. And I went and read it and could barely get my head around it. But [Willard] was saying something there that I had never heard before, and it took a few reads. And then through that began to work through all of his corpus. And then Willard was kind of my gateway drug—and I need to say, since I’m from LA, I mean that metaphorically—to the whole world of spiritual formation and much of the social sciences. And so that’s kind of how I came to this work.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. So your book is on discipleship, and so I want to ask you about what that actually means. But I also, kind of along those lines, wanted to ask you about a fairly provocative claim that you make, which is you distinguish between just being a Christian and being a disciple. You mentioned, of course, that the New Testament mentions the word “Christian” maybe three times and “disciple” like close to 300. But you also have cited—I think it was Barna—about how few Christians would actually, you know, after taking the test, the polls, would identify as resilient disciples. And you argue that actually for modern evangelicalism that is a feature and not a bug. So I wanted to ask you what exactly is discipleship and why is it that you believe that modern evangelicalism doesn’t actually encourage it in many ways?

John Mark Comer: Oh, goodness. There’s so many— I have so many thoughts. So much we could talk about here. So I will attempt to discipline myself. Yeah, I mean, Jesus would often speak in binaries. You know, “He who saves his life will lose it. He who loses his life for my sake and the gospel will save it.” And I don’t think it’s because Jesus was an unenlightened thinker who was at a low level of consciousness and didn’t read Spiral Dynamics because, you know, in particular in other places his metaphysic is so paradoxical and complex. In particular, I think of the Gospel of John, and he’s speaking to “I and the father are one.” You know, he surely has an incredibly sophisticated and enlightened consciousness, but he would often, rhetorically, I think, speak in these binaries in order to kind of, I think, shock you and I and the listener out of our ambiguity. We love to live in kind of ambiguous ideas because it doesn’t force us to action or really call us to repentance. And so by forcing you into one of two categories, you kind of have to do that hard work of self-examination.

And, you know, in the Gospels, there are two distinct literary characters. One would be this group that are called the disciples—or I think a better translation is the “apprentices”—of Jesus. And then there are the crowds, and the crowds are a mixed bag. Like, some of the crowds are wonderful. There’s little boys who are offering up lunch to Jesus for the miraculous. There are people that are interested. There are sick and marginalized people in need of healing and deliverance who are looking to Jesus in faith. There are Pharisees who are open. And then there are other Pharisees that are literally scheming to murder him as he is preaching. So the “crowds” is this kind of ambiguous category.

And, you know, the writers of the Gospel play off these two literary characters, not because there isn’t a gradient of many of us that are somewhere between “I’m apprenticing under Jesus” and “I’m a face in the crowd,” but because I think they want to force you and I to self-identify in one of these two groups. And yes, as you said, the word “Christian”—most people know that—is barely used in the New Testament. It’s a pejorative. It was kind of a racial slur that, centuries later, followers of Jesus kind of picked up and identified and said, yes, we want to be little Christs or, you know, mini messiahs. But the New Testament category, the two most dominant kind of titles or rubrics for what it means to be the people of Jesus are “disciple” and then adelphoi, brothers and sisters or family. And these two metaphors of apprenticeship and family, I believe, are the two dominant mental models for what it means to be the people of God.

And so, yes, I key in on this one of discipleship, and I make the point that discipleship— Jesus did not invent discipleship. It was very much a part of the first-century Jewish education system.

There were three basic levels, as I understand it. Very few people made it past level one. A few people made it past level two. And then, you know, the elite, the .01 percent would make it into level three, which was an apprenticeship program under a rabbi. It would be, you know, not really but something like the equivalent of a postdoc fellowship at Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge today. It would be like the elite, you know, the best of the best of the best, not for the common person. Which makes Jesus’ invitation utterly radical when he says, “if anyone would come after me and become my disciple.” You know, discipleship was not open to anyone. You had to apply. Very few people got in. That would be like some famous professor saying, “Hey, you want to come join me at Harvard? I’ll give you a full-ride scholarship. You can live with me. I’ll pay all your bills. I’ll hang out with you every single day and I’ll give you my job when you’re done.” It was just unheard of. Which is why you have Peter and James and others literally walk out of their business. They drop their fishing nets and walk out. I mean, you think it would take a lot of catalysts to make you walk out of your small business and just go follow somebody. But it was the chance of a lifetime.

And, you know, a number of Greek scholars argue that the translation of the Greek word—which was mathitis or the Hebrew word talmid—into “disciples” is just fine. The problem with the word “disciple” is we don’t use it much anymore. And so what Christians do is they often import meanings into that word that aren’t there. So like a lot of people hear the word “discipleship” and they think of an older person meeting with a younger person to teach them basic Christian doctrine and Christian living. That’s a great thing. But that’s not what the word discipleship means. Or they think of leadership development. They confuse Jesus’ work with the 12 apostles with discipleship. They think discipleship is when you take, you know, three or four or 12 people and you’re a leader and you’re going to train up leaders after you. And I just think those are both wonderful things, but I don’t think that is what the word actually means. Certainly not the first-century meaning of the word, where a rabbi would take a coterie of disciples and they would basically—however you want to translate it—the word literally means “learner” or “student.” But it was a very different model of education than our Western one. It was apprenticeship. It was relational, holistic, embodied, emotionally informed. It was kind of 24/7, life on life. And a mathitis or a talmid would apprentice under this rabbi.

And so my attempt to summarize first-century discipleship and then apply it to 21st-century apprenticeship to Jesus is to claim that to be an apprentice of Jesus is to organize your life around three basic goals. And these were the three goals of any apprentice in the ancient world. The first one was to be with your rabbi, which in this case for us is Jesus. But you would literally follow him. That wasn’t a metaphor. You would follow him. You would be with him 24/7, and eat next to him and spend hours and days with him and just live in his presence and be around him. Your next goal was to become like him. And this was, you know, long before radical individualism and Robert Bellah in the West. And your goal was to be formed, to become like this person. You wanted to imitate him and copy everything about him. And then third, your goal was to do what he did. Just like any apprenticeship program. If you’re a plumber or an electrician or an adjunct professor, your goal is to do what your master does as good or better. And so most rabbis were bi-vocational, very few made a living from it, but your goal, whatever your job was, was to one day become a rabbi yourself. And so you’re training to do the kinds of things that Jesus said and did.

And so that’s the kind of apprenticeship model that I think is on the pages of the New Testament, that I think has been lost in the Western Protestant stream of the Church. And, so, yeah, I will stop talking for now. And then, you know, we get into the difference between that and the evangelical model of discipleship. And I think that’s where we run into some of the problem that you’re naming of the wide swath of untransformed Christians. And listen, all of us are in progress. I don’t mean that in a judgment way. But yes, I found a few studies that, for all the talk about America being so post-Christian, you know, like 67 percent of America still identifies as Christian. I can’t fathom that living in LA or Portland, where if you meet another Christian, it’s like meeting a unicorn on the street, you know. I’m from one of those places where people hear you’re from one of those cities and like, “oh, do you know—?” And they name another Christian thinking, oh, you must know each other. It’s a giant city. But there’s truth in that. And I can’t fathom that. But I know that is true nationally. But then a number of— this is really tricky to measure, and so who knows about the accuracy—but let’s say it’s even ballpark. A number of independent surveys put the number of people that are actually following Jesus in any meaningful way–and that’s not like the next Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day or Francis Chan; that’s just like what John Stott called a basic Christian—at around 4 percent. And that gap between the 67 and let’s just call it 4, I think that’s where much of the ache is right now.

Cherie Harder: Well, there is so much we could dig into in terms of what discipleship means, what it looks like to be like Jesus and grow like him. But I also want to ask you about something that you said, which is sobering—it’s certainly bad news for the home team—and you’ve written about this elsewhere, too, which is the destructive power of hurry. And you said there is no way to follow Jesus without un-hurrying your life. What is it about rush and hurry that’s so destructive to the way of discipleship?

John Mark Comer: How I would think about that is, it seems to me, that the telos of the spiritual journey and the Christian way is becoming a person of love through deepening union with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Love as defined by Jesus, not as defined by our culture, which uses that word a lot and means very different things. But, you know, it’s the two greatest commandments—love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself—that Jesus put at the center of apprenticeship to him. And he was not the first really to do so. I mean, that’s arguably the running theme of God through the library of Scripture.

And I have come to believe that hurry and love are somewhat incompatible, and I don’t think you need a rigorous biblical argument for that. I think you can just, you know, if you’re a dad like me and—. We don’t travel much as a family because it’s quite expensive, but I think of times when we have to go to the airport. We are actually flying somewhere this summer on vacation. I’m already dreading that airport trip because trying to get a family with multiple people with ADHD out the door on time to LAX of all nightmare places, you know, inevitably you end up in a state of hurry. And what comes out of me in those moments—and that’s an extreme example—but what comes out is not the fruit of the Spirit. It’s not love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and gentleness and goodness. It is agitation and anger and shaming to move kids and fear and stress and curtness.

And, you know, I think of all the psychological work on listening and how when people are deeply listened to, when people feel felt, it’s almost indistinguishable at a neurobiological level from feeling loved. Which is why sometimes you can, if you listen deeply enough to a person, even if you totally disagree with what they’re saying, they will often walk away feeling somehow deeply loved, you know? If there’s real emotional attunement. And so, yes, I think that hurry is incompatible with love. You know, Kosuke Koyama, the Japanese theologian, wrote that beautiful little collection of essays that he titled Three-Mile-an-Hour God. And I had to Google that, but apparently three miles per hour is the median speed of walking. And he just has this beautiful essay and meditation on how God is love, and therefore God is slow. And that love has a speed that is unhurried, that is slow, that is patient. I mean, 1 Corinthians 13, the first descriptor in Paul’s poetic description of love is “love is patient.” And I think it is very valid to translate that “love is unhurried” and “love is not in a rush.”

And so I am very far from the level of love that I want to live in regularly. But the moments when I tip over into something approximating the love of the Trinity flowing through me, I am almost always deeply calm and unhurried and present to the moment and the person in front of me. And that’s really hard to do if you live in a city, if you have a demanding career, if you have a phone, if you’re involved in the chaos— you know, the country’s a bit of a political quagmire at best. It’s it turns out that that is a really nice idea that is almost impossible to live.

And so I wrote this book—based on a line from Dallas Willard, not original to me in the least bit—called The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry that is kind of a Christian self-help— it’s basically an invitation to spiritual formation masquerading as a Christian self-help book. Because all people—serious disciple of Jesus or militant atheist—I think hurry is part of the pain point of our modern culture. So I think there’s a universal ache and a growing sense that the frenetic pace of Western life is not the good life. There’s a growing number of people who, not for religious reasons, not because they want to become people of love necessarily, are dropping out in increasing ways of the kind of Western life-script and finding new alternative definitions of success. And I think we should be leading and not following as apprentices of Jesus.

Cherie Harder: Yeah, that is fascinating. I’d love for you to comment on that a little bit, because I think at one point you say in your book that “the future of Christianity is mysticism.” I would love to hear you talk a little bit more about that. But I also wanted to ask, just in listening to you talk about hurry, [about] the contrast between hurry and the practice of contemplation or beholding that you discuss in your book. And, you know, we’re at a time where beholding is kind of hard, that kind of sustained attention to anything [is hard], and it doesn’t really even seem like we’re doing that much. At the same time, I also think about even what the poet Mary Oliver said about attention as being the beginning of devotion. And so I’d love to hear your thoughts on how abiding, contemplation, beholding, just essentially sitting around, what seems to be not doing all that much, actually can increase our love for God, or at the very least our awareness of his love for us.

John Mark Comer: You know, for years—we moved last summer—but when I was in Portland, there was this older Jesuit priest that I would see for spiritual direction. And my favorite thing about sitting with him—and he was several decades older than me—was he was so calm. And I’m a highly anxious person. And, you know, I’m sure if there’s an interpersonal neurobiologist on the call, they could explain the science of this. But it’s like he would set the atmosphere in the room and just sitting with him for an hour and looking at him and listening to him and him listening to me, I would feel my entire nervous system calm down. I would feel peace kind of begin to well up from the inside of my soul. And I would walk out not fixed, and normally with nothing in my life changed, but with a profoundly different inner sense of equilibrium and what ancient Christians called serenity. And that’s just an elderly Jesus lover. How much more so with Jesus himself?

And it comes as no surprise to me that Jesus put abiding at the center. I mean, arguably Jesus’ most in-depth teaching on what we would call spiritual formation, on the process of how we actually become people of love, is in John chapter 15, and it’s an agrarian word-picture of a vine and a branch and the command—the repeated command—ten times there’s this verb meno—abide, remain, make your home, and come to peace, however you want to translate it—in me. And so this is the center of Jesus’ rubric of spiritual formation. And one kind of practice of abiding is the practice of contemplation. And that word means different things to different people at different times in Church history. So I’m going to just use that in the broad—any technical academic Catholics on the call, I’m sorry—I just mean that in the broad sense of looking at God looking at us in love. I tell the story in the book, that Marjorie Thompson tells that—the Presbyterian spiritual director—she tells this gorgeous story about an elderly peasant in Europe somewhere who would go into this chapel every day and just sit in the quiet and pray. And at one point, the priest comes up to the peasant and says, “What are you doing here for hours every day, just sitting here?” In the open church. And the elderly farmer said, “I look at him, he looks at me, and we are happy.” And that’s the best definition of contemplative prayer I’ve ever heard.

And I don’t think you can simplify something as complex as the change process—you know, how do we change? How do we grow? How do we mature? How do we become like Jesus? I’m very much for that question and an attempt at an answer, and I’m resistant to anything dogmatic or formulaic, because the human soul is so beautifully literary and complex. But I think if I had to, if you backed me into a corner and said, you have to like simplify it down, I think I would say something about “we look at him looking at us in love.” And again, a neuroscientist could come on and explain mirror neurons, you know, how we take on the properties of what we give our attention to and how that then works its way into our muscle memory or the automatic responses of our nervous system. And they could give us some of the science, but I think they would be naming in the categories of science what many people, what the mystics have said for hundreds or thousands of years, that we become like what we look at, whether that’s our TV or the Trinity. And, so—it’s more complex than this, but I think if there’s a yellow line down the road, the pathway to becoming like Jesus and becoming people of love, I think it begins with slowing our life down and moving into forms of prayer that are a little bit more closer to resting than working—there’s very much a place for both, 100%, don’t mishear me—where we spend time in the quiet and even together, looking at the Trinity looking at us in love.

And I agree, it’s wildly hard. I attempt to do this every morning. On a good day I get in maybe 20 seconds, you know, in the sense of—. If you were to watch me with a body cam, I pray for at least an hour every single morning. If you had access, you’d be like, wow, look at that man, up early, praying. I even sit cross-legged on the floor to have proper breathing and posture, because I’m a body and I have an embodied theology. But if you were to actually have access to my mind, you would never have invited me on to this Zoom call. You know, at best, it is wildly chaotic and distracted, and that’s at best. At worst, it’s many other things. But in those fleeting moments—and this is why we need a holistic approach, this is why we can’t not talk about the phone and pace of life and urban architecture and everything when we talk about formation. It’s all interrelated. But in those fleeting moments where my mind actually has the capacity to calmly look at God—I had one this morning and I bet you anything it will be the highlight of my day—there’s just the level of peace, of love, of compassion and goodness, generosity, of happiness, it just, I cannot put into words.

Cherie Harder: Well, John Mark, there’s so much more I’d love to ask you about. And maybe we can have you back sometime and maybe even back with a neuroscientist. It would be fascinating to hear kind of—.

John Mark Comer: I would love that.

Cherie Harder: A neuroscientist and perhaps Curt Thompson in conversation about the ways that our minds actually change. But I see there are many, many dozens of questions all lined up from people who are watching and listening. So we’re going to turn to those in just a second. Before we do, those of you who are watching and listening, just a reminder that you can not only ask a question, but you can also like a question. And that does give us a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. So our first question comes from Mike Ford, and Mike asks, “How do you prevent spiritual discipline/formation/contemplative prayer or self-examination from becoming just one more legalistic way of life to ‘master’? In other words, how might you receive it as an invitation to a way that’s freeing and not burdening?”

John Mark Comer: Yeah, well, you know, I think there’s two different answers. One would be to you and I as the apprentice of Jesus. And then the other more complex one is to pastors and spiritual leaders or, you know, if you want to lovingly walk another person into a practice or whatever. That’s a different question. Same end goal, but two different questions. And, you know, I would hope it would go without saying that any practice, even including, at some level, contemplative prayer, it comes significantly down the way, downstream, from the beginning of Christian spirituality and Christian spiritual formation. So a lot of people, I think, grossly misequate spiritual disciplines with spiritual formation. And I think spiritual disciplines are a core part of spiritual formation. And I think in the hurry of modern life, one of the reasons I put so much emphasis on them is because I think most people are too hurried and not contemplative enough to have deep transformation occur and to really access the meaningful union with God that God would have for them. And so I put a lot of emphasis on that, probably to where people actually think that I think that they are a larger slice of the pie than I actually believe they are.

And so way upstream, you know— if you read Willard’s writings, he said very little about the mechanics of spiritual practices. Richard Foster said much more about that based on Willard’s work. I’ve said way too much about that, based on Willard’s work. But Willard himself, you know, would talk about the importance of spiritual practices, but he said very little about how to or training or what have you. He spent much of his time— and some of this is time stamped. He’s coming in the late 90s where, you know, we don’t have the influence that key figures like N.T. Wright and now the Bible Project and some other really good scholars have kind of really helped to heal, I think, a gross misunderstanding of the gospel in evangelicalism. And so, you know, Willard begins with the gospel, and then he begins with this vision of a transformed life in the kingdom of God. And he’s just constantly talking about life in the kingdom of God.

And he has his little shorthand rubric of formation—VIM: vision, intention, method—for any change, from “I’m trying to lose 10 pounds right now,” you know, a silly example, to “I want to become a less critical husband,” you know, because I’m a perfectionist, critical Emperor Palpatine kind of personality. I don’t want to be that. I want to be a loving, gracious, grateful, celebratory husband, and I’m not. I want to change. So any change, minor or major, first, you need a vision. I need a vision of myself 10 pounds thinner. I need a vision of myself as a loving, patient, kind husband. I need to believe that I could become that kind of a person. Then I need a moment of intention. So, you know, all of us have, we see pictures of people, I see pictures of people, you know, flat abs and six packs all of the time. And there’s a part of me that I would love to have that. But then I think about what it would take to have that. I’m like, absolutely not. I want some hummus tonight for Sabbath dinner and a glass of red wine. I’m okay without any of that. Thank you. So you have to have a moment of intention where you decide in your heart, I will do whatever it takes to become this kind of a person. Unfortunately, that’s where almost all of evangelicalism stops, in particular where church services tend to stop.

Vision—preaching can do an amazing job. Just how Jesus did vision. Preaching can lay out a vision of life in the kingdom of God. If it’s done well. I love it, I believe in it, I do it. And often if there’s an emotional moment of encounter, you can have a moment of intention. But you will not get very far at all unless you have method. So in the 10 pounds case, it’s, you know, whatever—I’m going to do a HIIT workout six days a week. I’m going to eat perfectly clean, you know, five nights a week. I’m going to do intermittent fasting. I’m going to drink, you know, X amount of water. I’m not going to drink alcohol except on Sabbath, like I have my little, just a simple little plan because good intentions and authentic desire are not enough.

And so the same is true in the spiritual life. And so, you know, spiritual disciplines are one example of the method. So—and forgive me for overtalking here—but I think what I’m trying to say is that someone must first have a genuine encounter with the utter beauty of Jesus and possibility of life in the kingdom. And they must, I think, at some level, deeply experience that love, so that any disciplines or practice of contemplation becomes nothing more than a method to try to make more of yourself available to that love. In the same way that, you know, I don’t really think of my weekly date night as a discipline—though there are times when it, you know, life is stressful and busy and costs money and whatever—but it is a discipline by which I’m trying to maintain and deepen an experience of love. That’s a very human analogy, but contemplative prayer, any practice, you’re just trying to open yourself deeper to love.

And so I think I would agree, the two great dangers—and some of this is generational— this is an oversimplification, but for the older generation or for people from more conservative Christian parts of the culture that, again, I have not really been around, legalism, in the sense of like a broken motivational structure or feeling a lack of a sense of the love and compassion of God for you and a feeling that are you earning God’s love through this practice? Huge danger, like ditch on the side of the road.

I think—again, to oversimplify—if you’re working with younger people or you’re in a more secular and progressive context, you know, I think the two dangers there would be either kind of what I would just call spiritual wellness, in a kind of wellness capitalism: essential oils, yoga, $400 Alo pants. You know, culture of a Sabbath or contemplative prayer can just become almost like another educated, progressive, upper-middle-class attempt at wellness with, you know, infrared saunas and psilocybin.

And then on the other side would be a performative spirituality. I mean, particularly for career-oriented people, this would be maybe a little bit more East Coast than California, such a performance-oriented culture. And so, you know, everything from exercise to business to how you dress to how you talk to the books you read, is performing an image in order to succeed. And so that bleeds into our life of prayer. And prayer should get that out of our system. But it also, it’s a two-way membrane. It comes into our system.

So I think these are all legitimate dangers. But, you know, Richard Foster had that line—he was talking about legalism and license— and he said there are real dangers on the path, but it’s still the right path. And I think that’s how I feel. I think there are real dangers if you walk down the path of spiritual discipline, spiritual formation, contemplative spirituality, a rule of life, any of the things I advocate for. I think there are real dangers, but I think it is still the right and necessary and essential path to follow.

Cherie Harder: So we’ve had quite a few questions come in around the theme of community. So I’m actually going to combine two. I’ll just ask both of them of you and you can sort of answer as you see fit. Eric Schneiderman says, “You place a huge emphasis on personal spiritual formation, which we’ve greatly neglected in the Western Church. How does growth within the context of community play into practicing the way?” And somewhat relatedly, John Bailey asked, “How can this internal change still be outward focused? How can practicing the way still be for the sake of others and not just Project Self?”

John Mark Comer: So, I mean, certainly— I will discipline myself not to elaborate on how deeply I believe in community as the overall milieu by which all deep change happens. Spiritual formation is ultimately a relational process, and that’s where I think people get wonky on the disciplines. They think it’s a habit-stacking process. And I’m all for habit-stacking, and I really believe in— I understand just the gist of neurobiology in its core, but ultimately the habits make space for relationship with God and with others. And those are the two, I think, you know, the contemplative path and the deeply relational path are the two— other than suffering. You know, probably those are the three streams that I would have to say— you know, Todd Hall out at Rosemead School of Psychology, also does work with Harvard, I think he’s doing some of the most helpful and interesting work on formation right now. You can read his stuff. Relational Spirituality is the title of his academic work. It’s brilliant. And he’s attempting to study what spiritual practices and what aspects of Christian spirituality are actually most transformative. This is my summary of his work, and I ran it by him and he nodded his head. So I think I’m on safe ground here. But you should have him on—he’s absolutely brilliant and lovely—and have him speak for himself. But my interpretation is he would say that the data of empirical studies on spiritual life would say that, you know, whatever you want to call it, the category of contemplative practice, deep long-term relationships, and suffering are the three most transformative aspects of Christian spirituality. Those three pathways have the deepest impact on our growth into people of Christlike love.

And so, yes, I just could not say enough about the role of relationship. And again, a book is not a summary of all thought. And it definitely doesn’t come through enough in this book, and I think, you know, you always— a book is a photograph of your thinking. And I think even in the year following the rough draft that I turned in, my conviction around community, which is already really deep, went nothing but deeper. And so if I could rewrite that book, I would probably— there was a whole section in there on community that got cut, because we really wanted to keep the book pretty short. And in hindsight, I think I’d rather have the book be a tad longer and have a few chapters on community. And I think it’s really important because of the change in church size. I don’t want to get critique-y, but churches are so much larger now than they used to be. Not for all people, but for most. The Great Resorting. You know, 1970, there were only ten churches over 10,000 people in the US. I grew up in one of them. And now there are upwards of 2,000. So it’s kind of like the Robert Putnam-ing the great resorting of the Church, of now the majority of Christians are in the minority of churches. And listen, there’s good things that large churches bring to the table, but they simply do not, in their Sunday gatherings, even come close to approximating community in the sense of where deep change happens. And so that has to now be taken on intentionally, often by individuals, because the church structures aren’t strong enough in that area. Not always. Sometimes they are. So yes, I just could not agree more.

And how it keeps from becoming Project Self? Goodness. Now we’re starting to ask heart questions and motivational questions. And I know that in my own life, any time I start to gravitate toward Project Self—and that would be very much in my personality structure and matrix—I’m quickly disabused of that notion because I feel—. The irony of spiritual formation is the more of a premium you place on growth and change, the more acutely aware you become of how utterly powerless you are to change yourself. And of how— you know, I am not from the reformed tradition. Many of my ideas would be in tension with the reformed tradition. But ironically, the older I get, as much as I believe in the potential for human change, the more I find myself sounding like a Calvinist. Just, “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.” It’s like they’re onto something. They’re onto something in how they approach the mercy of God and the atonement of Christ.

And I think the two things for me that keep me from devolving to Project Self: one is the vision and teachings of Jesus and the constant call of him to death to self. And so that’s where I’m not a progressive. I hold to the teachings of Jesus and I want him to create the boundaries and the telos, which for me is love as defined by Christ. It’s not happiness, it’s not wellness. It’s not I’m not stressed out. It’s not I’m living my best life now. It’s Jesus and the telos set by him. And the other thing that keeps me from Project Self is my utter inability to transform myself into a person of love, my daily failure that throws me at grace and causes me to realize that all practices, all prayer, all Christian friendships ultimately are just ways—. You know, Jacques Philippe would say the primary question of discipleship to Jesus—this is my paraphrase—is how do I make deeper and deeper layers of myself available to grace? And I am more aware of my need for grace now than I have ever been.

Cherie Harder: John Mark, there are so many questions left. But our time is running out. We will have to have you back at some point. And in just a moment, I’d love to ask you for the last word. But before we do that, just a few things to share with those of you who are watching first. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. We’d love to have your thoughts and feedback. We read every one of these. We try to take your suggestions into account and make these an ever more valuable resource. And as a special thank-you or token of appreciation with your feedback form, we will send you a coupon for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice. There’s actually quite a few Trinity Forum Readings that are related to our conversation today, and a few that we would particularly recommend would be Augustine’s “Confessions,” with an introduction by James K.A. Smith, “Bright Evening Star,” “A Practical View of Real Christianity” by William Wilberforce, “Simone Weil’s “Wrestling with God,” “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” and Anselm’s “Why God Became Man.”

In addition, tomorrow, right around noon or so, we’ll be sending around an email with a very lightly edited video linked to today’s Online Conversation, as well as a list of other readings, resources, things to kind of employ if you want to go deeper into the topic. So hope that you will check that out and share this conversation with others. Start a community discussion.

In addition, we’d love to invite all of you who are watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who are banded together to promote Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought for the common good. There’s a number of advantages to being a community member as well, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive, with your new membership or gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of John Mark Comer’s new book, Practicing the Way. So we would love to welcome you into the Trinity Forum Society and hope you will avail yourself of that invitation.

In addition, if you would like to sponsor a future Online Conversation, we would love to hear from you and just either shoot us an email or indicate such in the online feedback form. Our next event coming up is on May 17th. We will be hosting Walter Kim from the National Association of Evangelicals and Adam Taylor from Sojourners on “Civic Discipleship.” And the next couple of months will be featuring a bunch of fantastic guests, including Amy Low, Elizabeth Oldfield, Mia Chung, David Bailey, and more.

Finally, for our viewers who are in or near the Nashville area, we will actually be there in-person this coming week on May 8th for an in-person Evening Conversation with senior fellow and former online conversation guest John Inazu. So please come and join us for that. There’ll be more information on our website in the chat feature for that as well.

Finally, as promised, John Mark, the last word is yours.

John Mark Comer: Well, in traditional fashion. I’m going to quote somebody else for my last word, but the thought that came to mind was this prayer that I found many years ago and rediscovered just last week, and I’ve been praying it the last few days, so I thought I would share. This is a lovely prayer from Brennan Manning. You’re welcome to just take a few deep breaths if you want. Close your eyes if it’s helpful to focus. And let me pray this and pray along with me.

Abba, I surrender my will and my life to you today without reservation and with humble confidence. For you are my loving father. Set me free from self-consciousness, from anxiety about tomorrow, and from the tyranny of the approval and disapproval of others, that I may find joy and delight simply and solely in pleasing you. May my inner freedom be a compelling sign of your presence, your peace, your power, and your love. Let your plan for my life and the lives of all your children gracefully unfold one day at a time. I love you with all my heart and I place all my confidence in you for you are my Abba.

Cherie Harder: Thank you, John Mark. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.