Phases of Inner Life Awesomeness and Lameness

I keep having similar conversations with my friends and students- so I wanted to write down some themes I’ve seen emerge in terms of inner life development. These phases of inner life growth are not scientific and I don’t think that everyone goes through them. But I have gone through all of them and have seen many of my students and peers walk through them, so I thought I would share.

Hey- What’s a Quiet Time?

At some point a Chrsitian finds out they should try to have an inner life and a regular personal prayer time. And for some reason it gets called a quiet time. Or Q.T. as really Christian people call it, because Christians love weird lingo that others don’t understand.

Usually it entails a little handbook that gives you a reading for everyday of the year ( for example Oswald Chambers My Utmost for His Highest) or the discovery of journaling and doing something like ACTS ( from Bill Hybels Too Busy Not to Pray). I made a few attempts at this in high school, but really began in ernest in college.

If you haven’t moved towards this, then let me suggest that you try.  We need to learn to show up to Jesus on a regular basis if we want a relationship with Him.  And as much as we love a shortcut and wish there was a buzzfeed lifehack list for inner life growth- we just have to learn to show up.


Listening Prayer or Holy Crap- He talks back.

This was game changer. Realizing that prayer is not the most boring one way conversation in the universe was incredibly inspiring. Being given tools to hear the voice of Jesus brought a kind of dynamic excitement to prayer that I had never encountered before. Until I learned about listening prayer, intercession seemed about as interesting as talking to my shoe. I had guilt that I “should pray more.” But I couldn’t conjure words to pray- beyond “Hey Jesus, you should do something about this…if it’s your will.” I got bored. But now I could listen to Jesus for direction and there was a back and forth. It’s already hard to have a conversation with an invisible entity- so it really helps it the conversion is dynamic and interactive.  I learned to see pictures, receive Scripture, and have a sense of guidance as I prayed.   GAME CHANGER!


Lordship and Sin

For most of college, a lot of what I heard as I journaled, had my daily quiet time, and practiced listening prayer was connected to getting sin out of my life and choosing into deeper Lordship. I heard invitations to fast from dating, to confess my lying, and to repent from comparison and critical spirit towards my best friend.

I became more sensitive to the Holy Spirit convicting me of sin- pressing me not to gossip about people, not to twist the truth, and cut off unhealthy romantic relationships. I grew more sensitive to the Holy Spirit challenging me to obey the Word- to share my car and open up decision of how I would spend my summer break.  Though challenging – it was awesome to have this type of connection to Jesus. It was intimate and dynamic.


Disappointment always catches me off guard.  Often I don’t even know I have expectations until they don’t happen. And then I find out what an entitled person I am.

In college I had made a commitment not to date for a couple years. I assumed that at the end of that time I would date a close friend with whom I had had an on and off again interest. So when he started dating someone else just as my dating fast was coming to an end I went into crazy batshit mode. I was so disappointed and full of shock. I had assumed that my obedience not to date would lead to the reward of dating this great Christian guy. It didn’t mean that.

As I’m writing this I realize that disappointment deserves its own post. So I’m gonna keep on keeping on.  Suffice it to say- disappointment will take your inner life to spiritual school at a whole new level. I’ll dedicate an entire post to this topic.

Grow Up and Take Responsibility for Your Life

At some point- usually mid to late twenties-  all my friends and I went through a – “He’s not talking to me anymore” phase. This isn’t the Dark Night of the Soul kind of silence. I’ve come to interpret this season as the “grow the hell up phase.” At this point I had cleared most of the super obvious sin out of my life, and I had taken significant strides forward in Lordship and obedience. I was trying to make life decisions and seeking Jesus in prayer and hearing nothing. Over time I realized that Jesus had formed his character in me. And I didn’t need a specific word for each decision. My friend Jon Ball writes a great article about decision making where he uses a playground analogy. Jesus doesn’t care if you are on the slide, or on the swing, or in the sand box as long as you stay in the boundaries of the playground. Character that has been formed by Jesus should keep us within the right boundaries most of the time, from there we get to make choices about what we want to do.

I realized that I, and many of my friends, were afraid to make decisions because we didn’t want to take responsibility for the consequences in our own lives. Much easier to ask Jesus what to do and have Him tell us. Then we could sidestep the scary reality that we were going to have to make real adult decisions an take responsibility for those decisions.

In the way that you wouldn’t want to treat  a 7 year old child the same as a 2 year old, in our younger days of discipleship we needed lots of guidance and specifics. But we should have internalized those lessons into our character and Jesus lets us grow up.


Phase 2- Turns out There’s more

Now this is one that I wish someone had told me about ahead of time. Somewhere in my late 20’s I got empty. None of the old tricks were working. I was in full time ministry, a team leader, supervising full time staff and interns, teaching, preaching regularly, and leading multiple leaders teams. I kept thinking that I needed to go back to my first love. I had been so in love with Jesus those first few years in college. I kept thinking that that was what was missing. But I couldn’t get back there. I felt stuck and burnt out.

At one point I took a leave of absence and went to Tanzania for 3 months to work with AIDS orphans. The complete change of pace, change of context, and isolation were incredibly refreshing. But I still needed a deeper paradigm shift.

A couple years later when I finally was able to go on Sabbatical- I realized I didn’t need to go back. I needed to go forward, somewhere new. The spirituality that had gotten me this far wasn’t going to get me further. As a college minister I had already recognized the tendency to stagnate as I kept walking students through the same phase of discipleship. They were in their Lordship/ Sin/ and Listening phase. But I wasn’t. I was an expert at that phase of development and oblivious to my need for a completely new phase.

Also, I didn’t realize that I had lowered my expectations of God. I didn’t know that there was a whole new way of interacting with God. This season was full of painful searching and a sense of aimlessness.  I couldn’t read the Bible for the entire 6 months I was on sabbatical. And I couldn’t read one more evangelical book telling me to do something. I had spent the last 10 years doing something. My do something muscle was out of control. My ministry muscles were incrediably  developed. But I had kept using the same inner life muscles I had gotten as a 17 years old. They weren’t big enough. And I needed to bring some completely new muscles into play. On sabbatical I discovered a whole new spirituality.

Again, the main lesson of this season was that the spirituality that gotten me this far was not going to get me through the next phase.  I needed to make time and space to find something new. Many people find spiritual disciplines to be helpful in this season. Others find greater clarity through tools like the enneagram or vocational discernment, and many turn to contemplative disciplines.

For me- as someone who had basically started full-time ministry at 21 years old, I learned about a new way of interacting with God that was not based on the mission. It was based on being creative, being an artist, being the way the He had made me. Not every interaction with Jesus was about receiving ministry marching orders. Suddenly there was space for beauty and art. Not as a means to a missional end, but just to enjoy.  I didn’t think that I would repeatedly, over the course of my life, experience profound paradigm shifts in my inner life. I didn’t expect I would discover whole new ways of knowing God and being known by Him.  I didn’t have that expectation. Its sound obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t in the moment. Now I”m grateful. I feel more whole and integrated as a follower of Jesus.

I spent months learning to enjoy God, without a task to execute. I learned to be present to nature, to dreams, to the quiet quiet voice inside of me that wasn’t trying to prove anything through ministry. I experienced God as a woman and as feminine. I experienced invitations to be creative and not just productive. It was new, and different, and so life giving. And now I sense that I may need some new muscles again. But I’m still figuring that out. At least now I know to expect these shifts, even if I don’t know what they will be.


Well those are some thoughts.  I would be very interested to hear your own reflections and experiences on this topic.



14 thoughts on “Phases of Inner Life Awesomeness and Lameness

  1. I am so grateful you have put in words many of the same inner spiritual life paradigm shifts that I have also experienced!! I’m in that last one with you. Having our first child has totally provoked that entry into greater ”being with” Jesus, playfulness in art and a deep need to be creative (just to survive!!)… It’s also been interesting to me that it is now as I’m getting close to the end of seminary that I finally want / eagerly desire / can experience God in deeper ways as I integrate the various tools/biblical languages I’ve learned IN my own walk with Jesus!!! But it has taken so long!! But what a blessed relief to know that all this studying is finally bearing deep fruit I love. Anyway, thanks for sharing, Erna! I really appreciate your posts!!

  2. I love this! It reminds me that we’re in process, that God doesn’t treat us the same our whole lives, cuz what relationship is the exact same forever? 🙂

    After leaving IV, how I relate to God has been all over the place. Stripped of my identity as a “minister” has been very revealing (still clinging to it, not sure how many times I reference it or how often I try to insert myself into leadership positions, whether or not God is calling me).

    I find myself in a new phase where I get to try out all kinds of things, including a new life rhythm, these things called “hobbies”, and other new disciplines.

    Hearing from God now seems so much more about basking in His love than hearing answers (so odd after thinking of “listening prayer” as this often two hour discernment sesh with close friends).

    I feel like I am finding my footing in a world apart from the (greatest) structure I got so used to.

  3. I think I’ve, more or less, been entangled in the my-soul-is-incomprehensibly-dark and Jesus’-grace-runs-deeper-than-perceived-dark-souls vines. The spirit seems deprived and dry and my broken record cry is for the Spirit to move and illuminate my inky darkness, which I hope is not par for the course of how I’ll always be living. Felt immobile when it comes to “ministering” for such a long time now… That I’ve fallen into just work and family responsibilities, which includes trying to live out a truthy life founded on J so my 20 month old kid can somehow glean hints of something I’ve no longer chalked up to God but possibly as the best of what I can humanly and personally conceive of Him.

    a large part of me questions whether these are phases to evolve from, or simply steps I can take to meander away from where I am now, in the name of “progress”.

    So I hope this is true, that maturation in character requires these empty spaces & wandering ways to acknowledge the validity of a certain kingdom perspective of relativism. And to nurture without being bounded by a chain tagged “mission”.

    Meanwhile, I’ll try to live faithfully for a God I felt so convinced we are to know so well and intimately/personally, but Who I often feel is keeping silent for some weird/good reason. Year 8.75 of hoping and trying not to feel like my saltiness is gone for good.

  4. What’s the link to Jon Ball’s article? Sounds like a good one. This article resonates with my thoughts that Christian discipleship sometimes gets reduced to “we are little children (toddlers!) and God is our big, bad heavenly Father.” For a while I’ve wondered, “what is this relationship like when the children grow up? what happens to this relationship when the image of curling up in the safety of his lap is not appealing or age appropriate anymore?” You’ve put a fine point on all of this all while telling your story. Well done, girl!

    • I’ll look for it and send it to you. I had an interesting conversation with a colleague recently about the different between calling ourselves sons and daughters instead of children. His argument, which I’m really coming around to, is that sons and daughters gives us access to the familial dynamic with God, while giving us room to grow and mature. I like that.

  5. I just discovered your blog and I so appreciate your words. You have a gift for writing, friend, and I enjoy the quirkiness. You make me laugh. I do have a serious question for you, though, regarding your section on listening prayer. This sounds horrible, but every time I try listening prayer, I end up falling asleep (I’m not kidding, unfortunately). I know that God speaks to us through His Word, but I would love to just once hear His audible voice, or receive a vision of some sort. Do you have any tips on how to center yourself and be in the right ‘space’ for listening prayer?

    • Really appreciate your honest question. I do best with listening prayer in community. Since sleep is a real struggle and its hard to get clarity alone. I a have a friendship groups that meets once a year to listen for each person. Often friends and I will take tim to listen for each other. But almost all of us received some sort of training through InterVarsity as staff or students- so we share a common language and approach. Over time I’ve learned to hear more on my own. I find that taking a walk is helpful, it keeps me alert and I find it easier to stay present when my body is moving. Certain churches do more with this, and teaching people how to interpret things they see in prayer. Don’t give up- Jesus is speaking all the time. It does take some time to learn to hear. And the Bible isn’t too shabby. 😉

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