Learning a New Spiritual Practice from Jonathan Edwards
I have spent the better part of the last decade studying Jonathan Edwards’s theology and spirituality. Edwards has been such a close companion over the past several years that I find myself less and less surprised by him. But that is not always the case. He is such a broad and deep thinker that there are always avenues of his thought and practice that I have yet to explore, and as I was writing Formed for the Glory of God this happened on several occasions.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of my study was the practice of “conferencing.” I was not surprised by it, per se, but was struck by how brilliant the Puritan practice of conferencing really is. Basically, conferencing is somewhat similar to what we might call an accountability partner, a small group, family devotionals and pastoral care. Each one of these would be an aspect of conferencing. Every believer would have a conference partner, would conference in their homes with their families, and would engage in conferencing with their pastor.
In general, conferencing typically used the last sermon you heard as a launching point into an exploration of both Scripture and one’s own heart. There is a deep connection between studying Scripture and knowing the movements of your heart. While we tend to focus on one of these, conferencing pulled them together.
One of the aspects of this that I found particularly brilliant was the use of the last sermon. Think about what this does. If you are listening to a sermon and you know that you will be held accountable to its content, won’t that change how you listen? If you know you will have to lead people through the main ideas and be able to explore broader swaths of Scripture to speak meaningfully about the sermon’s main message, how will your posture change during the sermon itself? Likewise, think about divulging the realities of your heart each week in several contexts, and hearing others do the same. Think about, after several years, how much more insightful you would be on the nature of sin and temptation, grace and forgiveness, self-deception and the nature of hypocrisy.
Conferencing is just one of the many spiritual practices I discuss in Formed for the Glory of God, but it is certainly one of the most interesting and applicable to our day-to-day lives here and now. Conferencing is just one piece of a broader understanding of life with God that the Puritans took for granted. It was not just one practice, or even a handful of practices, that make up the Christian life. There is an overall vision of Christian life and community, grounded in God giving over himself to us in grace, that allows for us to grasp the transformative reality of life with God.