23 books for spiritual formation

23 Books for Spiritual Formation

“Can you recommend a good book?”

It’s a common question I’m asked, and the short answer is: Yes, of course I can.

I love books. I always have. I can relate to Annie Dillard’s character of whom she wrote, “She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.

So here are 23 books I’ve found helpful on my spiritual journey so far, that invite me deeper into the inner life and communion with God. To me, inside every book is a person who has wrestled with God, asked questions, and seen the path beyond my next bend. These authors have been, and continue to be, trusted allies for my spiritual journey. I trust they may be for you as well.

The Cloud of Unknowing
This anonymous work comes from the medieval mystic tradition. By “cloud of unknowing” the author references the dark, mysterious vulnerable place where the only thing we’re comfortable with is our deep need for God. This is a common theme in contemplative spiritual writing. With brief chapters, it can make for great daily devotional reading.

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This is the money quote most often shared from this work. But it’s just the beginning of the German Lutheran pastor’s clarion call to practical obedience to Jesus despite a religious sub-culture swimming in “cheap grace.” The bulk of the work covers his reflections on the Sermon on the Mount.

Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro
Praying the “daily office” is an ancient practice of the church, and this represents a contemporary version of something like for Book of Common Prayer for those who may not have been raised in a liturgical church setting. For beginners in the practice of the daily office this is a helpful entry point.

The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile
I’ve found the Enneagram to be a tremendously helpful tool in understanding myself, how I relate to God, and how I listen to others, and then as a result, how I grow as a person. The Enneagram is a personality system based on nine types, and this book is a great place to start. (I’ve written a more detailed review of this book here.)

Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva Dawn
Two works I owe so much to the inspiration of The Sabbath Life—this one and Eugene Peterson’s book listed below. In this work, Dawn builds on ideas taken from Abraham Heschel’s classic The Sabbath and contextualizes them for a contemporary Christian audience in practical, down-to-earth ways.

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
This classic has inspired much of the literature on spiritual formation for the past 30 years. In it, Foster details twelve spiritual disciplines—each related to our relationship to God, our relationship to others, and our participation in God’s mission in the world—as they’ve been practiced through the history of the church.

Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster
Many of us, despite the years we’ve spent in church, remain unaware of the great variety of Christian experience throughout the centuries. Foster, here, broadly outlines six major movements of the Church with a big “C”—which he calls the Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical, and Incarnational traditions. He brings to light the gifts that each has brought the Church and also their blindspots.

The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross
Not a book you should read while you’re in the midst of experiencing a “dark night.” John was a 16th-century Spanish priest who explores the challenges we face—perhaps dry seasons, valleys of doubt—on the journey towards God.

A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly
Published by a Quaker teacher in 1941, this book is about seeking inner quiet and stillness in the midst of modern life. He emphasizes the “light within,” God’s initiative towards us, and the simplicity of life.

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
Lawrence was a 17th-century French monk, and this simple book is all about seeing God in all of the daily, mundane, routine, ordinariness of life.

The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
Manning was a Catholic priest who struggled with alcohol addiction all of his adult life. If you struggle with receiving the love and grace of God because you think you’ve done everything possible to disqualify yourself, this is something you need to read.

New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
Merton’s biography, also worth reading, tells his story from successful professor and writer in New York City to taking Benedictine vows as a monk in rural Kentucky. He was one of the most prolific Catholic devotional writers in the 20th century. This collection is the best place to start.

Invitation to a Journey by Robert Mulholland
Mulholland was a professor at Asbury Seminary while I was on campus, and students affectionately referred to him as “Gandalf,” in part for his white beard and how he always looked ready to go on a hike. I always remember that image when I think of this book. In additional to highlighting classic practices of the Church, Mulholland also explores the various ways that the different Myers-Briggs personality types experience spiritual formation.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen
Nouwen’s story is every bit as powerful as his many spiritual books. He was a Catholic priest who late in life gave up a prestigious position at Harvard to live among a community of mentally and physically handicapped. This book is a profound reflection on Rembrandt’s painting of the same name.

The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen
One of the ideas in the Enneagram is that your broken places tend to be your greatest gifts to others. That’s the big idea of this book.

The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson
“The adjective ‘busy’ set as a modifier to ‘pastor’ should sound to our ears like ‘adulterous’ to characterize a wife or ’embezzling’ to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.” And that’s just how this book gets started. I would substitute the word ‘Christian’ for ‘Pastor’ in the title because this message applies to every Christian.

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero
Our capacity for spiritual growth is deeply related to our emotional maturity. This is the big idea of this book. To be healthy Christians, we need to tend to our emotions and develop self-awareness in this area for the sake of those around us.

The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith
This is less a book to read through and more a curriculum to experiment with in a small group. It pairs well as a companion with the Dallas Willard book listed below, and it’s the first of a trilogy. The second is The Good and Beautiful Life (which studies the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount), followed by The Good and Beautiful Community (which delves into the Holy Spirit and the Church).

You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith
Everything around us shapes us. Public education shapes us to be particular people. The mall (as well as Amazon) shapes us to be particular people. In this book, Smith explores the way that we as humans innately worship, and we become the things (or Thing) we worship.

The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila
This comes from the same cultural moment as St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul. Teresa envisioned the spiritual life as a diamond in the shape of a castle with seven mansions, which represented seven stages leading to one’s communion with God.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
This is a handbook for the spiritual life from the 15th century. It may be the most famous and widely read Christian work outside of the Bible. Its brief chapters make excellent daily devotional material.

The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
Tower was a no-nonsense, firebrand of a preacher in the first half of the 20th century. Many of his books, like this one, are a collection of sermons and articles. Tozer had no patience for a religion that did not give all its allegiance to King Jesus.

The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
With Richard Foster, Willard stands tall among Protestant spiritual formation writers of the last 30 years. In this book, he unpacks the Sermon on the Mount, and if you only ever read two authors on the Sermon, you can’t go wrong with this and Bonhoeffer.

Anne Lamott has written:

“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

I like to imagine all these writers along a big, farm-style table, passing steaming plates of home-cooked goodness up and down the table. They’re in fierce conversation with each other—sharing, listening, laughing, probably even arguing a little bit.

Maybe heaven looks a little like this.

I hope that you find at least one of two of these helpful in your own journey. And if you have one that’s been especially meaningful to you that you don’t see here, leave it in the comments below.

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