How to Write a Spiritual Autobiography
By Beth Demme
A Spiritual Autobiography is the story of your own life and how God has been present in it. It can include your journey in, and out of, organized religion and all things spiritual.
Writing your Spiritual Autobiography is an opportunity to identify specific experiences of God and to reflect on how those experiences have impacted you.
It’s basically the story of your personal journey with God.
Before attending Seminary, I had the pleasure of participating in Sewanee University’s Education for Ministry program. We started each year by sharing our Spiritual Autobiographies. We didn’t share our entire life stories, we each took about ten minutes and shared a summary of how God had been at work in our lives through the years.
There are a number of ways to approach this exercise and I’ll include some questions at the end to guide you if you want to give it a try. In the meantime, here is an excerpt from my Spiritual Autobiography. This excerpt focuses on my relationship with churches/denominations and how that has shaped some of my theology.
Beth’s Spiritual Autobiography (Excerpt):
Not everyone’s journey with God happens in a church, but my journey is rooted there.
I grew up attending an ELCA church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in a mainly Southern Baptist town. I often felt like a religious outsider because while my friends were “saved” I was “confirmed.” My friends got dunked, but as an infant I had been sprinkled. My friends were often public about their faith, but to me sacred and private felt synonymous.
I vacillated between certainty and doubt, but neither felt appropriate for conversation. Meanwhile, my friends not only memorized Bible verses, they displayed them on their t-shirts.
They talked about a personal relationship with God and getting their ticket to heaven (you can buy a whole pack of them on Amazon if you need to), while I dug into studying church doctrine and the Reformation.
A friend once asked why my church used a liturgy instead of the Bible. I think she appreciated my insight as I launched into a lengthy lesson on the biblical basis for each part of the liturgy. She didn’t exactly look joyful, but I’m sure she was happy on the inside as I explained how the lectionary worked. And I’m sure she was relieved to know that the Reformation started, in part, because Martin Luther believed the Bible should be more accessible.
I wasn’t the only one who embraced my role as an outsider. I remember when the “Christian Rock Star” Carman came to our town in the early 1990’s. His concerts always included a massive altar call where people were invited to “make a decision for Christ” by coming forward. As Carman made his invitation, I just sat there with the rest of my youth group. Finally, a boy named Eric huffed a bit and said what we were all thinking: “we’re Lutherans. We get confirmed, not saved.” His righteous indignation comforted me a bit as we sat there stoically, eight among eight thousand, unwilling to submit to the overly-emotional atmosphere in the room.
Writing my Spiritual Autobiography revealed to me how my understanding of God has changed with the passing of time, but also how those early church experiences echo even today.
I’m a Methodist now, but I still often feel like a religious outsider. I worry my understanding of God will be deemed insufficient. I feel befuddled by the idea of a ticket to heaven. I wonder about the validity of highly emotional religious experiences.
As a child, I thought of God as an overlord. He watched over us and had the power to punish us, if we needed it. Later, I thought of God as watching over us with the power to intervene and help us, if we asked for it. Eventually, I came to my present belief: God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, but in ways I can’t really understand or explain.
For a time, I thought free will was proof of God’s detachment. Then I wondered if free will was a trap. Now I think free will is a gift of love.
God is beyond comprehension but still accessible to me. God is with me in my suffering and my celebrating. God is inseparable from me, but far beyond me.
God wants me to live a full life, detached from my possessions but completely attached to Him.
Everything I do and every role I play (mom, wife, daughter, sister, pastor, writer, teacher, lawyer) relates back to my relationship with God. I’ve been surprised at how that relationship has endured, even blossomed, in times of grief and seasons of struggle.
My relationship with God is a source of freedom. I may be an outsider in Christian sub-culture, but I’m an insider with God. I may have some mixed up ideas about God, but it’s okay because God’s grace is sufficient. I am not defined by my denomination, my doubts, or even by my theological errors because God’s love is powerful enough to overcome my humanity.
If it turns out I need a ticket to heaven, I trust God will provide it. If it turns out I needed to be saved at an altar call, to have said a specific sinner’s prayer, or to be dunked after a certain age, God will vouch for me.
He has so far.
If you would like to try writing your own Spiritual Autobiography, start by asking yourself these questions:
- Which churches have I attended? Why?
- Does God feel real to me?
- When/where/with whom have I ever encountered God (during church, prayer, conversation, on retreat, reading, etc.)?
- Have I had seasons of doubt or disobedience? What did that feel like? When did it end?
- Who have I known who seemed to “know” God?
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