This post is based on a presentation made at the ACW Regional Retreat in September 2020.
Are Spiritual Disciplines really that important?
Why are Spiritual Disciplines important? Is not believing in Jesus enough? Are disciplines just a form of works righteousness, some mistaken attempt to earn our salvation? Do we really need to worry about things like church attendance, prayer, or reading the Bible?
Have you ever asked yourself these questions?
Some may see an emphasis on spiritual disciplines as just a fad. After all, the language of spiritual formation, and spiritual disciplines, emerged popularly in 1978 with the publication of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. Since then, other works began to surface – and today, there is quite a lot in this field. Thus, some may say that this whole emphasis on disciplines and formation is just a flash in the pan. Yet this is not only to misunderstand what Foster speaks of in his book, it is to misunderstand what it means to be a member of Christ’s church.
God’s people have always sought out ways to live out their faith. Spiritual practices do not stem from some individual simply thinking up some creative or interesting things to do (and then saying to everyone that they need to do it too). Rather, spiritual practices – that which we call disciplines – are based on how Christian people have continuously expressed their faith in Jesus. The disciplines are nothing new. Sure each new book may have a different ordering of disciplines, a way in which the author thinks of them or characterises them, yet the disciplines themselves have journeyed with the people of faith, ever since there was a people of faith.
Understanding the historicity of spiritual disciplines, however, only takes us so far. Disciplines are important in our spiritual lives for a myriad of other reasons. Below is an exploration of three of those reasons.
- Discipline are how we live like Jesus.
What is the purpose of Christianity? To what does it aim to, or pursue? Growing up, I, like so many people, believed that I knew the answer. Christian faith is about going to heaven. After all, that’s where we end up.
It can be easy to think that Christian faith is mostly about what happens to you when you die -about getting to our eternal destination. Have you ever heard people refer to the Bible as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth?” Such a slogan assumes that leaving the earth is that to which the faith ultimately aims. If we believe in Jesus and accept the truth of what he did on the cross, then we will have obtained the minimal entrance requirement to get past St. Peter at the pearly gates. “For God so loved the world that those who believe in Jesus will get into heave when the die.” At least, that is how that verse can be easily understood.
But if faith is only concerned about what happens to us at death, then we are saying that our faith has nothing to do with how we live our lives. Forgiveness is not about freeing ourselves, or others, from spiritual baggage, it is about managing our sins so that they do not mess up our chance for a heavenly mansion! Faith is merely about passing God’s final exam. But if we think that faith has nothing to do with how we live our lives here, then we will miss about 90% of what Jesus was on about. After all, why did Jesus talk about forgiving our enemies, loving our neighbours, or tackling anger and prejudice in our hearts, if, in the end, none of that matters?
Disciplines help us answer the question “how do I live my life the way that Jesus lived his?’ If we understand that Jesus was perfect in faithfulness, then would not his life be one we would want to emulate? Reflecting on Christ’s life naturally leads us into certain habits and practices. Jesus prayed. Jesus served others. Jesus engaged in times of silence and solitude. Jesu was knowledgeable of the scriptures. If we want our lives to reflect the presence of Jesus, then these practices help us do just that.
2. Spiritual disciplines help our faith grow.
You cannot grow in any area of life without diligent discipline. If one wants to be good at piano, one must put in the time necessary to cultivate a habit of piano playing. This is discipline, the willing acceptance of activity toward growth in a particular area. Athlete’s discipline themselves to perform certain activities at certain times. A quarterback, for example, trains his muscles so that when he needs to make that game-winning pass, he can do so. A figure skater trains relentlessly so their bodies know how to execute a triple axle. The point of the discipline is to make the activity an engrained part of lif, so that the individual can perform that action without conscious effort or thought.
The biblical writers often take up the image of athlete to describe the spiritual lives. In the same manner as we talk of the training of athletes, Paul exhorts us to “train yourself to be godly.” We need to create the necessary habits which will produce the life we want to grow into. If we have a vision of what Christian life is about, and the intention to pursue that life, then we must cultivate the means of achieving that growth.
This is a far cry away from works-righteousness. Works righteousness amounts to an attempt to earn our salvation, to merit our way into the kingdom of God. Spiritual disciplines vehemently reject any notion that we earn grace. Still, this does not mean we are to be passive. To rework one of Dallas Willard’s phrases, spiritual disciplines are opposed to earning, not effort. Disciplines help us grow in our faith precisely because they call us to intentionally engage, and embody, our faith. Disciplines focus us.
After all, we live in a world of competing voices, competing intensions, and constant distractions. It can difficulty to turning our attention fully to spiritual matters. In this way, living the Christian life, is not always easy. Therefore, it takes dedication, devotion, and discipline. In the same way that a person who has never played the piano will never waken to miraculously find themselves able to play Rachmaninoff, it is a safe bet that we never simply stumble into spiritual maturity. A healthy spiritual life takes effort. We grow into it.
3. Spiritual disciplines occur in cooperation with the Holy Spirit.
We are not merely talking about disciplines of activity merely for the sake of activity. Spiritual disciplines are not the same as an exercise regime. We are speaking of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are activities engaged in cooperatively with the Holy Spirit. For most people, on any given day, our questions of faith are not the grand theological questions of doctoral dissertations. Rather, our questions or concerns, or the wrestling in our faith, are about how we experience the dynamic of God’s presence in our lives. They are the boots on the ground kind of questions: “Why don’t I feel God with me all the time?” “How do I develop a deeper prayer life?” “Can I recognise God’s voice?” Disciplines help us work through these questions, and in doing so, recognise the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
When we deny the role of the Holy Spirit in our Christian life, we too often attempt to tackle our questions with the unhelpful word of just “try harder.” Struggling with Bible reading? Well just grit your teeth, pour a double shot of espresso, and dive into 2nd Chronicles! If your mind wanders in prayer – well concentrate harder. When we do this, we often find that the efforts of our will only get us so far. Richard Foster says this
God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God, so that He can transform us. The Apostle Paul said “He who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”…That is the way with the Spiritual Disciplines; they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. (6)
Spiritual disciplines are not how we try harder, they are how we open ourselves to the activity of God. In this way, spiritual disciplines are actions we do in our own power, to open ourselves to that which is beyond our own power. We move with the Spirit in our disciplined activity, and in doing so, experience the empowerment of the Spirit.