Are spiritual disciplines really that important to a successful Christian life? Whatever your opinions might be on that question, I encourage you to check out the series I start here on Vital Signs Blog today. It will be the first of 8 in which I give a summary view of the adult Sunday School class I'm presenting on this topic. Of course, I'd love to have you in the class...but this is the next best thing.
Spiritual Disciplines – Session One: “The Why of Spiritual Disciplines”
1) Spiritual disciplines are not particularly popular with modern Christians. Some fear they represent a Pharisee-like attitude; that is, going through certain rules and rituals in order to earn God’s favor and perhaps also to show off their “holier than thou” status. Yet other Christians are uncomfortable with the topic because they fear the influence of Eastern mysticism, believing that talk of spiritual disciplines smacks too much of an esoteric, ascetic, even extrasensory path to encounter God.
However, both of these fears are a far cry from the biblical case for spiritual disciplines. Indeed, it’s the devil who wins (and we who lose) when we allow Satan’s lying propaganda to mislead us regarding those disciplines God clearly commands to believers. Indeed, as Baptist theologian Don Whitney puts it, “The spiritual disciplines are those practices found in Scripture that promote spiritual growth among believers…they are habits of devotion, habits of experimental Christianity.” He continues, “Although God will grant Christlikeness to us when Jesus returns, until then He intends us to grow towards it. We aren’t merely to wait for holiness, we’re to pursue it.”
2) Discipline according to my old dictionary is a) training that develops self-control, character, or orderliness b) treatment that corrects or tames. And words from the thesaurus connected to discipline include training, cultivation, self-control, prepare, instruct, and correct.
But what’s the real deal about spiritual disciplines? Well, as is apparent from the words themselves, discipline is simply the “stuff” of the true disciple. It is the convictions, attitudes and lifestyle of the faithful disciple of Jesus. Therefore, I sometimes describe spiritual disciplines as “Obedience: Purposefully and Consistently Applied.” They are the ongoing practices of one who is seriously pursuing the Christian adventure, the one who takes “the longer view” and is investing his time, talents, and treasure in the life to come.
3) And therein lies the most common resistance of all regarding spiritual disciplines – not fear of being a Pharisee or a vegan yoga sitting in the lotus position in a far-off cave, but simply resistance to the effort, sacrifice, patience, humility, and perseverance necessary to purposefully pursue godliness. Let’s face it, way too many Christians don’t want discipline.
We prefer an easy, instant, spontaneous, self-congratulatory approach to the Christian life. Furthermore, many others avoid the matter of discipline because we have tried and failed too many times and so we live a life of timidity, compromise, and mediocrity instead of appealing to God’s grace for yet another start. But the Holy Spirit will stay ever with us, convicting us and calling us to the adventure of being a genuine disciple of Christ. That call is for all of us. And that call is for today.
4) There has, throughout the history of the Church, been an unfortunate confusion between the relationship between being and doing. Some mistake the believer’s position in Christ (the gracious once-for-all forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ’s atoning death) with the demands of discipleship which the Lord presents to His adopted sons and daughters. These are not contradictions. They are complementary truths, both clearly biblical. The repentant sinner who trusts in Christ is saved by grace through faith. He is thus “born again,” an adopted child of the King of Kings who is guaranteed a forever home with Jesus in heaven.
Nevertheless, that Christian is then enrolled in the adventurous pilgrimage which is discipleship – trained to live “all out” as an ambassador of the kingdom of God until he is called home. That discipleship is also entered and conducted by grace through faith. But the pilgrim is called to exercise his free will and exert genuine effort and sacrifice in order to grow in Christ and become a more complete, consistent representative of Jesus in this world. “Being” a Christian thus necessarily incorporates “doing” one’s new life in Christ.
5) This basic truth can be most strikingly underscored by just a cursory review of the “doing” verbs which the Bible commands for the disciple. Here are just a few – all of which assume the disciple’s free will and his responsibility to actively pursue godliness. Practice, grow, obey, go, change, stand, occupy, train, set apart, build, invest, hold, abide, persevere, follow, avoid, fight, serve, lay up, love, give, pray, study, etc. Reading through these verbs – and there are many more – prove that every believer is responsible to perform the duties of discipleship.
Spiritual growth is God’s work. If one is a follower of Jesus, it’s an act of grace that transforms him. But the fact that it’s the Holy Spirit Who is at work in the believer’s life doesn’t mean the Christian doesn’t play a part. Certainly not. There are things the Bible requires he do in response to the Spirit’s leading to experience healthy growth. This is what spiritual disciplines are all about.
6) To best illustrate these matters, take note of the following Bible passages which have inspired and assisted spiritual disciplines throughout Church history. In these verses, you will see certain crucial themes repeated: effort, sacrifice, planning, goals, excellence, self-control, rewards, godliness, perseverance, and a focus on Jesus:
I Timothy 4:6-11, I Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1-3. I Timothy 4:6-11
1 Timothy 4:6-11
(6) “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. (7) But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; (8) for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (9) It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. (10) For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. (11) Prescribe and teach these things.”
I Corinthians 9:24-27
(24) “ Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. (25) Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. (26) Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; (27) but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Hebrews 12: 1-3
(1) “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, (2) fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (3) For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
7) The curriculum?
In these next seven weeks we will be exploring the following spiritual disciplines:
Session 2: Purpose and Planning
Session 3: Bible Intake and Response
Session 4: Prayer
Session 5: Giving and Thanksgiving (and more)
Session 6: Self Denial, Perseverance, Patience
Session 7: Corporate Disciplines
Session 8: Review and Applications