Have you ever questioned whether spiritual disciplines are appropriate, necessary, or even biblical? Isn’t the language of spiritual disciplines nothing more than a modern fascination? It may appear this way at times, yet the fact is, spiritual disciplines are nothing new.
They have formed the way Christians have embodied their faith throughout the history of the church. Wherever Christians live, spiritual disciplines occur. This makes spiritual disciplines incredibly important for us today.
After all, many of the questions we have about our faith are not necessarily grand theological questions. For most people, on any given day, the questions we pose pertain to how our faith interacts with our daily lives.
We ask questions like “Why don’t I feel God with me all the time?” or “How do I develop a deeper prayer life?” or maybe “How can I recognize God’s voice?” When left unexplored, these questions can easily cause someone to feel stalled or discouraged in their faith.
Spiritual disciplines help us answer these questions. By cultivating actions modeled in the life of Jesus, we embody our faith in the context of everyday life. Disciplines, therefore, serve to connect us to the Lord on a deeply personal level.
The truth is unavoidable; if we want to live our faith with authenticity and passion, then spiritual disciplines are the way we do so.
If you wish to explore spiritual disciplines further, here are three important things to know.
1. How We Live Our Faith
Christian faith is about more than what happens when we die. A preoccupation with the afterlife misses the very heartbeat of Christianity. For example, we talk often about what it means to “get into heaven,” and we cheekily refer to the Bible as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”
Yet if our faith is just about what happens after our earthly life, then we unwittingly assume that Jesus is more interested in what occurs when we die, rather than what occurs while we live.
Believing this is to miss the main thrust of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The cross was not merely a definitive blow against sin and death, it opened a new way of life for those who believe in Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the availability of a life with God.
His primary sermon was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2). Jesus invited people to receive the dynamic presence of God in their lives. He did not just give people comforting messages of God’s love in death, he encouraged them to be personally transformed by his presence.
For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) begins with a question regarding eternal life. In response Jesus tells the parable, concluding with the phrase “go and do likewise.” The parable points to how one is to live their life before God and others.
Spiritual disciplines, such as service to our neighbors, are how one embodies faithful allegiance to Jesus’ presence and teaching. As Christians, we are called to live in a profound, radical, transformative, and interactive relationship with God.
Jesus spoke about practices such as prayer, fasting, knowledge of the scriptures, and worship, for this very reason. Such activities are how we live out this divine relationship. Discipleship is about how one lives, not just about what one believes. This means that spiritual disciplines and the life of discipleship are inherently tied together.
2. In Cooperation with the Holy Spirit
As much as the Christian life is about how we live our everyday lives, we cannot do this alone. That is, it is impossible to fully embody a life of faith by our own efforts. Otherwise, this would lead us into a works-based spirituality. To engage in any spiritual discipline with a focus only on what is being done is to miss the point of the discipline altogether.
Spiritual disciplines open us to the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Too often, our awareness of the Spirit is drowned out by the busyness or clamor of daily life. Spiritual disciplines, therefore, are activities that help us focus on the presence and voice of the Spirit.
Through engagement in a spiritual discipline, we intentionally quiet ourselves, stepping away from the busyness of life, so that we may hear and respond to the Spirit’s activity.
The important element in any spiritual discipline is not what is being done, but who it is being done with. Spiritual disciplines are not merely activities of the body, they are movements of our spirits in tandem with the Spirit of God. Spiritual disciplines help us recognize the Holy Spirit as a constant presence in our lives.
3. To Live Like Jesus
The fact is disciplines occur in all areas of human life. One cannot grow in any skill, ability, knowledge, or insight, without the exercise of discipline. Athletes, for example, engage in certain practices and behaviors, which help them cultivate certain abilities.
Through engagement with the discipline, the individual grows into the life of an athlete; the athlete becomes formed by the discipline.
The biblical writers often take up the image of an athlete to describe the spiritual life. Just as the athletes of the Olympic games undergo a daily training regimen, so too, Paul exhorts Timothy to “train yourself to be godly, for physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things” (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
The principle that applies to athletic training applies to our spiritual growth. Simply put, spiritual disciplines train us to live like Jesus.
Jesus lived his life in a certain way. He engaged in certain practices and behaviors. We see these things throughout the gospels. Jesus prayed. He served others. He engaged in times of silence and solitude. He was knowledgeable of the scriptures.
If this is how Jesus lived his life on earth, why would we assume that such practices are not to be cultivated in our own lives? If we want our lives to reflect the presence of Jesus, then we must take up the various practices, attitudes, and behaviors modeled in his life.
Disciplines are important because they help us grow in our Christian life. The more we engage in spiritual disciplines, the more our lives reflect the glory of Christ.
Why Does This Matter?
There is not a definitive list of spiritual disciplines to which we may turn. Those who write on this topic all have a unique take on the natures and number of the disciplines. Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life lists 10 separate practices, whereas Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline lists 12; and Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines contains a detailed look at 16 different practices.
Not to be outdone, Adele Calhoun describes 75 separate disciplines in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. Some disciplines, like prayer or fasting, are common in all discussions, others are unique to the individual author. This can make spiritual disciplines difficult and sometimes confusing.
Despite this variety, we must remember that spiritual disciplines are not magic practices. They are simple activities that help us live in, and express, the presence of Jesus. If you wish to engage more deeply in the spiritual disciplines, but do not know where to start, a good place to begin is with Acts 2.
Here we read that the newly formed Christian community devoted themselves to the “apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). These four practices became the foundation of the Christian life.
As the early Christians lived out these practices, the gospel began to spread throughout the world, and “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
If we wish to live our lives in the way of Jesus, opening ourselves to his Spirit, cultivating these four habits is a good place to start. Over time, we may even find that these four disciplines become an important groundwork upon which our Christian life is built.
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Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Jantanee Rungpranomkorn
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.