In a world where everyone is constantly running around, answering phone calls, text messages, Facebook status updates, and even the minute to minute tweets, it is easy to understand the lack of attention that one pays to his own mind, body, and growth. Information is being thrown in front of our eyes, sometimes quicker than we can close the internet windows that pop it up in front of us. Where is there time to “Be still and know that I Am God”? Who has space for this in the daily schedule?
In ministry, it doesn’t get any easier. There are meetings to plan, fundraisers to consider, students to visit, games to play, Bible studies to hopefully plan, sermons to write in the half hour you have left before the service starts, and the to-do list continues to grow. There is little time for actual spiritual growth; that happens in retirement, right?
The sad truth is, as much as this may seem exaggerated, for too many Christians, it is not. You don’t have to be a called church worker to have your schedule so full of items that spiritual growth barely fits into the Sunday morning spent in worship. Our society has put so many other areas of growth on our daily plates that something like spiritual growth quickly loses ground, if it’s kept on the list at all. There is a desperate need for somebody to invent a way to slow our minds and hearts down, and help us focus our attention on the Word of our God, who has promised to forgive us, lead us, be in relationship with us, and to never forsake us. Somebody has “invented” these means, and that inventor would be the One we long so desperately to be in relationship with.
The spiritual disciplines are as old as the Ten Commandments. Most of these disciplines are not unique to Christianity, but that does not negate their usefulness. After all, God used the cross, a Roman tool of torture, to bring about the fullness of His grace and mercy. However, God uses these disciplines to mold, conform and transform us, His children, to His will, and to lead us through this life to the next. They are not a Christ-instituted means of grace, but the grace of God can surely be found in them. They are not merits of the Christian life, but they are signs of it. These disciplines are actions, sometimes as simple as sitting with one’s eyes closed, done by the Christian so that they may be transformed by God through Christ Jesus. In fact, Christ himself even showed the importance of these disciplines by doing them throughout His earthly ministry.
They are usually separated into three groupings: the inner, outward, and corporate disciplines. One of the most helpful contemporary discussions on the spiritual disciplines can be found in a book by Richard J. Foster, titled The Celebration of Disciplines, published by Harper & Row Publishers. He lays out each discipline within these three broad categories and highlights the importance and scriptural foundation for each discipline. His understanding of God’s grace found in Christ Jesus leads his discussion of the importance of the spiritual disciplines not for legalistic reasons, but instead for the transformation of the Christian by the work of God.
The groupings of inner, outward, and corporate do not mean that the disciplines under each of these headings do not affect the other areas in life. On the contrary, each of the disciplines plays a major role in all the other disciplines and the growth that will take place. The grace of God does not simply give eternal life to a person, but brings the dead sinner to life eternal and for the here and now.
The first of the disciplines to be discussed is one most people are familiar with, meditation. Throughout the world, meditation is often used to empty one’s mind in order to gain a higher realization or truth. This has been the basis for such practices as yoga, even here in the United States. But Christian meditation is different. Instead of emptying one’s mind, the Christian should instead meditate upon God’s Word in order to fill his mind and be transformed by the Word of God. As the Psalmist writes, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14, ESV) It is not an act of emptying one’s mind, but instead filling it with the Word of God and dwelling on His revelation to us.
Closely related to meditation is the discipline of study. Foster lays out four steps to follow in the discipline of study: 1) repetition, 2) concentration, 3) comprehension, and 4) reflection. If one is involved in the discipline of study, he has great material for his meditation, and of course the reverse is true. Meditation is a great way to concentrate and reflect on the text being studied. It is the Word of God that can fill one’s mind. Meditation should be based on study, and flow from it.
With Christian meditation, often considered is prayer. This is not a new concept to a Christian. After all, Jesus himself taught us how to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Throughout the history of mankind, people have constantly prayed to God, both prayers of thanksgiving, but more often prayers of supplication or requests. Prayer as a spiritual discipline is both of these things. However, Foster makes the strong point that the discipline of prayer is most central to the Christian because it keeps him in perpetual communion with God (pg. 33). This is the point the Apostle Paul makes in his letter to the Ephesians, telling them to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:18, ESV). It is not simply asking of our Father when a need arises, or giving Him our praise, but instead being in a constant relationship as a child should be with his father.
The discipline of fasting has received mixed reviews at best from contemporary Christianity. This is unfortunately due to the legalistic mindset of many who have promoted fasting. As with any of these disciplines, it is not another merit the Christian can add to his resume. On the contrary, it is a chance for God to work in the life of the Christian and transform him in the Gospel of Jesus Christ! In the Old Testament, fasting is often portrayed as an act of repentance or sorrow. This is a valid reason for fasting. But it is also a wonderful opportunity to have God awaken the realization of what is really important in life, namely Him. Jesus fasted to be transformed to the will of His Father. He fasted forty days and forty nights in the dessert before His temptation by Satan where He ironically told Satan, “Man does not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3, ESV).
Fasting also has an implication on the Christian’s life that flows into one of the other disciplines, that of simplicity. Simplicity is the act of being content with what one has. It is heavily related to what YHWH commands in the ninth and tenth commandments of one not coveting the neighbor’s belongings. It is also the principle that Jesus is talking about when he says, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin. But if God so clothes the grass today” (Mt. 6:28-29, ESV). We do not have to worry because God will provide, and this is the understanding that arises from the discipline of simplicity. It is being content in what one has because of the trust that God will provide what one needs and even more.
As mentioned in the introduction, solitude is maybe the one thing in this world that a person has the hardest time finding. Connection and community are the major buzz words that can be heard in all of society. However, solitude is a great place to be transformed by God. It is in solitude that one can fill his mind with the Word of God, or spend time in prayer and fasting building the relationship between child and Father. The Psalmist portrays God saying, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10, ESV). God can surely be known and found in the craziness of everyday life. But how much better is it to sit in the silent presence of God and hear the gentle whisper of His mercy and grace in your life? It is this gentle whisper that the person practicing the discipline of solitude is searching for. But, like many of these disciplines, solitude is most beneficial when used in conjunction with one of the other disciplines, such as meditation or prayer.
The disciplines of submission and service belong together. They are not readily distinguishable but are extremely important. Jesus Christ spent his entire life in submission to the will of the Father, and in service to those He came to save through the cross. For Christians, the entirety of life should be spent in the same way, submission to the will of God and service of love to the neighbor. These are disciplines because it takes a great deal of practice to perform either. Both flow straight out of the inner disciplines where one focuses on being transformed by God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Peter writes, “We love because he first loved us.” And the law, as Jesus states, can be summed up in the Leviticus code to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The final three disciplines can all be found in what is often considered to be worship. I am not going to try to redefine worship based on the spiritual disciplines. However, the way worship is considered within the realm of spiritual disciplines is another opportunity for God to transform a person through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Gospel message should be the center of any worship already. Foster makes the very strong point that if the Lord Jesus Christ is going to truly be Lord in the individual’s life, then worship has to be the number one priority (pg. 160). The call to worship God can be found throughout the Scriptures, but especially in Exodus 34 and Psalm 96:9 which call us to “Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness, tremble before him all the earth!” (ESV)
This verse from Psalms draws out two of the very important aspects in worship which are disciplines themselves. To tremble before the Lord is to recognize his holiness and sovereignty apart from our complete unworthiness. With this realization comes the confession of our sins, to our brethren and to God himself. We are all in desperate need of God’s forgiveness, the same forgiveness we have proclaimed to us in worship. This Good News leads us to celebrate, to “worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.” These are disciplines of the entire Christian community that we have all been called to take part in. It is the discipline of being a part of the body of Christ Jesus our risen Lord and Savior!
Great joy should arise out of these spiritual disciplines. There will be times of trials and temptations, but that is just a fact of life in this fallen world. But through these disciplines God himself can mold and transform us in His likeness, and by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What a joy it is to be in a relationship with such a God. These disciplines can bring a great deal of serenity to a person in this constantly moving, pushing, and cruel world. Being led by the Holy Spirit, one can only grow through these disciplines in the splendor of God’s holiness and grace.