Friday, March 16, 2012

Who needs spiritual disciplines?

So I've been kind of consumed with reading about the spiritual disciplines lately. I'm preparing to take our youth group through some of them, but before we do, I'm encouraging my youth sponsors and I to engage in them ourselves. As a result, I've put together an introduction to spiritual disciplines and I wanted to share it with you guys. (Disclaimer - some of this is original to me, much of it is not, the line between the two is vague)


Why Spiritual Disciplines?

The purpose of this handout is to instill within us as youth workers the importance of the spiritual disciplines in our lives as Christians. We live in a culture that scoffs at the idea of trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. There are even people in churches who think that if someone is changing the way they live - whether it’s by sacrificing time at church, giving money to God’s kingdom, or even going so far as to become a missionary – then they are taking this whole “Christianity” thing too far. I mean, doesn’t the Bible teach us “balance in all things”?

Actually, the Bible never teaches us to be balanced in all things. What it does teach us is that we are supposed to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37-40) and Jesus said that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?” (Matt 16:24-26). Jesus made it pretty clear that our lives should be about loving God and loving others, and denying ourselves so that we can follow Jesus as his disciples.

And there’s the rub. Often in our Western Christianity, it’s easy to look at discipleship as an option, as something that is only for the “super-Christian” or more spiritual. Being a disciple (follower) of Jesus and doing what he did, isn’t an optional thing; it’s the definition of what it is to be a Christian! The word “Disciple” occurs 269 times in the New Testament. The word “Christian” is found 3 times, and always as a name to describe these disciples of Jesus.

In 1937 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his classic, “The Cost of Discipleship.” In it, he points out that following Jesus costs everything. It costs giving up my desires to change them to what Jesus desires. But he points out that the reward for discipleship is a life that is infinitely more worth it than any other, and the icing on the cake is spending eternity with God. But that title – the cost of discipleship – turns a lot of people off. But what about the cost of non-discipleship? Ultimately, non-discipleship is even more costly than discipleship. Both will cost everything, but only one has any return on the investment. As we saw earlier, what good is it to gain the whole world and forfeit your eternal soul?

Jesus didn’t come to just die on the cross for our sins. He came to create a new spiritual existence for humanity. He came to make us alive to God and dead to sin. He came to be the first among many who would become the sons and daughters of God – in the mold of the only begotten Son of God. This is why even Jesus placed amazing emphasis on discipleship in The Great Commission when he says “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20) Obviously one must believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died on the cross to save us. We all need a savior. But Jesus isn’t just our savior, He’s our Lord too. Discipleship is all about making Jesus the Lord of our everyday life!

What are the Spiritual Disciplines?

The Spiritual Disciplines can be described as a set of “Holy Habits” that are designed to train us in godliness as we follow Jesus. Dallas Willard says,

“We are saved by grace, of course, and by it alone, and not because we deserve it. That is the basis of God’s acceptance of us. But grace does not mean that sufficient strength and insight will be automatically “infused” into our being in the moment of need…We only have to look at the facts. A baseball player who expects to excel in the game without adequate exercise of his body is no more ridiculous than the Christian who hopes to be able to act in the manner of Christ when put to the test without the appropriate exercise in godly living…Our mistake is to think that following Jesus consists in loving our enemies, going the ‘second mile,’ turning the other cheek, suffering patiently and hopefully—while living the rest of our lives just as everyone around us does.”

Often, we miss the point that Jesus practiced the Spiritual Disciplines all His life! Even Jesus realized that preparation, practice, and disciplined living were essential to living a life that is abundantly different than the world’s way of living! With everything else in life we see that hard work + time invested = success. The baseball star puts in countless hours to be able to make the play that sends his team to the World Series. The violinist struggles through thousands of finger drills to be able to make music that amazes and impresses sold out crowds. The soldier endures harsh conditions and pushes his body past it’s limits to be prepared for the time that his and other’s lives are on the line. It’s the same in every area of our lives. Yet, when it comes to our spiritual lives we somehow believe that “effort-at-the-moment-of-action” alone will allow us to rise above temptation. And we’re often left feeling discouraged and defeated when we fail to overcome the same old sins in our lives, time and time again.

Spiritual Disciplines are the habits we can develop to help us get both our body and soul on the same page: God’s page. This process is spiritual growth. It’s something that takes time and effort and abundant amounts of God’s grace, but it is what being a disciple of Jesus is about. To undertake the Spiritual Disciplines in our lives is to recognize that the call to follow Jesus is at least as big a challenge as playing the violin or baseball, and of infinitely more importance.

Spiritual Disciplines aren’t reserved for the super-spiritual. They’re for the entry-level, average Joe who wants to enter into what true Life is; who wants to have the Life of Christ made real in their own life here and now. Willard asks the question, “Why is it that we look upon our salvation as a moment that began our religious life instead of the daily life we receive from God?” Salvation isn’t just a “once upon a time” thing; it’s continually spreading throughout every aspect of our lives. Salvation isn’t a moment in time, it’s a lifestyle! The spiritual disciplines are tools to allow us to exercise that salvation in the different aspects of our lives.

What are your thoughts? What has your experience with spiritual disciplines been? Do you know anyone who practices them regularly?

Tomorrow I might post the final part of the handout - Some goals for spiritual disciplines.


  1. For some reason, my page wasn't refreshing, so I didn't see this post until just yesterday.

    One thing that is apparent in my own life is that the disciplines that Willard would call "disciplines of engagement" are much more emphasized than are the "discplines of abstinence". It's a fact that the church as a whole places greater value on discplines like worship, prayer, service, and study than on the discplines of fasting, silence, and solitude. Why is that? Is there a hierarchy? Evidently there's not a consensus about which things are even considered spiritual disciplines.

    I know that in my own life, preparation is key. When I am prepared, I can be victorious. It's when I get ambushed...when something hits me that I didn't see coming...and I'm forced to respond right in that moment, that I so often fall short of a Christlike response. (Whether or not I SHOULD have seen an event coming is another matter altogether.)

    I think discpline and preparation are two sides of the same coin. I'd like to read the rest of your handout if you'd be so kind as to post it.

  2. Will - I think it's interesting to consider the areas of life that need 'balance' and those that should be 'unbalanced'. Areas for moderation and areas we shouldn't be moderate about.

    You pointed out some unbalanced issues: Christ first, deny self, love God more than anything (Jesus actually said 'hate' your brother and sister in comparison). Then there's issues regarding time like having a balance between work/church/family/recreation, maybe a balance between how do respond lovingly yet truthfully. Even within those issues, I think there should be an unbalance weighted towards God, the direction He's moving, scripture, etc. I guess I'm saying that I don't think we should throw out balance all together.

    I definitely like the aspect of discipline that makes me exercise my spiritual muscle and grow stronger through that. We hear a lot of good things from many different voices: pastors, teachers, radio, friends, scripture, but if we don't practice what we hear, we don't ultimately benefit, and James says we just forget it. Maybe putting into practice what God teaches us is a way to manifestly incorporate truth into our makeup.

    Steve - I think the hierarchy you're referring to is a man-made, performance-based one. The things we DO are noticeable and measurable, but the others - while just as important, and definitely more lacking - are not as high profile.

  3. I will post the rest soon - too much stuff going on at the moment, but I wanted to try and respond to this really quick.

    Hierarchy of "disciplines of engagement" vs. "disciplines of abstinence" - My thought is that it's easier for us to get behind "doing" something rather than giving up something or seeking to quiet and still ourselves to listen. We are the "faster" generation...that was so 4 seconds ago...I want it now, daddy!...Look like a supermodel/weightlifter in just 10 minutes a day! We don't like delayed gratification, and the disciplines of abstinence are all about delaying gratification and giving things up to focus on more important things. Much more can be said on this, that's just a quick two cents.

    Discipline/Preparation - Exactly! I'm starting this series tonight with the youth group, and I was thinking about using this "When temptation hits, it's too late to get ready for it!"

    On to balance - yes, I agree that we shouldn't throw all ideas of balance or priorities out the window. Maybe the idea from The Shack (that God doesn't want to be a priority, He wants to be the center of the wheel that all parts of our lives revolve around - paraphrase) would allow us to think about it more holistically. All the spokes on a wheel are balanced - but if a spoke doesn't fit in with the wheel (God's desires for us as His children) then it doesn't have any business being there. And obviously, none of the spokes are as important as the center they connect to.

    Spiritual muscles...exactly! Faith is a verb, not a noun. It's something that needs to be exercised (and often it is exercised even when we're not purposefully doing it - i.e. how we respond to things that make us upset or say "why God?!?"). The thing again, is preparation! We don't do bench presses so that one day when we're walking down an alley and someone pops out with a gun and says "bench press this 200 lbs or I'll kill you!" No, we do bench presses so that we're in shape to do whatever things come up in life that need to be done. The same applies with spiritual disciplines!

    Back to hierarchy - Great point - the performance-based and easy to check off our list/measure get the emphasis. While the more intangible ones get neglected/misunderstood :)

    I love it, thanks guys for the conversation! I'll try to get the other part up soon!