Why Should I Practice the Spiritual Disciplines?
What do I mean?
When I say spiritual disciplines, I mean the practice of silence, solitude, worship, prayer, study, fasting, sexual abstinence, practicing a Sabbath, and a myriad of other things both on the positive (disciplines of engagement) and the other positive side (disciplines of abstinence).
Below is a partial unfinished chapter in a book I am currently writing, and still in rough draft. I liked the analogy and wanted to share it with anyone interested.
Why Apply the Disciplines to my Walk with God?
“Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.” (Willard, 2014)
Use your imagination and pretend for a moment that your deepest interests lay with the study of martial arts and your favorite practitioner of those arts is (was) Bruce Lee. You have always believed him to be the best. You find him absolutely fascinating. You truly admire his dedication, his intellect, his areas of study, his physical strength, his daily workout and habits. You can’t think of anyone else you’d like to study under more than Bruce Lee and you admire him not just for his preparation but because Bruce could apply what he knew in a real situation better than almost anyone in the world.
In this pretend scenario your desire is to become more like Bruce Lee, or at least give it a try. In order to do so you study the arts he studied, you read what he read, you watch his tapes, listen to interviews, you read his writings and listen intently to those who worked with and studied under him. You begin to apply what you can learn and in your own workouts you notice your moves begin to look a little more like Bruce’s, though you have a long way to go.
If only Bruce were still alive, making new videos, taking on new students, then your progress would not be as slow. You are applying discipline to the study of becoming like Bruce Lee. You spend your valuable time at it. As a natural consequence other things that used to take your time are falling out of your life and are no longer interesting. Watching TV becomes much less appealing, hanging with your friends at the club, playing video games, reading fantasy all naturally drop from your weekly routines as they are no longer important to you.
As much as you can (with a person who is no longer alive) you have become a student of Bruce Lee. Then one day, to your great surprise and joy, you find out that Bruce did not actually die on July 20, 1973. Unbelievably you discover he’s been living as a Monk in Tibet and even taking on a few chosen students! Your joy could hardly be contained. The fact that he is alive and teaching seems like a dream come true. You doubt he’d accept you as one of the lucky students but you’ve got the money, and can take a sabbatical. You are ready to sell your home in the states, go to Tibet and study directly under Him. It is a dream come true.
In this pretend scenario; If it was truly your heart’s desire to become like Bruce Lee then all or part of what I listed is indeed what you as a committed disciple of Bruce Lee would do. This is the ‘Master - Teacher’, ‘Sensei - Apprentice’, ‘Lord and Disciple’ relationship. It is exactly what the Bible calls believers in Jesus to do, and to make more of. (Mark 16:15)
If Bruce were indeed your Sensei, and you were committed to learning from him I can also tell you also what you would not do. You would not join Bruce only once a week, listen to his favorite music for 15 minutes then hear him talk for 25 then go home and watch football and not interact with him or practice his methods at all until next week. If this is all the commitment you showed, I (or Bruce) could rightfully challenge your commitment to becoming like him. I could rightfully say; “Your lips say you are committed to following Bruce but your heart is far from him.“
Of course you see where I am going with this but this is exactly what millions of people (myself included) who name Jesus as Lord often do. We call Him Master, Savior, Messiah, and we call ourselves disciples (students, apprentices) but we do not treat Him, or ourselves like we are in that type of relationship. We honor Him with our lips but our hearts are far from Him. (Matt 15:8) Our churches, our communities, our nation and our world suffer greatly for it. Rather than getting off our collective spiritual hindquarters and joining God in what He is doing we just wring our hands and wag our heads at the condition of the church and our nation. Our hope is that God will intervene, we may even pray for it but we have little idea how to join Him daily in seeing His Kingdom come, and His will being done. Becoming committed disciples of Christ, in a true master-apprentice relationship is exactly how to affect our churches, our communities and our nation.
I am certainly not wagging my finger at the church without knowing I have been a part of the problem. I too had no idea how to put this into action until much later in life, long after decades of supposedly following Christ. My fear of “works” and almost no knowledge of the spiritual disciplines made me just a typical evangelical who most of time managed my sin to my own satisfaction but rarely engaged my world as Christ would.
Authentic transformation really is possible if we are willing to do one thing and that is to rearrange our lives around the things that Jesus practiced.” (Willard, 1999)
It is time once again to realize the value of the treasure of the Kingdom of God found in Jesus Christ. What we are giving up with a nonchalant attitude is everything. Jesus is alive. We do not have to travel to Him and move into a monastery. He is the greatest, wisest and most brilliant person to ever to walk the face of the earth but we don’t act like it. Many of us don’t even believe that.
Applying some discipline so we can daily learn (and grow) from our Teacher is desperately needed in the western church at very this hour. For many of us the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. (Matt 26:41) One of the major benefits of applying spiritual disciplines to your daily life is that they assist in training the flesh to obey the spirit rather than the other way around.
Jesus said that the Kingdom of the Heavens is like a treasure in a field so valuable that when the man found it he sold everything he owned and bought the field. He also likened it to a merchant finding a pearl of such great value that the merchant also sold everything he had and bought that one pearl. (Matt 13:44-46) Do we see the Kingdom that way? Do we see it is as a treasure so great it is worth rearranging our lives for?
I am very aware that most Christians have a hard time applying discipline to their walk with God. I can relate. These days when I feel myself slipping into old habits I can usually chalk it up to laziness. However, for someone who has not ever seriously applied them it is often a deeply embedded Protestant fear of “works salvation” or a fear that we are trying to “do it in our own strength” and while we should be wary of wrong motives for sure, we cannot and should not just throw up our hands and just wait for a miracle. God can and does miracles but it is not usually His preferred method of action. He wants to use His people, a people who walk daily with Him. God is asking for action. He has always asked for actions of trust in Him from His people. Spiritual disciplines are not laws, they are wisdom. If you treat them as laws, you will fail. You will either quit out of guilt, or puff yourself up with pride for your spiritual maturity.
God encourages our efforts so we can be better at being Jesus to a world desperately in need of Him. God is not opposed to our effort, in fact He encourages it. This may be a revelation to you, as it was to me. Although I probably would not have denied the fact He wants us to do something, what that something was I was unsure of. If I started to think of all the things that needed to be done in this world I would become overwhelmed and do nothing.
The spiritual disciplines are a way of ordering your life so you spend more time seeking and as a consequence obeying God. The latter should never come before the former. If you do a simple search on the word “seek” in the Scriptures, you’ll find hundreds of times that God Himself encourages us to use our own effort to seek Him, and He consequently rails against those who refuse to.
Seeking God takes time and time is valuable. When we seek Him, He finds us and we are changed to be more, to think more like Him. We experience and re-experience an inner transformation of character. Our lives naturally become more set-apart (holy) from the world and we become less afraid. Though spiritual discipline takes our effort God does not leave us there to flounder in only our own effort. There is a supernatural transaction from His heart to your soul. The disciple of Bruce Lee can expect no supernatural impartation of power no matter how disciplined they are.
As you endeavor to be plugged into the vine on a more consistent basis you will not get puffed up with pride about all the “work” or time you are putting in for God. Rather, a genuine closeness with God will result in more humility every time. The more time spent seeking, the more you realize how far you have to go, how unholy your motives often are and how much grace is required to do this.
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.Acts 4:13 13
When we stop diligently seeking Him, we begin to atrophy. Our flesh is constantly at war with the spirit. Training the flesh, similar to what an athlete does helps us respond the right way (as Jesus would) in difficult circumstances. We admire people like Bruce Lee ultimately because when he got into a fight, he could out perform his opponent. All his work, all his dedication was for a purpose. In this life we will have trouble, and being able to approach it as Jesus would if He were living for us should be our goal. This is not easy. We know that Jesus Himself practiced spiritual disciplines of fasting, solitude, prayer and had much of the scriptures memorized. If Jesus needed it, how much more do we?
And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who (diligently) seek Him. Hebrews 11:6
We will of course never be perfect this side of heaven but we are given direction by our Master, our Lord to do some amazing things; Jesus gave us a charge to love our enemies, to pray for those who despitefully use us, to “judge not”, to never manipulate others, to respond at all times in unconditional love (wanting what’s best for everyone around us).
These things are not easily accomplished and many have rightly said they are impossible. They are certainly impossible without God. Some have also wrongfully said these things are reserved only for the future perfect Kingdom and can’t be realized this side of heaven. Why would Jesus give us a charge to do something we could not do until after we die? I will not and cannot discount the entire Sermon on the Mount into the future, especially when the other writers of the New Testament encourage us to allow Christ to change our heart so we can obey what Jesus said there. We are to be daily students of a Teacher who is very much alive and available to teach us as much as we want to and are able to learn.
Matthew 19:26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Willard, D. (2014). The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship. Harper One.
Willard, D. (1999). The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Harper One.
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