On Spiritual Disciplines
As a pastor, I spend a fair amount of my time trying to help people discern the work of God in their lives, and then doing what I can to guide them into a joyful participation in that work. I take my lead from the apostle Paul, who wrote, “Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12–13, CSB). In other words, God is always at work within the lives of believers, and this staggering reality ought to stir up our energies to strive for holiness; it certainly shouldn’t cause us to idle or drift (Hebrews 12:14).
The most common way that I try to help others both discern and participate in God’s salvific work is through the practice of the spiritual disciplines -- of which there are quite a few. Just off the top of my head, there’s Bible-reading, prayer, singing, corporate worship, fasting, serving, confession, and sabbath-keeping. That’s only eight. Depending on who you ask, you might get a list with sixteen spiritual disciplines.
The regular, rhythmic practice of the spiritual disciplines is essential to our growth and progress in the faith. But before we dive into the disciplines willy-nilly, we would do well to ask: which disciplines should we actually be practicing, and how regularly should we practice them?
The Means and The Ends
Let’s first make clear that spiritual disciplines are a means, not the end goal. Reading the Scripture is a means to experience communion with God; confession is a means to receive God’s promised forgiveness; fasting is a means to help us lean into the provision and sufficiency of God. We train ourselves through the spiritual disciplines so that we might attain to godliness (1 Timothy 4:7b).
An extended metaphor may be helpful here: if you want to eat fresh produce from a garden in your own backyard, you have to tend properly to the soil and the plants -- but no one confuses the work of tending to the soil for the enjoyment of eating garden-fresh tomatoes. You carefully work the soil so that you can eat the tomatoes. Of course, great joy can be found in the means and the work itself; it can be rejuvenating in and of itself to cultivate a garden. But if the garden doesn’t actually bear fruit, it would be a good idea to step back and assess your gardening practices. Granted, sometimes the best gardening practices can prove ineffective due to extenuating circumstances of weather, climate, and so on -- but in general, if your garden looks more like an Amazonian jungle or an Arizona desert than a slice of Eden, you should probably take stock of your gardening habits.
Spiritual disciplines are much the same: if, at the end of your Bible-reading, you don’t feel encouraged by a promise or convicted of a sin or a deeper sense of communion with God, you might want to step back and assess your Bible-reading practices. If your spiritual disciplines aren’t bearing fruit for Christ and his kingdom, it might be time to take stock of your practices.
One Size Does Not Fit All
All that being said, let’s return to our original questions: which spiritual disciplines should we be practicing, and how regularly should we practice them?
The short answer to both questions is simple: it depends. The spiritual disciplines are not a one-size-fits-all affair. The practices that invigorate and deepen the faith of one person may prove utterly fruitless in another person’s life; the disciplines that bear much fruit in a person’s life for one year may become an exercise in futility the next year. It is therefore impossible to “prescribe” the perfect regiment of spiritual disciplines from afar. If I were to fully answer our two key questions, I would want to know more about the specific details of your life in this current moment, much like a doctor would want to know the specificities of your health before they offered a diagnosis or wrote a prescription.
This is one of the reasons why it is so important to be rooted in a local church and surrounded by a community of faithful believers. We often need help to both discern the work of God in our lives and cultivate the disciplines adequate to participate in that work. Pastors, community group leaders, and trusted friends are all companions who can help us along in this task.
Of course, even if I cannot tell you which specific disciplines you ought to be regularly practicing at this particular time in your life, I can offer some suggestions for your general well-being.
First, I would be doing the church a massive disservice if I didn’t reinforce the fact that the spiritual disciplines are practiced; in other words, it takes time and repetition to learn how to study the Bible, how to read meditatively, how to pray conversationally. If you don’t feel like you’ve mastered prayer on the first few go-arounds, fret not; even Christ’s closest disciples had to be taught how to pray (Luke 11:1).
Second, I can confidently say that there are at least three spiritual disciplines you should consistently practice regardless of the climate of your life: daily Bible-reading, daily prayer, and weekly corporate worship. These three disciplines anchor the Christian life and have been practiced by Christians since the beginning of the church. Through Scripture, God speaks to us; through prayer, we respond and listen to God; and through corporate worship, we gather with other believers and encourage one another toward love and good works in the life of faith (2 Timothy 3:16-17, Psalm 119:170, Hebrews 10:25). Without these disciplines, we can quickly and easily drift away from God and become hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:12-13).
Of course, even the consistent practice of these disciplines may look different from season to season. For instance, before my baby daughter was born, I would practice morning and evening prayer, using the book of common prayer, for 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening. Since her birth, I’ve still practiced that same morning prayer -- but now my evenings are spent largely learning how to be a father, so my evening prayer has shifted from a more regimented and specified time to more general “breath prayers” as I change diapers or walk the dog (like the ones written about in one of our older articles, which you can read by clicking here).
A Final Word
Let me leave you with this final caution: don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the spiritual disciplines will act as your golden ticket to box God into a corner. The late Eugene Peterson once said, “I’m uneasy about the word discipline. It’s a useful word, which Richard Foster has brought back into the Protestant vocabulary. But in practice it often encourages people to take charge of their own spirituality.” In other words, we sometimes try to use the spiritual disciplines as a way of becoming our own gods, rather than becoming like Christ.
The Pharisees were very disciplined, and yet they murdered God’s Son. Jesus himself drew attention to this disparity between discipline and godliness when he said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23). The Pharisees were well practiced in the spiritual discipline of giving to God through tithing -- yet all the while they ignored matters of the heart, matters of justice and mercy and faithfulness.
Let us not lose sight of why we practice the spiritual disciplines: to be conformed to the image of Christ. So long as our disciplines are redirecting our gaze upon Jesus, I am confident that he will bring to completion the good work that he began within us (Philippians 1:4-6).