I am probably not alone when I say that if I don’t feel like reading my Bible or praying, I tend to avoid it. Because of that statement, I want to dedicate a post to spiritual disciplines, although I will be the first to admit that lately I find myself more consistently drawn to my own wants like watching Netflix or scrolling through social media feeds, or simply being lazy.
Hosea 6:3 says: “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord.” Clearly we do not just come to know God with the snap of a finger. There is a means to know the Lord, and it takes commitment even when we don’t “feel like it.” We are all creatures of habit, and naturally, we are not inclined to love God and his Word. It is because of this natural bent in us that we should press into disciplines and form habits that help put us on the path to joy. I know walls may start to go up as this looks like it could turn into a legalistic list of rules, but I hope to decipher between discipline and legalism. I believe it can be summed up in knowing the object of our faith: Jesus. He is the great reward that drives our habits.
The goal is Jesus. Knowing and enjoying Jesus is the final point to reading your bible, meditating on it, memorizing it, praying, fasting, fellowship, discipleship, serving, and ministry. These things are means to the greatest end which is the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ, himself.
Put yourself in the pathway
If we want to be serious about growing in faith, we need to sit under the waterfall of grace. I heard someone explain a metaphor that helped me understand spiritual discipline. Think about a waterfall for a moment: you and I don’t provide the water flow, but we can sit under it. Likewise, we can flip a light switch on, but we are not the source of the electricity. This concept is crucial to understand when we begin talking about the spiritual disciplines.
God is the giver of all grace and the sustainer of it. Spiritual disciplines are not a way of earning that grace, but receiving grace as we see more of him. We cannot earn God’s grace or cause it to flow apart from his free gift, but we can position ourselves to receive as he keeps giving. We can “fight to walk in the paths where he has promised his blessings” as John Piper says. And we can do so by cultivating habits that will push us toward enjoying Jesus. We don’t enjoy Jesus unless we get to know him. I’ve fallen into the trap these past several months of thinking I can coast into knowing Jesus without actually spending time with him. How silly is that? You don’t get to know someone simply by talking about them, but by spending time with them. The apostle Paul gets this when he says “…discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). He also states in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27: “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control.”
Spiritual disciplines are the pathway. They serve as means to see and savor Jesus. They are practices or habits found in scripture. Spiritual disciplines are not character qualities or fruit of the Spirit. They do not give you any righter standing with God if you practice them. Christ alone gives us right standing before God.
Side note: the following list of disciplines is not meant to be exhaustive, but it is important to recognize that these individual and corporate practices are depicted in scripture.
Individual practices: 1). The intake of God’s Word and 2). prayer are the most important practices as they relate to all the other disciplines found in scripture. I often become frustrated when I think simply reading God’s Word will be some sort of magic bullet. Delighting in God’s Word and cherishing his truth will take more than just reading it like any other book. Two disciplines that help saturate our minds beyond intake is meditating on scripture and memorizing scripture. Meditating on scripture allows God’s Word to penetrate our minds and hearts, and to be “transformed by the renewal of our mind” (Romans 12:2). It is found all throughout the Psalms and other parts of scripture. Some other individual practices that are seen in scripture include: fasting, solitude, journaling (though this is not explicitly stated in scripture, it is exemplified through the Psalms and Lamentations).
Corporate practices: prayer (Matt. 18:19-20), worship/singing (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19), fellowship (Hebrews 10:24-25), serving your local church (1 Peter 4:10-11, Eph. 4:12), and confession (James 5:16).
We may often view spiritual disciplines from a private perspective, but scripture is filled with examples of corporate worship and practices. There is something unifying and edifying when like-minded believers gather together, pray together, and confess sin. Corporate practices allow us to see that we are not alone in our sin and the pursuit toward Christ, and there’s something affirming about that. Psalm 133:1 sums this up well: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.”
What stirs your affections for Jesus?
We were created to enjoy God; and he has given us common graces as ways to enjoy him. But we won’t taste what it feels like to enjoy God if we don’t train our hearts to want Jesus more than we settle for things that may feed apathy or sin. On days when the last thing I want to do is to pursue God, I try to ask myself the question: What are practical things that help stir my affections for the Lord? This question is not merely about what I can or cannot do, it is primarily about coming to know and want more of Christ. The answer may vary from person to person and it also might depend on the day, but for me it usually involves lit candles, finding a new coffee shop (thank God for living in a city that appreciates coffee), picking my guitar, discussing theology with a friend, writing, drawing, taking a walk in nature, or random drives with the windows down on a nice day.
Pick that thing that stirs your affections and consistently allow space and time for it—that takes discipline, but it’s worth it.
The key in pursuing spiritual disciplines is to recognize that they are a means to an end. The repeated focus in our spiritual exercises must be on Jesus as I stated before, and not our effort or our ability. It’s possible to get caught up in the pathway itself, instead of looking to Jesus in it. We can begin to rely on self-effort or practices to earn grace from God that cannot be earned. This is legalism. Legalism is man-centered, not God-centered. It relies on oneself to get God, not depending on God in faith to get God. It promotes earning and keeping God’s pleasure based on what I do or do not do. Legalism demotes the work of Jesus and promotes the work of self, which is ultimately pride.
But just because spiritual disciplines can be misused doesn’t mean they should be neglected. The solution for legalism is not license to do whatever you want. People get so sensitive about legalism that they want to run the other way. D.A Carson says this: “People do not drift toward holiness… We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith; we cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”
Grace upon grace
The same grace that pardoned our sin enables us to walk in him (Colossians 2:6). Don’t fall into believing that the pressure is on you to fulfill this invitation to know and love Christ more. We do have a responsibility, but thankfully if we are in Christ, we have the Spirit of God in us as our help. God will give grace upon grace, every step of the way. Until the day that this is no longer a fight, let us press in and not shy away from discipline in God’s strength and for his glory. 2 Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” It’s not a burden, it’s a privilege to commune with the God of the universe. That’s the point of spiritual disciplines and habits of grace: “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).