What Are Spiritual Disciplines?

For the next several weeks, I’m going to be doing something new here on the blog. In addition to my usual musings, I will be adding an article once a week on a spiritual discipline. This will be a part of a new and ongoing facet of my blog, which will include some tools and resources of a more practical nature. As with all of my postings, please feel free to use and share them as you see fit.

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What comes to mind when you hear the words “spiritual discipline”?

Some of us cringe, perhaps awaiting a list of things to add to our to-do list, awaiting a long and dry conversation, awaiting the feelings of guilt that we aren’t “doing enough” in our relationship with God.

Some consider regular spiritual disciplines to be for the religious elite—those who really take their faith seriously and are particularly close to the Lord.

And some find them to be the familiar bread and butter of their life as a Christian, as these disciplines have become as regular and expected as showering and brushing their teeth in the morning.

My exposure to spiritual disciplines growing up was limited mostly to daily, personal bible reading and prayer—what was referred to as a “quiet time.” Other Christian practices, such as fasting or service, were perhaps encouraged but fell into a different category in my mind.

And so I tried to faithfully have my “quiet time” each day, with varying success during different seasons of my life.

While this regular time studying the Bible and processing my life with the Lord did a great deal for my relationship with the Lord early on in my journey, it wasn't perfect. Slowly but surely, though, seeds of legalism unconsciously slipped into what should have been a sweet practice. There was a sense in which I understood that if I didn’t do my “quiet time” regularly, I wasn’t as serious about the Lord as I should be, or I was in danger of backsliding or something of the sort.

Now, I understand that my faithfulness as a disciple of Christ is much broader and all-inclusive. It touches all of my life and not only how long my “quiet time” is—He asks all of me.

The purpose of spiritual disciplines, including prayer and bible reading and any other spiritual practice, is to grow in our level of obedience and discipleship. These disciplines should be leading us to a place of knowing the Lord more fully and looking more like him. They can be corporate and communal, as well as solitary. They can be active and outward, as well as still and inward. They are tools and postures to put our minds, hearts, and lives in a place to be receptive to what God is doing and learn from him. This is why spiritual disciplines can never be about performance, spiritual brownie points, or part of a check list. To make them this would be to shrug off the Gospel truth that we can’t earn God’s favor or achieve holiness without his transforming power.

I think John Ortberg describes this well, as he describes Christian spiritual formation:  

“It’s the difference between piloting a motorboat or a sailboat. We can run a motorboat all by ourselves. We can fill the tank and start the engine. We are in control. But a sailboat is a different story. We can hoist the sails and steer the rudder, but we are utterly dependent on the wind. The wind does the work. If the wind doesn’t blow, and sometimes it doesn’t, we sit still in the water no matter how frantic we act. Our task is to do whatever enables us to catch the wind.”

And herein lies the heart of spiritual formation and the practice of spiritual disciplines. We do what we can to position ourselves to receive from God—and this requires action and effort on our part. But in the end, we recognize that we are completely dependent on the work of God within us for everything.

Just as we cannot work our way to salvation, we cannot work our way to godliness. But to say that there are not postures, attitudes, and practices which make them more conducive would be wrong as well. The reality of the spiritual life lies in the tension of the two.

So for the next several weeks, I invite you into some practices you may have never thought of as spiritual disciplines or which offer a fresh look at familiar ones. I hope this conversation will help us all to more faithfully follow our Lord as we explore some spiritual discipline “tools” together.