Discipleship: What Are Spiritual Disciplines?


“I see that salvation is accomplished by God from start to finish and not by me, but I’d still like to know more about how we should live. I’ve heard people talking about `spiritual disciplines.’ What are spiritual disciplines?”

The word discipline comes from the word disciple or student. Disciplines, in this context, are things students can do that help them follow their master. The spiritual disciplines that Christians use are practices that Christ used and that his followers can use to help them remain close to God and in tune with the faithful witness of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They include such activities as prayer, Bible time, meditation, simplicity, confession, fasting, celebration, service and others.

Not a way of earning grace

One thing we have to be careful about is allowing spiritual disciplines to become another burden of legalism. They can very easily turn into another “measuring rod” of supposed righteousness and ruin the whole purpose of using them.

The Holy Spirit, remember, is at work in us to fashion us into the image of Christ. When we are “listening” to the silent inner witness of the Spirit, even though we may endure great suffering, we sense the peace of Christ’s love. When we are ignoring or resisting the Spirit, we tend to feel like we are on our own, and we feel plagued with anxiety, fear and worry.

Either way, God still loves us, we are still saved, and we are no less his beloved children in Christ. The only difference is our ability to believe it, sense it and enjoy it. If we allow our practice of spiritual disciplines to become a special set of rules for the truly faithful, or to fill us with pride, or to make us feel we are worthy of salvation because of our faithfulness, then they have become another poison to us.

The spiritual disciplines are ways we can stay in harmony with the Spirit, so that we can more consistently experience the joy and peace of our true condition in Christ, even though outwardly we may be experiencing a grievous trial. The disciplines do not produce the condition of salvation—Christ did that; they simply help us “hear” God’s voice of redemption and grace. They are practices that help us more consistently sense the truth that we are secure in God’s love.

Let’s look more closely at three of them.

Spending time in the Bible

We can stay in closer harmony with the Holy Spirit by spending time in the Bible. Please note that I purposely did not say, “through Bible study.” The word study carries so much unpleasant baggage from school days that it ruins the whole idea of just “hanging out” with a loving God. Study is associated with pressure, pressure to perform, pressure to succeed, pressure to “make it.” So let’s talk instead about simply spending time in the Bible as a way of staying in harmony with the Holy Spirit.

Regular Bible reading keeps us from forgetting the truth about who God is and how much he loves us. It reminds us that God is always present and always faithful, even during times of pain, fear and tragedy. It keeps us from the fear that God is angry with us or has rejected us. And it increases our courage in the fight against sin, by reminding us that God has already forgiven and cleansed us for the sake of Christ. By refreshing our thoughts and emotions with the ever-fresh winds of God’s Word of grace and faithfulness, Bible reading gives the Spirit “room to work” in our spiritually defective hearts.

Pray without ceasing

Another way we can stay in closer harmony with the Spirit is through prayer. Paul wrote, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). He didn’t mean, of course, that we are to do nothing else besides pray. He meant that prayer should become a regular and normal part of our daily living.

Regular prayer helps keep us in the right configuration with God—that of humility and gratefulness. When we pray, we are making our petitions to one who is greater than we are, which is an act of submission and humility. In prayer, we realize that we do not hold our lives in our own hands, but that we are dependent on a loving, faithful, present and powerful Someone who does hold us securely in his.

Prayer is also a way of being personally and thankfully involved with God’s will. It is God’s invitation for us to personally participate in the growth and influence of his kingdom—in our own lives, in our families, in the church and in the world.

If prayer is hard for you, don’t let that stop you. Just talk to God about anything at all. Whatever is on your mind, no matter what it is, is a good topic for prayer. God knows our hearts, anyway, so it isn’t like we’re going to shock him or surprise him. Don’t worry that what you say might not be just right. God can handle it. Some of the Psalms are shocking requests for God to smash and bash the Psalmist’s enemies. They are honest prayers about real feelings, even though those feelings are not perfect.

If there is a problem with your feelings and attitudes, God still enjoys being with you in prayer, and he will work with you from the inside out to heal that inner turmoil. In other words, you don’t have to wait until you can put on a happy, mature or wise face to begin praying. Just tell God honestly how you are really feeling and what you really think. It is often through the very process of praying that God helps us grow in our attitudes or maturity.

When our children talk to us, they say all kinds of things. Sometimes what they say is sweet and good. Sometimes what they say is mean and cruel and selfish. Sometimes they make good sense; sometimes they make no sense at all. Regardless of what they say, we are glad they are talking to us, because through such communication our relationship with them is developed. How sad it would be if our children never spoke to us at all.

God knows your problems and sins. He knows your strengths, and he knows your weaknesses. What he wants most of all is simply you. He wants to be with you, spend time with you. He is always available to you, ready to listen, ready to enjoy you for who he has made you to be in Christ.

Everything good and pure and loving you always wished you had been, but always failed to live up to, is exactly, only more so, what he has made you in Christ. Trust him. He is ready to hear absolutely anything you want to talk about. The main thing is to start praying. As you mature in Christ your prayers may become more mature. But let that happen on its own, in its own time. Just start praying.

Simplicity

Another way we can stay in closer harmony with the Spirit is by practicing simplicity in our lives. Here are some ways we can do that:

  • By giving up the need to have the last word.
  • By giving up the need to be first.
  • By giving up the need to be noticed.
  • By giving up the need to have more.
  • By giving up the need to be important.
  • By giving up the need to have our own way.

Bible time and prayer can reinforce our efforts to practice simplicity by making us more familiar and comfortable with the values of the kingdom of God. As we become more secure in trusting God with our care, the less of a burning need we will feel to have to fight to achieve the empty substitutes for security that the world offers.

The practice of spiritual disciplines such as Bible time, prayer and simplicity is a way of helping us remain attentive to the Spirit. Activities such as these help us value the things that matter in kingdom life, instead of the things that matter in the world’s life. They help us remain in harmony with the life of the Spirit and God’s will for our lives. And they reduce the fear, anxiety and strife that characterize life outside the kingdom of God. (A good resource for learning more about spiritual disciplines is Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, published by HarperSanFrancisco.)

Author: J. Michael Feazell

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